Thursday, January 31, 2013

Review: Air & Space Smithsonian

It's evidently Unexpected Review Week here at The Fies Files.

Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow just got a terrific review in the Air & Space Smithsonian magazine! I can't find the review online (let me know if you do) but reviewer Phil Scott says the book is "at times charming, at times sad and foreboding, and always thought-provoking."

The image below is a screen cap from a scan e-mailed to me by Publicist Amy, so the colors are off and its legibility may be dodgy. But it's a long review with lots of illustrations, so SCORE!

It goes without saying that folks who read a mag called Air & Space Smithsonian (circulation 192,000) are exactly the right audience for WHTTWOT. I couldn't have asked for a better review in a better place (well, maybe glowing praise from the Sunday New York Times, but that ain't happening). Phil Scott and the Smithsonian made my week.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Better Late Than Never!

Here's a thoughtful review of Mom's Cancer at the blog "Kingbeast's Lair" by John Taber, whom I met at my recent signing at Illusive Comics & Games in Santa Clara, Calif. John's a nice guy and we had a good conversation, which in no way obligated him to say nice things about my book but he did anyway. John gives Mom's Cancer his highest recommendation and a rare 10 out of 10. Thanks a lot, John! Much appreciated.

Semi-on-topic, I mentioned on Facebook but not here that for about another day and a half the website is offering a "Brian Fies Two-Pack": both my books for $20. I don't know what is or how this happened, but it's kind of cool and a pretty good deal. I'm sure you already own my books, but this could be a good opportunity to pick up gift or emergency back-up copies.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Meet the Author: Jeff Kinney

I won't lie: one of the reasons--maybe the main reason--I'd recommend you download the latest Apple "Meet the Author" podcast from iTunes (free!) is that its subject, Diary of a Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney, tells a nice story about how he owes everything to me.

He doesn't phrase it quite like that. But he does tell the story of going to the New York Comic-Con in 2006 hoping to find a publisher for the 1300-page opus he'd spent eight years creating. Jeff was discouraged. The first day of the Con he was turned away at the door despite having a ticket because the event was wildly oversold and the fire marshal was a stickler. After nearly slinking home in defeat, he returned the next day and got in but couldn't find anyone interested in looking at his material. Finally, he approached the Abrams booth because he'd heard they'd published a webcomic called Mom's Cancer and saw my artwork on a poster as he walked by. Editor Charlie was at the booth, agreed to check out Jeff's story and, as Jeff tells it, within 30 seconds said "This is exactly what I'm looking for!"

As I may have recounted too often, I was at the Con that day. I don't recall seeing Jeff but I was one of the first people Charlie shared Jeff's proposal with, and have always admitted with a rueful shrug that I didn't quite get it. At the time, Jeff imagined Wimpy Kid as a Wonder Years-style humor book for nostalgic adults. He didn't know he'd written a kids' book (a situation I've found myself in as well), let alone one of the best-selling kids' series of all time. Charlie was right and I was wrong. Happily.

If you want to hear Jeff himself tell that story, including some nice comments about my book, it starts at about 17 minutes into the podcast (there are both audio and video versions available, I recommend the one with pictures).

Ego inflation aside, the other reason I'd recommend you download the podcast is that it tells the story of an author who spent eight years creating a 1300-page opus, which through perseverance and luck became a series of books that sold tens of millions (I lost count: 60M? 70M? 80M?) of copies in 40 languages worldwide, spun off three movies, and succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

Work hard + Stick with it + Seek opportunities = Success (sometimes).

Who doesn't need to hear a story like that once in a while?

NY Comic-Con 2006: Editor Charlie, Publicist Melody (who has since moved on to other career opportunities) and me at the Abrams booth, all blissfully unaware this was the day that changed Jeff Kinney's life.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Great Gatsby

I crossed another item off my Bucket List--admittedly an easy one, because all I had to do was buy a copy of The Great Gatsby, sit down and read it. It still took me longer than it should've, with a couple of months passing between the buying and the reading. Still: done. Check.

Gatsby was one of my gaps. We've all got gaps: something you should have experienced or learned along the way and just never quite did. I'm reminded that William F. Buckley, one of the better-read men of letters, didn't get around to Moby-Dick until he was 50 and exclaimed to a friend, "to think I might have died without reading it!" I didn't want to have that regret with F. Scott Fitzgerald so I figured I'd start with what many critics consider his best work and one of the four or five greatest novels of the 20th Century.

I'm also reminded of a series of reviews I recently read in which a young woman who'd never seen any "Star Wars" movies sat down to watch them through virginal adult eyes. All she knew was what she'd absorbed through popular culture, and she was surprised by how many touchstones she unearthed ("These aren't the droids you're looking for" suddenly made sense). Her verdict: pretty good, although she didn't quite get what the fuss was about. Maybe you had to be there.

I was in a similar boat with Gatsby. Although I'd never read the book or seen any of the movies, I came to it with the understanding that it was set in the Jazz Age and had something to do with lost innocence and the American ability to reinvent oneself. I thought it was a love story about shallow rich people. I'd heard of Gatsby, Daisy, Nick and Tom, but didn't know how they fit together. I also knew the famous last few paragraphs of the book--the green light at the end of the dock, "so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past"--in the same way people who've never read Moby-Dick know "Call me Ishmael" and all of Khan's best lines from "Star Trek II."

So my observations are in the spirit of the "Star Wars" reviewer: I expect they'll be obvious, laughable or flat-out wrong to those who know the story, but are honest impressions born from innocence and ignorance. Credit me for the courage to admit it.

First, I was surprised by what a short, quick read Gatsby is. My paperback is 180 pages and I read most of it in an afternoon. I have clear memories of a giant hardcover edition when the Redford movie came out in 1974, so I really expected an epic. I actually checked my copy to be sure I hadn't accidentally picked up an abridged version.

I'd expected something big and sprawling, maybe covering continents and decades. Nope. It's an intimate story with a few characters moving through a few settings, mostly Long Island and Manhattan, during one summer. Fitzgerald's not Michener (who was contractually obligated to begin all of his books with the Earth cooling) and I'm grateful.

For a novel written in 1925, Gatsby struck me as quite modern in style. The prose is lean and snappy. It flows. Hardly turgid or difficult at all. It reminded me of Hemingway with the edges sanded off.

Without spoiling anything, for some reason I'd always assumed that the novel's end, with the green light and boats against the current, was told from Gatsby's perspective. It was therefore a shock to realize a few chapters before the climax, as Fitzgerald's expertly wound plot uncoiled with terrible momentum, that it wouldn't be. Did not see that coming.

A niggling, puzzling annoyance: Fitzgerald consistently wrote "of" when he should've used "have": he could of, she would of. First, I was surprised to find that in a book from 1925 because it strikes me as a more modern error. Second, Fitzgerald's too good a writer (and I presume had too good an editor) to do it accidentally. But if it served a purpose, such as revealing a character or their voice, I didn't get it.

Who am I to criticize? Nobody.

Mostly I was struck by the lyricism of Fitzgerald's language, his perfect graceful metaphors and knack for capturing a scene, character or mood with a short dash of color. "A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling...." The lovely Daisy had "the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again.” When Nick first meets Gatsby, Gatsby's smile "understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey."

Not that Fitzgerald's aching for my approval, but gee that's terrific stuff.

Do I think The Great Gatsby is a Great Book? Well, yeah. Probably. Sure. It delivered unique insights into complex relationships and human nature. If you want to search it for metaphors about society, class and the American Dream, they're there too (although I think it's important to remember that Fitzgerald wrote Gatsby before the Depression revealed the emptiness at the heart of livin' large, which nevertheless fits his theme nicely). I'll need to let my reading experience reconcile with my expectations and then revisit it.

I find that the best books haunt me, nagging at the back of my brain. The Great Gatsby is one of those.

If you're interested in some supplemental reading, I recommend this essay by film critic Roger Ebert in which he rages against a bowdlerized Gatsby meant for "Intermediate Readers" in schools. He writes, "There is no purpose in 'reading' The Great Gatsby unless you actually read it. Fitzgerald's novel is not about a story. It is about how the story is told. Its poetry, its message, its evocation of Gatsby's lost American dream, is expressed in Fitzgerald's style--in the precise words he chose to write what some consider the great American novel. Unless you have read them, you have not read the book at all."

I think that's true enough that it should be a universal rule. Don't bother starting the journey if you're just going to take a short cut.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Do You Hear That? I Don't Hear Anything. Exactly!

It's quiet here at The Fies Files.

Partly, I haven't been much inspired to blog lately. Nothing's sparked. Oh, I could make something up, but neither of us would enjoy that. My blogging output has slumped before and, if history is an indicator, I'll probably come up with five exciting topics tomorrow.

I almost did one about my kids, but decided they might someday apply for a job or meet someone who'd google them, and that intended post (and photo!) would be the last thing they'd need. People ought to be able to control their own online destinies.

On Facebook, my friend MK demanded more photos of our pup. Here's one. Not much to say about Riley right now except she continues to be adorably dog-like and doesn't like going out in the rain. She seems to regard each drop that hits her back as a freshly astonishing insult.

Another drag on my blogging output is that I'm writing and drawing comics again, for the first time in a while. Today I'm drawing page 1, panel 1 of Mystery Project X, which I've been hinting at for months (years?). Daunting. As I've said before, I think sitting down to put the first mark on a piece of paper knowing you've got hundreds more to go is one of the braver creative leaps of faith. Also, Mystery Project X is the story that I pencilled 110 full pages of before deciding I didn't like how it was going and abandoned it for a new approach. Same basic characters and theme, different plot and style. I'm literally turning over the pages of the old story and drawing the new one on their backs. Quality paper's expensive.

I'm not sure Mystery Project X is any good, nor do I have a contract or commitment in hand. All I know is I need to get it out of my system before I can move on to other things--that seems to be the way I work. Editor Charlie and I keep in close, friendly contact and I know he'll look at anything I send him, but the graphic novel publishing industry is leaner and meaner than it was even a few years ago. The idea of doing it as a webcomic appeals to me--a return to my roots--but I wouldn't start posting it until I had most or all of it finished. That'll take a while. I have a naive faith that if something is good it'll find an audience and things'll work out.

Doing the Adventures of Old Time-Traveling Brian (still two copies of the zine left!) was very helpful, both in inspiring me to take Mystery Project X in another direction and reminding me that making comics should be fun. Otherwise why bother? And after working pretty hard at my day job the last quarter of 2012, I'm approaching 2013 with the resolve that if I'm serious about this comics thing (I think I may show some potential) it's time to get crackin'. Just do the job and then do the next one and the next one and the next one, and maybe that's what a career looks like. No idea if I have that many "next ones" in me.

What an unusually self-reflective blog post. Won't make that mistake again. To atone for it, here's another adorable puppy pic.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

New Year's Tapas

As I get back to work and normal routines, some odds and ends to start 2013.

* * *

Washington Post writer and comics champion Michael Cavna wrote a lovely essay naming his "most compelling cartoon of the year," and I can't argue with his choice. I'll spoil the reveal but encourage you to read it anyway: it's a drawing cartoonist Richard Thompson did of his own brain while he was undergoing brain surgery to treat the symptoms of Parkinson's disease, which forced him to retire his great comic strip "Cul de Sac." I posted my own appreciation of Richard and his work (which I was thrilled to learn Richard saw and liked) shortly before the last "Cul de Sac" strip, and Cavna's piece retells the story leading up to that decision as well as events since.

While I'm on the topic: Team Cul de Sac, the effort organized by Chris Sparks via the Michael J. Fox Foundation to help fund Parkinson's research, raised more than $53,200 last year. Matching funds from the Fox folks boosted that sum over $100,000. The bulk of the money came through sales of the Team Cul de Sac book, for which cartoonists drew their own interpretations of Richard's world and characters, as well as an auction of the book's original art. I helped. That's a good amount of money for a good cause.

* * *

Occasionally I read something that perfectly captures my own thoughts, and sometimes thoughts I didn't even know I had, better than I could myself. This Gawker piece, "Journalism is Not Narcissism," is one. Here's the lede:

"Every year, thousands of fresh-faced young aspiring journalists flood our nation's college classrooms, in order to learn how to practice their craft. What should we tell them? This, first: journalism is not about you."

I was a newspaper reporter for a few years, fresh out of college, and my ideal for how I hoped to do the job could be summed up in two words: impartial and invisible. Neither is perfectly attainable, but if you're aware of your biases you can counterbalance them. Watch for assumptions and insinuations. Convey every responsible side of the story fairly. If I did my job right, no one would ever detect which candidates I liked or which issues I supported (although I hoped some might notice that this Fies fellow's stories read a bit more clearly and elegantly than most). Honestly, that was one of the existential burrs of journalism that chafed my hide: at the boneheaded age of 25, I could foresee a time when I'd rather do than write about those who did.

Gawker writer Hamilton Nolan goes on to skewer the notion that writers' best subjects are themselves.

"Left unsaid in most discussions of this sort of writing is the fact that most people's lives are not that interesting. Certainly, simple math will tell you that a 20-year-old has only a limited store of really compelling personal stories to tell. Most people who decide to base their writing careers on stories about themselves end up like bands that used their entire lifetime's worth of good material in their first album, and then sputtered uselessly when it came time for the follow-up."

Yes. Though not directed at comics, the Gawker piece bullseyes my gripe with a ton of comics and graphic novels, which somehow--and I don't know why, although I've done some thinking about it--lend themselves to overwrought navel-gazing by putative Voices of Their Generation. Unless you're a refugee from Revolutionary Iran, you're just not fascinating enough to support one book, let alone the cottage industries that some creators mine from their lives. Benjamin Franklin didn't start writing his autobiography until he was 65 because he wasn't sure he'd accomplished enough to merit one. What a maroon!

This may sound like an odd complaint from the guy who wrote Mom's Cancer. But Mom's Cancer isn't my story, it's my mother's. Although I'm necessarily a character in it, as a writer and editor I ruthlessly cut everything that didn't advance my Mom's story, including much (not all) of my personal whiny angst. In fact, I approached writing that book very much as a journalist, determined to report what I experienced as honestly as I could. To the extent it works, I think that's what readers respond to and what still makes it different from similar stories.

You could name some counterexamples of fine young memoirists doing great work, and I'd concede there are exceptions, but I think Nolan reminds writers of something important that's out of style and being forgotten. Less looking inward, more looking out.

* * *

I didn't know what to expect when I printed up 50 zines collecting the "Adventures of Old Time-Traveling Brian" and offered 45 for sale, but I'm pretty sure I didn't expect to only have two copies left two weeks later. Fantastic! My mailing list reads like a "Who's Who" of my favorite people (and I am keeping a list of which numbered limited-edition copy goes to whom, so that when they start showing up for enormous sums on eBay I can finger the culprit).

Numbers 44/45 and 45/45 are still available. After that, there'll be no more ever. Many thanks to everyone who supported my work by sending a few bucks my way, I don't take it for granted and hope you found it worthwhile.

But no returns.