Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Happy January Birthdays!

Writer Mark Evanier, whose blog is a daily stop of mine, has been posting a series of songs from a 1950s' record called Bugs Bunny's Songfest. The LP included birthday songs for each month of the year, most sung by Warner Brothers characters voiced by Mel Blanc. Mark tells the whole story here.

I've never heard these songs before and think they're kind of charming. I can just imagine being a kid having a birthday party back then, putting this record on my old portable plastic phonograph, and having Daffy Duck or Tweety Bird sing a song just for me.

That's what passed for "fun" in the old days. I wasn't around for the Fifties but was sufficiently Fifties-adjacent to testify.

I thought it'd be fun to post each song on the first of its appropriate month to convey my best birthday wishes to you all. This is in lieu of cards, gifts, or wishing anybody salutations on Facebook, which I don't do because I find it somehow creepy. (Note: a small number of people will continue to receive cards and/or gifts from me as well.) For a moment I worried that I might forget to post future months' songs on the proper day, until I remembered that Blogger lets you schedule posts in advance (I should have remembered instantly; I've got a month's worth of my webcomic loaded up that way). So I think I'll take a few minutes and set that up now.

January's late because I just discovered these songs. Sorry and Happy Belated Birthday, Januaries! All you Februaries will get your song on Saturday. Patience, Decembers.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

I'm a Lumberjack and I'm OK

A couple of months ago, in the middle of the night, a wind storm snapped a five-inch-thick limb off a tree in the backyard and plunged it through our redwood deck like a javelin. The sound it made got our attention.

Although I chopped up the limb the next day, it took me until this afternoon to fix the deck (hey, it was cold, we weren't using it). Pretty neat patch, if I say so myself....

I will not be taking any wagers on what Karen said when I stood back and flourished my best "Ta-da!"

Because you know what she said. She said the same thing anyone would have said.

"Looks nice! We should redo the entire deck just like it!"

Yes. If we want to turn a $20 job into a $20,000 job, that's exactly what we should do. I'll get right on that.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Comics Art

Comics Art is a magnificent new book by British writer and critic Paul Gravett. Published by Tate Publishing in the UK and available in February from Yale University Press in the United States, Comics Art is as comprehensive and thoughtful an examination of the history, properties, and artistry of comics as I've seen.

I find it easiest to describe what the book is not:

It is not a straightforward chronology of comics that starts with the Yellow Kid and marches through the 20th Century to, although it does some of that and mentions them both.

It is not a Scott McCloud-style dissection of how comics work and their unique characteristics as a narrative form, although it does some of that, too.

It is not an argument on behalf of comics as capital-A Art that traces a path from Krazy Kat to Lichtenstein and Warhol, although it also does that.

Comics Art is part of Tate Publishing's (associated with London's Tate Gallery) "Contemporary Art" series, which includes titles such as Street Art, Design Art, and Installation Art. That context helps explain it: I'd call it a comprehensive, generously illustrated, expertly curated introduction to comics for a curious but uninformed reader. Although there are tales and examples here that will be familiar to anyone who already knows the medium, Gravett offers new and interesting insights with an international perspective. He makes connections between past and future, paper and pixels, and comics and pop culture. Gravett, whom cartoonist Eddie Campbell called "The Man at the Crossroads," has seen it all and pulls whatever he needs from his encyclopedic mind to illustrate his broad cultural and artistic analysis. In addition, the book's design and print quality are first rate.

A two-page spread chosen totally at random illustrates Gravett's broad gaze and excellent taste.

Disclosure Time: I know Paul and, mea culpa, I'm in the book (in addition to its other fine qualities, the book is well-indexed; I had no trouble finding myself). I admit my ego is stroked but my opinion is sincere. If I thought Comics Art stunk, I just wouldn't mention it.

Paul knew Mom's Cancer long before we met at the Graphic Medicine conferences I attended and, for a while, helped organize. He was invited to give keynote addresses at each, placing comics and medicine within the broader scope of comics history. 'Round about the third conference, I was astonished to realize that Paul prepared a different full-length, extensively researched lecture every time! We hadn't asked him to do that; there wasn't enough overlap in attendees for anyone to mind some repetition. Any other speaker would've phoned in an off-the-shelf talk and left the audience happy, but Paul had so much more information to share than he could pack into any one lecture that he spread it out over years.

My favorite memory of Paul is going to the Chicago comics shop Quimby's with him. Quimby's is known for stocking any homemade micro-press zine anybody brings in. If you're a kid who just stapled together eight photocopied pages of comics, Quimby's will put it on the shelf. Paul was giddy. I watched him flit from one rack to the next like a hummingbird in a garden, discovering one unknown talent after another. He has a curiosity and love for comics unmatched by anyone I've met. He's kind, polite, and self-effacing. I think the world of him.

Comics Art is getting very good reviews from very smart people (Paul has compiled some at his website). They're deserved. I've read a lot of books about comics, and Comics Art strikes both new and familiar notes in fresh ways to produce something unique and worthwhile.

Very Recommended (especially pp. 98 and 124).

Friday, January 17, 2014


My pal Raina Telgemeier (anyone I know who's spent a year on the New York Times bestseller list is automatically "my pal") recently wrote on Facebook that "The very earliest stages of writing a new project very much resemble 'doing nothing' and feel incredibly unproductive, but heading into my fourth book, I at least know this is important and worthwhile and that I can trust myself. Or so I hope."

In his excellent book Backstage at the Strips, cartoonist Mort Walker retold one of my favorite anecdotes about James Thurber's wife catching him staring into space at a dinner party: "James!" she scolded. "You're writing again!"

This morning my wife Karen awoke before dawn to find me propped up on the headboard already awake, gazing into the dark. "What are you doing up?" she asked. "Writing," I said.

(To be totally honest, I said "Sixty percent writing, forty percent bladder," but that may be more than you want to know.)

I figure I get more than half of my best creative ideas lying in bed immediately after waking up. I recall cartoonist Lynn Johnston said the same thing in one of her books and ascribed it to being in a relaxed semi-dreamy state. I think that's right. Ideas born of actual sleeping dreams are usually useless--they're too random and unstructured, and are never as profound or clever in the light of day. But right after I wake up, my brain seems to be in a loosey-goosey state in which I can still tap the creativity of dreaming but also guide it.

This process looks a lot like lying in bed staring at the ceiling. I'm not sure Karen believes me when I explain I'm doing my most important work of the day.

I keep a notebook by the bed to capture these flickering embers before they're snuffed. The usual joke about bedside journals involves a writer who bolts awake in the middle of the night, scrawls out a totally original sure-fire story idea, then rises in the morning to find a scribbled line reading "Boy meets girl." However, I find that my early morning notes are almost always useful and usable. The rest of what I do with them in daylight--the refining and drawing--is just mechanics.

A notebook page from last July, capturing some action that showed up this week in my webcomic, The Last Mechanical Monster. Though this is a sketch, most of my notes are plot ideas or bits of dialog.

I don't think there's any mystery to it, no "praying for the muse to strike." I'm very much of the school that waiting for inspiration is for amateurs; just start working. It'll come. I've simply learned to use my environment to my advantage and trust in the process.

Or so I hope.

* * *

I posted this on Facebook but wanted to share it here as well: a commercial for H&R Block filmed on my daughter Laura's aircraft carrier, the USS Hornet. No, my girl didn't join the Navy; the Hornet is a museum in Alameda, Calif., and hasn't plowed through the waves like it does in this commercial for more than four decades. Laura is on the museum staff.

 My affection for this ship, which in addition to serving in wars ranging from WWII to Vietnam also recovered the Apollo 11 and 12 capsules from the South Pacific, has been well noted in this blog. I have been backstage in its Collections Dept. (cool!), helped design and install an exhibit (fun!), spent the night in a junior officer's stateroom (spooky!), and rode the gigantic aircraft elevator featured in the commercial (fast!).

It is my understanding that the Hornet did not get to keep the pallets of cash.

* * *

Time for a quick Mark Twain Insult of the Day (#11) in parting. Today's concerns a publishing colleague of Clemens's named Charles Webb:

Webb believed that he was a literary person. He might have gotten this superstition accepted by the world if he had not extinguished it by publishing his things.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Mark Twain Insult of the Day #10: Kardashian Edition

You know the problem with 21st Century culture? People who are famous for being famous. I singled out the Kardashians in this post's title but they're just one termite family in the mound. Denizens of the Jersey Shore, Housewives of hither and yon, scores of vapid celebrities of no discernible talent or accomplishment.

Evidently it was also the problem with 19th Century culture.

Mark Twain first encountered Miss Olive Logan on the lecture circuit in the 1870s. In those days, touring the country lecturing brought the same sort of moderate wealth and celebrity a cable TV show brings today. Speakers could earn $100 to $200 per appearance, at a time when that was real money. According to Twain (perhaps uncharitably), Logan built her reputation on little gossipy clips her husband planted in newspapers throughout the country. Items such as, "Olive Logan has taken the Hunter mansion at Cohasset for the summer." Nobody knew who Olive Logan was or whether the news was even true, but just being written about must have meant she was important. And so she was.

Olive Logan: the Kim, Khloe, or Kourtney of the 1800s. 

In Volume 2 of the Autobiography of Mark Twain (which if you're new to the blog I recently began reading), Mr. Clemens reports:

She was actually famous. There is no doubt about it. Her name was familiar to everybody . . .  and there wasn't a human being in the entire United States who could answer if you asked him "What is her fame based on? What has she done?" You would paralyse (sic) a person by asking him that question . . . She had built up a great, a commercially valuable name, on absolute emptiness; built it up upon mere remarks about her clothes and where she was going to spend the summer, and her opinions about things that nobody had ever asked her to express herself about."

But that's not today's Mark Twain Insult of the Day. That came later, when Clemens happened upon a newspaper article describing her failing health and rotten third marriage to a drunk, which caused him to soften his heart a bit:

Her tragedy has come, and I have to be sorry for her, and I am sorry. If she were drowning I would not look--but I would not pull her out. I would not be a party to that last and meanest unkindness, treachery to a would-be suicide.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Back Aboard the Twain

When last I mentioned Mark Twain, more than two years ago, I'd just finished Volume 1 of his autobiography. Having now begun Volume 2, it's time for me to revisit old Mr. Clemens.

Twain worked on his autobiography late in life and left orders that it not be released until a century after his death, which was in 1910. You have to really appreciate such incandescent audacity in the first place: assuming that anyone in the 21st Century would remember him at all, let alone care about his life story! But he was right. The first volume became a bestseller; I bought mine from a thousand-book pile at Costco.

Though I enjoyed Volume 1 very much, I also predicted that it would have the highest ratio of "copies bought to actually read" since Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time. It was tough mining, brightened (for me) by brilliant little gems every few pages that made the pickaxing worthwhile. It was the only book since college that I can recall marking up in pencil because there was just too much good stuff to let it get away.

Nevertheless, I don't expect to see Volume 2 hit the bestseller list. (Just checked so I wouldn't have to eat my words, and I don't see it on the New York Times list at any rate.)

After a few false starts throughout his life, Twain hit upon what he thought was the ideal method of writing his autobiography. Every day he sat down with his loyal stenographer, Josephine Hobby, and dictated. He made no attempt at chronology or organization. Rather, he let his mind wander, perhaps inspired by a childhood memory or an article in that day's newspaper. The result is a nearly stream-of-consciousness narrative in which meeting a stranger on the street might inspire a tale from his silver mining days in Nevada or a gripe about his layabout older brother Orion (what a great name!). In print, each day's dictation is short, perhaps three or four pages--a dense but manageable three or four pages.

The effect feels very much like sitting with the man himself, in all his charm, sentiment, and misanthropy. Sometimes Twain gnawed on a topic for a few days until he'd let it go. There's an intimate immediacy one wouldn't get from a standard recitation of dates and events. On the other hand, his dictations lack context. Any overarching perspective on how the man felt about life's great issues has to be inferred and assembled by readers themselves. He doesn't seem particularly self-reflective.

Consequently, for anyone taking on Twain's autobiography (and you may sense my ambivalence about recommending it), I'd suggest following each day's dictation by reading the editor's annotations in the back. These do provide context, remind the reader who the players are, and point out where Twain's recollections differ from other sources or the historical record. They differed frequently, and there's some satisfaction in reading Twain's version of an event then flipping to the notes to learn what really happened.

Evidently, Mark Twain was once young and unmoustached. Who knew?

When I read Volume 1, I found Twain's insults particularly wonderful. He had an arch, dry wit that could skewer its target before the poor sap saw it coming. No guarantees for Volume 2, but it's already looking promising.

Today's Mark Twain Insult of the Day (continuing from my previous list, this would be #9) concerns Orion Clemens, an unlucky fellow with great ambition but little lasting success who spent many years of his life surviving on an allowance from his kid sibling. I feel great sympathy for Orion; what must it have been like to go through life as Mark Twain's loser brother?

He began to raise chickens and he made a detailed monthly report to me, whereby it appeared that he was able to work off his chickens on the Keokuk people at a dollar and a quarter a pair. But it also appeared that it cost a dollar and sixty cents to raise the pair. This did not seem to discourage Orion . . .

Later, discussing Orion's death:

He had gone down to the kitchen in the early hours of a bitter December morning; he had built the fire, and had then sat down at a table to write something, and there he died, with the pencil in his hand and resting against the paper in the middle of an unfinished word--an indication that his release from the captivity of a long and troubled and pathetic and unprofitable life was mercifully swift and painless.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Spoonful of Sugar

Karen and I saw "Saving Mr. Banks" before Christmas. While I enjoyed it at the time and thought some of the performances were terrific, it's been gnawing at me since. My opinion's faded from "That was pretty good!" to "That wasn't really very good at all," and I think I've figured out why.

It isn't entirely the film's historical inaccuracy. Grown-ups know that movies about actual people and events are interpretations. Stories need character arcs, crises and resolutions that real life seldom provides. Writer Harlan Ellison worked up a 10-minute dudgeon about the film; while I love Mr. Ellison's writing and raging, I can save you 10 minutes and sum up: "It's bullshit."

In particular, Ellison's offended by the movie's invented emotional catharsis as author P.L. Travers watches "Mary Poppins" on the big screen and weeps. In reality, she wept because she thought Disney had realized her worst fears and ruined her book. Mrs. Travers hated the movie the rest of her life.

Exactly what she was afraid of. By the way, "Saving Mr. Banks" makes much of Mrs. Travers's unreasonable demand that the movie not use the color red. Look, there's red!

It isn't entirely that a Disney movie about Walt Disney is the worst sort of self-serving hagiography, which asks us to sympathize with a giant corporation browbeating an independent writer to surrender her prized creation and literary legacy. As an independent writer type myself, losing control of my stories and characters is a nightmarish possibility that I've seen happen to people I know. My sympathies are with Travers. On the other hand, Travers signed the papers after tough negotiations won her more concessions than most writers would have gotten. Millions more copies of her original Poppins books were printed and sold. Disney made her rich and Travers wept all the way to the bank. In the long history of ripped-off creators (including Siegel and Shuster, who sold Superman for $130), Travers did all right for herself.

I think what's eaten away at me is the movie's defamation of Travers as a writer. Flashbacks to her Australian childhood show us that every detail of "Mary Poppins," from the nanny's parrot-handled umbrella and bottomless carpet bag to great swaths of dialog--came verbatim from her experience as a girl. Now, I don't know. I wasn't there. Maybe Travers's alcoholic father really did sniff the air sagely and intone, "Winds from the east, mist comin' in, like something's a-brewin', about to begin," just as Bert the chimney sweep does at the start of "Mary Poppins."

I doubt it.

Maybe--just maybe--Travers actually had the intelligence and imagination to make stuff up. Because that's what writers do.

In building its superficial psychological profile of Travers, "Saving Mr. Banks" shows her as little more than a stenographer, transcribing events she witnessed as faithfully as a court reporter. That's the lie that galls me. It's too glib and reductive. Too cute. That's not how writing works--not even journalism and certainly not good fiction writing. The movie gives Travers a prickly personality with some sympathetic softness and essentially seems to like her, but at its core, portraying her process and identity as a writer, it grievously insults her. Travers and her Poppins books were better than that.

I think that's why I've turned on "Saving Mr. Banks." Bad enough that it lied about Travers, but it also lied about writing and disrespected her as a writer.

Julie Andrews, Walt Disney, and P.L. Travers at the "Mary Poppins" premiere, which Travers really did crash.

A few random thoughts on "Saving Mr. Banks":

I've joked elsewhere that I'm angry at the movie because it co-opts my own analysis of "Mary Poppins" that it's not about the children, it's about their father. Mr. Banks was the one Mary Poppins came to help. He's the only character who grew and changed. I always considered this a nice example of how the movie works on two levels: children identify with Jane and Michael, while anyone old enough to feel the weight of responsibility and regret identifies with Mr. Banks.

One of these characters survived a crisis during the course of the story. Hint: it's the one with the messed up collar and a hole punched through his hat.

I was always proud of this insight and now resent that it's become the main plot point of a major motion picture. Because that makes me less special.

As a Disneylandphile, I paid close attention to the scenes set in the original Magic Kingdom. The movie obviously shot at the actual location, but efforts to rewind the clock to show Disneyland as it was 50 years ago were mixed.

The movie smartly kept most of the action at the front gate and Main Street, which have changed the least. No set dressing could cover the brick entrance plaza that replaced the original bare concrete, but the filmmakers chose camera angles that hid recent radical renovations outside the park gates. The architecture of Main Street is basically unchanged, and a few vintage signs convincingly took us back in time.

In one long shot down Main Street I'm pretty sure I spied the "Partners" statue, a memorial to Walt Disney that wasn't installed until 1993. How odd to see Tom Hanks portraying the dead guy down at the end of the block. It's a split-second glimpse, but one that could've/should've been erased with a bit of post-production magic.

Shouldn't have been there.

Fantasyland, where the movie shows Disney and Travers taking a merry-go-round ride, presented a real problem. The entire area was completely renovated in 1983. Except for the back of the castle, none of it looks like it did in the 1960s. The filmmakers wisely focused on Hanks and Emma Thompson on the King Arthur Carrousel while shooting the background as an unfocused blur. Given what they had to work with, I thought that was a good, unobtrusive solution.

As a child, I loved the "Mary Poppins" movie. In fact, it may have been the first movie I ever saw. We had the soundtrack record (pretty sure I still have it out in the garage) and played it again and again. "Saving Mr. Banks" does provide a sense of its behind-the-scenes creation, vetted and vouched for by songwriter Richard Sherman, who was portrayed in the movie by Jason Schwartzman and spent many days on the set (here's a nice interview with Schwartzman in which he talks about working with Sherman and taking great pains to learn his piano-playing style).

That's seductive, seeing how something you love got made, particularly in an era you have tremendous nostalgia for. I left the theater feeling as warm and fuzzy as if I'd just spent a couple of hours with TV's Uncle Walt. But Tom Hanks isn't TV Walt, and TV Walt wasn't real-life Walt. The more I mull on it, the more I think "Saving Mr. Banks" overreached, and its shortcomings outweighed its considerable charms.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Hints from BrianFies*

A professional events vendor--someone who sets up venues for dances, proms, parties, and all sorts of fol-de-rol--taught me this: to prevent your Christmas lights from tangling up, roll them into a ball. Start on the non-plug end and roll the cord around your fingers, then extract your hand and continue until you've got a tightly packed sphere. Leave the plug dangling, and the next time you use the lights you can plug in the string and unreel it across the room.

No tangles, compact storage, works like a charm. Try it this year, thank me next.

*Today's title is meant to invoke and rhyme with the old "Hints from Heloise" newspaper column. Then it occurred to me that it's possible nobody remembers dear old Heloise's homemaking tips and advice. That would make me sad.

By the way, I'm still posting my webcomic, the Last Mechanical Monster, twice a week. You'd better check it out! That would make me happy. Consider it compensation for forgetting Heloise.