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.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Comic-Con 2015, Brian 0

The streets around Comic-Con from high in the Convention Center. If that doesn't look like a good time to you, don't bother coming. I'm ambivalent. I do like the Muppety light-rail train. The whole city of San Diego gets into the spirit.

I've used the joke in that title before, but it's been a few years.

I'm home from Comic-Con in one piece. Interesting visit. The Con continues to evolve in just the decade I've been attending off and on, I can't even imagine what it's like for the old-timers. Probably sad. But I took my daughters along and had a terrific time despite not winning an Eisner Award for Best Digital/Web Comic.

Talking with Robin and Laura afterward, I realized that my favorite thing about Comic-Con is simply the people--seeing friends and maybe making a few new ones. I had at least brief conversations with Dave Roman and Raina Telgemeier, Richard and Wendy Pini, Scott McCloud, Dave Kellett, Tom Richmond, Otis Frampton, Calvin Reid, Rick Geary, Andrew Farago, Brent Anderson and his family, Chris Sparks, Tom Racine, Lucas Turnbloom, Ces Marciuliano, Karen Green, Stephan Pastis, Shena Wolf from Abrams-related people Charlie and Rachel Kochman, Chad Beckerman, Eric Himmel, Chip Kidd. New people Katie Cook, Cece Bell (a real sweetheart), Becky Cloonan and Paul Tobin. I don't expect you to know who all those people are, but some of you will know some of them.

That's not a complete list, it's just off the top of my head. I only learned some friends were at Comic-Con after I'd left.

My girls and I agreed that the frustration of Comic-Con is that even if you're there you're missing it. There's too much going on, and the stuff that makes the news is inaccessible to most. For example, the cast of "Star Wars" was in the same building we were, but if we'd wanted to see them we'd have had to camp out overnight to get into the room. They might as well have been on Tatooine. We'd drag back to our hotel room after a day at Comic-Con and then check Facebook to find out what had happened at Comic-Con.

Here's some of what I saw. Links take you to people's websites and such.

In our hotel lobby even before we got to Comic-Con, I saw these two guys helping each other into their costumes. They're the Marvel superhero Daredevil (in red) and his arch-enemy Bullseye, but these guys were taping up each other's boots and tucking each others hair into their masks almost as if they weren't deadly foes. I knew I was in the right place.
I liked pretend Batman posing in front of real Batman. Except the pretend Batman was a real man and the real Batman was a fake man and then I blew my mind, man.
Had a nice chat with Dave Roman (Astronaut Academy, Teen Boat, Star Bunny) and bought a Star Bunny comic from him. His wife Raina Telgemeier (giant bestsellers Smile, Sisters, Drama) was elsewhere then but we caught up later.
With my friends Rachel and Charlie Kochman (my editor) at my publisher Abrams' booth. That's Abrams Creative Director Chad W. Beckerman lurking in the back. Chad took the lead in designing the paperback cover for Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow.
Galactus, devourer of worlds and aisle space.
My close personal friend Stan Lee, snapped faster than the "Sir! No Pictures!" cops surrounding him could shoo me off.
Friday afternoon with Tom Racine and Chris Sparks. Tom's "Tall Tales Radio" is the best comics podcast in the business (he's had me on a couple of times), and Tom hosts a "Drink and Draw" drop-in event for cartoonists to have a beer and draw funny pictures. Chris is the mastermind behind "Team Cul de Sac," which raises money for Parkinson's Disease. A few hours after this photo was shot, he also picked up Richard Thompson's well-deserved Eisner Award for The Complete Cul de Sac collection.
Still at the "Drink and Draw," Tom with Ces Marciuliano (left). Ces writes the "Sally Forth" comic strip and has put out a successful run of books about cats, poetry and pee. This photo was taken after I'd tried to take three others that all looked bad because one or the other was making an odd expression or stuffing something into his mouth. I said, "You two guys just cannot take a good picture!" and they did this and I snapped it.

Laura and Robin and me before the Eisner Awards. We clean up OK.
Then this happened.

Saturday was a new day.

While my girls slept in Saturday morning, I took a walk along the waterfront. At 8 a.m., two hours before the convention opened, I found a line at least a quarter mile long (literally!) of people waiting for a chance to buy Con-exclusive Legos. These people all got up before dawn. For Legos. 
A little farther down the path I found all these Penguins from the TV series "Gotham" lined up and urging joggers and cyclists to go through for high-fives. Many did. It was silly and fun.
Same walk: stumbled across Andrew Farago from San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum and Chris Sparks getting a morning coffee. I joined them for a while. Later this day, Andrew was awarded the convention's Inkpot Award for services to comics above and beyond the call of duty. He deserved it (and was dumbfounded when he received it).
A hotel concierge in the spirit. Many of the hotel and restaurant staff around the city wore superhero t-shirts and such to support the cause. I think San Diego really loves Comic-Con (and the business it brings) in a way that other cities wouldn't or couldn't.
I knew Wendy and Richard Pini were doing an Elfquest booksigning at the Dark Horse booth at 11 o'clock, so I began circling the booth around 10:45 to catch them. My stalking paid off. In addition to just saying hi to two of the nicest and most accomplished people in comics, I had an important favor to ask of Richard. Someday I'll tell you about it, but he said "Yes." 
Raina and Dave. She won an Eisner Award this year for Best Writer/Artist. In fact, it's sitting on the table right in front of her.
More of the madding crowd outside. There were a lot of religious protesters out trying to save souls this year. There were also counter-protesters professing their faith in Thor, as well as some pretend-protesters who looked like protesters but were just trying to drum up interest in new TV shows. Sometimes it was very hard to keep all the street theater straight.
This original art from pal Dave Kellett's comic strip "Sheldon" will soon grace my office wall.
Scott McCloud and his wife Ivy. I had a nice talk with Scott about the diversification of comics in terms of sex, age, and publishers represented in the Eisner Awards. Although as two middle-aged white guys we both admit to our self-interest in the old status quo, we're both happy to see work by new, young, often female creators get recognized over the same old Marvel and DC stuff that might have dominated in the past.
Ace caricaturist, MAD Magazine cartoonist, and swell fella Tom Richmond.
From the ABC-TV and Marvel television series "Agent Carter," circled in green are my close personal friends James D'Arcy (Jarvis) and Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter). This is as near as I could get because about 2000 of their other closest personal friends were between us.
Nickelodeon always puts up one of the most colorful, spectacular booths in the hall.
One of the things folks do at conventions is cosplayer gatherings, where people who dress in costumes with common themes--all from the same TV show, video game, or comics company--get together at a particular time for a group photo. These are people cosplaying as DC Comics characters . . .
. . . and these are people taking pictures of the people cosplaying as DC Comics characters.
The Abrams ComicArts panel, presenting Abrams' comics-related works for the coming year. Designer/writer/editor Chip Kidd is at the podium, with my editor Charlie Kochman, and Chad Beckerman giving me the stink-eye. They've got some genuinely great books coming up.

Before flying home Sunday, my girls and I toured the USS Midway Museum. The Midway is a decommissioned aircraft carrier that floats right where all the San Diego tourists can see it, and draws a million visitors per year. Friends and long-time readers may recall that my daughter Laura is on the staff of the USS Hornet Museum in Alameda. The Hornet is (in my opinion) an even more interesting and historic decommissioned aircraft carrier stuck in a hard-to-find place far from casual tourist traffic. We all wanted to see how the rich relations to the south ran their ship.

What I'm really saying is we were on an intelligence-gathering spy mission.

Lunch with Robin and Laura and a Coke. Coca-Cola's doing this thing now where they put names or cute words on their labels. Totally at random and against great odds, the Midway cafe's clerk handed me a Coke with my own name on it. Surely it was a sign. Of something. Haven't figured out what yet.
Selfie on the flight deck. Although I'm honor-bound to express nothing but contempt for the Midway (my loyalties remain with the Hornet), I've got to admit they put on a pretty good tour. Worth a stop if you're in the neighborhood.

This was a good and worthwhile trip for me. I talked to some folks, did some business, had some fun. As far as a pure comics convention goes, San Diego Comic-Con's not my favorite experience. But as a place where everyone in the business you'd want to see and talk to gets together once a year, it can't be beaten.