Friday, May 28, 2021

Comics Chat!

Henry Chamberlain, the proprietor of Comics Grinder, has interviewed some of the biggest names in comics for his podcast. Until yesterday, when he interviewed me. We talked for almost half an hour about how I came to be a cartoonist and touched on all my books, with a focus on comparing/contrasting "Mom's Cancer" with "A Fire Story." I think he's one of the more knowledgeable and thoughtful people in the comics press, and I enjoyed our conversation a lot!

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Bookplates! Getchyer Bookplates!

With "A Fire Story" officially out in paperback (updated and expanded!) it's an apt time to again mention that, in lieu of signing books in person, which still feels dicey, I'm happy to mail a free signed bookplate to anyone who asks. For those unfamiliar, a bookplate is a sticker (custom designed and signed-for-real by me!) that you stick in your book, and blammo! Signed book.

I don't need proof you actually bought the book. First, my readers would never lie to me. Second, my autograph is worthless, so you can't flip it on eBay. We're on the honor system.

Just email your address and any inscription you'd like to and I'll pop one in the post. And thanks!

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Release Day!

Today is the official release date of "A Fire Story" in paperback, updated and expanded, just like it says on the cover! I can't promise that if you walk into your local heroic independent bookseller they'll have them stacked to the ceiling, but it sure would be nice if you went in and asked. If you already bought the hardcover and wonder if you really need another one, I understand. Just give me a call and I'll read you the new stuff over a cup of cocoa. 

Monday, April 5, 2021

The Return of the Last Mechanical Monster

COMING THIS FALL: 192 pages of full-color Eisner-Award-nominated action and adventure! Plus a robot paper doll you can cut out and glue together yourself! It's THE LAST MECHANICAL MONSTER, in hardcover, from Abrams ComicArts!

I began working on LMM about 10 years ago, after Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? was published. After Mom's Cancer and World of Tomorrow I wanted to do something fun and fictional. This is the project on which I spent about a year writing and penciling more than 100 pages before realizing it wasn't the story I really wanted to tell. I turned all those sheets of paper over and began drawing a new version on their backs. I never regretted that "wasted" time because I figured I had to go through that to find the right story I DID want to tell.

At the time, publishers weren't interested. That's fine! I serialized it as a black-and-white webcomic, and it was nominated for Eisner Awards in 2014 and 2015. later picked it up, and after Editor Charlie and I did A Fire Story it came full-circle back to Abrams ComicArts, where it has found a very happy home.

This is the cover, which was just finalized a few days ago. Charlie and I are doing final edits now (Oxford commas, bah!). We'll put it to bed in a couple of weeks, then it's off to the printer and into your heroic local independent bookstores in September.

My fourth book. I really love this story and hope you will, too.

Monday, March 15, 2021

The Moment Between "Before" and "After"

Today is my daughters' birthday. Usually I make a joke about the Ides of March and post a cute photo of them as babies cuddling with each other or asleep on my chest. Thought I'd go in a different direction this time.

This is the very first photo I ever took of both of them together, moments after their births. There would follow hundreds of other photos of them together, but this was the first. You can see their little bald heads; they eventually grew hair. They were a few weeks premature and weighed about 5 pounds. As I recall, each had her own dedicated nurse. They were basically healthy but spent a couple of days in neonatal incubators. Karen needed more recovery time than they did. A few decades earlier, probably none of them would have survived the pregnancy.

There are very few moments that abruptly cleave a lifetime into "before" and "after." This is my happiest one. Happy Birthday, Chiquitas!


HERE'S a story: we took the girls out to a nice restaurant for their birthday tonight, our county having recently opened to very limited indoor dining. Karen looks across the room at one of the four other parties in the place. "Do we know her?" I take a peek. "She looks familiar." A few minutes later she hails us, and we compare notes. Turns out she was our Lamaze coach before the girls were born, and her birthday is the same as theirs.

"I remember that you had twins!" she said.

"Well, here they are!" I said.

"Small world" doesn't begin to cover the incredible chain of circumstances that brought a woman who helped prepare us to bring our daughters into the world to that place at that time on this night. She seemed delighted to see how her work turned out. If I could've given her a long hug I would have.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Apartment

In my never-ending effort to fill my cultural gaps (we all have them), last night I watched for the first time Billy Wilder's "The Apartment," starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. It's a 1960 Oscar-winner, often listed as one of the best films of all time. I can see why.

Lemmon plays a low-level insurance executive who works his way up in the company by loaning his apartment to his sleazy superiors for their extramarital affairs. This leaves him locked out of his own apartment a lot, and with neighbors who are both impressed and disgusted by all the action they they think he's getting. MacLaine plays an elevator operator with bad taste in men, including Lemmon's married boss.

These are surprisingly mature themes. Not that people in 1960 didn't have affairs, but to see them portrayed so openly and casually on screen is a mild jolt. Nearly every man but Lemmon is a cad, and even he's an accomplice. MacLaine makes it clear that she's a "good girl" who's been around the block a few times. 

The movie's also a white-hot critique of mid-Century corporate culture, a pretty common theme of the time. Lemmon works at a desk in a grid of hundreds of identical people sitting at identical desks on an office floor that vanishes into infinity. They enter and exit elevators summoned and dispatched by stern women with clickers, like orca trainers at Sea World. In a few years, all those people's tasks will be taken over by computers, and it's easy to conclude the computers did them a favor.

Lemmon is terrific. I'm more used to old Jack Lemmon, whose quirks and mannerisms I didn't always enjoy, but young Jack Lemmon was a rubbery coiled spring who could make putting a kettle on the stove interesting. And MacLaine . . . sigh. She's impossibly beautiful as well as a complete, complex character in her own right. Two terrific performances. Add the avuncular Fred MacMurray and Ray Walston playing against type as disgusting jerks, and you've got yourself a movie.

I kept an eye on old tech. I am not a scholar on the history of electric blankets, paper towels or instant coffee, but was surprised that Lemmon's tiny apartment had all three. He also had a nifty tabletop television remote that looked to be hardwired to the TV, an old fridge with the compressor on top, and a match-lit gas stove. I read that Wilder deliberately designed the apartment with a realistically cramped layout and well-worn furnishings, some borrowed from his own home. It feels lived in. The film is an unintentional time capsule of its era.

I also kept an eye on details that play differently today than they would have then. Sexism, obviously. Men are execs and women are secretaries. MacClaine's entire job is to stand in the elevator and push buttons for people, and she has to laugh off handsy men pinching her butt as a condition of employment. Also racism. The only black person I can recall seeing is a shoe-shine man; the only Asian is a restaurant piano player whose album is titled "Rickshaw Boy."

I don't think drinking and drunks, which the movie is loaded with, are as funny as they used to be. The office Christmas party is a drunken bacchanal of unbridled lechery. And I was really struck by The Apartment's attitude toward suicide, which isn't exactly played for laughs but more lightly than felt right to me. MacClaine tries to kill herself with sleeping pills, after which Lemmon confesses to her that he once tried to shoot himself. Like it's just something folks do when they break up. Near the end of the film we hear a loud bang and wonder if Lemmon has finally done himself in, and the "joke" is that he only popped a bottle of champagne. Kind of cringe-inducing, I thought.

I quibble (understanding that my quibbles could be someone else's deal-breakers). The Apartment is a sophisticated film that expects its audience to keep up. Great dialog. There are a lot of small grace notes. I caught one bit where, early in the movie, a drunk Lemmon says "three" to MacLaine and holds up four fingers, and much later MacLaine does the same to him. It tells you these characters are on the same wavelength without actually saying so. They don't make a big deal out of it, both moments pass quickly, but if you catch it it's terrific. 

Recommended for its sharp writing and brilliant performances. May want to avoid it if its 60-year-old attitudes toward infidelity, sexism, racism, alcoholism, or suicide would make it hard to enjoy.

Monday, January 18, 2021

And the Livin' is Easy

 It's 80F (27C) with clear blue skies in northern California this afternoon. A perfect day!

That's a problem. It's the middle of winter. It should be 20 degrees colder and raining. We're breaking high-temperature records that have stood for 150 years. Average rainfall to date is 18 inches; we've had 6. If it doesn't rain hard in February and March, we're in for another drought and a kindling-dry fire season next fall. Worldwide, 2020 was one of the hottest years ever (graph from NASA's GISS Surface Temperature Analysis).

The expanded edition of "A Fire Story," coming out in a couple of months, hits the point that it's a book about living in a climate-changing world. I didn't really say that in the original book but the time since has made it clear to me, and convinced me that I shouldn't be coy about saying so. 

Today is beautiful. Karen and I had a picnic. I never would have expected Armageddon to be so . . . pleasant.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Bum Bum Bum Bum

Just as trees must fall in a forest, traditions must carry on, even if there's nobody there to hear or see them. As I have every Christmas Eve for at least 15 years, I'm happy and proud to wish you all the best and a better 2021 with a rousing carol from my favorite cartoonist, Walt Kelly, and his characters from the great comic strip "Pogo." 

This year you get a bonus celebration: a beautiful piece by "Polly and Her Pals" cartoonist Cliff Sterrett, who tops my list of "Best Unfairly Forgotten Cartoonists in History." He really was terrific, and this page captures some of his anarchic whimsy.

Take care, everybody. See you on the other side.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

To Do

Cleaning up my studio today, I found a pad at the bottom of a pile of paper that was my "To Do" list on October 9, 2017, the day my house and a few thousand others burned down. I've advised survivors of subsequent fires that the best way to get your head straight is make a list, check items off of it, and make another list tomorrow. Repeat. That's how you get through the days with purpose.

This was mine. It's eclectic. The fundamentals: Find a place to stay (not yet checked off). Clothes and shoes. Dog food. Stop the mail so it doesn't get delivered to a melted mailbox. 

"Death binder" is what we called the file with our will and estate planning, which we needed to reconstruct. The "Tom" name blurred at the bottom is the financial guy who handles our retirement accounts. I figured he needed to know. (He didn't really.)

Pink tabs on the side mark pages with info on FEMA and the Small Business Administration, which offered low-interest loans to fire victims.

The one that really jumps out at me is "Girl Scout meeting." Why the heck were we worried about that?! I asked Karen, who has stayed involved with Scouting looong after our daughters aged out, and she pointed out that the fire was on a Monday: meeting night. She wanted me to make sure everyone knew she wouldn't be there. 

You want to know what goes through someone's mind when their house disappears? This is it. 

Monday, November 16, 2020

Equilibrio Dificil

Very nice to wake up to on a Monday: the new Brazilian edition of "Mom's Cancer" is getting some press, which publisher DarkSide Books was kind enough to send me. I was going to write "good press" in that preceding sentence, but since I don't read Portuguese I don't actually know that. I may be mindlessly crowing about the worst reviews of my life. If so, please don't tell me.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

What We'll Get

IF Biden and Harris hang on to win, the United States isn’t just getting a new President and VP in January. We will also get:

A State Department that doesn’t insult our allies and suck up to tyrants.

A Secretary of Education who believes in public education.

An Environmental Protection Agency head who believes in protecting the environment.

A Department of Health and Human Services head who believes in providing health and human services.

A Secretary of the Interior who believes in conserving America’s public lands.

A Secretary of Energy who believes renewables should be a bigger part of the country’s energy mix, and who will restore the climate change information, research, and data that the current Administration purged.

A Secretary of Agriculture who won’t make U.S. farmers bear the brunt of the President’s trade wars and tariffs.

A Secretary of Labor who will help workers at least as much as CEOs.

A Secretary of Transportation who might actually advance next-generation technologies, as well as an infrastructure (“roads and bridges”) plan that’s been promised for four years and never materialized.

An Attorney General who works for the American people rather than as the President’s personal attorney.

A Postmaster General who regards mail as an essential public service and will try to deliver it instead of impede it. 

A NASA head who isn’t compelled to spend billions to stroke his boss’s ego (the only reason NASA’s Artemis program keeps pushing its deadline to return Americans to the Moon by 2024 is to give Trump a shiny crown with which to cap his second term).

Press secretaries whose literal first words to the press (“I will never lie to you”) won’t be lies.

Directors of the CDC, FDA, National Weather Service, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (remember the Sharpie hurricane path?) who aren’t afraid to tell their boss or the public the truth about science.

Directors of the CIA and FBI who aren’t afraid to tell their boss or the public the truth about intelligence.

Military officers who know they won’t be ordered to violate their services’ chains of command or discipline, or be pressured to violate their oaths to defend the Constitution, based on the whims of their Commander in Chief.

Aides who aren’t afraid to tell the President something he doesn’t want to hear.

Aides who aren’t immediately related to the President.

Aides who don’t need the President to pardon them or commute their sentences when they’re convicted of crimes that directly benefit the President.

A Secret Service Agency that won’t be billed to stay at properties the President owns, or ordered to drive him around in a closed limo when he has a deadly communicable disease.

Most likely, zero payouts to porn stars.

Fewer Tweets, with better spelling and grammar.

Peace and quiet.

All the people in this photo out of work.

And perhaps most importantly, a task force to reunite hundreds of children, who were kidnapped at the border by the United States, with their families.

We won’t get everything we might have hoped for, but we’ll get a hell of a lot.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Mamae esta com Cancer

I just replied to an extremely long and detailed e-mail interview for Folha de São Paulo, which I'm told is one of the leading newspapers in Brazil, about the forthcoming Portuguese edition of Mom's Cancer.

Also: there is a forthcoming Portuguese edition of Mom's Cancer! Talk about burying the lede . . .

This was one of the most exhaustive interview of any sort I've done: 24 questions that took me nearly seven pages to answer. I hope they use some of it.

That's the Portuguese cover above. I did not design it, and Editor Charlie was very dubious when he first saw it. But I kinda like it, and the pink color ties in with Brazil's nationwide anti-cancer campaigns. Bottom line: I trust the Brazilian publishers know their market better than I do, and if they think hot pink will sell the book, it's OK with me!

This will be the eighth language for Mom's Cancer. In addition to English we've got German, French, Italian and Japanese already out, with Spanish and Slovenian (!) in the works. 

Seriously, when I began all this, I had no idea.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Story After the Storm Story

This feels weird.

Sunday night The Weather Channel broadcast an episode of "Storm Stories" that included me and others who made it through the northern California firestorms of October 2017. I liked the episode, although I chuckled at some of the melodrama, but that goes with the genre. As I said in my previous post, the producers and crew were very kind and considerate, and that goes a long way toward making me feel great about the whole experience.

I have a few notes . . .

First, the interview was not shot in my house. The camera crew of five set up shop in a large, semi-rural B&B about 20 miles south of Santa Rosa. Best I could tell, they also slept and ate there, and outfitted the big living room to be a TV studio.

The interview happened in late June, so high Covid season. The crew was careful and diligent. Everyone wore masks the entire time I was there. The camera crew was a good 10 or so feet away from me. When they dabbed a bit of make-up on my face, they had me put on a face shield and then reached under it with gloves on. I slipped off my mask when on camera, then put it right back on when we cut. It felt safe.

I sat on what looks like a log but was actually a sort of ceramic stool, because all the chairs had high backs and they didn't want them peeking over my shoulders. It got uncomfortable. Somewhere is an outtake of me standing up and shaking my butt to get blood back into it.

I took two shirts, blue and red. They had me change so that different footage would look like it had been shot on different days. Show-biz magic! I doubt anybody noticed. 

I was there a bit more than an hour. The field producer, Mario, was a good interviewer, and in fact got me so relaxed and conversational I said a few things that, upon reflection, I dreaded seeing on TV. So I emailed the producers, explained my worry, and they said "No problem, we don't want you to have any regrets about talking to us so we won't use it," which is extraordinary. They didn't have to do that; I'd already signed the release. That impressed me.

The view from my stool. Mario's on the left. Sorry I forgot the cameraman's name.

I was also impressed when the producers called me weeks later to fact-check their narration script. That almost never happens. 

After the interview was over and I was driving home, I got a frantic phone call. They'd forgotten a very important shot! Could they drive to my house to do it? It was quicker for me to turn around, so I went back. What was this critical footage they so desperately needed?!

It's the one-second intro where I'm looking away from the camera, then my gaze slowly turns to stare directly into the soul of the viewer at home. Which I thought was hilarious. "What'd you do today Brian?" "I turned my head. Dramatically." We did four or five takes on the front porch, and then I went home for real.

I think the episode was very well produced. It was dramatic, but so was the actual firestorm. 

I was happy to see my friends Mike Harkins--whose tale of trying to save his neighborhood with a garden hose you may remember from A Fire Story--and Melissa Geissinger, as well as the perspectives of the sheriff's deputy and firefighter. Mike's and Melissa's stories were really the heart of the episode.

I didn't know they would have actors portray Karen and me in dramatic re-enactments. I was disappointed that my actor was old, fat, and slept on the wrong side of the bed. I suppose Brad Pitt was unavailable.

The program broadened my own perspective on a disaster I was in the middle of. I was unexpectedly moved. I hadn't seen most of that fire footage in three years, and some I don't think I've ever seen. Both Karen and I felt a very strong sense of, "My God, we really were in the middle of an inconceivably large and violent disaster and survived it!" Three years of getting by day to day has dulled some of those raw nerves. "Storm Stories" reminded us. If you want to know what it was like, that's kind of it.

I'm happy I did the program, and very much appreciate The Weather Channel and "Storm Stories" coming to tell our story.