Friday, July 12, 2024

On Genre

Me in the Library of Congress, just because.

I've had a quick correspondence with a college librarian writing a research paper on "genre use and promotion both in libraries and outside of library settings" with an eye toward improving how the Library of Congress categorizes books. She wanted input from authors in unusual genres and I was happy to oblige.

I answered her questions as best I could and liked one of them enough that I asked if I could post it here. I think it's a good summary of how I approach the job. I have no idea if my perspective is common or ideal. It's just mine. 

. . . . . . . 

1. What is your philosophy/reason behind creating works in various genres and subgenres? What purposes are you hoping genres will serve for your audiences?

First, just to clarify (and I suspect we’re on the same page here), I don’t consider comics or graphic novels a genre, which is worth mentioning because many people do. They are a medium that encompasses many genres, including those you mention: science fiction, nonfiction, memoir, etc.

That out of the way, I don’t know how to answer this question and I doubt many authors would. We write the stories we want or need to write. I’ve given almost no thought to which genre I’m working in or onto which shelf a bookstore or library will place my work. As Orson Welles said to a critic who asked him to analyze one of his films, “I’m the bird. You’re the ornithologist.”

That may be professional malpractice on my part.

I’ve written two graphic novels that I’d call nonfiction memoir (Mom’s Cancer and A Fire Story). Mom’s Cancer also crosses into graphic medicine, a subgenre that didn’t exist when I wrote it. I’ve seen A Fire Story described as a work of “climate grief,” which may become a notable subgenre of its own if climate change goes as projected. I’ve called my second book, Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow, historical fiction but don’t know if that’s accurate (I wanted to call it a “graphic polemic” but my publisher wouldn’t let me). My latest, The Last Mechanical Monster, is straight-up science fiction/fantasy.

Each was a story I felt compelled to tell, and which genre it fell into barely crossed my mind.

(I did devote quite a bit of time and thought deciding if Last Mechanical Monster was science fiction or fantasy and came up with an answer that satisfied me but made no difference in the marketing, placement, or audience for the book that I could tell.)

I’d say that I don’t choose genres, genres choose me.

Likewise, I give very little thought to serving an audience when writing a book. I want to tell a good story I’d want to read and nobody but me could write. I aim to make a book my editor would want to publish and my family would be proud of. They’re my audience. I’d be thrilled if many, many other people read and love it, but that’s beyond my control so I try not to fret about it.

The only time I recall worrying about a broader audience was when my editor and I discussed whether to include an obscenity in A Fire Story. We knew it would exclude us from the young reader market but decided to include the word for journalistic authenticity and because we couldn’t think of an alternative that wasn’t stupid.

Honestly, I treat all the work I do, even my fiction, as journalism. I just try to write and draw what happened as clearly and economically as I can, even if I made it all up. As a result, my approach to memoir, graphic medicine, historical fiction, and science fiction/fantasy has been pretty much the same: tell it straight, with some tone-shifting to help readers keep their bearings. A nonfiction book about cancer should not have the same tone as a light fantasy about a giant robot.

Saturday, July 6, 2024

Nathan Hale--No, Not That One

A quick selfie with Nathan in the Schulz Museum's lobby before his talk.

I went to the Schulz Museum this afternoon to see cartoonist and bestselling author Nathan Hale. I know him a bit--we've done some events and eaten some meals together--and I think he's one of the nicest and hardest working people in comics. 

Appropriately given his name (yes it's real), Nathan writes and draws historical graphic novels for kids under the series title "Hazardous Tales." He's also started a new series unrelated to his historical work that looks fun and charming. He says he does about 1.5 books a year, which is a prodigious output. 

He's one of the two best comics-related public speakers I've seen. The other is Scott McCloud. He filled the museum's little theater to capacity and held his audience rapt throughout.

Nathan does what used to be called a "chalk talk," in which he speaks and draws at the same time, except instead of a chalkboard or easel he uses a tablet connected to a screen. Chalk talks are a lost art; they used to be a common tool in the cartoonists' tool box but kind of faded away half a century ago. 

Nathan is confident and polished without being slick. You can tell he's done this talk a hundred times but it seems fresh, and he's able to roll with the crowd's responses and mood. Today's subject was Lewis & Clark, and he had his young fans squealing with laughter while imparting real knowledge. 

For example, he did a fun riff on Sacagawea rolling her eyes and scoffing at Lewis & Clark's excitement to "discover" flora and fauna her people had known for centuries, then backtracked to explain how she wouldn't have actually made that joke because everything she said had to be translated from Hidatsa to French to English and back again. Toward the end he pivoted from (historically accurate) poop jokes to a moving account of how Lewis & Clark gave both Sacagawea and Clark's slave York equal votes on group decisions, a quietly revolutionary act in the early 1800s. 

Great smart stuff. If you get a chance to see Nathan Hale speak, take it, and if you're in a position to invite him to give a talk, do it. Meanwhile, I'll be working on my chalk talk.

Toward the end of Nathan's chalk talk. This quick sketch shows York and Sacagawea voting on Corps of Discovery business. Lewis and Clark are the little figures on the sides wearing fancy captain's hats.

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

"Poppies will put them to sleep..."

Here's a little study I did of California poppies for a personal project, nothing meant for publication. 

Golden poppy flowers are easy: four yellow-orange-red petals that fold into a cone at night and open during the day. For this piece I focused on the stem and leaf structure. The leaves are interesting, like tiny green hands with curling fingers. If you don't get them right the whole plant doesn't look right. 

The color outlines are an experiment to see if I like them. They're red and green ink drawn with a nib on watercolor paper, on top of which I watercolored. I'm not sure about them yet.

This is just a sketch I didn't intend to share, but I know some people enjoy process posts. If it turns into something good, I'll share that, too.

Tuesday, July 2, 2024

The Great Dictator

Photo of Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, which should be required viewing now.

A point I haven't seen someone make yet:* for the entire Biden presidency, the right-wing has accused him of being a dictator. Just a week ago, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum was railing against the "Biden Dictatorship" on CNN. 

Yet now that the Supreme Court has handed President Biden actual honest-to-goodness dictatorial powers that he could use to murder his enemies today? Not a peep. That's because they're hypocrites who know deep down that Joe Biden is a fundamentally decent person who'd never use them. 

On the other hand, they're absolutely giddy that their guy might get to. Trump is posting lists of people he'd like to see tried for treason, starting with Rep. Nancy Pelosi, General Mark Milley, and former Rep. Liz Cheney. Think he won't do it? You haven't been paying attention. 

Look at who's celebrating the ruling and who's criticizing it. That tells you who thinks elevating presidents into all-powerful kings is a good idea and who doesn't.



*I'm sure someone has made this point, I just haven't seen it. 

Saturday, June 29, 2024

Snoopy in Space Report

We had a good turnout, nearly filling the Schulz Museum's little theater. This is the beginning of the panel, when we were introduced by the museum's public program coordinator, Sara Merrick.

I had a nice afternoon at the Charles M. Schulz Museum, where my main job was to host a panel on "Snoopy in Space" with guests Bill Miklos and Dr. Jack Bacon, both of whom have decades of experience in the business of launching satellites and people into space. 

"Peanuts" has always been closely associated with NASA. The Apollo 10 command and lunar modules were named Charlie Brown and Snoopy, respectively. Also, one of the greatest honors a NASA employee can receive is a Silver Snoopy pin for their contributions to safety, which Bacon had earned. 

I see my job at these events as keeping the conversation lively and on-track, and helping the panelists make their points as best they can. You also have to keep the audience in mind; some will be very knowledgeable but others will be young and easily bored kids, which doesn't necessarily mesh with detail-oriented engineers. I think we clipped right along and put on a good show.

The panel was part of a whole day of space-related activity at the Schulz Museum, including an informational table staffed by my friends (and one daughter) from the USS Hornet Museum, as well as the museum's own "Snoopy in Space" exhibition that will be closing soon.

A good time at one of my favorite places with some of my favorite people. Got to touch base with Jeannie Schulz, museum director Gina Huntsinger, and a few friends who came out. Can't beat that.

Dr. Jack Bacon, Bill Miklos, and me. Looks like we're taking a question from the audience here. I'm wearing a t-shirt from the USS Hornet that says "Apollo 11 Lunar Team" with a picture of astronaut Snoopy. Please note that I was not actually on the Apollo 11 Lunar Team any more than Snoopy was. I'm just a fan of their work.

Thursday, June 27, 2024

Snoopy in Space at the Schulz

This Saturday at 11, I will be moderating a panel at the Charles M. Schulz Museum & Research Center on "Snoopy in Orbit," with NASA expert Jack Bacon and aerospace engineer Bill Miklos, who is also a docent at the USS Hornet Sea, Air and Space Museum. Immodestly, I think I'm exactly the right person for the job because I know Peanuts, I know space, and I know the USS Hornet, whose Apollo exhibit I helped redesign several years ago. 

The panel is part of a full day of space-related activities at the Schulz Museum, including fun activities, another talk by Dr. Bacon, tables staffed by the USS Hornet and the Space Station Museum, and more! It's free with regular admission, and all the regular wonderful Peanuts art and artifacts will be there as well.

Brian says: check it out!

Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Graphic Medicine in Ireland

There will be a graphic medicine conference in Ireland this summer that I will not be at, but a few friends sent me this article about it from The Irish Times because they knew I'd be interested and also because I'm mentioned in it.

Mom's Cancer was in the right place and time to accidentally become a foundational text in the field of medical humanities called graphic medicine, meaning comics + healthcare. As the article describes, friends like "Comic Nurse" MK Czerwiec and Dr. Ian Williams pioneered graphic medicine after finding my book, and others like conference chair Jane Burns continue to discover it and find it helpful and inspiring. There was a time when "graphic medicine" comprised about a dozen people and we all knew each other. That's not true anymore. It's big and growing!

I remain astonished by the legacy of my family's story, not least because people still read it 20 years later. I give a few talks a year to medical students. It's routinely cited in academic journals. And it still gets mentioned in articles like this one by friends who are gracious enough to remember it. It's all enormously gratifying.

Sunday, June 23, 2024

A Treasure Chest

My neighbor, Ted, is a master woodworker. His work wins ribbons at the county fair, and after the fire he made most of the tables, desks, dressers, bookcases, and other furniture for his and his wife Judy's rebuilt home. He does beautiful work.

Parallel track: I love and collect antique stereograph cards. They're like primitive ViewMaster pictures that were big entertainment in the late 19th and early 20th century. Victorians sat around their parlors peering through 3-D viewers for hours of fun. 

For years I've been looking for a little box or cabinet to store my cards in, but nothing's ever been the right size. I finally had an epiphany: maybe I could commission Ted to build me one. He jumped at the chance! With all he's built over the years, he'd never actually done a box and was eager to give it a shot. I gave him a drawing with some dimensions and encouraged him to spread his creative wings.

Here it is. I think it's fantastic. My cards fit perfectly, and I left room for more. 

Neither Ted nor Judy is on Facebook, but I wanted to acknowledge Ted's great skill and kindness publicly. It's a treasure. 

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Serendipitous Art


I was putting my phone in my pocket after taking a photo when my finger slipped and I accidentally took another. Usually those are blurry shots of my fingers or feet and are instantly deleted, but I liked how this one turned out so much I kept it. It's a painted cinderblock wall seen through the pickets of a metal fence. If I made abstract art, this is the sort of abstract art I would make. Which I guess I did!

Friday, June 14, 2024

My Stalker

Don't look! Act completely calm and normal! Just blink twice if there's a giant Marilyn Monroe behind me. 

She's there, isn't she? I knew it! That dame just will NOT leave me alone.

Saturday, June 8, 2024

Words, Images & Worlds

Here's that other podcast I alluded to: "Words, Images and Worlds" with Jason DeHart! I didn't know Jason before he asked me to guest on his show, but we have many mutual friends and he's just about the most prolific podcaster I've ever seen. Seriously, he's done hundreds of them, with some very impressive creative-type people. Also me. 

I enjoyed our conversation very much, and if you have 23 minutes to kill, you might too. Thanks, Jason.

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

October Sky By The Minute

I also drew their logo.

I seem to have a good side hustle in the prestigious, lucrative world of podcast guesting! I shared one podcast link a few days ago, and today drops the latest episode of "The October Sky Minute," the podcast that reviews the wonderful 1999 movie based on Homer Hickam's bestseller "Rocket Boys" one minute at a time, hosted by my friends Jim O'Kane, Hal Bryan and, for today only, me.

I love the movie and love Hal and Jim. The point of the podcast isn't to just talk about the minute of film on hand, but to invite interesting people for interesting discussions. To that end, they've landed many stars from the movie, Homer Hickam himself, and others including the president of the Estes model rocket company and an expert on picket fences (for an episode in which an errant rocket takes one out). Can't imagine why they asked me, but we ended up talking about parenthood, chemistry lab, model rocketry, and "Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow," so not the usual stuff from me. It was a nice genuine conversation and I think that comes through.

I did an entirely different third podcast that should be released soon. They were actually all recorded over a long stretch of time but are dropping pretty close to each other. I'm not doing ALL the podcasts, it just seems like it.

Friday, May 31, 2024

Dare to be Great

Here's a podcast I did a few weeks back with my friend, Shawn Langwell, about creativity and purpose, titled "Dare to be Great, Dare to be You."

Shawn is a local writer, as is his wife Crissi, and he gives talks and writes books in the general areas of success, motivation, confidence, self-improvement, etc. If you're interested in hearing me drone on for 54 minutes and 3 seconds about my thoughts on creativity, self-expression, fear of failure, and why I don't want to read your comic ripping off Lord of the Rings, this is the podcast for you! 

And I can understand why it wouldn't be. I just listened to it and even I'm sick of me. But Shawn is a good host and I think we had an interesting, real conversation.

Thanks, Shawn!