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.