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.