Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Get Back

I've seen Peter Jackson’s Beatles documentary “Get Back” and have some thoughts.

I’m fascinated by the creative process. If you've ever dreamed of taking a time machine to watch Leonardo paint the Last Supper or Beethoven compose his Ninth Symphony, this is as close are you’re going to get. Like most viewers, I was thrilled to see the Beatles (especially McCartney) carve gems out of the improvisation and chaos that comprised a Beatles rehearsal. One morning, bored while waiting for John Lennon to show up, Paul turns random strumming into the recognizable beat and lyrics of “Get Back.” Chills up the spine. Something from nothing. A magic trick. A few days later, Paul sits down at the piano and plays “The Long and Winding Road” minus most of its lyrics. We know what Paul doesn’t: the words will come, and they’ll be great.

Some reviews have criticized the documentary as tedious and I understand why. There are long stretches where nothing really happens. For me those stretches feel like watching a rainstorm waiting for lightning to strike. The lads eat toast, drink beer, smoke a lot of cigarettes, read about themselves in the paper, and half-ass their performances. Paul pushes, John goofs (probably high), George sulks, and Ringo bless his heart shows up on time and does his job. Then, unexpectedly emerging from the churn: genius. "Get Back." "The Long and Winding Road." "Let It Be." "Something" ("in the way she moves, attracts me like a cauliflower..."). Joyful, inspired lightning. 

What the reviewers miss is that the tedium is part of the genius. Goofing and noodling and doodling is the process. My very successful cartoonist pal Raina Telgemeier once wrote that she was starting work on a new book, which “very much resembles doing nothing,” and I’ve always remembered and loved that. You don’t get the brilliant lightning without the dull gray thunderclouds. 

What I most appreciate about witnessing these works in their fetal form is the reminder that they weren’t inevitable. The world has had Beatles songs so long that they seem like permanent monuments, but there was a time they didn’t exist, and they might have turned out very differently. The boys make them up as they go. In some parallel universe a butterfly flaps its wings and “Get Back” includes the lyrics “Sidi Abdul Rami was a Pakistani, but he didn’t live at home.” That sound disastrous, but do I only believe that because I’ve heard the canonical version a thousand times? I think it’s impossible to say. I like the one we got.

I wouldn’t presume to compare myself to the Beatles, but . . .

I have sometimes felt that, at the end of the day, I’d created something that didn’t exist that morning and which nobody could have done but me. That doesn’t mean it’s good, or that anybody’s going to like it or care, but it still feels like a tiny, satisfying contribution to civilization. It’s plus one point in my imaginary permanent record. In Jackson’s documentary, we witness the Beatles rack up several thousand points.

What most impressed me with the Beatles’ creative process was they knew when to say “good enough.” That’s a lesson a lot of creative people never learn. They think their work has to be perfect so they either never begin it or never finish it. I know writers who are afraid to write a word and others who pick at a completed manuscript for twenty years. Perfection--and its close cousin, fear of failure--are the enemy of both. 

The Beatles didn’t aim for perfect. Oh, they worked hard on songs, polishing and refining them, but in relatively quick time they got them good enough to meet their (obviously high) standards, recorded them, then moved on. With few exceptions, they never went back and fiddled with them (one of those exceptions: in 2003, McCartney remastered the “Let It Be” album to remove Phil Spector’s orchestrations that he never approved). No second guessing; eyes forward, on to the next. 

There’s a story, probably too good to be true, about the French Impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard, who was once arrested at the Louvre for bringing a brush and palette into the museum and retouching one of his paintings on the wall. When security grabbed him he cried, “But it is my painting! I have not finished it!” The guard replied, “It is in the Louvre, Monsieur Bonnard! It is finished!”

I wouldn’t presume to compare myself to the Beatles AGAIN, but . . .

Every few years, the Abrams warehouse runs out of copies of Mom’s Cancer and they print some more. And every time, Editor Charlie asks me if I want to take the opportunity to change anything. My answer is always “No.” That book came out 15 years ago (!) and I think I’ve learned a bit about storytelling in the meantime. If I redid Mom’s Cancer today I could write it better, draw it better, structure it better, and produce a new book superior in every detail to the original—and in the process completely ruin it. It's finished. It’s a record of who I was then, telling my family's story as well as I could at the time and under those conditions, and in that respect it’s perfect. 

“Get Back” is a record of who the Beatles were in January 1969, making music as best they could at the time and under those conditions. In that respect, it’s perfect.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Boosted!

Karen and I got the Covid booster yesterday. Aside from my arm feeling like my college roommate punched me in the shoulder, which is something 20-year-old boys do for no good reason, I'm unscathed.

I planned to let it pass unremarked, but it seems worthwhile to take a public stand. I'll never understand how immunization got politicized. Vaccines work equally well on left- and right-wingers, and viruses don't care who you voted for. 

I think I've curated my friends well enough that none of you will be surprised I try to guide my life by science and reason. I also know some of my friends are wary of the shot, for either themselves or their children, because they've had bad vaccine reactions in the past. I get my shots and wear my mask for you. You're welcome.

I even get my shots and wear my mask for stubborn people in fascist suicide cults. I'm not worried about catching Covid myself anymore, but I'm trying my damnedest to not kill you. That's how civilization is supposed to work. I wish you'd show the same consideration, but I can't control your actions. Just mine.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

RIP Ms. Nicholas


Here's the best obituary I've read in a long time. The late Helen Nicholas of Petaluma, Calif. taught Home Economics for decades. Her obit concludes: "In lieu of flowers, please bake and enjoy Mrs. Foody's Petaluma Junior High Cinnamon Rolls with your friends and family..." and then proceeds to print the entire recipe! Fantastic! 

A good obit can be a treasure. "The Economist" magazine used to specialize in interesting, graceful obits of ordinary people who did extraordinary things (I still remember one about a watchmaker that made him sound like the Rembrandt of gears and springs). The fact that Ms. Nicholas's family marked her passing with a cinnamon roll recipe tells me more about her than another thousand words could have.



Mrs. Foody's Petaluma Junior High Cinnamon Rolls
Preheat oven to 425
Bake time 10-15 minutes

Rolls
2 C flour
1 T baking powder
1 t salt
¼ C shortening
¾ C milk
1T melted butter

Cinnamon and sugar mixture
Frosting
1 t melted butter
1 C powdered sugar
1 T water
1 t vanilla

Instructions
Stir flour, baking powder and salt together in a bowl. Cut shortening into the bowl and mix until crumbly. Stir in milk with a fork. Roll out dough, spread melted butter over the dough. Sprinkle cinnamon and sugar all over. Roll up and cut into 1 inch slices and place in a cupcake pan.
Frosting: mix all ingredients together and drizzle over warm cinnamon rolls.

I have no idea if these rolls are actually good. If anybody tries the recipe, please report back!

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Book in Common at Randolph-Macon

I'm home from Randolph-Macon College, a small liberal arts school in Ashland, Virginia, which chose "A Fire Story" as this year's Honors Program Book in Common and invited me to talk about it, which I did on Thursday (which meant flying to and fro all day Wednesday and Friday). 


One of the entrances to the school, and you'll immediately notice the one feature that delights me every time I travel back east: bricks. We don't have many brick buildings in northern California. Ours all fell down in 1906, and we're not allowed to build them anymore. More than any other indicator, bricks are what tell me I'm in terra incognita.

A "Book in Common" is a book that all the students read--in this case, all the students in the Honors Program, but also many others as I discovered. It often reflects some theme that different classes build the year's curriculum around, in this case "resilience." I feel well-equipped to talk about that. 

My day began with a VIP campus tour (in a solar-powered golf cart!) given by Robert Patterson, the school's director of corporate and foundation relations. I had lunch with three staggeringly smart honors students, spoke to three classes, had a great half-hour chat with Provost Alisa Rosenthal, dinner with a select group of students and faculty, then the Main Event: a community lecture attended in person by about 30 and, due to Covid, another 140 or so watching on Zoom. 

I took this photo of the quad in the center of campus. A professional took the next one that I stole from the Web.

Courtesy of Randolph-Macon College, even though I didn't ask.

During my morning campus tour with Robert Patterson, who's on the right here, I saw this small campus observatory atop a building that looked so much like the small campus observatory I spent countless nights in at UC Davis that I practically begged for a tour. Robert obliged by rousting Physics Dept. Chair Deonna Woolard (left) from her office, and she was kind enough (and had the keys!) to let me in.

The observatory's telescope. This is a real nice set up, much better than the one I had. When Covid abates they'll resume public viewing programs here, which is very near and dear to my heart because I ran the same at Davis. XO

These are honors students Sam, Cara and Trixie, who took me to lunch off campus. They are remarkable young women and fine representatives of their school. Our future's in fine hands.

That's a long whirlwind day, but a really good one.

A word about Randolph-Macon College: I was very impressed. It's a small school, only about 1400 students. As Robert pointed out, many of their students come from high schools bigger than that. It's a beautiful campus established in 1868 (the school was founded elsewhere in Virginia in 1830, and you scholars of U.S. history may infer why it had to relocate in the 1860s). 

One of my big takeaways: an education there would be unusually personal and intimate. Everybody seemed to know everybody else. Classes are small. Faculty wear many hats, and are encouraged to follow their own quirky passions or areas of research and take students along with them.

Another big takeaway: for a small college, they have a very robust offering of majors, including in hard sciences like physics, chemistry, geology, biology. One of the girls who took me to lunch is a neuroscience major. Those sorts of classes require expensive labs and such that other colleges can't afford, but the facilities I saw in my tour looked modern and excellent. Small, but high quality.

One of the classes I spoke with was Dr. Amber Peacock's course on "Discerning Learning and Achievement," which hit the resilience theme hard. Great students and teachers that I didn't get any pictures of. Instead, this was my second class, Drawing, with Prof. Kristen Payton, who's farthest to the right. This was about half the class, the other half was out of frame to the left, with the usual mix of students who are very serious about art and others who just want the general ed credit. A real nice conversation about art, intention, authenticity, finding your own style and voice, etc. 

My third class was Printmaking, also with Prof. Peyton. Just four students, but very sharp and engaged. I said repeatedly, and wasn't joking, that I'd LOVE to take this class. Printmaking is something I'm very interested in and hope to pursue. They're doing it now. 

I went to a big school, the University of California at Davis. I don't know what enrollment was when I went there, but now it's about 30,000 undergrads and probably wasn't much different then. That environment worked for me, I thrived and loved it. But spending a day at Randolph-Macon made me nostalgic for a different education I could have had. I think a student there is very lucky.

A few photos, some of which I nicked from the college website because I didn't have a chance to take many pictures myself. Thanks to Randolph-Macon for choosing my book and inviting me to talk about it, to Dr. April Marchetti for being a great host and guide, and to the students who couldn't have been sharper or more engaged (I joked that they must have told the dolts and duds to stay off campus for the day). Go Yellowjackets!

My host, chemistry professor and head of the Honors Program, April Marchetti. She's great, and I'm not just saying that because she bought me dinner and drove me everywhere. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Guy Maniscalco

 

My barber died and I'm sad. 

Guy Maniscalco was 84-ish and had cut my hair for 21 years. He'd been a barber since 1962. Guy was East Coast Italian, old-school and charmingly profane. His favorite joke: "I'm gonna give you an 'orgasm haircut.' Girls are gonna see you walking down the street and have an orgasm."

Over the years I heard most of his life story. He left an abusive father and family very young, headed west as soon as he could, and in the 1970s opened a big (16 chair?) barbershop in San Carlos, south of San Francisco, where, to hear him tell it, he became the unofficial team barber for both the S.F. Giants and 49ers when they played at Candlestick Park. As he neared what for most people would be retirement age, he and his wife Mary sold that business and moved to the Wine Country, where he toiled in smaller and slower barber shops until finally winding up working for himself in a hole-in-the-wall he rented in an odd old commercial business park. Mary died about 10 years ago; Guy still marked every anniversary and talked things over with her urn on his mantel at home.

Guy was a friend, a good man, and the best barber I ever had, one who took a lot of pride in his work and moved with the kind of grace and efficiency you only get after you've done something a hundred thousand times. It was always a pleasure to watch such a skilled craftsman do the only thing he ever wanted to do. I'll miss him a lot.




Friday, October 1, 2021

Juvenilia

I just got the best email! Completely out of the blue, somebody sent me a photo of a drawing they'd found among a deceased relative's effects and asked if I'd done it. Yes I did. I was about 23.

Sometimes artists publish examples of their "juvenilia"--work done when they were very young. I will never do that, because I didn't have many examples of my early art even before 2017, when I lost it all. This is about as close as I will get to seeing something drawn by Young Brian. 

As I said in my reply (below), I'm both embarrassed by and proud of it.

I replied to my correspondent:

"Oh my gosh. That is an unexpected flashback that made my day. Yes, it's mine.

Working off of old memories that may not be 100% accurate....

From about 1983 to 1986, I was a reporter at the Woodland (Calif.) Daily Democrat. It was my first job out of college, and I think I only got a part-time position there because I was the fastest typist who applied, since I had almost no other qualifications. I started in sports, then went to Davis where I worked city beat, then to Woodland where I also did city beat.

Along the way, my colleagues on the DD discovered that I could draw, and I did a lot of graphics and illustrations for the paper. After I'd been there a short time--maybe while I was still doing part-time sports, around 1983-1984--the DD put out a special edition to commemorate . . . something. I don't remember exactly what--it wasn't sent to subscribers, it was a run of the paper done just for the paper's owners and staff. There may have been a banquet to which I wasn't invited. My illustration celebrated the career of (Googling quickly) Charles Paynton, your relative I presume, who at that point had been at the DD for decades and did a column titled "Backtrailing" (again, Google tells me this, I didn't remember it). Maybe the event was his retirement from the paper.

The gag of the cartoon is that Mr. Paynton was an old-fashioned fellow who didn't cotton to all the new-fangled technology that was then invading newspaper production. He'd have been happy clacking away on his ancient typewriter forever. 

Attached is the only photo I have of me from around that time and sitting in the newsroom of the Woodland Daily Democrat, where you'll see the type of computer terminal I tossed into Mr. Paynton's trash can.

Thanks for the memories and a look back at an early cartoon that I'm both embarrassed by and proud of."



Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Colorado Wildland Fire Conference

I haven't taken a lot of photos myself, but the conference is running an "Eventstream" for participants to pool their photos online in real time, and somebody posted this picture of me getting started.

I'll be heading home tomorrow after another half-day in Grand Junction, Colorado, at the Colorado Wildland Fire Conference, whose organizers asked me to deliver the opening keynote address this morning. The conference draws a couple hundred firefighting and fire mitigation professionals, mostly from Colorado but also throughout the western states. 

After a warm and moving introduction by conference organizer Schelly Olson, who lost her home in a wildfire, I began by saying: "I am not a wildfire expert. I am a wildfire survivor. Which makes me a KIND of an expert...." Went on to tell my fire story, show the KQED video, do some readings from the book, and distill some lessons learned from our fire that they might use in their own communities. If wildfire has hit anyplace harder than California the past few years, it's Colorado, and they appreciated a perspective they don't often hear.

I think it went very well.

The conference arranged for a small local independent bookstore, Out West Books, to order stock from Abrams, and shop owner Marya herself came to handle sales. I think we sold enough today, and maybe a few more tomorrow, to make it worth her trouble.


Marya selling books and me signing them.

To steal an old joke from Disneyland's Jungle Cruise, it's the BACK SIDE of a book signing!
I know you've always wondered.

I was a little intimidated coming to talk about fire to a roomful of fire professionals, but they couldn't be more welcoming. It's also my first plane flight and big in-person event in a loooong time, so that's weird.

It's a great group of people doing important work and I'm honored they invited me to their party.

EDITED TO ADD:

Interesting article here about the Colorado Wildland Fire Conference by Dan West of the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. Interesting to me, anyway, because I didn't know there was any press there and Dan didn't talk to me. He didn't need to, and his piece quotes me accurately, it just strikes me odd that he didn't introduce himself. Back when I was a journalist, I would have! Also, the conference had a lot more going on than two keynote speakers, though I'm pleased to be featured. Anyway, this is where I and my faithful Red Shirt were on Wednesday.

Photo by Dan West, Daily Sentinel

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

A Fire Story Teaching Guide

I'm excited and proud to announce that Pop Culture Classroom has created a Teaching Guide for A Fire Story that I think is excellent.

The guide is a six-page (free!) PDF meant for teachers who want to teach the book to students. It sums up settings, characters and key themes, and suggests research, discussion questions and essay ideas for the students. The guide also connects A Fire Story to Common Core standards for grades 11 and 12, and finally provides a list of books, games, and online information related to the topic.


I had a chance to review a draft of the guide and was blown away by how carefully and perceptively they'd read my book. I think I made three minor suggestions, all of which were incorporated. And it's challenging! There are questions like "Why do you think the author did this?" and "Why do you think the author didn't address that?" that I wish I knew the answers to!  

Nothing would be more gratifying than to see A Fire Story taught in schools. (I think it's a fine book for high schoolers; there's one naughty word that probably disqualifies it for younger students.) This guide makes that much more likely. Thanks to Pop Culture Classroom for doing such a terrific job!

Monday, July 26, 2021

Drawing for Dollars: Supporting the Cartoon Art Museum

In a parallel universe, I'm at San Diego Comic-Con right now drawing sketches to raise money for the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. Since I'm in the plague universe, I and many other cartoonists are doing the same thing at home (as we did last year). Here's how it works: you pay CAM $10 or $20 for a drawing by your favorite artist, and we'll do it and mail it to you.

My dance card filled up surprisingly quickly, so I'm sold out. The nice thing about doing these at home is that I can take my time and find proper references, unlike at the San Diego Convention Center where people are standing there waiting, the wifi is lousy, and I'm desperately trying to recall what Chewbacca's face really looks like (a dog/gorilla?). Got some strange requests this time but enjoyed them all! Four of the five paid a bit more for color, but since I had the watercolors out I just tarted up all of them. I will inscribe them as requested before mailing.

Thanks to everybody who commissioned a piece from me to support a good cause!

Request: "Tom Strong--battle worn, flying his jetpack please." The Tom Strong character is cool, kind of an old-school throwback "science hero" type, in the mold of my own Cap Crater. I couldn't find any reference of him flying a jetpack, but he often scoots around in a backpack-helicopter thing, so I went with that.

Request: "The Atom Indigo Lantern (DC Comics character)." My knowledge of The Atom begins and ends with the SuperFriends era of TV cartoons, but apparently Ray Palmer's been through some stuff since then, including a whole "microscopic barbarian king" and "sort of like a Green Lantern except purple" phase. Interesting career choices. I like drawing the fiddly bits.

Request: "Marvel Superhero." I emailed the customer to ask if he had a particular favorite, and he replied that he liked Hawkeye. Gather around, kids, while I show you what Hawkeye looked like in the comics before Jeremy Renner played him in the movies. I've always loved the character myself and have doodled him for decades. I was pretty proud that I thought of him shooting a bullseye through the "O" in "Cartoon."

Request: "John Carter, Warlord of Mars please, with alien dino ride." The challenge here is that John Carter is a pulp hero who's had a lot of different interpretations over the years. Specifying "Warlord of Mars" led me to the comic book with that subtitle, so I modeled mine after that version. Gave a lot of thought to what a Martian dinosaur might look like: red skin for camouflage, wide webbed feet for running over fine sand. The orange peak in the background is pure fancy--Mars has none of those--but it reads as "alien planet" so works for me.

Request: "The two garbagemen (Dick Miller and Robert Picardo) from 'The Burbs,'" which is a 1989 Tom Hanks movie. My first thought: what a weird request. Then I found a couple of clips of these guys online and saw the appeal. They're only on screen for a minute or two, but were a very funny comic duo, kind of a Laurel and Hardy. I think it's my favorite.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Fire Story Interview: Counterpunch

Here's a new Fire Story interview with John Hawkins for Counterpunch.org, conducted by e-mail a few days ago. He asked some questions no one has asked me before, and the conversation expanded a bit beyond the book. I think it's a good one!

An excerpt:

Q: A Fire Story does an excellent job of describing what people lose in the fire — material and systems and relationships. Can you elaborate on this? And how has the fire altered your understanding of life? The bigger picture…

Fies: Well-meaning people say, “You and your family survived, everything you lost was just stuff.” People who mean less well sometimes say, “I wish I’d have a fire to clean out all my stuff!” I want to punch them all in the nose. I write about this in the book: “stuff” isn’t just material possessions, it’s memories and history and roots.

The fact is, I don’t miss 95 percent of the stuff I lost. The catch is that the other 5 percent breaks my heart. We left a car in the garage that melted into a puddle that I haven’t spent even a minute thinking about, but I will always miss the first sonogram showing that my wife was going to have twins.

Monday, June 28, 2021

"Daisy, Daisy, Give Me Your Answer, Do."

 


It's been one of those days.

Trying to update my Adobe Creative Suite this morning, I somehow managed to crash and burn my computer, then sweep up those ashes, put them in an envelope, and mail them to Iceland, where they were burned again in an active volcano. 

In my long history of swearing at computers, Windows System Restore has about a 50% chance of working. After two hours of clicking, clanking, and chugging ones and zeros, it looks like today's my lucky day. My computer is experiencing the deja vu of reliving last Thursday while I'm back in operation. Adobe Creative Suite can wait to be updated another day.

Yeah, I had everything backed up. I'm kinda a stickler about that the past few years. It still would have been a heartbreaking pain. I did not need this reminder that too much of my life and work lives on these stupid boxes, nor how fragile and ephemeral it all is. But I got that reminder today, and I am happy to share it with you.

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 brianfies@gmail.com and I'll pop one in the post. And thanks!