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." .