Tuesday, September 11, 2018

PROOFS!


One of my favorite parts of the book-publishing process is getting proofs back from the printer. This is my first chance to see what my pages actually look like as they'll be printed on paper (sometimes VERY different than they look on a monitor), and my last chance to make corrections before they're bound into books. The magnifying glass isn't for show, I really am scouring for flaws almost too small to see. After my first pass through, my verdict is: looking pretty good!

I'm not the only inspector. Editor Charlie and Art Director Pam are giving it a thorough once-over, and maybe others at Abrams I don't even know about. And after all these months, and dozens of pairs of eyes scrutinizing every jot and dot a hundred times, I can almost guarantee that when a box of these books hits my doorstep next March, and I open the top book to any random page, the first thing I'll see will be a typo.


Saturday, September 1, 2018

Talking Mort Walker


A friend has a book coming out I want to plug. Talking Mort Walker: A Life in Comics (716 pages!) is an eight-year passion project for Jason Whiton, who grew up in that legendary place and time when all the best cartoonists lived in one Connecticut county a quick train ride from New York City. Jason knew the families of Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey, Sam's Strip, Hi and Lois), Dik Browne (Hagar the Horrible, also Hi and Lois), and dozens of other lower-profile workaday inkslingers who helped make comics and cartoon illustration an important mid-century art and business. Mort died in January 2018 at the age of 94.

Talking Mort Walker contains "interviews, articles, letters, unpublished photographs, and drawings (that) reveal insights about the child prodigy who grew up to become the Dean of American cartooning." It builds on another book Jason wrote/edited a few years ago, Mort Walker: Conversations, which collected many Walker interviews. The new book includes reminisces and reflections of Walker's work from peers who knew him, as well as those who were only influenced by him from a distance, including, full disclosure, me.

Walker is a large but polarizing figure among cartoonists. He wrote and drew Beetle Bailey for 67 years but, I think it's fair to say, isn't regarded with the same reverence as, say, Charles Schulz, who started Peanuts the same year (1950) and did it for nearly half a century. The big difference: Schulz was an auteur who wrote, drew, and even lettered every Peanuts strip himself. Every panel was pure 200-proof Schulz, expressing his personality and angst. 

In contrast, Walker employed the studio or bullpen model, which was much more common at the time, particularly for creators who came out of the worlds of advertising, as Browne did, or greeting cards, as Walker did. While Walker and Beetle shared the experience of serving in the Army, Mort didn't use his comics to explore his private philosophies and anxieties. That wasn't his job. Walker's name was on his strips but he relied on a small corps of gag men and assistants to get the job done (although, Jason tells me, Walker penciled every Beetle Bailey strip himself). That was a much more common arrangement back in the days when a comic strip could earn enough money to support a team. It was a good system that gave generations of cartoonists a break into the business working for established creators, and is still around today (e.g., Garfield).

It's a different business model that, critics argue, produces comics that are more committee-made commerce than deeply personal art (or "Art").

My opinion? I think Walker's gotten a bum rap. The way he worked was how almost everybody (except Schulz) worked in 1950, if they could afford to. He was very good at it. His strips were published in thousands of papers around the world and his characters became iconic. Modern comics since, say, Doonesbury in the seventies came to value what an individual artist had to say more than the skill with which they said it. Which is a fancy way of saying that a lot of cartoonists became very successful despite not being great artists. Walker went to work every day and hit his deadlines; his work was always polished and professional. It's not his fault that those qualities went out of style.

Walker's greatest influence on me was his 1975 book, Backstage at the Strips (which is what I wrote about for Jason's book). At a time when real information about how to make comics was scarce, and I was a kid starving for real information about how to make comics, Backstage was a godsend. 

This is the edition I had. Newer editions are available pretty cheap.

It wasn't a "how to" manual, but rather insight into a frame of mind and creative process. Walker wrote about a Mad Men era of cartooning that, though I didn't realize it at the time, had already passed. He was an eyewitness describing the easy camaraderie among cartoonists, the early days of the National Cartoonists Society, and his own, ultimately frustrated, efforts to launch a permanent comics museum. I always wanted to be a cartoonist, but Backstage made me want to be a cartoonist sipping martinis with Rube Goldberg and Walt Kelly on Milt Caniff's back porch.

I haven't seen Jason's new book, but know it will be worth a look regardless of one's feelings about Walker. Mort was there, in the center of cartooning's Golden Age, and for seven decades one of its most successful practitioners. I once told Jason I didn't think we'd really appreciate Mort Walker until he was gone. Jason's book, which will doubtless be the most comprehensive memorial Walker will ever receive, expresses the appreciation and respect that many in his oddball line of work held for him, including me.

Jason Whiton at LumaCon in 2016, with his earlier Mort Walker book front and center.

EDITED TO ADD: Jason has written his own blog post about Mort Walker, partly in response to this post and a private e-conversation we've been having since. Check it out, then go read the rest of Jason's Spy Vibe site while you're there!


Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Ignatz Nominated!



I just learned a minute ago that "A Fire Story" has been nominated for a 2018 Ignatz Award for Outstanding Online Comic by the Small Press Expo (SPX). SPX is the largest fest of its kind in the U.S. and a major showcase for independent, alternative comic voices. It's a nice honor.

With due respect to your Eisners, Harveys or what have you, the Ignatz trophy itself is pretty sweet--it's a brick. Not a lucite or gold-plated brick, just a plain ol' red brick, like Ignatz Mouse used to bean Krazy Kat with in George Herriman's great comic strip. I'll find out if I won a brick or need to go buy my own at a hardware store on Sept. 16. (I could actually really use a brick right now.)

NOTE: Anybody following a link to this post can read "A Fire Story" here. Thanks!



EDITED TO ADD (Sept. 15): Didn't win. Still very nice to be nominated! Could also still use a brick.

Friday, August 24, 2018

On Its Way



I turned in my final digital files for the book-length "Fire Story" yesterday. Abrams works fast--they had the book laid out and on its way to the printer by the end of the day. I'll have one more opportunity to make small corrections when I get proofs (pages as they'll actually appear in print), but the book I turned in is more or less the one that'll be published next March. Abrams seems to think we've got a winner, and is giving it unprecedented  (for me) support. I'm of course anxious but also sanguine; there's nothing I could have done to make it any better, so no regrets whatever happens.

The photo shows a 150-page stack of hand-drawn artwork, topped by the drawing I did for the cover (inset). These are all ink on 11 x 14 inch Bristol board. In the age of Photoshop, there's often a big difference between original and published art. No need for me to waste a bottle of ink filling in all those black areas when I can do it later with the push of a button. New ways are practical and efficient, but sometimes I miss the old ways, and there are pages on which I did more work than necessary just because I wanted to create a pretty piece of art.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Hometown Boy Makes Good


I received a very nice honor this afternoon, a Gold Resolution from the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors for my "contributions to the arts and literature" of the county, specifically "A Fire Story." It's a "key to the city" kinda thing except no keys exchanged hands. What was especially nice was that the supervisors genuinely appreciated my work and were very happy to recognize me for it. Smiles, handshakes, and quiet words of encouragement all around.

Karen made me bring the Emmy. It got a good laugh when Chairman James Gore read that part of the citation and I pulled it out of a bag and thumped it down on the lectern.

Karen got a Gold Resolution years ago for her superior service to the county, which makes us a rare (unique?) spousal "his-and-her" GR double-threat.

I really appreciated this. It means a lot coming from your own hometown.

Sonoma County supervisors Lynda Hopkins, David Rabbitt (top), James Gore, and Susan Gorin (who also lost her house in the fire), with Karen and me. Supervisor Shirlee Zane was absent today. Like I said, Karen made me bring the bling, which everyone had fun passing around.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Comic-Con 2018, Brian 3+


I'm home from an extraordinary Comic-Con International in San Diego, with its usual mix of crushing crowds, overpriced food, overpacked panels, power-mad security, wonderfully creative people, old friends, new friends, and exhilaration, spiced with a bit more heat stroke than usual for this mildest of climates. It was great.

As I explained last Monday, the Comic-Con folks asked me to be a Special Guest this year, and they treat their guests well. I took along my daughters Laura and Robin--my wife Karen has been to a few Comic-Cons and thought that was plenty, thanks. I had three commitments: draw to help raise funds for the Cartoon Art Museum on Thursday afternoon, take part in a "Peanuts Family Album" panel Friday at noon, and race to another building to do my Spotlight Panel an hour later. In addition, I had a list of about 30 other activities and people of varied priorities to get to if I could.

I memorialize every Comic-Con I attend with a much-too-long photo essay. Gotta keep up tradition. The short version: it all went splendidly. Even better.

Unto the breach. Me, Laura, Robin.
An overview of a little tiny slice of the Comic-Con exhibition floor. This is just a fraction of it.
Early Thursday morning Starbucks line, I was welcomed to Comic-Con by a Dinothor. Or perhaps a Tyrannothorus Rex. I didn't ask.
The Rocketeer's helmet, Indiana Jones's whip and hat. Real ones.
My first stop was my publisher Abrams's booth, where I found my friend and editor Charlie Kochman (right) deep in conversation with an unfamiliar man (left). "Hi, I'm Brian Fies," I said. "I know," said the mysterious stranger. "I'm your attorney." And that's how I found out what lawyer Stu Rees looks like after only phoning and e-mailing him for the past few years.
Believe it or not, this is a serious business meeting. Almost every important conversation I’ve had at Comic-Con has happened tucked into a quiet corner sitting on the floor.
For just a moment, I held the universal power of life and death in my grasp. Then it was a 5-year-old kid's turn.
I drew for about an hour and a half to support the Cartoon Art Museum and its curator, my pal Andrew Farago. Two or three cartoonists took turns drawing whatever folks asked for in exchange for a donation to the museum. I did a few drawings I was actually pretty happy with, including this one for my friend and former comic book shop owner Kathy Bottarini. She said I could draw whatever I wanted and I knew she liked my Last Mechanical Monster webcomic, so I drew the epic throwdown that my enormous respect for copyright law (and enormous fear of DC Comics lawyers) prevented me from doing in my own story.
I did this for a girl who wanted a drawing of a photo she had on her phone. It's not her cat, she just thinks it's cute and her favorite picture of all time. She liked my interpretation.
I lost a lot of original cartoon art when my house burned down. Comic-Con helped me replace some of it. On the left is a Sunday page of the comic strip "Gordo" by one of my all-time favorite cartoonists, Gus Arriola. And it's astronomy-themed! On the right is a daily "Dondi" by Irwin Hasen, a short, profane, Golden Age cartoonist I was honored to meet a few times before he died. When I bought my first "Dondi" directly from him, I flipped through the short stack in his portfolio before making my selection. Irwin's eyes glinted as he scowled up at me. "You've got a good eye, you son of a bitch," he said. "You picked the best one." Being called an SOB by Irwin Hasen was one of the greatest compliments I've ever received. This page wasn't the same, but it was another good one. 
Friday noon I took part in Andrew Farago's panel on obscure "Peanuts" characters. My exhaustive analysis of Charlie Brown's "Mr. Sack" persona, as seen through the lens of The Great Gatsby and Citizen Kane, was met with thunderous applause inside my head. Here's Andrew; friend, cartoonist, and Schulz Studio editor Lex Fajardo; and Schulz Museum archivist Rachel Fellman. Sitting to my left were writer Nat Gertler, cartoonist Lonnie Millsap, and Pixar Studios' Jeff Pidgeon. Anyway, we were going on about Shermy, Charlotte Braun, Tapioca Pudding, 5, and other forgotten characters when . . . 

. . . a distinguished lady entered the room to wait for the following panel and sat beside Laura and Robin in the front row. Which is how I met Lt. Uhura, Nichelle Nichols. My daughters said they saw my eyes bug out of my head like a cartoon character's when she sat down.

What do you say when your childhood dream unexpectedly materializes before your eyes? I thanked her for coming to Comic-Con and said that her work was very important to me and had made a big difference in my life. We shook hands, she looked into my eyes, and said something like "How lovely, thank you very much!" but that may have been angels singing, I couldn't tell the difference.  

I asked Charlie to interview me for my Spotlight Panel, a format that works very well because it keeps me from droning on about myself for an hour. 

Before my Spotlight Panel got started, Comic-Con organizer Gary Sassaman took the podium to present me an Inkpot Award, which was a complete dumbfounding surprise. It's basically Comic-Con's lifetime achievement award for excellence in comics, science fiction, or entertainment. So now Steven Spielberg and I have that in common. They like to surprise awardees with them, and though I've seen it done to others I had no idea it was about to be done to me. Luckily, my daughter Robin had been tipped off and captured the moment.


So Charlie and I did our panel and I thought it was going very well, when he pulled out boxes. Uh oh. Unknown to me, he'd conspired with a lot of people to replace various trophies that were destroyed in the fire. My 2005 Eisner Award for Mom's Cancer. My 2009 Emme Award from the National Astronautical Society for Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow. Next to that is my jaunty new Inkpot Award, followed by Charlie's own contribution, the golden (and plastic) Bob Ross Award, which I take as a reminder to draw happy little clouds and trees every chance I get. And he says more replacements are coming.
The big news of my Spotlight Panel: as I said in my previous post, Abrams ComicArts will publish a full-length, full-color hardcover of my Fire Story graphic novel in March 2019. I'm working on it now. I think it could be special.

People
I saw some old friends and met some new ones. Some I was happy to see but just didn't get a photo of (hi, cartoonist Dave Kellett!) I also missed some people I'd hoped to see, but was just never in the same place at the same time. My apologies if I missed you (sorry, cartoonist Carol Tyler!), but that's how Comic-Con is.

Two of the first people I ran into were Richard and Wendy Pini, who have been doing the groundbreaking fantasy series ElfQuest for 40 years (!). They're the best. Richard has been especially kind and generous to me, in ways I won't embarrass him by recounting, but trust me: I owe him a lot even though he'd insist I don't. So I made and brought a drawing for him, of my characters Cap Crater and the Cosmic Kid from Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow facing off against The Last Mechanical Monster at the 1939 World's Fair. I figured that'd be right in Richard's wheelhouse. I was right. I later had the pleasure of watching them receive the well-deserved love of their fans during their ElfQuest panel.
MAD magazine caricaturist Tom Richmond and his wife Anna.

Sunday Press publisher Peter Maresca, who prints the prettiest books this side of Abrams (which is an in-joke because his booth is right beside Abrams's).

Until now I was the only comics-adjacent person in the world who wasn't MAD cartoonist Sergio Aragones's best friend. Until now. Sergio is holding an ashcan edition of my original Fire Story webcomic that Abrams printed up as a Comic-Con exclusive. Only 500 numbered copies in existence, handed out at my Spotlight Panel and the Abrams booth! If you're Sergio Aragones, I bring one to you.

Maggie Thompson, editor of the late and lamented Comics Buyer's Guide.

Stacey Bell, cartoonist and podcaster Tom Racine, cartoonist Lucas Turnbloom (Dream Jumper), and writer/humorist Ces Marciuliano (Sally Forth), who is Stacey's significant other. I saw these same people the next day at a "Drink and Draw" event Tom organizes to raise money for Parkinson's disease research and other good causes, but mostly to drink beer and laugh. However, this event was a social organized by Andrews-McMeel/Universal/GoComics, to which editor Shena Wolf invited me because GoComics runs my webcomics.

Which is also where I had a nice conversation with "The Comics Reporter" Tom Spurgeon . . .

. . . and screwed up the nerve to introduce myself to cartooning great Lynn Johnston (For Better or For Worse). We talked about process and inspiration and Charles Schulz, and she was as nice as you'd want her to be. By the way, that's not my hair doing something weird on top. I don't have that much hair on top. It's just something unfocused in the background.

Edison Lee cartoonist John Hambrock's wife Anne is a Facebook friend of mine and told us both that we had to meet. I wish I'd had more time to talk, but next time. See, Anne, we did it. 

I've been a big admirer of cartoonist Eddie Campbell (From Hell and much more) for years. His book The Fate of the Artist is one of my all-time favorites. Eddie and his wife, bestselling author Audrey Niffenegger, seemed singularly unimpressed.

I turned a corner on the floor and literally ran into my friend Joyce Farmer, an Underground Comics great whose Special Exits is a very special book about her parents' aging and deaths. 

This is Karen Green, librarian extraordinaire. A comic strip about her by my pal Nick Sousanis won an Eisner Award this year.
I also just happened to run into Juliet McMullin, a professor at UC Riverside and leading light in graphic medicine. She's one of my favorite people.
I only had a moment to say hello to my friend Raina Telgemeier before she was mobbed by girls and their parents, but the real treat of attending her panel on kids’ graphic novel series was unexpectedly meeting editor Traci Todd, whom I’d heard a lot about (and who used to work for my publisher Abrams) but never met. That’s the great value of Comic-Con to me.

Cosplayers
My daughters and I agreed we didn't see as many people in elaborate costumes as in past years. There are still a lot of them, but as a proportion of total attendance their numbers seemed low to us. Robin and Laura theorized that tighter ticket policies are discouraging cosplayers who in years past might have been able to hang out in front of the Convention Center or in the Lobby. Now you need a badge to even get on the same block. Could be. In any event, here's to the creative dreamers who add a little color and whimsy to life.

Avengers avenging while the Grandmaster grandmasters.

Doc Brown just hit his head on the toilet.

The Vision was more than a sentient android; he was also an omnipresent videographer.

Impressive Hawkwoman and Hawkman costumes, but I hope they never tried to go through the Exhibition Hall.

This Scarlet Witch rode up the escalator behind me and I asked her to pose when we got to the top. 

The Less-Than-Infinity Gauntlet

I've seen Tall Spock at just about every Comic-Con I've been to, but never paired with Portly Kirk before. Tall Spock is really tall, well over 7 feet. I thought they looked great together.
Happy, Tired Dad and Daughters.

What an extraordinary several days! I know that's a metric ton of photos but I didn't even talk about the great people of Abrams who took me out to dinner on Saturday, or the giant Sta-Puf Marshmallow Man and giant Nathan Fillion, or our excursion to Old Town San Diego, which I'd recommend. Sometimes Comic-Con is a little much; sometimes it's a LOT much. I lost my voice on Day Three, and my toe blisters will take days to heal. But there's nothing else like it. Thanks to everyone for hosting me so graciously and showing us such a great time!


Soon to be a Major Graphic Novel Near You


I'll do my traditional over-stuffed post-Comic-Con post as soon as I can sit down and work on it for a few minutes, but short version: it was wonderful. Better than wonderful.

But I wanted to get this up right away. The main point of my Spotlight Panel on Friday was to officially announce that A Fire Story will be a full-length, full-color graphic novel published by Abrams ComicArts in March 2019! I haven't been shy about hinting I was up to something but couldn't really say until now.

I'm working again with my friend and editor Charles Kochman and some other Abrams people including marketer Anne Jaconette, publicist Maya Bradford, and designer Pam Notarantonio, who did the heavy lifting on that striking cover. Abrams makes beautiful books, and I'm excited for what they have planned for mine.

Publishing lead times being what they are, I'm actually in the throes of deadline woes right now, with just a few weeks to wrap it up. I'm not the one who'll decide if the book will be a hit or a flop, but I can guarantee it'll be the best book I know how to make.

Full Comic-Con report coming in a day or two.....

Monday, July 16, 2018

Heading to Comic-Con


In a couple of days, my daughters and I will be making our way to San Diego for Comic-Con International. Not Karen--she's been to a few Comic-Cons and that was plenty.

Although I'm not up for any awards this year, I have been asked to be a Special Guest, which is a big sweet deal. This is my second time Special Guesting; the first was after Mom's Cancer came out in 2006. They take very good care of their Special Guests, only asking in return that I do a Spotlight Panel in which I talk about myself for 45 minutes, and in general be a good, cooperative ambassador for comics.

I can do that.

Comic-Con offered me a table in Artists' Alley but I declined, having nothing left to show or sell. I'd much rather wander than sit anyway. My home away from home will be the Abrams booth (#1216). If you really want to reach me you could try leaving a note there, but no promises. When you drop by, be sure to look over all the amazing Abrams books.

Other than that, here's where I'll be:

Thursday, July 19, 4:00-5:00: I'll be drawing to help raise money for the Cartoon Art Museum (#1930). The idea is that people can drop by and, for a $10 donation, cartoonists will draw anything they want. I did it once before and discovered I'm terrible at it. Somewhere out there is a father and son to whom I owe $10 for a regrettable "Chewbacca playing basketball" I drew for them. In fact, I told CAM curator Andrew Farago I never wanted to do it again, but he put me on the schedule anyway. So I guess I'm doing it again. I promise to try my best.

Friday, July 20, Noon-1:00: I'll be part of a panel called "Peanuts Family Album," based on a book of the same name by moderator Andrew Farago (him again). The other panelists are my pal Lex Fajardo (Kid Beowulf and the Schulz Studio), Rachel Fellman (Schulz Museum), Nat Gertler (lots of stuff including About Comics), Lonnie Millsap (Bacรถn), and Jeff Pidgeon (Toy Story).  It'll be a fun excursion into the more obscure characters in the "Peanuts" pantheon. I plan to have some very interesting insights into Molly Volley. It's happening outside the Convention Center, in the Grand 9 room at the nearby Marriott.

Friday, July 20, 2:00-3:00: Spotlight on Brian Fies. My Main Event! I genuinely think this will be neat. I asked my friend and editor Charlie Kochman to sit and talk with me, which is a good format that avoids the awkwardness of me droning about myself. Astonishingly, he agreed. We'll take a look back at what I've done but mostly focus ahead on what I'm doing. We might even have some sort of cool collectible giveaway, although I've already said too much. It's in Room 4, which is one of the smaller rooms upstairs. It would be great to see you!

Those are my commitments. I've also been invited to a couple of professional parties, which is a first for me. You'll find me standing alone in the corner with a beer pretending to look at my phone. Otherwise, I'll likely be wandering the aisles, looking at old comics and art, buying books, and hunting down friends. If you're one of those friends and I don't find you, I apologize in advance but you know how it is: a hundred thousand people crammed into in a square mile with never enough time to do it all.

Comic-Con is a strange beast. It's been very good to me. It's also loud, crowded, and every year consumes more and more of its beautiful host city. Many of my cartoonist friends can't afford to go anymore. Just a few years ago, I could drop by a vendor's booth to pick up a convention exclusive (e.g., a special Hallmark ornament) for a friend; now the line forms at 5 a.m. and takes all day. The most common complaint is that Comic-Con doesn't really have much to do with comics anymore.

I sympathize but disagree. I like writer Mark Evanier's take: Comic-Com is really five or six big conventions rolled into one, and it's up to you to find your convention within it. I don't care about video games or board games, so I don't go there. I've never been in Hall H, where the big movie stars reveal sneak peeks (and the line to get in begins forming the night before).

However, I just went through the program and made a list of 32 panels or events I'd like to see, almost all related to graphic novels, comic books or comic strips. I know there'll be kids selling homemade zines and vendors selling original comic art. There'll be friends I never get to see anywhere else. There'll be Klingons. Everything's better with Klingons.

Comic-Con isn't what it used to be, and it isn't for everyone. But we're gonna have a good time.

One of my favorite photos I've taken at a San Diego Comic-Con. It reminds me what it's all about.