Friday, August 31, 2012

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Prodigal Pages Return, plus Armstrong

Eight pages of original artwork from Mom's Cancer that I haven't seen in nearly five years found their way back home today. These are the pages I loaned to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., for their exhibition "LitGraphic: The World of the Graphic Novel," which was probably the best collection of its type I've seen, covering a wide swath of comics history, creators and styles, from Lynd Ward in the Twenties to Eisner in the Fifties to Miller in the Eighties. And little ol' me in the Twenty-Aughts. 

And all professionally matted!

Karen and I attended the opening reception at the Rockwell Museum in November 2007 and had a terrific time. As I recall (and may recall incorrectly), LitGraphic wasn't originally intended to become a traveling exhibition but was so well received that the Rockwell folks decided to put it on the road. It subsequently went to five more museums: the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio (where I was invited to speak at the opening), The Huntington Museum of Art in West Virginia, the James A. Michener Art Museum in Pennsylvania, the Fitchburg Art Museum in Massachusetts, and the Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute in New York. As I too-frequently joked, my drawings live a more exciting life than I do.

At the Norman Rockwell Museum in 2007 . . .

. . . and at the Toledo Museum of Art in 2009.

Friend O' The Blog Jim O'Kane put together this terrific video when he and "Captain Girlfriend" Nancy went to see LitGraphics at the Fitchburg Art Museum in 2011.

What a wonderful, heady, unexpected honor it's been! On the long list of things I wish I could tell Mom just to watch her shake her head and smile quietly like she knew it all along, having pages of her story exhibited in art museums is pretty close to the top. Martin Mahoney, Stephanie Plunkett, and everyone I've dealt with at the Rockwell Museum have been extremely gracious and professional, treating my little sheets of two-ply Bristol with the same care and respect they'd give a Van Gogh.

And now the Prodigal Pages have returned! While I'm glad they've had an adventure, I'm surprisingly happy to have them back. I may kill the fatted calf in their honor. Or at least grill a couple of burgers on the BBQ tonight.

* * *

I haven't written anything about Neil Armstrong because I didn't think I had anything original to add, except that the news made me the saddest I can remember being about the death of someone I didn't know.

Of course I'm sorry that the people who did know Armstrong have lost their spouse, father, friend, colleague--but honestly that's a small part of it. I'd be mourning the death of the First Man on the Moon no matter who it had been.

But thank goodness it was Armstrong, who turned out to be pretty much everything you'd want in an American hero. Brave, quiet, humble, quick to credit everyone but himself for his accomplishments. Some writers have observed that, with one or two exceptions, each pair of astronauts chosen to land on the Moon comprised (perhaps deliberately?) a warm, spontaneous, creative pilot working under a cool, methodical, unflappable commander. In essence, NASA manned every Lunar Module with a Kirk and a Spock, but put Spock in charge. Not to deny Armstrong an iota of humanity, he was a wonderful Spock.

Now, I love Buzz Aldrin. I'm glad we have Buzz Aldrin out there punching Moon-hoaxers' noses, dancing with the stars, and woodenly acting with Tina Fey. Buzz hasn't had anything to prove to me since 1969 and however he wants to enjoy the years since is all right with me (not that I haven't sometimes slapped my hand to my forehead and muttered "Oh, Buzz..."). But bless his heart, this is not something I'd want to see the First Man on the Moon doing:

Armstrong wasn't as reclusive as was widely perceived--he taught aeronautical engineering, did occasional speaking engagements, and cooperated with a good biography (First Man) of himself--but he didn't sign many autographs or speak often to the press. Comedian Robert Klein joked that Armstrong would've been set for life if his first words on the Moon had been "Coca-Cola!" but it evidently never occurred to him to cash in (with one blemish: he did a commercial for Chrysler in 1979, explaining that he wanted to support a troubled American auto company and sincerely admired their engineering). As much as I wish I'd had the chance to shake his hand and tell him what he meant to me, it seems even more fitting that he never gave me the opportunity.

Twelve men walked on the Moon; eight survive. They're all old now, the youngest born in 1935. As much as we might wish otherwise, we're going to lose them all soon. And not just them, but the thousands of colleagues who launched them a quarter million miles there and brought them safely home. The body of knowledge that's about to wink out of the world is enormous and irreplaceable. Someday we'll want it back, and it won't be as simple as pulling the old Saturn V blueprints out of the cabinet. An era passes.

Ten thousand years from now, the only person from my lifetime whose name every school kid will know will be Neil Armstrong. I feel as lucky to have witnessed him making history as if I'd sailed with Columbus or hiked with Lewis and Clark. It was a privilege.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Memento Mori

We first noticed this delicate little white flower blooming beside our front walkway when Mom died in 2005 (so long ago yet so recently!). We didn't plant it; don't know what it is. Every year since, it has faithfully blossomed just before her birthday: August 22. This year it did it again.

I don't believe in signs or messages sent from beyond. But if I did, this would be a really good one.

Happy Birthday, Mom. We're thinking about you.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Cul de Sac

In a recent Facebook note about cartoonist Richard Thompson’s decision to quit doing his comic strip “Cul de Sac,” I called it “the best comic strip being drawn today.” That's not praise I lavish lightly. I mean it. Now I aim to defend that opinion.

I’m not going to rage against Parkinson’s disease, which Richard has and is why he's quitting his 5-year-old strip (and was also the reason for the “Team Cul de Sac” fundraising book and art auction, to which I was honored to contribute a page). It’s an awful degenerative disease and it’s terrible that Richard is afflicted with it, and what more can be said? Nor do I have much to contribute to testimonials about what a swell guy Richard is because I don’t really know him. Everyone who does know him says he’s swell, and his peers in the National Cartoonists' Society named him their 2011 "Cartoonist of the Year," to which my second-hand opinion adds nothing.

Instead, I thought I’d explain why I think “Cul de Sac” is the best comic strip being drawn today. What I—someone who loves comics, studies comics, makes comics, and aspires to make better comics—see when I look at Richard’s.

I considered posting and dissecting some of his strips but quickly concluded that wouldn’t work, although I do a bit of it below. Which strips to pick? One mark of “Cul de Sac’s” excellence is that you could choose any dozen strips at random and find something admirable and teachable in nearly all of them. In fact, I simply did a Google Image search and chose the first 30 that popped up, from which I culled these examples. I confess that a recent post by Comics Reporter Tom Spurgeon asking his readers to pick their favorites turned up some good ones and was a big help.

I love that borderless second panel of Alice running, her scarf blowing behind her. The first panel is a moment of self-recognition for me: you think your kid is going to be the next Olympic champion when all they really want to do is splash around in the wading pool. And the third panel is the twist: who you think your kids are versus who they actually are.

I have been this parent, although I like to think I always made time to push a swing.

Instead, I want to tell a story on my wife, Karen, which I hope she forgives because this is the perfect time to use it. Way back when “Calvin and Hobbes” was published daily, Karen looked over the top of the newspaper one morning and asked, “Is Bill Watterson a really good cartoonist?”

I assured her that he was one of the best, maybe an all-time great.

“I thought so,” she said. “But sometimes it’s hard to tell.”

I sympathize. Sometimes it is hard to tell! The fact is, you don’t have to be a great artist to be a very successful cartoonist. There was a time you had to at least be a competent one, but those days gave way to valuing authentic authorial voices over skillful rendering. What a creator had to say became more important than how they said it. You can dress it up any way you want, and I strongly defend the proposition that a bad artist can still be a great cartoonist, but the fact remains that some simply can’t draw. Their work looks crude and simple, almost child-like.

Which is exactly how the work of the very best cartoonists can look, too.

How’s the reader supposed to tell?

I have also been this parent. Remembering how much I hated being embarrassed when I was a kid, I'm sometimes amazed by how much I enjoy dishing it out to my own children.

We've all had a kid stare at us like this, but I don't recall any cartoonist or comedian noting it before. Petey's bulbous head and wide eyes peeking over the seat in Panel 4 are the perfect punctuation. Even Mom is sneaking a peek. This situation is not improving.

When I look at “Cul de Sac,” I see the work of an artist who completed the Picassoesque loop from simplicity through mastery all the way back to (apparent) simplicity. Unlike unskilled artists who avoid portraying things they can’t draw (often hands and feet, and I’ve confessed my own challenges with cars), Richard can draw anything. An unskilled artist’s world is small, their settings constrained to the same shapeless couch, office cubicle, or unconvincing shrub. The “Cul de Sac” world is vast—limitless!—and always distilled to its essence so that the reader knows where they are without a wasted detail. His objects have volume and mass, shape and shadow. When his perspective is wonky, it’s wonky with a purpose.

Like they say, he works very hard to make it look so easy.

Beautiful art, costumes and expressions. How far apart can the universes of people living in the same house be? Alice's haunted gaze in Panel 4 slays me. This is one of my favorites.

Richard’s art is a bit of a throwback. Let’s spin that positively and call it “timeless.” He uses dip-pen nibs and ink, favoring the classic Hunt #101 Imperial. Ink-dipped nibs were predominantly used to draw newspaper comics from their invention until maybe the 1940s and ‘50s, when artists like Milton Caniff (“Terry and the Pirates”) and Walt Kelly (“Pogo”) made brushes cool. Brushes and nibs shared cartoonists’ affections (and of course many artists used both) for decades.

The Hunt #101

Both tools let an artist vary line width by bearing down or lightening pressure, creating lively lines with motion, mass, personality. Both also take time and practice to master. When you’re in the zone, the nib or brush becomes an extension of your brain. In recent years, more and more artists use technical pens, Staedtlers or Microns (basically permanent-ink felt-tips), or work digitally directly on the computer. Those are easier to control but, unless the artist is skilled and careful, the resulting line art can look uniform, sterile and dead. Pen guys like Richard and brush guys like me are increasingly considered dinosaurs.

Richard’s scritchy pen line is alive with nervous energy. It practically vibrates. It may look spontaneous and sloppy but in fact it’s quite thoughtful and disciplined. Confident. One way to tell: you never have to stop to figure out what something is or what’s going on. Richard would’ve fit right alongside the great Cliff Sterrett (“Polly and Her Pals”) and George Herriman (“Krazy Kat”) 70 years ago but shines like a lonely beacon of quirk and quality on the contemporary comics page.

So in the same way a carpenter might admire another woodworker’s fine dovetailing, I see a craftsman who knows how to use his tools.

I am always a sucker for an outer space gag, but the idea of drawing the garbage in orbit literally piling up overhead would not have occurred to me in a hundred years. This is one of those representations that looks easy and obvious until you realize you couldn't have done it yourself.

“Cul de Sac’s” characters have distinct personalities without descending to simple archetypes. They can’t be summed up in one word. Richard calls his protagonist, 4-year-old Alice, a “fireball.” She’s a creative, extroverted, anarchic narcissist. Something I once said about Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid, Greg Heffley, applies to Alice as well: she always tries to do the right thing, as long as it’s the right thing for her. Alice’s brother, 8-year-old Petey, is a neurotic, introspective oddball with a passion for making shoebox dioramas. Mom and Dad mean well but don’t seem entirely up to the challenge of wrangling these two kids, who’ll probably turn out all right anyway. Because most kids do. The strip’s deep supporting cast has its own quirks and foibles, none of them completely admirable but all clearly loved by Richard.

Building complex personalities day-by-day in a few tiny panels that take 10 seconds to read? That’s . . . hard to do. Most cartoonists don’t. Their characters are stereotypes—the lazy one, the grumpy one, the sarcastic one, the clumsy one—easy to define and plug into simple situations. Not in “Cul de Sac.”

"P.J. Piehole's" is funny. Petey's neurotic fear of being crushed by restaurant decor is funny. But the best part is his family's total indifference to his terror. That's a lot of funny (and a little bittersweetness) packed into four panels.

Reminds me of the "Calvin and Hobbes" gag in which Calvin's Dad explained how the world used to be in black and white until the 1930s. In this case, Dad tries to explain the science while Petey gets it wrong (does he believe what he says? I don't know!) and the best part: Mom buys in.

This is Alice's naive friend Dill in an homage to the classic comic strip "Little Nemo in Slumberland," particularly a storyline in which Nemo's bed came to life and carried him away. Thompson is very aware of Nemo; Petey's favorite comic book is "Little Neuro," the adventures of a boy too afraid to do anything.

Little Nemo and his dream-time walking bed (McCay, 1905)

In my opinion, “Cul de Sac” meets the gold standard of relatability—that quality of telling you something you always knew in a way you’d never thought about it—primarily (I surmise) because Richard remembers what it was like to be a kid, turned loose in a neighborhood where every storm drain hides an underground world and a playground slide could be a portal to another dimension. He’s good at taking a surprising left turn that pivots on the perfectly chosen word, or tying up scattered threads of story in a perfectly composed little bow.

In sum, for me, “Cul de Sac” operates at a level of skill and ambition other cartoonists don’t often shoot for and some may not even comprehend. It’s smart, sweet but not saccharine, dark but not cynical, and artistic but not impenetrable. It’s reportedly carried in 250 newspapers, which is respectable but not spectacular. It should be in 10 times that number, and the fact that it isn’t is an indictment of something—I don’t know what. Clueless readers, tasteless editors, modern micro-attention spans, or the slow decline of newspapers.

It is the best comic strip being drawn today, and it will be until the last one runs on Sept. 23. All my best to Richard and his family, with thanks.


Thursday, August 16, 2012

Cooking and Housekeeping

My wife Karen doesn't eat gluten. Sometime I may write up a little post on the how and why of that, but for today it's enough to know that wheat-based products are usually off the menu at our house.

It's not as great a sacrifice as you might expect. Good corn- and rice-based substitutes exist for most products, such as pasta, and potatoes and rice fill a lot of gaps. Overall, the ban has made us better, more creative cooks. Still . . . when the wife's away, as she was for a business conference last night, the chef likes to play. With gluten.

My favorite gluteny (glutenous? gluttonous?) indulgence is scratch-made pizza and my favorite scratch-made pizza is a Margherita, whose classic ingredients are olive oil, sliced tomatoes (not tomato sauce), sliced mozzarella (not grated), and basil. Clean and simple.

Homemade dough is a piece of cake (heh!). Note that all the measurements below are eyeballed, not precise. For a small pizza, I start with about a cup of flour, a small spoonful of yeast (think 1 tsp), a big spoonful of sugar (think 1 Tbsp), a glug of olive oil or butter, a generous sprinkle of salt, then slowly add warm-hot water and mix/knead. You want the dough to ball up and just begin pulling away from the side of the bowl instead of sticking to it. Balance with more flour as needed. Too wet is better than too dry. Don't work too hard at it.

Set the bowl in a warm place (I float it in a hot water bath in the sink or a larger bowl) a few hours to let the dough rise. You can do the whole "punch it down, knead it and let it rise again" thing but I don't think it's necessary. Plop it out onto a floured board or counter and shape it into a crust. If it's sticky, keep sprinkling flour until it isn't. The ideal result has a smooth velvety rubbery texture and smells fantastic.

Simple ingredients: olive oil, sliced mozzarella, fresh basil from the garden, and sliced tomato (which could have come from our garden except we didn't happen to have any ripe last night). Why, it's practically health food!

Give the dough a light coating of olive oil, then layer on the tomatoes, basil and cheese. I add crushed garlic and a sprinkle of oregano. I also top it with a sprinkle of coarse salt (e.g., kosher or sea salt) so that the crust edge in particular comes out almost like a pretzel.


Get the oven as blazing hot as you can. I have used a pizza stone before but didn't find the results significantly better and the stone is hard to clean, so I don't bother. Pop it in, check it in 8 or 9 minutes, bake until the crust is golden and the cheese starts to brown. Finish with some Parmesan if you want.

This is actually a pretty big pizza for one person, although I managed to plow through it all by myself last night. I think it'd be just right for two, or maybe a dinner and some leftovers for lunch the next day. It's very easy to make; also easy to clean up. Dough-rising time requires some forethought, but the actual time devoted to mixing, slicing, kneading and other hands-on labor is probably less than 20 minutes. Highly recommended!

* * *

"Housekeeping," by which I mean some thoughts on managing and tidying my Internet life.

In addition to my original "Mom's Cancer" website, which is now static and basically just directs people here, I maintain these here Fies Files, a personal Facebook page (yes I will be your friend), and a Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow Facebook fan page. I try to minimize duplication and overlap. For example, I usually only mention WHTTWOT reviews on the fan page, unless they're especially noteworthy. I use my personal Facebook page for chatty little stuff that doesn't merit full blog posts, which I like to regard as more polished mini-essays with a point. I don't always achieve that, but that's the ideal.

Did I just imply that Facebook is pointless? Perhaps I did.

I've noticed a couple of things. One is that the blog draws fewer visitors than it used to unless I post a link on Facebook telling everyone there's a new post. Then they flock. I infer that fewer people check a regular roster of bookmarked sites, and instead rely on Facebook to alert them to new content. That's interesting to me. Now when I sit down to write something, I not only have to decide if it's more appropriate for Facebook or The Fies Files, but whether it's worth a post on Facebook directing people to The Fies Files.

I've also noticed that fewer visitors are commenting on blog posts, preferring to leave notes on the Facebook posts that link to them. That's also interesting to me. Do you start on Facebook, come here to read the post, then go back to Facebook to comment on it? I appreciate a Facebook "Like," which I take to mean "I read it and liked it but don't really have much more to say about it." But I miss the conversation over here. Facebook is so ephemeral: here now, gone in six hours. By comparison, a blog post is freakin' Stonehenge.

Fascinating how we use technology, how the technology trains us to use it, and how that changes what we say to each other.

That's as deep as I get first thing in the morning.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Joe Kubert

A comic book artist named Joe Kubert died over the weekend at the age of 85. I wrote about Mr. Kubert almost exactly a year ago, in connection with a book he and Craig Yoe did on 3D comics, which Kubert helped invent in the '50s. In addition to his more than seven decades in comics (he got his first professional work as a young teen), Mr. Kubert founded and ran a well-respected school for comic arts since 1976, sharing his experience with generations of new talent.

I never met Mr. Kubert and have no special insight into the man and his work except to say that he was a very rare example of an artist whose skills continued to improve right up until the end. Clearly influenced by greats such as Alex Raymond and Burne Hogarth, he was good enough that he could have rested on his laurels for, oh, the past half century or so, but he never did. His work stayed fresh and evolved with the times, but was always supported by a rock-solid foundation of fine illustrative technique that's almost extinct today, to our loss. As much as I respect and admire the work of many veteran creators, I can't think of many I could honestly say did some of their best work, and continued to find work, in their eighties.

If you're interested in learning more about Joe Kubert and his prodigious contributions to comics, the best obits I've seen so far are by Mark Evanier and Tom Spurgeon. He was a great talent who never stopped trying to get better. That's the master's lesson for me.

As I posted this terrific drawing of Hawkman and Hawkwoman, I noticed it was dated last year, when Kubert was 83 or 84. This is just astonishingly good stuff at any age. Aside from the obviously great rendering, it's wonderfully composed (how the figures fill the page, overlap, balance and counter-balance, draw the eye from top left to bottom right, etc.). They don't make 'em like that anymore.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Puppy Power

Too exhausted harnessing enormous reserves of Puppy Energy to compose a blog post. Only . . . enough strength . . . to upload . . . ridiculously cute video . . .

We wondered why Riley's poop had so much bird seed in it, until we realized she routinely drains the "bird baths" under our bird feeder. That's not Riley barking at the end, by the way, but a larger dog next door.

Puppies are work, but they have their rewards.

Friday, August 3, 2012

School Library Journal

So the paperback version of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow comes out any day now, which I mention because it's pretty hard to whip up a frenzy for a book that came out in hardcover a while back. I can use all the help I can get, even on my own blog!

That's partly why I'm so pleased with a two-part interview by Peter Gutierrez, published on the blog of the "School Library Journal." Peter asked some smart, original questions that were fun to mull over and drew out some original answers. Mostly, I'm pleased because he took the unique angle (appropriate for his employer) of asking how librarians and teachers might use WHTTWOT in their classrooms. Nothing would make me happier.

Here's Part One of the interview, and here's Part Two.

I genuinely hope that the paperback's lower price might put it into the hands of readers, particularly young ones, for whom the hardcover was a tad pricy. That, along with the endorsement of the American Astronautical Society (which named WHTTWOT the "Best Astronautical Literature" for young adults) and the best cover quote imaginable from Neil deGrasse Tyson, might really make a difference. Might.

I've got too much pride to beg, but might I suggest that if you read my book and thought of someone in your life or family who might appreciate it--maybe a young person or gracefully aging Boomer--$14.95* isn't the least bit exorbitant, and now would be a swell time to buy it and set it aside for a birthday or Christmas. Why, that's not even 7 cents per page. I can think of several pages worth at least twice that!

Many thanks to Peter for the interview, I enjoyed it.

* That's cover price; you and I both know where you can find it cheaper, but try to do right by your local heroic independent bookseller anyway.