Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Great Man Passes

I was about 15, hanging with the gang at the home of my friend Andrea. Her father, the Great Man, waved me over. He was always quiet but imposing, with a sardonic smile and eyes that squinted and twinkled and pierced.

“So,” he rumbled. “What do you think about those Sandinistas down in Nicaragua?”
I don’t recall how I replied. I can’t imagine I did, knowing nothing about Sandinistas and consequently having no opinion about them at all. I had disappointed the Great Man. I squirmed away and later learned enough so that the next time he asked what I thought about those Sandinistas down in Nicaragua, I’d have something to say. The subject never came up again, but I was ready.

* * *

I was about 25, newly married and moving back to my hometown jobless after working a couple of years as a small-town newspaper reporter. I called on the Great Man for advice. He said he could get me an interview with the editor of the local newspaper—a union shop, much larger than the little daily for which I’d covered the city and education beats—and we talked about editing, stringing, freelancing, all sorts of opportunities for a kid with my experience. I’d taken at least an hour of his time, and gratefully rose to leave.

“So,” he squinted and twinkled and pierced. “What’s your plan?”

I don’t recall how I replied. I can’t imagine I did, being planless and all.

Maybe he didn’t actually shake his head and sigh, but that’s how I remember it.

“Here’s your plan,” he said, sitting me back down and laying out a multi-step approach to tackling the next phase of my life. He had me repeat it back to him to be sure it’d sunken in. I wasn’t leaving his home without a plan.

* * *

Douglas Campbell died Friday at the age of 90. He was the father of a good friend, a war hero, an educator, a writer, an editor. Enormously well-read and cultured. Less tangibly but most significantly, he was hugely respected and influential in the community. Andrea’s friends half-teased that her dad’s name, spoken in the same tone with which God addressed Moses on the mountain, could shake loose favors and open doors throughout half the state. Only half-teased because we’d seen it happen.

He was also the first adult outside my family who took an interest in encouraging and challenging me in the absence of any evidence I was worth the effort, offering opportunities I was too young and dumb to fully appreciate or grasp. Mr. Campbell (I’d never presume to call him anything else) was a mentor, one of a few I’ve been lucky to have in my life. I later realized he’d taken a lot of people under his broad wings over the years, which says less for me but a lot more for him.

Our local newspaper’s feature obit for Mr. Campbell tells some good stories about him, some of which I knew and others I didn’t. My favorite is of him lying in a hospital bed in 1945 receiving a Silver Star from Gen. George Patton himself. Patton read over his citation. “Did you do all that?” he asked, impressed. Mr. Campbell acknowledged that he had. “Why, you are a goddam fightin’ son of a bitch!” Patton exclaimed.

He later taught high school English and, by the time I met him, was the school district’s director of secondary education. He also moonlighted as a newspaper copy editor for nearly 40 years. I learned not to misuse the word “decimate” in his presence. Teaching was the common thread, I think, the one-word summation of his 90 years, apart from the few he spent single-handedly saving the world from the Nazis. The death of his wife Elizabeth in 2009 ended one of the best husband-wife partnerships I’d seen. It was my great fortune to know him.

* * *

I was 41, attending Andrea’s wedding on a beautiful September afternoon. I congratulated Mr. Campbell and shook his hand, and said words I don’t remember. They were something to the effect of: You were important to me. You made a big difference in my life. Thank you.

And he beamed, and might’ve said something like, “Well, my goodness,” and introduced me around to all his friends, squinting and twinkling. No piercing. After 25 years, I had not disappointed the Great Man after all.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Comics & Medicine 2012: Toronto. Be There!

NOW we've got ourselves a party!

Just about everything has come together for the Third International Comics & Medicine Conference I'm helping plan for this July 22-24 in Toronto. Which isn't to say there isn't still a lot of work to do (mostly by people other than me). But as of yesterday we've got a registration website, a semi-final conference program, facilities reserved at the University of Toronto, and a great bunch of events planned.

Everytime I write about this I try to include links to my posts about the 2010 conference in London, where I was a keynote speaker, and the 2011 conference in Chicago, which I helped organize. "Comics and Medicine" or "Graphic Medicine" is a challenge to define and may sound oxymoronic, but most people get it when they see it. I think of it as using comics to convey information or tell stories in a healthcare context that couldn't be told any other way. That might mean cartoon iconography that improves public health, or medical school materials that describe how chemistry and biology work. A big part of it involves doctors, nurses, patients and caregivers using the medium of comics to express their unique points of view. Like Mom's Cancer.

I also always emphasize that these are academic conferences, not comics conventions. We have panels at which people (most of them healthcare pros and academics) describe their work and research, in addition to workshops that provide some hands-on practice. We're also planning booksignings, receptions, and a film screening. What I really love about these conferences is that professors, doctors, nurses, writers, cartoonists and others come together more or less as equals who're all happy to learn from each other. In fact, a little secret: comics creators are treated like rock stars. That doesn't happen too many other places.

We're expecting about 100 people to come, although we really have no idea. Registration is $100, which my wife Karen, who attends a lot of professional conferences, insists is ridiculously low. We're also offering a $50 rate for "students and unwaged," for which we'll pretty much take your word. Show some integrity. Nobody's making a profit on this. Everyone who participates is asked to register (I already bought my $100 ticket) except our invited keynote speakers.

Speaking of whom: our keynoters will be Joyce Brabner (Our Cancer Year) and Joyce Farmer (Special Exits). The year of the Joyces! We've also invited our lucky charm who's appeared at every conference so far, UK critic and journalist Paul Gravett, who'll open the event with his characteristic charm and insight, and I'm sure step in wherever needed.

I really like Paul.

Everyone whose proposals were accepted for the conference should soon get an e-mail explaining what's next. Basically, we've tried to group papers/speakers into 90-minute moderated panels of three or four that have a similar theme or topic. Each speaker will have 20 to 25 minutes; PowerPoint slides are typically shown (every room will have AV hook-ups) but aren't required. Panels conclude with a little cross-talk and Q&A as time allows. As far as public speaking goes, it's pretty painless.

We'll have three or four panels and workshops all going on at the same time, so everyone should find something interesting to do. The most common complaint we heard in Chicago was that we had too much good stuff happening for anyone to see it all. Taking that as a compliment, we packed even more into Toronto.

Now to start preparing for my workshop (tentative title: "Cartooning Fundamentals: Mastery of Time and Space") and hoping people show up. My experience in London and Chicago was heady, exciting, inspirational. All signs indicate that Toronto will be even better!

The 2012 Conference Logo, courtesy of physician-cartoonist Thom Ferrier.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Paul Giambarba

A friend of mine is self-publishing a book. I sent him a note: "Tell me how I can buy a signed copy!" Instead, he mailed it to me as a gift. Wouldn't take my money. So in meager compensation, I'm going to blog about his book, and him, and embarrass him by telling him how honored I am to know him.

Maybe next time he'll take my money.

I've written about Paul Giambarba before (here and here) but it's been a while and none of those posts mentioned his new book, 30 Years of Polaroid Instant Pictures, 1951-1981, which collects three decades of Paul's Polaroids, most taken of his family and friends at home and various travels around the world. Big deal; some guy's snapshots. And I'd scoff along if it were anyone but Paul, who served as Polaroid's first art director and design consultant from 1958 through 1983 and literally wrote the book on a camera that was not just a nifty machine but an icon of mid-century Americana, emblematic of youth, freedom, and rock 'n roll.

If you bought a Polaroid camera around 1969, you might've gotten this book with it. When I said he literally wrote the book, you didn't think I was being figurative, did you? The boy in the headdress is Paul's son.

One of Paul's charges at Polaroid was to distinguish it from Kodak, photography's 900-pound gorilla. In modern terms, his job was to brand it: not just explain to you why upstart Polaroid was objectively different, but make you feel differently about it emotionally. Here's one idea Paul came up with:

Man, that takes me back. Joy in every box.

As I wrote the last time Paul's name came up around here: if you're of a certain age, those cleverly designed rainbow-striped boxes, which looked so great stacked high on a shelf, held the promise of jazzy, energetic fun--so much more fun than Kodak's stodgy yellow and black! Every modern-day Apple ad and package design persuading you that Macs are the hip alternative to boring PCs and Microsoft--even down to their clean sans-serif text and candy-coated color palette--is the direct descendant of "product identity" design work Paul did more than 50 years ago.

Have you ever in your life been this cool? Me neither.

I first "met" Paul online as a cartoonist, but that's the least of his talents. He's a writer, illustrator, teacher, designer, printer, photographer. He knows typography, printmaking, publishing, advertising. Wrote 18 books. As a young man he worked and toured throughout 1950s Europe with his late wife Ruth in adventures that sound impossibly romantic. He's a Renaissance Man and unsung giant, which is a bit ironic since he stands about, what, 5-foot-5? Although Paul lives across the country from me now, he coincidentally lived in my hometown years ago and in 2006 came back to visit friends and take me out to lunch. We keep in touch.

My lunch with Paul, October 2006

Sincerely, just about the very best consequence of my semi-career in comics has been meeting some of the most kind, generous, talented people I've ever known. At the top of that list is Paul. I can't even express how much I respect him. He was there when the art and craft of illustration and design were at their absolute peak--not just watching it happen, but driving it. I'm proud to know him.

He's also got too much wisdom and too many opinions for one website or blog to contain. In appreciation for sending me his book, I'll see if I can send some traffic his way:

Paul Giambarba Design, Illustration and Photography, Paul's main blog. Scroll down to look at some terrific photos., A portfolio site with links to other ports of call. Keep clicking "Next" to see some good stuff.

100 Years of Illustration and Design: Paul's perspective on some of the great commercial artists and artwork of the 20th Century.

The Branding of Polaroid: Blog posts dedicated to the topic.

Thanks again, Paul! You are the best.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Coming Attraction

Coming in paperback and available August-ish, quite possibly at a bookstore near you:

Catalogs have been shipped and an Amazon page created, so I can talk about it now. Paperback. $14.95. Exactly the same size and content as the hardcover, including the cool pulpy comic book paper. A new cover designed by me, Abrams graphic artist Sara Edward-Corbett and Art Director Chad Beckerman, with valued input from Editor Charlie Kochman.

Funnily enough, despite producing all the art and working on the cover with Abrams for weeks, I just realized now that the only version I have of the final composition is this relatively low-res image from Amazon. The sticker at top left is the American Astronautical Society's Eugene M. Emme Astronautical Literature Award; the quote at top is from The Village Voice: "A hopelessly optimistic moon-age daydream," which I've always chosen to take as a compliment.

Much more later!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Gift of Touching History

Tomorrow's my birthday, as Karen reminded me as she woke me this morning. "Do I get to sleep in?" I moaned. "Actually, no," she replied. Something was up.

Out of bed, showered, quick stop at Starbucks (which faked me out), then south toward San Francisco. I'm no dummy (no, really!) and figured it had something to do with our girls, Robin and Laura, who live in The City. But Karen faked me out again, veering off toward the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge that crosses the North Bay toward Berkeley, Oakland . . . and Alameda.

Which is where they berth the USS Hornet aircraft carrier--once a warship and recovery vessel for the Apollo 11 and 12 space missions, now a floating museum and historic landmark--and where my girls were waiting for me. Surprise!

I've written about my girls and the Hornet before: they both volunteer there, giving tours and chaperoning groups of Boy Scouts and such who spend the night aboard ship. Laura trained up to become a full docent and more recently parlayed her in-progress graduate education in Museum Studies to become the Hornet's full-fledged Archival and Collections Manager. Her job is to go through decades of papers and material that came with the ship when it was decommissioned in 1970 plus a lot more donated by old sailors since, figure out what it is, document it, preserve it, and do the gruntwork needed to make the Hornet's junk into a real museum-quality collection. It'll take months. Years. You know that warehouse at the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark?" Like that. But what an opportunity for her! So my birthday gift was a backstage tour.

Now I need to tell you about deadly Moon Germs.

There aren't any.

But nobody knew that for certain in 1969, and on the off chance that the first men to land on the Moon brought back some alien face-hugging brain-burrowers, the returning astronauts of Apollos 11, 12 and 14 were locked in a modified Airstream trailer dubbed a Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF) (it wasn't necessary for Apollo 13 since those astronauts never left their ship; by Apollo 15, NASA concluded the Moon was sterile and the MQF wasn't necessary at all). The MQF used for Apollo 11 is in the Smithsonian. The one used for Apollo 12 is at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The one used for Apollo 14 is on the Hornet.

So here's a photo of President Richard Nixon on the hangar deck of the Hornet looking through the window of an Airstream trailer--excuse me, MQF--congratulating Apollo 11 astronauts Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin. Note the "Hornet + 3" sign above the window, covering up the "Airstream" logo with a touch of military whimsy (similar whimsy had the astronauts fill out a U.S. Customs form listing their previous destination as "Moon" and declaring their cargo of "Moon rocks"):

Now look at me this morning, grinning like a loon, holding a piece of painted wood Laura found tucked away on a shelf one day.

Not a recreation. Not a simulation. The wood grain matches. It's the real deal.

Now look at the shelf behind me, under my left hand (here, I'll blow it up for you!), and compare it to a photo of the MQF used for the next lunar landing, Apollo 12:

They kept the signs. On the ship. For forty-three years. Before the Hornet's crew loaded the hero-filled trailers onto military transport aircraft and flew them back to Texas, they kept the signs.

Some of you may say, "So what?" I understand your reaction. Others of you might get chills up your spine and tears in your eyes. You understand my reaction.

Best. Birthday. EVER. And best kids ever.

Robin, me and Laura in front of the Apollo 14 MQF on the hangar deck of the Hornet.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Stealth Mode X

This is what 75 blue-pencilled pages of my next comic, which I've been calling "Mystery Project X," look like:

I'm aiming for about 196, so I still have a long way to go. It's slow. Never enough time. Some days I'm enthusiastic and others discouraged. The usual. One reason for posting this picture is to to lay down a marker that'll spur me to see it through. It's good to see it all together like this; picking at it one or two pages at a time does add up. Bird by bird.

Another reason is to reassure anyone who cares that I'm still in the game. Just because you don't see it doesn't mean I'm not playing.

It's also an opportunity to write about Process, which is something I've always done and some readers like. First, it's evident I remain an old-school dinosaur cartoonist who works with paper, pencil and ink instead of photons and electrons. Our numbers are dwindling. For me, analog is a lot more fun and fulfilling than digital. How quaint.

I've already scripted and drawn thumbnail roughs for the entire story, and have them open in front of me when I draw. As is standard, I draw the pages larger than they'll appear in print or online. Shrinking artwork tightens it up and hides its flaws. These originals are 27 x 42 cm. (or will be when I slice off the right-side border of the paper). First I draw with blue pencil, then go over the pencil lines with India ink using brushes and pens. I use light blue pencil because it's nearly invisible to photocopiers and scanners, so I don't need to erase it after I ink. Then I'll scan each page into Photoshop to add lettering, word balloons and coloring, and do whatever editing and clean-up are needed.

I'm trying something different on this project than I did on Mom's Cancer or WHTTWOT: pencilling the entire story first, then going back and inking it (on my previous books, I pencilled and inked a few pages at a time, completing small batches as I went). This solves a few problems. First, a character's appearance naturally evolves as you draw it over and over, streamlining and polishing, so that the same character can look very different between start and finish. I've already noticed that happening with these characters. That'll be much easier to adjust between pencilling and inking than if I had to go back and fix a bunch of already-inked pages. Second, I have some continuity concerns--things that must match at the beginning and end of the story, or build slowly throughout--that are again easier to get right and revise in pencils than inks. Third, it gives me freedom to think of new ideas as I go and weave them back in retroactively.

I think my pencils-first idea is working well. The downside: assuming I persevere in pencilling all 196 pages, I'll be only half done. I'll still have to ink them all.


I'm not on any particular deadline except a constant crushing awareness of my own mortality. That has pros and cons. A deadline, as Sam Johnson said of an impending hanging, concentrates the mind wonderfully. Absent one, I have a completely arbitrary, imaginary target in my head that I think I can hit if I apply myself. It helps.

I'll continue playing my "Mystery Project X" cards close to the vest. Just wanted to let you know that I am working on something and making progress, even if I'm not breathlessly blabbing about it. I'm determined to see it through, although that could change tomorrow. Not sure I have a choice; what else am I gonna do with myself?

Friday, April 6, 2012

Dim Sum Friday

I love you guys. I've just been a bit busier in real life, and a bit lazier in virtual life, than usual. Today's a catch-all of little nuggets that landed on my table the past several days. Digital dim sum.

* * *

I caught a documentary on PBS last night that I thought was terrific, and especially worthwhile for anyone pursuing a creative dream. It's "Being Elmo" about Muppeteer Kevin Clash, who brought the (in)famous little red furball to life, and I'm not ashamed to admit my eyeballs moistened a couple of times.

And I don't even particularly like Elmo.

Luckily, that's not a prerequisite for appreciating this film about a kid from Baltimore who grew up driven to do one thing: puppetry. So driven that in the throes of creative inspiration he cut up his Dad's jacket to build a puppet, and so lucky he had parents whose only criticism was "next time, ask first." He performed in local television while in high school, worked for Captain Kangaroo while still a teen, was mentored by Jim Henson's head designer Kermit (!) Love as a young man, and built a career that at last led to him working with his hero Henson and creating one of the most beloved Muppet personalities.

What I found most affecting is that Clash comes off as a kind and gentle man who's unusually passionate about his job, deeply appreciates his opportunities, and is eager to pay them forward. There's a bit I loved late in the film in which Clash welcomes a starstruck young puppeteer into his studio and gives the kid a tour exactly as we saw Kermit Love do for him 30 years ago (which for reasons unexplained had also been filmed). You just know that once in a while Clash must stand on the Sesame Street set, look around, and get a little chill. I like that about him.

I wish we'd been shown more of his adult life away from the screen--there are hints that being so dedicated to his career hurt his home life, including references to an ex-wife who's only mentioned in passing--but that's a quibble. It was enough for me to see an apparently nice guy finish first. I couldn't change the channel.

* * *

"Being Elmo" also stunned me when it mentioned that Jim Henson was only 53 years old when he died in 1990. Fifty-three! I couldn't believe it. He accomplished so much.

Oh. I'm turning 52 later this month. Yeah. Got my attention.

* * *

Nominations for the 2012 Eisner Awards, generally considered the highest honor in comics, were announced a few days ago. I set out to draft a little blog post about them, looked over the list, and realized I had almost nothing to say. The vast majority I haven't read. I haven't even seen any of the nominees in my very own webcomics category, though I'll remedy that soon.

Two conclusions: I'm evidently totally out of it; and the comics industry has gotten so big and diverse I don't know if one person could (or would want to) keep up with all of it.

I must note that my publisher Abrams received five nominations, which is a big number for a company whose publishing portfolio includes a lot more than comics. By way of comparison, comic book titans DC and Marvel both got 11 nominations. These guys at Abrams, guided by the keen eye of Editor Charlie, do quality work.

In any event, congratulations to all the nominees. Good luck finding a hotel room in San Diego.

* * *

Finally, we've seen this type of video before, but this one really made me laugh: a young lady very confused about the nature of reality after having her wisdom teeth pulled, as recorded by her Mom. She must be on some pretty awesome meds. When my daughters had their wisdom toothectomies, all they did was sleep it off.

Hope you enjoyed that, and that everyone who celebrates Easter and/or Passover has a good one. I'm not sure if that includes wizards.