Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Quick WHTTWOT Update

Just a few brief notes about Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?

More nice people are asking when it'll be released. I don't know! My best answer right now is "May." Amazon says April, my publisher's website says June, I split the difference. I know of someone who ordered a copy for her husband's birthday in April and I feel bad it won't be there in time. Maybe that person should drop me an e-mail.

A friend recently ordered WHTTWOT from a local bookseller who promised it'd be delivered in a week or two. That ain't gonna happen. (That bookseller also gazed into his computer and told my friend that pre-orders for the book looked strong. I don't know how they know that--I don't even know that!--but it's straw at which I'll gladly grasp.)

Amazon.com is offering two used copies for sale (at $96!). They lie. There are no used copies, unless that extremely high mark-up covers the cost of time travel.

Here's what I know: while I was on vacation last week, I reviewed proofs of the book's cover. Editor Charlie arranged for a set to be delivered to my hotel while he got an identical set in New York. Mine arrrived on time while his was a day late, its flight from the Chinese printer interrupted by the Mount Redoubt eruption in Alaska. I told Charlie that this will probably be the only book in his career delayed by volcano. He didn't seem to find that as funny as I thought he would.

We discovered a few things to fix, which have probably been taken care of by now. The printers will soon do that voodoo that they do so well, then pack boxes of my finished book onto a very slow ship that'll round the Cape of Good Hope and, with luck, catch a trade wind for the West Indies, all the while keeping a clear-eyed lad in the crow's nest to watch for krakens and pirates. Transportation takes a while.

The next I expect to hear from WHTTWOT is the day I get a box of them delivered to my doorstep. When I learn more, you'll be the first to know.

Monday, March 30, 2009

A Modern Master

My previous post about the Grecian pitcher reminded me of another work of art I photographed a few years ago (photos without flash were allowed in both cases) because it impressed me in the same way. That introduction already gives up the game, but play along by guessing when this tile was created:

Its vivid colors and abstract shapes make it look almost Impressionistic. Maybe Monet or Degas. Tree limbs are blobby brush strokes, leafy canopies are scribbled squiggles, structures are dashed off in a few bold slashes. The color palette and composition are terrific, with the off-center tree and arch pulling the eye down to the dynamic figure (statue?) at lower right, spotted with dramatically dark shadow against a brilliant white background that makes it the focus of the piece. And then there's that tall reddish-brown shape at center right, which suggests a low-cast shadow or something large looming in the distance, but also looks to me like a woman dancing. This is smart, sophisticated art.

If I'd seen this without any context, I might've guessed it'd been done in the late 19th or early 20th century. It also reminded me of magazine illustrations from around 1950, the golden age of that lost and neglected artform. It's almost lurid. A romantic potboiler. "Love Among The Ruins." The payoff, which you've already guessed, is that this was buried in Pompeii in AD 79. I found it in the Naples National Archeology Museum.

Any cartoonist who can look at this and the Grecian pitcher without thinking they could learn a lot from these artists is either a master or a fool. Unless you're already really, really good, these long-dead craftsmen knew something you don't.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Trip Report; Ancient Cartooning

Those attuned to the subtle nuances of my blog (What? Nobody?!) may have perceived that I was on vacation last week (the previous post was written ahead of time and autoposted). As a rule, I don't announce to the entire Interworld that my home is empty and ripe for robbing. Psych.

The girls and Karen and I went to southern California to see family, mark the girls' spring break, and celebrate our wedding anniversary. I think we had a great time, except for a cold that three-fourths of us passed around. I seem to have gotten the worst of it; my theory is that the virus somehow perceived my indomitable Immune System of Steel and attacked me with ten times the virulence it would have fielded against a lesser mortal. I awoke yesterday and announced that if it were a work day I'd've called in sick, but since I was on vacation I might as well get out of bed and make the best of it. We all had so much fun that I think another day would've killed us.

Our trip included a tour of the Getty Villa, which segues into my next topic. Not to be confused with the more famous Getty Center, the Villa is a free museum in Malibu that displays Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities in a large complex whose architecture and gardens are modeled after those of an ancient Roman country home. It's right on the coast, the weather was beautiful, and it was a perfect outing, especially for my girls, who love that stuff. (The museum brochure had a photo of a Grecian urn that, knowing nothing else about it and based only on the artistic style, my daughter Laura dated to 550 BC. When we found it in the museum, it was actually dated 560 BC. So she lost.)

Digression: I think cartooning's history as a low, vulgar art sometimes leads its champions to overstate its pedigree in an attempt to fluff up its reputation. In my opinion, folks like Scott McCloud stretch definitions beyond breaking and don't do us any favors by tracing modern cartooning back to sequential images painted on cave walls and Egyptian tombs. If that's cartooning, then everything is cartooning. I think you've got newspaper strips and comic books in the 20th century, "Punch" and similar humor cartoons in the 19th, and illustrative/editorial cartoons (William Hogarth, "Don't Tread on Me") in the 18th. Push any further back, and I believe you dilute "cartoon" and "comics" into meaninglessness.

Still, I would have a lot to discuss with the anonymous craftsman who painted this Greek pitcher in Ionia in 625 BC.

Man. That is just breathtaking grace and expressiveness. The pride of the goose, the slinking cunning of the dog/wolf, the wary elegance of the goats and deer (I don't know anything about ancient animal husbandry; I only label the animals for convenience and trust you can figure out which ones I mean). I especially love the strokes that make up the legs and horns of the goats, with little knobs at each joint and every curve flowing gracefully into the next. In a few bold, confident lines, the artist captured the essence of his subjects.

I envy the guy who drew this. I wish I could cartoon this well. In addition to the figures, the work displays a masterful sense of graphics and design. This style would work in a completely modern context. In fact, the goats look like something Dr. Seuss might've drawn--especially the left one, there's something in the eye. Put this artist in a time machine and he could have a great 21st-century career.

Maybe it was just my mood that day, but this pitcher blew me away. Even more impressive is the fact that it probably wasn't a masterpiece by a top artist--this was just a craftsman doing a day's work, probably paid by the piece, churning out commercial housewares for customers.

I very much like the idea that an artist could reach across 2600 years and grab me like that. I understand this guy. We're solving the same problems. He and I could talk--as I guess we kind of did, though sadly only one way.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Happy Anniversary to Us

Both the good and bad thing about being married for 25 years is that it sounds like a long time. It's getting to the point where audiences start to applaud. I remember people celebrating their 25th wedding anniversaries when I was a boy, and they were all old.

Well, my hair may have gone gray and thinned a bit from my forehead, but I don't really feel much older than the feckless kid in that picture. Who, by the way, didn't do anything special to make his hair feather out that way, it just did it all by itself, I promise. Why anyone would marry that goofball is beyond me.

But Karen did, back when I was a former bus driver and rookie night-shift newspaper reporter, and she was a former bookstore clerk and rookie social worker. Either we somehow saw great potential in each other despite all evidence to the contrary or just didn't care, but in any case we've built something pretty terrific together. We were stupid (everybody that age is stupid) but lucky.

She got smarter, I got stupider, but I still think I'm pretty lucky. Happy Anniversary, Sweetie.

Last Christmas--the most recent decent shot I could
find. We should really take more pictures together.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

O Holy Day

Just learned this morning via Mark Evanier's indispensible blog that today, Sunday, March 22, is the First International Talk Like William Shatner Day, chosen because this is in fact Mr. Shatner's birthday. To kick off the festivities I give you our holy hymnal, a lesson in How to Talk Shat presented by Maurice LaMarche.

Mr. LaMarche is one of the leading voice artists in the cartoon business. I'd consider him a towering giant if all he had done was the voice of Brain in "Pinky and the Brain," but he's done much more.

This video has a couple of references I wouldn't expect everyone to get. Near the end of his Shatner lesson, Mr. LaMarche launches into a parody of an actual audio recording of Shatner tearing into an unlucky commercial director who had the gall to direct him. And at the end of the video, Mr. LaMarche similarly riffs on a tape of Orson Welles objecting to the script of a frozen pea commercial. It's funnier if you know that, but still pretty entertaining if you don't.

P.S.: Here's the Orson Welles peas spot, worth a listen. Even though it's not International Talk Like Orson Welles Day. Yet.

P.P.S.: And here's an episode of "Pinky and the Brain" created entirely as an in-joke to give Mr. LaMarche a chance to make fun of the Orson Welles pea spot. There wasn't one viewer in ten thousand who got the joke, but I'll bet the actors and animators laughed themselves sick when they made it.

Apologies to Mr. Shatner for letting Mr. Welles co-opt his big day.

Now I'm . . . off . . . tomakemybreakfast (sharp inhale).

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Run It Up the Flagpole and See Who Salutes

In a comment a couple of posts ago, Mike said, "We need to have a virtual launch party for the virtual book tour. Or are you planning a 3-dimensional tour?"

As I replied to him, although I'll probably do some signings, very few authors get full-blown book tours these days, and I don't expect to be one of them. But the more I mull over the notion of a virtual launch party, the more I like it. It's probably been done but I haven't heard of it before.

Here's what I'm thinking: A live Webcast, maybe an hour or two long, in which I'd talk about the book, do some drawing, show off some original art and props and stuff, tell some behind-the-scenes stories, answer questions, tour the "studio" (estimated duration: 90 seconds), and basically host a party minus the drinks and snacks. My friend Otis Frampton does these neat broadcasts on UStream.tv in which he lets viewers watch him work while they ask him questions and converse. That is, viewers type comments that appear on-screen for him and everyone else to read; Otis responds verbally while others participate via text. That could work.

I'm not committing to follow it through--for one thing, I'd have to buy a camera and figure out how to set the whole thing up, and there'd be some other logistical challenges--but what do you think of the idea? Is that something anyone would be interested in?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Best Day of My Life?

No question: twenty-one years ago today.

Behold the idiot grin of a young man with no clue.

Happy Birthday, Pooters.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Vaya Con Dios, WHTTWOT

Ten minutes ago, I signed off on the final revisions to the cover of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? and put it to bed. I couldn't add, subtract, or change another jot if I wanted to. Now it passes entirely out of my hands and into those of the printer, distributors, and booksellers who'll usher it out into the world.


My goal was to write a book that I, myself, could not put down if I saw it in a bookstore, and I know I accomplished at least that. Hope y'all like it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Three Invisible Things

Here's a list of three things I wish I could show you but I can't:

1. The back cover of WHTTWOT. The insides and outsides of books are printed separately, so while the inside pages are long gone to the printer, we're still refining the cover. As I mentioned way back, the book will have a hard cover wrapped in a nifty die-cut jacket. Making that all work together is mostly designer Neil's job, and I think he's doing great. Can't wait to show it to you.

2. Yesterday I completed an e-mail interview about Mom's Cancer with the Italian comics webzine De-Code.net (there is an Italian edition of the book). They asked some perceptive questions and it was an interesting experience. Although I did a fair number of interviews when Mom's Cancer first came out, it's been a while since the last one, and I found myself looking back on the book with a fresh and slightly different perspective. I figure it's fair to let De-Code print it first. Then maybe I'll translate it back from Italian to English and run it here.

3. California has a state lottery, for which it runs television commercials. One of those commercials has a very brief scene that was shot at the house in Hollywood that Mom and my sisters moved to at the end of Mom's Cancer. I thought I recognized it a few weeks ago, and Nurse Sis confirmed it for me last weekend: yep, that's the house. It's located just half a block off Sunset Blvd., and it wasn't unusual for movie, TV, or commercial scouts to knock on people's doors and ask to use their homes or yards for a few days. I guess the Lottery people came knocking soon after my sisters sold it. Anyway, I've been trying to record the commercial, so far unsuccessfully. If I do capture it, I'll share it here. It is weird to see a familiar front porch suddenly and unexpectedly show up on TV.

Friday, March 6, 2009


My Kid Sis brought the video below to my attention, a lecture by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the bestseller Eat Pray Love, on the topic of creativity and the burden of being a creative person. It's one of the popular "TEDtalks" seminars, in which someone noted for something gets 18 minutes to talk about it. Most of the TEDtalks are at least very interesting, and a few fall into the "life changing" category. If you've got the time and curiosity, I think this talk is worth watching even though, upon reflection, I disagree with almost all of it.

Ms. Gilbert makes the point that it's difficult and risky to do creative work. In particular, producing one good, acclaimed, or popular creative work can create extraordinary pressure to do something even better, more acclaimed, or more popular next time.

Well, she got my attention . . .

She posits that the stresses of a creative life--fear of failure, need to show that earlier success wasn't an undeserved fluke, proving oneself worthy--account for the stereotypical artists who're lousy at relationships and drink or drug themselves to death. When you've captured a bit of the divine, and attained that creative high when the good stuff just seems to flow through you as if it's not even coming from you at all, it can be tough to face the next morning not knowing if you'll ever do it again.

To resolve that problem, Ms. Gilbert suggests reviving the ancient idea of the "genius," which was originally a kind of sprite that lived in your walls and provided inspiration. A muse. Ascribing creativity to a power outside yourself has many benefits. It takes off the pressure; if you didn't have any good ideas today, the muse just wasn't doing its job. It deflates ego; you can't take full credit for something a muse helped you do. Now, it was clear to me (though not to some who commented on the original video) that Ms. Gilbert wasn't suggesting people start believing in literal muses, but rather using that concept as a way to change how they think about and manage their own creative process.

It's a good, interesting, entertaining speech--with which I disagree.

First, I don't care much for the cult of artistry that says creativity is some rare, mysterious, divine gift granted only to a few. I think most people have the same thoughts and notice the same things artists do; the only thing that makes artists special is that they're better at capturing and expressing them. It's a skill that can be taught and cultivated, although I do believe that some people have more natural affinity for it than others. Nor is creativity reserved for people who write books or make pictures. Ms. Gilbert makes (what I took as) some dismissive remarks about her father's career as a chemical engineer, but in fact I've known one or two extremely creative chemists.

I disagree with the idea of waiting helplessly for the fleeting ephemera of inspiration to strike. My definition of professionalism is sitting down and getting the job done whether you feel like it or not. Sometimes it comes gracefully but, if not, pound it out. Charles Schulz said, "Writer's block is for amateurs," and though I think that's a little uncharitable, it's closer to my way of thinking than Ms. Gilbert's musings. There's nothing mystical about it. Just start. Start badly, clumsily, tritely, sloppily, start doing something you know is bad and no one will ever see but you. In my experience, it always leads to something worthwhile.

I also wonder if Ms. Gilbert overstresses the pathology of being an artist. Maybe we just don't hear about all the accountants, office managers, and chemical engineers who cheat on their spouses and drink too much. I'm wary of the school of thought that you can't be an artist unless you had a lousy childhood, for example. I think a lousy childhood can drive a person toward art, so that maybe a survey of artists actually would turn up more lousy childhoods than average, but I very much doubt it's a necessary condition. At least I hope not, because my childhood was pretty good.

I disagree with Ms. Gilbert's notion of creativity being an unusually heavy burden. I'll be honest: there were times I felt the shadow of Mom's Cancer fall across my shoulders while I worked on Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow. Almost literally--my Eisner Award sits on a bookshelf behind me, and the thought occurred to me that, after WHTTWOT comes out, a man in a dark suit will knock at my door and say, "I'm from the Eisners. We obviously made a terrible mistake and want the trophy back."

But those thoughts quickly pass because I'm a grown-up who's had actual responsibilities and challenges in my life. Here's the way I look at it: what's the worst that could happen if WHTTWOT turns out to be a terrible book that nobody buys? Well, whatever tiny reputation I have would be damaged. My publisher would lose money. I might never put out another book. In other words, except for some expense to my publisher--which is a business gamble they knowingly took--the only one hurt if my book fails is me.

(I once said something similar in the presence of Editor Charlie, who replied, "Gee, thanks a lot!")

In contrast, I think about my Nurse Sis. She doesn't do direct patient care anymore, but back when she did, if she had a bad day at work somebody could actually die. One of my oldest college buddies analyzes terrorist activity for the CIA; if he has a bad day at work, hundreds of thousands could die.

Cops, doctors, firefighters, soldiers, lawyers, politicians, construction workers, social workers, and even chemical engineers do work that involves real risk and directly affects people's lives. They know pressure. They carry burdens. Me, sitting on my butt, drawing my little pictures, risking nothing except my ego? Not so much.

In my opinion, too many artists just get too full of themselves. Guess what? You're not that special. Cut the drama.

Yeah, I want my book to be good. I want people to read it, like it, get something interesting and worthwhile from it. I want to sell a lot of copies, earn back my publisher's investment and maybe make a few bucks myself. I want critical praise and awards. I want this to be the beginning of a career, not the end.

But if not? I could live with it. Good or bad, I'll take the responsibility. Not my muse.

EDITED TO ADD: Feel free to disagree. I might be wrong.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

ComicArts Spring Catalog

Editor Charlie tells me that the Abrams ComicArts spring catalog is now available online here, and so it is. This is the brochure I mentioned but didn't want to reveal too much of back in January, with a great spread about WHTTWOT. I guess we're just putting it all out there for the world to see now. I neglected to say that the whole catalog, plus the new Abrams ComicArts logo, was designed by Chip Kidd.

This particular page below also has a pretend interview in which I spill my guts about why, how, just who the heck I think I am, and where I get off. I really gave myself a piece of my mind.

This screencap shows the slick navigational interface. WHTTWOT is about halfway through; to find it, select the center button at the bottom of the screen and then click on the thumbnails that look like I drew 'em. (Hint: Page 22. Note: I did not draw the fifties fetish art before my listing, nor the superior art of Jaime Hernandez afterward.)
I've occasionally said how lucky I was to hook up with a house like Abrams. Honestly, I wouldn't necessarily want every book in this catalog on my bookshelf, but I think they all express a strong, distinctive, interesting point of view that deserves to be read. Abrams takes on books that I don't imagine a lot of other publishers tackling, and then it does them better than anybody. It's a classy joint.
Ah, and don't miss Page 50. I did that, too.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Mr. Martin

Continuing to work my way through my recently purchased Stack O' Books, yesterday I finished reading Steve Martin's autobiography, Born Standing Up.

I'm not happy with that sentence. "Work my way through" makes it sound like a chore, but I couldn't think of an analogous construction describing an extended activity that's interesting, satisfying and fun.

Perhaps . . .

Continuing to gaily traipse my way through my recently purchased Stack O' Books, yesterday I finished reading Steve Martin's autobiography, Born Standing Up.

I was a teenager when Martin's stand-up act exploded into popular culture through early Saturday Night Live, bestselling record albums, and concert appearances. Just the right age to lay claim to a phenomenon that, like Monty Python from a similar time and sensibility, Old Folks Didn't Get™. In Born Standing Up, Martin calls his act a parody of a comedy act, and quotes someone else who called it "anti-comedy." I'd call it metacomedy: not just a performance, but a performance about a performance. At the end of the book, Martin wonders if his material would still hold up, or whether it was such a product of its culture that it'd just befuddle a modern audience. So do I. I'm tempted to try it on my kids. All I can say is that, at the time, I found Steve Martin's unfunniness profoundly funny.

Martin is a good, honest, stylish writer. What I got out of Born Standing Up is the best self-examination of an artist's creative process I've read since Stephen King's On Writing, which I'd recommend to any writer hoping to get better at it. Martin cites his influences and describes how his act developed, from the cowboy rope stunts and magic tricks he learned at Disneyland through conventional comedy routines consisting mostly of borrowed jokes and, finally, the realization that if he wanted to accomplish anything in the business, he needed to be original--a leader instead of a follower. He dissects his theories of comedy, and describes how his attempts to apply them succeeded, failed, and evolved into a polished performance that eventually embodied what Martin's idol e.e. cummings called "that precision which creates movement."

It didn't escape my notice that "precision which creates movement" also perfectly describes cartooning, which involves choosing exactly the right words and images that seem to move both space and time to take the reader on a journey. I also noticed that Martin's notion of doing comedy about comedy sounded similar to one of my goals for Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?, which is partly a comic book about being a comic book.

I'm not making any comparisons, just saying that I maybe got something a little different out of Born Standing Up than some other readers might've. If any of that resonates with you, in whatever field you're in, Born Standing Up might have something special to offer you as well. It's going on my bookshelf (once I get around to building enough bookshelves to get my stacks of books off the floor) next to On Writing.