Saturday, June 26, 2010

Now and Then

Commenting on my last post, Good Friend O' the Blog Jim O'Kane suggested I combine my old and new Disneyland pics into "Now and Then" photomontages, similar to those Jim did here. I've seen some very striking examples of the same idea elsewhere: combining new and old shots of the same site, either via Photoshop or physically holding an old photo in the same spot and snapping a picture. Some good ones are here and here.

I love the idea and, with a few minutes to kill, thought I'd try a simple one. Here's Disneyland's double-decker Omnibus, turning the corner from 2010 and driving into the late 1950s (click to see it big).

As I commented to Jim, I think the artistry of these depends on the details included and omitted from each era. In this case, I simply split the image down the middle. I'll definitely be playing with these some more in my copious free time. Thanks, Jim!

EDITED TO ADD: One more: My wife Karen (lower right) sharing a New Orleans Square staircase with some beauties from the early seventies (?).

Friday, June 25, 2010

Disneyland Old and New

I'm an unapologetic fan of Disneyland. Well . . . slightly apologetic.

I know there's something a bit unadult about immersing myself in the joys of childhood from time to time. I understand the criticism of Disney as a purveyor of bland, bourgeois, kitschy entertainment. I realize that whatever warm and happy feelings I have for Disney exist partly (mostly?) because clever marketers programmed them into me.

And yet . . .

As I point out in Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow, Disney and Disneyland are mid-century Americana, for better and worse. They're in our national DNA. When Walt opened Disneyland in 1955, there was nothing else like it. It was ambitious and, yes, visionary. Although Walt was a flint-hearted CEO running a profit-making corporation, he spent more money than necessary to make Disneyland better than it needed to be. I think it shows.

Also, as I grew up in South Dakota in the sixties watching "Mickey Mouse Club" reruns and "The Wonderful World of Disney" on TV, Disneyland was everything my life wasn't: not just a theme park with a few fun rides, but southern California, orange groves, movies and magic. I remember a friend coming back from a vacation to the Magic Kingdom with a mouse-ear beanie that we revered as if it were Excalibur. When I finally made my first visit to Disneyland with my grandparents at age 9, I was not disappointed. I admit I still feel that familiar rush today, walking past the gates and through the tunnels under the railroad tracks, Adult Me fully aware that I'm being manipulated and Kid Me not caring in the slightest.

It also occurs to me that a quality many writers and cartoonists share is the ability to tap into their playful, childlike nature. I see no need to quash it.

A lot of people feel likewise. Thousands of books, magazines, and websites are dedicated to Disney past and present. Two sites that I visit occasionally are Stuff from the Park run by Matterhorn1959, and the quixotically named Gorillas Don't Blog run by Major Pepperidge. Both feature old photos from Disneyland's 55-year history, often with interesting or funny annotations. When our family returned to Disneyland last May (we get down there every few years, this time to celebrate my girls' college graduation), I took along a project and wanted to share the results.

My idea was to print out old photos posted on those two sites and reshoot the same scene as precisely as possible. I didn't spend a lot of time on it, and you'll see that some results are more accurate than others. A few were impossible due to changes in the park over the decades. I didn't even try Tomorrowland or Fantasyland, both greatly refurbished. But in general I was impressed by how little the bones of the place had changed. It was also neat to stand in the same spot someone else had stood 40 or 50 years before, taking the same shot, feeling a little connection with the ghosts of visitors past. It's an exercise I recommend. (Clicking on the photos links to larger versions.)

Main Street from the Train Depot steps, 1959 and 2010.

A publicity still of Main Street, 1955 or '56.

City Hall, 1956.

Portal to Frontierland, 1956.

Main Street Omnibus and Cinema, 1966. I should have stood closer to the left curb, but had to shoot fast when I saw the bus coming.

Publicity still from New Orleans Square. Wish I'd had a ladder.

Omnibus rounding the Town Square at the top of Main Street. This is the only one that took a while to shoot; I waited a long time for that bus to come around. This was also one in which it was impossible to duplicate the original angle, looking right down the center of Main Street, because of new "features" in the way.

I had fun with this. Thanks again to Matterhorn1959 and Major Pepperidge for the inspiration.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Royal Ravenmaster

In my previous post I mentioned our tour of the Tower of London guided by Beefeater Ray, the Tower's Ravenmaster. Commenter Marion said she most envied Karen and me for meeting a Royal Ravenmaster, as well she should. Here are 5 minutes and 40 seconds of Ray in action.

You can hear Ray's ravens cawing at different points in the video. For those not hip to the legend, as I wasn't a week ago, it is said that if the ravens ever leave the grounds both the Tower and the kingdom will fall. To ensure that they do not, a flock of six ravens (and, as Ray explained, a couple of spares) are well kept on site with their wings clipped. Biggest, fattest, happiest crows I've ever seen.

Ray was quite an entertaining guide, but what doesn't come across in this clip is how seriously he takes his job. To earn the right to wear their slightly ridiculous tunics and hats, yeoman warders have to serve at least 22 years in the British armed forces as a warrant or senior noncommissioned officer and earn a good conduct medal. They live at the Tower itself (Ray later described how impossible it is to get a pizza delivered when you give your address as "the Tower of London"). It's a whole way of life--much more than being a tour
guide--and a part of history.

Monday, June 21, 2010

This ... Is London

A brief report and a few photos (just a few, believe me--we took a few hundred) from our trip to London.

We arrived Wednesday afternoon, with plenty of time to take the Tube from Heathrow into London, find our lodging, check in, and make it to a dinner for conference delegates arranged by the event's organizer, Dr. Ian Williams. The 10-hour flight was terrible--wailing toddlers and bumpy all the way, I don't think the seat belt sign was turned off once--so you can imagine how sharp and fresh we felt joining the gang for dinner at Mildreds. It was still great to meet Ian and a few others I'd known only as e-mail correspondents, but by the time we returned to our hotel at 11 p.m. we were pretty exhausted.

On the stoop of our home away from home,
the Goodenough Club. It was.

We slept in and poked around the city a bit on Thursday morning, so missed the beginning of the conference (I wasn't scheduled to speak until 2 p.m.), coming 'round a bit before noon. Supported by the Wellcome Trust and held at the University of London, the "Graphic Medicine" conference was a tremendously interesting mix of academics and comics enthusiasts, medical practitioners and ink-stained wretches like me, all interested in what happens when you mix healthcare with comics.

The event was limited to 75 attendees; just guessing based on who I met, I'd estimate that about half were from the UK, one-third from the U.S. and Canada, and the rest from various elsewheres. Most of the talks took place in one large classroom (really two, with the dividing wall between them open), with breakout sessions in a smaller room downstairs, and lunch and an after-conference wine reception held in a large central hall.

Ian Williams, the conference's mastermind, who's both a physician and cartoonist in his own right. He and Laura were terrific people. One highlight of the conference: watching Ian go pale and shrink down in his seat as a speaker analyzed his cartooning, done under the pseudonym "Thom Ferrier."

The main room filling up as Ian does housekeeping before I'm introduced. That's the back of my head at the right. Ignore the thinning spot on top; I do.

Discussing WHTTWOT with Giskin Day, a Medical Humanities lecturer at Imperial College London who wrote an early and generous review of Mom's Cancer, and Susan Squier, a Penn State professor and writer who introduced me with probably the nicest remarks anyone's ever said about me, including my own mother. It was really terrific to meet them both.

I think my keynote lecture went very well. I had to improvise when I realized that not everyone could read the comics in my slides due to how the room was configured, so I read them all aloud. People said nice things afterward. I spoke for about 40 minutes, took some good questions, and then sat in on a couple of other sessions before doing a panel discussion with Darryl Cunningham and the effervescent Philippa Perry that closed the day. I found Darryl's cartooning particularly interesting; in addition to his book Psychiatric Tales, based on his own experiences working in a psychiatric hospital, he's done a journalistic comic eviscerating Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the discredited quack who convinced millions that the MMR vaccine causes autism, and hopes to do future work taking apart the Moon Landing Hoaxers. I admit I wasn't familiar with his work before, but I think he'll be one of my favorites in the future. I also enjoyed getting to know Ada Palmer, whose day job is assistant professor of Renaissance history at Texas A&M but who would rather study the work of manga master Osamu Tezuka.

With my pal MK Czerwiec, "Comic Nurse," who I thought gave an outstanding talk on the topic, "Could Making Comics Help Caregivers?" MK teaches a Medical Humanities course at Northwestern University, and she showed results from one exercise I found especially interesting in which she asked doctors-in-training to draw an experience from both a doctor's and patient's point of view. As doctors, their drawings were very clinical and anatomical; as patients, the drawings expressed a full range of emotions and outcomes. It was a striking and illuminating contrast.

Ewen and Graham from my publisher Abrams's UK office brought a few boxes of WHTTWOT to the reception to sign and sell (a bargain at £10!). Unfortunately, they didn't have any copies of Mom's Cancer available.

At a post-conference dinner with Paul Gravett, another keynote speaker and the dean of UK comics criticism and journalism. Imagine the most urbane, personable, charming, Britishest person you can, add Alistair Cooke, and you've got Paul Gravett.

We found two copies of WHTTWOT "in the wild," at Foyle's books on Charing Cross Rd.

Friday and Saturday, Karen and I got to be tourists doing the mandatory tourist things: the British Museum, Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square (one of the great public spaces in the world), Covent Garden, Parliament and Big Ben (which I know isn't the name of the clock or tower, but of the big bell inside). Even Harrod's, which was nuts. I won't bore you with stories of our blistered feet nor more than a couple of photos.

One of Karen's "artistic" shots: the famous Tower Bridge peeking over the walls of the Tower of London. We were very smart at the Tower of London: got there as soon as it opened at 9 a.m. and went directly to see the Crown Jewels. Almost no one else was there; there's a moving walkway that carries visitors past the display cases that we were welcome to circle around and repeat to our hearts' content. After that, we went back to the gate to join a free tour guided by a Beefeater. Our very entertaining Beefeater, Ray, also happened to be the Tower's ravenmaster. If you can put "Ravenmaster" on your resume', you are the coolest person I've ever met.

Two armslength self portraits at Buckingham Palace and Big Ben to prove I'm not lying, because I could tell you were getting suspicious.

We relied on the Underground for pretty much all our transportation, but lucked into a double-decker bus tour through the center of the city when a Tube station we'd planned to use was unexpectedly closed and we had to find an equivalent land route. It turned out to be a great way to see London and probably my favorite surprise of the trip.
Our home base, the Russell Square Underground Station.

Karen watching the train blur by. "Mind the gap."

I liked everything about this Underground sign: its tile work, its design, its colors, its font. I remember watching the original British "Prisoner" series, and the "Way Out" signs that prominently figured in some episodes, when I was a teenager. In that program, they were eerie and ironic; there was no way out of the Prisoner's Village. I hadn't thought of that in decades until I saw these signs everywhere. They made the Tube just a bit spookier to me.

Our double-decker. We lucked out and got a classic old Routemaster model from the 1950s, which is the same kind I drove as part of my university's transit system when I was in college. If our driver had had a heart attack and I was somehow able to dash down the spiral staircase in the back of the bus, run around to the front, pull him from the cab, and hoist myself up, I could have saved us all.

Perhaps the world's most jarring combination of form and function: a great old building blasphemed by a BK.

We loved London, met some talented, smart, committed and very friendly people, and hope to see more of both the city and them in the future. It's a fun and exciting town, and even moreso when English footballers are competing for the World Cup. Many thanks to Ian for inviting me, the University of London for hosting, and the Wellcome Trust for making it possible for me to attend. I'll do it again anytime.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Quick Howdy

Still in London, after giving a keynote lecture at a conference on "Graphic Medicine" on Thursday. Now it's vacation time for Karen and me.

The lecture went great--hard to imagine it going any better, actually, unless I unaccountably became better looking with a deeper voice--and I met some fantastic people. This is my first time in London and it's a great city. The weather has been very pleasant and cooperative: just a small sprinkle Friday night after we'd already turned in. We find London confusing in the way that cities laid out centuries before the auto can be, but that's part of its charm and getting lost is part of the adventure. We're making extensive use of the Underground. "Mind the gap."

I'll upload some photos and such when we get home. Meanwhile, my friend MK--a nurse-cartoonist (nice combo) from Chicago whom I've known online for quite a while and was delighted to finally meet in person--has a photo and brief post up on her blog. Check it out. By the way, MK's a bit more petite than she looks in that picture; she cheated by standing on a step.

Off to be a tourist.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Saturday Was An Excellent Day

Karen, Laura, Robin & Your Correspondent

Ending four years of hard work and proud accomplishment; beginning an eternity of being hounded for donations by a university alumni association.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

An Easter Egg from Tomorrow(land)

"Easter eggs" are little surprises hidden in video games, computer programs, movies, songs, etc. that aren't meant to be found by everyone. You only discover them if you push the right combination of buttons, click a special spot on the screen, notice a particular detail, or hear about them from a friend. In the new "Star Trek" movie, there's a frenetic scene of mayhem in which the Enterprise dodges debris from a dozen destroyed starships . . . and, flashing past in a fraction of a second, Star Wars' R2-D2. That's an Easter egg.

"Droid off the port bow, Captain!"

Here's one I dropped into Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow. The last chapter of the book tells a story of the future, from microscopic circuits too small to see to astronomical vastness too large to comprehend. It opens on what the reader might assume is a landscape of futuristic buildings, but which turn out to be (spoiler alert!) components of a microprocessor.
WHTTWOT, Page 177.
That whole page is an Easter egg. In reality, it's not a drawing of a futuristic city or a microscopic circuit, but a wall found in Disneyland's Tomorrowland:
Me and "my" wall, taken when we revisited
Walt's original park a couple of weeks ago.
I remember first being impressed with the design of this wall decades ago. To teenage me, it screamed "the future!" We happened to visit Disneyland a few years back when I was pulling together ideas for WHTTWOT, and I took reference photos throughout Tomorrowland, not knowing quite what I'd do with them but hoping they'd inspire something. Later, they did. (Tax write-off!)
WHTTWOT argues that Walt Disney was an important influence on how Americans, and through them their politicians and scientists, came to view their future. Good or bad, accurate or not, Disney molded people's opinions, desires and expectations. So I thought it was very apt to include a little piece of Disney's vision in my World of Tomorrow. Of course I didn't expect anyone to catch it, but for those who do--and a few real Disneyland fans have--it adds a little bit more meaning and texture to the chapter. And fun.

Monday, June 7, 2010


Today I'm working on a lecture I'll be giving in London next week, and just typing that sentence seems like an other-worldly out-of-body experience.

I've been invited to deliver a keynote speech at a conference titled "Graphic Medicine: Medical Narratives in Graphic Novels" to an audience I expect to consist of some medical professionals, some comics people, and goodness knows who else. It'll be a small conference--75 max--but I think it's the most important talk I've ever given and I'm working hard to get it right. I want the delegates and conference organizer Ian Williams, who's been terrific, to feel like they got their time and money's worth. I'm also looking forward to meeting another scheduled speaker, Paul Gravett, who's one of the smartest writers about comics in the business.

I've never been to London. Karen's coming along and we're taking the opportunity to extend our stay a couple of days to explore the great city. If I have time, I'll re-read my Boswell before taking off. Our girls have actually been there without us (they spent a month studying in the UK a couple of years ago) and have given us some expert travel tips. I understand it's one of the great walking cities in the world so that's how we plan to spend our time, along with the mandatory tourist stuff.

If Eyjafjallajokull cooperates, we expect to have a great trip. I'll let you know if we were right.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Problem Solving

Today I solved a problem that's been nagging me a while. It's a plot point in Mystery Project X--the story I haven't blogged about much lately but am still resolutely chipping away at and hope will someday be my next book or maybe webcomic if no one wants to publish it (that's its official subtitle, by the way).

Briefly and cryptically, I need a character to do X in location Y, then make his way to location Z. Everything hinges on this. But I could not for the life of me figure out how he could get him from Y to Z; if he's at Y when X happens, showing up later at Z should be impossible, or at least ridiculously complicated. Last night, lying in bed, I cracked it. All I have to do is move location Y 50 yards--do the same thing in a slightly different locale--and everything falls elegantly into place. It even makes the story better. It sounds silly, but I've been wrestling with this for weeks.

If you want to start an argument among writers, bring up writer's block. Charles Schulz famously said, "Writer's block is for amateurs." While I think that's a little uncharitable, I lean that way myself. Being a professional anything, including writer, means being able to buckle down and do the job well even when you don't feel like it. On the other hand, writers far better than I (and Schulz) have suffered from writer's block, sometimes so crippling they never wrote again.

I don't know. I'm not qualified to judge. Writing is supposed to be hard; if it wasn't hard, everyone would do it.* However, I'm pretty sure a lot of things are mistaken for writer's block: laziness, distraction, bad work habits, lack of confidence in yourself or your story. Even realizing you just don't enjoy writing as much as you used to and would rather do something else. Some might've labeled my little plot paralysis "writer's block," whereas I always thought of it as a puzzle I was pretty sure I could eventually solve. It's a subtle distinction--if I'd never solved the puzzle, then would it be writer's block? I think the difference is that solving tough puzzles seems like part of the writing process, while yielding to writer's block seems like foresaking it.



Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Post-It Post

Pound for pound, I think I do most of my artwork on Post-It Notes (or their generic equivalents). Stacks of those wonderous three-inch squares (how did we live without them?) are always at my side, begging to keep my hand busy during phone calls or quiet moments. I go through 'em like candy, often scribbling away without even realizing it.

So I thought maybe from time to time I'd post one before it hits the trash. I've pixelated the actual note on the note--that's my business! Today's doodle of the Last Son of Krypton leaping into action is yours.