Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Coming Soon to a Classroom Near You

If anyone's noticed an extra spring in my step or song on my lips in the past week or so, it's because I recently learned that Scholastic has licensed the paperback rights to Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow. It's going to be a school book!

Wow. I did not see that coming.

Scholastic Education will incorporate WHTTWOT into its Guided Reading Non-Fiction Focused educational collection, and also offer it through the usual school book clubs and fairs. Territories will include North America and several international markets. And they want to move pretty fast, with a tentative publishing date of this December.

After learning of the opportunity from my publisher Abrams, I spent a couple of days last week remastering more than 50 pages of artwork for Scholastic. Most of the changes are because Scholastic (quite reasonably) won't print on the different paper stocks we used to recreate my old-timey comic book inserts, so I digitally added a transparent yellow-brown pulpy texture to each page to mimic crummy paper (I created the texture by high-res scanning an actual blank sheet of 30-year-old pulp paper I had lying around). I also took the chance to fix a few text and art errors that've always nagged me.

When WHTTWOT came out, I often said I thought it'd be a great supplement to a school curriculum. My research was extensive, my facts and conclusions solid. I think I connected some novel historical dots. But I didn't really expect anyone to take me up on it, or have any idea how to make it happen. Now it has.

This is really just about the best, coolest outcome I can imagine for this book. Thanks to Scholastic, I will be warping--I mean informing and guiding--young minds around the world. I like to imagine WHTTWOT might hit the right kid at the right time to really make a difference in how they see the universe and their future in it, just as a few key books really made a difference in my life.

I'm never going to the Moon or Mars. But someday, some kid who reads my book might. What's better than that?

Ad astra per aspera!

Thursday, June 20, 2013


I'd call myself less a student of comics history than an interested bystander. If you're interested, Wikipedia's article on the topic is as good as most. Standard histories date the comic book to early 20th Century humor anthologies, and the newspaper comic strip to Hearst's "The Yellow Kid" in 1895. Political cartoons are much older--Ben Franklin's "Live Free or Die" is one example--with credit usually given to William Hogarth around 1720-30. One of comics' unique devices, the speech balloon, first shows up around then.

Hogarth 1724, with speech balloons scrolling from the characters' mouths.

As I say, that's the standard history. Of course, just as surely as any mention of the Wright Brothers turns up a dozen outraged partisans griping that their guy really flew first, as surely as every mention of Columbus prods someone to champion the Vikings, any claim to be the first comic of this or that sort kicks up an argument.

Some try to discern the origins of comics much deeper in the mists of the past. I'm not sure why. I think sometimes comics lovers are a little embarrassed by our artform and want to dig up a better pedigree. "See, I'm not peasant scum, my great-great-grandfather was a prince!" Others are just honest scholars trying to connect historical dots. It's not unusual to find learned texts on comics that point to the Bayeux Tapestry, Egyptian hieroglyphics, or ancient cave paintings as comics' precursors.

Although very early artwork occasionally displays some of the characteristics of comics, I don't buy it--not unless you want to expand the definition of "comics" to include "any depiction of something happening." None of these examples, in my opinion, shows the essential comicness (comicicity?) of combining art and text to tell a sequential story.

Cave painting, France. Not a comic.

Sections of Bayeux Tapestry, 11th Century: Also not a comic.

Personally, I've always embraced comics as modern vulgar art (in the old sense of "vulgar" meaning common and unrefined--the art of the people). It's messy, random, free, spontaneous, sometimes dangerous, sometimes tasteless and, until relatively recently, free of academic pontificating and elite taste-setting. I like its youth. Comics is Jazz, man. Dig it!

And that was pretty much my entire position on the subject until this morning, when I saw this:


Holy Moley! That's from a 12th Century manuscript called the Bible of Stephen Harding, and as far as I'm concerned, that's a comic!

You read it left to right, top to bottom. It's got panels (boxes), descriptive captions, characters' speech floating around their heads--no word balloons, but you can't have everything. And that bottom picture of David and Goliath, with Goliath's enormous size emphasized by drawing him not only bursting through the panel boundary but far into the border with his spear off the very edge of the page itself, is like something Jack Kirby might've drawn (also notice David's sling snapping toward the top of the page). Goliath looks stunned to find a stone embedded in his forehead in mid-strike. It's magnificent! This anonymous artist wasn't just some primitive proto-cartoonist, he was actually good!

There aren't many days when you learn some new bit of information that changes your entire view on a subject. Today is one for me. I like those days.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Stop Hitting Your Sister with a Giant Lollipop While She's Sitting on the Toilet

The three videos below have been all over the Internet lately, but as a service to you I've gathered them all in one place. You're welcome.

As related in this article, "Convos with My 2-Year-Old" got started when filmmaker/musician Matthew Clarke was talking to his toddler daughter Coco, "stepped outside it for a second and thought, If she was 3 feet taller, this would be completely unacceptable." These short films play out that premise by re-enacting conversations between Clarke and Coco, but with the child replaced by a grown man. The substitution really hits how self-centered, creepy, and downright psychotic a 2-year-old kid is. Good thing they're so darn cute.

Clarke was surprised his videos went viral, with hits in the millions. I'm not surprised. As Clarke himself analyzed, "It’s concise. A simple but clear concept. It doesn’t take a lot of investment to understand what’s going on." Their beauty is their universality. Anyone who's spent time with a child has confronted the futility of reason, the absurdity of thinking you're going to "win" or should even be competing. The videos also hit the old reliable "kids say the darnedest things" button. If they were comic strips, they'd be hanging on a million refrigerators.

BTW, today's post title is something I actually yelled once, after which I immediately realized how ridiculous I was. As a father of two former two year olds (simultaneously!), I offer you "Convos with My 2-Year-Old" as a window into my past. Worth a few minutes of your time, I think. Clarke promises more to come.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Nomination's the Honor. No, Really!

My friend Mike Peterson (journalist, editor, and proprietor of the very fine Comic Strip of the Day blog) has a saying: "Plaques are for haques." I get that, especially in his world of newspapering where regional, state and national competitions pass out more ribbons than a jam-making contest at the county fair. Although I ruefully note that, in my two years as a reporter for a daily newspaper, I never won one. Still, if I'd stuck around long enough I would have, and like the 49th person named "Employee of the Month" at a 50-person firm, it wouldn't have fooled anyone.

And yet. I've won some plaques and statuettes and doodads with little spinning globes on top, and I like them just fine thankyouverymuch. A token of respect from one's peers, or from a group that thinks you did a good job dipping into their area of expertise, is very gratifying. They look good on a shelf. Sometimes they get you noticed by people who otherwise wouldn't and maybe help sell a few books. I am happy and grateful for them.

Today is the deadline for comics professionals to cast their votes for the industry's Eisner Awards, to be presented this July at the San Diego Comic-Con. I cast my votes for both the Eisners and the complementary/competing Harvey Award nominations weeks ago, and had a few thoughts about the process.

Voting for these awards is a responsibility I take seriously, but even with the best intentions I find hard to do "right." First and foremost, there's just too much stuff out there for anyone to read it all. If I'm entirely ignorant in a category, I leave it blank. If I've seen, say, three out of five, I think it's fair to cast a vote even though one I've missed might theoretically be better. I make an effort to at least familiarize myself with all the nominees. Excerpts are often available online, and a look through a couple weeks of a webcomic's archives gives a good feel.

Honestly, the first thing I do is scan the list for work done by friends or my publisher, Abrams. I don't think that's a scandalous confession; I'd never base my entire decision on it, and I often vote for something else I sincerely feel is superior, but I think supporting the home team is a valid tie-breaker. I'll especially throw a vote to a pal if it's obvious they're going to get crushed. Everyone, including me, loves an underdog.

When deciding how seriously to take an award, you have to know how they're awarded. For example, Harvey Award nominees are chosen via an open vote of comics professionals; in contrast, Eisner Award nominations are determined by a committee of industry experts (representing a cross-section of creators, academics, retailers, etc.) who look through hundreds of works to put together a short list. In both cases, the nominees are then published and pros get several weeks to vote for their favorites, and there's the rub.

It all comes down to popularity, and why shouldn't it? That's the point. Generally, someone who's been active and beloved in the business for 30 years will beat someone nobody's ever heard of. Generally, a book that sold 500,000 copies will beat a book that sold 5,000. Many years there are one or two critically acclaimed big sellers that take every category they're in*. How could it be otherwise? And yet that outcome has little to do with the intrinsic quality of the work. That's the big grain of salt you've got to swallow along with the results.

I've been fortunate to win both an Eisner and Harvey award; I've also been nominated for other Eisner and Harvey awards and lost. I don't place any importance on the losses--don't honestly remember what they were, except for one that stung. In 2010, Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow got an Eisner nomination for Best Publication Design and I sincerely believe that, if you'd locked all the voters in a room and made them read all the nominees, we would've deservedly won that one. But that's not how the process works.

In that case, just knowing that a committee of comics experts had pored through scores of submissions and decided that mine was one of the year's six best-designed books was honor enough. No, really!

* Says the guy who lost to Fun Home and Asterios Polyp.

Thursday, June 6, 2013


Saw an article recently about handedness--how right-handed and left-handed people differ, and what it all means. It's an old pop-sci chestnut, stories propagated every so often by some new bit of research that doesn't really prove anything, but I find them fascinating. Because when it comes to handedness, I'm a mess.

When I was a kid, I was completely ambidextrous. That lasted until the third grade, when my teacher caught me writing the left half of a page with my left hand then switching the pencil and writing the right half of the page with my right hand. Well, she declared that the laziest thing she'd ever seen! From that day to this, I only write right-handed. Although I sometimes wonder if I could retrain my left hand, just to show her.

An off-the-cuff compendium of how I do what:
  • Throw: left.
  • Bat: right.
  • Kick: left.
  • Write and Pencil: right.
  • Ink and Paint: mostly right but sometimes left (less fine motor control required, I think)
  • Golf (I don't golf but have played mini-golf and assume the mechanics are similar): right.
  • Tennis: left (when I first played in my early teens I switched the racket from hand to hand depending on where the shot was headed: no backhands! However, I learned that was bad form and I looked stupid dropping the racket during the hand-off, so settled on left).
  • Archery: both (I'm left-eye dominant so my own bow is left-handed, but I shoot my daughter's right-handed bow just to keep things even).
  • Bowling: left.
  • Teethbrushing: both. I switch halfway.
  • Scissors: right.
  • Kitchen knives: left.

High jump, which I did on the junior-high track team, deserves its own note. I approached the bar from the left while nearly everyone else approached it from the right. All those right-footers typically scooched the landing mat toward the left, either deliberately or just through the repeated momentum of their landings. Consequently, when I jumped in the other direction, about one time out of four I missed the mat entirely and landed on the ground. This was not conducive to an extended high-jumping career.

I enjoy my flexibility. It's been suggested that it accounts for my love of and work in both science and the arts, although I understand the whole "left brain/right brain" thing isn't really true anymore. Every once in a while I do find myself standing in the kitchen staring at a jar in my hands, paralyzed, trying to figure out which hand turns the lid because neither feels right. It's a small price to pay.

One of my identical twin daughters is left-handed and the other right-handed. This would seem to belie the definition of "identical," yet I understand it's common within the Split-Zygote Community (SZC). Coincidentally, the left-handed kid's name starts with an "L" and the right-handed kid's name starts with an "R," an unintended but swell mnemonic.

In my lifetime, left-handedness has gone from being a sign of something not quite right in the brain to an unremarkable thread in humanity's rainbow tapestry. You hear old horror stories of kids having their left hand tied down so they're forced to use their right, a sinister (heh!) practice I'm glad is mostly extinct. I don't remember any trauma from my third grade teacher's training but do kind of wish she'd left me alone. Would've been interesting to see how I turned out.