Friday, September 27, 2013

A Brief Message of Great Importance

I spoke with Editor Charlie a few days ago and learned that my publisher Abrams is reprinting Mom's Cancer! I guess they finally ran out of all the copies they printed before. This is really quite nice. Keeping an old backlist book "in print" is a show of confidence that it'll continue to sell a few now and then. Charlie also asked me an interesting question: "Is there anything you want to change?"


There are some things that, were I starting Mom's Cancer from scratch today, I'd do differently. But even the book's flaws (as I perceive them) are part of the story of making the book. It's a bit ragged in parts because I was a bit ragged when I made it. It has an urgency imposed by real life. I could write or draw some parts better but I think that'd make them less authentic, too. Even the slap-dash last-page coda revealing Mom's death, which Charlie and I added literally hours after she passed and before the book was due at the printer, and which some readers overlook, says something about the experience as we lived it.

So Charlie and I agreed that Mom's Cancer is a perfect little time capsule and we wouldn't change a jot. Any attempt to improve it would only diminish it. The only revision in the reprint will be to update the list of cancer-related resources in the back, some of which have changed URLs or gone out of business. Otherwise, we're going to leave it alone--forever, as far as I'm concerned.

* * *

I was hesitant to write about my compressed nerve the other day, seeing myself as a manly stoic who shouldn't whine about a little pain (no, really!). But you guys have been great. In addition to sympathy, I'm getting a lot of good practical advice and offers of help with exercises, ergonomics, physical therapy, etc. I'm surprised how many people I know who've been through the same thing. Much appreciated!

I'm feeling better now, and not entirely due to the drugs. My misbehaving nerve seems to be gradually loosening its grip on my right arm. If trends continue, I think I'll be all right within a week or so. Meanwhile, the pain is endurable, I'm sleeping much better, and I'm getting some work done.

Thanks for the support. And if it doesn't work out, my left hand still works fine.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Agents of SHIELD

Karen and I enjoyed the TV debut of "Agents of SHIELD" last night. SPOILERS and plot points will be discussed below.

I'm happy to see Agent Coulson alive, his dry wit intact, and also very happy that how he's alive remains a Big Mystery that even Coulson doesn't understand. The writers managed to undo Coulson's very effective death in "The Avengers" without trivializing it, which was a tough nut to crack. Clark Gregg created an appealing character in his limited screen time in the various Marvel movies, and it would be a shame to waste him.

The team of agents needs a lot of fleshing out, which will undoubtedly happen in future episodes. FitzSimmons is/are cute. While I like the actor Ming-Na Wen, I found her character Melinda May ("Just the driver") cold and uninteresting. The Agent Ward character (let's call him "Sniper Boy") was only saved by the truth serum scene, which I thought was terrific, smart and funny.

I liked that the agents explicitly listed the three known ways to get superpowers in their universe: Super-Soldier Serum (Captain America), gamma radiation (the Hulk), and Extremis (from Iron Man 3), and that the episode's hero/villain, Mike, got his powers via those mechanisms. There aren't suddenly hundreds of different unexplained superpower sources. I'm sure that'll change--there's only so many tunes you can play with variations of three notes--but it felt like a very real and welcome limitation to me.

I also liked how Mike was a hero/villain: a sympathetic fellow whom the team nevertheless had to fight and take down. That's very "Marvel."

A plot nitpick: I thought the climax was confusing and muddled. It really looked like Sniper Boy shot Mike in the head. Karen and I were both a bit stunned: "Why is everyone so happy that they just killed him?" I inferred that Sniper Boy shot Mike with some sort of antidote bullet, but if that's the case why didn't he just shoot him at the start? Because, I further inferred, Agent Fitz showed up with the antidote bullet at the last second. That's one or two more levels of inference than a viewer should be expected to make, blanks that could've/should've been filled in with a few seconds of exposition. (And what's that farmhouse that Mike's son was moved to at the end? Some sort of SHIELD witness protection commune?)

I loved--loved loved loved!--how tightly and completely the TV show fit into the Marvel movie universe. Not just via the appearances of Agents Coulson and Maria Hill, but the glimpses we get of the Avengers in video clips and the idea that seeing an alien army pour through a hole in the sky over New York City really did Change Everything Forever. People are still freaked out about it. Federal agencies are trying to understand and deal with it. Events we saw in the movies are remembered and still matter. Wonderful!

Then in the middle of the episode, there was a commercial for the upcoming new "Thor" movie. I felt a little chill of anticipation, turned to Karen and said, "These guys are geniuses." They've built themselves a unified TV and film universe, a big sparkly sandbox to play in. Although some of the movies have been better than others, I don't think they've yet made a single misstep. Especially compared to their competitor DC Comics, who's still figuring out how to get Batman and Superman together (and, from what I've read, in my opinion doesn't have a very good idea for doing so), Marvel is barreling full speed ahead and trusting its audience to keep up.

Works for me. We'll watch more.

If you, like Karen, saw Coulson's Corvette take flight at the end of "Agents of SHIELD" and said "I guess they have a DeLorean now," know that Jack Kirby did it in the comics 20 years before "Back to the Future." Knowing her pedigree, seeing Lola lift off was one of my favorite moments of the episode.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Working My Last Nerve

I used to wonder if "pinched nerve" was a real thing. It's so vague, the type of diagnosis a malingerer would use. There's no test for it; you just have to take their word. I confess, I might have rolled my eyes.

Then I got one.

The past nine or ten days have been pretty rough. My doc thinks a muscle spasm in my shoulder is compressing a nerve where it emerges from my cervical spine. Pain begins in my neck and radiates down my right shoulder, bicep and forearm, leaving my fingers (particularly my thumb) numb and tingly. At best, it feels like someone punching me hard in the arm. At worst, if feels like someone repeatedly stabbing my funny bone with a screwdriver.

One interesting/frustrating aspect of the condition is that, with a regular ol' physical injury, there's often some position or posture that feels better than others. You can stretch out the limb or hold it over your head to get some relief. Because this is more of a phantom pain situation--my arm wasn't really caught in a steel rolling mill, it only feels like it was--there's not usually much I can do to make it feel better. This is a fascinating phenomenon to observe and consider at 3 a.m.

I didn't sleep well for several nights in a row because it hurt too much to lie down. Instead, I sort of passed out propped up by pillows in a comfy chair. Now with the help of powerful prescription narcotics (I told my daughters I look forward to them surprising me on a future episode of "Intervention"), I've actually slept through most of two nights in my own bed. As all new parents know, sleep makes a huge difference to quality of life.

The numbness in my fingers makes handwriting and drawing feel like threading a needle wearing ski gloves. I can type, but until recently couldn't bear to sit at my office desk long enough to get any work done. Last week was lost; this week I'm back in the saddle, interspersed with weeping and naps. Luckily, my left hand is facile enough to pick up some of the slack.

In the previous blog post I wrote about the fine time I had last Saturday doing a panel at a local book festival. That was true, I did have fun; what I neglected to mention was the part where my right arm was ripped off by an orc. Yesterday I posted some photos of the event shot by my wife Karen. She took several more, and we only realized later that if you crop them to focus solely on me, they provide a funny portrait of a man trying and failing to hold it together:

Forearm resting on the table, lookin' good. Authorial. Brian in 'da house.

Ah, the two-handed chin lean. Nice and casual change-up. Still fooling everyone.
I'll just prop this useless ham shank up on the empty chair next to me and slouch. Seems to help for a while....
Maybe it'll loosen up if I shake it around a little.... Nope.

I see your mouth moving and hear words coming out, but have no idea what you're saying.

Oh sweet Jesus, take me now.

I've seen several public appeals in recent months from starving cartoonists asking for help covering their medical expenses. I'm not one of them and this isn't one of those. Our health insurance is very good--to date, all my exams, x-rays and prescriptions have cost me $20 out of pocket. I'm not especially looking for sympathy. Karen is living up to the "sickness and health" clause of our marriage contract admirably, dispensing "Oh poor baby"s as required. In any big-picture perspective, my problems are minor and I seem to be healing.

So why blog about it? Partly because I've always shared how my life is going, and it looks like my life in late September and early October is going to go a lot like this. Partly to explain why my already-sketchy Internet presence will be light for a while. And partly because it's a little disconcerting to be reminded I'm just bones and blood and meat that occasionally breaks down. Like everybody else.

Sigh. Mortality, man. It's a tough gig.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Sonoma County Book Festival

I had a terrific time at the Sonoma County Book Festival last Saturday. This is the same festival (though in a new location) at which I participated in a graphic novel panel last year, and which evidently was such a hit they decided to have two graphic novel panels this year. Comics are taking over the world!

Luckily, there's more than enough cartooning talent in the region to populate two panels. Fantastic comic book artist Brent Anderson ("Astro City") is our ringleader, so he did both. Also on the morning panel were my pal Lex Fajardo ("Kid Beowulf," modern "Peanuts"), Emily C. Martin (Megamoth Studio and Deviant Art star), and Karen Luk (lots of stuff including some good-looking Steampunk work). I don't know Emily and didn't meet her, but enjoyed meeting Karen when I arrived to do my panel in the afternoon.

Sharing my p.m. panel with the ubiquitous Mr. Anderson was Paige Braddock ("Jane's World," "Martian Confederacy," and modern "Peanuts"). I listed "modern Peanuts" as credits for both Paige and Lex; what I mean by that is that in addition to their own projects they both work at Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates as stewards of Mr. Schulz's legacy, a responsibility I know they take very seriously. Both morning and afternoon panels were moderated by Steve Alcorta, our county library's graphic novel buyer. I sucked up as best I could.

The festival was scheduled to happen around the grounds of Santa Rosa Junior College, a beautiful oak-studded campus. Hard rain overnight sent organizers into a tizzy, and in the early morning hours everything was relocated into the campus student center. Considering the panic that must've accompanied that effort I thought the festival went very well, with many attendees. My panel drew probably 25 or 30 people, which was just fine.

Pics or it didn't happen:

Way up at the front of the Main Stage is noted author Dorothy Allison (Bastard out of Carolina--that's the name of her book, not my opinion of her) who was a funny, charming, polished speaker, and a good "get" for our local fest.
Lex Fajardo (standing) and Brent Anderson shared a sales table; Karen Luk is just out of frame to the right.

Me, Paige, Brent, and moderator Steve during our panel "Novel Storytelling: The Art of the Graphic Novel--Chapter 2."

Me, Paige and Brent just before the fist fight erupted.

With Paige. She's nice. My "Abrams ComicArts" shirt was a gift from Editor Charlie and seemed appropriate for the event. However, I think it inadvertently gave some authors in the dealer's room the wrong impression; a few of them eagerly gave me their entire sales pitches that I hadn't really asked for, and I was puzzled until it occurred to me they might've thought I was actually from Abrams ComicArts and could get them published. POWER!
Thanks to the festival, author wrangler Julia Cooper, and cartoonist wrangler Brent Anderson. The fun for me is hanging around people like Brent, Paige and Lex, talking with folks eager to tap our brains, and be around book lovers. They (we) are a special breed.

Monday, September 9, 2013

My Influential Books: Yellow Yellow

I recently got the notion to, from time to time, write about a book that influenced my life. I unknowingly started this series (if it becomes a series) back in July 2009, when I wrote about how important Mae and Ira Freeman's children's book You Will Go to the Moon (1959) was in molding my Space Age expectations. That was the first.

The second, Yellow Yellow by writer Frank Asch and artist Mark Alan Stamaty, was published by McGraw-Hill in 1971. I guess it's a children's book, though that glib categorization doesn't do it justice. I would've been 11 or 12 when my parents gave it to me--way too old for a children's book but just the right age for a capital-A Art book. Mom and Dad expected their budding cartoonist to be electrified by its hyper-detailed rendering and formal playfulness. They were right.

Yellow Yellow is the tale of a boy who finds a yellow hard hat, inventively plays with it for a while, returns it to its owner, and goes home to make his own yellow hat out of paper. That's the plot. If Asch's charming but slight story had been illustrated by P.D. Eastman or the Berenstains, it might've been a fondly remembered addition to Random House's Beginner Books library.

Instead, Stamaty's artwork turns it into a sort of innocent's odyssey through a grotesque urban hellscape, part Hieronymus Bosch and part Ralph Steadman. It's got an Underground (circa 1970) sensibility, though I wouldn't have known what that meant at the time. Grungy and subversive, rewarding through multiple readings on a couple of levels. At a time of my life when the universe of comics consisted of newspapers strips and DC superheroes, Yellow Yellow expanded my understanding of what comics could be.

A two-page spread (most of the book comprises two-page spreads--click on the images to see them larger) showing the boy discovering his yellow hat. The detail in this is both obsessive and impressive. Stamaty folded a lot of little asides and gags into his visual stew.

A detail of the left page above: A toad with a high school class ring for an eye fights a spider and a beetle for his dinner. Are the spider and beetle trying to save the bug because they're his pals or because they also want to eat him? Unresolved dramatic tension! And look at that gorgeous chicken wire!

One tiny detail from another page: a one-face two-bodied bird begs for help. Perhaps the sweet merciful release of death? The gag's payoff comes three pages later where a bird with one body but two heads pleads for the same. That's weird, right?

The boy meets his hat's rightful owner. For me, this drawing captures the mood of the book. It's sort of ugly, every whisker in the worker's scruffy beard practically prickling off the page, but the man doesn't look at all angry or menacing. He's just a Regular Joe who lost his hat. Even though he deprives the boy of his wondrous new toy, he's not the bad guy.

After handing over the hard hat, the boy goes home and Yellow Yellow slips into a neat bit of formal inventiveness. First the boy draws a yellow hat by itself on a piece of paper. Then he draws yellow straw, yellow lemons, yellow corn and dandelions . . .

. . . until the entire two-page spread is colored solid yellow, so that the book we're reading looks just like the paper the boy is coloring. Then the boy folds the paper . . .

A good example of Stamaty's thoughtful use of white space contrasted with the over-busyness of the boy's alphabet-and-airplane wallpaper (which, again, is fun to closely examine). There's not a detail on the floor indicating carpet, wood, color, texture, shadow; the floor is implied by the boy's posture and the few objects that rest on it. It occurs to me as I write this that the bat leaning against the bookcase really helps define the space since we read from left to right, making it one of the first details we perceive on the page, and instinctively know bats don't float in mid-air.

. . . and makes himself a new yellow hat.

Yellow Yellow was published more than 40 years ago and is out of print. Both Asch and Stamaty are still working prolifically, with long bibliographies to their credit. I think I somehow managed to raise two children without encountering Asch's many children's books (I count more than 80 listed on his website), but happily realized I've seen a lot of Stamaty's illustrations done for the Village Voice, The New Yorker, and many other publications. Looking over their bios, Yellow Yellow was very early in both their careers, just a couple of years out of college. For a lot of writers and artists, Yellow Yellow would be a career highlight; one measure of the success Asch and Stamaty have enjoyed is that you have to dig pretty deeply into their resumes before either mentions it.

I like to imagine I can see the seeds of that success in this early work. Yellow Yellow was an eye-opener for me.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

I Owe You a Post

Here it is.

The paradox of blogging is that extended periods of silence that appear calm and boring to you are often frantically busy for me. Or sometimes calm and boring, that happens too. I have been pretty busy (if not frantic) lately with my day job, making good headway on Mystery Project X, and working on a cartooning project that fell into my lap via an e-mail from a stranger and has the potential to be something very cool, different, and possibly high-profile.

I'm not being cagey for its own sake. I just have a rule/guideline/superstition/neurosis about not spilling a lot of details too soon and then having to explain myself if it doesn't work out. Plans fall through all the time. "Hey, what happened with that thing you were doing?" "Um, well, hmmm...." I hate that.

I've said too much already.

Be assured I continue to work on what I hope will be some good, entertaining creative projects. What comes of them remains to be seen and isn't entirely up to me. I'm eager to share when I can.

To help you with the concept of "delayed gratification," here's actor Tom Hiddleston (Loki from the Marvel movies) working through some issues with the Cookie Monster:

And to help you pass the time, here's a practical joke involving the cast of the latest "Star Trek" movie (recently voted the worst "Star Trek" movie ever made at a big Trekkie convention, which I think is unfair; I'd rank it second worst. It was also one of the most profitable, so there you go). Some of the movie was shot at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's National Ignition Facility, which truly looks like it belongs aboard a starship.

National Ignition Facility--or the USS Enterprise's warp drive. Either way.

The gag set-up: actor Simon Pegg (whose movie "The World's End" my girls and I recently enjoyed) convinced his castmates that the facility emitted dangerous radiation that only "neutron cream" could protect them against. It went a little something like this:

Finally, Chris Sparks and Team Cul de Sac are nominated for four Harvey Awards this weekend at the Baltimore Comic-Con. Team Cul de Sac: Cartoonists Draw the Line at Parkinson's, is a book inspired by cartoonist Richard Thompson to raise funds for Parkinson's Disease research, to which I was honored to contribute a page. The Harveys are named for pioneering cartoonist/editor Harvey Kurtzman, and are one of the two big recognitions available to comics creators and projects.

Did I mention here that Team Cul de Sac was up for an Eisner Award--the other big recognition--last July at Comic-Con International, but lost? Nice consolation prize: the project instead won the Con's Bob Clampett Humanitarian Award, which is an even more exclusive club.

Best of luck at the Harveys, Team. You'll always deserve the "Best Anthology," "Best Biographical, Historical or Journalistic Presentation," "Special Award for Humor in Comics," and "Special Award for Excellence in Presentation" in my book!