Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year's Thanksgiving

Christmas sucks . . . when you come out of
the bathroom, and Hitler has stolen your seat.

See, the funny part isn't Hitler, it's the hapless shmoe standing behind . . . oh, never mind. I laughed.

We've got a New Year's Eve tradition around this here blog of expressing gratitude for people whose work, friendship, support, and love made the past year better--and then waking up in the middle of the night panicked and horrified for forgetting someone. While I always reserve the right to go back and edit posts, this one will probably need it more than most.

Top of the list is my immediate family--Karen, Laura, and Robin--and my larger family of sisters, dad, aunt, in-laws, cousins, and nephews. Because what kind of man would I be if I didn't list family first. Like I didn't last year.

Friends, acquaintances, and fellow travelers in the comics world, including Mike Lynch, Otis Frampton, Jeff Kinney, Patricia Storms, Paul Giambarba, Guy Gilchrist, Stephan Pastis, Raina Telgemeier, and many others (including Jerry Scott, Rick Kirkman, Al Jaffee, and Mark Evanier) whom I may have met only briefly but have been invariably kind and encouraging. Others whose blogs provide regular entertainment and education. Also, ToonTalk, rec.arts.comics.strips, and the Wisenheimers for their camaraderie and complaining.

Friends who did me the great favor of reviewing early drafts of my next book and making many good and insightful suggestions, including some people already mentioned plus Mike Peterson, Sherwood Harrington, Ronniecat and her Dear Husband, and Marion Deeds. It may go without saying, but I should say anyway, that I wouldn't have asked if I didn't respect their opinions. Even if I later ignored them. While I'm on the subject, my daughters' friends Kelly and Kristen joined them in helping me get Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? done on time and better than I would have by myself. They're also sleeping in my family room right now.

Speaking of the new book, I owe it--and this whole sorta-semi-career I seem to have going--to my friend and editor Charlie Kochman, who's got a real Jedi-Socratic method of getting what he wants while making it seem like it was your idea. Neat trick. Many people at Abrams have been very hands-on and dedicated to making WHTTWOT a book we'll all be proud of, including executive managing editor Andrea Colvin and designer Neil Egan, with whom I've worked most directly, and many others with whom I'll be working in the coming months. And I must mention Charlie's fiancee Rachel, who hasn't had much to do with publishing my book but is terrific anyway.

A highlight for 2008: Introducing the Abrams ComicArts imprint and its slate of upcoming books at the San Diego Comic-Con in July. Left to right were panel moderator Calvin Reid from Publishers Weekly, Charlie Kochman, Denis Kitchen, Craig Yoe, Jordan Crane, Jaime Hernandez, and me.

People who read Mom's Cancer, told their families about it, and bought copies for friends. Professionally, hardly anything makes me happier than someone telling me they used to have my book but lost it when they loaned it to someone who needed it. While I hope my next book does well and I go on to write and draw many more, I don't expect anything I ever do to elicit such a profoundly heartfelt response.

Regular readers and, especially, commenters on this blog. Thanks for being there.

My "real life" friends who suggest lunch dates, invite me to parties, drop me e-mails, and otherwise make sure I have a life despite all evidence to the contrary.

Everyone I forgot. It's not you, it's me.

Here's something I found on Mark Evanier's blog and enjoyed. I don't know who "Uncle Jay" is, and his website isn't very forthcoming, but I liked this. Happy New Year.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Check the Facts, Ma'am

I hope everyone who celebrates Christmas had a good one yesterday, and everyone who doesn't enjoyed some time off anyway.

A couple of posts ago I mentioned that, in addition to reviews by Editor Charlie and a copy editor, Abrams had sent a draft of WHTTWOT to a professional fact checker. Thank goodness. I got the fact checker's notes a few days ago, and his or her fresh set of eyes caught mistakes everyone else had missed, including a couple of blunders that would've been very embarrassing if they'd made it to print. Nothing major, but the sort of typos and brain farts that might make a knowledgable reader think, "Hmph! If he couldn't even get that right, why should I believe the rest of it?"

My reaction to the notes passed through three discrete stages: 1. Embarrassment that I made the mistakes. 2. Relief that they were caught before it was too late. 3. Anxiety about all the embarrassing mistakes I may have made that haven't yet been caught. I expect to live in that state of anxious dread for the next half year or so. Anyway, thanks for saving my bacon, anonymous fact checker. I salute you.

A Long Way from Gutenberg
Editor Charlie told me about the video below, which shows how the next volume in my friend Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid series was printed. I don't expect everyone to find it interesting, but I love this "process" stuff. The one piece of Mom's Cancer art I have on my wall is a poster-sized sheet of 16 pages of the book (with another 16 pages printed on the back) as it came off the press and before it was cut into pages. Modern printing technology is so precise and specialized, and the way these machines work and move fascinates me.

The third Wimpy Kid book drops on January 13. I understand there'll be embargos, security, and midnight releases the likes of which haven't been seen since the last Harry Potter book. When Editor Charlie and I talked just before Christmas, he bragged that he had the only available copy sitting on his desk. Honestly, I didn't really care, but I pretended I was envious just to make him feel better.

Anyway, if you're anything like me--who when I was a newspaper reporter a long time ago used to sneak away from my desk in the newsroom just to watch the presses roll--then you might enjoy the video. Ten minutes.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Bum Bum Bum! Hey, They's Too Many Bums in This Carol!

Above is this year's drawing for our family Christmas card, featuring--as it has for the past 20 years--my twin daughters and whatever non-humans allow us to live with them. Below is something I've stolen that's become a Christmas tradition around these parts. Sing along; you know the tune.

Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash., an' Kalamazoo!
Nora's freezin' on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!
Don't we know archaic barrel,
Lullaby Lilla boy, Louisville Lou?
Trolley Molly don't love Harold,
Boola boola Pensacoola hullabaloo!

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Polly wolly cracker n' too-da-loo!
Hunky Dory's pop is lolly
gaggin' on the wagon,
Willy, folly go through!
Donkey Bonny brays a carol,
Antelope Cantaloup, 'lope with you!
Chollie's collie barks at Barrow,
Harum scarum five alarum bung-a-loo!

--Walt Kelly

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hey, Kirk Can't Drive a Stick Shift!

Via my friend Otis Frampton, for my friend Mike Lynch:

The audio is from the trailer of the new Star Trek movie (a.k.a., Starfleet 90210) coming out next May. The video . . . might look familiar if you're a Trekkie of a certain age.

I don't expect anyone else to give a hoot.

Edited to Add: Several hours after posting the above, I read that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's widow, Majel Barrett Roddenberry, died today. While her husband was the creative engine of my favorite TV program, the roles she played--from the Enterprise's first officer Number One in the original pilot (Gene gave that job to Spock after the studio told him no one would ever believe a woman as second in command), to Nurse Christine Chapel, to Counselor Troi's mother Lwaxana in The Next Generation, to the computer voice in pretty much every Star Trek incarnation including the forthcoming movie--made her an important part of that universe as well.

Obviously my silly little post is completely unfit to serve as a memorial--except, maybe, in the fact that 43 years after Star Trek began, people like me are still thinking about it, talking about it, arguing about new versions of it, and even making affectionate fun of it. That's a good legacy to be a part of, I think.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Making a Book: Final Edits

One of the reasons I began blogging during the production of Mom's Cancer was to document the process of publishing a book for the very few people who might be interested. Continuing in that tradition, I thought I'd update where we're at on WHTTWOT.

My six regular readers may recall that I submitted a "final" draft a few months ago. There's a reason for those quotation marks. Since the art files are enormous, what I actually turned in was a lower-resolution PDF of the entire book, laid out as facing pages as they'll appear in print, with my notes to the editors and designers under each page. That was the first time anyone had seen the whole thing put together.

Editor Charlie printed out the PDF at his end, and he and a professional copy editor, Andrea, both went over the manuscript with a fine-tooth comb. Now, immodestly, I think I'm a good, clean, deliberate, professional writer. I know English and how to put words together. But Charlie and Andrea made me feel like an idiot, in a good way. They found stupid mistakes I know I shouldn't have made but didn't catch. They found mistakes I didn't know were mistakes. And, importantly, they very dispassionately pointed out bits that weren't clear, conflicted with other bits, or just weren't as good as they could be. Charlie also has a practiced eye for comic art and graphics, and had several comments on that as well.

I find a thorough editing very invigorating. Like a teeth cleaning or carpet steaming. No matter how diligently you brush or vacuum, you're still amazed at the crud that turns up when an expert goes at it.

(This perspective can be hard to achieve. There's a lot of ego involved in writing; that's you on the page, and it's tough to be criticized. I realized I'd cleared an important hurdle early in my writing career when I could sit with an editor and hack up my writing without getting hurt and defensive about it. Even then, the kind of journalistic writing I was doing at the time wasn't remotely as personal as my graphic novel work. That's tougher. I think the key is remembering that you and your editor are working toward the same goal: making it better. That doesn't help much if your editor is a moron who blights everything he or she touches. I've known a few of those. Respect and trust are the foundation of a good writer-editor relationship. Luckily, I think I'm in good hands.)

So now Charlie has returned the edited pages to me for corrections. To help me keep track of my progress, I summarized the notes for each page on a little spreadsheet:

Most of them involve minor mechanical stuff: inserting commas, aligning text, spacing out ellipses. Lots and lots of ellipses. Some are more serious narrative or thematic points that Charlie and I are discussing. There'll be a little rewriting and redrawing. A few notes I simply disagree with; of those, there will be some for which Charlie makes the call because it's an Abrams book, and some for which I make the call because it's my name on the cover. There's also a professional fact-checker reviewing my references and science content whose notes I haven't seen yet. Since my research was thorough and I've already had a pro astronomer look it over (thanks, Sherwood!), I don't expect much to come from that.

I've got a couple of weeks to do my part. Sometime very near the end of this year or the beginning of the next, I'll turn in my truly final draft. Then the designer, with whom I've been corresponding for several months now, goes to work. Then proofs and galleys and printing and shipping. Then, Mayish, a book.

After all my efforts and the scrutiny of a professional editor, copy editor, and fact-checker, I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to the day I get the printed book in my hands, open it up, and behold a glaringly obvious error staring up at me from the first page I see. It's an unavoidable law of nature.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Friday, December 12, 2008

I'm Being Followed by a Job Shadow

I spent a very nice few hours this afternoon with An, the job-shadowing high school student I mentioned. I found her talented, engaged, and just a delightful kid. She had good questions. She also had the guts to do something I wouldn't have been able to at her age: show her work to a pro (well, semi-pro).
Rather than do an authentic job shadow, since there's nothing particularly exciting going on in my comics job at the moment, I spent some of our time together faking it. That is, I did a drawing just to show her my entire process from putting the first pencil line on the paper to producing colored art ready to go to the printer. I also emphasized that my way was only that, and tried to point out how others might do it differently.

The drawing I did with An, from blue pencil to ink to digital color and camera-ready. She got the original. I don't think I've formally introduced this character to you. He's the Cosmic Kid. He's in my new book.

It's interesting how talking something through illuminates what's important about it. One thing I emphasized was that, no matter how well she draws, there will always be a million people who draw better than her. What will make her stand out, and give her a career in this stuff if it happens for her at all, is telling the stories only she can tell. Readers forgive a lot of shortcomings in skill if they detect genuine passion. I also stressed that I had little good advice about how to "make it in the business." Every successful cartoonist/graphic novelist I've met has a unique story about how they did it. But if she keeps working to improve her skills and puts her work out into the world however she can, I think something will eventually turn up. You sow a thousand seeds to get one blossom. It may not be what she expects, but it'll be exactly the right thing when it happens.

I think that's true. I'm pretty sure it is.

I also told her to consult an attorney before signing any contracts, which isn't as inspirational but may prove more useful in the long run.

I made a big deadline this morning. My girls should arrive home from college for Christmas break in about 15 minutes. It's a good day.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Busy Busy Busy

I'm currently hammered by several deadlines, both cartooning and non-cartooning related, that all suddenly seemed to converge on the next three or four days. Editor Charlie and I are getting down to the final, sudden-death, no-going-back, we-really-mean-it round of editing and pre-press work on WHTTWOT. I'm neurotically second-guessing everything and throwing in as many good ideas as I can before we close and lock the lid.

I've also got something coming up that might be fun: meeting a local high school student who contacted me for a "job shadow" class assignment. She's interested in doing manga and, although I don't do that, I imagine I was the next-best person she could find around here who'd say "yes." Since sitting around actually watching me work would be unbearably boring for her and unnerving for me, I'm planning to kind of take her through the process of getting a comic from paper to press and answer as many of her questions about the craft and business as I can.

I wouldn't be surprised if I'm more anxious about it than she is. But that's all right, because I am all about helping the Youth of America. I'll report back on how it goes . . . unless it's awful, in which case we will never speak of this again.

Friday, December 5, 2008


When my wife sees that I've written a big blowhard blog post pontificating about this or that, she kind of looks up at me and sighs. Sorry, Sweetie. You can skip this one.
Writer Mark Evanier doesn't like Star Trek. It's just not his cup of tea. What he can't understand is why other people care. Back in 2003, he wrote, "If you say you don't like their favorite movie or TV show or book, they feel the urge to argue with you as if you have made a clear factual error and can be debated into seeing things their way. Recently, I had occasion to say to an acquaintance, 'Why do you feel so threatened because I don't like Star Trek? My not liking it is not going to take it away from you. Can't you enjoy it despite the fact that I don't?' But the guy continued hectoring me to watch more episodes so that I might become enlightened and see the error of my ways."

Despite loving Star Trek myself, I appreciated this perspective and buried it in the back of my brain, only to have it emerge a couple of times recently.

One: Editor Charlie and I are friends who've never disagreed about anything more serious than the placement of an exclamation point. That is, until a recent conversation in which the subject of cartoonist Chris Ware came up. I confessed that I am not a fan.*

"But he's a brilliant cartoonist."

Yes he is.

"His sense of color and design is amazing."

Yes it is.

"He's doing formalistically innovative things like no one else."

Maybe so. Still: not a fan. I don't find his characters or stories compelling. They don't stick with me and rattle around in my mind long afterward like the work of other authors does. There's a sterility and distance in his work I find off-putting.

"But that's who Chris Ware is!"

Well . . . there you go.

Two: The past few days I got into an interesting Internet discussion about the types of comic strips people like and dislike. Not singling out individual comics or creators, I listed some qualities common to comics I enjoy--character-based humor, a clear and interesting authorial perspective, skillful artwork--as well as some I don't, among which I listed knock-offs of The Far Side. Gary Larson's popular and influential comic strip spawned a lot of copycats I don't like for reasons I explained as well as I could. I thought it was a pretty unremarkable opinion. However, it drew the ire of another poster who worked very hard to convince me that I was wrong, that Gary Larson had been influenced by a lot of other cartoonists himself, and that I should be picking on all those other cartoonists who'd obviously ripped off other strips. To which I could only reply: I haven't noticed those. What I've noticed are Far Side knock-offs. Which I don't like.

What's to argue? Why should you care? Like Evanier said, can't you enjoy it despite the fact that I don't?

Maybe not. Shared taste is how we organize ourselves socially. If you don't like dancing or bowling, you don't join the tango club or bowling league. It's a litmus test, a secret password to the clubhouse door. Everybody wants to be accepted. Everybody emulates the tastes of those they look up to: kings and queens, tycoons and trendsetters, the cool kids in high school. Book editors. If you like what I like, and disdain what I disdain, then you're all right. That's how we're wired.

I think it's also true that not all taste is equal and some preferences are actually better than others. It's not "all relative." Critics play a valid role. If your taste in cuisine and literature hasn't progressed past pork rinds and Porky Pig, well, honestly, I'm going to draw some conclusions from that. Likewise when I meet someone whose taste and sophistication obviously outclasses mine (which ain't hard).

But I have no problem recognizing and respecting the quality and importance of something without liking it myself. Chris Ware is a very good cartoonist. Bob Dylan and Kurt Cobain are important figures in the history of popular music and key voices of their respective generations. Marc Chagall was one of the towering titans of 20th-century art. I understand why people love their work. I don't. Wouldn't put a Dylan or Cobain album on the stereo, wouldn't hang a Chagall print on the wall (although I'd take one of his stained glass windows). If you would, I think that's wonderful. They're just not for me.

I also always acknowledge that I MIGHT BE WRONG. I'm wrong all the time. Taste evolves. I like a lot of things I didn't used to like: beer, bluegrass, balsamic vinegar, goose-down pillows, the comic strip Get Fuzzy, Coen Brothers movies, Impressionism, sushi. I also look back on things I once liked and wonder what I was thinking. That's why I've never been interested in a tattoo: I can't think of a single thing I was passionate about at age 18 that I'd still want billboarded on my body today. Art affected me differently at ages 20, 30, 40. I expect to learn and change.

So why should anyone care that I don't care for Ware? I don't even care. It's not a position I'm deeply committed to. I think there's a fair chance I'm wrong and my opinion may change in time. I'm pretty sure I'm wrong about Chagall, and suspect that with a little study and effort I'd "get" him. Dylan and Cobain, I don't know. Maybe. Far Side knock-offs? Never.

I'm not talking about being wishy-washy--there are principles, aesthetics, and ethics I believe very strongly. But atop that foundation I think it's good to be discriminating and flexible. Refining one's taste should be an active and constant pursuit. I'm working on it.
(*This critique of Chris Ware breaks one of my Blogging Prime Directives: "if you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all." In this case I rationalize that Chris Ware is a giant while I am but a gnat, he pretty much says the same things about himself, and I later admit my opinion may be mistaken. I still feel bad about it.)

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

(Almost) Live, From New York

Courtesy of my buddy Mike Lynch, who blogged about it, here's a great "two-fer" YouTube video featuring the terrific Al Jaffee, whom I met at last year's Comic-Con in San Diego, and my editor, friend, and erstwhile house guest Charlie Kochman. It's strange: I know Charlie edits a lot of other books and handles a lot of other authors, but when I see something like this I somehow feel like he's two-timing me. Why he's not completely focused on me and my book every moment of the day is beyond me.

Anyway, in the video (which looks to have been recorded by an audience member at a recent bookstore appearance) Mr. Jaffee tells a great anecdote about how he came up with the "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions" concept. Well worth 2 minutes 23 seconds.

My problem when I meet people like Mr. Jaffee at events like Comic-Con is that I'm never prepared. If I knew ahead of time I'd be introduced to an industry legend I'd look through some books, do a little homework, ready some insightful and incisive questions cutting to the heart of their work and creative process. With a bit of prep time, I could do a nice little interview. Instead I get about 0.3 seconds of warning and say stupid things they've heard from fanboys their entire careers. (I felt this especially when I met Jerry Robinson and didn't have the presence of mind to even mention his great book The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art, which was an absolute lifeline to me in my teenage years.)

Ah well. Mr. Jaffee (and Mr. Robinson) couldn't have been nicer to stupid-fanboy me anyway. That's another reason I love the old-school comics creators: I haven't met one yet with an ounce of arrogance or pretension. They seem genuinely grateful for the recognition and happy to acknowledge you as a peer even though you're not even close. Al Jaffee is one of the best.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

This Thanksgiving, Avoid the Pinedale Mall

Christmas has Charlie Brown and the Grinch. Halloween has the Great Pumpkin. But for my money, there's only one television program that can be considered a true Thanksgiving classic. Gather the children around the warm cheery glow of the computer monitor and start a new holiday tradition. If you don't have a full 24 minutes to kill, zoom ahead to 17:40 and enjoy six of my favorite minutes of television.

Saturday, November 22, 2008


Raina Telgemeier is a talented cartoonist, a nice person, and a friend--as good a friend as you can be with someone you sat next to at an awards show and run into once or twice a year, anyway (I don't want to presume too much). She's done graphic novel adaptations of the very popular "Baby-Sitters Club" books in addition to many other projects, and her art has a cleanness and sincerity I really respect. I like the work she and her husband Dave Roman do very much.

A few years ago, Raina started writing an autobiographical webcomic titled "Smile," about her teeth. She knocked out her front two at age 11 and went through years of dental reconstruction. It's a sweet little story of small moments and the humiliations and horrors of youth that stick with you and hurt much longer than they should.

Raina added regularly to "Smile" online over many months, and occasionally had friends draw guest strips in which they either commented on her dental drama or told their own. When I saw Raina at Comic-Con International last July, we talked about "Smile" and how surprisingly universal and popular it had turned out to be. Everyone has a tooth story. Me, too. So I asked Raina if I could do a guest strip for her sometime. Surely thinking I'd never follow through, she agreed.

I followed through a few weeks ago. My timing couldn't have been worse or better. Worse, because Raina had just stopped posting "Smile" comics and updating their website. Better, because the reason Raina stopped posting new work was that she'd just sold her story to Scholastic, the publishing giant that will no doubt put "Smile" into the hands of millions of kids and make her a star.

Anyway, Raina was kind enough to post my one-page guest strip anyway. Here it is. My tooth story.

In terms of cartooning, the only thing I want to point out is that this was the first time I'd tried drawing freehand panel borders with brush (as seen above). I wanted a loose, casual feel for my little wispy slip of a story, and ruled borders seemed too rigid and confining. These freehand borders are me trying to be Walt Kelly. And then failing.
With Raina (smiling beautifully) at Comic-Con 2007

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Fomalhaut Ho!

It may not look like much, but I've been waiting most of my life to see a picture like this. The Hubble Space Telescope has taken the first direct photo of a planet orbiting another star and there she is, a speck in the small white box toward the right. Named "Fomalhaut b," this little beauty is about 25 light years from Earth--right next door in interstellar terms. The planet is about three times the size of Jupiter and lies far, far away from its star Fomalhaut, 10 times the distance of Saturn from our Sun. It takes 872 years to orbit. That's a looooong year.

Let me explain a few things about the picture. The star Fomalhaut is located at the center, where the white dot is. But, because the star is a billion times brighter than the planet, the telescope blocked out the star's light with a little metal bar so it wouldn't overwhelm dim objects nearby. That bar is the black blotch that runs from the center to upper left. The orange oval is a real feature, a ring of dust that circles Fomalhaut and is partly defined by the planet's orbit. And the inset at lower right superimposes two pictures taken 21 months apart which prove that tiny little dot is actually moving around the star.
You might be thinking that scientists have discovered new alien worlds around other stars before, and they have. But until now they were all detected indirectly, by measuring how the gravitational pull of an orbiting planet affects the motion of its star, making it wobble as it moves through space. That's interesting and cool, and in recent years has resulted in dozens of new finds. But this . . . well, there's no substitute for seeing something with your own eyes.

If you're interested, click here to go to an official announcement with bigger pictures. Of course this is just the beginning. Astronomers will refine their techniques and improve their instruments. Sometime in my lifetime I would not be surprised to see a clear photo of a little blue and green planet that looks a lot like ours. Wouldn't that be something?

What a great time to be alive.

(Note to my girls: And Bonus! It looks just like the eye of Sauron!)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Books, Barack and Bush

I had a very nice time speaking to a women's group affiliated with a local synagogue yesterday evening (as you can see in the photo above, some of the attendees were men, though we were seriously outnumbered). I think we got a good turnout.

This was a great group, and I was reminded again how much I appreciate people who "get" Mom's Cancer. To readers familiar with comics, it may not seem like there's much to get, but to some civilians the whole idea of a cartoon book about cancer is a mind-blower (never mind that mine wasn't the first nor the last). An advantage I had going in is that I was told much of the group already knew the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Holocaust story Maus, which is a real handy peg to hang your graphic novel bona fides on. Anyway, I talked a little about that--Why tell this story as a comic?--as well as my family's experience, and although I felt my talk was a bit rusty it seemed well received. The discussions with people afterward were heart-warming and very gratifying. Y'know, I've done book signings with turnouts of just two or three people but never been disappointed, because those two or three people invariably say something that reaffirms my reason for writing the book and makes the whole thing worthwhile.

I also got my first look at the reprint of Mom's Cancer last night, shipped hurriedly from the overseas printer just in time for the event. It looks great! I haven't written much about the reprint because there's not much to say. The book is now part of the new Abrams ComicArts family and Editor Charlie and I made a few cosmetic changes, but the story content is exactly the same. Unfortunately, we had to raise the price two bucks to $14.95. Also unfortunately, Mom's Cancer has been out of stock at and other online retailers while stock transitions from the first edition to the reprint (although new and used copies from other sellers remain available through Amazon and the others). It'll be back in stock as soon as the boat docks, and Charlie assures me that he intends to keep Mom's Cancer in print for a long time to come.
Anyway, my thanks to the women of Shomrei Torah and to Dena, Sandy and Ellen who made it happen.
Cartoonist in Chief
While I appreciate the significance of Barack Obama's election, I haven't been particularly giddy about it . . . until now. Today I learned that, in addition to his evident political skills, our next president is also a cartoonist. Mr. Obama doodled the portraits below of senators Chuck Schumer, Harry Reid, Dianne Feinstein, and Ted Kennedy on the Senate floor.
They're pretty good likenesses. If this whole Leader of the Free World thing doesn't work out, he could probably get a job drawing caricatures at the county fair. By the way, this drawing recently sold at auction for $2075. Worth every dime, I think.
Voters Veto Bush Sewage Plant
Voters in San Francisco rejected Proposition R, the measure to name a sewage treatment plant in the city after President Bush, which
I wrote about in July. I don't know if voters' rationale was the same as mine, but the proposition failed 70% to 30%. Good for San Francisco.
I tried to think of a clever pun for that little blue subhead up there, but everything I came up with involved the word "flush." And that's not right.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Mell Lazarus

Karen and I went to the Schulz Museum last night for a members' reception and talk by the much-honored cartoonist Mell Lazarus, creator of the comic strips "Miss Peach" and "Momma" as well as a bunch of novels, plays, and screenplays. He's won just about all the awards the National Cartoonists Society can give, including the "Silver T-Square" for outstanding service to the profession. Mr. Lazarus was born in 1927 and is as lean as a broomstick--I understand he's had some health problems in recent years--but was very sharp and funny both in his prepared remarks and off-the-cuff asides. It was great to see him.
Although Mr. Lazarus did his school-themed strip "Miss Peach" from 1957 until 2002, "Momma" (which he started in 1970 and continues today) is clearly his labor of love. He told very funny stories about his family and his own mother, the model for "Momma," who regularly extracted "deathbed" promises from her children to, for example, take her to lunch next Friday, before miraculously recovering. Who kept a suitor dangling for years, making him sit at one end of the sofa while she watched a small television--turned so only she could see it--at the other. Who couldn't understand why a boy ever needed a wife when he had a perfectly good mother to take care of him.
Lazarus drawing Momma. Sorry the pictures are blurry;
the light was dim and I didn't want to use a flash.

I enjoyed one story Mr. Lazarus told about starting his career after dropping out of high school at age 16. It was 1943 and World War II was on. He figured that since most of the cartoonists 18 or older had been drafted, he had a two-year window to fill the voids they left before it was his turn to go to war. His strategy worked. He got some experience and, from 1949 to 1954, worked for the studio of "Li'l Abner" cartoonist Al Capp. That job gave him the material for his first novel, The Boss is Crazy, Too. I also enjoyed one of his asides, as he stepped back to look at one of his sketches with apparent dissatisfaction and quipped, "I draw better when I'm getting paid for it." (I'm stealing that one.)
I wrote once that the nice thing about being a member of the Schulz Museum is that you don't have to go out of your way to see great cartoonists. Sooner or later, they all come to you. Mr. Lazarus is one of the field's elite veterans and it was a delightful honor to see and hear him last night.

Friday, November 7, 2008

How I Approach Cartooning #4: Graphic Narrative

One of what I intend to be a series of occasional essays on what I think about when I'm writing and drawing. I'm not saying this is the best way, right way, or only way. It's just a way that works for me that I hope someone finds interesting.

Three things came together to spur this post, which I'm not sure will amount to a coherent essay so much as a loose tangle of barely connected thoughts. We'll see how it goes and whether it pulls together.

The first is a talk I'm preparing to give next week to a women's group that invited me to speak about Mom's Cancer. I've given several talks--tailored to whether I'm speaking to a "comics crowd" or a "healthcare/social service crowd"--but it's been a long time since the last one, and reviewing my PowerPoint slides has reawakened the experience of crafting the book and its themes. I haven't thought about some of these things in a while.

The second is an article just published in the journal Literature and Medicine, a scholarly publication for healthcare professionals. Unfortunately, the piece by Harvard's Hillary Chute isn't available online, but it cites several works--the comic strip "Funky Winkerbean" and the books Our Cancer Year, Epileptic, Black Hole, Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story, Janet and Me, Mom's Cancer, and others--from the perspective of their value as "illness narratives." In laying out her premise Ms. Chute wrote, "Comics is, in fact, a distinct form--a medium in its own right--not a lowbrow genre of literature or art, as it is often understood . . . In this review, I consider the properties, commonalities, differences, and contributions of a swiftly growing, yet diverse, body of graphic narratives about illness in order to explain the current profusion of such texts and to account for why the graphic narrative is a distinctly effective (and affective) popular form for such stories."

The third was a recent interview with Art Spiegelman recommended to me by cartoonist Rod McKie. Spiegelman, who wrote the Pulitzer-Prize-winning graphic novel Maus and a new book titled Breakdowns, said: "Comics work the way the brain works: picture-signs mixed with little bursts of language. Past, present and future all scrambled up and butted up against each other--the perfect medium for depicting memory."

Interestingly, Chute said that she spoke with Spiegelman, though it's not clear if he shared this particular insight with her. But I think Spiegelman's right, and I further think that's the key to understanding something important about how comics work and the kinds of stories they tell.

See, ideally, comics is just another medium that should be able to tell any type of story, fiction or nonfiction, just as books or film can. But, in practice, although many terrific graphic novel creators have explored a lot of different techniques and subjects, a huge share of graphic novels--and most of the really successful ones I can think of like Maus, Persepolis, Fun Home, and Blankets--have been memoirs (leaving aside those originating in the world of pulp and superhero comic books such as Sin City and Watchmen).

I wonder why that is. Does it reflect the immaturity of a medium that just hasn't figured out how to tell different stories yet? Lazy unimaginative authors? Lazy unimaginative publishers? Lazy unimaginative readers? Or something more fundamental about the nature of graphic novels and the types of stories they're somehow suited to tell?

I'll take the easy way out and suggest they all apply. Graphic novels are a relatively young medium for which writers and artists are making up new rules as they go and figuring out how things work. A lot of writers and artists are lazy or unimaginative, taking the maxim "write what you know" too closely to heart and focusing on themselves because, hey, what do they know better (or have to research less) than their own miserable, misunderstood, solipsistic lives? Publishers are lazy or unimaginative, only willing to take a risk on stuff that's already been proven to work. A lot of readers are also lazy or unimaginative, comfortable with the graphic novels they know but not looking further afield for interesting work in other areas.
In addition, comics is the purest expression of McLuhan's axiom that "the medium is the message" I can think of. When you read a comic by Robert Crumb or Chris Ware, every line and letter--even the paper the comic is printed on--reflects the hand of its creator. More than most books and certainly more than collaborative work like television or movies, the content and form of comics are the result of singular creative visions. There's little distance between comics authors and readers, and I think the very best comics feel like a private conversation that jacks directly into the brain.

So I've been long intrigued by the idea that there's something about the way words and pictures combine in a reader's mind that makes comics especially apt for intimate stories that unfold like memories or dreams--editing episodes down to their most essential information, invoking symbols and archetypes, employing a kind of pre-literate shorthand of images and impressions. In other words, comics about stuff that happened to you.

I don't know if that's right. It feels like it could be.

Turning to the illness narrative, I think it's helpful to look at Chute's list of graphic novels as a subset of memoirs (with the exception of Black Hole, which is straight-up allegorical fiction) and in light of Spiegelman's notion of comics and memory. Illness invokes unique experiences and strong memories. "This is strange and frightening and interesting; I need to tell someone about it." I've told this story before: when my Mom became ill and our family fell through the medical rabbit hole, I resolved to share our story somehow. I didn't know if it would be a blog, a magazine article, a book, whatever, but I wanted to communicate our experience and scribble a rough roadmap for those who followed. Mom's Cancer became a graphic novel the day I took Mom to chemotherapy and, to pass the time while she napped in a comfy I.V. chair, turned over a piece of paper and sketched her. There was something in that drawing that perfectly captured our day in a way no other medium could have; the lightbulb lit over my head. I knew it would work. And I think somewhere in there is an insight into how and why it works for others as well.
That sketch.

Of my book Chute wrote, "While Mom's Cancer is more a cultural phenomenon [first I've heard of it!--BF] than a masterful graphic narrative--its popularity on the Web spread rapidly by word of
mouth--in its visual metaphors and its diagrams, it points directly to how the idiom of comics tackles the representation of illness and its range of hard-to-picture effects. Its enthusiastic audience and re-publication in print demonstrate the need and desire in our current moment for narrative and visual chronicles of struggles with illness."

I agree with that. But even allowing for some underlying commonality, there's a lot of variety among Chute's graphic narratives. While she wrote a very thoughtful review with an interesting angle, I think her analysis is weakened by comparing works done with very different goals and audiences in mind, from deliberately underground to deliberately literary to deliberately mainstream (like mine). She rightly points out that comics are a medium, not a genre, then lumps us all together anyway. As a survey of different approaches to writing about illness it's interesting, but I think it also runs the risk of judging books against standards they never aimed to meet. There's no reason to compare Mom's Cancer to Epileptic or Black Hole except they're all comics about sick people. I understand why that's a hook but I find it a very minor one. However, just for taking comics seriously and avoiding the "Pow! Zap! Comics Aren't Just for Kids!" headline, Chute has my respect and thanks.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Put Out the Good Linen, Ma, We Got Company

Karen and I just spent a terrific time with Editor Charlie and his fiancee Rachel, who flew from New York to the West Coast for a friend's wedding and went out of their way to spend a day and night with us. This was the first time Charlie'd seen my home and (knowing that he checks my blog occasionally) I'd be curious to hear how his expectations matched reality.
Karen and I appreciated the excuse to take a little vacation ourselves and I think we all had a very nice visit. Charlie and I talked comics and publishing, and he shared more great stories about people he knows and upcoming projects he's excited about. We did a little WHTTWOT business. The weather cooperated as Karen and I showed off a couple of our favorite local attractions, took our guests to one of our "fancy date" restaurants, and watched election returns come in Tuesday night. I didn't realize Charlie was so politically passionate, which made the evening fun--like going to a football game with someone who really, really, really cares whether his team wins. Which it did.
Note to visitors: the Charles M. Schulz Museum is closed on Tuesdays during non-summer months. I've been a member of the museum since it opened and did not know that until approximately 11:56 Tuesday morning. Luckily, Charlie and Rachel could spare a few hours on Wednesday to let me make up for my ignorance.
One of the best and completely unexpected things to emerge from getting a book published was making friends like Charlie and Rachel. Charlie's been very good to me; it felt good to offer a little hospitality in return.

Charlie and I, finally inside the Schulz Museum. The wall is made up of small ceramic tiles of individual "Peanuts" strips whose tones combine to make the larger image.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Odds & Ends & Ego

Halloween is a favorite holiday for my family and we had a good one. The weather forecast called for rain, but we got a nice break between storm fronts that lasted from mid-afternoon until about midnight, allowing me to set up stuff in the yard and host a good party. Our girls came home from school for the weekend (they like the spooky props and party, too) and we had a lot of trick-or-treaters. Sorry, didn't take any pictures. Y'all are welcome to drop by next year, though.

I got a little ego-boost in a bookstore today when I picked up a new book titled 500 Essential Graphic Novels and discovered that I wrote one of them. That made my day! To be honest, I don't remember whether I was told about my inclusion in advance. I don't think so. I do know Mom's Cancer is also mentioned in another new book, The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels by Danny Fingeroth, and although I got a sneak peak at what they wrote about me I haven't seen the published version yet. If the rough draft is a fair indication, it's a good review.

This type of recognition is . . . nice. Flattering. Appreciated. Odd. Surreal. The kind of thing that always makes me think, "If anyone had told me a few years ago . . . ." I wonder whether lists like that ever inspire someone to pick up a book they haven't heard of or would have otherwise overlooked. Maybe a few; I'll never know. But it's better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. (I was going to attribute that last sentence to Lee Marvin in the film "Cat Ballou" until I looked it up and was reminded that it wasn't said by Marvin but to him, and phrased a little differently. So never mind.) I'm sincerely thankful.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Cartooning: The Final Frontier

I thought some of you might like this. There's a passage in Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow set in 1945 in which my character goes to the movies to watch a Flash-Gordon-style serial. I therefore had to come up with something Flash-Gordon-style to put on the movie screen. For reasons that'll be apparent if (when!) you read the book, I created my own fictional universe-within-a-universe rather than use actual stills from real movies--which also avoided the problem of tracking down 60-year-old copyrights and asking permission.

So first I built a spaceship.

Photo against black backdrop shot in my backyard

The fuselage is a tapered slice of a staircase newel post a little less than a foot long. The nose spike is a golf tee, the rockets in back are spent CO2 cartridges I collected for months, and the windows are solid plastic balls back-painted with a fluorescent paint. Little round-headed nails made good rivets. I wanted it to have a deliberately home-spun look, as if a movie propman on a small budget threw it together from junk lying around his bench.

Same picture "flopped" left to right and cropped to provide a black background

I also wanted a billowing cloud of exhaust shooting out its rear, just like the ol' Flash Gordon ships. For that I found a photo of an actual rocket launch (seemed appropriate) and cropped out everything but the smoke:

I made stars very simply in Photoshop, scattering white spots of different sizes on a black background and then blurring the heck out of them to get that old-timey unfocused outer space look. I also found a nice Apollo-era Moon photo (Apollo 14, I think) with a crater so fat, bright and lumpy it almost looked phony. One of the minor themes of WHTTWOT is that the creators of old sci-fi films and comic books got a lot of it right, so my little in-joke here is that my 1940s movie serial provides an amazingly accurate preview of the lunar surface no one would see first-hand for another couple of decades.

Then I put the pieces together. I made the exhaust semi-transparent so stars showed through. After flopping the spaceship to move from left to right, I had to do the same to the Moon photo so its shadows would be consistent with the light source on the spaceship. Here's an intermediate step:

The lunar crater isn't flopped yet: the light hitting it is coming from the right, while the light hitting the spaceship is coming from the left. I fixed that in the version below.

Since it's a black-and-white serial I converted the image to grayscale and back. Finally, to smooth out the cut-and-paste look and make all the assembled bits seem more like they belonged in the same universe, I washed out and blurred the entire image (I guess the movie projector is just a little out of focus) and overlaid a faint transparent sepia tone over the whole thing.

I did a few of these composite images. One of my goals was to make them look fake--I wanted them to look like bad special effects from the era. Then I drew my characters watching these "scenes" on screen, distorting them to account for perspective when needed. I got good mileage out of that spaceship, using it for both photo composites and as a model for actual drawings.

This was fun.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I'm Alive

Sorry I haven't been as attentive as I'd like. It's just a combination of having regular boring ol' work to keep me busy and not much happening with the book at the moment. We're still doing final edits and putting together some catalog pages I'm really looking forward to showing off when I can. They're cool! I'm also busy building a dozen new ghosts that I hope will be swirling through my trees on Halloween.

My wife Karen noticed that has gotten a copy of WHTTWOT's cover, seen in the little ad to the right. This isn't quite the final-draft cover but it's close. And somebody already bought a copy! Just another teeny milestone on the journey....

In an effort to make up for my neglect, let me brighten your day with a link to "Upside-Down Dogs," the perfect counterpart to the classic "Stuff On My Cat." This is why the Internet was born.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

There's Something About These People ...

... that I find strangely familiar. And yet ... not.

This could go either way. I remain wary but hope for the best.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Happy Birthday, Giam!

Cheers, Paul!
You may not know the name Paul Giambarba or his nom de plume Giam Barba (unless you were reading my old blog when I wrote about him two years ago), but he is a talented artist, illustrator, cartoonist, photographer, designer, and writer; an expert in graphics, typography, printing, publishing, and anything having to do with commercial art in its mid-century Golden Age; a professional's professional. And today he turns 80.
Paul served as Polaroid's first art director for 25 years, beginning in 1958. He designed the classic angular rainbow-striped graphics and packaging that instantly identified the Polaroid brand and established it as "younger and hipper" than its "stodgy" competitor Kodak--a strategy studied ever since and put to profitable use by companies like Apple today. He lived and worked in Europe in the 1950s, where he produced some terrific sketches and amazing poster art, while his more recent watercolor work captures the beauty of his beloved Cape Cod. He also continues to draw elegant and incisive illustrations, cartoons and caricatures.
Paul was an enthusiastic supporter of Mom's Cancer whom I got to know on a cartoonists' bulletin board. In October 2006, Paul visited family in my hometown and we met for lunch. We had a great, wide-ranging conversation about, well, everything. He couldn't have been more generous or encouraging with his time and advice.
Anyway, a bunch of cartoonists who frequent that online watering hole hatched a secret plan to draw and post cartoons today in celebration of Paul's birthday. Below is my contribution: a shamefully accurate rendering of what was going through my head during our lunch. Be sure to check out Paul's website sometime--it's a treasure.
Happy Birthday, Paul! And thanks.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Genetics Schmenetics

My daughter Laura will be mortified that I'm announcing she just got hired to draw a weekly comic strip for her college's student newspaper. Her salary will just about cover her lunch (not "lunches" plural, just one). I told her that, although I was very proud we now have two paid cartoonists in the family, her mother would probably blame me for it. I was right.

My other daughter, Robin, recently showed me some cool software she's using to help analyze the composition of pottery dug up by her anthropology professor. She has also worked in the archeology lab since last year, sloshing dig debris through a watery sieve to sort and count the interesting bits. Sounds like fun.

I haven't pressed the fact that I earned extra cash in my own college years drawing for my student newspaper and working for an astronomy professor. I can't take much credit for how my kids are turning out--they're their own people pursuing unique interests in their own ways--but I'll take whatever credit I can. 'Cause that cartooning and laboratory stuff is totally me.

My wife helped, too.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


I'm Brian, and I'm a junkie.

"Hi, Brian."

Yesterday I discovered an online game that has consumed my every free moment, plus maybe a few not-so-free moments that should have been spent working instead. "Fantastic Contraption" is the perfect pastime for any former (or current) science-ish nerd whose imagination was fired by Tinkertoys and Erector Sets--in other words, me.

The game provides basic components--wheels that spin clockwise and counterclockwise, a couple of different types of connecting rods--that you use to construct all the ramps, bridges, cars, tanks, crawlers and trebuchets needed to convey a small pink object to a target. The online version has a good tutorial and 21 levels that get pretty tough. Luckily, when you get frustrated with a level, you can see how hundreds of other people solved it. The range of really clever solutions that work for each level is astounding. It's fun to see how someone else invented a way to make these simple pieces operate in ways you'd never imagine and then adapt it for yourself.

Of course, once I got through the game once, I found myself going back and redoing favorite levels, trying to find either easier solutions or ridiculously more complicated ones. The thumbnails below link to two of my favorite creations so far, both levels I completed relatively easily at first and then returned to repeat with style. (After clicking the link, hit "Play" then "Continue" and "Start." In testing the links, I noticed that the connection is a little iffy. If it doesn't work, try it later.) I like the first one for its simplicity and the second for its completely unnecessary complexity.

If you find your will as weak as mine and the next several days pass in a haze of levers, pulleys and cams, I apologize.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

How I Approach Cartooning #3: Line

One of what I intend to be a series of occasional essays on what I think about when I'm writing and drawing. I'm not saying this is the best way, right way, or only way. It's just a way that works for me that I hope someone finds interesting.

It's easy to talk about "line" in drawing without ever really defining it. It's a vague and slippery arty-farty term that can make you sound smart without really pinning you down. "His work has such an expressive line!" Well ... who can argue with that? But what, if anything, does it mean? This post takes a stab at describing what I mean when I look at, judge, and draw a line.

I remember clearly the moment I first got the concept of line. It was a college life-drawing class, when the instructor showed us a cartoon by Michelangelo with everything in the image obscured except one line that ran from a figure's hip to its ankle. (Originally, a "cartoon" was a sketch an artist did in preparation for a painting and is the sort of cartoon I mean, although it is cheeky fun to refer to giants like Michelangelo as "cartoonists." Technically true.) This ochre scribble had form and mass. It carried weight and seemed to twist in and out of the page. When you really looked at it, it was astonishingly graceful and expressive. And it was just a single line! Somewhere in my hippocampus, a penny dropped.

Cartoonists traditionally (that is, pre-digitally) draw their lines in pencil first, then go over them with ink pens or brushes to make them black. Many (probably most) artists like their pencils better than their inks, finding the preliminary work more spontaneous and lively. That's not true for me. I never feel like one of my drawings comes to life until I've inked it, and I think the quality of line and the tools I draw it with make the difference. Those tools are a fine sable or sable-synthetic brush and a variety of nibs, usually crow-quill.

The lines above were made by (top to bottom) a brush, a stiff crow-quill nib, and a more flexible crow-quill nib. I make them thick or thin just by pressing harder or lighter as I draw. I can use these different line weights in a few ways: first, to indicate light and shadow; second, to suggest mass; third and more subtly, to represent something I'm not sure what to call but the best word I can think of is "tension."

Light and shadow are obvious. Lines facing toward the light are thin and those facing away are thick. Usually, light comes from overhead so lines defining the undersides or bottoms of things should be heavier. Mass is also obvious: heavy objects take thicker, bulkier, rougher lines than light ones. Anvils and clouds demand different line weights. Then there's "tension," by which I mean I make my lines thinner where an object is stretched or tight, and thicker where it's loose or full. It's easier to show what I mean with a quick example:

In this drawing, light's coming from above. My line is thinnest at the crown of the head both because it's nearest the light and the skin stretches tight and thin against the skull. In fact, it's so thin the line actually disappears for a bit. Ditto for the bridge of the nose: it's facing the light and the skin is taut. The line is thicker under the nose and lower lip, where shadows fall, and along the jawline, which is both farthest from the light and fleshier. However, it's thinner on the chin itself because the skin is firmer there. The lines defining the sides of the head gradually widen from top to bottom, indicating the transition from light to shadow and also the fact that the face gets looser toward the bottom. This is a slightly saggy middle-aged person; if I wanted to draw a teenager, I'd keep the line lighter toward the bottom because the skin is tighter.

Here's just another quick example showing two identically sized boxes, except the one on the left is hollow cardboard while the one on the right is solid concrete:

Obviously, the heavier object has a heavier line. Another difference between these cubes is that on the cardboard box the line weight is the same from top to bottom, while on the concrete cube the lines thicken from top to bottom. This implies that the bottom of the concrete cube is carrying a lot of weight, more and more as you approach the floor, while the cardboard box is light as a feather. I exaggerate this effect by widening the sides and rounding the corners of the concrete cube as if it were bulging under its own mass, while conversely narrowing the sides and sharpening the corners of the cardboard box as it it were holding itself up with no trouble at all.

I'm not sure how conscious I am of this stuff when I'm inking. It seems like a lot to think about! I know I always start with an awareness of where the light is coming from. The rest just seems to flow. I recall seeing a video of Charles Schulz teaching a cartooning class in the mid-1970s in which he told the students, "when you draw grass, think of grass." I don't mean to get too mystical mumbo-jumbo about it, but I think that's how it works. When I'm drawing cardboard or concrete I think "cardboard" or "concrete," and my brain-hand combo seems to do the rest.

Application, with a Bonus Rant
Now, in addition to thinking about and applying this stuff, you've got to simplify it. Cartooning is distillation, stripping a drawing down to the essential infomation needed to communicate. That's the toughest for me, and where I struggle the most. It's so much harder to draw something with two lines than twenty! I think this aspect of cartooning makes the line even more important as it's tasked with conveying more and more information. An inky squiggle can be a blade of grass, a coyote falling off a cliff, or a brick zipping past at the speed of sound. Only the skill of the cartoonist and the mind of the reader who comprehends the symbols and fills in the missing details gives the squiggle meaning.

What dismays and frustrates me is how few contemporary cartoonists seem to think about this stuff, or even be aware that they can or should think about this stuff. Fifty years ago, this is what professionals did. Understanding line was the bare minimum required to get into the club. Milt Caniff was a hugely influential giant to two or three generations of cartoonists not because "Terry and the Pirates" and "Steve Canyon" were swell comic strips but because he was a master of line. Same with Roy Crane, Walt Kelly, Wally Wood, or any of forty or fifty other greats I could list.

"Steve Canyon" by Milt Caniff. If I had 1%
of his ink-line mojo, I could die happy.

Without naming names or pointing fingers, that doesn't seem to be the case anymore.

It's tempting to pin the death of skillful linework on the rise of digital art--and I think poorly done digital art does have a bland, sterile coldness to it--but in fact some cartoonists (e.g., Darrin Bell) produce very lively lines on the computer. You just have to work at it. But in order to work at it, you have to realize it's worth knowing and doing in the first place. Unfortunately, I fear the art of cartooning has eroded to a state where many of its practitioners don't even know what they don't know. I'm far (way far) from an expert at any of this; the more I learn, the more I realize how ignorant I am. But I'm trying.

Cartooning is hard enough as it is. We've got a hundred years' worth of tools to do the job, many of them hand-forged and left for us by master craftsmen in decades past. Why anyone would toss out and neglect those tools until all they have left in the toolbox is a cracked hammer and bent screwdriver is beyond me.

UPDATE: Re-reading the next day, I realize a lot more could be said about line. This wasn't intended to be comprehensive, just a first stab. In addition to the few variations I described, lines can be bold, tentative, coarse, tremulous, precise, Impressionistic. Each affects the reader. An artist's line can become their signature: the smooth elegance of Al Hirschfeld or nervous scritchiness of Ed Koren are instantly recognizable. Lack of a lively line can also be a style choice. For example, "Dilbert" and "Pearls Before Swine" use very uniform lines that reinforce the bleakness of their universes. Whether or not Scott Adams and Stephan Pastis made that choice deliberately, I think it works for them.

There's a lot to think about. Maybe more later.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Like, I'm So Sure

Publishers pay writers advances to help cover expenses and feed families until their books come out and (we hope) the big trucks full of money back up to both our doors. Having passed a contractual milestone on Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow, I happily received such a check from my publisher Abrams yesterday (none of your business, that's how much).

The reason I'm writing about it and may need to frame the stub is the little note in the "Voucher Comments" field describing what the check is for.

It reads: "WHATEVER."

I'm not sure I like their attitude.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Commercial Break tells me it's now accepting pre-orders for Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?, available simply by following the link to the right. (The link says "No Image Available" but we know what it'll look like!)

Although I'd love to have your business, ordering a copy now seems premature given that the entire book currently exists only as gigabytes on my computer and we're still editing it. It ain't going nowhere for a while yet. On the other hand, Amazon's offering a great price and maybe a few early orders would drum up some enthusiasm. Philosophically, I'd much rather urge you to support your local independent bookseller, but if you're one of those well-organized forward-thinking people who gets your Christmas shopping done by May then go for it.

Speaking of May, that's the month Amazon lists as our release date. That's a little pessimistic, I think--it'll more likely be March or April. But anything could happen and Amazon may know something I don't.

Another milestone on the journey....

Monday, September 22, 2008

Interview: Jeff Kinney

Why do I have to learn about this from another blog? Jeff Kinney is the author of the bestselling Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, which has been an enormous success for both Jeff and my publisher Abrams. I was at the New York Comic-Con where Jeff pressed his proposal into Editor Charlie's hands, and I remember Charlie excitedly showing it to me minutes later. He knew he'd found something good--or, more accurately, it had found him.

I've gotten to know Jeff a bit since then. At the 2006 San Diego Comic-Con, while the first Wimpy Kid book was still in production, Editor Charlie set Jeff and me up on a date so I could share my impressive accumulation of publishing experience and wisdom with him. Actually, I only had about a year's head start on Jeff, and as soon as his first book came out he blew completely past me. He's contracted for more books and is mulling opportunities that most writers can only imagine. Now I ask him for advice.

Anyway, here's a two-part interview with Jeff, produced by the fine booksellers at Borders. The first is a one-on-one interview, while the second shows Jeff giving a completely charming talk to a group of his young fans. I can honestly say he's one of the nicest, humblest, most appreciative people I know, which makes it very hard to sustain the festering boil of jealous bile roiling in my gut. Curse you, Kinney.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Et Cetera

Some little odds and ends today:

1. A couple of days ago I got my first look at some pages from the catalog Abrams is putting together to promote its Spring 2009 books, including mine. This catalog goes primarily to booksellers who choose how many copies of which books they want in their stores. It's not ready to be unveiled publicly, but I liked the spread for WHTTWOT very much and couldn't be happier with the enthusiasm and support I'm feeling from my publisher. Even before the catalog comes out, we're getting early hints of healthy interest from key retailers. It's all encouraging.

I remember this from the last time: planning, anticipation, hope, dread. It's an interesting mix of emotions that somehow combines to make this little project I did in my spare bedroom and shared with about a dozen people seem much more real.

2. I shamefully neglected to mention a podcast interview that "Mr. Media" Bob Andelman did with my buddy Mike Lynch on Friday. Mike is a professional magazine cartoonist who's also involved in some shady dealings with the National Cartoonists Society. Anyway, that hour-long interview is now available at the Mr. Media website and I recommend it to anyone interested in the art and business of freelance cartooning, breaking in, finding markets, etc. I told Mike afterward that I was standing by my phone ready to call in with Star Trek trivia questions if the show bogged down, but there were plenty of real questions and Mike sailed through.

3. Tom Spurgeon was kind enough to mention my last two blog posts on his "Comics Reporter" website, bringing me some extra traffic. That's much appreciated, and I'm happy to return the favor by recommending his site as one of my regular stops for news and commentary on cartoons and comic books. Tom knows his stuff.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

How I Approach Cartooning #2: History

One of what I intend to be a series of occasional essays on what I think about when I'm writing and drawing. I'm not saying this is the best way, right way, or only way. It's just a way that works for me that I hope someone finds interesting.

The story of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? covers more than three decades, from the late 1930s to the mid 1970s (plus a bit beyond). This raised a problem I'd never really dealt with before: doing historical research for a graphic novel.

Both the beauty and horror of writing a graphic novel is that nothing gets on the page by accident. If there's a person, car, rock, tree, trash can, or blade of grass in the picture, it's there because I wanted it there. This turns out to be a significant challenge when you go back in time. I struggled mightily to leave all my modern preconceptions behind and find references for everything I could. My characters drink soda pop in 1939; what shape and size were soda bottles then? What did a street light look like in 1945? When did kids start wearing high-top sneakers? What day and time did a particular TV show air, and what phase was the Moon in that day?

I collected probably a couple thousand pages of reference and read hundreds of pages more. I discovered that one problem with trying to get it right (and being terrified of getting it wrong) is potential paralysis: being afraid to do anything for fear that it isn't perfect. Eventually, I just figured I'd have to live with getting the big stuff as right as possible and minimize the risk of flubbing the small stuff as best I could. After absorbing all the research I could manage, I had to kind of relax, let it go, and just start to draw.

I tried to be thoughtful about my sources. For example, researching period clothing yields a lot of old magazine fashion spreads. But everyday people don't dress like fashion models then or now. Better are actual news or candid photos of the time showing real people living real lives. It's also tempting to look up "1945 automobiles" or "1965 business suits" and use the first examples you find. But nobody buys a new car or wardrobe every year. People drive 10-year-old cars and wear 5-year-old clothes. Few houses have all-new furnishings; right now in my living room I've got a 10-year-old couch and a 90-year-old record player. The people and places I draw should look that real and lived in.

Two examples of how that works in WHTTWOT: One panel is a big overhead shot of a kid's bedroom in 1965. Now, kid's bedrooms are often furnished with family hand-me-downs, so when I put a radio near the kid's bed I made it a small tube-powered model built in the mid 1950s (the same one I have in my bedroom passed down from my father-in-law). A chair in the corner of the kid's room--you know, that extra chair that doesn't fit around the dining room table so you stash it in the bedroom--is from a set made in the 1950s.

Also in the 1965 chapter, I put my characters in a '57 Chevy. That was a risk. First, as I've written before, I don't draw cars well, nor do I enjoy it. Not sure what I was thinking when I scripted a road trip. Second, the '57 Chevy is an all-time great classic car with legions of fans who know every bolt. (Digression: I was recently admiring a '57 Chevy in a parking lot when my wife Karen remarked that she'd had a friend in high school who'd owned one. "Oh, was he a classic car guy?" I innocently asked. "Not really," she answered. "Back then it wasn't really classic. It was just old." Ouch. Since Karen is younger than I am, I instantly felt positively antique.)

Despite the peril, I had both practical and creative reasons for picking the '57 Chevy. Practically, it was easy to find a good toy model and tons of reference photos for it (period photos only, since modern examples of the car often have subtle modifications I wouldn't want to accidentally include). Creatively, the car is strongly evocative of its time. And putting my 1965 characters in a 1957 Chevy said something about them: they had an eye for style and couldn't afford a newer car. They're middle or lower-middle class; an 8-year-old car is the best they could do, but they picked a good one.

I don't know if any of this will come across to the reader. I suspect not, but hope it accumulates into a kind of verisimilitude that makes the world of WHTTWOT seem more real than if I hadn't gone to the effort and just made it all up. I'm also positive that as soon as the book comes out I'll start hearing from readers telling me what I got wrong. I expect to know the anguish experienced by Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier when he discovered he'd made his Civil-War-era hero eat a variety of apple that hadn't been hybridized yet.

All I can answer is that I honestly did my best and if I tried any harder I wouldn't have been able to produce the book at all.