Saturday, May 30, 2009

Thanks for a Wonderful Bash

Just wrapped up my live Virtual Launch Party a half hour ago and am triaging the damage. Only one embarrassing disaster, I think, when I stepped on the camera cord at the 44-minute mark and completely froze/fried my computer. What a dummy. I planned to webcast for two hours and went for three, and time felt like it blazed along to me. I also understand the final few seconds got cut off; I swear I pushed the buttons in the right order. The ways of webcasting are mysterious indeed.

I was hoping to embed the individual videos and might be able to do that later. For now, I hope this'll do. Part 1 is before I stepped on the cord; Part 2 begins about five minutes later, after the most agonizingly slow reboot in computer history.

My sincerest thanks to everyone who watched and participated. I've since heard that UStream didn't allow some people to sign up and chat. Very sorry about that, but I'm very glad you were there. We had about 160 unique viewers, and I was overjoyed to see that they didn't all go away when Special Guest Stephan Pastis left.

(A note for Pastis fans: Stephan arrived a few minutes into Part 2.)

Many many thanks to Stephan, who exceeded my expectations. In so many ways.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

WHTTWOT Virtual Launch Party!

Nothing you can imagine doing this Saturday night could possibly be more interesting and fun than attending an online virtual launch party to celebrate the upcoming release of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow! Nothing! Why, there'll be talking, and reading, and drawing, and . . . more talking. Exciting prizes. Plus a Special Guest who actually hasn't cancelled yet!

Saturday, May 30
6 p.m. Pacific
7 p.m. Mountain
8 p.m. Central
9 p.m. Eastern
10 p.m. Ronniecat
and elsewhen elsewhere.


Important Details:
Anyone is welcome to watch the party. However, due to an unfortunate policy change by webcast host UStream, those who want to participate via comments on the chat board must Sign Up (until very recently UStream allowed anonymous posts that didn't require signing up). It's pretty quick and easy; you can do it on the spot. Just type your comment in the appropriate field and hit "Send." Then create a Username and Password, and hit "Sign Up." After you provide an e-mail address and birthdate--both of which can be
phony--you've joined the conversation.

I regret the hassle. One reason I went with UStream was its formerly easy, no-obligation chat function. But the sign-up process isn't too onerous and, as I said, there's absolutely nothing you need to do if you just want to drop by and watch. I really hope you will.

In the comments, Sandra asks if a recording of the webcast will be available later. Yes! I plan to record it and link to it here on the blog.

Doing a dry run this morning. I'll dress better on Saturday.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Stellar Party

Friend of the Blog "Sligo" Mike pointed me to the terrific video below, a time-lapse fish-eye film shot at the Texas Star Party last month. Prepare to be amazed about 25 seconds in:

The Texas Star Party is famous for its dark skies and excellent viewing. I've heard that when the Milky Way rises above the horizon, it can appear so bright that some observers confuse it with the dawn and go home (although not as bright as it appears in this film, which is made up of many individual photos with long time exposures). Everyone knows that our Sun is a smallish star stuck in the boondocks of the disk of our galaxy, but this film may really make you know it in your gut for the first time.

A lot of people, especially those who spend most of their time in cities, have never seen the Milky Way. I've only seen skies this stunning a few times in my life, all memorable. A couple times in the Sierra Nevada, once at Lick Observatory, and once on a dark county road as I was driving home from college and just had to pull over and marvel. I know the constellations pretty well but on a super clear night I can barely find them, their stars awash and lost among thousands of others. It can be disorienting, exciting, a bit frightening, and obviously awe-inspiring all at once. Go outside and look up once in a while, you might be surprised.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

MoCCA Debut, Plus Composition

If you want to be the first on your block to get Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?, it'll make its official debut at the 2009 MoCCA Festival in New York City on June 6-7. MoCCA is the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, a fine institution which last year exhibited some original drawings from Mom's Cancer, so they've been good to me. I won't be at the festival, but I'm supposed to sign some bookplates for my publisher to apply to the title pages so you can have a signed copy without actually enduring the drag of meeting me. So that's a win-win.

Animator John Kricfalusi has written a neat post on composition, using examples from Yogi Bear and N.C. Wyeth (!). All I have to add is that these are exactly the things I think about when I draw a picture. Also, as John K admits of himself, I struggle with it. This whole idea of seeing a drawing as blocks of elements and negative space that can be composed to steer the viewer's eye and advance the action is both important and difficult. It's another one of those situations where the easier it looks, the harder it is.

In addition to that, I work hard to combine an awareness of composition with the practice of spotting blacks--that is, placing large or small areas of black to emphasize or de-emphasize what you want and lead readers around by the hand without them realizing it. I feel I'm still low on the black-spotting learning curve. Then you have to think about not just the composition within a panel, but the composition of the panels and spotted blacks within the entire page (and sometimes in relation to the facing page). Then on top of all that, you've still got the basic requirement of clearly staging the characters and telling your story. It's a lot to think about.

Anyway, John K's post is a good, quick read if you're interested in that stuff. Thanks to Heidi MacDonald for the link.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Toledo in October

The six readers who've stuck with me a while may remember when several pages of original artwork from Mom's Cancer were part of an exhibition of comic art expertly curated by the Norman Rockwell Museum from November 2007 to June 2008. I blogged about attending the opening, surely one of the nicest honors and coolest evenings of my life. Shortly before that exhibition closed, the Rockwell folks asked if they could hold onto my pages for a few more years while they took the show on the road, sharing it with other museums. I said, "Sure!"

As a result, my work will join that of much more talented and experienced writers and artists at the Toledo Museum of Art this autumn, and I've just agreed to speak at the opening on October 2. I notice they've already got a webpage started for it.
When I saw this "LitGraphic" exhibition at the Rockwell Museum it was fantastic, with three good-sized galleries displaying and interpreting a wide historical swath of comics work. While I have no idea how many of those same pieces will make the trip to Toledo, I'm sure it'll be worth a look to any comics fans in the area.

Plus, I've never been to Ohio, so I'll be able to cross that off my bucket list.

How my stuff looked hanging in the Rockwell.
Must remember to wear a different outfit in Toledo.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Uh Oh

Is your cat plotting to kill you?

Thanks a lot for the quiz, Ronnie.

I don't know. Does this cat look evil to you?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Party's ON!

I'm firming up plans for a Virtual Book Launch Party (TM Mike Peterson) to celebrate the upcoming release of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow with you, whoever and wherever you are. The date and time are:

Saturday, May 30, 6 p.m. Pacific (9 p.m. Eastern)

I'm aiming to fill a couple of hours, we'll see how it goes. I thought a weekend evening would give as many people as possible a chance to participate. That's also a good time for my Special Guest, who does in fact exist and has committed to be here but plans can fall through so don't hold me to it. If anyone has just cause for why this party should not go forward, speak now or forever hold your peace.

Just a reminder of how this might work: I'll do a live webcast on in which I'll introduce the book, share some original art, do some drawing, tour the "studio," tell some stories, answer all the questions you can think of, and try to have some fun. I may snack. Anyone can join the party by going to a URL I'll provide later and typing in comments or questions, to which I or anyone else can respond. I have no idea how many guests to expect--I would not be surprised by numbers very small or very large--but as with any good party I know it'll be an interesting mix of people. I'll be sure to mention the time and date many times beforehand so you've got no excuse for not showing. I'll also record the webcast (although I don't think the typed comments are recorded) for later viewing.

By the way, I haven't heard any more about when WHTTWOT will be available in stores and through online merchants. It's still June 9 as far as I know.

Hope you can come! No RSVP necessary.

Monday, May 11, 2009

That's What This Starship is All About. That's Why We're Aboard Her.

I saw Star Trek over the weekend and enjoyed it, though not unreservedly. I give it a "B," maybe a 7 out of 10. I thought it was good. Not great, but far from the abomination it could've been.

I never objected to the idea of a "reboot" in theory, and thought the execution went about as well as it could have. The casting is great. Pine is a fine young Kirk, Quinto does a much better Spock than I expected--eerily so in parts--and Karl Urban is staggeringly evocative of a young McCoy. Every character gets a chance to shine. A few reviews I've read make the point that all the characters are shown to be very smart and capable professionals, and I agree and think that's a very good thing. Study hard in school, kids, and someday you may get to explore the galaxy.

I just wish the script had gotten one more pass before they filmed it. In this post's comments, I detail several problems I had with plot and characterization. A few fall into the category of nitpicks from a grumpy old-school Trekkie, but I think others--probably too many others--constitute real flaws in the story. Some took me out of the movie while I watched it, others only occurred to me upon reflection. Too bad, because most of them could have been fixed in the script.

Don't look at the comments unless you've already seen the movie or don't care if you're spoiled! I go into detail!

The fact that I enjoyed the movie and consider it a successful reboot of my beloved Star Trek despite the problems I had with it is a tribute to its energy and promise. If they want to make two or ten new movies with this cast in this universe, I will eagerly return to watch them.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Mother's Day Mention

Mom's Cancer got a very nice mention from the Library Journal as part of a special Mother's Day list of 14 graphic novels about moms. Writer/reviewer Martha Cornog wrote, "This grave and courageous account reaches beyond one individual and one family to become a support story for others living with cancer, and a real classic."

There are good books on the list and it's an honor to be among them. Librarians, library associations, and the library trade press supported Mom's Cancer from the start, and I really appreciate it. One of the thrills of getting published is its permanence; I think having your book in libraries must be the second-best sort of immortality. (Woody Allen: "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work . . . I want to achieve it by not dying!")

Happy Mother's Day to all you moms however you love and nurture someone who needs it. Especially to my wife Karen, who's paid her dues.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Digital Dilemma

At times, here and elsewhere, I've referred to myself as a proud cartooning dinosaur. I love the process of putting ink on paper; it's hypnotic, entirely absorbing, and feels like "doing art" in a way that sitting at a computer never has for me. If the Comics Police broke down my door, confiscated my brushes and pens, and told me I could only work digitally, I'd probably quit. For me that's the fun part. Without the fun, what's the point?

Understanding how I feel, then, make of this what you will:

That's the not-quite-final draft of the back hard cover ("case") for Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?, and the first piece of 100% digital art I ever did. To date, it remains the only piece of 100% digital art I've ever done. When you see it in bookstores, the bottom three-fourths of this case will be covered by a paper jacket, and it'll look different. I'll explain why and how.

First, why go digital? I wanted a particular look: no hard lines or outlines, very stylized and geometric, evocative of mid-century Disney designers like Mary Blair and Rolly Crump. Drawing ovals and rectangles--which is pretty much all that image consists of--is right up Photoshop's alley.

Second, I wanted to give Designer Neil something to play with. As I recall, when I first put this together we weren't entirely sure what all would go on the back cover. So I sent Neil a digital file in which the background, Moon, rocket, and each of the four colors of buildings were all on separate "layers." Imagine layers as cutouts or transparencies laid atop one another, with the ability to move, change, or even delete one layer without affecting the others. Again, that's what Photoshop does best.

So I basically sent Neil this layered file and invited him to use the elements however he wanted to make them work as a cover. He darkened the background, slid the rocket up so that its exhaust doesn't intersect the tallest building anymore, changed some proportions, added some words. In Neil's final design, only the Moon and rocket are visible above the paper jacket, with the city emerging when you peek underneath (see my April 28 post). I think it turned out pretty spiffy.

That kind of artistic and practical flexibility would've been a lot harder to pull off if I'd just drawn the thing. In this case, digital was entirely the right tool for the job at hand.

Plus, I enjoyed it. I confess, it was kind of . . . fun.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Happy Cartoonists Day!

My pal Mike Lynch reminds me that today is Cartoonists Day. Other fine tributes to this festive holiday--second in my affections only to Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Valentine's Day, Presidents' Day, Arbor Day, the Feast of St. Crispian, and two or three dozen other red-letter dates on my calendar--have been posted by Richard Thompson and . . . I'm sure there are many more but I can't find them. Anyway, if you're a beautiful woman who happens to know a cartoonist, be sure to walk up to him and give him a giant smooch today.*

* Revise sexes in that sentence as appropriate. This offer valid only for beautiful women who are already married to me. Unless our chance of getting caught is very, very small.

I'm going to get serious for a moment (seriously) to say that cartooning is important to me, I think it's a worthwhile artform to society, and I'm both worried and encouraged about where that artform is headed.

The first things I remember reading were comics, both comic strips and comic books. I think young developing brains are hard-wired to be attracted to images--especially colorful ones--in which they try to find or impose meaning. Cause and effect, surprise, danger, humor. That in turn opens the door to written language, which in comics provides that meaning. A child's brain is in overdrive trying to discover connections among everything, and images and text are important keys for decoding a confusing reality. I credit comics for making me an early reader and, later, a dedicated one.

Over time, comics take on different meaning and value for an attentive reader. They offer something for everyone: innocent gags, superheroic adventures, political commentary, sex and violence. Too few people understand that comics aren't a genre (like mystery, romance, or Westerns) but a medium like film, capable of telling any kind of story--fiction or non-fiction, juvenile or adult, even mystery, romance or Westerns. Their potential is largely untapped.

I bet if neurologists did a PET scan of someone reading a comic, they'd discover that it lights up different areas of the brain than text or drawings alone. I think comics are like popular music: if you separate the music and lyrics of a song, neither is usually very impressive on its own. The music is unsophisticated and repetitive, the lyrics are often bad poetry. But put them together, and suddenly you've got a song that transcends the sum of its parts and can make you depressed or ecstatic. Similarly, the words and pictures that comprise comics aren't necessarily artful in themselves (although sometimes they are), but put them together and I think you get a communication medium that taps into the brain in a very direct, subtle, and unique way.

I worry about the future of comics for reasons both external and self-inflicted. The traditional means of publishing and distributing comics are in trouble--not just newspapers but also magazines, advertisements, news stands. The spinner rack in the corner drugstore is long gone. Comic books don't sell one-tenth as well as they once did, and aren't written for kids anymore; they're aimed at 35-year-olds who were kids 25 years ago and insisted that their books grow up as they did. Today, you'd be hard-pressed to find an issue of Spider-Man or Batman fit for an 8-year-old.

At the same time, I think the craft of creating comics has been on a slow decline for decades. As I've opined before, very few cartoonists working today would've been fit to clean the nibs of Milt Caniff or Walt Kelly 60 years ago. Modern cartoonists reply that they aren't given as much space to work as the old masters had. While that's true, I think it misses the point that most of them couldn't perform as well if they did have the space, and fewer and fewer of them see skill as something worth striving for at all.

Successful "American Elf" cartoonist James Kochalka notoriously declared that "Craft is the enemy," by which I think he meant that cartooning is best as a raw, unschooled, unfiltered, outsider art. Passion is what matters, not drawing or writing chops. (The irony is that Kochalka's own work, though it looks simple, involves a high level of craft.) Now, I think that's a respectable position for some cartoonists to take. One underground genius out of a hundred might be able to pull it off and produce something truly great. Unfortunately, a lot of tyros seem to have embraced the "no craft" mantra and spread it throughout the industry. Every turn of the newspaper or comic book page shows poor writing, thoughtless characterization, clumsy exposition, lazy layouts, artless artwork, and elementary mistakes no professional would have made 50 years ago. They don't even know what they don't know. It's as if a century spent developing the techniques and language of comics was for naught.

The way I see it, celebrating and rewarding craftless cartooning is like hiring a cabinetmaker who only knows how to use a hammer. It's possible your cabinetmaker is a quirky genius who can make that hammer sing, but chances are you're better off hiring one who also knows how to saw, sand, lathe, rout, dovetail, glue, veneer, and stain. If that craftsman opts to make cabinets using just a hammer, you know it's a thoughtful artistic choice rather than a thoughtless handicap. I say master all the craft you can and give yourself the choice to use it, rather than no choice at all.

(I think I also need to say that I consider my own skills barely adequate at best. The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. But I value craft and am always working to improve, which has gotta be worth something.)

However, I'm encouraged about the state of cartooning by, well, what happened to me. I made a webcomic that got published as a graphic novel, which led to a second graphic novel. Maybe I'll get to make more. Those were not options available to cartoonists when I was growing up. Or even 10 years ago. Oh, graphic novels have been around a while, but not from as many publishers seeking out as many different voices as today. In the 1990s, Will Eisner or Art Spiegelman might've been able to get a graphic novel published, but I wouldn't have. So much terrific, exciting--even skillfully crafted--work is appearing in print and online. That, along with the work of those still fighting the good fight in comic strips, comic books, single-panel cartoons, etc., makes me an optimist.

Although cartooning is going through a rough and uncertain patch right now, I just think there's something too elemental about the human attraction to pictures combined with words to lose them. They will always be of value to someone. Comics abide.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Book 'Em Danno: Earworm One

No kidding, I woke up with this tune running through my head and have had it stuck on "repeat" all morning. Since the only known cure for an earworm is to pass it on to someone else, I need you to turn up your speakers and watch the video below. I'm sorry; my very sanity is at stake.

Pound for pound, still the best theme song ever composed, with the best cast credit ever: "Zulu as Kono." It's not possible to be cooler than that.