Thursday, December 24, 2015

Nora's Freezin' On The Trolley

Here's a morsel of whimsy that's become a Christmas tradition around these parts. Sing along; you know the tune (I'm not sure about all the scat singing in the middle, but it's the best version I found). All my best wishes to y'all.

Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash., an' Kalamazoo!
Nora's freezin' on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!

Don't we know archaic barrel,
Lullaby Lilla boy, Louisville Lou?

Trolley Molly don't love Harold,
Boola boola Pensacoola hullabaloo!

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!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Book Mapping

"The dirty secret of comics is that a lot of it involves copy fitting."--Justin Green

Book maps are on my mind these days. They're production tools that publishers, and some authors, use when plotting out how a book will go together. Maybe you could adapt the idea to your own projects.

As with all my process posts, this is only one way to make the sausage. It's not the only or best way; it's just mine.

You'd think the graphic novelist's responsibility would be writing the words, drawing the pictures, and telling the best story they could. But in fact, the form shapes the content (only in print; online, none of these rules apply, which is one of the liberating things about it). Other things the graphic novelist needs to consider:

--Chapters should begin on right (odd-numbered) pages and end on left (even-numbered) pages, which means all chapters have an even number of pages.

--Two-page spreads need to span an even- and odd-numbered pair of pages.

--The number of pages in a book should ideally be divisible by 16, or at least 8, because those are the number of pages in a signature or half-signature (a "signature" being a bundle of sheets of paper used in the book-binding process). Mom's Cancer is 128 pages (16 x 8); Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow is 208 pages (16 x 13). The page count of any book you've ever read is some multiple of 4 because that's how they're made.

Mom's Cancer was a publishing production challenge because I created it as a webcomic with no regard for any of this stuff. Different pages are in black-and-white (b&w) or color depending on whether I thought it was right for the story. However, for print, it would have been really nice if the b&w and color portions had broken down neatly into signatures or half-signatures--for example, if the first 8 pages were color, the next 16 were b&w, the following 16 were color, etc. Being able to print a signature in b&w instead of full color drops its printing costs by about three-fourths. That's why, in a lot of books, you'll see a bunch of color illustrations all gathered together in the middle while the rest of the book is b&w. Those color pages are their own signature printed separately from the others. Spreading them throughout the book would have cost a lot more money.

Editor Charlie and I wrestled with recoloring or reorganizing Mom's Cancer to make the signatures work out. We couldn't; my use of color was too scattered and integral to the storytelling. Charlie finally made the tough, expensive call to print the whole book in full color even though most of it was b&w! He could have insisted that Mom's Cancer be entirely b&w and I probably would have agreed, but he was a mensch who did the right thing and that's one of the reasons I love him.

World of Tomorrow was a different challenge. If you've read it, you'll recall that I created fake "old comic books" inserted into the book to show the comics my character Buddy read in different decades. They were printed on different paper stock (the cheapest pulp we could find) than the rest of the book. Three of the inserts were 8 pages and one was 16 pages, and now you know why.

In addition to being half or full signatures themselves, they had to fall between other signatures. That meant that, for example, the first fake comic book had to follow Page 32 (16 x 2). No matter what else was happening in the story, the action had to break on Page 32.

That's hard to keep track of. You'd almost need some sort of  . . . map.

Here's what my book map looked like. In addition to tallying signatures and page counts, I also used it to manage my work flow.

My book map in an Excel spreadsheet. The left column is the signature count, where I kept track of  how many pages were in each half- or full-signature. The colored bars indicate chapters: blue is the front matter, orange/tan is Chapter 1, yellow is the first fake comic book insert (note that it follows Page 32, after which I restarted my signature count), followed by the remainder of Chapter 1 then the beginning of Chapter 2 in gray. Other columns provided a brief description to remind me what's on the page and check boxes to track my progress on each page. The final four columns tell me which pages I assigned to my Photoshop coloring assistants.

At the same time, unknown to me, Editor Charlie had made his own book map. It's laid out differently to give him information he needs, and it's interesting to compare and contrast.

Charlie's book map, also in Excel. The gray pages are front matter, followed by Chapter 1 in yellow, the comic book insert in orange, and Chapter 2 in blue. Again, notice that the orange insert falls after Page 32. One nice feature of Charlie's map is it clearly shows Chapters 1 and 2 beginning on right-hand pages (pp. 7 and 47). Charlie also called out the front and back covers of the fake comic book (pp. 31, 32, 41, 42) but, in fact, they were printed on the same paper as the signatures before and after the inserts so no special attention was required. 

I think book maps are particularly useful for graphic novelists because each page is a discrete unit that has to fit with all the others. In a regular text novel, a writer or editor can add or subtract words, paragraphs or even chapters without doing much damage; in a graphic novel, adding or deleting one page tips over a chain of dominoes that clatters through the entire book.

Book maps are on my mind because I'm making a new one for a new book I'm not talking about until contracts are signed. If all goes as planned, it'll be full color throughout (so that won't be a problem) and will also have a few "special features" that'll need to go between signatures. With a first draft almost done, it's time to see how it fits into the mold while it's still flexible enough to reshape.

. . .

Cartoonist Justin Green delivered the quip at the top of this post during his lecture at the 2015 Comics & Medicine Conference in Riverside, Calif. I think I was the only person in the audience who guffawed because I found it very funny and true.

Readers think writers and artists draw their words and images from the deepest wells of artistic self-expression. Well . . . ideally. But, at least in comics, more often than you'd think, I replace one word with another just because I'm out of space and it's shorter. I'll add or delete panels so the next chapter begins on an odd-numbered page. I'll tear up a story and reorganize it to put a signature break where I need it. Sometimes all you're trying to do is make the copy fit.

There's a nuts-and-bolts craftsmanship to publishing that I imagine some creators find frustrating but I really enjoy. It's like haiku: do whatever you want as long as it fits the structure. I like the constraints, especially the part where if you handle them right the reader never realizes they were there.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Steely-Eyed Missile Men

Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon and Alan Bean, the crew of Apollo 12

Tomorrow, November 14, is "SCE to AUX Day," one of the obscurer high holidays on the Space Age geek calendar. It's a reminder of how close the nation once came to disaster, and how one quick-witted person saved the day.

On November 14, 1969, Apollo 12 blasted off for the Moon in cloudy, crummy weather. Half a minute after liftoff it was struck by a bolt of lightning that fried every control in the command module and followed the ship's exhaust trail all the way to ground. This four-minute video tells the story. Short version: if not for the deep knowledge and calm decision-making of flight controller John Aaron, who remembered seeing a similar situation during a training simulation and told the astronauts to flip one switch--"Try SCE (Signal Conditioning Electronics) to AUX (Auxiliary)"--the mission would have been aborted, the rocket destroyed, and the astronauts possibly killed. No one else, including the astronauts, had the faintest idea what "SCE to AUX" meant, but they flipped the switch and their instruments came back on. Apollo 12 was saved.

Aaron's cool action under extreme pressure earned him the supreme NASA compliment of "steely-eyed missile man," a phrase I was delighted to hear used in "The Martian" movie.

The more dramatic perils of Apollo 13 are better-known, and rightly so, but Apollo 12's situation was just as dire. "SCE to AUX" is a reminder of just how dangerous those missions were, how thin the margins for error, and what a huge difference it made having the right smart people in the right place at the right time--and then trusting them when they told you to try something that wasn't in the manual.

Both Apollos 12 and 13 could have easily ended tragically. Apollo astronauts have since admitted they figured their chances of completing a successful mission and returning in one piece were 50-50. The fact that six missions landed on the Moon and returned their crews home is an astonishing triumph against great odds and a testament to tremendous courage (you'll recall that the astronauts of Apollo 13 didn't land on the Moon but successfully limped back to Earth, which has to count as a triumph, too).

A couple of years ago I had a chance to meet Apollo 12 Command Module Pilot Dick Gordon. Before the event, I asked the biggest space geek I know, my pal Jim O'Kane (whose Bureau of Astonishing Explanations has a library of wonderful short videos on a wealth of space topics and trivia, check it out), what he'd ask Gordon if he had the chance.

Ever since Apollo 12's liftoff, there's been a question/controversy about the presence of President Richard Nixon at the launch. Some think that the liftoff went ahead despite bad weather because Nixon had come to watch it, and nobody had the guts to scrub the launch and send the president home empty-handed. That was my question: did Gordon think Nixon's presence put any pressure on NASA to launch when maybe they shouldn't have?

Gordon shut me down before I had the question half out of my mouth.

"No," he said sharply. "Nobody at NASA would have done that. That wasn't the way we operated in those days."

Gordon seemed a little insulted. Nice job, Jim, you made me piss off an Apollo astronaut. I was also pretty sure that, at the age of 84, Gordon could have still kicked my ass if he'd wanted to.

Still, he was nice enough to autograph a Command Module model I'd brought for the occasion, and we had a nice conversation over a pizza afterward, so I think I was forgiven.

I also gave him a copy of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow.
When he asked "What's it about?" I answered, "Well, you're in it."

The further the Wild West frontier days of spaceflight fade into history, the more astonishing their accomplishments become. The hardware of the era looks more and more primitive. It's all chicken wire and rudimentary computers slower and stupider than those in a modern baby's toy. I can't help but recall Princess Leia's first impression of the Millennium Falcon: "You came in that thing? You're braver than I thought." After all, the Apollo 12 mission is closer in time to Lindbergh's flight in 1927 than it is to us.

"SCE to AUX" shows that it's not hardware and software that make the difference between great success and failure. Not entirely, anyway. The most vital, indispensable resource is people, such as John Aaron, who are so well-prepared that they know what to do when something they haven't prepared for inevitably happens. We can update the equipment all we want but we'll always need steely-eyed missile men.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Peanuts at 65

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy invited a group of Nobel Prize winners to dinner and joked, "This is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

I thought of that Saturday while sitting with 20 or so cartoonists helping the Charles M. Schulz Museum pay tribute to the 65th anniversary of "Peanuts." There was an extraordinary amount of talent in the building, which all together might have added up to a bit less than one Charles Schulz. The only problem with appropriating the JFK quote is that Schulz never set foot in his museum, which was built after he died. But he worked at the studio next door, and ate and played at the ice arena across the street, so I say close enough.

My full day at the museum started early, leading a three-hour workshop for Girl Scouts earning their Comic Artist merit badges. I've done a few of these and they're always fun. We make improvisational jam comics as a group, and I talk about the history and conventions of the art form. To earn their badges the girls have to complete a four-panel comic strip applying what they've learned. My wife Karen, who has 20 years' experience in Scouting, is my indispensable girl wrangler. She took most of the photos.

Me during a "blah blah" lecture part, which I try to keep short. We had 24 Scouts in this workshop.
After the participants make their comics, I ask for volunteers to share theirs with the group using the camera in my laptop to show them on the monitor. 

I liked this strip about a scarecrow who does its job too well. It's like a little poem.

The workshop went from 10 to 1 o'clock, so I missed the Sketch-A-Thon's kick-off event: a panel discussion of Peanuts' legacy in the museum's theater that began at 1 (by the time I got cleaned up and downstairs, the theater was full). I heard it went well. Instead, I set up for the Sketch-A-Thon itself, which went from 2 to 4. My daughter Robin surprised me with a visit (Laura had to work and couldn't make it) and was a big help managing my table.

Some of the names I'm about to drop may not be familiar, but they represent a diverse group of comics creators, many of them working at a very high and successful level.

The Museum's Great Hall. Cartoonists were seated at these zig-zag tables. I'm at center in the red plaid shirt. My friend Gabby Gamboa is watercoloring to my right. Directly in front of me (with the hat and pony tail) is the great "Astro City" artist Brent Anderson. I always enjoy talking to Brent's wife Shirley.

Gabby, me and Brent.
Lex Fajardo ("Kid Beowulf" and Schulz studio), Art Roche (Schulz studio), Eisner winner Shannon Watters ("Lumberjanes") and others held down the back wall.

Paige Braddock (Schulz studio, "Jane's World," "Stinky Cecil"), Frank Cammuso ("Salem Hyde"), Raina Telgemeier (half the New York Times bestseller list), and Terry Moore ("Strangers in Paradise," "Echo") were seated near the front so they could all sign the 65th Anniversary Tribute book they contributed to. Comic book artist Paul Pope ("Batman," "Battling Boy," many others) was usually at the far end of this table but somehow missed this pic.
Frank and Raina indulged me for this photo, which I really wanted to take because I met them a decade ago when we were all seated at the same table for the 2005 Eisner Awards (where "Mom's Cancer" won). This was a meaningful reunion for me.
My daughter Robin and I met Shannon Watters and talked about the production of "Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow," which Robin helped color.
What made this a "Sketch-A-Thon" is that, in addition to talking to folks and selling our books and whatnot, everyone was supposed to draw some sort of tribute to "Peanuts." Here I am working on mine. Brian Kolm from Atomic Bear Press is in the red shirt behind me.
My tribute sketch. I actually had to bring it home to finish it, which gave me a chance to scan it, too. (The steps at upper left are from the very first "Peanuts" strip on Oct. 2, 1950.) If it feels a little melancholy, that's OK. So was "Peanuts."

After the Sketch-A-Thon we all walked over to the studio, where the museum folks had generously parked a fine food truck to feed us.

With Terry Moore in Schulz's studio. Notice the smattering of Eisner and other awards on the shelf behind us. These must be the ones that didn't fit into the museum, stuffed as it is with Emmy Awards and all.
Another angle on the studio: Karen and I talking with Terry Moore and his wife Robyn, who I'm pretty sure are two of the nicest people in comics. Photo by (my) Robin.
Scrutinizing Schulz's drawing board with comic book artist Paul Pope. I was pointing out that if you look at just the right angle, you can see Schulz's handwriting from his pen nib pressing through the paper into the wood. Photo by Robin.

I've been in Mr. Schulz's studio with other cartoonists a couple of times, and many of them do the same thing I did the first time. They eye the board and the chair. Then they look around. They really want to sit down at the board but they're afraid to. Somebody says, "Sure, go ahead!" so they reluctantly sit. Then a little electric shiver goes through them, as if they feel Schulz's aura emanating from the wood. If there's magic in the world, that's it.

Dinner is almost served.
Tacos with Jonathan Lemon, Lucas Turnbloom, Lex Fajardo, Stephan Pastis (who didn't do the
Sketch-A-Thon but just sort of shows up for free food), me and my daughter Robin.
I met Judd Winick! I told him about graphic medicine and our international conferences, where his "Pedro and Me" is frequently cited as an important early AIDS graphic narrative. He seemed intrigued.
Talking about large-format scanners with Raina and Pastis. I don't know why Stephan's wearing a Stanford cap, he's a UC Berkeley grad who hates those guys.

Rocking the plaid with Lucas Turnbloom, who's illustrating a new book series called "Dream Jumper" for Scholastic, written with "Heroes" actor Greg Grunberg. 

This was a long, very nice day for me. I reconnected with some friends who don't normally come out this way, made a couple of new ones, sold a few books, taught 24 Girl Scouts how to make comics, and ate a pretty darn good taco combo plate. I need to mention cartoonist Shaenon Garrity and Cartoon Art Museum curator Andrew Farago, who did me the honor of asking me to draw a picture in a sketchbook they're compiling for their little boy Robin, who gives good high-fives. I didn't get any photos but it was terrific to see them.

Also great to see my unphotographed pal Justin Thompson (Schulz studio and the comic "Mythtickle"); ray of sunshine Rosie McDaniel; the museum's Education Director Jessica Ruskin, who took care of everything and everyone all day; plus lots of other people, including a few personal friends who stopped by.

I'm already looking forward to Peanuts' 70th.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Great Minds

An Internet friend brought to my attention a new graphic novel being published in the U.K. titled The Inflatable Woman, in which cartoonist Rachael Ball writes about cancer. It sounds like it's a work of fiction based on Ball's own experience with breast cancer. The cover looks like this:

My friend thought I'd be interested because in Mom's Cancer, my graphic novel about my mother's experience with lung cancer, I drew two pages that looked like this:

So there you go.

For the record, and to put my friend's mind at ease, I've got no problem with that.

I don't know Ball and don't know if she read Mom's Cancer. I doubt it. I think she probably stumbled onto the same "Operation" metaphor I did. It's a good one! The identical red and gold color palette is easily explained: those are the colors of the game.

One thing I've learned over a long time of trying to be a creative person is that ideas--even ideas that seem strange and unique--are surprisingly common. It's what you do with those ideas that distinguishes them.

For example, I had opportunities to pitch story ideas to the producers of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (then later "Deep Space Nine" and "Voyager"). I never sold them anything so the experience was a failure, but I learned a lot. I once got two sentences into a pitch when the story editor stopped me and said, "We started filming that last week." I was flabbergasted: I thought my idea was dazzlingly original. I was flabbergasted again when the episode aired and I saw that he was right. It was my story, including the parts I hadn't had a chance to tell him. If he hadn't stopped me, I'd have been absolutely certain that "Star Trek" had stolen it.

I think there are a lot of creative people nursing grudges against other creators or companies they're certain ripped them off but probably didn't. I know a few of them.

Even if Ball did read Mom's Cancer years ago and consciously or subconsciously filed away the "Operation" metaphor, so what? It's one image among hundreds in both of our books. Her use of it does me no harm. Besides, you can't copyright an idea, only the specific expression of it, and hers is totally different.

Ball doesn't need my blessing but she has it anyway. I'd like to meet her someday because I think we'd have a lot to talk about. I like the look of her cartooning style and wish her all the best with her book.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Has It Really Been Ten Years? No, Really?!

I just realized 20 seconds ago that I've been blogging for a bit over 10 years. I began my previous blog, the "Mom's Cancer Blog," on July 26, 2005 after returning from my first San Diego Comic-Con. That's 1072 posts, not counting this.

A decade ago, in September 2005, I was writing about reviewing printer's proofs, doing spot drawings, and designing endpapers for the book version of Mom's Cancer. That's also the month I received my "Gertie the Dinosaur" animation cel by Winsor McCay, which was my first (and to date only) splurge purchase with my new "cartooning money." Gertie passed her 100th birthday in my care.

Still my pride and joy.

What I didn't blog about was the fact that Mom was miserably ill in Los Angeles and, unknown to us then, living the last of her days. The end was quick--up to a couple of days before, we were planning to take her home from the hospital. She died on October 1.

Ten years is a lot of "blah blah blah" under the bridge. I was a more diligent correspondent then. I used to think I had interesting things to say and some obligation to say them. I felt a responsibility to not somehow disappoint my mostly imaginary readers. Over the decade I've lightened up considerably--some combination of feeling like I've pretty much gotten everything off my chest, having Facebook to express some of the lighter thoughts I once would have turned into posts, and realizing nobody cares. I take the whole thing, and I think myself, less seriously than I used to.

I do like leaving a record, however ephemeral the Web turns out to be. Someone reading my archives would know me much better than people who've been real-life friends for 30 or 40 years. I like having a soapbox, even if I don't feel compelled to step up on it as often. It's there when I need it.

Some old posts still get a lot of hits, particularly those related to the technical side of making comics and publishing books. In general, my "process" posts do well long term. A few folks still look up my tutorial on Photoshopping the four-color dot effect I used in Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow every day.

This kinda thing.

Posts that I work very hard on and expect to raise a big ruckus get nothing, while tossed-off brain farts bring down the roof. Weird posts get hits. A couple of years ago, I wrote about a set of encyclopedias we had when I was a child that had a big influence on me. Every so often, somebody Googles "Richard's Topical Encyclopedia," finds that post, and writes to tell me how much they loved it too. Google also brings migraine sufferers to my post on that topic.

Posts that drew the most comments include that darned encyclopedia article, a quippy piece on writing style and grammar, reflections on a recent birthday, two "ask me anything" Q&As (#1 and #2), and of course my announcement that Mom had passed.

My favorite pieces to write are probably my "on-the-scene" reports. I like sharing something interesting I've seen or done with (ideally) some insight and wit. Brings out the old journalist in me. People who can't get to comics conventions or graphic medicine conferences seem to enjoy my posts on those. Two of my very favorite posts were about time I spent in the orbit of Diary of a Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney, Two Hours in WimpyWorld and its sequel, Nine Hours in WimpyWorld, because being on a bestselling book tour is something most people never experience and I think I captured their strangeness pretty well.

My blogging ebbs and flows. With luck, I'll have some new projects to write about soon, with all new "how to" process posts and on-the-scene reports to come. If you've read some of my posts, thanks for that; if you've read all of them, may God have mercy on your soul.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Opportune Moment

I feel guilty.

Nine years ago, I had a shot at preventing this Donald Trump nonsense and didn't take it. Now it's all my fault.

In October 2006 I attended the Quill Awards at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The Quills were a short-lived attempt to bring glamour and star power to book publishing, with a red carpet gala televised live on one of NBC's higher-numbered cable subsidiaries. Mom's Cancer was nominated for Best Graphic Novel so I flew out to the big city, Editor Charlie and I put on our good duds, and off we went.

Charlie Kochman and me, unusually snazzy.

The ceremony was held in the museum's Milstein Hall, whose signature feature, impossible to miss or ignore, is a full-scale blue whale hanging from the ceiling. Round dining tables covered the floor and ringed the balcony, where we sat, and moody blue lighting gave the effect of being underwater. As comics journalist Heidi MacDonald pointed out, the setting was one supervillain away from being a Batman movie. Specifically, the neon-colored Schumacher one with Clooney. Food was good, wine flowed freely.

My view from the balcony. Did you notice the whale? Beneath its snout are teleprompters.

By the time the TV cameras blinked on and the ceremony began, half the room--including many of the award presenters--was fully toasted. Some slurred and giggled their way through their banter. Actor Judd Hirsch went way off-script (I know because I could read his teleprompter from my seat) to recite a long book passage from memory, then dared anyone in the audience to tell him what it was from since we were all so goddam literary. I was pretty sure it was from Herman Melville's Billy Budd but decided not to leap to my feet and shout it from 50 yards away. However, I've been a big Judd Hirsch fan ever since.

CNN's Anderson Cooper and, I think, Caroline Kennedy handing out something or other.

The problem with the Quill Awards, and one reason I don't think they lasted long (three years; mine was the second) was that, after books were nominated by an expert committee, winners were determined by popular Internet vote. Thus it came to pass that, in a year in which nominees included E.L. Doctorow, Maya Angelou, Joan Didion, Doris Kearns Goodwin and the Dalai Lama, the big Quill Award for Book of the Year went to Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings by Tyler Perry.

Did not repeat at the Pulitzers.

At one point during the long evening, I left Milstein Hall to take a restroom break (I think the underwater lighting had an unintended side-effect). I walked down a very long, very wide, very hard marble staircase. Walking up toward me were Quill Award presenter Donald Trump, his wife Melania, and his TV "Apprentice" flunky George Ross.

Remember George?

Nobody else. No entourage. No security. No witnesses. Just me headed down, and Donald, Melania and George headed up.

I could've done it. I could've even made it look like an accident. A "stumble," a push.

Like the staircase massacre scene in "The Untouchables," but tidier.

Instead I nodded and continued down. I don't remember if Trump acknowledged me but I'd bet not.

I don't want to overstate my importance, but it's possible that was one of the great deflection points in history, when one man made a decision that changed the entire course of civilization. Dare I say: the survival of the world?

Only time will tell whether I chose wisely.

As for the rest of my night at the Quills, I lost to Naruto, Volume 7, and learned an important life lesson: if you're nominated for an award and they seat you in the balcony, you're not winning the award. The sting was significantly lessened when Charlie's friend, book designer/author/editor and inebriated Quill Award presenter Chip Kidd, invited us to his apartment, stripped down to his boxers, and poured sherry that we sipped on his apartment balcony overlooking the breathtaking Manhattan skyline.

Wounded and seeking justice, Charlie and I stole the cheap plaster centerpieces.
I labeled the chimp with Sharpie marker and still have it sitting proudly on my bookshelf.

I am sorry.

[Some of these words and pictures are repeated from a 9-year-old blog post, but I didn't think anybody would mind.]

Monday, July 27, 2015

Gravity: Not Just a Suggestion, It's the Law

Here's how I got into the lucrative museum display game.

In 2012, I built my first interactive display for a museum. My daughter Laura is on the staff of the USS Hornet Aircraft Carrier Museum in Alameda, Calif. That's the ship that picked up Apollos 11 and 12, so they've got some nifty Space Age artifacts. Laura was redoing the ship's Apollo Exhibit, and I got to build a box comparing gravity on Earth to gravity on the Moon (one-sixth as strong) via the highly scientific means of pulling handles that look like Wile E. Coyote TNT plungers.

If you drop by the USS Hornet, be sure to say "Hi" for me.

It turns out that kids love making a lot of noise banging and clanging things. Who knew?

Enter a gentleman named Ken Winans, who serves on the Hornet's board of directors, has one of the largest private collections of space artifacts, and runs a small storefront museum in Novato, Calif., called the Space Station Museum where Laura worked for a while. Ken recently opened a new room nearly filled by a 9/10th-scale replica of a Lunar Module. A few months ago, Ken contacted me and said, "Hey, what would it take for you to build me one of those boxes?" As it turned out, not much.

So three summers after I built my first "Gravity Box" I built my second in my driveway, and immediately hit a snag. My plans and notes from my first box were lousy. My dimensions weren't clear, my diagrams didn't match the photos; hey, I made it up as I went! So the first thing I did was send Laura up to her Apollo Exhibit to measure the prototype for me and reverse-engineer how I put it together in the first place.

After that, it was a breeze.

The basic frame in 2x4s and pressure-treated 4x4s. More 4x4s were added later. Not all of them were needed structurally--some were just to add weight, so that kids yanking the handles wouldn't nudge it across the floor.

A peek at the guts. The steel pipes of the handles themselves weigh 4 pounds. Add 20 pounds of weight to one of them, and it weighs 24 pounds--six times as much as the other, exactly the difference between Moon gravity and Earth gravity. The pipes pass through holes drilled through two 4x4s. That extra hole at upper left is what we in the museum display racket call "a value-added accessory."  Sounds better than "a mistake."
The cabinet is medium-density fiberboard (MDF), which I like for its smoothness and strength. It's also heavy.
Painting. I offered to make it any color Ken wanted, but he wanted to stick with Hornet Navy Blue.
Gluing on the information panel. This is a poster I designed and had printed by VistaPrint. It's on good thick paper, they do quality work.
Here's what the poster looks like. I cut off the bottom part to glue to the front of the box. Notice the lack of units on the weights: doesn't matter if you're talking pounds, kilograms or troy ounces, the ratio is always six to one.
Almost done. The posters are covered by sheets of acrylic, which are designed for easy replacement if somebody scratches them up. I also built a step, half visible to the left.
Dropped off at the Space Station Museum, next to a Saturn V model and a Soyuz control panel. The best part about making this delivery is that, while the Gravity Box was sitting outside on the sidewalk, two boys came up and began playing with it. Success!
Satisfied customer Ken Winans.

This time I took thorough notes and carefully documented every step in photographs, absolutely guaranteeing that nobody will ever ask me to make another one again.

If you'd like to play with an Original Fies Industries Gravity Box™, visit the USS Hornet anytime OR drop by the free Space Station Museum some weekend. In fact, I'd recommend next weekend because Ken is hosting his annual Novato Space Festival on Saturday, August 1, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. You can meet astronauts and NASA scientists there, and see all kinds of cool stuff. Did I say FREE?! 

This was a fun project.

Monday, July 20, 2015

2015 Comics & Medicine Conference

I'm home from three days at the sixth international Comics & Medicine Conference hosted by the University of California, Riverside in southern California.

Friends, family, and long-time readers know I go way back with these conferences--in fact, back to the very first one held in London in 2010. I helped organize a couple of them before bowing out to let more capable hands do a better job of it. I've been to all but one (missed the one in Brighton, England in 2013), giving talks and workshops, sitting in on other people's talks and workshops, and hanging out with people who've become good friends.

On its face, comics + medicine is an odd combination. In practice, it works. Patients make comics about being patients, doctors and nurses make comics about being doctors and nurses. Comics are used to teach kids how to use inhalers, to encourage Australian aborigines to use public health clinics, and to get informed consent from children for medical procedures. They're used to tell stories, express anxiety, provide therapy, teach empathy, give instruction and reach audiences that words alone might not reach. Graphic medicine has been written up in medical journals and the New York Times.

In addition to tons of graphic novels that touch on medical topics (mine, Epileptic, Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person, Pedro & Me, Special Exits, Hyperbole and a Half, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Tangles, Marbles, Psychiatric Tales, The Bad Doctor, and many many more), people find a hundred fascinating ways to work comics into healthcare themes or practice. Professors, students, doctors, nurses, writers, artists, cartoonists and others get together at these graphic medicine conferences to compare notes. We've got medical illustrators and disability activists, Yanks and Brits and Aussies and Canucks and more. It's a big tent.

UC Riverside professor Juliet McMullin took on this year's conference and did a great job. She's the best, and I've never seen a prof with more devoted students and grad students. When I wavered on attending this year's conference, she convinced me to come. Made me an offer I couldn't refuse. She was right and I was wrong and I'm glad she did.

Photo essay, interspersed with essay essays:

Many attendees stayed at the nearby Mission Inn, a strange and beautiful fever dream of a hotel built by a man with grand ambitions and too much money. It reminds me a bit of Hearst's Castle and the Winchester Mystery House in being a singular product of one person's vision. 
An inner courtyard. Nice place.
The conference was at the Culver arts center, which isn't on the UC Riverside campus itself. It's a graceful space with an artsy rather than an academic feel to it. Breakout sessions were held in theaters and dance studios. In one studio, attendees had to remove their shoes so as not to damage the dancers' wooden floor.
My friends Mita Mahato, associate professor of English at the University of Puget Sound who does beautiful paper-cut art, and MK Czerwiec, who makes comics as "Comic Nurse" and teaches at Northwestern in Chicago. MK hosted the 2011 Chicago conference and is pretty much one of graphic medicine's two spearheads.   

To save time, just assume that every name I mention is preceded by the words "my friend." Please don't infer that if I don't mention your name I hate you. Unless you suspect I do. Your call.

Juliet asked me to kick off the conference Thursday evening with a 15-minute talk on "Graphic Medicine and Community." I interpreted my job as explaining what graphic medicine is about (in fact, I lifted some of the intro above directly from my speech notes) and why we were all there. I hoped to set a tone for the weekend and think I did all right.

Introducing myself at the beginning of my talk, before going on to some big-picture perspective about graphic medicine. This photo was tweeted by Aaron Humphrey. The conference did a neat thing: throughout the day people's tweets about the event were projected onto that wall behind me, providing instant reaction and feedback. The future; go figure. 
After my talk, Mita moderated a panel introducing some of the authors of the Graphic Medicine Manifesto, which sets a benchmark for what this field is about. Left to right are Mita, MK, Susan Squier, Michael Green, Ian Williams (who hosted the first London conference and, with MK, is the the other graphic medicine spearhead), and Scott T. Smith.
Their book.

After their panel, the authors formed a book-signing assembly line.
It felt a bit like being in the presence of the Beatles.
Australian psychiatrist Neil Phillips works in aboriginal public and mental health. The board behind him displays his artwork. Neil draws sketches on his phone, then prints them on good paper and offers then as limited-edition pieces. The conference included a silent auction of artwork, with proceeds going to support the Vesalius Trust for Visual Communication in the Health Sciences, which sponsored two of our keynote speakers. I bid on four of Neil's portraits but was outbid on two.
Mine. I'll be proud to add the comics stylings of Neil Phillips to my studio art wall.

Friday continental breakfast with Ian and MK . . .
. . . followed a few hours later by lunch with keynote speaker and comics great Joyce Farmer. I'll have a lot more to say about Joyce later. Next to Joyce is Juliet McMullin's daughter Sheila, a writer/poet/activist in her own right. Next to Sheila is Steven Keewatin Sanderson, a comics artist and filmmaker who gave another keynote speech.
Laughing with Joyce. Photo by MK Czerwiec.
Justin Green. In 1972, Justin did a book titled Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary about growing up as a teenager with undiagnosed obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Binky Brown is considered not only the first work of graphic medicine but probably the very first autobiographical graphic novel. In our corner of comics, he's a giant. His keynote talk was fascinating, with too much content for the hour he was given. It's hard to describe: someone afterward said it was as if he were sharing his jewel collection, showing us random brilliant bits of iconography, design, typography, craft, and history that had shaped his storytelling sensibility and career. In a meta sense, it was very much a talk about OCD given by a person with OCD. I found it pretty engaging.
On my way back to the Mission Inn at the end of the day, I ran into Justin and his cartoonist wife (and our later keynote speaker) Carol Tyler having dinner in the patio restaurant. I'd never met Justin but knew Carol. 

My Carol Tyler story is worth retelling in larger print. In 2009, Carol and I were both at the Miami Book Fair to introduce new projects (Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow for me) and sign some books. Staying at our same hotel were hundreds of people for some sort of Donald Trump seminar. I think the idea was that they had all invested thousands of dollars to learn the secrets of Trump, which they'd then go out and employ to make their fortunes. Sort of an Amway franchise deal for arrogant dirtbags entrepreneurs. So I'm sitting in the hotel bar enjoying an end-of-day beverage with a couple of writers, surrounded by Trump wannabes in expensive suits and sequined ballgowns, when into the room walks Carol twirling a cheerleader's baton. I fell in love that moment. She's a force of creative light and energy in the world, and truly my favorite person in comics.

Speaking of end-of-day beverages . . . You know that game "one of these things is not like the other?" You might think it's the guy who's not wearing plaid, but no. Three of these guys are British. Two of them are physicians. And one of them's me. With Ian Williams, Andrew Godfrey (who will be organizing the 2016 graphic medicine conference in Scotland), and Jack Bedeman. 
Saturday morning: Juliet and MK in front of the conference site.
First session of the day, I taught a 90-minute workshop on storytelling and making comics. It just seems to me that a conference about comics ought to include actually drawing some comics. We opened with an eight-page jam comic, which is always fun and breaks the ice, then went on to talk about different ways to think about telling stories with words and pictures. Photo tweeted by Juliet McMullin.
I had about 18 people (a few came late or left early), which is a good size. But I want to point out the woman sitting at the second table on the left, wearing the rust-colored blouse. That's Joyce Farmer. Now I'll switch to my large-type voice.

I first met Joyce at the 2012 Comics & Medicine Conference in Toronto, where she was a keynote speaker. Juliet invited her to attend some panels in Riverside as well. Joyce was a lion of the early '70s Underground Comix scene, on a first-name basis with cartoonists like Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman, doing passionate feminist comics in books whose titles I can't print in a family-friendly blog. In 2010 she put out a terrific graphic novel, Special Exits, about losing her parents to Alzheimer's disease. Since Toronto we've corresponded, and it was wonderful to see her in person again.

So I'm teaching this workshop on making comics and Joyce Farmer shows up. As I said to the group, I felt like a high school basketball player trying to teach LeBron James how to do a lay-up. The workshop was supposed to culminate with the participants completing a story, which they'd written and thumbnailed in bits during the course of the workshop, as a finished short comic.

But this was a brand new workshop I'd never test-driven before, and I was running late. I looked at my watch--10 minutes left, not enough time for everyone to draw a comic. So I called an audible, apologized to everyone, and asked Joyce to talk about how she decides what story to tell and how to tell it. Her conclusion, which distilled what I'd been trying to say for 90 minutes: "Your story has to have a point, or there's no point in telling it."

Skip the workshops; that's all you need to know.

Saturday lunch, a small group of us went to a very good Mexican restaurant a couple of blocks away. This is Linda Raphael, who directs the Medical Humanities program at George Washington University. She wanted a light lunch, so she ordered soup. They brought her this. After several minutes of befuddled laughter, she got bowls and shared it with everyone (it was good!). Midway through lunch it began to rain. Luckily, we already had a boat.

After lunch, Carol Tyler gave her keynote speech to conclude the conference. As a cartoonist this was probably my favorite of the weekend, as she talked about both her family--in ways that were sometimes emotionally overwhelming--and her process. The amount of painstaking work she dedicates to planning, plotting, outlining, writing, coloring (with home-mixed colored inks right on the originals), lettering and inking is astonishing. She's extremely good, and made it clear she got that way by working hard at it. 
A bravura comics panel from Carol's book series You'll Never Know about her father's post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in World War II.
Carol brought a lot of original art for us to gawk at. It's amazingly clean work, and small (most cartoonists work at much larger than print size, but hers looks to be very close to its published size).
The final formal act of the conference was a feedback panel, where the organizers asked attendees to share the pros and cons of their experience to make the next one better. Left to right are Michael Green, MK (behind Michael), Ian, Susan Squier, and Juliet. That was followed by a Marketplace so everyone who'd brought comics to sell had a chance to make a few bucks.
With Sheila and Juliet McMullin. Here's how smart and sophisticated our conference attendees are: the whole day I wore that shirt, two people told me I looked like an 18th Century sailor and one person said if I had a beret I could be a Paris street performer, but not one single person yelled "Hey, I found Waldo!" That's how smart and sophisticated we are.

I don't mean to overlook the opening-day keynote speech of Jared Gardner, professor of English and film studies at Ohio State University. His speech was very good--thoughtful, personal and moving. I just didn't get any good photos of him or have much of a chance to talk with him, but he made a real contribution to the weekend.

You Go First

Now I'm out of photos but not words.

After the conference ended, a bunch of us took over half a restaurant for dinner. I ended up at the end of the table with Joyce Farmer and Carol Tyler, and mostly listened as they compared notes on 40 years of making comics. We talked about publishers, contracts, agents, book designers, advances and royalties, foreign translations, cover design, everything. I learned a lot. I won't share any of what they said because it was a private conversation. Instead I'll tell a story about a movie star.

It's probably apocryphal but is usually told about Shelley Winters, who made hundreds of films and won an Academy Award in 1951. The story goes that late in her career, Winters had a meeting with a movie producer fresh out of school. The kid sat behind his big desk and said, "So, Shelley, what have you done?" Winters reached into her oversized handbag, pulled out her Oscar, thudded it down onto his desk, and said, "You go first."

Some creators shouldn't have to constantly prove themselves to children who weren't even born when they were inventing an art form. They've earned the respect they're due.

MK Czerwiec shot this photo of Joyce and Carol at that dinner.
I'm in the background talking to Joyce's husband Palma. Used with MK's permission.

A final thought:

Less than a week before this conference, I'd been at Comic-Con International in San Diego. Around the middle of the Comics & Medicine Conference's second day, the contrast between the two experiences really hit me.

In Riverside, I was surrounded by people who love comics, think deeply about comics, talk a lot about what comics can do and be, and try to figure out ways to stretch the medium to make it do more than it has before and actually change people's lives.

There might be people like that in San Diego, but if so I never meet them.

Now, I appreciate San Diego Comic-Con for what it is, but when I go home afterward I feel beaten and tired. When I go home after a graphic medicine conference, I feel enthused and refreshed.

One of the big stories to emerge from this year's Comic-Con was the ascendance of talented young women: Raina Telgemeier, Cece Bell, Noelle Stevenson and others all have bestselling books and took home Eisner Awards. I like Raina and Cece a lot (have never met Noelle) and think their work is great.

But anyone who'd tell Joyce Farmer or Carol Tyler that their work would be more marketable if it were more like Raina's Smile or Cece's El Deafo understands nothing about Joyce, Carol, Raina, Cece, art, literature, craft, style, genre, business, or comics. I sat there slack-jawed hearing these stories. If it weren't so appalling it'd be funny.

There's a dark side to comics' female revolution that didn't occur to me until that dinner: this is a good time to be a woman in comics if you're a young, hip, modern woman making comics for 12-year-olds (which I respect a lot and there's nothing wrong with that!). But if you're an older woman who wants to make comics about love, family, politics, trauma, sex and death for adults, you don't get compared to men your age doing similar things. You get compared to women half your age doing something completely different.

That ain't right. And it's a shameful waste of talent.

Go Here

The world headquarters for graphic medicine is this website, run by Ian Williams and MK Czerwiec. If any of this sounds interesting, maybe give a thought to presenting a paper or just attending the next one in Dundee, Scotland, summer 2016.