Monday, December 23, 2013

Trolley Molly Don't Love Harold

Back when we were young parents, Karen and I realized with chagrin that any ol' thing we happened to do two Christmases in a row immediately became an inviolable TRADITION for our kids. Those build up over the years, adhering to the holiday like barnacles on a barge, until they take on an importance completely unrelated to whether they make a lick of sense.

Luckily, that's NOT the case with my annual recitation of the best Christmas carol ever, from Walt Kelly's comic strip "Pogo." First posted to my blog back in 'ought-six, I sing it heartily, gleefully, and without concern for dignity or shame. My cartoonist pal Mike Lynch posted these abbreviated verses yesterday:

For any completists who want to play along on banjo and kazoo, here's the score plus some additional lyrics from the creator of my all-time favorite comic strip.

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Polly wolly cracker n' too-da-loo!
Hunky Dory's pop is lolly
gaggin' on the wagon,
Willy, folly go through!

Donkey Bonny brays a carol,
Antelope Cantaloup, 'lope with you!
Chollie's collie barks at Barrow,
Harum scarum five alarum bung-a-loo!

--Walt Kelly

Here's another "just so" tradition. In 1986, David Letterman invited Darlene Love on his old "Late Night" program to sing her 1963 hit "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." Afterward, he asked her to return the next year. Then the next. Then pretty much every year since. Twenty-seven years later, it's not quite Christmas for me until I hear Darlene, 72 years old and never sounding better, sing on Letterman.

In doing a little research for this post, I read that Letterman's musical director Paul Shaffer bought the original saxophone used in the '63 recording from the musician's widow, and pulls it out once a year for this performance. That's a neat tradition, too.

Merry Christmas, y'all. Hope you're enjoying your uniquely odd traditions, too.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Captain Video

Admit it: work is kinda slow right now. You're just going through the motions waiting for your time off next week. What you really need are videos to watch.

I can help with that.

The first takes some set-up. Over Christmas 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 became the first humans to orbit the Moon. While going about their duties, astronauts Anders, Borman and Lovell shot a photo rightly named one of the Great Images of the 20th Century: Earthrise. The first time people saw the Earth emerge from behind the horizon of another world.

Talk about a change in perspective. This photo of a beautiful blue marble rising above a dead gray rock became a postage stamp, an environmental icon, a New Age banner, a symbol of humanity's conquest of space. It represented a lot of different things to a lot of different people--fitting, since all the people and all the things they care about are contained within it.

Zoom ahead to the 21st Century, where a probe called the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has been shooting high-resolution photos of the Moon for months. NASA got the idea to match the new LRO data with the old Apollo 8 photos and a real-time tape recording of the Apollo 8 astronauts to show exactly how the Earthrise photo came about--where the spacecraft was, which direction it was pointed, what it was doing, why Anders was the first to see it out his window before the others. The video explains it all very clearly in less than 7 minutes, and I was captivated from the start.

If your pulse doesn't quicken a little when you hear the astronauts' excitement upon their first glimpse of home, you're dead to me.

What I especially like about the video is that it shows the motion of the Earth rising above the lunar horizon, a dimension that the photos, stunning as they are, couldn't convey. This is a view you could never get except from a spacecraft in orbit. No astronaut on the surface would ever see an Earthrise like this. (Think about it for a second: the fact that the Moon always keeps the same face pointing toward Earth means that, for a person on the Moon, the Earth would always hover in approximately the same spot in the sky.*)

(* I realize that libration--the Moon's wobble--would produce a periodic Earthrise along the limb, but you'd have to be in just the right spot for it.)

Look what we can do when we put our minds to it, both in 1968 and 2013.

* * *

Since it's Christmastime, I'll pass this along as well. It's an ad for Sprint. Well, it's supposed to be a viral video of a flash mob doing the dance scene from "A Charlie Brown Christmas," but I wasn't fooled. Still, it's cute and only 2 minutes long.

Which reminded me of this from last year:

I remember reading later interviews with Charles Schulz in which he lamented that for all his success he'd never made his "Citizen Kane," a masterpiece for the ages. I wish I'd had the chance to convince him that he had. For all its lack of polish, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" has lasted 50 years and is so much a part of the culture that kids unborn when it first came out make videos about it, and strangers on a New York street corner who see guys playing a tiny piano and dancing with a blue blanket instantly know what they're looking at.

That's an accomplishment. Maybe it's even Art.

* * *

Just a reminder that I'm doing a new webcomic now, and you're all invited/urged/begged to drop in from time to time. Much appreciated!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Chocolateness

My sisters mailed us a fat padded envelope with "Open Now" written across the sealing flap. That's not unusual at Christmastime--could be something edible or decorative, something you'd want to use before the morning of the 25th.

Inside the envelope was this very nice candy box. Velvet-textured lid, fine red bow.


Why on Earth would my sisters send me a candy box without candy?

I turned it over to find handwriting I haven't seen in a few years but know as well as my own:

That's Mom. My sisters were going through a stash of old Christmas decorations, found the box, and thought I should have it. Of course I have no memory of giving it to her, but she never forgot getting it.

My sisters can just take back any presents they've bought me and save their money, because I can't imagine anything they could give me that would match the prettiest box of candy my Mom ever received.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Dashing Thru the Bookplates

Time again for my annual reminder that I am happy--nay, thrilled!--to offer signed bookplates for Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow free for the asking. An autographed copy of an award-winning graphic novel would be the perfect Christmas gift for that Space Age boomer or curious kid you know. Just e-mail me your postal address, along with any inscription you want, and I'll have one in the mail the next day. Stick it inside the front cover, place the book under the tree, and BAM! you're suddenly the favorite aunt or uncle.

Although the holidays are a natural time for this post, the offer is available year-round while supplies last. Looking through my box of bookplates that'll be approximately--let's see, one, two, three, four--24 more years. Better hurry!

And thanks.

Friday, December 13, 2013

We Have Liftoff

Tuesday's launch of my new webcomic, The Last Mechanical Monster, went far better than I'd hoped. Thank you!

Many people whose opinions I respect offered compliments I think were sincere, and my visitor numbers were through the roof. Modesty/prudence forbids me from reporting what they were (along with the fear that you'd shoot back with "That's ALL?!") but they were about 10 times higher than I expected. Traffic dropped off by about half on Wednesday and to a relative trickle on Thursday. Numbers look stronger today with the posting of a new comic (I'm putting up a new page every Tuesday and Friday) but it's early.

I know I'm in a marathon, not a sprint. Steady readership growth would make me happy. Steady (or precipitous!) decline would tell me I'm doing something wrong. I'm not planning on drawing any conclusions for at least a few months.

Like I said, it's an experiment.

Best of all, I've begun getting the type of editorial feedback I hoped for. My rule of thumb is that if one person doesn't get something, maybe he or she has a problem; if two or more people don't get something, I have a problem.

For example, two different people said that the way I drew the old Inventor made them wonder if he was a robot himself. That never occurred to me and I don't see it, but it's something I'll have to mull over and try to address. For the record, he's 100% human.

Not a robot.
Readers really like the Inventor's penchant for making lists. It's a character trait I created and love myself but I'm surprised so many people mentioned it. That's good information I can use going forward.

Yesterday I had lunch with a writer friend who'd seen the webcomic and asked me some questions that indicated (at least some) readers are catching what I want them to catch and I'm doing some proper foreshadowing. That's gratifying.

Some incidental info on process: before I launched The Last Mechanical Monster, I built up a backlog of 50 fully completed pages. I really wanted to avoid the common webcartoonists' trap of making promises I couldn't keep. If I never put ink to paper again, I have enough story already done to last through April. Of course my goal is to create at least two new pages per week to keep up with the rate of posting and maintain my cushion.

Which isn't to say the pages are locked in stone. The nine-panel grid I'm using for this story gives me some modularity--it's easy to add panels, subtract panels, or move them around in response to new story ideas and reader feedback as long as the page breaks hit the same spots. I built in that flexibility on purpose. I am occasionally clever.

If you didn't catch it, I wrote up an Author's Note/FAQ for the webcomic that has more details about what I'm up to and how I'm doing it.

Three days in, and so far it's been pretty fun. Please continue to read, recommend, comment and link. Thanks again.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Last Mechanical Monster

So I've started a new webcomic. It's called The Last Mechanical Monster, it's about a very old man and his giant robot, and you can find it over here. There are currently 18 pages up, with another 140 or so to come at a rate of two per week (Tuesday and Friday). I expect it'll keep me occupied through mid-2015.

The Last Mechanical Monster has been percolating in my brain for years. The premise always tickled me but it took me a long time to figure out what to do with it. This is the project that I penciled 110 complete pages of in 2011-2012 when I decided the story wasn't working and I needed to start fresh with a whole new approach. I literally turned those 110 sheets over and began drawing new pages on their backs. No sense wasting good paper.

A real catalyst for reworking The Last Mechanical Monster was my experience last year doing The Adventures of Old Time-Traveling Brian, a series of dopey little comics I posted here and then self-published as a limited-edition zine. I had so much fun doing that, while at the same time I was having so little fun slogging through my 110-plus pages of pencils, that I figured I must be doing something wrong. So I started over.

The webcomic is a work in progress. One key reason for releasing The Last Mechanical Monster as a webcomic is to get readers’ feedback. When I did Mom’s Cancer, readers told me what worked and what didn’t. Crowd-sourced editing. We talked and argued, and it turned out you were always right. Please feel free to share your thoughts via the comments on each page.

It's also mostly black and white. I plan to color it eventually; my palettes and swatches are all picked out. But right now coloring would take so much of my limited time that it'd prevent me from doing the webcomic at all. I think the black-and-white art still stands on its own, and I'll add color when it provides necessary clarity or meaning.

The Last Mechanical Monster is an experiment--or actually a few different experiments. I'm trying some stuff just to see what happens. I hope you'll check it out. If you like it please come back regularly, link to it, tell your friends. If you don't like it, keep it to yourself and maybe my next project will be more to your taste.

If you're not familiar with webcomics, they're typically posted in reverse chronological order with the most recent installment on the home page, so you can bookmark it and always see the latest without additional clicks. Links below each page and along the right margin should make it easy to navigate (let me know if they don't). I recommend clicking the link in the header that reads "Starts HERE."

Here you go. Let's see what happens.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013


Small single-plate dishes on a chilly autumn day . . .

* * *

Comics journalist Heidi MacDonald has been writing about a Kickstarter twist I'd never heard of called "Kicktrolling." It sounds bad.

Background: Kickstarter is a website/service that helps creative people raise money for their projects. Supporters pledge money to a sort of escrow account, with promises of better rewards for higher amounts. A Kickstarter project only gets the money if it's fully funded; if a $10,000 campaign expires with $9,999 pledged, the project fails and nobody pays. On the other hand, if a project raises much more than its target, creators often set up "stretch goals" with extra rewards.

So in Kicktrolling, someone pledges a large amount. It may be enough to surpass the campaign target, even enough to hit some stretch goals. The project looks funded, everybody's happy! Then shortly before the campaign ends, the Kicktroll withdraws their pledge after it's dissuaded potential backers (for example, I've considered supporting Kickstarters until I saw they'd already met their goals and I figured, "eh, they don't need my help"). OR, after the campaign ends, the Kicktroll formally disputes the amount of their pledge. Now, as far as Kickstarter is concerned, the pledge has been paid; it's sitting right there in the escrow account. But the creator can't touch it until the Kicktroll's dispute is resolved. Meanwhile, they're on the hook for all the fees associated with the campaign, plus all the rewards (and stretch rewards) they owe to the legitimate supporters of an evidently successful fundraiser.

There seems to be no point to Kicktrolling other than being a jerk. Kicktrolls don't make any money; they just make it impossible for innocent creators to achieve their goals or make money either. It's purely spiteful and plain mean.

I have a few friends who've successfully used Kickstarter to publish books, comics collections, etc. When it works, it works well. But Kicktrolling is a challenge to the model that Kickstarter needs to fix. So is the fact that growing numbers of Kickstarter supporters have backed projects that never get completed because the creators flaked out or underestimated the work and expense involved. When that happens, you don't get your money back. If creators and funders can't trust the process, Kickstarter could be in trouble.

Kickstarter projects I've backed have been by people I know who have a track record of getting things done. Even so, I regard the $10 or $25 I commit to their cause as a donation that may never yield a return. A couple of people have let me down but by and large I enjoy being a small-scale patron of the arts.

Why do jerks have to go and ruin everything?

* * *

Cartoonist Richard Thompson, whose comic strip "Cul de Sac" I called "the best comic strip being drawn today" before he stopped drawing it late last year, is having some health problems. Richard retired his strip because the progression of his Parkinson's disease made it too difficult to draw; he inspired the Team Cul de Sac fundraising book and auction to which I was proud to contribute.

Well, last Sunday Richard fell and broke his hip, and is now in the hospital awaiting hip replacement surgery. Everyone I know who's had a joint replaced came through fine and liked the results, but I'm sure this was the last thing Richard needed. Unfortunately, being a good person and creative genius who's already had more than his share of "unfair" in life didn't inoculate him from getting even more "unfair" piled on.

The best place to follow Richard's progress online seems to be the "Art of Richard Thompson" Facebook page. I'm thinking of him.

* * *

I didn't start this post intending it to be such a bummer. Here, the first 1:12 of this will fix everything:

'Tis the season. Go boldly.