Thursday, December 31, 2009

Another Year-End Thanksgiving

Although I celebrate the traditional U.S. Thanksgiving in November, here in Blogworld I take the opportunity of New Year's Eve to express gratitude for the people and events that made the past year good.

Top of the list are my wife Karen, my daughters Laura and Robin, and my larger family of sisters, dad, aunt, in-laws, cousins, and nephews. Everyone managed to stay pretty healthy and happy this year, which I don't take for granted.

Thanks to friends and fellow travelers in the comics world, including Mike Lynch, Otis Frampton, Jeff Kinney, Paul Giambarba, Stephan Pastis, Richard Pini, Neil Kleid, MK Czerwiec, Sarah Leavitt, and many others whom I may have met only briefly (including Nick Meglin, John Shableski, Carol Tyler, and Paul Dini) but were invariably kind. Others whose blogs provide regular entertainment and education. Also, my online communities at ToonTalk, rec.arts.comics.strips, and the Wisenheimer for their camaraderie and complaints.

Thanks to readers and especially commenters on this here blog, because it's nice to hear more than an echo when shouting out into the void. Especially my regulars Mike Peterson, Sherwood Harrington, Ronniecat, Marion Deeds, Jennifer (Namowal), Mike (Sligo), Mary Ellen (Xtreme English), Ronnie Peterson, assorted persistent lurkers (I see you there!), and others. Also, people who've supported my new 2009 efforts on Facebook, especially Jim O'Kane and Nancy Gleason (thanks for all the photos!), and everyone who signed up as a friend or fan. It's been especially great to hear from old friends.

Big thanks, affection and respect for the people at Abrams ComicArts who made me a second-time author in 2009, including boss Michael Jacobs, publisher Steve Tager, publicist Amy Franklin, designer Neil Egan, and especially my friend and editor Charlie Kochman, whose wedding to the wonderful Rachel I was honored to attend. Still don't know what took him so long. If we don't work together again in 2010, it won't be my fault.

Thanks to the owners of Four-Eyed Frog Books in Gualala, Judy Weinberg and everyone at the Toledo Museum of Art, and the organizers of the Miami Book Fair International, who gave me opportunities to speak and maybe sell a few books. Likewise to the journalists who thought I'd make a good interview subject and spread the word through print, radio and web, hope I didn't disappoint. Also to the people who reviewed WHTTWOT; although I'm naturally more thankful for those who loved it than those who didn't, I don't think giving my book a bad review necessarily makes you a bad person. But it does increase the odds.

People who bought and read WHTTWOT, especially those who took the time to tell me I captured the story of their lives. One thing I've learned from both my books is that making that intimate, mysterious, one-on-one connection with a reader is the best reward of all. The second-best reward is money.

People who continue to discover Mom's Cancer and tell others about it. That book has an enduring impact that sometimes surprises me, and is unimaginably gratifying.

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

I'm thankful for our cat Marbles, whose loss is a fresh wound of absence keenly felt.

Everyone I forgot: it's not you, it's me. I'm getting older. Thank you all.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Good Good Kitty

Back in July, I wrote about our poor sick kitty Marbles, who'd been diagnosed with thyroid trouble and kidney failure. She was acutely ill, and our immediate concern was keeping her alive while her main human, my daughter Robin, was away for six weeks of archeology field school. We did. With daily medication and subcutaneous fluid injections, she survived until Robin returned and then another five months besides, until this morning.

Marbles was our "beta" cat. Her sister Rose is our "alpha," the boss of the pride (while Amber the Simple Cat is our "lower-case omega" cat). However, Rose subcontracted home security to Marbles, who performed her duties diligently. No bird, squirrel, dog or cat could pass by a window without drawing her laser gaze, no visitor could cross our home's threshold without first passing her inspection. Some visitors didn't; although she never took a bite or scratch out of anyone, there were a couple of people she just didn't care for who came to fear her hiss. Marbles's affection was selective and precious. I felt honored to earn almost as much of it as my girls did.

Some people get silly about their pets. I never confused my pets for my children, nor forgot that taking on a dog or cat means knowingly taking on heartbreak 10 or 15 years down the road. We are nevertheless heartbroken. Marbles fought for life last summer while Robin was away, and continued to fight after my daughters returned to college in the fall. The girls said so many "final farewells" to Marbles it seemed she might never call their bluff. In the end she waited until we were all together, and even until after Christmas, more than fulfilling the bargain I made with her in July that if she survived the month she could play it any way she wanted. I can't help but believe that Marbles died doing what she did best: looking out for her family.

Master of intimidation.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Dunk Us All in Bowls of Barley

Above is this year's drawing for our family Christmas card, featuring, as it has for 21 straight years, my twin girls. The cards make a real neat family history all strung together on a knotted ribbon across our living room wall.

Below is a bit of poetic whimsy that's been a ritual on my blog each Christmas Eve since waaay back in 2005. Every beloved tradition starts small. My best wishes to you, thanks for reading my stuff.

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

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Buster Keaton's "One Week"

Now this might be worth 20 minutes of your time: a clever, witty, silent two-reeler made by Buster Keaton in 1920 (he was about 25 at the time) titled "One Week," courtesy of Mark Evanier. Of all the silent film comedians, Keaton is by far my favorite and the one whose work holds up best today, I think. Keaton's masterpiece "The General" (1927) is one of my Top Five favorite films ever, and "Sherlock Jr." is brilliant as well.

A few things that I think make "One Week" great:

As with all Keaton films, special effects are minimal and most stunts are performed by the stars. What you see is what happened: the cars, the house, the trains are all real. I think that gives the viewing experience an authenticity, immediacy, and tension that no computer-generated effects can match. They literally couldn't make 'em like this today.

The young married couple played by Keaton and Sybil Seely is very sweet and feels completely modern to me. I buy their relationship; they're in this mess together. Seely is particularly charming: smart, vivacious, sexy, and an equal partner to Keaton's hapless groom.

The unlucky newlyweds' build-it-yourself home.

Speaking of sexy, there's a famous scene at about the 10-minute mark that is one of the wittiest, most audacious moments of filmmaking ever. Seely is scrubbing up in the bathtub when she drops her soap on the floor. Her dilemma is evident: how will she pick up the soap without exposing herself to the audience? Keaton's solution: an unknown hand (it's not the groom's, he's on the roof at the time) enters the frame to cover the lens while Seely grabs the soap and settles back into the tub. Then, to complete the fourth-wall breaking, she looks directly at the camera and gives us a flirty little giggle. The joke's on us, but we're in on it as well. It's very "meta."
Seely flashing us a saucy smile after retrieving her soap.

In addition, the cartoonist in me loves the bizarre parallel world right out of the classic Warner Bros. cartoons (which wouldn't be around for 20 or 30 more years, remember)--a world where a car jack can lift a house so it can roll on barrels, one burly man can hoist a piano onto his shoulder, and nobody gets killed leaping through second-story doors into thin air.

In 2008, "One Week" was added to the Library of Congress's National Film Registry, marking it as a "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant work to be preserved for all time." I agree. I know silent films aren't everyone's cup of tea, but if you're not one of those people I think this one's a treasure and worth a look.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Working Hard for the Hypothetical Money

Time for another of my now-traditional "too busy to post" posts, which is actually season-appropriate now:


The ol' blog's a little less active than I'd like because I'm working on big project deadlines for my real job, trying to write a first draft of a new graphic novel for my pretend job (more later!), plus enjoying the general Christmas hubbub and fol-de-rol.
My girls are recovering very well from their wisdom teeth extractions on Monday--much better than any of us expected, I'd say. They're diligent patients and have been rewarded with surprisingly bearable pain, swelling, and down time. We think we can probably finance grad school by selling their unused Vicodin on the black market, although it might also make a swell stocking stuffer. Depends on how my shopping goes the next few days.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Poor Poor Babies

Our daughters got home from college for Christmas break late last night. Early this morning we rousted them both out of bed to get their wisdom teeth pulled. Four teeth each, eight teeth total. Karen's on her way to the oral surgeon with one girl now, I'll be leaving with the second in about an hour. If I'm not around much the next couple of days, it's because I'm applying ice packs and preparing soft foods.

Even when your children are old enough to understand and voluntarily go along with the plan, you'd still rather take pain yourself than inflict it on them. But on the plus side, since that's not possible, it means more hard crunchy snacks for me. Woohoo!
UPDATE: Everybody's fine.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

When Worlds Collide

Added to the long list of Things I Did Not Know:

George Lucas asked David Lynch to direct "Return of the Jedi." It's very difficult, but mind-meltingly fun, to imagine how that movie might have turned out.

The only thing I know about "Return of the Jedi" that most people don't is that I went to college with a super-nice girl who played an Ewok. She was a little person and we worked the same student job together--I drove double-decker buses and she was one of the conductors in the back who got passengers on and off, signaled stops, punched transfers, etc. During summer vacations she went off and made movies (and has continued to, building a very successful career in film and TV). You know that scene where two Ewoks get blasted and one crawls over to its dead mate? She was the Ewok who lived. I'd mention her name but I'm afraid she'd Google herself, read this post, and tell y'all she has no idea who I am, which would completely ruin one of my few "brush with greatness" stories.

I worked my way through college driving these authentic old London double-deckers for a university transit system. Very unusual clutches. Drivers sit in a little cab in the front (right side, naturally) while conductors stand on the platform in the back. One of the best jobs I ever had.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Art of Paul Giambarba

Is this guy cool, or what?

I wrote about my buddy Paul Giambarba in early November (scroll way down or click here). Paul is a writer/artist/designer/illustrator who, among many other accomplishments, designed the packaging, branding, and "feel" that helped make Polaroid cameras a big hit in the '50s and '60s. He was contacted by a team trying to revive Polaroid film after the company recently stopped making it, and on December 18 will be the star of a special event at the International Center of Photography in New York City (details on Paul's blog).

Check it out. The special "Paul Giambarba Edition" will comprise 15 kinds of original Polaroid film, carefully preserved and redesigned by Paul for the occasion, plus a special-edition camera kit designed by Paul. It's both a celebration of Polaroid's contribution to photography, culture and design, and a terrific recognition for Paul. If I lived 3000 miles closer I'd be there. If you're in the New York area and that sounds intriguing, stop by to see Paul between 5 and 7:30 p.m., and tell him I sent you.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Art of Charlie Kochman

There's a nice profile/interview with Editor Charlie at the Shelf Awareness website that I think gives some insight into my publisher's approach to comics. Publishing houses have different sensibilities--you can look at a book and think, "Oh, that's a Pantheon book" or "that's a Fantagraphics book"--and I can similarly spot Abrams books without quite being able to articulate what they have in common. I mean, aside from "stuff Charlie thinks is cool." Or maybe that's it exactly.

Charlie was kind enough to mention me in two contexts. First, along with Jeff Kinney, as an example of someone crossing over from webcomics. Second, as a contrast to the subject of the 2010 Abrams book The Art of Jaime Hernandez: The Secrets of Life and Death:

Kochman differentiates Hernandez's work, for instance, from that of Brian Fies. "As much as I love Brian Fies, he's not ready for a book about his art; he hasn't been around long enough. Jaime has been."

Quite right. As much as I love Charlie, if he ever suggests doing an Art of book on me, no matter how long I've been around, our relationship is over. What a horrifying idea; what an awful thing to do to a friend. Never gonna happen. (I can delete this post later, right?) Now Kinney, on the other hand . . .

It's a good article. Check it out if that kind of "inside baseball" thing interests you.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Hard Sell

You know what would be an excellent Christmas* gift for the science nut/space fan/history buff/pop culture maven/comic book collector/nostalgic baby boomer/geek/nerd/evil genius/dashing hero/super-cool person in your life?

My book.

I'm just sayin'.

* Also appropriate for Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day, Al Hijra, Ashura, Las Posadas, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Santa Lucia Day, Oatmeal Muffin Day (Dec. 19), or National Chocolate-Covered Anything Day (Dec. 16) (latter two only valid if book is accompanied by an oatmeal muffin or covered in chocolate, respectively).

Monday, December 7, 2009

ComicArts Book Club Q&A

WHTTWOT was the topic of discussion at last Thursday's meeting of the Abrams ComicArts Book Club, hosted by my publisher Abrams and Bergen Street Comics. If I could've dropped into Ozzie's Coffee Shop in Brooklyn for the evening I would've, but the best I could do from a continent away was agree to answer any questions that came up. The organizers said they had a good turnout. I think a book club dedicated to graphic novels is a great idea, and I wish them much good luck.
Here are their fine questions and my questionable answers:

Q. Mom’s Cancer is very different from Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow. How did you transition from a personal narrative about a mother/son relationship to a fictional father/son tale? Are parts of Whatever Happened similar to your experiences growing up?

BF: The recognition and modest success of Mom’s Cancer opened doors to the possibility of building a writing/cartooning career I’ve wanted my whole life. So: What next? I’d done a book about my family and had no interest in a sequel or anything else autobiographical. I think everyone has one good story to tell about their lives but almost no one has two. I’m not that interesting, and neither are you. I told my story.

Here’s my philosophy of trying to make a living at creative pursuits: no matter how good you are or how hard you work, there’ll always be a million people who draw and write (or sculpt or paint or sing or play piano) better than you. The only thing you really have to offer is your own unique perspective, that little island of things you care passionately about that only you can stand on. I'm pretty sure that's true.
So just talking with my editor Charlie Kochman, trying to answer the “What next?” question, I decided that my island was the central theme of WHTTWOT: What happened to that can-do optimism I grew up with as a child of the Space Age, the sense that tomorrow could be better than today and science could help make it happen? I still feel that way, but it seems no one else does. I thought I had something to say about that. Beating my island analogy to death, I think once you figure out what your message is, you put it in a bottle, throw it into the waves, and hope enough other people find it and relate to it to make it worth doing.

Bits of the book are drawn from personal memories and experience. There are many nods to my family history, which no one else would get. Although I never saw a rocket launch in person and didn’t have that kind of relationship with my dad, the core of the story—that disappointment that I’m never going to live on the Moon or get my flying car and jetpack, as well as the love of comics and futuristic pop culture—is very much me.

Q. Despite it being a novel, a large portion of the book is composed of historical and scientific facts. Did you ever consider a non-fiction format instead?

BF: No. But the characters of Pop, Buddy, Cap Crater and the Cosmic Kid did emerge surprisingly late in the writing process. I’m not sure, but it’s possible my first proposal to my editor didn’t mention them at all.

Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? attacks the question posed by its title from three different directions: a recap of technological and historical developments from 1939 to 1975; how those developments affected people’s lives; and the important influence pop culture had on shaping the expectations and realization of the future. The non-fiction historical stuff is only one-third of the tale, and I didn’t think was enough to support a book. Pop and Buddy are my window into the lives of people living through those times, and the “Space Age Adventure” comics-within-the-comic speak for the pop culture influences. Each thread covers ground and says things the other two couldn't. If the reader focuses on just one thread, they’re only getting a third of the story.

One reason Pop and Buddy age abnormally slowly is that their relationship mirrors the arc that (I argue) society followed between 1939 to 1975, from optimistic technological utopianism to pessimistic, cynical dystopianism. The reason the characters are in the book at all is that I thought those social changes sounded very much like a father-son relationship evolving from unquestioning worship to snide disillusion. So I wanted to say something about this 36-year period of history by reflecting it in about 10 years of a kid growing up, then bring the three threads together in a speculative, hopeful, sci-fi future at the end.

Having said that, in retrospect I kind of regret that WHTTWOT is called a “graphic novel,” although that’s the generic term for this sort of big comic book, because I think it led some people to expect something it was never intended to be. If you’re expecting an apple but bite into a peach, you might not like it even if it’s a pretty good peach. WHTTWOT has gotten some great reviews, but a couple of reviewers mentioned that they might have appreciated it more as an essay. To which I’d answer, “Who says it isn’t? Why can’t it be a graphic essay?” It poses a question, makes an argument, offers evidence, reaches conclusions. When I build a time machine, I might go back and put “A Graphic Polemic” on the cover. Let ‘em figure that one out.

Q. Who do you see as the ideal audience for the book? Did you intend this for younger readers as well as adults?

BF: It’s certainly written to be accessible to young readers, as was Mom’s Cancer. I’m very proud that Mom’s Cancer won the top award in Germany for children’s non-fiction literature, and that the Texas Library Association recently recommended WHTTWOT for students in grades 6 through 12, even though I didn’t intend either to be a children’s book.

However, I honestly wouldn’t expect a young reader to be interested in WHTTWOT’s subject matter. Maybe a bright 10 year old. As I hinted in a previous answer, I basically wrote it for me, and hoped there were enough people out there like me to justify my publisher’s investment. My goal was to write a book that I would not be able to put down if I saw it in a bookstore. I’m not surprised that the people who seem to be responding most positively are those who grew up through some of the same times and ask themselves the same questions I did. Or, as my wife says, boomer nerds.

Q. The omission of a mother figure stirred up some debate. Why did you make this choice? Did you anticipate strong reactions?

BF: Ah yes, whatever happened to Mom? I didn't anticipate strong reactions or any reactions at all, which was foolish of me because it was the first question my wife asked. I should’ve known.

There was a Mom in an early draft of the book. I drew exactly one panel with her. Mom’s role in the story was basically to provide exposition and ask questions. When I decided that Buddy would narrate the book in captions, Mom suddenly had a lot less to do. As I worked, putting words into the mouths of Pop and Buddy was fun and easy, while thinking of things for Mom to say and do was very hard, and always seemed to detour from the story I wanted to tell. In keeping with my notion that cartooning is about distilling things to their essence, I finally decided that Mom wasn’t essential to the story and cut her. Since my first book was all about a Mom and other strong women, I didn't feel like I particularly owed the universe a Mom in my second book as well.

The only remaining evidence of Buddy's Mom.
I suspect she would've resembled Officer Mooney.

I really didn’t expect anyone to notice or care, any more than someone watching “The Wizard of Oz” wonders what happened to Dorothy’s parents. I didn’t see any point in having Pop and Buddy explain what happened to Mom because they both already knew, and any exposition about it would’ve been unnaturally forced (“Say, do you remember that time when Mom and I . . . ?”). Mom might be dead, divorced, separated, or otherwise out of Pop’s and Buddy’s lives. My theory is that she’s still around, just upstairs, at work, or out of the house when we happen to look in on her fellas. Buddy has to be living with someone while Pop’s away during World War II. And when Pop and Buddy are building their little construction project in 1955, there are three cots in the basement, not two.

Q. You’ve obviously done a ton of research. What were your best/most interesting/most surprising sources?

BF: Both the beauty and curse of doing a graphic novel is that nothing goes on the page unless you mean to put it there. I took my research very seriously and filled up three thick binders, probably a couple thousand pages in all, with references for everything. If I drew a cola bottle or street light, I wanted it to be right for the time and place. For later decades, I was able to draw on my own family photos and personal memories. A lot of the furniture and such from the 1950s on were things my family had.

I especially loved finding material and learning more about the 1939 World’s Fair. As I mentioned in the Endnotes, I watched hours of public-domain home movies shot at the fair, and bought ephemera like maps, pins, and a little felt pennant that I put to good use. I can’t describe how happy I was to stumble across the actual circuit diagram for the RCA television that debuted at the fair, which I used as a graphic backdrop for the two-page spread on Pages 14 and 15.

In general, I experienced this weird phenomenon in which information and resources emerged exactly when I needed them. For example, just when I started to color the “Space Age Adventure” comic books, a veteran comic book pro posted on his blog a very detailed description of how the old comics were colored that was enormously useful to me. There were the home movies and circuit diagram. World War II propaganda posters. Some of the space photos in later chapters. Whenever I needed something, the universe seemed to drop it in my lap. It was almost eerie.

Since the book came out, I’ve been gratified to hear from a few folks who were first-hand witnesses to events I depicted and told me I got it right. MAD Magazine’s Al Jaffee attended the World’s Fair as a young man getting ready to go to war, and wrote to tell me I made him feel as if he were right there again. Imagine what it means as a cartoonist to have Al Jaffee say you did good.

Thanks for reading my book and engaging it enough to ask thoughtful questions. Much appreciated! I’ll be happy to follow up here, elsewhere, or privately.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Crossing the Porcelain Rubicon

A line was crossed in my home this week, casting me adrift in an abyss from which, I fear, there is no return.

There was a time, in this civilization of ours, when a man was the master of his technology. He could sharpen his axe, hitch his wagon, fix his plow. Well into the 20th century, he could lift the hood of his car to do a tune-up and fix a carburetor. He could open the back panel of his TV or radio, pull out a tube, and go to the hardware store for a replacement (I remember shops equipped with self-service tube testers as late as the '80s). Many a mechanic or inventor was born tinkering in a garage or on a workbench spattered with silver drops of solder. Today? Everything comes hermetically sealed in black boxes, with dire warnings of electrocution--or worse, a voided warranty--if cracked open. These are sad times for a curious, mechanically minded person. You simply can't tell anymore how something works just by looking at it and fiddling around.

Which is to say, I no longer understand my toilet.

Because California is inconveniently a desert with chronic drought that people keep moving to anyway, our local water agency is running an incentive program to replace everyone's old water-guzzling toilets with modern low-flow models. Free! When we made the call, we didn't realize the offer was really a Trojan Horse meant to sneak the water cops through the door so they could also install low-flow aerators and showerheads on every outlet. So be it. They left us the old fixtures, and The Man will take away my right to a long, hot, gut-punching shower when he can pry my cold, dead body out of the stall.

The anxiety of installing a low-flow toilet comes from wondering if it'll take care of everything it's supposed to, if you know what I mean. The plumber reassured me with statistics about volumes and pressures versus how many grams of matter (if you still know what I mean) that people of different sexes, sizes, and dietary habits are apt to produce (yeah, I'm pretty sure you know what I mean). This guy really knew his poo, and I felt reassured that we were in the hands of a master, even if I didn't actually want to touch his hands.

Anyway, I was a quick convert. These toilets are amazing! With a light tap on the handle, the pressure-assist model we selected roars like a Space Shuttle at launch. WHOOOSH! Curtains flutter in distant rooms. In the backyard, autumn leaves cascade from our trees. Somewhere in Africa, a bull elephant recognizes the low lonesome call of a mate and looks longingly across the ocean. Curious to learn how such marvels were accomplished, I lifted the lid and eagerly gazed into the sacred heart of the porcelain ark.

A black box. Another featureless, seamless, impenetrable case, the mysteries of which a non-professional dare not plumb.

This sad fact renders me almost completely helpless in the face of the everyday technology that surrounds me. I can still confidently tackle minor electrical work--changing switches and installing light fixtures and such--and pound nails and patch holes and glue PVC. But I'm afraid that the humble toilet, whose elegant engineering I understood as previous generations once knew the engine block of a Ford or the coils of an old Philco radio, has evolved beyond my comprehension. The day I have to call a plumber to fix my toilet--and that day will come, my friends--will be the day a tiny piece of the manly pioneering spirit that made this country great withers in humiliation inside me.

What Immortal Hand or Eye Dare Frame Thy Fearful Symmetry?

I guess I'm the last person on the Internet to see this, and only because my pal Mike Lynch posted it this morning. I can only think of a few regular readers who'll dig it (hi, girls! XO, Dad). But sometimes you've gotta do what you've gotta do.

Have a nice weekend, everyone.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Academic Follies

My twin girls, who with two of their artistic friends helped me digitally color WHTTWOT, will be graduating from college next year and are now applying to grad schools. I think they're doing it because they noticed their Mom and I still have some money left.

In any case, they're busy submitting applications, sending transcripts, wrangling recommendations, and writing essays. One very large, well-known public institution to which they're both applying (in different programs) requires them to write an essay in response to a prompt that really rubs me the wrong way everytime I read it:

Please describe how your personal background informs your decision to pursue a graduate degree. Please include information on how you have overcome barriers to access higher education, evidence of how you have come to understand the barriers faced by others, evidence of your academic service to advance equitable access to higher education for women, racial minorities, and individuals from other groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education, evidence of your research focusing on underserved populations or related issues of inequality, or evidence of your leadership among such groups.

I've got no beef with the first sentence. They want to know who you are beyond your transcript. Great. The rest seems utterly, fatuously, ridiculously irrelevant. What does any of that have to do with the quality of your intellect or your fitness to contribute to an academic field? Could Einstein or Salk have cleared that hurdle at age 21? Could the university's own faculty?

What if you instead spent your time fighting forest fires, rescuing stray animals, writing novels, caring for the elderly, discovering comets, starting a company, playing championship tennis, working on the family farm, serving three tours of duty in Iraq, flipping burgers to pay tuition, or sailing solo around the world? Or, heaven forbid, studying? Couldn't one be a good citizen, interesting person, and outstanding scholar ready to contribute to an academic field without "advancing equitable access . . . (to) groups that have been historically underrepresented?" Doesn't that seem overtly, inappropriately political in that it assumes such efforts are the best, highest uses for one's time, or that everyone worth admitting would find them worthwhile?

My wife tries to calm me down by pointing out that the school is trying to build an academic community, and has the right to seek qualities that it thinks best contribute. I get that for a private institution; if you apply to a Christian Bible college, you'd best be ready to praise the Lord. But this is a public university. Should it really be judging applicants based on their commitment to a very narrow vision of social justice?

If I were in my daughters' position, I'd be tempted--seriously
tempted--to answer the first sentence as earnestly as possible, and the rest with one of the following:

1. I've overcome no significant barriers because I was raised by parents who worked hard, saved their money, made sacrifices, and provided guidance so I wouldn't have to. I tried to be prepared for changing circumstances, and planned ahead to meet academic challenges and solve problems before they arose. It worked.

2. I have tried to "advance equitable access to higher education for women" by being one of them and working extremely hard for the last 16 years. (Since the large majority of U.S. university graduates are now women, my efforts have succeeded. You're welcome.) I did nothing to discourage any member of any underrepresented group from working just as hard.

3. I have in fact done much community service work, but I did it in the spirit of charity, with the belief that such aid is a private matter between me and those who receive it, without any expectation that I would materially benefit from it myself. To honor that spirit and out of respect for those on whose behalf I worked, I respectfully decline to respond.

4. I didn't have time because I was doing other things I thought were more important. If you want to ask me about them sometime, I'll be happy to tell you.

5. None of your damn business.

Do you think I'd get in?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

...Or, as it's known in other countries, Thursday.

(Old gags last because they're good.)

Before I head off over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house to eat myself sick, I had a few thoughts about the video I posted yesterday.

One of my favorite themes is my view (shared by many but not all) that cartooning is about abstracting and distilling stories, situations, and characters to their essence. You don't have a lot of space or words to work with, so everything has to be there for a reason and have an impact. Given those constraints, one of the hardest things to pull off is characterization, and when I see someone else quickly create a character with personality that I care about, I look hard to see how they did it.

With that in mind, let me direct your attention to yesterday's Muppet video and the character of Animal, the toothy red furball who appears about 50 seconds in. Look at the range of emotions he expresses in quick succession: wistfulness, yearning, joy, excitement, loneliness, despair, renewed hope. In less than a minute, we know Animal: impulsive, not too bright but with a heart of gold. We like him. We know what he wants: few drives are more primal than needing your mama. All accomplished through the repetition of one word by a wad of red fluff wrapped around someone's hand.

This economy of characterization is something the Muppet creators have always done very well. The Pixar people also excel at it (check out Luxo Jr. from 1986 below, one of their first; they've only gotten better since), as are the best cartoonists. In four or five panels, with nothing but ink and a dozen or two words, Charles Schulz and Bill Watterson could reveal the souls of Charlie Brown or Calvin, and make you care enough to come back tomorrow.

If you want to be a writer or cartoonist, study Animal or Luxo Jr., or Charlie or Calvin, and figure out how they manage to tug at your heart just a little.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Rhapsody of Thanks

With tomorrow marking Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., I reflect on all for which I am truly most thankful: family, friends, health, work, and this:

It's got nothing to do with the holiday. I'm just thankful.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I'm a Texas Library Association Maverick

WHTTWOT was just named one of 54 graphic novels recommended to public and school librarians by the Texas Library Assocation. The purpose of the "Texas Maverick Graphic Novel Reading List" is to encourage students in grades 6 through 12 to explore a variety of current books. One of them's mine.

The selected graphic novels are grouped by appropriate age ranges--grades 6-8, grades 9-12, adult titles for young adults--and mine is recommended for the entire swath of grades 6 through 12, which I'm proud of. I wrote it that way on purpose, and think there's something in it for everyone. Even (and maybe most especially) adults. Plus, I'm in some excellent company: other writers whose books made the list include Neil Gaiman, Lynda Barry, Rick Geary, Ray Bradbury (for an adaptation of Fahrenheit 451), and my new favorite colleague Robert Louis Stevenson (for an adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde).

Ponder for a moment the possibility of your name ending up on the same list as Bradbury's and Stevenson's, then try to tell me that's not pretty cool.

To paraphrase Garfield (the cat, not the president), this is a big, fat, hairy honor. The Texas Library Association is large, respected, and influential. Librarians in states far from the Lone Star State look to its recommendations to guide their buying decisions. This selection is one of the better things to happen for WHTTWOT and I appreciate it very much.

Don't mess with Texas . . . or you'll have to answer to me.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Greg Evans on Cartooning

My buddy Mike Lynch found this and I stole it (Mike, you've got to size those YouTube videos to fit your blog, the right edge is cut off!). This is Greg Evans, creator of the syndicated comic strip "Luann," giving a little clinic on cartooning fundamentals to a group of teachers.

A couple of reflections: Evans is a good speaker (I've also seen him in person). A lot of this is really basic stuff, but consider the audience: a group of "civilians" who probably haven't tried to draw anything since first grade and don't think they can--the "I can't even draw a straight line" people (an excuse that bugs me--I can't draw a straight line either, nor do I need to. That's why they invented rulers and t-squares. Straight lines are boring. It's the non-straight lines that have life.) Evans' approach is direct, practical, and accessible. You watch him and think, "I could do that!" Of course Evans has spent 25 years working hard to make it look simple, but even if his audience discovers they can't quite conjure the same action and personality out of simple shapes and lines that he does, they've still learned something that can enrich their lives and jobs.

Evans actually makes a fairly sophisticated point about drawing a character from both the front and profile. This is something I spend time on and try to get right when creating a new character: can I draw them from the front, side, rear, top, three-quarters view? In animation these are called "turnarounds." This is where it helps to construct characters out of fundamental shapes: if your character is basically a spherical head atop a cube body resting on cylindrical legs, you can do anything with them. You may find that your character just doesn't work in certain orientations. Evans mentions Cathy Guisewite's "Cathy," who has no nose and is very seldom drawn in profile. I'm also reminded of the trouble the "Peanuts" animators had showing the characters raising their stubby arms above their big round heads (which was solved by only drawing them doing so in profile). Sometimes you'll figure out a way to live with a character's limitations, sometimes you'll redesign them.

I think anyone can draw. Maybe not everyone wants to, and that's fine. Some are better than others, and most lack the skill to make money doing it (although practice compensates for a lot), but so what? Lots of people write stories, cook gourmet meals, or play sports with no expectation of turning pro, just because they enjoy it. It doesn't have to be perfect; no one needs to see it but you. Give it a shot sometime.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Trip Report: Miami Book Fair

I'm gonna try to keep this snappy. I spent all of Monday afternoon on a plane and got home late last night from the Miami Book Fair International, where I was treated well, met some great people, and had a fine time. Going in I wasn't quite sure what to expect, and I got it.

Newly arrived at the hotel Saturday evening, I stepped out of the taxi into a crowd of handsome men in elegant evening wear and beautiful women in sequined gowns. "Holy crap," I thought. "If these people are authors, this will be the most humiliating weekend of my life." I hitched up my khakis, slung my canvas bag over my shoulder, and mustered all the dignity I possessed just to walk through the lobby, check in, and meet Editor Charlie in the restaurant. It turned out my anxiety was in vain: all the pretty people were there to attend an event hosted by Donald Trump hawking his latest investment scheme. I should've known. Writers are lucky if they remember to wear socks.

Even better, Charlie was at the restaurant with cartoonist, author and publisher Denis Kitchen, and longtime MAD Magazine editor Nick Meglin. I already knew Denis but I'd never met Nick, and I opened by expressing heartfelt respect for the man who led MAD through all the years I read it. He deftly deflected my star-struck flattery, and in a few minutes we were talking about comics like old friends. He's a very funny man with terrific stories.

The four of us left the hotel and made our way to an author's reception many blocks away, where we enjoyed a little wine, scant hors d'oeuvres, and some good company. That's where I met
Neil Kleid, creator of the graphic novel The Big Kahn, with whom I'd be doing my panel the next day. Neil and I had already swapped some ideas for our talk via e-mail, but really had our first chance to sit and talk about the panel and comics and life. Great guy. Buy his books.

Also at the party were a few more graphic novelists (notably Dan Goldman), writer and Daily Show correspondent Larry Wilmore, whom I did not approach, and writer Roy Blount Jr., whom I not only approached but pretty much stalked. Mr. Blount is a witty prose stylist with a distinguished literary career. I am probably the worst kind of fan an author like Mr. Blount could have: I know I've read a lot of his work and loved it, but I could not for the life of me think of a single specific piece of his to talk about. This had the effect of making me look like an idiot. Mr. Blount was nevertheless gracious and charming, even as he and a small group of us (including Charlie, Denis, Nick and Neil) ended the evening waiting on a dark Miami street corner for a promised shuttle back to the hotel that took forever to arrive.

Meeting Mr. Blount might've been the highlight of my weekend if I hadn't gone to the hotel bar afterward. I don't spend a lot of time in bars, but I was on West Coast time and midnight (9 p.m. Pacific) was just too early to retire. Neil and I adjourned for a beer and were joined by John Shableski, the sales manager for Diamond Direct Distributing, which makes him the most important person in the comics industry you've never heard of. John knows Charlie (everyone knows Charlie) and he's always had nice things to say about Mom's Cancer, particularly as an introductory graphic novel for those who don't know them. It was great to finally meet him and get his perspective on the business.

And then we were joined by cartoonist and teacher Carol Tyler. Maybe all you need to know about Carol is that she walked into a bar filled with wannabe Trumps slowly twirling a cheerleader's baton. It's just something she always wanted to learn. When she heard I'd done Mom's Cancer she jumped up and gave me a big hug. Then she gave everyone else a hug. Cynicism shrivels in her presence. I think Carol Tyler is a force of nature deposited on our planet just to create comics, inspire creativity, and make people happy.

The Fair took over Miami Dade College's Wolfson Campus in the middle of the city. Little tented booths lined both sides of several streets--probably six blocks worth in total--with a dozen panels and talks happening simultaneously in different campus buildings.

Tightly packed booths lined the streets. I got in early and shot this photo before many people had arrived. It got crowded later, but never unpleasantly so.

That picture illustrates something about the Fair that struck me: although it's considered a major event in the book business and attracts top talent (speakers included Al Gore, Ralph Nader, Margaret Atwood, and Jonathan Lethem), the booths were mostly occupied by used-book peddlers and niche publishers rather than the big publishing houses I'd expected. As it was, I found the Fair an interesting and nice mix of high-powered literary wattage and affordable populism. I even bought a swell used book myself (Viking Orbiter Views of Mars, NASA, 1980. Ten bucks!).

My Sunday brunch, shortly before I had to go to work. Several food stalls were set up at the Fair, including the Greek place where I bought this. The salad and rice were ordinary, but the shish-kabob was really extraordinary. I don't know how it was marinated but it was extremely tender and tasty. Also note the yellow cloth bag illustrated with the official poster of the Miami Book Fair, drawn by Jeff Kinney. I swear, everywhere I look . . .

Editor Charlie (left) moderating a panel immediately before mine--in fact in the same room--on the art and life of Harvey Kurtzman, longtime contributor to MAD and Playboy. He was joined by former MAD editor Nick Meglin, Denis Kitchen (who wrote a book on Kurtzman edited by Charlie and published by Abrams), and Kurtzman's daughter Nellie.

The audience for the Kurtzman panel, which I'm including because it looked a lot like the audience for mine.

Neil and I ready to start our panel, which ended in insults and a slap fight. I'm embarrassed I've already forgotten the name of the woman introducing us, but she was nice and had a lovely French accent.

I think our hour-long panel went well. Neil and I weren't quite sure why we were put together in the first place; I was told it was because our work shared a theme of fathers and sons, which as a panel topic didn't really inspire either of us. Neither were we much interested in doing a traditional reading, which prose authors can get away with but I always find frustrating and awkward when cartoonists do it. I mean, you can project the page on the screen and read it aloud, but the audience usually reads ahead of you and it seems fairly pointless to me.

Instead, we decided to focus on the language of comics--the graphic and narrative tools comics offer a writer that no other medium does--illustrated by examples from our books. We hoped to offer something for both people who already knew comics and those who may love books but are still figuring out how these new-fangled graphic novels work. We each showed some slides and then spent several minutes just talking to each other, took some good questions, and were done. I think it was kind of a risky approach but I also think it worked, and gave our audience something they probably wouldn't have gotten at any other panel.

Neil and I signing at a table downstairs immediately after the panel. Unfortunately, the Fair didn't receive its order of Neil's books in time, which was a big disappointment. Neil instead offered to draw sketches for anyone who wanted, and was a big hit with a couple of families' kids.

WHTTWOT for sale directly across from the signing table. We sold a couple. This picture's going in my Facebook Fan Page's "In the Wild" album.

Oh yeah . . . and it looks like I'm doing a new book.

Man. I didn't keep that snappy at all.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Und Wir Träumten Von Der Zukunft

Well, my day is made!

I just got a package from Editor Charlie bringing me the German edition of WHTTWOT, titled Und Wir Träumten Von Der Zukunft ("And We Dreamed About the Future"), which I think is a pretty swell title. Here's how she looks:

I blogged a while back about preparing the art for this edition--basically layering my Photoshop files so all the English could be easily stripped and replaced with German. On first read-through, I think the publisher Knesebeck (which also put out the German edition of Mom's Cancer) did a good job of it. They ably inserted cheap newsprint for the "Space Age Adventures" comics-within-the-comic, which is the tricky part. The cover doesn't have the same wrap-around paper "belly band" jacket as the original, but they were able to capture a similar feel by applying a glossy varnish to the "futuristic" half of the image above. It works well, and if/when we do a U.S. paperback we might use the same trick ourselves. I also took the opportunity to repair a few flaws, which I suppose makes this the most definitive version to date.

I think this is pretty cool! Many thanks to Knesebeck for taking on my book and doing such a nice, thoughtful job with it.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Day

The video below is a touching five-minute piece about a group of volunteers who transport World War II vets from around the country to see their new memorial in Washington, D.C. We're losing these men and women fast, and I don't think we can honor them enough before it's too late.

If my grandfather had lived a while longer, I'm sure he would've been on the bus with the rest of those boys. He was born in 1908, so already in his mid-thirties during the war. He was at D-Day and fought through Europe, and like most of his generation rarely talked seriously about it, although he had a couple of funny stories about guarding German POWs he liked to tell. I asked him about D-Day once, and all he said was, "the water was literally red with blood," with just about as haunted a look as I've ever seen. You don't ask a lot of follow-up questions after that.
The second chapter of WHTTWOT is set in 1945, giving me an opportunity to honor grandpa in a small way. On the final page of the chapter (page 60), we see that the boy Buddy keeps a snapshot of his Pop on his makeshift workbench:

And here's a snapshot of my grandpa, Leo P. Whalen, serving his country as a member of the U.S. Army's Ninth Air Force, 1942-45:

Thanks, veterans.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Looking Forward to the Miami Book Fair

Found a nice article by Calvin Reid at Publishers Weekly talking about the new, higher profile of comics and graphic novels at the Miami Book Fair, where I'll be doing a panel with Neil Kleid Sunday at 1:30:

And look for Weekend Comics on Saturday and Sunday, a slate of panels featuring comics artists discussing their latest works, including David Small (Stitches); Laurie Sandell (The Impostor’s Daughter); Tim Hamilton (Fahrenheit 451); Brian Fies (Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?); Neil Kleid (The Great Kahn) and Marisa Acocella Marchetto (Cancer Vixen). The Miami Book Fair International is one of the biggest book festivals in the country and attracts more than 250,000 people over the course of a week.

Yikes! That's bigger than the San Diego Comic-Con. It occurs to me for the first time that some people might actually attend this dog-and-pony-and-spaceship show of mine. Happily, I intend to be prepared.

If by chance you're in the Miami area and interested, the Fair folk are dedicating all of Friday to "The School of Comics and Graphic Novels," with several speakers, panels, workshops for teachers and librarians, and more. Also, don't miss a panel Sunday at noon moderated by my editor Charlie Kochman on the art of Harvey Kurtzman. Unfortunately, I probably will miss at least the start of the Kurtzman panel because I'm scheduled to be interviewed by Barbara Howard of BlogTalk Radio at the same time. Which is not unfortunate at all.

Stories, photos and links will all follow afterward, I'm sure. I've never been to an event quite like this, and expect to have a great time.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Polaroid Lives

I just read a great article on about a group of tech wizards and investors dedicated to resurrecting Polaroid film. You may recall that Polaroid discontinued its instant camera and film production in 2007. Stockpiles of the old film are almost gone. The article describes how the man in charge of scrapping the machinery used to make the film packs was instead convinced by a passionate Polaroid fan to save them, and ended up putting together a team of experienced Polaroid hands to revive the factory and manufacture the film themselves.

The thing about Polaroid is that it's more than the sum of camera plus film. It's also society and culture and art, as evocative of an era and lifestyle as a hula hoop or Atari 2600. As an artistic medium, Polaroid photography provides a look and feel no digital medium can duplicate. Plus, in today's era of digital manipulation, a Polaroid image is absolutely authentic, one of a kind, and impossible to trick. What the camera sees is what you get. The article aptly compares Polaroid film and cameras to vinyl records and turntables. Imperfection is part of the charm. No one expects Polaroid to be the commercial giant it once was, but the new investors think they can turn a profit with a business about one-tenth the size of the old one.

What made this story blogworthy for me was that the new company, which calls itself "The Impossible Project," has contacted my friend Paul Giambarba to help them. I've written about Paul before; he designed the original branding and packaging that made Polaroid the hottest product of its day. Everything Apple is doing today to convince you that it's the hip young alternative to stodgy old PCs was pioneered by Polaroid (vis a vis Kodak). My buddy Paul helped invent that strategy. He says it feels good to be back in the saddle again, and I don't think The Impossible Project could have made a smarter hire.

Enjoying a couple of cold ones over lunch with Paul, 2006

A sample of Paul's work for Polaroid: boxes full of wonder and joy. If you're of a certain age, one look at that clean, clever rainbow striping is extremely evocative. See what I mean about Apple? Somebody there is an attentive student of the School of Giambarba.
And here's a glimpse of Paul on a segment about Polaroid done in early 2008 for the CBS Sunday News. This was broadcast just after Polaroid announced it was going out of business and before anyone had stepped up to revive it. Just a note that the corporate weasel at the end, Tom Petters, was subsequently busted by the FBI for alleged involvement in a $100 million investment fraud. Sorry about all the superimposed type on this version ("No More Polaroid Film!" and so forth), it was put there by a fervid fan and wasn't in the original.

If you're interested in Paul's work or the history of 20th century design in general, check out Paul's blog. It contains more information, experience, and wisdom than you'll often find gathered in one place. For a not-so-tall man Paul is a giant, and I'm proud to know him.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Coolest Picture Ever: The Conspiracy Deepens

My new best friend Jim O'Kane brings us the latest Coolest Picture Ever, a continuing series of photos I post--mostly of space stuff--that make the voice in my head exclaim "Holy Moley!" (because the voice in my head thinks in a pastiche of 1940s comic book slang).

I believe this is the second time I've posted images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), a probe that's been circling the Moon for months shooting images of incredible quality, resolving objects down to a couple feet in size. The last LRO photos I posted were of the Apollo 11 and 14 landing sites, showing the lunar lander descent stages and some of the footpaths the astronauts left as they scuffed about the powdery surface. This one's even better:

The flag! You can see the flag!

To help you get your bearings, here's what we're looking at. The big white object in the photo above is the bottom half of the Apollo 17 lander in the photo below--basically the legs and gold base. The astronauts blasted off in the top half. The dark traces are footpaths or pairs of wheel tracks left by the Lunar Rover (the dune buggy in the photo below). Other new photos available at the LROC website pinpoint where the astronauts set out scientific instruments and parked the Rover, which is just off the right edge of the photo above. The image width is 102 meters, about the length of a football field plus an end zone. It's fun to compare the LRO pictures to those taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts at the time (again, see LROC).

It's amazing what an elaborate hoax you can create when you've got 40 years to work on it. Of course, I'm part of the "Man really landed on the Moon nudge nudge wink wink" conspiracy, too. My role is to pose as a private citizen and make fun of people who believe in the conspiracy; writing graphic novels is just my cover story. In fact, WHTTWOT was actually written by a team of NASA bureaucrats working in a warehouse in Huntsville, Alabama.

I probably shouldn't have said that.

EDITED TO ADD: I just found this video of the Apollo 17 astronauts blasting off from the Moon, leaving behind the descent stage. This is the very last time anyone saw it before LRO photographed it. The obvious question: Who took the video? It was transmitted to Earth by a camera mounted on the Lunar Rover. So how did it tilt up to follow the spacecraft? I think (maybe Jim or someone else can confirm or correct me) it was controlled from Earth, with the second-and-a-half communications delay taken into account. Either that, or a Teamster working on a soundstage in Area 51 did it.


Sunday, November 1, 2009

Sequential Tart Interview II: Return of the Tart

Part Two of the interview I did with MK Czerwiec has appeared at the Sequential Tart website, and again I have to thank MK for asking what I thought were some great, thoughtful questions and turning our long talk into a readable piece. She put a lot of work into it.

Content aside, one thing that interests me about the interview is that it's pretty unfiltered. It's an accurate transcript of our conversation. Like many people I think I write better than I speak, and the interview catches me repeating myself and uttering sentences that kind of wander around without quite arriving anywhere. You know, like people really talk. I like MK's choice not to clean that stuff up because it makes for a more naturalistic interview that's really more like eavesdropping on two people enjoying a friendly chat. Which we were. The writer/journalist in my liked the approach.

Anyway. The last part of the interview is probably as cogent a statement of my philosophy of life and art as anyone will ever get out of me or I'm capable of forming. If anybody cares what I think about anything, that's pretty much it. Thanks again, MK.

"I’ll take one naive optimist trying to do anything over fifty bitter cynics who just criticize them for doing anything." .

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Inking with Tennapel

The video below is a neat 10-minute interview/tutorial with writer-artist Doug Tennapel on how he approaches inking. There's some good practical cartooning advice, but also some creative and philosophical musing that I really appreciated. I especially liked his opening expression of passion for the sensuality of working with actual paper and ink rather than digitally, an opinion that carries some weight because he's good at both. I feel the same way. Which is not to say I do everything the same way he does:
  • I use a smaller brush. On Mom's Cancer and WHTTWOT I used a much smaller brush, but am now trying a bigger one for what I hope will be my next project. It's still half the size of his.
  • In addition to brush, I use crowquill nibs and Micron pens. I don't know if Tennapel does, we don't see him use them in the video. In general, my work is a lot tighter and cleaner than his, which isn't necessarily a positive. It's just different. I do envy his casual confidence and inky spontaneity. He's really good.
  • I share his opinion of the quality of Higgins Black Magic ink but still use it anyway. However, I've gotten into the habit of leaving the cap off a new bottle for a few days to thicken and darken it, which seems to help.
  • He's a much more diligent brush cleaner than I am. I don't suck the ink out of the bristles with my mouth and then look at the color of my spit to see if it's clean. However, I do finish off my rinsing regimen with a little spit spin through my fingertips. (TMI?)
  • His goal of putting out one graphic novel per year for the rest of his productive life strikes me as nuts, or at least overly ambitious. But I appreciate the spirit of the goal, which has occurred to me as well: You've only got so much time on the planet, how will you portion it to accomplish everything you want? If I could cartoon for another 30 years, and had a willing publisher and readers, how much could I do? How much would I want to? Five books? Ten? Thirty? I don't know, but thinking in those terms helps concentrate the mind wonderfully, to paraphrase Dr. Johnson.
And I, too, like seeing ink stains on my fingers at the end of a good day at the drawing board.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

In the Wild

I see I haven't mentioned my Facebook presence in a while, and wanted to remind anyone who might care that I have both a Personal Page and a Fan Page for WHTTWOT. Between them and this blog, I'm more web-connected than I honestly ever expected to be, with the pros and cons that implies.

Each venue serves a particular purpose in my mind, and I try not to duplicate everything everywhere although there's obviously some spillover. One feature I've unexpectedly enjoyed is my Fan Page's
"In the Wild" Photo Album, where I post pictures of WHTTWOT wherever readers find it. I've written before that publishing a book is kind of like sending an adult child into the world, never really knowing where it is or what it's up to except for quick and cryptic messages home. The "In the Wild" photos are like picture postcards that my book sends me of its really great travels.

Here are a few recent ones:

Marion Deeds sent this photo of WHTTWOT enthralling an unusually literate cat in Gualala, Calif. This continued a strange yet somehow appropriate theme of "WHTTWOT + Cats" begun by my friends Ronnie and Sherwood. I don't know what it is about cats, but I like it.

Cartoonist Sarah Leavitt posed with WHTTWOT during a book fair in Vancouver, BC, Canada recently. She's a terrific person who has a book coming out soon about losing her mother (in more ways than one) to Alzheimer's Disease. Brian Nicol took the picture.

Jim O'Kane and Nancy Gleason staged this picture to make WHTTWOT look as tall as a rocket next to the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Jim has been so great about schlepping my book around the country and photographing it at one amazing site after another that I finally forgave him for pointing out the only error anyone has found in WHTTWOT to date. Not that I want everyone to start looking.

I think the main reason I have fun with "In the Wild" pictures is that my friends and readers have had fun with them. They are definitely one of the big "pros" of being web-connected. Send more!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Sequential Tart Interview

Sequential Tart, a webzine about comics that was an important and generous supporter of Mom's Cancer, has posted Part One of a two-part interview that MK Czerwiec did with me several weeks ago. MK is "Comic Nurse," a registered nurse who loves and makes comics. We've stayed in touch for a few years now, and she worked hard preparing, transcribing, and editing our conversation into this interview.

I think it turned out very nice, and look forward to seeing what I said in Part Two next week. I don't remember; maybe I'll learn something! MK's transcription is faithful, so anything you don't like about it is my fault, not hers.

Thanks a lot, MK, I really appreciate it.

Four-Eyed Frog

Had a very nice weekend in the Northern California coastal town of Gualala, ostensibly to give a talk and sign books at a store called Four-Eyed Frog Books but also just to get a quick vacation that I could partially write off. The shop is owned by brothers Joel and Jeremy Crockett, who were very enthusiastic about WHTTWOT and couldn't have been better hosts.

Joel (left) and Jeremy (right) with some hack

As we'd kind of expected, the audience was small (Gualala has about 500 people total and there's not much else around) but, honestly, was probably the most engaged and interested group per capita that I've ever spoken to. I especially enjoyed meeting a high school cartoonist named Nick and local newspaper editor Steve, as well as rendezvousing with our friends Marion and Dave.

Explaining how the drawing on the easel ended up on the cover

The talk was Saturday at 4. That left Karen and I most of Saturday and half of Sunday to enjoy our environs. We did.

This is how you do a booksigning.

Many thanks to Joel and Jeremy, and everyone who spent part of their Saturday with me. We had a great time, and even managed to sell a couple of books. Bonus!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Two Hours in WimpyWorld

Jeff Kinney, author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, had a signing at a Barnes & Noble bookstore about an hour from my home yesterday, and invited me down for a late lunch beforehand. I really didn't intend to mention it here. Spending time with a friend and then breathlessly blogging about it seems very uncool. However, I found the experience so unique and interesting I couldn't resist. Plus, as you'll see, Jeff knew I'd write about it. My rationalization: very little of this post--just one tiny story--is actually about Jeff. Mostly, it's about the world around Jeff. WimpyWorld.

Here's what you need to know: Jeff is on a book tour to support his new book, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, which is currently the bestselling book in the United States. Not kid's book, not graphic novel--the bestselling book, more than Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer or Sarah Palin. This is the fourth book in the Wimpy Kid series. The first three books remain numbers 23, 24 and 29 on USA Today's list of the Top 150 Bestsellers. Altogether, they've sold tens of millions. A movie is coming out next spring. It's not quite Harry Potter territory, but it's close.

I know Jeff because we have the same editor and publisher. I was at the New York Comic-Con the day Jeff brought his book idea to Editor Charlie, and Jeff has been gracious enough to mention that he did so because he knew Abrams had published Mom's Cancer. So I witnessed Wimpy Kid's publishing birth, and gave Jeff some early advice that he remembers fondly even though he doesn't need it anymore, and we've stayed in touch. Let's just agree that he owes it all to me.

Jeff's signing yesterday was due to start at 5 p.m. We arranged to meet in front of the bookstore at 3 p.m. I arrived early to find a few hundred people already waiting in a line that meandered around the perimeter of the parking lot. They weren't waiting to see Jeff; they were waiting to get a ticket to see Jeff. Mall security looked like it was already overwhelmed and frantically called in reinforcements. A policeman cruised through to figure out why a line of pedestrians was backing up onto the city sidewalk a block away. I called Jeff's cell.

The line along the parking lot when I arrived. It quickly grew to turn right down the lane in the distance and spill out onto the city streets.

"Jeff, I'm in front of the store. I don't think you want to meet me here." I described the scene. He was surprised; apparently crowds have been more modest elsewhere.

"All right," he said. "When you see the bus, just knock on the door. We'll let you in and find somewhere to eat."

"The bus?"

"You didn't know about the bus?"

"No. You have a bus? A bus bus?"

Jeff laughed. "You'll know it when you see it."

A few minutes later, I knew it when I saw it:

The bus. It's usually rented by rock bands on tour. Its previous occupant was the singer Pink. I offered the driver $100 to drive it down my block. He didn't.

The crowd roared. Well, since most of the crowd was younger than 12, it more squealed than roared. Either way, it got excited and loud. I jogged to intercept the bus some distance from the bookstore. Instead of letting me on, Jeff got off, and we ducked into a restaurant while the bus continued to the store, a giant yellow decoy. We had a very nice, quiet time to relax and talk over a pizza, which I ate most of because Jeff has learned not to tackle a marathon booksigning on a full stomach. I let him pick up the check anyway. Two big, loud families of Wimpy Kid fans came in and sat behind us; Jeff kept his head down. We finished and walked over to the bookstore, where the line had vanished because folks had gotten their tickets and either gone inside or left to return later.

Jeff inside the bus. Big-screen TV and entertainment center, full bath, a big master bedroom in the back and six bunks for roadies (which he doesn't have). Evidently, driving around the country in one of these costs about the same as flying from city to city, with a lot more comfort and less hassle. Jeff invited me to stay aboard and ride to Los Angeles with him last night. I may kick myself the rest of my life for declining.

Finally making myself useful, I found Publicist Jason (who travels with Jeff) and helped smuggle Jeff through a side door into a back room of the store. It was now about 4 p.m., and the store had begun a scavenger hunt and other games to keep hundreds of little rascals busy, happy, and non-destructive. Jeff really wanted to start signing early so the kids wouldn't have to wait, but the ticket system made that hard to do. People who had stood in line longest to get the first tickets might not come back until the scheduled start at 5 p.m., and beginning early wouldn't be fair to them. Jeff reluctantly agreed to stick to the plan, and instead sat down to sign every Wimpy Kid book the store had in stock that hadn't already been bought by fans waiting outside. He autographed probably 400 or 500 books before he even began the actual booksigning.

Jeff taking a call in the back room. Publicist Jason is at left and bookstore employees at right. I earned my keep by helping uncrate and stack books for Jeff to sign. Each box holds 40 books.

Here's the one story I'm going to tell about Jeff. I was distracted doing something else when Publicist Jason started to hand me his credit card. Jeff waved him off.

"What?" I asked.

"Would you mind getting Jeff a Jamba Juice?" Jason asked.

"No no," protested Jeff. "You don't have to."

"I'd be happy to get you a Jamba Juice," I said.

"No, it's fine."

"Really. No problem."

"It wouldn't be right," said Jeff. "Besides, you'd put it in your blog and make me look like a jerk."

Looks like I put it in my blog anyway, Jeff. You should've taken the Jamba Juice. (Luckily, Publicist Jason later had a chance to get the Jamba Juice himself.)

With boxes of books autographed and stacked, signing time rolled around. Announcements were made, lines formed throughout the store, a path was cleared between the back room and the signing table near the registers. Knowing I'd have no chance later, I said goodbye to Jeff and we lined up to pierce the throng, a phalanx of bookstore employees, Publicist Jason, Jeff, then me, with a couple of clerks guarding our rear. The door opened; we charged. Children squealed, women wept, and I think a blind man may have touched the hem of Jeff's garment and regained his sight.

A few feet before we reached the table I peeled out of formation and POP! in an instant I was out of the WimpyWorld bubble, just another member of the mob that security wouldn't let stand around taking pictures. (The problem isn't the pictures, it's the standing. Gotta keep things clear and moving.) I signed the store's one copy of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? and left for home.

Jeff at work. Barnes & Noble counted 2,800 people last night. Insane.

Brian Epstein managed The Beatles. He couldn't play an instrument and no one knew who he was, but everywhere The Beatles went Brian Epstein went, standing behind them or just outside the shot. For two hours yesterday, I got as close I will probably ever get to being Brian Epstein, and it was strange and fun. But I don't think I'd want to be Brian Epstein full time. And I know for sure I wouldn't want to be The Beatles.