Saturday, January 29, 2011

Mark Twain Insult of the Day #5

In 1899, a London acquaintance named T. Douglas Murray asked Mr. Clemens to write the Introduction for an English translation of the trial records of Joan of Arc, which Murray was editing. Clemens submitted his draft and was dismayed to get it back with heavy, ham-handed edits.

In reply, Clemens prepared a point-by-point refutation of the revisions, along the way calling Murray an "unteachable ass" and acknowledging a rare good edit by writing, "But you are not playing fair; you are getting some sane person to help you." In one passage, Murray rewrote Clemens to say that Joan of Arc's genius was "created" through "steady and congenial growth." Clemens replied: "Genius is not 'created' by any farming process--it is born. You are thinking of potatoes." Another group of edits he simply summed up as: "Third Paragraph. Drunk."

Clemens thought better of it and never sent the letter. Fortunately, he saved it for every writer who's suffered a bad edit to treasure for centuries to come. I wish I could post the entire thing. Here's a taste:

It is discouraging to try to penetrate a mind like yours. You ought to get it out and dance on it. That would take some of the rigidity out of it. And you ought to use it sometimes; that would help. If you had done this every now and then along through life, it would not have petrified.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Scobee Smith Resnik McNair Onizuka Jarvis McAuliffe

I hadn't planned on writing anything about the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster. I didn't think I had anything new or interesting to say except that it was one of the big kick-in-the-guts moments of my life. The above picture of Challenger, which I consider a Top-Ten man-in-space photo, still hangs in my office. 'Nuf said. But some other people's remembrances got me thinking about it, and then a couple of hours ago I got a Facebook-friend request from someone I worked with that day who was prodded by the date to look me up 24½ years after we last spoke.

My old co-worker/new Facebook friend and I were reporters at a small newspaper in central California. It was an afternoon paper with a morning deadline (9 o'clock as I recall), and we had just sent that day's issue to press and were heading out the door to work on the next day's stories when the receptionist called out, "Hey, did you hear the space shuttle blew up?" I chuckled that a shuttle was scheduled to go up, and surely she'd heard wrong and gotten confused. But we turned around and went back to the newsroom just in case, and then I don't remember what happened. There was no Internet; we were getting live text dispatches from the Associated Press reporter on the scene. Very brief at first, just a couple of sentences. The reporter was rattled; they weren't well written. Then, gradually, more detail. Early photos. Someone found a TV that stayed on the rest of the day.

I don't think anyone literally yelled "Stop the presses!" but they were nonetheless stopped. We had a paper to deliver in a few hours, very few actual facts to report, and virtually no local angle to cover. Since I had a physics major and wrote a weekly astronomy column for the paper I was the de facto "science guy," and I called some former professors of mine for comment, mostly so we'd have something to print. We filled the top half of the front page with an AP photo, patched together what little we had, and put it to bed. The next day I wrote a first-person column for the editorial page trying to put the disaster in perspective. At the time I thought it was the best thing I'd ever written, although I was also a 25-year-old goober so in retrospect it probably wasn't. I'm afraid to look.

Working frantically at my little desk in a little newsroom for a little newspaper in a little city, I'd witnessed--and helped report--history. One of my great moments in journalism. Big whoop.

I can't believe it's been 25 years, and I still can't watch footage of the explosion without welling up a bit. It was a devastating blow.

That's my Challenger story. Just one of millions.

Mark Twain Insult of the Day #4

Today's insult is more of a back-handed compliment. While living briefly in Vienna, the Clemens family hired a maid who stuck her nose in everybody's business and never shut up. Mr. Clemens nicknamed her Wuthering Heights, no doubt for her melodramatic flair, and she entertained him greatly:

. . . I find myself diffident about finding fault. Not so the family. It gravels the family. I like that. Not maliciously, but because it spices the monotony to see the family graveled. Sometimes they are driven to a point where they are sure they cannot endure her any longer, and they rise in revolt; but I stand between her and harm, for I adore Wuthering Heights . . . She is not monotonous, she does not stale, she is fruitful of surprises, she is always breaking out in a new place. The family are always training her, always caulking her, but it does not make me uneasy any more, now, for I know that as fast as they stop one leak she will spring another. Her talk is my circus, my menagerie, my fireworks, my spiritual refreshment. When she is at it I would rather be there than at a fire.

I really love "gravel," which I don't think I've ever heard used like that but is perfect. Also the caulking metaphor; again, quirky but perfect. I'm starting to think the old guy knew what he was doing.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Mark Twain Insult of the Day #3

Today's subject is a London book reviewer who, Mr. Clemens felt, prized proper grammar at the expense of clarity and style.

I suppose we all have our foibles. I like the exact word, and clarity of statement, and here and there a touch of good grammar for picturesqueness; but that reviewer cares for only the last-mentioned of these things. His grammar is foolishly correct, offensively precise. It flaunts itself in the reader's face all along, and struts and smirks and shows off, and is in a dozen ways irritating and disagreeable . . . I do not like that kind of persons. I never knew one of them that came to any good . . . I would never hesitate to injure that kind of man if I could.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Mark Twain Insult of the Day #2

Today's subject is Clemens's attorney William Hamersly, who advised him poorly in several matters, including contracts with the aforementioned Paige:

I have no feeling about him, I have no harsh words to say about him. He is a great fat good-natured, kind-hearted, chicken-livered slave; with no more pride than a tramp, no more sand than a rabbit, no more moral sense than a wax figure, and no more sex than a tape-worm. He sincerely thinks he is honest, he sincerely thinks he is honorable. It is my daily prayer to God that he be permitted to live and die in those superstitions.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Mark Twain Insult of the Day #1

As mentioned, I'm reading the massive first volume of the thrice-massiver Autobiography of Mark Twain, and about a hundred pages in find that I'm getting to the good stuff. For example, he wrote a couple of pages about his experience navigating the London Underground that had me literally laughing out loud. I'm also rediscovering (I think I knew it but forgot) that Mr. Clemens was particularly adept at insults. From time to time, I'll share some good ones here.

Today's subject is James W. Paige, a self-styled Edison without Edison's cleverness or business sense, who talked Clemens out of hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop a typesetting machine with little to show for it. Clemens wrote:

Paige and I always meet on effusively affectionate terms; and yet he knows perfectly well that if I had his nuts in a steel-trap I would shut out all human succor and watch that trap till he died.

I invite you to borrow that quote and apply it to someone in your own life today.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Envious? You Should Be.

Once in a while, my wife Karen and I like to pick some nearby small town to explore. Some are so close we simply take them for granted; others are enough off the beaten path that we never quite have an excuse to get to them. Last weekend's gorgeous weather set us off to a hamlet less than an hour from home that, despite living here for decades, neither of us remembered visiting before.

The pictures above and below show the road to Point Reyes Station, Marin County, Calif.: green oak-studded hills undulating to the horizon with morning fog still clinging to their crests. It's wine and cattle country (those are vineyards above), an appealing mix of working farmers and artsy bohemians. We've driven through Point Reyes Station to get to the national parkland beyond, but couldn't recall ever stopping in the town itself.

Point Reyes Station lies at the foot of Tomales Bay, which fills the enormous cleft left by the San Andreas Fault as it veers from land into the sea. Highway 1 along the coast is dotted with piers and shacks selling oysters raised in the bay and Dungeness crab fresh off the boat.

Where we went. The long, narrow body of water is Tomales Bay, with Point Reyes Station at its terminus (lower right). The red line marks the San Andreas Fault; millions of years from now, everything to the left of that line will be in the vicinity of Alaska. Glad I got to it while I had the chance.

Enjoying the banks of the Nicasio Reservoir.
We had a beautiful drive, a great al fresco lunch, and a swell couple of hours poking through the four or five square blocks of downtown Point Reyes Station. A neat cap to the afternoon was walking into the town's little bookstore to find a copy of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow on a table by the door. Of course, it was there because it was marked 40% off, but still . . . ! The proprietor was kind enough to let me sign it, and even promised to peel off the sale sticker and try to get full price for it. Good luck with that.
WHTTWOT "In the Wild" at Point Reyes Books.
There's no real point or message to this post, just an appreciation of some nice places in my neighborhood and one of the best afternoons Karen and I have spent doing anything in a while. Wherever you live, I'm sure there are some little overlooked towns nearby that are worth a visit (once your snow melts, heh!). It's a cool way to spend a day.


Monday, January 17, 2011

An Appreciation of the Women of Tomorrow

Suzette Chan of Sequential Tart, a website that has been very good to me over the years, has written a really nice review that touches on the women of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow: Officer Mooney from Cap Crater's "Space Age Adventures," and the nameless little girl at the end who's eager to carry on the next generation's adventures. I had no idea this piece was coming and it was a nice surprise to find it this morning.

Suzette launches from a 2009 interview I did with MK Czerwiec (Part One, Part Two), also for Sequential Tart, in which I said I felt a little guilty that the main characters of WHTTWOT were all male (as I recall, I also said that since almost everyone in Mom's Cancer except me was female, I didn't feel too bad about it). Suzette looks at some of my book's themes with an eye on the women of the World of Tomorrow, an angle I don't think anyone else has considered.

Rather than recap Suzette's short piece, I'll just add a few thoughts about my intentions when I created those characters. Officer Mooney is the voice of reason, as well as the voice of the reader who might wonder why the police need a guy who commutes from the Moon to help them solve every little problem. I think she's the smartest character in the book--Dr. Xandra has greater raw evil-genius brainpower, but Mooney has more street smarts and common sense than all the rest of them put together (for example, when the gang goes out to investigate Dr. Xandra's uranium mine, she's the only one who remembers to bring a gun). And, as Suzette notes, the gag is that through the years Mooney is gradually promoted until she becomes the ineffectual Chief's boss, a nod to women's progress in the real world through the same decades.

The blonde girl came about because I wanted a kid in the final chapter to suggest a new generation with a new vision of its own World of Tomorrow, building on the successes and failures of its predecessors' vision (which is to say, mine). The idea of making the kid a boy had some appeal--generations of men passing a legacy of optimistic futurism down from father to son, etc.--but pointing out that a girl could also be part of such a legacy appealed to me. But mostly the girl is my daughters, who used to look just like her and to whom I dedicated the book. Do whatever you want, be the best you can be, shape your own destiny, yadda yadda.

Dads. Sheesh. Go figure.

Thanks to Suzette and strong, smart women everywhere. I love them so much I married one.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


Bite-sized morsels, served Herb Caen style . . .

* * *
Karen and I saw "The King's Speech" a week ago . . . thought it was great and I recommend it. I wasn't sure how sympathetic I'd be to the plight of a spoiled royal whose worst problem during World War II was poor diction, but the story worked and the actors, particularly Geoffrey Rush, were terrific.
* * *

Before he died in 1910, Mark Twain spent 35 years sporadically working on his autobiography, on the condition that it not be published until 100 years after his death. And so it was, and so I bought it, and have spent two days reading the Introduction. I'm not a slow reader; the thing is a 700-page monster and the Autobiography proper doesn't begin until page 201. The best part: this is Volume 1 of 3.

What intrigues me about this exhaustive scholarly tome is that I bought it off a pallet at Costco, the palace of populism. University of California Press originally planned a print run of 7500 copies, which sounds about right for an academic book about a 19th-century author. As media and public interest grew, that number jumped to 50,000, then 275,000, then 500,000, and I have no idea how many copies are in print now. Having dipped in my toe, I guarantee that The Autobiography of Mark Twain will score the largest ratio of "Copies Purchased/Copies Actually Read" since Hawking's A Brief History of Time or Bloom's Closing of the American Mind.

Both of which I actually read.

I've been looking forward to Twain's autobio for years and will give it a fair go. I peeked ahead and know I'll find some worthwhile rewards. But I'll wager that Volumes 2 and 3 will sell signifcantly fewer copies, and will not be found stacked in pyramids atop the blades of a Costco forklift.

* * *

Speaking of 700-page monsters, the comics event I'm most looking forward to in 2011 is the release of Craig Thompson's Habibi (if indeed it is released in 2011 . . . I don't think the date has been formally announced). Thompson, whose memoir Blankets was a big success, has been working on Habibi since 2004. I'm not kidding about the 700 pages which, judging by samples posted on his blog, will showcase some of the best comics artwork I've ever seen. Amazing, breathtaking stuff.

What worries me (not that anyone asked) is its story, about which very little has been revealed. I don't know how a white American man from the devoutly Christian background so vividly described in Blankets can write authentically about the life of an ethnic Third-World Muslim woman (the titular Habibi) without being superficial, condescending, overly romantic, melodramatic, or just plain getting it wrong. I'm not being snide; I sincerely don't know how he could do it short of immersing himself in the culture for years. However, if Thompson pulls it off, Habibi could be that very rare accomplishment: a graphic novel rich and deep enough to actually be called a novel. In addition, it will win every award that exists and some that haven't been invented yet.

* * *

A book that definitely will not be released in 2011 is my Mystery Project X*. I had very little time to work on it the last few months of 2010 (you know I don't make a living doing comics, right?) but have really had a chance to buckle down the past couple of weeks. It feels great! Where I'm at: I have a 184-page script that I call my "locked-down" draft. That doesn't mean I won't change it, but I do think I finally have all the characters, dialog, plot twists, themes and motifs sufficiently settled to start drawing.

My next task is "thumbnailing," which means roughly sketching out the whole thing to see how the words and drawings lay out and work together. I didn't do a lot of thumbnailing on WHTTWOT and even less on Mom's Cancer, but I think it'll be necessary and helpful for this project. I've just begun (so far so good!) and figure that'll take several weeks. Just a few days ago I hit on the idea of thumbnailing digitally, entirely in Photoshop using a Wacom tablet, and I like it a lot. However, final art will be ink on paper, as God intended.

Once the thumbnails and a few pages of completed samples are done, they'll comprise a book proposal. My six loyal readers may recall that I discussed an earlier proposal for this same project with Editor Charlie just about a year ago. That was script only, plus a few pages of finished artwork, and I think Charlie and I both agreed it wasn't ready. It needed more work. Although Charlie has been as encouraging and supportive as I could hope and I have a commitment to show Mystery Project X to him first, I don't have a contract with Abrams or anyone else. They may not want it. Nobody may want it. These are hurdles to be jumped later, not to fret about now. If nothing else, I can always put it online and hope for the best. It worked pretty well before.

*Mystery Project X is not its real title.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

One Tiny Sign I Did Something Right

I've got this chair. It's an office desk chair: comfy, adjustable, pretty good ergonomics. But because I tend to lean on my left elbow when mousing with my right hand, I wore out the vinyl covering on the left armrest, cracking and splitting it. I unscrewed and exchanged the left and right armrests so that after a while I wore out the other one, too. The chair looked awful, and jagged vinyl jabbed my forearms everytime I sat down. I couldn't find replacements online. I despaired.

Then my girls came home for Christmas. My daughter Robin sews things--some for personal use, some to sell at anime conventions--and had brought her sewing machine to work on a few projects over the holidays. She needed some favors from me and, quid pro quo, I asked one of her: re-cover my armrests. I left it up to Robin and her sister Laura to pick out an appropriate fabric, and they came up with this:

I tell you, it almost brought tears to my Daddy eyes to have raised children who know me so well. A few days later, Robin put the pedal to the metal to produce these:

Which are absolutely the coolest armrest covers anyone has created ever. Plus, we've got about half a yard of fabric left over. I'm thinking seat pillow.

Ha ha, I win.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Graphic Medicine 2011

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I'm helping organize a Graphic Medicine conference in Chicago as a follow-up to the 2010 London conference I enjoyed so much. For some reason, someone thought I might be useful and asked if I'd join the committee; for some reason, I said "yes." We hope the cartoonists, medical professionals, academics, writers, critics and fans who come to the "Comics & Medicine: The Sequential Art of Illness" conference at Northwestern University June 9-11, 2011 get as much out of the next event as I did the last.

In recent weeks we've lined up Scott McCloud, Phoebe Gloeckner and David Small as keynote speakers, which is a very impressive roster of comics talent. We also issued a "Call for Papers" asking people to propose ideas for papers, panels, workshops and poster sessions they'd want to present in Chicago. Now we're trying to drum up some publicity (which, honestly, this blog post is a tiny contribution to) so that potential participants will check out the Call for Papers and help us program this thing. The deadline is February 28.

The one time I met Scott McCloud, our conversation went something like this: Him: "Congratulations." Me: "Thanks." Then he handed me an Eisner Award. I'm hoping to renew our acquaintance in Chicago.

Johanna Draper Carlson (who was one of the very first pros to say nice things about my Mom's Cancer webcomic and I'll never forget it) at "Comics Worth Reading" just posted an interview with me about the conference. Rather than repeat it all, I'll suggest anyone interested in the details go read it there.

More information about the Chicago conference, including the Call for Papers, is available at the Graphic Medicine website. That site is maintained by Ian Williams, the cartoonist/physician who invited me to London and is also involved in the planning for Chicago.

In London last June with Ian Williams, whose acquaintance I also hope to renew.

It's an understatement to say I'm not much of a team player or joiner. If I hadn't had such a terrific time in London, and didn't feel that Graphic Medicine was a worthwhile idea, I wouldn't be involved. As I told Johanna, I think these conferences focus on an aspect of comics with vast untapped potential to make a lot of difference in people's lives. Mom's Cancer gave me a peek at that potential. I'd like to see it develop.


Monday, January 3, 2011

Coolest Photo of the Year

... so far. Courtesy of Bad Astronomer Phil Plait, whose blog is a regular stop of mine, comes this gorgeous image of the most recent full Moon shot in France by astrophotographer Thierry Legault:

So that's a nice enough pic of the Moon, I guess, but what elevates it to "Coolest Photo of the Year (so far)" status? Just that little dark blotch directly above the bright crater Tycho:

That's the International Space Station, whose orbit Legault researched and then set up his camera in the right place at the right time to capture the half-second it took the station to zip across the lunar disk. The station is about 250 miles (420 km) away, the Moon about 900 times that far. For comparison, here's a recent NASA photo of the ISS from space, which I've rotated to about the same orientation:

Look what we can do!