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.