Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Does Anybody in Ohio Dream of that Spanish Citadel?*

I haven't had much to contribute to this here blog or my Facebook pages lately. I've been very busy trying to get ahead on work so I can take a couple of days off to fly to Ohio at the end of the week. How busy?


This'll probably be the last reminder that I'll be speaking at the opening of the "LitGraphic" exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art on Friday, Oct. 2. This is the exhibition put together by the Norman Rockwell Museum and now traveling the country for a few years, lugging several pages of original art from Mom's Cancer with it. I think things get started around 7 p.m., with my talk scheduled for 7:30. I originally thought the museum was planning an opening reception for that night but just learned I'd thunk wrong; the reception will be held a week later to mark all of the museum's fall shows, including LitGraphic. So on Oct. 2, the evening's entertainment will consist entirely of . . . me.

Ta Daaaa!

(Hmm. Maybe I should add some animations and sound effects to my PowerPoint presentation to increase its entertainment value . . . whoooosh! Boooinnnnng! Ka-powwww!)

I'll take some pictures and be sure to post a full report. If you're a comics fan in the Toledo area not doing anything better this Friday evening, LitGraphic is worth seeing and I'd love to meet you. If you're a crazed stalker, I'll be in Cleveland.

*This post's title comes from the lyrics an Elvis Costello song called, natch, "Toledo."


Friday, September 25, 2009

Two Years Before the Mast

A friend of mine has undertaken a cool project on the Web that I'm enjoying a lot and recommend you check out.

Two Years Before the Mast is a classic literary work that tells the true story of Richard Henry Dana, a Harvard student who, in 1834, signed up to work as a common seaman aboard a trading vessel bound from Boston to California. Dana's realistic account of the harsh life of a working sailor became very popular and helped reform the trade.

My friend is doing something clever: republishing Two Years Before the Mast as a blog, with each post corresponding to the actual date Dana made an entry in his journal plus 175 years. The blog began on August 14, the day Dana set sail. The most recent entry, on Sept. 22, describes a harrowing escape from pirates. As with all blogs, it's read from the bottom up. I'm finding that following Dana's journey in real-time gives it an unusual immediacy and intimacy. You're right there with him. Despite its age, it's a good, quick read.

The blog's proprietor, Mike Peterson, is a New England newspaperman I've never met in person but feel like I've gotten to know very well via the Internet. I guess that's not uncommon these days. While going about his journalism jobs, Mike led "Newspapers In Education" programs that introduce newspapers into classrooms as teaching materials (he says a big problem is that too many teachers have grown up not reading newspapers themselves; they're often amazed by what they find in there). He also spearheaded a program called TeachUP that provides serialized stories meant to be published in newspapers and studied in schools, complete with lesson plans (I provided modest input to "Stories in the Stars" about the constellations). In addition, he runs the "Weekly Storybook" website, a similar effort to teach classic tales and myths from various traditions, also with lesson plans. And in his spare time, he was nice enough to give me frank feedback on an early draft of WHTTWOT.

I really like Mike's concept of creatively combining media and content to find novel ways to educate and entertain. This is all good stuff. I'm glad to know him.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Collected Comics Library Podcast

Chris Marshall just posted the interview I did for his Collected Comics Library podcast. He's a great guy who asked some good, insightful questions and I think it turned out well. He also did a nice review on his website (same link as above), which I really appreciate.

The webcast is nearly an hour long (seemed a lot shorter in real life), but if you think you can stand to hear me bloviate that long, I happily recommend our conversation to you. In addition to WHTTWOT we talked about Mom's Cancer, comics, Wernher Von Braun, my talented coloring assistants, and my entire life. Many thanks to Chris, whom I'm looking forward to meeting at the opening of the LitGraphic exhibition in Toledo, Ohio on October 2.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Cartoonist at Work

My buddy Mike Lynch posted the video below of Larry Gonick, creator of the long-running Cartoon History of the World and Cartoon History of the Universe books, and it struck a chord with me for a few reasons.

One, the recent Library Journal review of WHTTWOT compared my book favorably with Mr. Gonick's work, and I commented that I was pleased to be in such company. Although I wasn't aiming to be as overtly humorous, we both mine that seam where comics intersect information (history, science) to convey it in a unique way. This video offers a glimpse at that. I particularly appreciated a look at his stacks of reference material; that's about how my desk looked, too.

Two, Mr. Gonick is an ink-and-paper cartoonist, which is an increasingly rare breed. Watching an artist lay down confident black lines with a brush is a pleasure. I liked the quick shot of him running his bristles over an ink-stained scrap of paper to work them into the point he wanted. I've got a scrap just like that on my desk.

Three, he says something at the end that perfectly captures a thought I've struggled to put into words: "Our brains represent things in some stripped-down, abstracted way. We don't remember things as photographs or movies. We remember them as cartoons." I think that's right, and I think it's a keen insight into what makes comics "work"--how squiggles of ink and sparse lines of dialog become stories and characters we care about. I recall Art Spiegelman saying something similar.

Mr. Gonick's insight comes at a good time for me, since I'm currently pulling together some ideas and images for a talk I'm giving at the opening of the LitGraphic exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art on October 2. This is a point I planned to make in discussing comics as an artistic/literary medium and why museums should care about it, and Mr. Gonick (and Mr. Lynch) just gave me the perfect words with which to do it.

And, one cartoonist to another, Mr. Gonick draws a real fine elephant butt.


Monday, September 21, 2009

Get in the Sack

I try to run a clean, all-ages, family blog here, but I've come across the YouTube clip below a few times in different contexts and always appreciated it. I just stumbled on it again, which I take as the universe's way of telling me to post it.

This is Irish comedian Dara O'Briain using a few naughty but well-chosen words to say some things I think are worth saying.

If you don't have six minutes to spare or don't like naughty words, I'll boil it down: "Science knows it doesn't know everything. Otherwise it'd stop." That's your bumpersticker, right there.

P.S.: Just to avoid any confusion and save you the trouble of looking it up yourself, I believe his last joke that ends "You look like Noddy" refers to this fella:

I can see it.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Arrr? Aye!

Don't forget: Tomorrow be international Talk Like a Pirate Day, just about as important a pointless holiday as e'er sailed the Spanish Main. Don't forget to belay yer yardarms, hoist yer colors, buckle yer swashes and mizzen yer masts, ye scurvy maties and wenches.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Review: The Library Journal

WHTTWOT got a pretty good review today in The Library Journal, which is important because many librarians look to that trade journal's recommendations when deciding what to buy. Some words from the review chosen completely at random include: "futurism,"
"the," "compellingly," "zeitgeist," "in-jokes," "wisely," "wide-eyed," "overearnest," and "didactic" (sigh).

Reviewer Steve Raiteri's final verdict: "Thought-provoking, this is recommended for fans of Jim Ottaviani's science graphic novels or Larry Gonick's Cartoon History books." I'm pleased to be in that company.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Mr. Language Person

I stole that post title from Dave Barry since he's not using it.

A client returned a draft of a paper I'm writing with the word "advisor" changed to "adviser." The latter is company style now. It's not my place to object aloud--I'm just a hired gun and both spellings are legitimate--but in my head I sighed. I don't have an Oxford English Dictionary in front of me, but my sense is that "advisor" predates "adviser" and is falling out of favor. To my eyes it's a more graceful spelling, "a more elegant weapon from a more civilized age" [Obi-Wan Kenobi, 1977]. Besides, if you spell "advisor" with an "e," what happens to the word "advisory?" Advisery? That's just monkfish ugly.

Different clients and markets have their stylistic quirks and peculiarities, and adapting to their different rules is part of the writing gig. I recently edited a paper (the one I griped about with the Japanese author) that had to be completed in British English. Large companies often have long lists of words, acronyms, phrases and usages particular to their industries. My natural default style is that of the Associated Press, which was beaten into me pretty quickly when I worked as a newspaper reporter fresh out of college. On the other hand, my publisher Abrams adheres to the Chicago Manual of Style, which made for some interesting arguments with Editor Charlie.

One of the delights of language is that it evolves; one of the complaints of curmudgeons is that it evolves on their watch. Ben Franklin grumped to Noah Webster about the fashionable use of the new verbs "notice," "advocate" and "progress," which up to his time had been only nouns. I cringe at the word "alright" but fear that battle's lost (I blame The Who). On the other hand, I don't mind that using "hopefully" to mean "I hope" is gaining ground despite being a clear grammatical foul. I think we need a word that performs that function. Hopefully I can bring myself to use it someday.

You know what else we need? "Amn't." We have "isn't" for "is not," and "aren't" for "are not," but there's no good modern contraction for "am not." I've seen some grammarians propose that we legitimize the use of "ain't" for that situation. Ain't gonna happen.

I love "gonna" for informal writing but would never use it in something someone paid me for.

There are times I'd write "something someone paid me for" and others I'd write "something for which someone paid me." You've gotta know the difference.

Ditto "gotta."

I remember when I was learning cursive, I was taught to write a capital "Q" that looked like a big number "2." Even as an innocent child in the sixties, I knew that was bogus. When my own children were taught cursive, I was happy to see that they learned a sensible "Q" (an "O" with a little tail) and that the big-2 "Q" had gone the way of the f-shaped "S."

Happily obsolete in my lifetime.
Not actually titled Paradife Loft, although that would be an excellent
name for a rock band [Dave Barry, 1983-present].

On the other hand, I hear that a lot of schools don't even teach cursive anymore ("who needs to handwrite when everyone types everything?"), which is a mistake. There's something about the rigorous rote regimentation of mastering those shapes that I believe disciplines both body and mind. Besides, if no one knows cursive, who's gonna read all of great-granddad's letters? Professors of hieroglyphics?
In the preceding paragraph, "rigorous rote regimentation" was a little over the top alliteration-wise, but I couldn't resist. Similarly, in the preceding blog post, writing "silver sliver" made me smile.
When's the last time you saw "Penmanship" as a line item on a report card?

Ditto "Deportment."

No, I did not use an inkwell and slate board in school.

Things change in other languages, too. When I took Russian in college, a cursive lower-case "d" transitioned from a letter that looked like a lower-case "delta" to one resembling a lower-case "g." I resisted the change until one day a grad student told me I wrote like a grandma. I understand the Germans are phasing out their use of the double-S or "scharfes S," which looks like a Greek "beta." That's a shame. It had style.
That's "GROSSE," not "GROBE."
Today I learned that it's very hard to google the phrase "German SS" and find information about German orthography.
Despite what your fourth-grade teacher taught you, there's nothing wrong with starting a sentence with "and" or "but." But you should be very, very, very, very, very careful. And have a good reason.

My favorite punctuation mark is the semi-colon; my second-favorite is the double-dash or m-dash (see paragraph 2 above), which many people don't realize is legitimate punctuation. It is.

What? Doesn't everyone have favorite punctuation marks?

Best book to buy a budding writer: Strunk and White's Elements of Style. I've given it to a couple of kids. You can tell the real writers because they sit down and read it cover to cover. I crack it open every few years myself. Even if you disagree with the old farts' answers, at least you're thinking about the right questions.

"It's" and "its": learn the difference. Alright?

I expect some of you to disagree with me. That's the fun.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

I Think I Miss the Tides Most of All

Has it really been exactly 10 years since a nuclear waste dump exploded on the Moon, launching it and the few hardy souls stationed on Moonbase Alpha into interstellar space? I sure miss seeing a silver sliver of crescent Moon dancing in the western dusk or a fat full Moon rising orange in the east. Why, it seems like it was just yesterday....

Space: 1999. Cool idea. Dumb show. A few bright moments smothered in wasted potential. Also one vision of the World of Tomorrow that I'm really glad didn't come true. But it had great production values and effects for the time, and I think the Eagle (one of which is seen spinning about 14 seconds into the clip above) is the second-best fictional spacecraft ever designed.

Anyway, in loving memory to our missing satellite, gone from our orbit since September 13, 1999, please enjoy this tribute:

You're welcome.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

All In A Hot and Copper Sky

I haven't blogged much because I haven't had much to blog about. There's not a lot happening in Book World right now, and my day job is just kind of chugging along unspectacularly. We're traversing a little patch of late summer doldrums, noticing how much earlier today's sun set than yesterday's, getting the girls ready to return to school (their university's on the quarter system and doesn't start until late September).

Early autumn is my favorite time of year. Most people say that spring feels ripe with possibilities, but I get that little frisson more in the fall. Maybe it's an imprinted memory left over from returning to school each year myself. Or anticipation of the coming holidays; I'm already drawing up plans for new spooky effects to add to my Halloween yard. Things change and happen fast this season. You get to put on sweaters and put off mowing the lawn. And then BOOM, it's next year.
I am working on a couple of comics-related things. One is a presentation for my trip to the Toledo Museum of Art on October 2, where I'll be speaking at the opening of the "LitGraphics" exhibition that includes some original pages from Mom's Cancer plus many better pages from better artists. Right now I think about half my 45-minute talk will be on the experience of making Mom's Cancer and the other half on comics as art in general (I'm sure I'll also mention WHTTWOT, but that's not why I'm there). My aim is that after listening to me, people will go look at the pictures hanging on the wall and notice things they wouldn't have before. I can only get so deep in a short talk--I can only get so deep under any circumstances--but I think (hope) I can add some value to the museum-goers' experience.

Semi-related, I've noticed an interesting evolution in my thinking about doing talks and panels and such, which is that I'm increasingly uncomfortable with the idea. There was a fun stretch a couple of years ago when I did a bunch of them and enjoyed it very much. It's flattering to find out someone thinks you have something interesting to say and hey, if they're nice enough to ask and it might get one or two people to check out your work, why not? But the more I learn about comics and publishing (and I know gobs more than I did back then), the more I realize how little I know. I always took Socrates's "true wisdom is knowing that you know nothing" as a cute little koan that Socrates himself probably didn't really believe, but I'm beginning to think the old hemlock-chugger might've been right. I used to pontificate with great confidence, delivering all kinds of sage and helpful insight and advice. Now I think it's all distilled down to "Why on Earth would you care what I think? I don't know what I'm doing. Give it a shot and see if it works."

Fortunately, I think I can do better than that for the Toledo Museum folks. Although I can just imagine the looks on their faces if, after being flown across the country and put up for the night, I stood in front of the opening night patrons, put up one PowerPoint slide that read "I know nothing," thanked everyone for coming, and left the stage.

Man that's tempting. But no no no. So wrong!

But tempting.

Also, today I put the first pencil on paper for what could be my next book or webcomic or pile of stuff no one ever sees because I stuffed it into a drawer. I'll keep you posted on that--just wanted to mark the occasion.