Wednesday, January 28, 2009

FINAL Final Edits

Continuing my mission of documenting the process of getting a book published, I'm happy to say that yesterday I turned in my final files--for real.

I know, I've said that before. I turned in "final" files back in August, and wrote about it again in December. The pages I submitted in August were subject to review and comments by Editor Charlie, Editor Andrea, and an independent fact-checker. That took a couple of months. Turned out they found a lot to comment on.

I worked with Charlie to address those notes--most of which made the book better and, in a couple of cases, saved me from real embarrassment--and submitted a whole new batch of files a few weeks ago. Charlie and Andrea went through them again, and Charlie also ran them by another editor at Abrams who's a real stickler. That round turned up about 40 all-new corrections.

You know what I hate? When you're fixing one mistake and, in the process, you make another one. Those are hard to catch. I hate that.

Just a note here about how publishing a graphic novel differs from publishing a non-graphic novel. If I'd written a regular book comprising nothing but text, the editors could've quickly and easily solved the vast majority of problems themselves. A comma here, a hyphen there. But in a graphic novel, the words are part of the pictures. They can't fix them. If a word balloon requires a dash instead of an ellipsis, they have to tell me where it is and I have to change it myself, then send the whole page back to them. I just realized while typing that now what a pain in the neck it is for everyone.

So I finished those final corrections last weekend. Then, I went through the entire book myself very carefully one more time. I did that Monday and Tuesday, and, astonishingly, still found things to fix, including a typo no one had caught through any of the previous reviews. I revised six or seven pages and uploaded them yesterday afternoon.

And . . . I'm done.

What happens now is that Designer Neil lays out the pages for press. His contribution to the ultimate look and feel of the book is substantial: page design, fonts, graphics, spot art, the front and back covers. WHTTWOT will have a couple of "special effects" that Neil needs to make work. He and I have talked several times over the past months (all by e-mail or phone--I've never met him but am looking forward to it someday) and are working quite closely now. I think I'm lucky, in that Neil seems very solicitous of my input. I gather some designers get pretty prickly when anyone interferes with their vision for a book, even the author. I'm happy that's not been my experience.

I've been a writer for various media for a long time, and can say without a doubt that nothing I've ever produced has been as closely scrutinized by so many editors as WHTTWOT. Mom's Cancer got a pretty good going-over, but wasn't even close. As I joked last time I wrote about the editing process, I'm also certain that the very first thing I lay eyes on when I crack open my new book fresh from the printer will be an obvious gaffe. Because that's how I roll.

What 200 pages of graphic novel
look like. Please don't reveal spoilers!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Le Wrath di Khan

Created by the talented folks at Robot Chicken, brought to my attention by Otis Frampton, I now give you, for your cultural edification, a true space opera.

Enjoy it, reflect upon it, allow yourself to be moved by it, treasure it forever. And thank me later.

UPDATED TO ADD: Aw. I see that Cartoon Network has asserted its perfectly legitimate right to have the clip pulled from YouTube. Too bad.

Monday, January 26, 2009

You Are (Almost) There

Photographer David Bergman took the wide-angle photo above of President Obama's inauguration. It's nice, but doesn't look terribly impressive--until you learn this single image is actually composed of 220 individual close-up pictures. What that means is that you can zoom waaaaaaaay in on any part of the image. Pick out all the ex-Presidents and dignitaries sitting behind the podium. Catch a guy in the Marine Corps band napping. Find Aretha Franklin's hat. Pick a spot far, far back in the crowd and make out individual faces. If you were there that day, you could probably find yourself in this picture.
It's quite a contrast to this photo of Lincoln's inauguration, which I believe was the first one ever photographed. Bergman's "gigapan" image, as it's called, is a genuine contribution to history.

Go here to see the big picture when you've got some time to kill. Be patient while it loads; I can almost guarantee you'll find it worth the wait..

Living Well with Cancer in D.C.

About this time last year, the nice people at the Washington Cancer Institute at Washington Hospital Center in Washington D.C. (that's a whole lotta "Washington") asked me to help publicize a series of free seminars they hosted. I evidently did such a great job that they asked me to do it again.

Living Well with Cancer is a series of three seminars for cancer patients, caregivers, family, and friends. The first will be held Saturday, January 31 at the Washington Cancer Institute. Topics of the first seminar include "Understanding Your Rights" and "The Three Rs: Relationships, Responsibilities and Roles." The second and third seminars are on February 28 and March 28. Visit for more information.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

How I Approach Cartooning #5: Arts & Letters

From time to time I thought about putting together a post on cartoon lettering, despite my utter lack of skill or expertise. (I have touched on the topic a couple of times, including my early flirtation with a digital font and my slightly more knowledgable use of the same later.) Then I found a page titled "Comics Grammar and Tradition" at the website of Blambot, purveyor of professional comics fonts, that says everything I would have said plus more, and better.

That page mentions one thing I always look for in lettering, and which in my mind separates the men from the boys (if you'll pardon the expression): the use and abuse of serifs on the capital "I." Serifs are the little horizontal bars at the top and bottom. In proper hand lettering, the "I" should only have serifs when used as a standalone initial or the personal pronoun. An ordinary "I" in the middle of a word shouldn't. It's a subtle matter of emphasis and spacing. Here's an illustration borrowed from Blambot:

It's tempting to say that misuse of the capital "I" is the hallmark of an amateur, except I see a lot of professionals doing it these days, too. Here's an example from Scott Adams' extremely successful "Dilbert," in which every "I" but the first should be sans serif:

Now, the serif "I" thing has always been more a guideline than a rule (to quote the great Capt. Sparrow), and you can look through old comics and see where even the masters had their own opinions on the matter. For example, Walt Kelly had the quirk of also serifing any "I" that happened to start a sentence. Some used serifs on words like "I'm," "I'd," "I've," etc., and others didn't.

Still, seeing a serif "I" in the middle of a word makes me sad--not because two tiny lines matter much in themselves, but because it represents what I see as the slow decline and degradation of comics art in general. It's a small standard of craftsmanship that at one time every pro paid deliberate attention to. Now few do, or see any reason they should. There are many aspects of modern cartooning for which I'd say the same. Very few cartoonists working today would be fit to clean the nibs of an ordinary journeyman professional working 50 years ago, including me. ("Nibs? What's a nib?")

Charles Schulz knew when to put serifs on an "I"

Lettering is an important and overlooked part of the art of comics. I consider my own lettering neat and adequate but not professional-grade, certainly not up to the standards of real practitioners in the field (go visit Todd Klein to get seriously schooled). Mine may have a certain handcrafted charm, and there's definitely something to be said for lettering that reflects the hand and personality of its maker. But as fewer and fewer people really understand or care how text works with pictures on a page, and any yahoo can buy or steal a nice-looking font and start typing away with the Caps Lock key on, it's a dying art.
I'm afraid no one will miss it when it's gone.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Recent days have seen the deaths of a couple of men whose work meant something to me, Ricardo Montalban and Patrick McGoohan.

All of Montalban's obits focus on his roles in Fantasy Island and Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, the latter of which was just one of the reasons I was a fan. In fact, Mr. Montalban had a distinguished Hollywood career for decades before he made his big splashes as Mr. Roarke and Khan Noonian Singh. I wonder if he looked at Khan the way Alec Guinness regarded Obi Wan Kenobi: "I spent my whole life building a respected career in some really great films and I'm gonna be remembered for this?!" If so, he was gracious enough to never express it.

The best memorial to Mr. Montalban I've seen is a story writer Mark Evanier tells about working on a comedy program when Montalban made a cameo appearance. It's a great, revealing anecdote that hints at why he deserves to be remembered with esteem and respect beyond that earned by his performances. You should go read that.

Mr. McGoohan created and starred in a 1960s British series called The Prisoner, which is one of the best programs ever made. It tells the story of an unnamed spy who, at the start of the series, resigns from his job for reasons we never learn. He goes home to pack, knock-out gas pours through his keyhole, and he wakes up in a bizarre village run by people (maybe good guys, maybe bad guys) who want information from him. The series is a terrific meditation on freedom, individuality, conformity, and the little prisons people build for themselves every day. It's also strange and frustrating, both of which only add to its charm. Programs like Twin Peaks and Lost owe everything to The Prisoner. Truly great.

I have some sentimental attachment to The Prisoner because in the late '70s the 17-episode series was rerun on public broadcasting stations. That's when I discovered it and Mom and I got into it together. It was appointment television for just the two of us. We eagerly awaited each episode and dissected them for hours afterward, discussing the symbolism and teasing out clues. It built a special connection between Mom and me that I'll always treasure and for which I'm grateful to Mr. McGoohan.

Comics blogger Heidi MacDonald posted the best appreciation of McGoohan and his work I've seen in recent days. Worth the read if you're interested. If my description has tempted you, full episodes of The Prisoner are available online.

What's Up, Washington & Jefferson?
Over the past couple of days, I've gotten a noticeable boomlet of visitors from Washington & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania. Usually I see little clusters like that when a local book review or somesuch appears. This time I'm clueless. Who are you people and what do you want with me?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Words & Pictures Podcast

Yesterday my buddy Otis Frampton, creator of the Oddly Normal series, interviewed me for a podcast called "Words & Pictures" that he and inker Marc Deering do together. Otis is a good friend even though, as he noted in the interview, we’ve only actually met about four times. But the last time we met he bought me dinner, which means we’re friends for life whether he likes it or not. He interviewed me for about an hour and I felt like we were just getting started.

Otis is a very thoughtful writer and artist, by which I mean he actually analyzes how comics work and how he can make his own work better. I find that to be rarer than you’d expect. He believes, as I do, that creating comics or graphic novels is primarily an exercise in writing, even when the writing takes the form of images. Pretty pictures are nothing without characters, stories, meaning, and emotion behind them. A good comics creator has to be skilled in all the tools any writer uses plus the additional tool of thinking and communicating in pictures. Sometimes it’s a real brain-buster.

If you’re interested in hearing a couple of guys ramble about comics and, well, me for an hour, this may be the podcast for you. (It takes a while to download.) Otis had some good questions that made it an enjoyable conversation for me. I haven’t listened to the podcast myself yet—I hate the sound of my recorded voice and, after all, I heard the whole thing in my head the first time—but don’t recall saying anything stupid or regrettable. I’ve also enjoyed the previous podcasts featuring Otis and Marc, and hope there'll be many more "Words & Pictures" to come.

Thanks again, Otis.

Me with Otis and his obviously supportive wife
Leigh at the 2007 San Diego Comic-Con.

Hi Allison!
I meant to mention this earlier: I found out via Christmas card that a good friend of mine from high school follows this blog. That’s very nice, although it also feels a little strange when people who know me in real life cross over into my Internet life. Once in a while my neighbor Larry will mention something and I’ll think, “How did he know about that? Oh yeah, I told everyone on the planet . . .” Worlds collide. Anyway, hi Allison, and my best to you and your family!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Coming-Out Party

EDITED LATER TO ADD: Readers referred here via Tom Spurgeon's "Comics Reporter" blog (thanks, Tom) can find the entire Abrams spring catalog here. Scroll through to Page 70 to see the Abrams ComicArts material. The brochure to which I refer below doesn't appear to be available online. Thanks!

Abrams ComicArts, the new imprint of publisher Harry N. Abrams, just released a 48-page full-color brochure introducing its inaugural line-up of books coming out in the spring. Astonishingly enough, eight of those pages are dedicated to WHTTWOT:

No high-resolution scans for now: I'm not sure Editor Charlie would approve, plus I'd like to tease you a while longer. But this is really very cool. The brochure has already drawn some press attention, and I've received a couple of nice comments from pros I respect who've seen it. This is Abrams ComicArts' coming out party, and from my narrow perspective I think it's a hit. I'm also buoyed by this show of confidence. Eight pages is a lot of acreage to dedicate to one book!

I wanted to mention a bit of trivia--a backstage exclusive available only to readers of this blog, if you will. See those futuristic cityscapes taking up the bottom half of Page 4 and all of Page 7? They're the same drawing, which is deliberate; an attentive reader might look at the second one and think, "Where have I seen that before?" and flip back 10 pages to extract a bit of extra meaning from the story. It's all right if they don't, but it's a little reward for those who do. I drew it on November 21, 2006; I know that because
I blogged about it at the time, although I didn't mention what it was for and hadn't yet hinted that I was working on a new book.

I'm a naughty blogger.

I promise to let you know when I start work on my third book. Unless . . . heh heh heh . . . I've already told you . . . !*
* I haven't.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Honey, We're Redecorating

Otis Frampton sent me a link to the little beauty below, which has me rethinking my home's entire interior design scheme:

Only $2199.99! Much less than you'd pay for any other piece of fine hand-crafted furniture!

(If you have to ask what it is, you're not a potential customer. The right people would sell a kidney for a chance to own a chair like that.)

The only problem I foresee is convincing my family to sit in a big circle around me while I bark out orders to them. I'm thinking that could only end in insubordination, if not outright mutiny.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


A couple of nice online mentions today, both courtesy of Editor Charlie talking about Abrams ComicArts' spring line-up.

First is The Beat, Heidi MacDonald's indispensible blog of comics news and opinion. Heidi (whom I enjoyed meeting briefly once) surveyed a variety of talents in the comics biz about upcoming projects, opinions of 2008, and projections for 2009. Scroll down halfway to read Charlie's ruminations, including a mention of WHTTWOT in which he says: "Brian Fies flexes all of his artistic muscles, creating a groundbreaking work that looks ahead while acknowledging our collective past."

Snappy prose like that is why he's the editor, the silver-tongued devil.

Second is the Comic Book Resources site, where Charlie talked to Shaun Manning in more detail about next season's Abrams ComicArts offerings. I can tell you, Charlie is genuinely excited about these books--kid-in-a-candy-store excited. His heart is in it. He also said more nice things about me:

Another title shipping in April, “Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?” is a new original graphic novel by “Mom’s Cancer” writer/artist Brian Fies which “represents the best of what we are able to do at Abrams in terms of production, design, and editorial,” Kochman said. “We are also building authors--I didn’t want to just publish 'Mom’s Cancer,' I wanted to publish Brian Fies and build him as an author.”

That last point is one Charlie has expressed to me privately as well, and one I appreciate tremendously. There are no promises or guarantees. I don't assume anything, and if WHTTWOT does poorly or I simply can't come up with another commercially viable idea, my graphic novel body of work could end at two. But I admire Charlie's long-term philosophy that every career has ups and downs, triumphs and disappointments, but backing good people pays off in the long run. I'd very much like to prove him right.

My final (really final) files for WHTTWOT are due at Abrams by the end of the week. I'll be working late, flexing all my artistic muscles until they scream.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Second-Best Advice I Ever Gave

In 2006, I took part in a panel discussion at the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco. I forget the overall topic, but somebody asked our advice for up-and-coming comics creators. As I recall, the other panelists said things like: stay true to your vision, never give up, be creative finding outlets for your work, etc. Good stuff and true, but vague.

When my turn came, I decided to offer the most hard-headed, practical advice I could: understand the graphic requirements of whatever medium your art is destined for. Think ahead to any possible future uses for your art. Then work at the highest resolution and quality you can.

You are welcome to conclude that I learned this lesson the hard way.

Let's say you want to draw a webcomic. You know that the standard resolution for graphics on the Web is 72 dots per inch (dpi). So you figure, "all right, I'll do all my scanning and image processing at 72 dpi." Big mistake.

First, 72 dpi looks awful. Your black lines will be jagged and fuzzy (due to anti-aliasing), and the colors won't fill all the way to the lines, leaving gaps and halos. Second, if any non-Web opportunities come up, 72-dpi artwork isn't good enough. Better to scan and work at some higher resolution and create a good, clean master image. Then, just before posting it to the Web, reduce it to 72 dpi. But how good is good enough?

When I started Mom's Cancer, I thought 300 dpi sounded about right. Although it was a webcomic, I was also thinking ahead to print. I'd done a lot of work for newspapers, magazines, and marketing brochures, where 300 dpi is an adequate resolution for photos. So I went with that. Big mistake.

What I didn't realize, and learned painfully later, was the difference between printing a photographic image and line art. A photo is a continuum of tones and colors that blend and look fine at 300 dpi; a comic is pure black lines that, at 300 dpi, can look visibly rough and jagged, especially diagonals. While 300 dpi was more than fine for the Web, and might have been sufficient for low-quality publication on newsprint, it wasn't good enough for printing smooth lines on glossy paper in a book.

So as we prepared Mom's Cancer for press, I discovered my art needed to be at least 600 dpi. Big pain in the neck. Although Photoshop and similar programs allow you to easily increase resolution from 300 to 600 dpi, that process doesn't genuinely enhance detail. It's like looking at a fuzzy photo through a magnifying glass; you can't wring something out of nothing. To do it right, you really ought to rescan the original art at 600 dpi, which is tough if you've subsequently done a lot of digital editing to the 300 dpi scans. Which I had. So to get Mom's Cancer ready for press, I rescanned and re-edited some pages from scratch, while on others I reluctantly cheated and pushed the magic Photoshop button when I thought I could get away with it. As it was, even 600 dpi was barely acceptable. There are still spots in Mom's Cancer where the lines are pixelated and not as smooth or sharp as I'd like. Lesson learned.

Still later, my publisher Abrams wanted to make a banner for its exhibition booth that featured the drawing of my Mom's face from the cover of the book. My problem: the only version of that art I had was 600 dpi (which may have originally been 300 dpi); there was no way we could blow it up to two feet tall without revealing all the jagged pixels. Back to the drawing board to redo it at 1200 dpi, a resolution that would hold up to magnification.

You should also understand the potential uses of color in your work. For example, the default color mode for many (most? all?) scanners and digital art programs is RGB (red, green, blue). This looks great on a computer monitor, where images are composed of red, green, and blue photons of light, and is swell for a webcomic. However, it doesn't work for print. For that you need CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black), the four colors of ink that printers use (ignoring for the moment custom varnishes, specialized Pantone colors, etc.). Again, Photoshop easily converts from RGB to CMYK, but the results can look very different. And bad. There are a lot of hues you can make with RGB light that you can't reproduce with CMYK inks. If you think your work might be printed someday, you might want to work with a CMYK palette (which does reproduce accurately on an RGB monitor) from the start.


Say you're creating a webcomic. You figure you'll work at 150 dpi (you think you're pretty clever; that's twice the resolution you need!) in RGB because that looks best on monitors. Terrific.

Then, amazingly, people read and like your stuff. Maybe a newspaper wants to reprint it, maybe a book publisher wants to collect it. You run a few tests. Your 150 dpi line art looks like crap. Some bozo at the printer converts your RGB colors to CMYK and turns them all to mud.

Now you're remastering and recoloring. You don't want to remaster and recolor. It's an enormous, frustrating waste of time. You vow on the graves of your ancestors to never make this stupid mistake again (thus clearing the way to make entirely different, all-new mistakes in the future). Finally, after days or weeks of redoing work you already did once, everything is 600 dpi CMYK and prints up great.

Then somebody wants to make a banner or poster of your work. You try to blow up a three-inch, 600-dpi drawing into a three-foot print. It looks like crap. Now you're remastering again. Your dead ancestors laugh at you because you made the same stupid mistake again. Idiot.

Understand the graphic requirements of whatever medium your art is destined for. Think ahead to any possible future uses for your art. Then work at the highest resolution and quality you can.

My original art for WHTTWOT was drawn at many different sizes, sometimes dependent on the amount of detail on a page and other times on the paper I happened to have on hand. Regardless, when I put it all together in the computer, every page ended up 6 by 9 inches (roughly the size at which they'll be published) in CMYK color at 800 dpi. I actually work with them at 1200 dpi, which is about the maximum my creaky processor can handle without crashing, but reduce them to 800 dpi before turning them in to conserve file size (an 800 dpi file is less than half as large as a 1200 dpi of the same dimensions).

If we ever need to blow up a bit of art, I've got a 1200 dpi version on file. If we ever want to put it online, I can easily reduce to 72 dpi. Working at the highest resolution my computer can reasonably handle, I maximize the quality, potential uses, and markets for my work.