Saturday, December 31, 2011

And Many Happy Returns

. . . as long as you kept the receipts.

I hope Christmas was great for everyone, and you all survive whatever you have planned for New Year's Eve. I'm thinking bedtime around 11 sounds pretty good.

I've spent the past three days migrating my entire life to a new computer, replacing my former magic box that was six years old and hinting that it couldn't carry on much longer. So far, it's been less frustrating and traumatic than I expected.

Since I tend to keep computers a long time and depend on them for everything, I spent some money and got some upgrades--more memory, a nice video card--that should serve me well for years. In particular, the new box should gracefully handle the art chores for whatever graphic noveling I might do. No more pushing the Photoshop "save" button and then waiting half an hour for my screen to unfreeze (I hope)! I also bought a new monitor with the new computer; right now, I've got both computers running side-by-side, but as soon as I'm convinced I don't need the old one for anything, I'll retire it and set up a dual-monitor station that'll be really cool! Twice the workspace in widescreen Cinemascope, which'll be a big help with both my writing and cartooning.

Below is one of my best Christmas gifts, which should look familiar to anyone who read WHTTWOT:

It's a genuine souvenir from the 1939 New York World's Fair, which not only stylishly reproduces the Fair's iconic Trylon and Perisphere attractions in sleek classic Bakelite, but accurately reports the temperature as well. It's small, less than 4 inches tall. My wife Karen and I saw it in an antiques shop months ago. I always keep my eyes open for New York World's Fair trinkets, which are pretty rare on the West Coast, and I thought this one was super-neat but just couldn't justify buying it for myself. So Karen circled around later and did it for me! How cool is that?

I don't want to bore or disgust anyone with a list of my loot, but have to mention that my girls very thoughtfully brought me back a bag of goodies from their summer trip to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and our friend Marion surprised me with a kitchen implement I thought was so amazing I once blogged about it. Others were thoughtful and generous as well.

Again, all my best to you, and thanks to all my family, friends and readers. Hello 2012.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

They Is Too Many Bums in My Blog

December 24 marks the date to revisit a dram of whimsy that's been a tradition of this blog every Christmas Eve since 2005. I hope everyone gets through the coming days and into 2012 with health and happiness, and maybe that perfect little gift you didn't even know you needed. Many thanks for reading my stuff. Sing along if you know the words, or can read them . . .

Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash., an' Kalamazoo!
Nora's freezin' on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!

Don't we know archaic barrel,
Lullaby Lilla boy, Louisville Lou?
Trolley Molly don't love Harold,
Boola boola Pensacoola hullabaloo!

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Polly wolly cracker n' too-da-loo!
Hunky Dory's pop is lolly
gaggin' on the wagon,
Willy, folly go through!

Donkey Bonny brays a carol,
Antelope Cantaloup, 'lope with you!
Chollie's collie barks at Barrow,
Harum scarum five alarum bung-a-loo!

Dunk us all in bowls of barley,
Hinky dinky dink an' polly voo!
Chilly Filly's name is Chollie,
Chollie Filly's jolly chilly view halloo!

-Walt Kelly

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Comments left on the last post by Namowal and Jim deserved more thought and space to answer than I could deal with there. So I'm dealing with them here.

Both asked about my artistic influences. It's complicated.

I grew up reading mainstream comic books (DC as a gateway to Marvel) and comic strips. I didn't pay much attention to Underground, Japanese, or European work until well into adulthood, when I approached them more as a student than a fan. While I can appreciate Crumb and Tezuka and Herge, I came to them too late to really fall in love. Still, I try to learn what I can.

Beyond that, I divide my influences into those I happened to absorb as a kid growing up reading comics and those I sought out later as someone trying to learn about them. I remember being impressed at a very young age by the mid-century expressionism of Hank Ketcham's "Dennis" and Bud Blake's "Tiger." I still recall entire plotlines of "Dick Tracy" I read at age seven. Curt Swan's "Superman" and Carmine Infantino's and Neal Adams's "Batman" mesmerized me. When I was 11, we moved to a city whose newspaper carried "Prince Valiant," and I fell head-over-heels. Some work I could appreciate as both a young fan and maturing student of the art, starting with "Peanuts" and including Gus Arriola's "Gordo."

At about the same time, I found my new stepfather's secret stash of "Pogo." Dad became a fan in college in the late '50s, and I devoured his collections. Ten Ever-Lovin' Blue-Eyed Years with Pogo may be one of the dozen most influential books I've read. I never saw "Pogo" printed in a newspaper in Walt Kelly's lifetime, but I'd mark my discovery of that strip as the inflection point that turned me from a fan of ephemera into a student of an art form.

In my early teens I migrated to Marvel comics, where I found John Buscema, Jack Kirby and Gene Colan. I also began reading books about comics, how to make comics, and many terrific creators from before my time including McCay, Segar, Sterrett, Raymond, Crosby, Caniff, and too many others to mention. I also found "The New Yorker."

At the same time, I was learning about traditional fine art in school and on my own. I couldn't begin to list the artists whose work I studied and tried to learn from. But I'll always remember being in a university life-drawing class when the instructor dissected a sketch of Michelangelo's, showing how he defined the contour of a hip and leg--firm and fleshy bits moving forward and backward in space, popping off the page--using nothing but a single line. It was a real thunderbolt-from-Heaven "a-ha!" moment. Whenever I sit down to ink, I aim for the "lively line" standard set by Michelangelo (no pressure).

Don't get me started on writing.

Everyone is the sum of their influences. I think the trick is to cast your net as widely as possible and drag in as many influences as you can. My most common complaint about many cartoonists, especially young ones, is they all seem to have the same tiny set of influences. Berke Breathed and Gary Larson have a lot to answer for (not really; it's not their fault that half the cartoonists following in their footsteps aped their styles, including their significant artistic limitations). These days you see a lot of what I'd call a "manga house style" appropriated from Japan, which is a straitjacket of its own.

You've got to lift your eyes. Michelangelo has something to teach a cartoonist. So do Rockwell, Picasso, Rembrandt, Dali, ancient cave paintings and Egyptian canopic jars. Likewise, it's very important to draw from life as much as possible; instead of drawing a hand like Kirby or Schulz or Tezuka draws a hand, look at the one at the end of your arm and draw what you see.

Then you take it all in, figure out how it works as best you can, and draw and draw and draw until it all filters through you and you don't even think about it anymore.

And that's your style. I think.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Monday Tapas

It's quiet in the blog. Almost too quiet.

I often compare my freelance science-writing day job to farming. I can work months with little to show for it, then suddenly all the crops ripen (or the deadlines converge) and it's harvest season. Here in the California Wine Country they call it "Crush," mostly for what happens to the grapes but also, I think, for how the vintners feel during those few weeks when the grapes have to be picked not too soon RIGHT NOW oh no too late. I'm just coming out the other side of my Crush now, and BAM there's Christmas, its jolly elven face smirking at me. Thanks a lot, Christmas.

On top of that, I'm grabbing every spare moment I can to pencil pages for Mystery Project X. Always achingly slow but it adds up.

* * *

A recent post by film critic Roger Ebert on Things He Knows About Writing: "I really only know one: If you don't start it, you'll never finish it."

Yes yes yes. I've said before that the hardest, gutsiest part of creating a graphic novel (or anything) is sitting down with a blank sheet of paper and making the first mark on Page One knowing you've got hundreds of more pages to go. What a seemingly insurmountable goal! I feel innate respect and kinship for anyone who does it, even if they do it badly. Most people excel at finding excuses not to start. There's always a reason. They don't have the time or the resources or the right equipment or every detail of their story worked out as well as they'd like.

I think that last one is semi-legit; even now, I'm still finding new ideas I want to explore in Mystery Project X. The basic plot's been set for months, but the motives and relationships of my characters--the themes and subtext--continue to change. If I'd drawn it a year ago, it wouldn't have been as good. A story needs time to ripen but not so much that it rots. Did you ever have a peach that's rock hard in the morning and brown mush in the afternoon? I don't know how you tell when that moment of perfect freshness arrives. Maybe you know it when you see it. Then start. Page One. Better too soon than too late, I think, because just the act of doing it will give you new ideas for improving it.

* * *

Today is evidently "Agricultural Metaphor Day" at the Fies Files.

* * *

Following the recent deaths of comics greats Jerry Robinson and Joe Simon (co-creator of Captain America in the '40s), the New York Times seemed determined to profile the oldest living Golden Age cartoonist they could. Luckily, they found a real gem in Irwin Hasen, who did quality comic-book work in the 1940s and '50s (including the original "Flash" and "Justice Society of America") and drew the popular-in-its-day comic strip "Dondi."

I've had the honor of meeting the 93-year-old Mr. Hasen a few times, not that he'd recall them. Punks like me are a dime a dozen to him. But what a smart, charming man. What the NYT piece only hints at is his saltiness: he is a short, sharp, profane, no-BS kinda guy who'll give it to you straight with a twinkle in his eye. He reminded me of my grandfather (who once greeted me by looking me up and down and exclaiming, "Jesus, you got old!"). The last time I saw Mr. Hasen was in Artists Alley at the 2006 San Diego Comic-Con. As I wrote then:

No one was at his table. In fact, I had to elbow my way through a line of fans queued up to meet the Hot Young Artist at the table next door to get to him. I reintroduced myself and we had a nice conversation, when I looked over his table and noticed only prints. No originals. "Oh, I remember you had some Dondi originals in New York," I said, disappointed. "I was really hoping to see them." Mr. Hasen gave me a conspiratorial nod, pulled a portfolio from under the table, and slid out a dozen "Dondi" strips. We continued to talk as I flipped through them, figuring out which one I wanted to buy. At last I chose my prize."You've got a good eye, you S.O.B.," said Mr. Hasen, eyes twinkling. "You picked the best one."

On my wall.

With Irwin Hasen, February 2006

The NYT piece is accompanied by a short video profile of Mr. Hasen. I don't see a way to embed it here, but I think this may be worth 3:29 of your life.

* * *

I considered editing out one of the two references to Mr. Hasen's twinkling eyes in the above grafs but liked them both. If this blog were a paying gig, that's a redundancy I'd fix. But here, today, I'm a writing outlaw. Chicks dig bad boys.

* * *

I am heartened knowing that no matter how I live out the rest of my life, I've done more good in the world and contributed more to the universe than Kim Jong Il ever did.

Dot dot dot.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Graphic Medicine/Jerry Robinson

Two bits today, one nice and the other a little heartbreaking.

"Nice" first: Although I'm hip deep in the small offshoot of science and art called "Graphic Medicine," having participated in one international conference on the topic and helped organize two, I have a hard time explaining what it is. Now I don't have to. Instead, I'll just point everyone to this article at Hektoen International, an online journal of the medical humanities, written by Ian Williams, who explains the whole thing. Ian provides some historical perspective and literary analysis in an excellent overview. And not just because it mentions me.

"The depiction of illness influences the perception of illness, which can change the illness experience for others," writes Ian. "Comics artists exercise considerable personal power through the publication of visual illness narratives."

Ian is a UK physician and cartoonist who invited me to speak at the first Comics & Medicine Conference in London in 2010. He's also on the committee that's organized the second conference in Chicago last June and the third we're planning for Toronto next July. Smart, talented and British is hard to top. Recommended reading.

* * *

"Heartbreaking" second: Comic-book great Jerry Robinson has died. I didn't know him but I met him for ten minutes, introduced by Editor Charlie at the San Diego Comic-Con in 2006. Comic Book Resources has a nice obit.

Mr. Robinson was just about the last of the great Golden Age creators who was there at the beginning of modern comic books in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Born in 1922, he began his career as an assistant to Batman creator Bob Kane and is credited as co-creator of Robin the Boy Wonder and the Joker. His work later extended beyond mainstream superhero comics to encompass editorial cartoons, literary criticism and comics scholarship, most notably his very important book The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art (1974), which was an absolute lifeline to me in my teenage years.

In my brief encounter with him, he displayed qualities I've found common among old-school comics creators: humility, genuine appreciation that his work was remembered, and apparent curiosity about new work by someone he'd never heard of. Like Gene Colan before him and one or two since, Mr. Robinson immediately treated me like a peer. It's hard to describe how great that feels, even when you know you don't deserve it. He was a gentleman.

ADDED Friday: Links to Mr. Robinson's obit at the New York Times, and the one I was waiting for, this obit by writer Mark Evanier.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

How Am I Gonna Unload These Pallets of Bookplates? Wait! I Know!

For the past couple of Decembers, inspired by wistful dreams of WHTTWOT resting under Christmas trees beribboned in Jetsons-themed gift wrap, I've offered to send a free signed bookplate to anyone who wants one. A bookplate is just a fancy sticker meant to substitute for signing a book, saving you and me the time and trouble of actually mailing the book back and forth. I designed these and had them printed up when WHTTWOT came out and, well, I've still got some.

Of course it doesn't have to be for a gift and the offer is valid any other time of the year as well (although I'd appreciate it a lot if you did actually own a copy of the book). Just e-mail me your postal address (which I promise to never use for evil), tell me how to inscribe the bookplate, and I'll have it in the mail to you the next day. My e-mail address is in the Profile atop the column to the right.

I don't say it enough, but I'm sincerely grateful when readers like my work enough to pay money for it, and even more when they like it enough to give it to someone else. Thanks.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Graphic Medicine: Call for Papers

Here we go! Who wants to meet up in Toronto next July 22-24 for the Third International Conference on Comics & Medicine?

Oo! I do! I do!

You may recall that I attended and blogged about the first two: first in London in June 2010 as an invited keynote speaker, then in Chicago in June 2011 as part of the organizing cabal. Well . . . I did it again.

These are very nifty, intimate academic conferences (not comics conventions, it's an important distinction) where doctors, nurses, professors, students, writers, cartoonists and others explore that interesting seam where healthcare meets comics. Or, as one of our Chicago participants called it, "the Coolest Conference on Earth." It sounds weird but it works. In fact, being involved with these events is one of the most exciting rewards to emerge from my cartooning semi-career.

We just issued a Call for Papers seeking proposals for presentations, workshops and panel discussions. The quality of presentations in London and Chicago was excellent, and we expect to get more and better next year. We're sufficiently confident that big-time creators Joyce Brabner (Our Cancer Year) and Joyce Farmer (Special Exits) will come and speak that we're not afraid to announce it. Building on the experience gained in the first two successful conferences, we have even bigger, more ambitious plans for Toronto (honestly, I fear we're getting a bit cocky). Crucially, we're dedicated to keeping the registration fee (which isn't yet decided) as low as possible; all we want to do is cover costs.

Details are posted on our new Graphic Medicine blog, which we intend to be the place to go for the latest news on the conference. We've also got ourselves a Facebook page as well as the original Graphic Medicine site, which has some good information about the previous two conferences. If you're a Master's or Ph.D candidate with a comics-related thesis, or a healthcare professional interested in integrating comics into your life or practice, take a look. And if you're a comics creator who can get yourself to Toronto next summer, they'll treat you like gold.

More later, for sure!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Just Doing My Part

I have a theory that if all YouTube videos of cute cats suddenly vanished, the Internet would collapse. I don't believe I've ever posted such a video before, but in these tough economic times I'd feel bad if I didn't do my part.

Catastrophe averted. You're welcome.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

I Might Be Wrong About: iPads

As the colon in the title suggests, this may be the first in a series of posts on topics about which I suspect my opinion is wrong. Or it may not.

I try to be open to changing my mind when better evidence or arguments come along. I think I'm the only one in the history of the Internet who ever ended an online debate by typing, "I hadn't thought about it like that, you're right."

On some topics, my opinion lies so far outside the mainstream that I think there's a fair chance it's incorrect. When I notice, I try to make a good-faith effort to figure out what I'm missing. Sometimes I come around, sometimes I don't. I've come around on the artist Marc Chagall: I never liked his work until I went out of my way to study it; I still wouldn't necessarily want it hanging on my wall but I do genuinely appreciate it now. On the other hand, I still haven't come around on guacamole: nearly everyone I know loves it and I don't. People tell me, "Oh, you just haven't tried mine!" so I always do, hoping that this time I'll crack the code, but it's all flavorless green phlegm to me. Still, I try it every time.

Today's inaugural "I Might Be Wrong About" topic is the iPad. People I know whose opinions I respect love them. Their iPads satisfy needs they didn't even know they had and changed their lives profoundly.

I don't get it.

I considered buying an iPad shortly after they came out, went down to the Apple store, got the sales pitch and demo, and stood there staring blankly. I couldn't imagine what I would ever use it for. Nothing it did was anything I'd ever want or need to do. After my wife Karen recently got an iPad 2 for her job, I eagerly sat down to play with a fresh attitude, poised to be persuaded. Five minutes later I was bored and done (and I spent half that time taking pictures of my cats).


I ask people who have iPads how they use them. They say, "Web browsing," "e-mail" and "apps." I do the first two while working at my computer all day; when I'm away from the computer, I don't want to do them anymore. That's my "don't do anything remotely computery" time. E-mail can wait a few hours. As for the apps, I dunno. I realize there are hundreds of thousands and I've test-driven maybe half a dozen, but they were not compelling toys and certainly not worth the $500 it'd cost to get started. In addition, I'm not very impressed with the iPad's vaunted design. It's not as intuitive as advertised. When I have to double-click the button and swoosh my finger to make something happen (but not swoosh too hard or something else will happen!), I think it'd just be polite to explain that.

I can read your mind: I'm a cranky fossil who just doesn't get it. Trust me, I sincerely want to. It's pointless to argue with me that I'm wrong, I admitted that in the post's title. My mind is as open as I can pry it, ready to be seduced. So far, the iPad hasn't even cast me a flirty glance from across the room.

But I might be wrong.

Monday, November 28, 2011

How Some Other Guy Does It

Here's something I've thought about making myself: a time-lapse "How-To" video about drawing a comic, from script to thumbnail to pencils to inks to Photoshop. Thankfully, now I don't have to, because the artist shown below, Kody Chamberlain (previously unknown to me), does it pretty much the same way I do. Three differences I see:

1. I pencil with "non-photo blue" pencil rather than regular graphite. Because light blue pencil doesn't scan well (it's practically invisible), I don't have to erase the pencil lines, which can smudge and dull the black inks. Any blue lines that survive scanning are easily deleted in Photoshop.

2. I ink mostly with a brush rather than a pen, although I do use an ink nib like his or Pigma Microns for fine details and ruled lines.

3. I don't do a coffee wash (!). In fact, I wouldn't even if I wanted to. My goal is to produce crisp black-and-white line art with sharp edges and no shades of gray (or anti-aliasing) that I can then shade or color as needed. It prints much better. If I did want to lay down a wash, I'd do it after I'd scanned the inked line art to superimpose pure blacks over the wash.

If you're interested in how comics get made, I endorse this process as ONE good way to do it.

Incidentally, in the good old days (i.e., the 20th Century), lettering would've been hand-inked directly on the page before anything else, between the penciling and inking steps shown here. That's how I did Mom's Cancer, and how a dwindling number of cartoonists still do it. What Kody does in the video, and I did in WHTTWOT, is digital lettering, performed with Photoshop after the art's been inked and scanned.

Here's the key: even though these days lettering is one of the last elements completed, it should still be the first thing you think about when laying out the page. Words pull the reader's eye through the story, and the word balloons have to flow from one to the next effortlessly. Before you start to draw, decide where the words go. Poor word placement and lettering is a fundamental error common to bad or amateur comics. It's very important.

Monday, November 21, 2011

My Old Haunts

A few notes before I offer another bloggy re-run to get me through this deadline/holiday rough patch while providing regular infotainment value to you.

Karen and I really appreciate the sympathy and support that we received here, on Facebook, and in person about our stolen car. Thanks. I think the people who called it "mean" best summed it up for me. Stealing someone's car is just a mean thing to do. Human beings sharing this little rock for such a short time simply shouldn't be that mean to each other.

I realize asking a car thief to pause and consider the epochal cosmic perspective might be a bit much.

Luckily, our insurance company is handling it well and we can roll with it financially. As I said, our beloved Honda was getting old enough that we were thinking of replacing her anyway (although we never discussed it within her earshot). So we went car shopping last weekend. Car technology has improved since we bought our Accord 15 years ago. Car salesmen have not.

Today's re-run is nearly five years old. I chose to post it today because it was originally inspired by a sighting of the constellation Gemini, which I happened to notice for the first time this fall a few nights ago. As you'll read, Gemini holds a special place in my heart.

One of the commenters on the original post was "TVDadJim," aka Friend O' the Blog Jim O'Kane, who wrote, "Watching Orion, though, usually gives me something like Galactic vertigo--because I know we're facing away from the cheery fireplace of the Milky Way's core, and out into the inky black of forever." Tell you what, Jim: you head for the black hole at our galaxy's center, I'll light out into the inky blackness the other direction, and we'll see which one of us is in better shape in a couple million years. Your "cheery fireplace" looks like a radiation-drenched gravity-shredding maelstrom to me, but to each his own.

(January 2007)

The stars of Heaven, now seen in their old haunts--
White Sirius glittering o'er the southern crags,
Orion with his belt, and those fair Seven,
Acquaintances of every little child,
And Jupiter, my own beloved star!

--William Wordsworth, The Prelude

I have relationships with stars, which I think may be unusual but perhaps not as unusual as I think.

I was reminded of that (and of Wordsworth's epic poem, which I studied in college and is one of the few textbooks I've kept all these years) the night before last when I stepped outside and noticed Gemini rising in the east, over beside Orion. I can never look at the constellation of the twins Castor and Pollux without remembering another night almost 20 years ago, right after my wife and I found out she was expecting twins, when I looked up at the sky and smiled because I was looking at their constellation. Not their Zodiac sign (bleah), but the distant suns whose pattern in the sky would always remind me of the happy day I learned they existed.

I'm pretty sure that years later I showed my girls Gemini and tried to explain the significance it held for me. If I recall correctly, they were unimpressed. That's all right.

The reappearance of old friends in the sky marks the seasons for me: Antares, Lyra, Orion of course. My pals Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali, about whom I once made up a nifty ditty.* The fuzzy blotch of the Pleiades that always seems to catch me by surprise. I seek out the tiny, obscure constellation Vulpecula and remember freezing nights spent in a small university observatory doing photometry of a dim nova with my physics professor mentor who found it soothing to listen to WWV time signals pinging on the shortwave. And doesn't everyone have a favorite planet? (When I was a kid mine was Mars but I'd have to say Jupiter now, although I've flirted with Venus from time to time. Saturn's nice but just too ostentatious for my taste; I don't appreciate a show-off planet that tries too hard.)

Being in the habit of looking up at night gives me an agreeable perspective. There's the notion that somewhere out there, someone you're thinking about might be looking at the very thing you are (I believe astronomers call this the Fievel Mousekewitz Conjecture). Maybe even an alien looking at it from the other side, or looking past it at you. There's also the notion I've had while peering through a telescope that at that very moment I might be the only person in the universe looking at that particular thing. And there's always the "eternal circle of life" idea that you're just a point in a continuum of people who've looked at virtually the same moon, planets, and stars for millions of years and will continue to do so for millions more.

No profound conclusion. It's just nice to see Gemini again.

* Sample lyrics: "Zubenlegenubi, Zubeneschamali, yeah yeah yeah!"

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Like a Thief in the Late Afternoon

The day before yesterday, somebody stole a hat of mine that I really liked. It was wide-brimmed, straw, with a soft cloth band inside that caressed my forehead. It provided the perfect balance of ventilation and shade. My girls called it my "Grissom hat," after the character Gil Grissom on the TV show "CSI," who investigated crime scenes in the desert wearing a floppy straw hat that he somehow made look cool. I kept it in the trunk of my wife's car.

Did I mention that the thieves also stole the car?

Sometimes I bury the lede.

It was a bold crime, almost admirably audacious. Sometime between 2:30 and 5:00, somebody broke into and hot-wired our car while it was parked directly in front of Karen's busy office building. Daylight, people coming and going. Very gutsy. The car was a '96 Honda with more than 200,000 miles on it--the same car I wrote about last June--and wasn't worth much. But that model's one of the top three or four most commonly stolen cars because there's a huge black market for its parts. Although there's a small chance it'll be found, most likely it was chopped up before we realized it was gone. Honestly, it was approaching the age when repairs begin to cost more than a car is worth and we were talking about replacing it. But we would have liked to have done it on our terms.

Other than my hat, not much was in the car. They got Karen's iPod, GPS and favorite sunglasses. Guess what Santa's bringing, honey! We're most unnerved knowing that some dirtbag out there now has our names and address (via the car registration). I unplugged the garage door opener until I can figure out how to reprogram it. We're a little jumpier than usual. Dealing with cops, insurance and rentals disrupts life's pleasant routines.

Mostly we're a little sad. Not deeply sad, as if something had actually died, but it ("she") was the best car we ever owned and we'll miss her. Our family took a lot of trips and lived a lot of life in that car. We never got to say goodbye.

Where's Gil Grissom when you need him?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

I'm Supposed to Be Working

Hey, all new content! Not necessarily good or interesting, but new.

I awoke this morning with the word "suppose" rattling around my brain like a wing nut in a tin can. After using it all my life, I just realized what an odd word it is.

"Suppose" can mean something like presume/assume/infer: "I suppose the paint is dry."

It can carry a tinge of resigned acquiesence: "I suppose I'll do the laundry."

Linked with the word "to," it takes on a related but slightly different meaning similar to should: "I'm supposed to pluck the chickens." It's really kind of single thought, isn't it? "Supposedto."

It can also communicate doubt, like alleged: "The supposed psychic Kreskin hypnotized the audience." Sometimes a speaker emphasizes the last syllable to say "suppose-ed" instead of "supposd," but not always. It works either way.

Think about how different a sentence like "I'm supposed to have robbed the bank" is from "I was supposed to rob the bank." Or "I suppose I robbed the bank." Or "Suppose I robbed the bank."

It's a complicated word! Extremely subtle context is key to its meaning. The proper use of "suppose" must be one of the last things a non-native speaker learns. That's Super Advanced English right there, yet most of us get it as children. Language is amazing!

But the big question is this: I'm OK, right? I mean, other people wake up thinking about stuff like this. Sure they do! It's perfectly normal. It's not like I wake up visualizing abstract shapes that I'm compelled to draw over and over in the steamy condensation on the shower door until I've mastered them. That would just be weird.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

One Thing Leads to Another

For reasons I over-explained yesterday, I'm re-running a few of my favorite blog posts (lightly edited) from long ago that I expect were seen by few and forgotten even by them. Like yesterday's post, today's seems to be all about Me. I don't know why. They won't all be. Maybe I'm in a mood.

A six-year update: my girls aren't in high school anymore (whew!) and in fact are both well into earning Masters degrees. As I recall, my talk to their art class went well, though who knows if anything I said stuck. And I believe my conclusion more than ever, enough to consider it one of the fundamental Things I Know Are True. I don't have a lot of those, so you should trust me on this one.

* * *

(December 2005) I've been asked to talk to my girls' high school art class next week. Some of these kids are very talented advanced-placement students already preparing portfolios for future academic and professional careers. I've spoken to high school classes before, usually on the topic of "how I lucked into a career combining two things I love best: science and writing." Now that I've got a published graphic novel in hand, I suppose I can extend that list to include "art," yet I have a nagging fear that some of these kids are already way ahead of me.

I was thinking about what I might discuss when my eyes settled on this laminated card pinned to my bulletin board, my first official press pass:

What a goober.

This was where my professional writing career began, fresh out of college at a small daily newspaper in central California. I got the job of part-time night-shift sports writer based on paltry clips of a column I wrote for my college paper plus, I suspect, my ability to type fast--a skill not as common then as it is today. I must have been the only applicant, because anyone else with respiration would've been better qualified. I nevertheless got a foot in the door and covered a season of high school basketball before a full-time (daytime!) position opened on the city beat and I was on my way.

One day the editor bellowed out into the newsroom: did anyone want to fly to Fresno for the weekend to cover the opening of a new power plant? Since no one else spoke up and I was trying to build a reputation as the go-to science guy, I took the assignment. It turned out to be a good story about a hydroelectric turbine complex dug deep inside a mountain between two lakes. The place looked like the subterranean lair of a James Bond villain. I had fun, wrote the feature, and forgot about it.

Helms Pumped Storage Hydro Plant,
deep underground. I was there once.

Twelve or thirteen years later, after a decade away from journalism, I applied for a position with a small science-writing firm whose clients were mostly in the energy industry. I passed a writing test and showed up for the interview with one relevant clip: the power plant story. I got the job. And thanks to that job, just a couple of years later I was ready to break out on my own and build a self-employed career I've enjoyed ever since.

I derive three lessons from that story for the young'uns. First, take on tasks nobody else wants because someday, somehow, in a way you can't imagine, one of them will pay off.

Second, one thing leads to another in unpredictable ways. Lives have threads and patterns that only reveal themselves in retrospect. In my case, a column in a college newspaper led to part-time sports writing, which led to full-time reporting, which led to freelance magazine writing, which led to something that actually looks like a career in both writing and comics. Pay attention. Be ready for unexpected opportunities.

Third, if you want to be a writer, write. Anything. I learned the most about writing by covering a season of high school basketball. Two or three games are easy; by the tenth or twentieth you're working mightily to keep it interesting for both your readers and yourself. Because, let's face it, every high school ballgame (or city council meeting or planning commission hearing) is pretty much like any other. I figured my job was to pay attention and figure out what made this game, meeting or hearing special, and then explain that. Even if I didn't care about an assignment, it was important to somebody and I had to understand and communicate why. That made me a pro. (My personal definition of "professional" is "doing a good job even when you don't feel like it." Or, as Charles Schulz said, "writer's block is for amateurs.") The same applies to art and comics as well. Just do it.

By the way, in my three years as a reporter and more than ten years as a freelance writer/journalist/editor, I've never once had to show a press pass to anyone. Too bad.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Pitching to the Stars

Three obstacles are coming between me and my blog:

1. My Day Job: multiple year-end deadlines are piling up, and all of my clients believe they are my sole top priority, just as I groomed them to believe. Heh heh heh. Unfortunately, now I have to act like it.

2. Mystery Project X: In any spare time I can find, I am pencilling pages. I thought I'd try something different this time. My plan is to pencil the entire book, then go back and ink it (usually I ink as I go, finishing pages in batches of three or four). I'm hoping it'll produce some stylistic continuity from start to finish, allow me to fold in any great new ideas that come up, and be a bit more efficient. We'll see; I may change my mind. It's all still being done on spec, with no contract or commitment from a publisher (although interest from more than one). I have faith.

3. Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow: With luck, we'll have one or two good things happen in 2012 that I'm working on now and can tell you about later.

Despite my busyness, I still feel a nagging obligation to give you a reason to visit once in a while. So with your indulgence (or without it, just watch me!), from time to time I'll dip into the archives and post a re-run. Since I've been blogging since July 2005, I've got a big backlog of perfectly swell essays little seen or long forgotten. I'll try to pick good ones.

Here, lightly edited, is a post I wrote in September 2006 about something I learned from failing. At the time, Mom's Cancer had been out a few months and I'd just started working on WHTTWOT.

I've written about my great affection and appreciation for the original "Star Trek" before, but in fact my relationship with the series goes a bit beyond that. This is a story I don't tell very often--mostly because it ends in abject failure--but I did talk about it during my 2006 Comic-Con Spotlight Panel and I think it gives some insight into how I approached the writing of Mom's Cancer.

The 1960s' "Star Trek" was followed by another series that began in 1987 called "Star Trek: The Next Generation." It ran for seven seasons. I enjoyed the show as a fan, though never as passionately as I did its predecessor, and around the beginning of Season Six I learned that the show would consider scripts from unagented writers. This policy was unique in all of television and the news hit me like a thunderbolt. In a few weeks I came up with a story, figured out proper TV screenplay format, and sent off a full script with the required release forms. Shortly afterward I followed with a second script, the maximum number they allowed.

I don't know how much later--surely months--I arrived home to a message on my answering machine. "Star Trek" wanted to talk to me. Neither of my scripts were good enough to actually shoot, but they showed enough promise that they were willing to hear any other ideas I might have. Would I care to pitch to them?

Yeah. I think so.

Paramount sent me a three-inch thick packet of sample scripts, writer's guides, director's guides, character profiles, episode synopses: all the background a writer would need to get up to speed (not that I needed them--I'd been up to speed since 1966). I spent several weeks coming up with dozens of ideas, distilled them to the five or six best, and made the long drive to Paramount Studios. Just getting onto the lot was a small comedy of errors: the guard at the gate didn't have my name on the list and I'd neglected to ask which building and office I was supposed to report to. Unlike anyone who's worked in Hollywood in the past 30 years, I wore a tie and sportcoat--a bad idea on a hot day when I was already inclined to sweat prodigiously. But I eventually made my way to the office of producer Rene Echevarria and threw him my first pitch. He stopped me after two sentences.

"We started filming a story just like that last week."

Crap. That was the best one.

Pitches two, three, four and five fared no better. After desperately rifling through my mental filing cabinet for any rejects with a hint of promise, I was done. In and out in less than 30 minutes, weeks of work for naught.

Still, I went home satisfied that I gave it my best shot. I wrote Rene a letter thanking him for the opportunity and expressing a completely baseless hope that he might give me another chance someday.

I got the next call a few weeks later. Rene had gotten my letter, looked over his notes, and decided that, although none of my pitches were good enough to shoot, I merited another shot.

Months later came my second try. By then I was smart enough to spare myself the drive and pitch by phone. If I remember correctly, Rene liked a couple of my stories enough to take them to his bosses, but by this time the series was into its final season and the available episode slots were filling fast. In anticipation of the end of "The Next Generation," Paramount was already producing a successor series, "Deep Space Nine." In my last conversation with Rene, when it was clear "The Next Generation" was done with me, I asked if he could arrange for me to talk to "Deep Space Nine." He was bewildered.

"Why would you want to pitch to those guys?" he asked.

Nevertheless, I soon had an appointment to pitch to those guys, got another thick packet of space station blueprints and character bios, and started writing. I parlayed that opening into several pitches over the show's seven-year run, most to the very professional, generous and kind writer/producer Robert Hewitt Wolfe. And when Paramount started production on the next "Star Trek" series, "Voyager," I tried my old trick on Robert.

"Why would you want to pitch to those guys?" he asked.

So I got more packets of cool stuff, more experience, and more rejection. Although they liked some of my ideas enough to mull them over, I never got close. It was exhausting. At last, after eight or nine years and forty or fifty stories, "Star Trek" and I mutually agreed we'd had enough of each other and parted ways.

Lessons in Writing
Here's my point (and I do usually have one, eventually): even as a complete failure, my experience pitching to "Star Trek" made me a better writer. What I realized was that the stories they quickly rejected focused on some science-fiction high-tech premise or plot twist, while the stories they liked focused on the characters. If I said something like, "Captain Picard starts the story at A, experiences B, and as a result grows to become C," I had their attention. I had to be hit over the head several times to realize that a good story isn't about spaceships or aliens or ripples in the fabric of space-time, but about people.

That sounds blindingly obvious, but I realized how unobvious it was as I talked to friends and family about the experience. As soon as someone hears you have a distant shot at actually writing a "Star Trek" episode, they can't wait to share their ideas with you (never mind how fast they'd sue if you actually used one). And literally without exception, every idea I heard from someone else was about a spaceship, alien, or ripple in the fabric of space-time. Not one that I recall even mentioned a character, how they'd react to the situation, or how they might be changed by it. Once I learned to look for it, it was striking.

These were lessons I internalized as best I could and took into the writing of Mom's Cancer. I realized early that my story couldn't be about the medical nuts and bolts of cancer treatment. First, because there are too many treatment options for anyone to cover; second, because I knew such information would be obsolete very quickly; and third and most importantly, good stories are about people. My book isn't about radiation and chemotherapy and cancer, but about what those things do to a family. If something I scripted or sketched didn't drive my mother's story--if the plot didn't serve the characters--I cut it.

Whatever success my books have had and will have, I think that's the key. With due gratitude to all the Treks.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Morning Musing on Deadline

I've got Google Alerts set up so that whenever my name or the title of one of my books pops up on the Internet, I get a little note about it. This morning brought me a newspaper article written by a reporter whose name is almost the same as mine and was misspelled in a photo credit to be exactly the same as mine, thereby tickling the strands of my Web feelers.

What struck me as odd is that this near-Brian Fies is doing nearly the same job I did when I graduated from college almost 30 years ago: writing about high school girls' sports for a small daily newspaper. His article is about volleyball while I mostly covered basketball, but close enough. In my case, I moved from part-time sports writer to full-time city-beat reporter within a few months, accumulating the writing experience and clips that served me well since. I can't help but wonder if this Bizarro-Fies is duplicating my life, just displaced a couple of decades. What if he looks like a young me? What if he just married a smart and beautiful girl named Karen? I'm tempted to warn him about the twins coming his way in a few years (run, Brian, run!).

I'm reminded of a webcomic by Scott McCloud titled "The Right Number" about a man who misdials his girlfriend's phone number by one digit and calls a woman who is almost exactly like his girlfriend in every respect, except a little better. Maybe this guy is the new, improved Brian 2.0. As long as he isn't required to hunt me down and kill me, we'll co-exist just fine.

Best of luck to you, Brian. I could tell you a few things, but you'll have more fun figuring them out for yourself.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Wimpy Tour

Not that he needs my promotional help, but my pal Jeff Kinney is about to set off on another book tour to mark the release of his sixth "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" book, Cabin Fever. The tour gets underway when the book drops on November 15 with stops in New Jersey, Washington DC, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida (the full schedule is here). Befitting this book's theme of being snowed in, I hear that Jeff is bringing along an industrial-strength snow machine to create an instant blizzard wherever he stops. Sounds like fun!

Although Jeff is a friend, I probably wouldn't have mentioned this tour if I didn't have something to say about it (this blog is all about "value added"). First, I understand that the new book will have a first printing of six million copies.

Six million copies.

I said "six million copies."

That's the largest first printing for any book being released in 2011. The first printing of the original Wimpy Kid book was 13,000, and even that is a pretty healthy number in my literary backwater. Six million isn't a number; it's an abstract mathematical construct. If you had a dollar for every book, you could build your own cyborg out of Lee Majors.

In addition, our mutual editor Charlie Kochman is accompanying the tour for the first time. I probably wouldn't have mentioned that either, except I'm hoping someone will read this, go to one of Jeff's signings, recognize Charlie, say "Hi, Editor Charlie!" and totally blow his mind. Should you accept the assignment, this is your target:

If you want to attend one of these signings/hypothermiafests, I'd advise you to check with the hosting bookstore to see what sort of procedure or ticket is required and arrive very early. Thousands of squealing kids will turn out for these things. A couple of years ago I visited Jeff at one of his appearances in my part of the country, and it was pretty surreal--as I wrote at the time, probably as close as I will ever get to being a roadie for The Beatles. Luckily, Jeff is talented and nice enough that he deserves it. I know how hard he works on these books and look forward to reading his latest.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Best. Video. Ever.

Friend O'The Blog Jim O'Kane and his Captain Girlfriend (I don't know if we're supposed to be coy about her identity, so let's just call her "Nancy") not only spent part of their day visiting the LitGraphic exhibition at the Fitchburg Art Museum (per my previous post), they shot and edited a 10-minute video about their trip. This made my month! Take a look and we'll talk on the other side . . .

So cool! With production values and music and everything! Some random reactions:

FiesFest! I want the t-shirt! Of course, every day is FiesFest around here . . . Just ask Karen. Who says "Hi" back to Nancy, BTW.

I was unexpectedly moved to see my pictures again. I hadn't really anticipated any reaction at all, but they made me happy and a bit wistful. Peeking in on old friends who are doing well.

The portion of the video in which the Fitchburg folks evidently set up part of the exhibition to look like a child's bedroom threw me a little. For a moment I didn't know if I was looking at Jim's or Nancy's bedroom or what. It's a unique approach to the material (nothing like it at the Rockwell or in Toledo) that I'm not sure I get. The art itself makes the point that comics aren't just for kids. But it looks fun.

I enjoyed Jim's interview with the intern. Good questions, interesting answers. I can just imagine the packed truck rolling up to the Fitchburg Museum's loading dock. I told the story of sending my pages to the Norman Rockwell Museum in the first place: I figured I'd FedEx them, certainly with a bit of insurance and so forth, but no big deal. Instead, the museum dispatched a specialized 18-wheel environment-controlled art-transport truck to my little residential court, and two guys sat on my living room floor and custom-built a padded portfolio out of foam-core board for each page. Sealed, wrapped, strapped, crated and chain-of-custodied. I learned a lot about the difference between Comic World and Art World that day.

Nancy and Jim wondered what was under some of my originals' pasted-on lettering. If I recall right, the answer is sloppier lettering. The larger point is that the types of corrections they noticed in my work and others'--the pencil marks, white-out, paste-overs, erasures, do-overs, slices and slashes that I cherish seeing in original comic art--are really becoming a thing of the past. Photoshop killed them. Even in my work: I still pencil and ink on paper, and don't ever expect to change, but all my lettering, editing and corrections are done digitally now. The productivity gains are large but it's good to remember they come at a cost. Comic art will not look like the pages hanging in Fitchburg for very much longer.

It looks like the Fitchburg really had the space to spread out and show all the work to good advantage. It's hard to tell from the video, but my impression is that they had more physical space than either the Rockwell or Toledo museums (I didn't attend or see any photos from the Michener Museum exhibition). That's nice. And there's definitely something about bold, saturated wall colors that sets off black-and-white line art very nicely. I'll have to remember that if/when I get around to painting my office. (Next year, it's always "next year.")

Today was 75 (24C) and sunny where I live. I just wanted to say that in case it's snowing where you live. Fitchburg.

Jim, Nancy, thanks so much for your time and effort. Karen and I enjoyed that a lot. I'm glad LitGraphic was worth the trip.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Artist Should Be Hung. Or Hanged. Whichever.

Google Alerts says that LitGraphics, a traveling museum exhibition of comic art including mine, opened last month at the Fitchburg Art Museum in north-central Massachusetts. This is the same exhibition whose opening at the Norman Rockwell Museum I attended in November 2007, followed to Ohio's Toledo Museum of Art in October 2009, and then admired from afar at the James A. Michener Museum in Pennsylvania in September 2010. It runs through January 1.

The show is very much worth a visit, notwithstanding my contribution. There's work by Will Eisner, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Peter Kuper, Harvey Kurtzman, Frank Miller, Steve Ditko, Jessica Abel, Terry Moore, and more. I loaned them eight pages of original art from Mom's Cancer that I figured would be more productive touring the country than sitting in a file under my desk. I haven't seen these drawings in more than four years and am jealous that they're living a more interesting life than I am.

Karen and I by my wall at the Rockwell Museum opening in Stockbridge, Mass. (where I hear you can get anything you want) . . .

. . . and my stuff at the TMA in Toledo. I got in trouble taking this photo. The security guard didn't believe I was me even after I pointed to my self-portrait on one of the pages.

Both the Rockwell and Toledo museums set up their galleries to show videos of some of the artists (there's one playing in that picture immediately above) shot by videographer Jeremy Clowe and Rockwell curator Martin Mahoney, which I'll take the excuse to show again. Martin and Jeremy actually flew across the country to interview me in my home. The bit at the end of me drawing is in my backyard. Everything looks pretty much the same; many objects have not moved since 2007. I think I'm wearing those same pants today. Apologies if you've already seen this three or four times:

LitGraphic is a very good show, worth a visit if you're in its neighborhood or it ever makes it to yours (not sure how much longer the Rockwell Museum plans to tour it; I expected them to be done by now). I'd see it even if I weren't in it.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

When the Crypt Doors Creak and the Tombstones Quake

My sister and I ready to trick or treat
in a year she'd probably prefer I didn't mention.

Getting ready for Halloween! I love it. My house has a few tall trees out front whose canopy makes a great stage for hanging, dangling and spinning all types of ghostly props and effects. Basically, I've ripped off everything from Disney's Haunted Mansion and put it in my yard. Every year I try to add something new, and think I've got a good one on deck for this year. Won't know for sure until I finish creating it and try it out in the dark. That's the deal with ghosts: they're all about the lighting. Things that look unimpressive in the light of day can be amazing at night, and vice versa.

Yes, in my neighborhood I am that guy. Luckily for my neighbors, I am not that guy at Christmas or any other holiday. I put everything up the day of Halloween and disassemble it all the next morning (you can tell how long ago I built something by how heavy it is). That's part of the All Hallows Eve magic: it only appears for one night before vanishing into the mists like Brigadoon. I very deliberately try to make everything as unscary as possible--nothing screams or jumps--but one of my most gratifying moments was a few years ago when a very proud little boy told us it was the first year he'd had the courage to come to the door. You just want to hug a kid like that.

Making people smile is the fun part. Feel free to drop by and help pass out candy. Look out for mischievous spooks; you may not believe in them, but they believe in you.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Mary Blair Addendum

Don't know why I didn't think to mention this when I wrote about Mary Blair yesterday, but I wanted to add that the back cover of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow (that is, the hard cover under the paper sleeve) is totally me channeling her.

When we designed the back cover, Editor Charlie had the notion of using some of the abstract googie-style shapes characteristic of the 1950s, a few of which made their way onto the paper jacket and the interior pages of the book. This sort of thing:

That would have been great. But I wanted to filter the World of Tomorrow through a kind of mid-century Disney aesthetic (Walt Disney being an influential figure in my book), and the most distinctive stylist I immediately thought of was Mary Blair. My cover isn't really a copy of Blair's style--she would've done it completely differently, probably with cleaner geometric shapes, a broader color palette and more transparency--but the inspiration was there. It was also my first (and to date, only) 100% digital artwork, done totally in Photoshop. Designer Neil Egan and I pressed on with that notion and Editor Charlie either came to see it our way or decided it wasn't worth a fight, I'm not sure which. But we did it.

Mary Blair's work continues to influence artists and illustrators. Funny how it slipped my mind that I'm one of them.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Mary Blair

Google created a special logo for its homepage today honoring the 100th birthday of Mary Blair, an illustrator/designer/cartoonist whose work I like very much.

Ms. Blair, who died in 1978, had a distinctive style that emphasized color, light, pattern, and stylized geometric shapes in an almost cubist fashion. She did design work for Walt Disney for years, and her ourvre is probably best represented these days by the "It's a Small World" attraction she created for the 1964 World's Fair, which was later moved to Disneyland. Love or hate the tune, celebrate or scoff at its message of world peace, but you've got to acknowledge that Mary Blair designed the heck out of that boat ride.

It took me some time to warm up to the art of Mary Blair. To the extent I was aware of it when I was young, I remember finding it treacly and simple. What could be easier than slapping down some circles and triangles? She hardly even used perspective!

As I got older and wiser, and did some cartooning of my own, my appreciation grew. Paring down a character, landscape or situation to its essence while leaving enough detail for someone to not only recognize but have an emotional reaction to it is very, very hard. In my own work, I sometimes redraw a panel or page; when I do, it's always to take lines out, never to put lines in. Mary Blair's art had a graphic economy and sophistication I can only admire and envy.

She was also a gender pioneer: at a time when women were forbidden from becoming Disney animators, she created her own non-animating niche with the company through sheer talent and determination.

I've posted more examples of Ms. Blair's artwork below, along with a short documentary put together by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (the "Oscar" people) for a panel discussion held yesterday in Los Angeles. Also, my pal Shaenon Garrity wrote this very nice essay after she co-curated a Blair exhibition at San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum in 2007. Although that show is long closed, a few nice examples of Blair art are on permanent display at the Disney Family Museum, also in San Francisco. If you go at the right time, maybe you'll catch my daughter Laura volunteering there. Say Hi!

Now if only Disneyland would take down the Star Wars-themed paintings covering the walls of Tomorrowland and restore the Mary Blair tile murals still hidden beneath them, that would be a fitting tribute to the artist!

EDITED TO ADD: See this follow-up post for an additional thought on Mary Blair, including a piece I did that was partly inspired by her example.

Halloween Heroes

OMG (and I've never had a good reason to type "OMG" until today)! I've got a pre-Halloween treat for you, but first I have to tell you about my sisters.

That's "Kid Sis" and "Nurse Sis" from Mom's Cancer, who are real people who've been busy in the five years (!) since that book was published. I don't blog about them as a rule, figuring I already violated their privacy and betrayed their trust enough for one lifetime. But they're doing their own high-profile creative projects now, and I don't see any reason not to brag--especially with what I've got to show you today.

My sisters both continued to live in Los Angeles after Mom died. Nurse Sis Brenda is working as a supervisor at a big-time L.A. hospital. Kid Sis Elisabeth has worked on her own independent film projects, including a feature titled The Commune that has been screened and won awards at several festivals. Together, they put on the monthly "Bleedfest" film festival dedicated to raising the profile of new or overlooked women filmmakers. Their concept is really neat: every month has a different theme--horror, science fiction, fantasy, action--and for $10 the audience gets a full day of shorts and a feature, plus a chance to meet actual directors, actors and other filmmaking types. Awards are given, photos are taken, wine is consumed. (BTW, I designed their splattery logo and red-carpet backdrop.)

In recent weeks my sisters set themselves the insane challenge of producing an original five-minute movie every week, to post on their website They lean toward the horror/thriller genre, and most aren't suitable for kids (though they're more twisted than gory, if for no other reason than budget). Here's this week's effort, featuring another character from Mom's Cancer that some of you who've read it may remember, and perfectly appropriate for all ages:

The star is Hero, who was given to Mom on her 65th birthday and has grown a little grayer around his muzzle. And best of all from my perspective, Hero's costume was sewn by my daughter Robin, who's developing mad skillz on the Singer.

Honestly, most of my sisters' productions look much more professionally polished than this, as you'll understand when I explain that their editing computer's hard drive just died and took with it three new films they were working on. Still determined to honor their weekly commitment, they shot and edited this one in a few hours. Like I said, they're insane. But in the best way.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Dave and Raina and The Times

My friends* Dave Roman and Raina Telgemeier were recently profiled in a New York Times feature on what it's like to live and work as a couple of married cartoonists. It's a nice piece, aside from the writer's gratuitous swipe at fat comics nerds who go to conventions dressed like superheroes, which--although surely accurate--is a pretty tired observation that has nothing to do with the type of work Dave and Raina create.

As I've recounted once or twice, I first met Dave and Raina at the Eisner Awards in 2006, when I won for Mom's Cancer and Raina was edged out for Best New Talent. She's since gone on to adapt the very popular Baby-Sitters Club series and publish the autobiographical best-seller Smile, which finally got her the Eisner Award she deserved before. Dave was the long-time comics editor of Nickelodeon Magazine until Nickelodeon stupidly decided it didn't need a magazine. His books include Agnes Quill, Astronaut Academy, and Teen Boat (about a teenager who has the power to transform into a yacht, and yeah it's about that strange). They do nice work that doesn't pander or condescend to kids, which is a rare and admirable thing.

It makes me happy to see two kind, creative people succeeding together at a very difficult thing. I don't know how they do it. The anchor that's let me have a freelance writing and cartooning career over the past 12 or 13 years is my wife Karen's steady paycheck (and loving patient support!). Otherwise, forget it. I joke that my entire health care and retirement plan consists of not pissing off my wife. So kudos to Raina and Dave, two brave people shouting into the stormy abyss together. What an adventure.

And now, just because I have the excuse, here are two Two-Minute Interviews I did with Dave and Raina at the 2010 Comic-Con International in San Diego. As I apologized when I first posted them last year, my questioning of Raina was kind of deliberately dumb but I think got to an interesting discussion about process. Dave's interview was more straightforward. Doing these things in a loud and crowded hall is hard.

* "Friends" in this context means people I've talked to a few times, think highly of, and who would probably recognize me in the street or return my e-mail. Also, I can spell "Telgemeier" without looking it up.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Astronautical Infographics

Here's something interesting: an "infographic" put together by MIT's Technology Review illustrating numbers of space launches by different countries over time. All types of space launches, not just manned flights.

The size limitation of my blog doesn't do it justice. You can find a much larger version and a link to a PDF here, although only until October 19. Even at this small scale, though, I can explain some of what it shows.

Time goes from bottom to top, starting with Sputnik in 1957 at the bottom. The USSR/Russia is the fat red column at the left, the United States is beside it, and all the other countries that have shot something into space are laid out to the right. Red represents the number of military missions in each year, gray commercial, blue government, and yellow amateur (universities and such). Most noticeable is the big glut of Soviet military missions in the 1970s and '80s (which an accompanying article explains is partly because Soviet satellites didn't survive long) and the explosion of U.S. commercial traffic in the second half of the '90s. There's also quite a drop-off in Russian activity after the dissolution of the USSR, for obvious reasons.

I find it interesting how Russia's and the U.S.'s curves are nearly inverse images of each other, as if they could fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. I don't know if that has any meaning larger than, "huh, cool," but it kind of is.

Down in the "Halfway Game" comments, I alluded to the idea that looking at information in a new way can change your perspective on it. This graph does that for me. If you'd asked me to draw something like it, I probably would've shown the United States and USSR with roughly similar numbers of launches, distributed much differently over time (i.e., gradually increasing to a modern peak). For example, I would not have guessed that we rocketed more stuff into space in 1960 than we did in 2010. This one image rearranges my understanding of 54 years of history at a glance. New perspective is always worthwhile.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Halfway Game

Long ago in a blog far away, I sometimes played The Halfway Game, guaranteed to put your life in perspective. The game works like this: think of something in the past and then count back twice that number of years to see what the event was halfway to. Ten years ago was halfway to twenty years ago. For best effect, the two events should have some connection.

For example, Michael Keaton's Batman 22 years ago (1989) is halfway to Adam West's Batman 44 years ago (1967). See how that works?

Also, Disney's The Little Mermaid (1989) is halfway to The Jungle Book (1967), which is halfway to the founding of the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio (1923).

U2's album The Joshua Tree (1987) is halfway to the Beatles' first album Please Please Me (1963).

The debuts of the comic strips Calvin & Hobbes and The Far Side (1980) are about halfway to the debut of Peanuts (1950).

The movie Star Trek: Generations (Kirk meets Picard, 1994) is halfway to Star Wars (1977), which is halfway to Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943).

The comic books Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns (1986) are halfway to the debut of The Fantastic Four (1961).

The debut of Charlie's Angels (1976) is halfway to the first commercial television broadcast (1941).

The Apollo 11 Moon landing (1969) is halfway to Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic (1927).

Barack Obama's birthday (1961) is halfway to Ronald Reagan's birthday (1911), which is almost halfway to Abraham Lincoln's birthday (1809).

Sputnik (1957) is halfway to the Wright Brothers' first flight (1903).

The explosion of the first atomic bomb (1945) is halfway to the birth of Albert Einstein (1879).

Feeling old yet? Play along!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Two Minutes with Keith Knight

I think Keith Knight is one of the funniest and most distinctive cartoonists in the business and, as you'll see in this Two-Minute Interview, also one of the busiest and most entrepreneurial. He's got a lot going on. Keith used to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, knew Mom's Cancer, and so became one of those people I bumped into for five minutes once a year. Last Sunday at APE, I did it again.

Just a couple of follow-up thoughts: while not everyone appreciates poop humor, I think Keith's "9 Types of Baby Poo" is hilarious. Although I'm thankfully long out of the baby poo business, if it were still a part of my life or the life of anyone I knew, I would buy his beautiful color print and frame it for the nursery.

As often happens, a more interesting conversation took place after I turned off the camera. I commented admiringly on how many projects Keith had going and he told me he'd been criticized for being unfocused and spreading himself too thin. Not by me. I think diversification is smart. Comics, web, books, TV: it won't all succeed but something will, and the more seeds you sow the better chance of reaping something tremendous.

Also, I am consulting a thesaurus to add adjectives other than "cool" to my rhetorical repertoire. I promise to work in "good," "great," "neat," "swell," "keen," "spiffy," and "boffo" at the earliest opportunity.

Check out Keith's work at the Official K Chronicles and (Th)ink Website.

* * *

I had a nice long conversation with Editor Charlie last night that I'm not going to say anything about right now except that it's all good. All good.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Two Minutes with Alexis Fajardo

Alexis Fajardo is a very nice, smart guy and the creator of a series titled Kid Beowulf, based on the ancient epic and aimed at young readers, as he explains in this three-minute Two-Minute Interview I recorded with him at APE on Sunday. He's also got a really neat day job that I think anyone who knows or cares about comics would find fascinating. But I'll let him tell you about it . . .

Thanks to Lex for playing along! Check out his work at

Monday, October 3, 2011

APE 2011 Debriefing

I spent a very nice Sunday afternoon at the Alternative Press Expo (APE) in San Francisco, accompanied by half of my Digital Art Assistants' Squad (that is, my girls Laura and Robin). Although APE is organized by the same group that does the much larger, louder, slicker Comic-Con International and WonderCon events, it's got a unique funky, underground, do-it-yourself vibe that really sets it apart. Its physical space enhances its tone: rather than a modern concrete and glass convention hall, APE is held at the Concourse Exposition Center, a long wood-beamed refurbished warehouse in an industrial, slightly sketchy part of town. It suits it.

The only other time I've attended APE was in 2006, when I remember it being smaller. A few important independent comics publishers were there yesterday--Fantagraphics, IDW, Top Shelf, SLG (not Marvel or DC)--but most of the tables were claimed by people clearly in it more for love than money. The glory and horror of APE is that the talent on display ranges from extremely polished professionals to the rankest amateurs. One table was staffed by an 8-year-old girl selling felt-tip drawings of superheroes; I guess she was pretty good for an 8 year old, but honestly not a prodigy who should've been asking for people's cash.

I met people I didn't know and remet people I did. At the Fantagraphics table I happened across a book-signing by cartoonist Leslie Stein, whose Eye of the Majestic Creature comic has just been collected by the company. Both Leslie and her work were new to me but I bought her book and introduced myself, and we had a nice conversation about getting published and such--Leslie said she was excited to see her work "in a book with a spine." When I mentioned my editor, the guy quietly taking money next to Leslie perked up and said, "Charlie?" And that's how I met Fantagraphics Editor Eric Reynolds, one of the more important folks in comics, and had a nice, quick conversation with him as well.

People I knew at least a little and reconnected with at APE included cartoonist Shaenon Garrity, her husband and Cartoon Art Museum curator Andrew Farago (who organized the APE workshops), cartoonist Paige Braddock (Jane's World, The Martian Confederacy), Paige's writer on The Martian Confederacy Jason McNamara, cartoonist Lex Fajardo (Kid Beowulf), and cartoonist Keith Knight (The K Chronicles). Unfortunately, I just missed saying hello to cartoonist Rick Geary before he left for the day. My girls pointed out that for someone who doesn't know anyone in the business, I know a lot of people in the business.

Two of those people let me subject them to a "Two-Minute Interview," in which I ask them two minutes worth of bad questions on shaky hand-held video. I've done 'em before and, despite zero demand for more, I did 'em again. Who? I'll let that suspense build until tomorrow.

Between 2 and 2:55 p.m. I gave a workshop on "Designing Distinctive Characters." I think it went pretty well, despite the absence of my usual AV/PowerPoint crutches. Andrew had told me to expect about 20 people so I made 25 packets to distribute; since I ran out, I think I got about 30. Nice!


My talk was a little looser and more seat-of-the-pants than I usually do, which I thought fit the APE ethos. Attendees seemed to get something out of it and I don't think I wasted anyone's time. The best part was talking to people afterward. A couple were very interested in learning the Secret to Success (if I knew it, I'd apply it myself. Just do as much work as you can and get it out into the world however you can, and then get lucky). And I was very happy to meet Tony, who said he's a regular reader of this here blog, which I think is a first for me. Hi, Tony, thanks again!

Thanks to everyone who came to my workshop, and to Andrew for signing me up to do it. APE's a good event, especially for getting a sense of the enormous amount of interesting comic work bubbling beneath the established commercial successes. Some of the people at this expo are going to break out big in the coming years. I don't know who, but it'll be neat to be able to say I saw them when.