Thursday, March 31, 2011

Home, and To Two Twain

In keeping with my long-standing policy of not telling burglars that my home stands empty and waiting, I didn't want to blog about my latest vacation until I returned from it. Which I just did.

Karen, the girls and I are home from several days in New Mexico, mostly to visit my Dad at his former commune/spiritual retreat center (what, you thought I made up that part of Mom's Cancer?). That's family business so I probably won't say much about it, except that we all had a terrific time with him and touring the cities of Taos and Santa Fe. I may share some photos if any of them look particularly post-worthy (haven't downloaded them yet). We all look forward to rehydrating our skin and mucous membranes after returning to sea level from 7000-foot desert.

When we left northern California last weekend, it was frosty, rainy winter. We return to spring. Trees are budding, birds are chirruping, and the grass in my backyard has grown four inches. It's as if months passed in less than a week. Amazing.

* * *

I finished the Autobiography of Mark Twain last week, and had a few concluding thoughts on it. Bear in mind that this is Volume One of three, so subsequent books might address some of these points.

First, it's Twain, so it is thoroughly well-crafted and entertaining writing. I know of no one better at turning a phrase or subverting expectation, by which I mean starting a sentence one way and giving a twist that takes it somewhere else entirely. Twain easily clears my personal benchmark that defines good writers, which is that I enjoy their work no matter what the subject.

That's good, because Twain's subjects are not always inherently interesting. Reflections on then-current events long forgotten, petty dramas involving people I've never heard of, comings and goings of characters to whom I knew I'd been introduced and thought maybe I ought to go back and look up but then thought, "Oh, why bother?" However, other bits are exactly what you'd want and expect of a Twain autobiography: "you are there" reporting of fascinating people and events by a man who began his career as a journalist.

The latter part of this book, and I believe all of the next two, was written by a method Twain thought quite clever and even revolutionary. Despairing of sitting down and writing his life story as a chronicle from cradle to grave (which he had tried and failed), Twain hit on the idea of dictating to a stenographer and letting his mind wander. Sometimes it wandered back to his boyhood on the Mississippi, sometimes to a dinner guest from the night before. He often clipped articles from newspapers into his manuscript and used them to fuel that day's dictation. Twain was certain that this sort of stream-of-consciousness autobio would reveal more truth and insight about its author than any other method or structure. I think he was only partly right.

Reading the dictations certainly captures the feeling of sitting at Twain's side while he tells you stories. It brings the man to life. He is funny, charming, perceptive, biting, and everything you could want in a conversational companion. He tells great tales about the people he met, and freely shares his opinions (he worshipped Ulysses S. Grant, had a warm relationship with Grover Cleveland's family, thought Teddy Roosevelt was a dilettante distracted by shiny things, and was wowed by his young acquaintance Helen Keller). And for me, that is the book's flaw: it is pitched at the tone and level of a talk you might have with a good friend--if your friend were as interesting as Mark Twain--and not much deeper.

Twain's method promotes spontaneity at the expense of introspection. It makes it difficult to understand how Twain's philosophies and opinions developed through the years. Twain often tells us what he thinks but seldom why. Readers wanting Twain to declare his true opinions on race, religion, and so on may be disappointed. He never really tackles a big topic and says, "Here is what I think about that and why."

Did Twain believe in God? I don't know and he doesn't say. He's certainly irreverent, and writes things that a true believer might fear would keep him out of Heaven. But at other times--when writing sincerely about the deaths of his wife and daughter, for example--he sounds quite devout. I would have been interested in some reflections on his life as a writer: how his skills and style developed, how he learned what worked and what didn't, which works he considered successes and failures. That's mostly absent (though I very much appreciated his descriptions of the 19th century publishing industry and tidbits such as the fact that The Prince and the Pauper was a sales disappointment). I was interested to learn that Twain believed in precognitive dreams and telepathy, which he called "mental telegraphy," based on experiences he'd had (in fact, he speculated that Helen Keller employed mental telegraphy).

It's tempting to conclude that Twain's autobiography is like his beloved Mississippi River: a mile wide but only a few fathoms deep. On the other hand, Twain's dictations have a cumulative effect that he understood very well. He himself wrote that a person's autobiography is really two books: the book its subject writes, and the truth the reader perceives:

". . . an Autobiography is the truest of all books; for while it inevitably consists mainly of extinctions of the truth, shirkings of the truth, partial revealments of the truth, with hardly an instance of plain straight truth, the remorseless truth is there, between the lines, where the author-cat is raking dust upon it which hides from the disinterested spectator neither it nor its smell . . . the result being that the reader knows the author in spite of his wily diligences."

And I think there may be something revealed by the fact that Twain explicitly wrote his book in a way that encouraged engaging anecdotes and discouraged analytical reflection. Just maybe, that's the kind of man he was.

This authoritative edition of The Autobiography of Mark Twain further confounds by providing endnotes--about half as voluminous as the autobiography itself--that check Twain's recall against historical fact and often find him falling short. It turns out that our Autobiographer is also that most useful of literary devices, an Unreliable Narrator! Twain was an old man, dictating from memory; of course he remembered some stories wrong. But others are so wrong that they smell of invention, as if crafted to provide the lesson desired. Whether Twain actually came to believe that his fictions were fact is impossible to say, and a question he briefly wrestles with.

A couple of final thoughts: I find the fact that the book consists of lightly edited oral dictations incredibly impressive. Typically, people write much better than they speak. If I were to transcribe a conversation between you and me, we would gibber with grammatical errors, glitches, fragments, run-ons, dropped thoughts, and incoherence. Not Twain. He was a professional orator, born when people made a living going from town to town giving entertaining multi-hour speeches that crowds turned out to watch, and Twain was a lecture-circuit star. While some of Twain's dictations clearly have the polish of stories he'd told many times before, even his extemporaneous dictations show astonishing clarity and complexity. A hundred years ago, even common folk with ordinary educations could recite long literary passages and poems. Today, skillful oration is so rare that we elect people just because they can talk good. It used to be routine. We've lost something.

Second concluding thought: hooray for modern medicine! Twain's autobiography documents a vale of medical superstition, quackery, ignorance and death. Child mortality was tremendous and treatment often worse than nothing. Two of Twain's three daughters died relatively young (ages 24 and 29), and his wife Olivia wasted away for years. People took ill or died from mysterious diseases that don't seem to have any modern counterparts and may have been non-existent. Grant's physicians reassured him that his throat cancer was due to stress and had nothing at all to do with the cigars he chain-smoked, then told everyone except Grant that he was dying. In some contexts, a century doesn't really seem that long. In other contexts, it's the difference between a witch doctor's poison and a neurosurgeon's MRI. I'm happy for the latter.

I read The Autobiography of Mark Twain with a pencil by my side and left very few pages untouched. I almost never mark up a book, but this one had too much good stuff to let escape. It was very enjoyable and worthwhile.

It was also, at times, a frustrating slog. Finishing Volume 1 did nothing to change the opinion I formed when I bought it: The Autobiography of Mark Twain will have an extremely high ratio of "copies bought to copies actually read," and Volumes 2 and 3 are unlikely to be the enormous runaway top-seller that Volume 1 was (but how cool was it to see Mark Twain atop the bestseller lists?). But I will buy them. On to Twain Two!

Friday, March 25, 2011

In Which I Indulge Myself

Long, LONG-time readers of my blog(s) may recall occasional mentions of my modest collection of original comic art. With the exception of two small pencil drawings by Charles Schulz I've had since I was a kid, I didn't start collecting cartoons until I got my first check from Mom's Cancer and bought the crown jewel of my collection: a "cel" from Winsor McCay's "Gertie the Dinosaur," a pioneering animated cartoon made in 1914.

Nice way to start a collection.

Of course I've always loved original comic art and could have bought it anytime, but I never thought I deserved to have it until I'd made my first buck as an actual cartoonist. Realizing that collecting could quickly get away from me if I let it, I made two rules: I could only acquire pieces done by people I'd gotten to know at least a little bit personally, or pieces by a small roster of greats who especially inspired me. I also accept gifts. My rules keep the collection small and manageable, and ensure that each piece really means something to me.

(Digression: I see collectors at the comic conventions with fat portfolios stuffed full of pages of original art, and I just don't understand that. They never look at it, never display it, and don't seem particularly interested in the art or artists. The pieces might as well be stamps or coins, and maybe to them that's exactly what they're like. I'd rather have one piece from a friend that makes me smile when I look at it than 100 pieces worth 10,000 times as much warehoused out of sight in black plastic binders. But that's just me.)

Yesterday's mail brought my latest find, a daily "Gordo" strip by Gus Arriola. I've written of my admiration of Mr. Arriola's work before. He's on my personal All-Time Top Ten List. If I could ink like any cartoonist in history, I think it would be him (although Walt Kelly would be a contender).

This one's a two-fer: it's Arriola, plus it's space-related. Finding a piece that hits two of my favorite things = too good to pass up. Here's a close-up of the last panel that shows some of what I mean about Mr. Arriola's inking: the "glow" lines that transition from white sky to black, the silhouetted tree and figures, the stylized hatching on the ground: gorgeous. Arriola began his career as an animator and it shows. I wish you could see the original: the blacks are incredibly crisp, with little evidence of under-drawing. This may be the cleanest original art I've ever seen.

Sadly, Mr. Arriola must fall under my "industry giants" rule rather than my "friends" rule. "Gordo" ran from 1941 to 1985 and Arriola passed away recently, in 2008. I only learned then that he lived relatively nearby. If I'd had my wits about me, I could have written him a letter telling him what his work meant to me, maybe even had a chance to thank him in person. Another missed opportunity to add to my Big Book O' Regrets.

While I'm on the subject, I'll share the second-most-recent addition to my collection, a wonderfully generous gift from my friend Mike Lynch. Mike is a specimen of the nearly extinct genus "people who earn a living from magazine gag cartooning." A long time ago I expressed admiration for this particular cartoon and was thrilled to find it under my tree last Christmas. See? Now that's a story and a friend I get to remember whenever I look at my wall.

Caption: "I had a thought. No . . . that was you." ©Mike Lynch

If you're interested in collecting original comic art, it's not a bad or necessarily expensive hobby. As with any art, you have to know what you're looking at, and look at enough of it to know whether the price is fair. Shopping in person is best, but I realize that's seldom practical. eBay is a terrific resource (that's where I found my "Gordo") but beware! Fakes are rampant--it's funny how often Schulz forgers misspell "Schulz." Check out the seller's reputation. Know the difference between an original and the various prints, proofs and photostats that often show up on the market (in animation art, also learn the difference between a production cel (original) and a "sericel" (lithographed copy)). Your best bet may be to buy directly from the cartoonist. Not all sell their originals (I don't) but many do, and will be happy to point you in the right direction.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Fun Art Idea

Here's a neat twist on a concept that's been floating around the Web a while: "Camera and Pencil," in which artist Ben Heine appears to be holding a scrap of paper with a pencil drawing that perfectly merges with the real background, usually with some added bits of whimsy or fantasy. I like it! (Follow that link above to see more.)
I write "appears" because it's not clear to me how Heine does it. You're supposed to think that he sketched it on-site with incredible skill and held it to align perfectly for the camera. I dunno; maybe he did! But a much simpler method occurs to me: take a photo of your hand holding a blank piece of paper, then go home, do the sketch in perfect alignment and perspective, and paste it into the blank space with Photoshop. Or I suppose the entire thing could be assembled in Photoshop--the background elements, the paper, the drawing, the hand--but that would circle back around to being unnecessarily difficult.

To be clear, I'm not accusing Heine of "cheating." I don't really care how he does it--I think it's nifty and you can't spell "art" without "artifice" (wait, I have that backwards...). I just can't help speculating through the filters of "I wonder how he did that" and "If I were going to do that...." In any case, check out and enjoy the fun drawings.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Happy Birthday to Messrs. Shatner, Kirk, Hooker, Crane, et al

I didn't mean to post two "Star Trek" items in a row (sorry, non-fans) but today is the 80th birthday of The Man, The Legend, The Shat: Mr. William Shatner.

I'm going to get serious for a moment before posting some videos that simultaneously celebrate and ridicule Mr. Shatner. He's an easy target. However, I sincerely believe he's a very good if not great actor. Here's what I think defines the difference: in a good actor you can see the gears turning and technique being applied, and it looks difficult; in a great actor, the gears and technique are invisible, and it looks effortless. Not that I know anything about acting, but I always thought Mr. Shatner would be a good model for novice actors to study because they could watch him and see what he was doing and how he was doing it, in contrast to a better actor whose skills would look like incomprehensible magic. That's just a theory I have based on my analogous experience in cartooning (I understand what Walt "Pogo" Kelly did and can learn from his example, while George "Krazy Kat" Herriman was a wizard whose tricks were beyond my humble ability to grasp).

I also think that Capt. James T. Kirk is one of the great iconic fictional characters of the 20th Century. No kidding. Kirk is idealized mid-century America: bold, confident, resourceful, virile, but also (and this was often forgotten in later years when Kirk was slandered as a "shoot-first" kinda guy) a smart and compassionate leader who quoted Shakespeare and poetry. Kirk knew who he was, what he was doing, and why he was doing it. The Canadian Shatner created a hero as quintessentially American as Superman, Indiana Jones or Davy Crockett (I know Crockett was real; I mean the Disney version). He got help from a lot of producers, writers and castmates, but you can see the difference Shatner brought to the job by comparing his performance to Jeffrey Hunter's Christopher Pike, the Enterprise's captain in "Star Trek's" failed first pilot. Hunter was fine, but replacement Shatner brought a humanity to his captain--an edge, a twinkle--that made all the difference. Although viewers loved Leonard Nimoy's Spock for obvious reasons, I'd argue that without Shatner's Kirk, "Star Trek" would've died in 1970 (if not sooner) and be nearly forgotten today.

Some might consider that a merciful blessing. Not me.

I remember a time when Shatner struggled to shrug off Kirk and wasn't always gracious about it. Both his persona and career improved as he relaxed and developed a graceful sense of humor about his work and himself. The really nice thing about his later renaissance is that Mr. Shatner himself seems to be in on the William Shatner Joke. His willingness to play along--again, with a twinkle in his eye--makes all the difference. He may be an egotistical jerk in real life--reports vary--but on screen, from Kirk to Hooker to Denny Crane, I always find him interesting and fun to watch (although not even his presence is enough to draw me in to "$#*! My Dad Says"). The only time he ever disappointed me was when he didn't accept my Facebook Friend request.

Here are some reflections of The Shat, offered with sincere appreciation and respect on his 80th birthday.

All you need to know about Kirk in 1:57:

"Airplane 2," early in Mr. Shatner's evolving self-awareness:

Hooker. "Resist arrest! Resist arrest, please!" Maybe you had to be there, but I can't watch this without a big stupid grin.

A turning point in his career, 1986. The beauty of this piece is that anyone offended by it probably deserved to be:

If this doesn't make you weep until your eyes run dry, well, then I don't want to know you:

Recently, with George Lopez:

Finally, two mostly affectionate appreciations, the first marking the occasion of Mr. Shatner's birthday two years ago, and the second from last year. In the first, voice artist Maurice LaMarche refers to a couple of old recordings of Shatner behaving badly. Warning for a family-friendly blog: the second contains bad words. Hiliariously bad words.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

By Alexander Courage, Lumberjack

This is for Mike Lynch. Nobody else needs to bother pressing "Play," unless you want to watch a street musician play the "Star Trek" theme on a saw. Which, who wouldn't?!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

I Hear Two Tongues, Shriller Than All the Music

The ides of March are come.

Ay, Caesar; but not gone.

Twenty-three years ago today, my life forever split into "before" and "after."

Robin: "Nyah nyah, all your hair will turn gray starting
in five . . . four . . . three . . ." Me: "Nooooooo!"

Karen checking Laura for washing instructions or warranty.

Happy Birthday, Chiquitas! We'll be there to help you celebrate soon.



Monday, March 14, 2011

Mark Twain Insult of the Day #8, and more

You're getting tired of these. I can tell. But I love them and it's my blog. Today's Twain target is Elisha P. Bliss Jr., who published a few of Twain's books under what Mr. Clemens later decided were unfair terms.

I never heard him tell the truth, so far as I can remember. He was a most repulsive creature. When he was after dollars he showed the intense earnestness and eagerness of a circular-saw. In a small, mean, peanut-stand fashion, he was sharp and shrewd. But above that level he was destitute of intelligence; his brain was a loblolly, and he had the gibbering laugh of an idiot . . . I have had contact with several conspicuously mean men, but they were noble compared to that bastard monkey.

* * *

Speaking of the Graphic Medicine conference I'm helping to plan for next June in Chicago, we've just started to look at the proposals for papers, talks, panels, workshops, etc. that people submitted. We have many excellent ideas to choose from--maybe more than we can accommodate in the time and space available, I don't know yet. Personally, I'm relieved. I mean, you just never know! What if we'd gotten none? My co-organizers had more faith and it looks like they were right. The hard part now may be having to turn down terrific proposals just because we have too many. Seeing what we have to choose from, I am confident we're going to have a wonderful event. Registration is open!

* * *

My thumbnailing for Mystery Project X proceeds apace. I'm more than halfway through a very rough draft of what I hope will be my next book, expect it'll take me a few more weeks to finish, and am happy with how it's going. I'm getting a lot out of the process. The act of committing the layout, dialog, and sketchy figures to paper (well, pixels) is helping me solve old problems, raising new ones, and sparking new ideas, just as it should. I've also resolved some technical special-effects issues to my satisfaction for now. It's interesting: as I mentioned before, I never really thumbnailed either of my first two books (I did a bit on WHTTWOT) but it's really working well for me. I just need to do it faster.

I think "process"--insights into how different people do the job--is interesting. Some cartoonists approach their work "pictures first," letting their art inspire a story, while others work "words first," essentially illustrating a script (I'm mostly the latter, although I'm always looking for opportunities for art to convey meaning and help carry the narrative load). I recently read an old interview with a cartoonist who said she never did a rough draft of anything, and had lost jobs because of it. One publisher wanted to print her work but, not unreasonably, asked for some idea of what they might be getting first. She couldn't do it; that wasn't how her process worked. She didn't know what she was going to do until she did it. I find that alien and fascinating. I wish I could spend five minutes inside a mind that works like that.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Mark Twain Insult of the Day #7

To recap, I am reading the Autobiography of Mark Twain (at a leisurely pace) and, from time to time, posting examples of Mr. Clemens's most colorful insults, at which he seemed especially adept. Today's subject: Humanity.

A myriad of men are born; they labor and sweat and struggle for bread; they squabble and scold and fight; they scramble for little mean advantages over each other; age creeps upon them; infirmities follow; shames and humiliations bring down their prides and their vanities; those they love are taken from them, and the joy of life is turned to aching grief. The burden of pain, care, misery, grows heavier year by year; at length ambition is dead; pride is dead; vanity is dead; longing for release is in their place. It comes at last--the only unpoisoned gift earth ever had for them--and they vanish from a world where they were of no consequence; where they achieved nothing; where they were a mistake and a failure and a foolishness; where they have left no sign they have existed--a world which will lament them a day and forget them forever.

Get out of my head, Dead Mark Twain.

Mr. Clemens is much kinder and gentler recalling the death of one of his daughters, Susy, at the age of 24. I'm sure the welling in my eyes and choking in my throat has nothing to do with my own daughters' 23rd birthday coming up soon. The old man knew how to break your heart (and he knew that he knew it, the scoundrel).

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Do the Batusi

Blogging's still sparse 'cause I'm still working hard, especially on Mystery Project X. Thanks for your indulgence.

Cartoonist Jesse Lonergan (whom I don't know and, honestly, hadn't heard of before today and I'm sorry about that) has drawn a batch of Star Wars and superhero characters in silly dance poses. Comics Reporter Tom Spurgeon, whose link sent me there, dismissed it as "that kind of cute superhero thing (that) really does it for some people, and doesn't do a thing for others," and it certainly is that, but I got a little more out of it.

First, they're neat examples of cartooning in their own right. Each figure shows maximum expression with minimal details. Their anatomy is very stylized but solid. They reminded me of "gesture drawings" in art classes, in which you have only a few seconds to capture the essence of a figure in motion. Some of Lonergan's characters are little more than sillhouettes, yet they're full of life and movement. Even attitude and emotion! That's hard to do.

The second thing I noticed is that a full page of these figures has a sort of cumulative effect of suggesting movement that approaches animation. That's especially apparent in this bunch of Spider-Men:

Cartoonist Jules Feiffer mastered that effect with his dancers pirouetting existentially through life, and I was also reminded of one of the most enduring sequences from Bill Watterson's "Calvin and Hobbes":

It's interesting that all three examples lack the traditional comic panel borders, encouraging the eye to flow uninterrupted from one image to the next. I think that's important.

Even if Lonergan's dance drawings are too cute for your taste, there's some cartooning wisdom to be had there.