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.