Monday, March 29, 2010

Wish I'd Thought of It First

As usual, I'm probably the last person with an Internet connection to discover something keen, in this case a webcomic called
"Axe Cop." "Axe Cop" began when a 29-year-old comic book artist actually listened to the endless, pointless, nonsensical stories his 5-year-old brother made up and set out to illustrate them as real comics. There's a load of patience and a touch of genius in how artist Ethan Nicolle (29) perfectly captures the loopy head-chopping adventures of Axe Cop and his partner Avocado Soldier (formerly Dinosaur Soldier, who was formerly Flute Cop) spun by writer Malachai Nicolle (5 when they started, now 6).

Anybody who's ever spent quality time with a child knows how this story goes. It has no beginning, no end, no structure, no exposition or explanation or consequences. Things just happen and then lead into other things that also just happen. Pure undisciplined imagination. When my girls were very young, the stories we acted out typically involved the fateful meeting of Captain Picard and the much-too-tall-for-him Barbie as they beamed down to the Lego fortress of the evil Spider-Man and his tiger minions. It's fun for a few minutes, sort of interesting after that, and then--and believe me, I love my kids--exhausting. So Ethan's got my respect for not just hanging in there, but actually making something of it. "Axe Cop" isn't for everyone, but I'm a fan.

What I'm Up To
I haven't said much lately about how I'm spending my time. First, my day job has been very busy and looks to continue that way for a while. I don't mind; for the self-employed, "too busy" is always way better than "not busy enough."

But I'm also doing some good writing and drawing for Mystery Project X That I Hope Will Be My Next Book. (Some of it's good. Some of it convinces me I've forgotten what little I ever knew about writing and drawing, and should never attempt it again.) No commitments from my publisher yet--the last time Editor Charlie and I spoke about it, we agreed it needed more work before it was ready. I think I'll have more-better to show him soon. We'll see.

Karen and I went to see the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" movie yesterday as an infinitesimal show of support for my pal Jeff Kinney. It's getting good reviews and making decent money, including our $15 (matinee prices--sorry, Jeff). We were the only adults in the theater unaccompanied by minors, which seemed to amuse the girl at the ticket window. While it's obviously not our usual fare, we enjoyed it. It's better than it needed to be. The movie retained a lot of the book's whimsy and charm, and I think surmounted the challenge of turning Jeff's simple line art into a real world. I liked the casting, notably the boys who played Rowley and especially the weird red-headed Fregly, who stole every scene he was in. On a personal note, I just remember how excited Jeff was when he showed me photos from the set on his iPhone, and I loved seeing his characters come to life. I even liked how they used his hand-written font in the credits. I just don't know how they're going to make a sequel; those kids are going to grow up fast.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Taking 3-D for Granite

Got a couple more blue-red anaglyphs for you today--not particularly clever, artistic, whimsical or anything, just more in a series of on-going experiments. These were shot last weekend on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe, where we spent a nice couple of days with friends who have a home there. Bust out your ol' 3-D specs and play along. And if we don't talk before the weekend, have a good one.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Tres Tapas, Por Favor

Three bite-sized bits that floated to the top of my brain today . . .

Yesterday was Karen's and my twenty-mfmmfpth anniversary, which we celebrated by taking our girls into San Francisco to see a matinee of "Wicked" followed by a nice dinner. My mini-review of the play: a spectacular production with some very good songs and singers, terrific characters, interesting and funny twists on the "Oz" story everyone knows so well (which is to say the Judy Garland version), and some surprising and occasionally ridiculous plot twists. I was a little amazed to find myself truly moved by the plight of a misunderstood green witch fighting for animal rights. I also don't think I'd ever been inside San Francisco's Orpheum Theater before, and it's a beauty. Good play.

Anyway, Happy Anniversary, Sweetie. I think it was a fine one.

* * *
I got up this morning thinking of all the things I do that would've been unimaginable to 99% of humans living throughout 99% of history. Not the obvious stuff, like flying in airplanes, but the little stuff: Taking a hot shower. Using a flush toilet. Brushing my teeth. Deciding from among many pants and shirts which I wanted to wear. Pouring a glass of cold orange juice from a pitcher in the fridge. Feeding my cats store-bought food from a can. That's six things I did this morning that would've been utterly alien to most people until very recently--still hard to find in a lot of places--and I hadn't even sat down at my computer yet.

As a wicked witch once said: What a world, what a world.
* * *

I'll be going to WonderCon in San Francicso on Friday, April 2. Just as a fan, not a panelist or anything. Despite its proximity, I've never been to WonderCon before. It's run by the same people who do the big ComicCon in San Diego, and I understand it's more like ComicCon used to be: smaller, gentler, quieter, and more focused on comics than movies and video games.

I feel very lucky to have made it to the San Diego ComicCon the times I did, as an Eisner nominee (and winner!), panelist and guest. Unless I have a specific business reason to go, I don't expect to attend in the future. It's an expensive trip, and tickets and especially lodging are just too hard to get. As Yogi Berra probably never said of his favorite restaurant, "Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded." I'm hoping WonderCon is a nice, nearby alternative that lets me get my convention fix with less hassle and cost. I'll let you know.

* * *

One more added later: Actor Robert Culp died yesterday. I always liked his work and screen persona, and had a chance to talk to him briefly at last year's San Diego ComicCon, where he was signing photos. I didn't want his autograph--they don't really have a lot of meaning or value to me--but there wasn't anyone in line and we spoke for a minute. I told him I appreciated his work and asked if he had something new in the works. He said he did, and seemed excited about it, but declined to spill details. I looked forward to finding out; sounds like I never will. It's sad to lose him but he had a fine life and career.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

My Giant Melon Head

My recent experiments making 3-D photos inspired me to go for the ultimate: a person. Since the only person hanging around my office/studio/spare bedroom 97% of the day is me, that's who you get. Break out your red-blue glasses and don't be frightened by my enormous grinning moonface.

To make this anaglyph, I rested the camera atop my computer monitor, shot a photo, slid it two inches over, and shot another while holding perrrrrfectly still. The fine print on my 3-D specs reads "This Is It" because they're the free glasses Target gave away to watch the Michael Jackson Grammy tribute with. Any port in a storm.

And then, amazingly, a split second later, I heard a thundering whoosh as something flew past my left ear. Luckily, the camera captured the moment:

Speaking of enormous moonfaces: as long as you've got your stylish glasses on, check out these 3-D pictures of Mars's moon Phobos (which Friend-of-the-Blog Sherwood Harrington pointed me to), Martian soil beneath the Phoenix lander, and our very own Moon. Give that last one a second to "click in," it's really incredible. In addition to being supercool, 3-D images actually can reveal scientific detail you might otherwise miss. But mostly they're supercool.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Busiek (and Me) on Breaking In

Comic book writer Kurt Busiek penned a great essay on breaking into the writing business. His main point is that most successful people make their own paths without following the rules, many of which (like submission guidelines and such) exist to weed out people rather than usher in new ones. Also, that "overnight successes" usually aren't. He writes:

You don't need a map. You need to figure out what you've got and capitalize on that. Instead of bemoaning the fact that you can't mail in something that a publisher wasn't going to read and wasn't going to buy, try to figure out something else, something that builds off your skills or knowledge or contacts or whatever . . . Make comics, not just proposals—even making crappy comics that convince you that you never want to draw another background again in your life will teach you more about telling a story in pictures on paper than a zillion proposals in the slush pile.

Kurt's a zillion times more experienced and successful than I, but my observations match his. He offers examples of how colleagues of his got published--each unique, none following any formula. Same for the writers I know. When people ask me for advice, I sincerely don't know what to say. I can describe how I did it, but that's nearly useless because it's not replicable for anyone else in any other place or time. I'm reminded of Carl Sagan's line, "If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." If you want to do it my way, you're starting 30 years too late.

All I can suggest is: First, do the work. It's surprising how many "writers" never actually write and how many "artists" never draw. Having an idea for a thing is not the same as sitting down and creating 20 or 200 pages of an actual thing! The latter is orders of magnitude harder. Then get it out into the world any way you can. Print it up, show it to people, send it to editors, put it on a website. Find communities of people doing the same thing--easier than ever on the Internet--and share work with them. One of those people in your favorite web forum could be looking for a writing partner or content provider five years from now. Plant a hundred seeds and two or three will bloom--and they'll probably be the ones you least expect.

Also, don't take without giving back in return. Don't expect or demand favors. No one owes you anything. Few people are as tiresome as a newbie who pops up to announce, "Hey, everyone look at my great stuff," argues with well-intentioned critiques, insults pros whose work is obviously worse than theirs, and then vanishes into a billowing cloud of entitlement. Bad form, and people have long memories. If you're polite, thoughtful, professional, and take the time to show others you care about their work, some will bend over backwards to help you.

While determination is important and admirable, I'm not a huge proponent of the "winners never quit" school of success. Busiek writes about a guy he sees at every convention who's been trying to break in for decades and will simply never be good enough to make it. I know people like that. I've also had times when I've wondered if I'm that guy. It's a fine line, deciding whether to keep slugging away versus recognizing that maybe that brick wall isn't budging and you're better off trying another angle or something else entirely.

My criterion is external evidence of progress. At first, probably no one will respond to your stuff at all. Then maybe you'll get a nice note from a stranger. Then maybe some encouragement from a pro. Then maybe an editor invites you to send some material. You sell a little thing to a little client, then parlay that into selling a bigger thing to a bigger client. Look for signs of advancing toward a goal rather than running in place.

The last time I touched on this, Friend-of-the-Blog Mike Peterson replied with a quote by Mark Twain that I can't top (and Twain's entire essay on the subject of advice for aspiring writers is funny and worth reading):

Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers pay within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Fat Cat in Favorite Chair

Another anaglyph experiment for the viewing pleasure of those of you with red-cyan 3-D glasses (mostly my girls, to whom I delivered such specs yesterday):

That's our alpha cat Rose, whiling away her afternoon in a chair four feet from mine. Luckily, convincing her to hold absolutely still between the two camera shots was not a problem. Sometimes I think cats know everything important there is to know about life.

Chicago in April, London in June

On Sunday, April 25, I'll be in Chicago for the 55th Annual Convention of the International Reading Association (IRA). Technically, I'll be there before the convention, which formally starts Monday. As part of the program, the IRA hosts all-day pre-conference "Institutes" that allow groups of presenters to treat single topics in depth. I'll be a panelist on the topic of "Teaching Reading With Graphic Novels: Building on IRA's Definition of ELA as Visualizing and Visually Representing." I understand the first five words of that title; after that I get a little woozy.

This institute was organized by Dr. Katie Monnin, an assistant professor of literacy at the University of North Florida as well as
an author and comics lover who's become an Internet buddy of mine (I drew the caricature of her at that second link, by the way). The annual IRA conference is a big deal in the book world, and I'm honored to participate in my small way. Given the topic, I think I can draw on both Mom's Cancer and Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow to talk about graphic novels and literacy, and how
Words + Pictures can sometimes provide a richer reading and learning experience than words alone.

Then on June 17, I'll be in London for a one-day conference on "Graphic Medicine" organized by Dr. Ian Williams. Now this is going to be really something! I'll be one of three keynote speakers talking to a group of about 75 medical professionals, sharing whatever insights I can offer as a result of my experience with Mom's Cancer. Ian has gone to a great deal of trouble to get me there, and I'm determined to make it worth his while. Plus I've never been to London, so Karen is coming along and we'll make a little vacation of it.

One of the most rewarding things I've ever done was a talk I gave to a group of healthcare professionals in Tucson a few years ago. Some of them came up afterward and said they were going to change the way they did their jobs as a result. Wow. Of course I can't expect to get that kind of reaction in London, but having a chance to tell Mom's story to a group of people who can actually apply it to patient care is a very powerful legacy. It would have meant a lot to her.

In anticipation of that conference, this week's issue of the British Medical Journal features a cover story on "The Use of Comics in Medical Education and Patient Care" by Michael Green and Kimberly Myers of the Penn State College of Medicine. The article, which highlights Mom's Cancer, isn't available online and I can't reprint it here, but the abstract will give you some flavor. What a wonderful coincidence (?) that every physician in the UK is reading that article just three months before a conference on the subject. (That question mark means that I truly don't know whether it's a coincidence. If it is, it's a good one.)

A friend recently e-mailed to ask some sincere questions about what it's like to be published and get a little recognition for it. Like everything, it has its pros and cons. Doing events like these is a big pro.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Best Day Ever

I'll bet I remember what I was doing exactly 22 years ago today a lot better than you do. Happy Birthday, Chiquitas! We'll see you this afternoon.

The hospital warned us: if you feed them, they grow.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

James Cameron Owes Me $500 Million

For various reasons having nothing to do with current hit movies (really), I got up this morning wanting to play with 3-D. The theory is simple; the application is hard. If you've got a pair of the ol' red-and-blue 3-D glasses handy (and who doesn't?), check out my first black-and-white anaglyphs:

The idea is to take two photos of the same scene a couple inches apart to mimic the stereoscopic view of your two eyes. Tint the right image red and the left image cyan, as below (in Photoshop, you can convert the images to Grayscale and then Monotone). Overlap them transparently (in Photoshop, "Multiply" the top layer) and you're done. Quick and easy. In theory.
Two pics from slightly different angles stand in for your left and right eyes.

In reality, it can be tricky to get the two layers to line up right. The depth of field--which parts pop out and which recede--is determined by how you match up the images. Any little difference between the photos, like if you tilt the camera a bit or the wind blows a branch, can ruin the illusion. I've learned that choosing the right subject and being the right distance from it is important. These three experiments turned out best, but I've got six or seven others that hardly worked at all. I also tried some techniques that give a more full-color effect, but I wasn't happy with those either.
Whenever I'm in an antique store, I love checking out those old stereo viewers and cards that were all the rage in Victorian times. The original Viewmasters. I could imagine myself going nuts collecting hundreds of those cards someday. The red-blue technique's not the same, but seeing a picture pop off the page is just as magical as ever.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Ask Me . . . Anything?

As sometimes happens, a couple of things came together to inspire this post. First, one of my nephews interviewed me for a school assignment and asked some good questions about how one gets a book written, edited and published, an ambition we share. Second, I know a couple of cartoonists using, which is a very simple web thingie where anyone who wants can anonymously ask you anything they want, and you answer. Really. That's all it does. But it's interesting.

I don't want to do Formspring. The last thing I need is another Internet time-sucker demanding attention. However, I do like the idea of an "ask me anything" Q&A and thought I might just try it here. Serious, funny, trivial, anonymous or not. Anything. Ask your questions in the comments for this post and I'll reply.

I see two hazards: someone asks something I don't want to answer, or no one asks anything at all. I expect the latter. If the former, I reserve the right to evade or, if the question's completely out of bounds, delete (that's true on Formspring as well, BTW). But I promise I'll make a good-faith effort to answer as honestly as I can.

Keeping in mind that I'm not expecting the Spanish Inquisition--NObody expects the Spanish Inquisition!--let's see how it goes.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Rock and Roll Jam

Yesterday I mentioned that I'd briefly participated in a "sketch jam"--an online forum where anyone could submit art illustrating a theme chosen by a moderator--and said I might share some results if they weren't too embarrassing. I found one I liked.

What I enjoyed about doing sketch jams were the constraints. I think constraints are important in nurturing creativity; they give it something to push against. For example, if I asked you to write a limerick about anything you wanted, you'd probably sit, staring, unable to think of anything. But if I asked you to write a limerick about snorkels, now you've got a kernel to build on ("There once was a man from New Yorkel..."). So: this particular week's kernel was "Rock and Roll."

My approach to the sketch jam was to play around and try out approaches or techniques I normally wouldn't, in an environment where it was OK to be bad. I'll show you what I did, then describe what I was thinking when I did it.

Aside from my hyper-literal take on the words "rock" and "roll," what I was playing with here was minimalism: how simply and economically could I draw and still tell a story? The 16 panels are a basic grid, and most of the shapes are simple circles and straight lines. Drawing the girl, I was partly inspired by Disney's famous flour sack, an old animators' exercise to see how much emotion could be wrung from a featureless bag:

Disney's surprisingly expressive half-filled sack of flour

So, that was fun and kind of worked. I found it worthwhile. I think these types of exercises are valuable in that they make you stop, rethink what you do and why you do it, and consider new approaches. Especially in cartooning, playfulness is important and easy to overlook.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Escape from Planet Nowhere

My pal Otis Frampton is starting a new webcomic that looks like it'll be a fun, rollicking, well-crafted adventure. Titled "Escape from Planet Nowhere," the story was inspired by a drawing Otis did for a sketch jam a while back. That link will take you to the story's title page; from there, click "Next" under the image to continue.

(Sketch Jam = a forum where artists gather for fun and exercise. In this particular web forum, a moderator chose a theme for each week and anyone who wanted could draw a picture illustrating that theme and post it for comment. A theme might be something like "rock and roll" or "soldier and child," which I think was the idea that inspired Otis's new comic. I did a few jams while Otis was moderator; if I can find the results and they're not embarrassing, maybe I'll post one or two.)

Otis created a series titled "Oddly Normal" about a spunky green-haired witch-human hybrid trying to survive her teen years as an outcast on two worlds. Originally published a few years back by Viper Comics, Oddly looks like she may find new life in ways I don't think I'm at liberty to discuss. But good ones! Otis is also a prolific sketch card artist (a whole niche of sci-fi/fantasy fandom I didn't know existed until I met him) and always seems to have a half dozen comic and film projects underway. Most nights he hosts a three-hour live webcast of himself at work, showing a level of confidence completely alien to me.

Professionally, what I like about Otis's work are his design, storytelling, and Photoshop chops. Except for his sketch cards, Otis works entirely digitally. Usually that wouldn't appeal to me, but Otis's work is full of energy and life, and he uses the medium thoughtfully and intelligently. I also have a lot of respect for Otis because he neither panders to nor is ashamed to write for a juvenile audience. "Oddly Normal" is made for kids (although there are levels that work for adults as well) and, unlike too many creators, Otis doesn't approach them cynically. Doing kids lit right is hard, and his work is sincere and unapologetic. (That said, I think "Planet Nowhere" is aiming at a slightly more mature audience.)

Personally, Otis was one of the first comics-cartoonist types I got to know when "Mom's Cancer" emerged. I've met a lot of people in the business--some very accomplished, almost all gracious and nice--but there are only maybe a half dozen I'd call friends, which I define as "I have their phone number and if I called they'd be happy to talk to me." He's one, and he and his wife Leigh are good people. If there's any justice, his big break is coming soon. Maybe it's "Planet Nowhere."

Friday, March 5, 2010

Milton Caniff Interviews

I've lifted a lot a blog material from my cartooning buddy Mike Lynch, but this time I'm just going to send you directly to his site to watch a wide-ranging 11-part interview with comic strip great Milt Caniff taped in 1982. Caniff, who died in 1988, created "Terry and the Pirates" and "Steve Canyon," and is on my personal list of Top Ten All-Time Greats. He's on a lot of people's.
Caniff in his studio, 1947. I don't know whether he routinely drew from live models or this was just a publicity shot, but that's a pretty cool studio. I wonder what happened to all his books and props?
Even more impressive than Caniff's work on comic strips, I think, is his continuing impact on the entire field of comics. A generation of cartoonists who came of age in the 1930s and '40s were influenced by Caniff's style--his mastery of light and contrast, as well as his powerful, confident, almost impressionistic brushwork--and passed it down to the generation after, who passed it on, who passed it on, until today Caniff shows up in the work of young artists who may not even know his name. Many cartoonists working in the '40s and '50s cited Caniff as a model, and there are echoes of him in modern artists like Frank Miller, Darwyn Cooke and Steve Rude.
Good examples of Caniff's art are hard to find online. I chose these two panels from "Steve Canyon" because I think they illustrate his skillful composition, depiction of action, and use of black. There's a lot going on in both these panels, drawn in masses of inky blotches, but the action is always clear. Your eye goes where Caniff directs it. Just a day's work for Caniff, but masterful stuff.
I'm not a Caniff scholar, but my impression is that his stock among modern critics tends to rise and fall. I've seen him criticized for being too old-fashioned and conservative, as well as just too darned influential. I gather that some people who really know comics get tired of seeing his imitators everywhere. Can't blame him for that! As for stodgy, it's easy to carp six or seven decades later. In the context of his times, and in comparison to what his contemporaries were doing, Caniff was a revolutionary whose work still holds up in my eyes.
Anyway, if that's the kind of thing that interests you, then I expect Mr. Lynch's videos will interest you as well. As a bonus, the interview was conducted by Shel Dorf, one of the founders of ComicCon International and Caniff's letterer, who just died a few months ago. I admit I haven't found time to watch the whole thing yet (still hip-deep in deadlines), but I will.