Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Mom's Cancer Plus a Decade

This may make some of you feel old.

In the early Internet days, people with common interests could congregate via an Internet system called Usenet. Similar to Web bulletin boards or forums, Usenet groups were set up with names such as rec.arts.comics.strips (RACS) so folks who loved, say, comic strips could get together and talk about them. Usenet groups still exist, though many have been overrun by zealots and spam, and many of their users have migrated to other watering holes. RACS is one of a few I know that remains respectably active.

Exactly 10 years ago today, April 30, 2004, I posted the following on RACS:

For Your Consideration Please: A Comic Strip About Cancer

My mother was diagnosed with incurable lung cancer. I made a comic strip about it. is a work in progress. It is my magnum opus, my "Citizen Kane," the project I may have been born to do. While it is not finished, I feel it is at a point where it would benefit from some constructive criticism.

I would appreciate your visits and opinions. I made my first post to RACS in 1999 after lurking for a couple of years, and have been a constructive (though not always frequent) contributor since. I've never asked for anything before and am considerably nervous about do so now; I cannot imagine a more informed or difficult audience to please. Negative opinions will mean as much to me as positive. I've been working for months with y'all in mind. This means a lot to me.

Thanks, gang. As I add chapters in the coming months, I'm sure I will appeal to you again. If you like it, tell a friend.

* * *

Reading that now, I'm embarrassed by both its earnestness and conceit. "Magnum opus" indeed! But that debut changed my life and my family's lives. I serialized Mom's Cancer online because it was free and I didn't know what else to do with it; I mentioned it on RACS because I didn't know how else to get the word out. That one Usenet post was ALL the marketing I ever did. The response was more than I could have anticipated or dreamed. Like the old shampoo commercial said, I told two friends and they told two friends and they told two friends . . . and within a few months it went viral.

Page 1. "How to Diagnose Lung Cancer, Step One." 

Because of RACS, Mom's Cancer later won awards, found a publisher, and gave me a semi-pro career in comics I continue to enjoy. Most important to me, because of RACS my mother got fan mail (!), made pen pals, and I think found some purpose in fighting the disease that eventually killed her in October 2005. Few things made Mom happier than a stranger telling her they'd quit smoking because they'd read her story.

A 10-year update: My sisters still live together in the Los Angeles area, though they long ago sold the Hollywood home they bought with Mom. "Nurse Sis" Brenda remains a nurse, supervising at a major university hospital. "Kid Sis" Elisabeth continues to pursue her passion as an independent filmmaker. My sisters often collaborate to write, produce, and direct their own screenplays and short films that have earned festival accolades.

Nurse Sis and Kid Sis in action.

I get on pretty well with my Dad, which may be surprising because I gave him a hard shot in my book. Aside from my mother's, his was the reaction I feared most, but he couldn't have been cooler about it, saying "You have to tell your story your way." Years after I wrote Mom's Cancer, my family and I actually visited his former-hippy-commune spiritual retreat in the mountains of New Mexico. It was nothing like I drew it.

Mom's dog Hero is still alive and yapping happily with my sisters.

Eight years after its initial publication--after being the first project editor Charlie Kochman plucked from the slush pile to start Abrams Books' new comics line--Mom's Cancer remains in print and sells a few hundred copies a year.

I dream of Mom often. When I do, my dreams are mostly happy ones.

I'm giving a brief talk at an upcoming Comics & Medicine Conference in Baltimore in which I plan to touch on what these 10 years have meant to me. Lessons learned. The fine line I don't want to cross is coming off self-congratulatory, because that's not the point. Rather, through Mom's Cancer I've been privileged to meet some amazing people and, without being presumptuous, to feel like my book spoke for some of them. I've been part of the early days of the growing field of Graphic Medicine, where physicians and teachers such as my friends Ian Williams, Michael Green and MK Czerwiec incorporate comics into patient care and medical school curricula (!). I made other friends around the world, both through Mom's Cancer and my second book, Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow (which, it goes without saying, wouldn't have happened without Mom's Cancer), as well as my new webcomic.

Whatever I wanted and expected when I wrote that Usenet post 10 years ago, I never could have anticipated the most gratifying result: the people I met, the friends I made, and the communities I was welcomed into.

In a recent interview, I said: "I know why Mom's Cancer got the attention it did. I also know I'll probably never create anything with the same raw passion, intensity or honesty. It was special. If I live to be 100 and write 30 more books, the one that leads my obit will be Mom's Cancer. And I'm proud, grateful, and satisfied with that."


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

I Am a Fangirl

Comics has a female problem. Girls and women don’t always feel welcome. They bring uninvited baggage, like feelings and opinions. They create and buy the types of stories they want to read. Even worse, sometimes they create and buy ours. Giggling, squealing fangirls have invaded the clubhouse, and some of us boys don't like it.

A recent flare-up ignited when writer, editor and critic Janelle Asselin wrote a piece analyzing the cover of a “Teen Titans” comic book. Among other artistic and thematic criticisms, she noted the unnaturally large and bulbous breasts of the teen character Wonder Girl. Expressing that opinion brought her a deluge of anonymous mockery, intimidation, rape threats and death threats, which resulted in a backlash of reflection, accusation and condemnation (as from Andy Khouri and Heidi MacDonald). 

Just to be clear: we’re talking about telling a stranger she deserves to be raped and killed . . .

. . . because she didn't like the cover of a “Teen Titans” comic book.

Back in February, cartoonist Noelle Stevenson drew a comic about visiting a local comic book shop to support her friends’ work and being mocked by staff who asked if she wanted to buy a “My Little Pony” book while she was at it. Stevenson is one of the hottest talents in comics right now, and her webcomic “Nimona” is a regular stop of mine. She creates the content that keeps those jerks’ shop in business, yet they humiliated her and chased her out the door.

How bad a businessperson are you when you antagonize the source of your product and half your potential patrons (not to mention getting stuck with a pile of “My Little Pony” comics you’ll never sell)? Those people aren’t girls with cooties, you imbeciles; they’re customers with cash.

Last December, writer and TV producer Paul Dini explained that DC’s “Young Justice” cartoon was canceled because it was popular with girls. Turns out the network executives don’t want girls watching superhero cartoons because they believe boys buy more toys. By the way, anybody seen any sales figures for “Frozen” merchandise lately?

What the hell is wrong with people? What the hell is wrong with people in comics?

It’s all been echoing around the Web for a while and I didn’t say anything because the difference between right and wrong seemed obvious and I had nothing interesting to add. There are immature maladjusted asses in every group, their cruelty sharpened by the anonymity of the Internet, and maybe guys reading “Teen Titans” comics in their thirties and forties have more than their fair share. Then yesterday I came across a post by Allison Baker of Comic Book Resources inspired by this t-shirt she found at the just-done WonderCon in Anaheim:

"I like Fangirls how I like my coffee. I HATE coffee."

Now you just made it personal, pardner.

I have two daughters who’d probably fit some guys’ definition of “fangirls.” Long-time readers know their names but I won’t mention them here because they don't want professional contacts googling up their personal interests, and I respect that. They came to fandom through anime, manga and video games, and love the Marvel movies. They’re writer/artists who’ve won prizes for their manga (with no help from Dad). They sell homemade crafts, sewing, and pinback buttons at conventions. They cosplay. They and a group of their friends do skits.

Some cosplayers I've captured at past Comic-Cons (that's me with the Klingons). "Cosplay" is coined from "costume play" and can be simple or elaborate, inexpensive or extravagant. The overwhelming majority of cosplayers do it in a spirit of good Halloween-style fun, though a few do get uncomfortably committed to their characters.

I may have had something to do with their interest. In addition to being a semi-pro cartoonist, I’ve been a comics fan as long as I can remember. I discovered “The Avengers” when I was 12, and began collecting new issues and buying back issues until I had every book from the original series’ 400-odd-issue run. Forty years later I’m a father, my daughters and I can go see a terrific “Captain America” movie, and I can pull a copy of “Avengers #4” from a box in my closet and show them how Stan Lee and Jack Kirby defrosted Steve Rogers in 1964. And then I can tell them the ridiculous part of the story that nobody remembers--how Cap saved the Avengers from an asparagus-headed alien who turned them all to stone, and how years later, in a nod to old fans, John Byrne destroyed the entire planet of the asparagus-headed people during the X-Men’s Dark Phoenix Saga.

That’s how big a nerd I am.

Do you understand what a neat thrill it is to share something like that with your kids? How much fun I had helping them design a booth or build an Iron Man arc reactor? Their Avengers aren’t my Avengers, but it’s all the same thing. Can’t everyone see that it’s all the same wonderful four-colored pulp-papered globe-spanning multi-generational star-spangled thing?

My daughters approach fandom constructively, creatively, in a spirit of community and fun. They write, draw, sew, build, perform, and sell enough at cons to pay for their table. It would break my heart to have anybody scoff at them, question their passion or commitment, or accuse them of being less of a fan because they express it differently. More than that, it would enrage me.

I’m not nerd royalty. However, I’ve published two graphic novels, won some industry awards including an Eisner and Harvey, and am nominated for a webcomic Eisner this year. I’m at least nerd-royalty-adjacent. I may be a nerd-duke or nerd-earl. That and a quarter will buy me a gumball, but I’m establishing my bona fides so I can proclaim by the non-existent powers vested in me: my daughters are better, more authentic fans than the fangirl-hating asses. The haters may know more trivia, but at least my girls paid attention when their fictional heroes championed honor, decency, courage and compassion. What are these stories about if not that? 

How could you claim to be a true comics fan without some of that rubbing off? 

What are you so afraid of?
EDITED TO ADD: In the comments Walter cited this video, which is as on-point as it could be. The issue's been around a while and can't go away soon enough. There's no club, no selection committee, no secret handshake or by-laws. To paraphrase Vonnegut, you've just got to be kind. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Mr. Comics Smarty-Pants

My cartoonist pal Mike Lynch drew a comic that must be shared. Some background:

In a blog post a few days ago, Mike wrote about a grocery store he frequents that has a quote by "Pogo" cartoonist Walt Kelly painted on a wall ("Food for thought is no substitute for the real thing"). When Mike asked the clerks who Walt Kelly was, none of them knew. He enlightened them. In the comments of that post, I imagined what those clerks might say to each other when they see Mike heading their way.

Today he turned my comment into a comic.

This is great, unexpected fun for me. As I told Mike, it's the perfect capper to a week that's already been unusually good. With Mike's permission, I'm proud to present our first collaboration: "Mr. Comics Smarty-Pants" with words by Fies and art by Lynch. I wonder if this is how Lee & Kirby or Siegel & Shuster got their starts.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Eisner Nominees are Announced

And darned if I'm not one of them.

My webcomic, The Last Mechanical Monster, has been nominated for the comics industry's Oscar, the Eisner Award. My category is Best Digital/Webcomic.

I have many strong simultaneous feelings about that, primarily gratitude. I'll sort out the rest and I'm sure have more to say later.

As I have in the past, I plan to keep my opinions of the other nominees and predictions of who I think will win to myself, at least until voting is over. That just seems like the high road. However, I want to mention a few details that leaped out at me:

Frank Cammuso's Otto's Backwards Day is up for Best Publication for Early Readers. I haven't seen the book but met Frank at my very first trip to the San Diego Comic-Con and the Eisner Awards in July 2005. He does first-rate work and, more important, he's one of the really good guys, so I was very happy to see him earn this recognition.

I was even more thrilled for Jason Walz, whose Homesick is nominated for Best Graphic Album-New. Jason contacted me before Homesick was published because it touches on some of the same themes as Mom's Cancer, and I gave him the best advice I had. I think his book is terrific and we've kept in touch. Homesick is Jason's first graphic novel; I don't have to work too hard to imagine the mix of shock and pride that comes with getting an Eisner nod for a debut work.

I met Sheila Keenan when she was an editor at my publisher Abrams. Now she and Nathan Fox have written Dogs of War, which is up for Best Publication for Teens. I honestly haven't seen the whole book but the excerpts and reviews have been wonderful, and Sheila deserves the honor. This is also her first graphic novel (she wrote, Fox drew).

Finally, Abrams and Editor Charlie are in the running for Best Publication Design and Best Comics-Related Book for The Art of Rube Goldberg by Jennifer George. It's a beautiful, respectful book highlighted by a paper-engineered cover that brings one of Goldberg's wacky machines to life. A treasure for fans of Goldberg or comics in general.

I hadn't planned to attend the San Diego Comic-Con this year (although I did take the precaution of getting a badge--anybody got a spare couch?). Now I'm rethinking that decision.

As I say, more later. For now, thanks to all.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Darndest Thing

This may be a case of me learning something that everybody else already knows. But if it's news to me, maybe it'll be news to you, too.

Trolling through an antiques store Sunday, I found a book I hadn't seen before that struck me as the perfect synthesis/collision of mid-20th-Century pop media: 1957's Kids Say the Darndest Things by TV and radio personality Art Linkletter, with an introduction by Walt Disney and illustrations by Charles Schulz.

Disney and Schulz in the same book?!

I'm old enough to remember Linkletter, the affable, avuncular personality who made a living interviewing regular folks and wringing hilarious homespun insights and malaprops from them. Beginning in radio with "People Are Funny" in 1943, Linkletter soon found a gold mine in children, spinning the concept of "Kids Say the Darndest Things" into a TV show, a movie, and this first of several bestselling books. It was warm, corny, kind-hearted entertainment that in the '50s and '60s made Linkletter a star.

It's no surprise that Walt Disney introduced Linkletter's book. The men were friends and occasional business partners. Linkletter hosted the televised opening day of Disneyland just two years earlier, and for years Linkletter got a lucrative cut of every Kodak camera and roll of film sold at the Magic Kingdom.

Linklettter and Disney on live TV on Disneyland's
opening day, July 17, 1955.

The wild card is Schulz. Peanuts had debuted in October 1950, so was probably not yet seven years old when Linkletter's book came out in 1957. Schulz also illustrated a sequel in 1961. Peanuts and Schulz weren't yet the phenomenon they would become but were clearly on their way. It seems to me that this project must have hit a real sweet spot in Schulz's career: much earlier and he wouldn't have been high-profile enough to be offered the job; much later and he would have been too big and busy to accept.

By my quick count, Schulz drew about four dozen spot illustrations for the book. His rendering of Linkletter for the dust jacket is about the only time I can recall him ever doing caricature. The charming drawings are mostly direct illustrations of the text. For example, one kid told Linkletter, "I once had a dog, but he got married and moved to Oakland," and Schulz drew this:

A sort-of-Snoopy drives his new bride to the East Bay

More examples, chosen because I found them particularly neat or interesting:

Gregory wanted to sell his sister for half price.
I thought this was a funny physics-defying gag.
This one reminded me of Schulz's first professional sale to the
"Saturday Evening Post," which was a cartoon of a boy sitting on
a chair and ottoman much too large for him.
One of the advantages of a large family is that
"everybody has somebody else they can boss."
This girl wanted to "be King of the United States and have
two special maids: the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus."
A boy with a bad haircut blamed it on his grandpa, who was
a better carpenter than barber.
Familiar . . . very familiar.
Another caricature of Linkletter (holding a microphone), one
of a small number of adults Schulz drew during his career.
I just thought this was a neat graphic.
Some of the neurosis and angst Schulz was known for
are on display here.
I found this smart and kind of weird, with the fish jumping
up and out at right angles.

I've seen examples of Schulz's early magazine cartoons and his short-lived sports-themed comic strip It's Only a Game, but missed this Linkletter work entirely. This link between one of the greatest cartoonists, one of the most successful movie producers, and one of the most beloved media personalities of the 20th Century kind of makes me see all of them in a different light, and finding new Schulz art I never knew existed feels like discovering a lost Beatles song. Best $10 I've spent in a long time.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Modeling a Monster

The six long-time readers of this blog know that I like using and making models for my comics work. In the case of the Art Deco rocket I built for WHTTWOT, I actually managed to infiltrate photos of the model into the book itself. That was a lot of fun.

 For my ongoing webcomic, The Last Mechanical Monster, I likewise built my own Mechanical Monster.

It stands about 17 inches (43 cm) tall and began life as a 4-by-4 and assorted wood scraps in my garage, including a couple of pieces left over from the rocket. It turns at the neck, waist and shoulders, but not at the hips, knees or elbows. Its antennas are toothpicks, its eye a marble, and its claws are molded from Sculpey.

I textured its surface before painting because, in my original abandoned draft, the Last Mechanical Monster had spent some years exposed to the elements, so I wanted its steel surface to show some corrosion. 

It's not a rigidly faithful model. My Robot's neck/collar is too large and thick, its spherical hands are too small, the shoulders are all wrong--limitations imposed by the materials available and my limited time and skill. Yet it still serves an important function as a handy reference, especially for proportion. Its hips are as broad as its shoulders, its elbows fall at the waist, its hands reach nearly to its knees. I don't really pose and copy it, but while I draw I can glance up and make sure I'm still, as the cartoonists and animators say, "on model."

As I work on The Last Mechanical Monster, I reap the benefits of the original Fleischer animators' excellent design work. For the most part the Robot is dead easy to draw--all rectangles and cylinders--as you'd expect for a character intended to be hand-drawn on hundreds of animation cels for a cartoon. Sometimes I get a sense of communicating with them through the decades, like "I see what you guys did there, very clever!" 

One of my challenges in drawing the Robot is resisting the urge to make it too big. The shorthand description of the Fleischer cartoon is "Superman fights giant robots." Even the "Superman Wiki" entry lists their height as 30 feet. But they're not really that giant. The Fleischer cartoon is inconsistent, but I based my estimate of the Robots' size on two data points: Superman flat-footed (not jumping or flying) punches them in the chest, and Lois Lane climbs into one's cargo hold by standing on a chair.

Exhibits A and B, your honor.

Making some assumptions about Superman's and Lois's heights, I figured the Mechanical Monsters couldn't have been more than 11 or 12 feet tall, max. In my webcomic I've gone to some effort to establish that scale. For example, when the Robot and Inventor stand side by side, the Inventor comes up to about the Robot's hip. I've shown the Inventor sitting on the Robot's head like a stool. Still, if I'm not attentive, I'll invariably draw the Robot larger than it ought to be. The model helps me keep that straight, too.

"Getting it right" is a slippery business in a comic fantasy adventure, especially when the source material itself wasn't a slave to consistency. I don't know if I put more or less effort into it than another writer/cartoonist would, but this is the kind of detail I have to work out for myself before I can play in this world. Building a model makes it a bit more real for me.

I recently saw this old-style Superman doll in the store
and couldn't pass it up even though the scale is all wrong.
Now that's a giant robot!
Plus it looks really cool sitting atop my desk next to the rocket ship.