Saturday, January 15, 2011


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

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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.
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Before he died in 1910, Mark Twain spent 35 years sporadically working on his autobiography, on the condition that it not be published until 100 years after his death.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.

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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.

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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.


Sherwood Harrington said...

Thanks for the updates... it's good to know that you haven't been kidnapped by Strange deJim or someone.

Looking forward to the Mystery work... your last two efforts have been worthy.

Did you know that I was once mentioned in Caen's column?

Maybe cause for worry: It's a good thing the word is habibi not habibati that's right next to titular, otherwise you might be in deep trouble with the devout. You might still be... if so, I don't know you and never have and that's my story.

Sherwood Harrington said...

... and "Mystery Project X" is not the title of "Mystery Project X"? Next you'll be trying to tell me that the "Manhattan Project" wasn't something Ed Moose worked on behind the bar at the Washbag.

Brian Fies said...

Ah, not just a Caen fan, but a source! I think you did tell me about your mention, probably the last time I mentioned Herb, but don't recall the story. Sadly, no one else who reads this will have any idea who Strange de Jim is or what we're talking about.

I confess I don't get your "habibati" ref, but the larger concern you raise is another very good reason for Craig Thompson to be sure he gets his Islam right.

Sherwood Harrington said...

Oh, I'm sure I mentioned it the last time -- it's an autonomous response of mine to the words "Herb" and "Caen": hey, did you know that I was mentioned, etc. Holding a single mention in Caen's column as a high point of my life is how I know I'm a true, if adopted, San Franciscan. That and having married a native.

"Habibati" = feminine form of "habibi," and "titular" is one of those words that Caen could be juvenile about and get away with it.

You think anyone else reading this will know who Ed Moose was?

Mike Lynch said...

I get goosepimply when I hear about your MYSTERY PROJECT X.

ronnie said...

I got the Twain Autobio for Christmas in paperback (the better to take it with me on vacation in April). Really looking forward to it.

I'm also happy to get an update on Mystery Project X (are you sure you won't consider it as a title??) Looking forward to reading it some day in any format...

Jim O'Kane said...

Brian, 184 pages for a draft is pretty danged impressive. My current draft is barely half that and I'm thinking its going to take almost another year to finish.

I realize it's a MYSTERY PROJECT X, but could you at least let us know if it's going to involve publishing/paper effects akin to WHTTWOT's comic book inserts, etc? Do publishers freak out when they get proposals that depend on more than 30-lb bond paper in glued binding?

Brian Fies said...

Thanks, Mike! Speaking of secret projects . . .

Ronnie, we'll see which of us gets through our Twain first. Actually, I enjoyed the detective story Intro of how the pieces were put together, and am now up to the first Twain material. I'm looking forward to it a lot.

Jim, gotta keep in mind that 184 pages of graphic novel is different than 184 pages of prose/text. The information density is very different. I think the closest analog to a written graphic novel script is a movie screenplay, if you've ever seen one of those. Lots of dialog, not much description (leaving that for the pictures).

I am indeed intending Mystery Project X to involve some very special special effects, different than those in WHTTWOT but just as fun and integral to the story I hope. I'm lucky to have a publisher like Abrams and an editor like Charlie: they actively encourage books with oddball sizes, trims, papers, varnishes, holes cut through the middle of them, etc. It's one of the qualities that sets them apart from other publishers.

sligo said...

for the record: Sligo knows who Strange de Jim, Ed Moose, and, of course, Mr. Caen are, because i'm, no wait, because, um, because...

Brian Fies said...

We're not old. We're wise and well-seasoned.

Sherwood Harrington said...

... and we never, ever call it "Frisco."