Saturday, July 31, 2010

Two Minutes with Charlie Kochman

When I finished my Mom's Cancer webcomic, printed it all out, and shoved it into an envelope addressed to "Dear Editor," it landed on Charlie Kochman's desk. Now the executive editor of Abrams ComicArts, Charlie had been hired by publisher Harry N. Abrams specifically to develop a graphic novel/pop culture line, and Mom's Cancer was the first project he signed. A couple of years later, Charlie was again my editor on Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow. In gratitude, I fed him to a giant prairie dog.

(By the way, in my humble opinion, "furious buck-toothed justice" may be the best three words I've ever strung together.)

Walking around Comic-Con with Charlie is like walking through Little Italy with the Godfather. You can't go five steps without someone stepping up to renew an acquaintance, beg a favor, or pay tribute. He knows everyone and has introduced me to some of the greats in the business. If Charlie vouched for me, I was in. Most importantly, if I'm ever stranded in Manhattan by another blizzard of the century, I know whose sofa I can sleep on.

Here's two minutes with my friend Charlie:

In the first half of the interview, I sidetracked Charlie into a discussion of Wacky Packages--which is just one minor example of dozens of cool books he's overseen--while trying to make the point that his experience and connections allow him to hook up great people with interesting projects, a valuable skill and part of what makes him good at his job. Which I wouldn't take for anything.

As for the second half of the interview, well . . . I always thought I was special. I thought we had something. Sniff. I still love you, man. Thanks for everything.

EDITED TO ADD: At the risk of ruining the gag, it's a gag. I think that's obvious--the camera shakes because I was laughing during the recording--but I'm explaining it now because I don't want anyone to think ill of Charlie. We're good friends joking around, and this is my favorite interview.


Thursday, July 29, 2010

Two Minutes with Stephan Pastis

You need to know a few things going into today's Two-Minute Comic-Con Interview with Stephan Pastis, former lawyer, fellow Harvey Award nominee, and creator of the very successful syndicated comic strip "Pearls Before Swine."

First, Stephan and I coincidentally live in the same city. We also coincidentally live in the same neighborhood. In fact, our homes coincidentally have exactly the same floorplan except his is a mirror image of mine. We even coincidentally work in the same room of our respective houses. For me, visiting Stephan is like traveling to a Bizarro universe where left is right, right is wrong, up is down, and cartoonists earn enough to live on.

When Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow came out last summer, I had the idea of hosting a live webcast "virtual launch party" to celebrate. I figured I'd show off the book, do some drawing, maybe take some Q&A, and I invited Stephan to drop by as a Very Special Guest. He said he'd be happy to do it, on the condition that he could be the Worst Very Special Guest Ever. He was as good as his word. Stephan brought beer, Cheetos, balloons, a paddleball, and a blatantly disruptive attitude to the party, and made it a . . . magical . . . evening.

With that background, here are two minutes with Stephan Pastis. See you on the other side.

Not everyone knows that Stephan works part-time for Creative Associates, the studio that oversees the "Peanuts" empire built by Charles Schulz. Cartoonist Paige Braddock, who makes a cameo in the Two-Minute Interview, is Creative Associates' creative director. That explains why they both participated in a Comic-Con panel on "Peanuts at 60." (As I mentioned in my post-Con post, I tried to get in to watch that panel but the room was over capacity, which was nice to see.) The new animated special that Stephan co-wrote is the upcoming "Happiness is a Blanket, Charlie Brown," which will feature Linus.

The idea of the man who created the cynical, misanthropic Rat putting words into the mouth of the wise and sensitive Linus unnerves me. But then, Stephan also created the wise Goat and sensitive Pig, so perhaps he has it in him after all. He is a man of hidden talents. He's also a good guy, but don't tell him I said so. I'll surprise him with it at 9 a.m. next Sunday.

Tomorrow: my last Two-Minute Comic-Con Interview. Don't look so relieved.

Two Minutes with Paul Guinan

I'd never met Paul Guinan before I discovered his table in Comic-Con's Artists Alley. I thought his book Boilerplate: History's Mechanical Marvel, co-authored with his wife Anina Bennett, was fantastic and stopped to tell him so.

Boilerplate is a robot who, like Zelig or Forrest Gump, happens to show up to play a role in key turn-of-the-century events. Although the robot is (spoiler alert!) fictional, Paul worked hard to get the history right, and it's a fun and interesting blend. We talked for just a few minutes before I got the bright idea to pull out my Flip and record a Two-Minute Interview with him, the fourth of six.

My first question to Paul was really stupid. I asked if he did the writing or the drawing. In fact, there's little "drawing" in Boilerplate, and I knew that. I guess I'm just used to thinking in terms of comics (which Boilerplate isn't) and it was the first thing out of my mouth. Fortunately, Paul executed a graceful save and we went on from there:

The question about people being fooled by Boilerplate was prompted by an incident involving comic actor and writer Chris Elliott, who came across Boilerplate, thought the robot was a hoax from the late 19th century rather than the early 21st, and incorporated the character into his novel The Shroud of the Thwacker. I remember enjoying this New York Times article about it at the time. In an unusually civil fashion, Messrs. Guinan and Elliott worked out a deal between themselves giving Paul a cut of Elliott's earnings to compensate him for the copyright violation. Elliott's confusion was understandable.

I may have gotten the interview off on the wrong foot, but my enthusiasm for Boilerplate is genuine. Visit Paul's website, and if that looks like the kind of thing you'd enjoy, check out the book with my recommendation.

Tomorrow: a Two-Minute Interview goes horribly awry.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Don't Stop Believing

By and large, for a slew of reasons, I've stopped citing reviews of my books on this blog and left them to my Facebook pages when appropriate. But Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow just got such a nice response from Bob Duggan at that I wanted to mention it here. In a review titled "Don't Stop Believing," Mr. Duggan concludes:

As Robert Browning once wrote, “Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp. Or what's a heaven for?” Fies echoes Browning in extolling the value of the reach, for heaven awaits those who dare to believe. Fies’ comic is a book to share with your children and your children’s children, for it is a document of faith lost and faith restored—something that we need more of every day.

That right there is what my book is about. He got it. That feels great. Big thanks to Big Think.

Two Minutes with Raina Telgemeier

A few minutes after recording yesterday's Two-Minute Comic-Con Interview with Dave Roman, I tracked down his wife Raina Telgemeier, who was working a different booth. (In fact, while I was talking to Raina she got a phone call from Dave and told him, "Yeah, Brian's here." I think I heard his groan through the phone.)

Raina's graphic novel Smile, a memoir of her middle-school experience with some nasty dental problems that compounded the usual social dramas of adolescence, has been well-reviewed and picked up by Scholastic, which sold it to school kids throughout the country. As mentioned in today's interview, she has also done comics adaptations of Ann M. Martin's Baby-Sitters Club series and co-wrote the manga-style X-Men: Misfits. We did not mention that she also contributed a story to Volume 4 of the popular anthology series Flight.

Raina and Dave are two of my favorite people in the business. I like their approach to their readers and the work they do. Here's Raina:

My question about ink was meant to be kind of funny-stupid, but I think led to an interesting answer. Raina says she once tried to use the same ink I use and hated it. I had a similar experience with paper, when I changed brands and thought I'd lost the ability to draw. Turned out I just couldn't draw well on that paper--its texture did bad things to my ink line.

Cartoonists say that one of the most common questions they get is "What kind of pen/paper/ink/brush/computer program do you use?" The easy answer is that it doesn't matter: a cartoonist can work with expensive, exotic materials or ballpoint pens on cheap printer paper. But I think a better answer is to try a bunch of different stuff and learn what you like. Materials and media that one cartoonist loves may not work for you at all, and vice versa.

Tomorrow: a Two-Minute Interview with a total stranger.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Two Minutes with Dave Roman

Continuing my post-Comic-Con posts, here's the second of six Two-Minute Interviews I did. Today's subject is cartoonist Dave Roman, husband of cartoonist Raina Telgemeier. I don't know how two full-time comics makers manage to feed themselves, but somehow they not only survive but thrive.

As noted in the interview, Dave is the creator or co-creator of Astronaut Elementary, Agnes Quill (a well-received book whose movie rights were optioned by Paramount), Jax Epoch and the Quicken Forbidden, Boat Boy, and the manga-style X-Men: Misfits book. Dave was also an editor for Nickelodeon Magazine until Nickelodeon foolishly decided it didn't need a magazine anymore. I met Dave and Raina at my first Eisner Awards in 2006 and I've happily followed their success from afar.

As I mention in the interview, what I like most about Dave's work is that he respects his juvenile audience, creating interesting stories that don't pander or condescend. He does kids' literature sincerely and unapologetically. I think that's rare in the comics world. Here's Dave's perspective on that:

Many thanks to Dave for his time (which I took much more of than two minutes). I bet you'll never guess who I interviewed next. She's (oops, a clue!) up tomorrow.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Two Minutes with Scott Kurtz

Following up on my previous Comic-Con post-mortem, this is the first of six Two-Minute Interviews I did with five friends and one complete stranger in San Diego. The idea was to capture a spontaneous conversation about comics that I hoped would be interesting and fun. I'll post one a day for the rest of the week.

Scott Kurtz is the creator of "PvP" ("Player vs. Player"), which is among the most popular and successful webcomics in the universe. Scott won the Eisner Award for Best Webcomic the year after I did. Most remarkable is that Scott has figured out how to make a living at it, an accomplishment that has eluded 99.94% of webcomics creators. He shared some of his insights in a book he co-wrote, How to Make Webcomics.

I met Scott last February when he came to town to spend a day as the Schulz Museum's cartoonist in residence, something I'd done the month before. I was wary. In online message boards and such, Scott has a dynamic presence. He speaks his mind bluntly, sparks arguments, fuels fueds. So I was expecting a real bomb-throwing fire-breather when we met for dinner after his engagements at the museum.

I might as well tell that story now, although I didn't at the time. Scott was staying at the guest house of Jeannie Schulz, Charles Schulz's widow. I don't think Scott was special in that regard; my impression is that Mrs. Schulz opens her home to any vagrant cartoonist passing through. Jeannie wanted to host a little gathering for Scott and invited a small group of local cartoonists including me, whom she'd just met a month before. My wife Karen and I drove out to her home not knowing quite what to expect, and were delighted to find a very comfortable, casual meal of pizza and salad, accompanied by horsing around on the Schulz's indoor basketball half-court.

It was a wonderful, slightly surreal evening I'll never forget, during which I met Scott, his wife and his father. Given what I'd seen of Scott's online persona, I was surprised to find him even-tempered, warm, thoughtful, sensitive, and very nice to talk with. We bonded pretty quickly over shared experiences and approaches to cartooning. An instant friend. Not that he needs my endorsement, but Scott Kurtz is all right by me.

With that intro, I hope you enjoy my Two-Minute Interview with Scott:

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Comic-Con 2010, Brian 0

Evidently, I'd make a better Vegas bookie than a cartoonist. My last post's predictions in the two Eisner Award categories for which I was nominated were 100% accurate. The people I expected to win did, and they weren't me. I nevertheless had a terrific time at the Con, which becomes a more over-the-top spectacle every year--did a little business (some secret!), saw old friends and made new ones. I've got a quick (ha!) overview for you today and more fun stuff I plan to share all next week.

Comic-Con draws about 125,000 people. This shot from the Convention Center toward San Diego's historic Gaslamp District shows what every intersection within about a half mile radius looked like all weekend. This year's Con seemed to spill out into the streets more than I'd ever noticed before, with parties (for example, the guys from Jackass took over a large parking lot just down this block to throw their own bash late into the night) and jam-packed bars and restaurants everywhere.

I arrived Friday morning and had barely gotten in the door when I found my publisher Abrams' double-wide booth and got my first great surprise of the day. Editor Charlie Kochman and his wife, the Lovely Rachel, were there, along with some Abrams staff I've gotten to know. They make up an impressive traveling carnival. Charlie immediately introduced me to Todd Klein, a veteran comic book letterer. I'm always happy to meet any comics pro, but what made meeting Todd very special to me is that he writes a blog that saved my bacon when I was writing Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow.

If you've seen my book, you'll recall there are sections of it drawn and printed to look like old comic books. I wanted to get those right and was figuring out how to go about coloring them when Todd coincidentally posted a fantastically detailed history and explanation of old comic book coloring techniques--exactly when I needed it! Like, within two days! It was a special thrill to tell Todd how much he'd helped me and thank him, and Charlie and I made sure he walked away with a copy of the book to which he'd unknowingly but critically contributed.

In the hall five minutes and already experiencing the highlight of meeting Todd Klein. That thing strapped over my shoulder is a ridiculously large bag the Con gave everyone when they walked in the door. In the close quarters of the Exhibit Hall, people were whacking each other with those things all weekend.

The Abrams booth, with the Lovely Rachel behind the counter.

My books at the Abrams table. Eisner Award winners get gold stickers, nominees get silver. Abrams does good work. We sold out of Mom's Cancer on Friday and only had three copies of WHTTWOT remaining when I left midday Saturday, which I think made everyone happy.

The Con was the usual clash and blend of cultures: comics, TV, movies, gaming, science fiction, fantasy, art, costume play, nostalgia, light porn. I took fewer photos this year than in the past; after a while, you find Slave-Girl Princess Leia or an Army of Predators less charming than you used to and just wish they'd stop blocking the aisle. Still, some tableaus are particularly eye-catching. . .

On the steps of the Starfleet cafeteria. I sat to eat lunch a few steps below these lovely lieutenants who, to be fair, weren't there as fans but as staffers of the Roddenberry company booth. Not everyone can pull off this miniskirt, you know (perhaps I should rephrase that . . .). I did ask permission to take their photo but regret I didn't give the one in the middle time to wipe the mustard from her lips.

This photo of the National Cartoonists Society booth is for comics documentarian D.D. Degg, who I think has come to expect it from me. Don't take me for granted, D.D. I won't always be here for you. Everytime I walked past, I saw it manned by "Luann" cartoonist Greg Evans (sitting at the right) and "Family Circus" cartoonist Jeff Keane (in the green shirt with his back turned), as others came and went.

I had a chance to spend some time with a few nice and talented people, among them editor, writer, and well-known graphic designer Chip Kidd, who's a friend of Editor Charlie's and has accepted me into his orbit as well. Chip can be very naughty. He can also be sincere and kind, and gave me a big hug as I headed to the bar to cash in my free drink coupon after I was skunked at the Eisners. Many people know that Chip is a good editor, writer, designer, etc., but not many people know that he is a good hugger.

A resplendent Chip Kidd and Editor Charlie doing a panel about a forthcoming book on Captain Marvel ("Shazam!") that Chip wrote and Charlie edited. I'm looking forward to it, it looks very good.
I first met cartoonist Carol Tyler, whose book You'll Never Know was nominated for two Eisners this year, at the Miami Book Fair last November. We'd had a very nice, long talk in Miami but I had no reason to expect she'd remember me when I saw her sit down at the table next to mine. But she did, and rushed over to give me a big hug (I guess I like hugs) and kiss, and pick up our conversation as if no time has passed. When I wrote about meeting her in Miami, I called her "a force of nature deposited on our planet just to create comics, inspire creativity, and make people happy." Still true. I find her a uniquely radiant person.

At the Eisner Awards with Carol Tyler, who also introduced me to her sister and niece. It was a treat to see her again.

I spent a little time talking with Jeannie Schulz, whom I met when I got to be cartoonist in residence at the Schulz Museum in January, and Eric Nash, a former New York Times writer who wrote a fascinating (and Eisner-nominated) book on Manga Kamishibai, the art of Japanese paper theater. Jeannie was at the Con to participate in a panel discussion on the 60th anniversary of "Peanuts" (I tried to get in but the room was too full! Nice to see that kind of interest) and accept the special Bob Clampett Humanitarian Award at the Eisners. Eric is an expert on architecture, photography and proto-manga, and one of the gentlest souls I've ever met.

I also had nice conversations with cartoonist Peter Kuper and agent Judy Hansen. Some people I spoke to for less than a minute but still enjoyed meeting or reacquainting included Tom Spurgeon (who won an Eisner Award for his work as the Comics Reporter), writer David Gerrold, cartoonist and TV writer (Seinfeld, the Simpsons) Tom Gammill, classic superhero artist Ramona Fradon, cartoonists Shaenon Garrity, Vanessa Davis, and Laurie Sandell, and publisher Peter Maresca.

I also entertained myself by videotaping interviews with six people, five of whom I haven't yet name-dropped in this post. To make it easy, quick and fun for everyone, I set myself the challenge of doing each interview in two minutes. So for the next six days, come back here to see a Two-Minute Interview with Somebody I Know™ (except for one guy I'd just met but who was a good sport). Fair warning: some of the interviews are better and more interesting than others. In any event, they're over fast.

Speaking of videos, here's what happens when you lose an Eisner Award, presented by cartoonists Jillian Tamaki and David Sturm:

(What's going on at the end there is that Chip Kidd, who was sitting at our table, thought he was supposed to accept the award on Mazzucchelli's behalf, but someone beat him to it when he was halfway to the stage. He got his revenge when Mazzucchelli won two more awards later.)

And here's what happens when you lose another Eisner Award 20 minutes later, presented by writer James Robinson:

I appreciated how he corrected himself on the pronunciation of my name. Just for the record, had I won I intended to keep my camera rolling as I went up and collected my trophy, just to show you that, too. Would've been fun.

Now let me tell you a story. It's after the Eisner Awards, about quarter past midnight, and I'm walking back to my hotel alone. The air is warm and a little humid, my jacket is slung over my arm. The downtown party spots around the Convention Center are still vibrating with raucous energy, but my hotel is about a mile away and as I walk the blocks the crowds thin until I have the dark, quiet streets pretty much to myself. And honestly, I'm feeling a little down. I had no hope of winning the Eisner for Lettering, but I really thought WHTTWOT was a contender for Best Publication Design. It would have been a nice acknowledgement of the hard work Editor Charlie, Designer Neil, I and a lot other others put into it.

So I'm moping along, absurdly feeling like I somehow let down my team, when coming up the street behind me I hear the squeaky rattle of a pedicab, one of the bicycle-powered rickshaws that swarm the Convention Center. I look over. And there, chatting quietly in the back of the pedicab while getting chauffeured to their hotel, sit Brent Spiner and LeVar Burton from "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

I can't explain why seeing the Enterprise's Commander Data and Chief Engineer Geordi LaForge--riding in a ridiculous rig infinitely slower than the starship they used to drive across my TV screen--immediately lifted my mood and put everything in perspective, but it did. Something in the moment perfectly captured both the glory and absurdity that is the San Diego Comic-Con. Me downtown after midnight sharing a lonely street with two actors in a pedicab: sure, why the hell not? Anything's possible. I went to bed that night with a smile on my lips that hasn't quite faded away. It was a good day.
I don't know these people but we were headed the same direction for a while and I thought they epitomizied one facet of the Comic-Con experience it's important to remember: Dad with a steampunk musket slung over his shoulder, daughter beautifully costumed head to toe, joyfully immersed in a world they shared and, for one weekend, shared with thousands of others..

Thursday, July 22, 2010

How This is Gonna Go Down

Today is Thursday. I'm leaving for the big 2010 Comic-Con International in San Diego early tomorrow. If everything goes as planned, I should arrive just about the time the doors open Friday morning.

I have a pretty long list of friends and panels I hope to see. The big Hollywood stuff doesn't interest me--I'm there for the comics and will be thumbing through back issues, ogling original art (who knows, if something is priced right it might end up on my wall), and buying a few things that folks back home asked me to pick up. I can also always count on meeting two or three incredible people I didn't expect to find but who will make my day. As Mark Evanier has said, whatever kind of convention experience you want to have is available there--San Diego is like five separate cons all going on in the same space-time--you just have to find it.

My publisher Abrams has a booth (#1216) that will serve as my home base. It'll be great to see Editor Charlie, his wife the Lovely Rachel, and some of the Abrams people I know. I don't have any formal book signings scheduled but will be sure to autograph all of my books on the table (geez, I hope they brought some). If anyone wants to meet me, check there; if I'm not around, leave word and we'll try to rendezvous.

Demands on my time are few, and half the fun of Comic-Con is just wandering around taking in the spectacle. In addition, San Diego is itself a great city, and I plan to spend time doing something few convention-goers do: getting outdoors. My only commitment is to attend the Eisner Awards Friday night, where I'll be vying for two trophies. Here's the competition and my best, most dispassionate estimate of my chances:

Best Lettering:
Brian Fies, Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? (Abrams ComicArts)
David Mazzucchelli, Asterios Polyp (Pantheon)
Tom Orzechowski, Savage Dragon (Image); X-Men Forever (Marvel)
Richard Sala, Cat Burglar Black (First Second); Delphine (Fantagraphics)
Adrian Tomine, A Drifting Life (Drawn & Quarterly)

My odds: 1%. I haven't seen Sala's work. Tomine's book is both very popular and good, while Orzechowski has been a talented professional letterer forever. Either of them could take it. But Asterios Polyp is simply this year's best-selling 800-pound gorilla that will win every category for which it's nominated, and may even deserve to.

Best Publication Design:
Absolute Justice, designed by Curtis King and Josh Beatman (DC)
The Brinkley Girls, designed by Adam Grano (Fantagraphics)
Gahan Wilson: 50 Years of Playboy Cartoons, designed by Jacob Covey (Fantagraphics)
Life and Times of Martha Washington, designed by David Nestelle (Dark Horse Books)
Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of Oz, designed by Philippe Ghielmetti (Sunday Press)
Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? designed by Neil Egan and Brian Fies (Abrams ComicArts)

My odds: ~15%. We may have a shot here. Absolute Justice was a well-regarded book that looked good and I think sold well, and if I had to put my money somewhere it'd be on it. The others are very attractive publications. But I don't see an undisputed runaway favorite in this pack, and if the Eisner voters actually looked at how the books were designed, I believe ours stacks up. I'm very proud of WHTTWOT just as a physical object whose form enhanced its content in a way I don't think is true for the others.

So we'll see how that goes. The Eisners start at 8:30 p.m. and will probably end around midnight. In the past, I've sat within a dozen feet of people like Frank Miller, Jim Steranko, and John Landis. Never spoken to them, just breathed the same air. The past couple of ceremonies I've attended have been pretty entertaining in their own right. Win or lose, it should be fun. Winning would be more fun.

Saturday I've spotted another couple of panels I want to catch, and then need to leave for the airport by midday to get back home at a decent time. Some would disagree, but I think a day and a half at Comic-Con is just about right: enough time to cover the exhibition floor and see what you want without going completely brain dead, shuffling through the aisles like a zombie, giant plastic bag crammed with free posters you'll never hang and t-shirts you'll never wear, a chilling mid-distance stare in your rheumy red-rimmed eyes. Brrrr.

Stories, photos, and maybe more to come. I have a few things in mind you might enjoy.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Punch in the Nose

Darryl Cunningham--creator of the graphic novel Psychiatric Tales and a webcomic taking apart the irrational voodoo of homeopathy whom I was happy to meet in London last month--marks the anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing in a very appropriate way. His latest is a simple, direct, and devastating look at the Moon Hoaxers, the idiots (can't think of any way to say that nicer, or any reason to) who believe humans never landed on the Moon.

I just don't get the many species of hoaxers, truthers, and consipiracy theorists who seem to be everywhere these days. Is this something new, or did they always exist and just never have access to media like the Internet to spread their lunacy (heh)? I suspect they think they're acting in the best tradition of truth-seeking and skepticism; the difference is that they never apply Occam's Razor to conclude that the simplest explanation that fits the facts is probably the best. In their worlds, the simplest explanation is just part of the conspiracy, and the more obvious that explanation seems, the more insidious and deep the conspiracy. They also often seem to regard the laws of nature and physics as optional. My sense is that they're natural contrarians (which is a quality I admire and share) who like the smug satisfaction of knowing "secrets" no one else knows without having to do the actual heavy lifting of examining evidence or learning math, physics, engineering or biology.

As much as I liked Darryl's well-researched and -reasoned comic, I still think the best response to a Moon Hoaxer ever was delivered by astronaut Buzz Aldrin in 2002:

Just one of several reasons Buzz is a hero. Happy Moon Landing Day, all. Yes, it happened, and the evidence will rest on the Moon for millions of years after the last Moon hoaxer is gone. Go read Darryl's comic.

41 Years Ago Today

In my opinion, this is the only event during my lifetime that anyone will remember 1000 years from now. I feel sincerely privileged to have been alive to witness it and old enough to remember it. It still gives me chills.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Post Guardian, Pre Comic-Con

Cian O'Luanaigh, who interviewed me when I was in London and wrote the blog post for the Guardian that I mentioned last Wednesday, has followed up with a list of his favourite medical graphic novels. He mentions some great ones, including Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary by Justin Green, Epileptic by David B (a favo(u)rite of mine as well), Stitches by David Small, and Psychiatric Tales by David Cunningham, whom I also met in London and quickly became a fan of.

And, well, he mentioned Mom's Cancer, writing in part: "Creative use of visual metaphors and honest story-telling make this a true masterpiece of the genre . . . Essential reading." I appreciate that. It's a good list and I'm proud to be on it.

* * *

I'm getting excited about heading to San Diego for Comic-Con at the end of the week, putting together a list of friends I want to touch base with and panels I'd like to see. I'll only be there Friday and part of Saturday, and there's a lot to cram in. Someone calculated that you'd have to walk more than 3 miles just to see all the booths on the exhibition floor, and that doesn't take into account the panels happening in a dozen rooms upstairs or some of the activities Comic-Con has spun off into nearby hotels because the Convention Center isn't big enough anymore.

The Eisner Awards are set for Friday night. I'm up for two of them: Best Lettering and Best Publication Design. If I have a chance before I leave, I'll tell you who I think is going to win. Hint: not necessarily me. It'll be a good time regardless.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Interview in the Guardian

During a break in the Graphic Medicine conference I attended in London last month, I was interviewed by Cian O'Luanaigh, a nice guy equipped with a recorder (I almost wrote "tape recorder" but they don't really use tape anymore) and the best name ever. He wrote it up for the website of the Guardian newspaper, and it's now online.

I think this is a very nice piece. Cian was there all day, did his homework, talked to a lot of people, and captured the event. As I just wrote him, I was particularly happy to see his mention of "Comic Nurse" MK Czerwiec, because I thought her talk was excellent and exactly what the conference was meant to be about.

In the past few years, I've learned a lot about the field of Medical Humanities, that little niche of healthcare dealing with what happens when medicine meets patient. It doesn't always go as well as it should for reasons that have nothing to do with illness or treatment. Medical Humanities is itself a relatively new and small but growing field, and Graphic Medicine an even newer and smaller piece of it. My big "take-away" from the conference was that there are a lot of people very enthusiastic about the potential of comics to help improve the healthcare experience for all concerned. It felt like being part of the start of something that could turn out to be big and important someday. Very rewarding.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Return of the Coolest Picture Ever

It's been a while since I've seen a photo that took my breath away and deserved the title "Coolest Picture Ever." I got one today.

The European space probe Rosetta just flew within 2000 miles (3200 km) of the asteroid Lutetia, on its way to rendevous with comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014, shooting pictures coming and going. Most of them are swell pics of a never-before-seen asteroid left over from the formation of our solar system. I'm sure scientists will learn much from them, but these days they're pretty routine. Then there was this one:

That's Lutetia in the foreground and the planet Saturn far in the background. Holy cow! I don't think most people who went through school thinking of the solar system as a styrofoam-ball mobile hanging from the classroom ceiling have a feel for how relatively small the planets are, the enormous distances between them, or how much nothing there is out there. The idea that for a few seconds Rosetta, Lutetia, and Saturn were near enough to each other and lined up just right to get this shot astounds me.

In WHTTWOT I wrote about Mariner 4, the first successful probe to take close-up photos of another planet (Mars) in 1965. Until then, the best pictures in existence of anything farther away than the Moon were blurry blotches from ground-based telescopes. Now, probes like Rosetta are dully routine. We're orbiting Saturn, heading into interstellar space, flying past asteroids, landing on comets. All in my lifetime.

Any picture that can make me stop and reflect on that is the Coolest Picture Ever.

More at The Planetary Society and Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Holy Moley!

The final ballot for the 2009 Harvey Awards, named in honor of the great MAD co-founder Harvey Kurtzman and given at the Baltimore Comic-Con this August, has been announced. Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow and I are nominated for Best Artist, Best Letterer, Best Colorist, Best Original Graphic Album, and Best Single Issue or Story.

No one could find that embarrassment of riches more inexplicable than I.

Congratulations to my pal Jeff Kinney for the several Harvey nominations he and his most recent book, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw earned, as well as others going to some excellent books by my publisher Abrams. And many thanks to all the comics pros who voted to put me on the final ballot.

Holy Moley.

So You're Getting Published

A conversation with a friend got me thinking about advice I'd give to someone facing their first book contract. If you're in that rare and enviable position, congratulations! You've already cleared some very high hurdles that many talented people never surmount! That's great!

I'm no expert. I've had two graphic novels published, both with the same editor and publisher. I don't have an agent--just haven't felt the need yet (Catch-22: it's easier to get an agent after you've been published . . . which is why you need an agent). My perspective on the literary world is narrow. Still, I've learned a few things that I wish I'd known when I started. Just remember: this is based on my experience and yours may be completely different. I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. YMMV.

So somehow you got a book editor to notice your proposal (everybody I know has a different story about how they achieved that miracle; I mailed mine in blindly, but that never works). They want to publish your stuff and put it in real bookstores! They sent you a contract! You're ridiculously grateful. You don't want to make a fuss. This may be your only chance to ever be published--your lifelong dream!--and you don't want to screw it up.

Don't sign the contract.

If you have an agent, this is where they earn their cut. If you don't, you should hire an attorney experienced in literary law. Either way, you need an expert on your side. The way I see it, your publishing house may be a wonderful company and your editor may become a genuine trusted friend (both true in my case), and as soon as the contract is signed you're all working toward the common goal of making the best book you possibly can. If you're lucky, your future together is nothing but creatively fulfilling candy-colored rainbow-farting flying unicorns. But right now you're adversaries.

The mental switch that you, the humble supplicant, must throw is to realize that you have all the power. At this point, all the rights to your work are yours. Your publisher wants as many of those potentially profitable rights as they can get. They'll ask for them all; they don't expect you to agree. Your negotiations begin. Don't be afraid to strike entire clauses from the contract and send it back. Your agent or attorney can be an excellent "bad cop" to your "good cop." Blame it on them. Unless you turn into a completely arrogant, unreasonable jerk, your publisher won't get mad and go away.

The copyright to your work should always stay in your name, never your publisher's. I understand that isn't necessarily standard procedure in the comics world, but for an original work by you, published by a reputable company, I think it's essential. (A "work for hire" situation is different, know why.) I would walk away from any deal that insisted otherwise--it's probably the only point I absolutely wouldn't compromise on. It's more important than money. Keeping your copyright prevents you from ending up like Siegel and Shuster, who signed away Superman for $130. It prevents anyone else from taking over your characters and publishing new stories without your approval. Bad deals like that didn't go extinct in the '30s; there are still plenty of sharks preying on desperate minnows, often in the guise of "contests."

You're going to grant them the right to publish your work in North America (if that's where you are), that's a given. Foreign rights, merchandising rights, film rights, and a whole bunch of other subsidiary rights are up for grabs. The best advice I heard on this topic was to try to retain all the rights that you think you might be able to exploit better than they can. I actually let my publisher have some rights that other authors keep because I thought they'd handle them better than I could. Don't give up anything without getting something in return.

You may be offered an advance--more accurately, an "advance against royalties." That means they'll pay you $X now and subtract it from the royalties (a percentage of sales, also negotiable) you're due when the book is published. If it doesn't sell well, $X may be all you ever earn. Good news: even if your book totally tanks, you get to keep the advance. If it's your first book and you're not already rich and famous, it will likely not be enough to quit your day job or buy that Lamborghini you have your eye on, but be sure to treat yourself to a nice celebratory dinner. You deserve it.

I don't remember how long we negotiated my two book contracts, but I think it was several weeks of back and forth. A lot of people get involved. There may come a "take it or leave it" point where you're not getting everything you want from the deal but you can live with it. You have to decide where your personal line in the sand is, and it helps to have thought about it ahead of time. Meanwhile, as a good-faith time-saving gesture, you might be talking to your editor and getting started on the work itself. Regardless, as soon as the contract is signed, you want to be ready to hit the ground running. You're a professional now; act like it.

It took me a while to see my relationship with my publisher not as beggar-benefactor or worker-boss, but as a 50-50 partnership: we're going into business together to make the best book we can that earns us both a fair profit. You need them, but they need you, too.

So here are some bullet points that, despite my relative inexperience and caveats, I think are pretty solid:

- Don't sign anything without the advice of an agent or attorney.

- Don't be afraid to negotiate. It's expected.

- All the rights to your work belong to you until you assign them to someone else. Understand what your rights are, and don't give them away for nothing.

- Know what you're willing to compromise on and what you aren't--your line in the sand.

- Hardest of all: if they won't bend on an issue you don't feel you can compromise on, be willing to walk away. Better to have no deal than a bad one that leaves you feeling unhappy and exploited. Really.

- Act like a grown-up. Be a pro.

- Oh, and go read "Breaking In Without Rules" by comic book writer Kurt Busiek and "Advice to Authors" by Neil Gaiman, especially if you haven't quite gotten your first book contract yet. They are experts.

This is all just my opinion based on my experience and lessons learned by friends of mine, some the hard way. Comments, corrections, additions or revisions from those who know more about it than I do will be gratefully accepted..

EDITED TO ADD: In the comments, Walter mentions "Writer Beware," a site maintained by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). I haven't gone through it all, but it looks like a tremendous resource for experience-based advice and warnings. Looks very good to me.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Page in the Life

It occurred to me I hadn't done a "How To" post in a while. Or more accurately, a "How I Do It" post, since I always disclaim that my way isn't necessarily the best or right way. It's just mine.

Today's is about putting together one page of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow--specifically, page 27, which is one of the early comic-within-a-comic pages meant to simulate an actual comic book from 1939. If you haven't seen WHTTWOT, the conceit was that these were the very same comics my characters were reading. The interior pages of these fake comics were printed on a rough newsprint paper stock, very different from the smooth glossy pages in the rest of the book. The amount of effort that went into mimicking a 70-year-old 10-cent comic recalls Mae West's line, "It cost a lot to make me look this cheap."

I started with the line art, which is India ink on two-ply Bristol board, 10 x 15 inches (~25 x 38 cm). You may be able to see some of my blue pencil underdrawing in the image below.

Black-and-white line art: actual ink on paper!

Mindful of the tools and techniques that would've been used at the time, I drew with crowquill and other pen nibs rather than my usual brush, and used more hatching than I normally would. Backgrounds are deliberately less detailed and a bit abstract, befitting the era. On this page, I drew caption boxes and word balloons to be filled later with digital type. I later decided that was a mistake (much harder to edit) and began doing the boxes and balloons digitally as well.

I scanned the line art into Photoshop at 1200 dpi (huge file!), converted to Bitmap to get very clean black-and-white lines with no grays or fuzzy edges, then converted to CMYK to color it. Coloring was more complicated than filling in areas with the Photoshop bucket, worthy of a series of posts on its own. First, I used the very limited color palette available to comic printers in 1939 (my palette grew for the later comics because printing practices improved).

I only cheated on one detail: Officer Mooney's orange-red hair is a color that wouldn't have been available then. It was worth it; I've got a thing for redheads.

Second, I couldn't just color up to the edge of the black lines, or the next step in the process wouldn't work. Instead, I colored on a separate "layer" in Photoshop (think of it as coloring on a transparency laid atop the line art) and made sure to overlap the black lines so that the colors solidly butted up against each other with no gaps.

All colors in a comic book are combinations of transparent cyan, magenta, and yellow, with which you can make red, green, purple, brown, etc. Printing a comic is a four-color process: you run paper through the machine four times to imprint the cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks. "Screening" is the process of breaking colors up into very fine dots so when printed they give the illusion of different hues and shades:

Roy Lichtenstein, eat your heart out.

I believe there's actually a button in Photoshop that'll screen for you in one quick step, but I didn't use it. I wanted to carefully control and manipulate the size and angles of the different colored dots (notice above that the red dots and blue dots line up at different angles). This was another variable that I changed to represent comics from different eras: as the years progress, the dots get finer and the "print quality" gets better.

"Registration" means how well the paper's four passes through the printer line up. Because this was supposed to be a cheap, poorly printed comic book, I wanted my registration to be poor. This was another quality that gradually improved in my fake comics as decades passed. Because I'd separated my cyan, magenta and yellow colors into three individual layers, I was able to nudge them around to deliberately throw them off-register. In the close-up below, notice how the blue is bumped to the left so it doesn't fill the letters, while the red and yellow are scootched slightly to the right (the yellow's hard to see, but you can spot a little yellow halo to the right of the red letters).

Somewhere around this step I added the indicia, or the (fake) legal notice, to the bottom of the page. In each era, I used appropriate language and typefaces taken from actual comic books, substituting my fictional "Capital Periodicals" for the real ones. This one was modeled after the indicia in Action #1, the first Superman comic, published in June 1938. The address 115 West 18th St., New York City is where my publisher Abrams is located. Hey, there could have been a comic book publisher working there years ago.
(Funny digression: although I had examples of indicia from 1965 and 1975 in my personal comic book collection, I didn't have any from 1955. So when I went to the San Diego Comic-Con that year (2007?), I wandered from dealer to dealer asking to see the cheapest comic from 1955 they had. Didn't care about the title, story, character, writer, artist, publisher or condition; I just wanted it for its indicia. Some eyed me as if I were crazy. "Weirdest comic book collection ever." I think I finally found a beaten-up old Batman for $5.)

To reinforce the idea that these comics were cheap, disposable ephemera, I wanted to introduce even more printing errors--which, again, became less frequent as the fake years passed. So I added blotches and smears to suggest poorly cleaned and maintained printing equipment that defaced the paper as it rolled through. The light blue spatters below were made by dripping black ink drops onto a sheet of white paper, scanning them, and turning them cyan and transparent. Similar process for the smudge. I created quite a library of various drips, blobs and smears.

One of my favorite stories about publishing WHTTWOT involves the paper. As I mentioned, Editor Charlie and I had the idea to print these comics-within-the-comic on cheap pulp paper. Now, my publisher, Abrams, has a long history as a very high-quality publisher of high-end art books, and the Abrams paper people kept bringing Editor Charlie samples of paper that were way too good. Too white, too thick, too glossy. They just weren't getting it. Finally, Editor Charlie brought them an old comic book from home. The paper people looked at it; felt it. The light bulb went on. "Oh!" they exclaimed. "You want really bad paper!" Yes, we want really bad paper. We got it.
As bad as the paper actually is, I wanted to make it look worse. So over each page, printed right up to the edge of the paper, I added an artificial transparent newsprint texture to yellow and age them even more. To get the texture, I dug an old sheet of newsprint from my college art portfolio and scanned the back of the drawing to capture an authentic blotchy, pulpy yellow:

It's hard to see in this scan, but the right edge of this piece is quite a bit browner than the rest because it had been exposed to more light over the years. When I laid this texture over each page, I made sure that the darker edge always lined up toward the outside, where the comic book pages would've gotten more light. This newsprint texture was another variable I could "improve" as I mimicked comics from subsequent decades. The four fake comics throughout the book are printed on the same pulp paper, but it gets less and less yellow as the years go by until in the "1975" comic the artificial texture is barely there at all.
Finally, a tiny detail I'm proud of. Comics are held together with two staples through their spines. Those staples are lubricated with trace amounts of oil, and over the decades that oil would sometimes leach into the surrounding paper. So on each page, where the staples would go, I darkened the newsprint texture to represent oil stains from the staples:

The result:

Then I did the same thing for another 39 pages of fake comics plus their covers, which were printed on the regular paper used through the rest of the book, but bled (that is, printed to the very edge of the page) and yellowed to look like comic books as well.
These pages were interesting to proof. First, we made sure to alert the printer that they were supposed to look bad on purpose so they wouldn't try to fix them. Then, when the first samples rolled off the press for Abrams editors and I to inspect and approve, I didn't quite know how to approach the job. I wanted them to look as bad as possible; what, exactly, would have constituted a flaw? Any errors introduced by the actual printing process would just be icing on the cake as far as I was concerned. In fact, I don't believe I made any corrections to any of these pages.
This was obviously a pretty laborious process, but was it also fun? Yes. Was it worth the effort? I don't know. It was to me. Even if no one else notices, I'll always know I got it as right as I could. It was a labor of love.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Well, There's Your Problem Right There

In a recent interview, NASA Administrator (and retired general and former astronaut) Charles Bolden said that President Obama gave him three priorities:

1. Re-inspire children to want to get into science and math.
2. Expand international relationships.
3. Find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math and engineering.

See, I'm just an old-fashioned 20th-century guy who remembers when NASA's priorities would have looked more like:

1. Put machines in space.
2. Put people in space.
3. Develop advanced technologies, materials, and systems to put machines and people in space.

Seems to me that if you do those three things right, then at least the first two of Bolden's priorities take care of themselves. As for the third, I think it better to leave Muslim self esteem to the U.N. and State Department, which have more appropriate resources than the slide-rule jockeys at NASA (also, doesn't it sound hugely condescending?).

Slide rules! There I go again . . .

* * *

I'm reading David Sedaris's Naked, published in 1997 but new to me. I've read some of Sedaris's later work, including Me Talk Pretty One Day and When You Are Engulfed in Flames. He's a good, smart, witty storyteller, but man . . . if even one-tenth of the harrowing tales about his family and childhood are true, it's a miracle he survived to be a functioning adult, let alone a successful and relatively sane one.

As a fellow son and human being, I feel awful that young David had such a twisted upbringing. But as a writer, I confess I feel the same twinge of envy I did while reading David Small's excellent graphic novel Stitches: "Sure, it's easy to write great stuff when life hands you such terrific material!" What's a guy with a normal, happy life to do? Write about other people or make stuff up, I guess, all the while brooding because my family was way too loving and supportive. Darn my luck.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Friday, July 2, 2010


I’m wrestling with a stubborn computer virus (someday I’ll explain why I haven’t gone Apple; I have my reasons). I thought I had it subdued once, until it arose again to mock my feeble skills. This post is being composed on an auxiliary computer hidden deep in the caves beneath stately Fies Manor. At this writing, I believe (again) I may have beaten the bug, but my computer hasn't quite won back my trust yet. It’s very frustrating and I’ve been mad and moody about it all week.

This morning I went to a funeral for an 8-year-old girl. I didn’t know her--she was the granddaughter of family friends, and she died in a stupid accident that was nobody’s fault. I have friends, including at least one regular reader of this blog, who’ve lost children. I truly don’t know how they survive it.

I also learned recently that a wonderful man I worked with 20 years ago just died from liver cancer, and a very good friend from high school is fighting multiple myeloma.

Perspective #1: My little computer woes are insignificant in the face of people with real problems. What's worth getting so upset about? My family and I are healthy, I have a great home, plenty of food . . . heck, I’ve got two freakin’ computers! I'm so fortunate. I know that. In fact, there have been times when I was the person with real problems wondering how everyone else could be so wrapped up in trivial dramas. I also know that perspective fades. The currents of our self-centered day-to-day lives are hard to resist for long. Try.

Perspective #2: The universe is cruel and hard enough as it is. It kills children for no good reason. Why do so many people (including you evil-genius virus creators) work so deliberately to make it even crueler and harder? We’re all in this together.