Thursday, February 18, 2016

Go (Quick Web Search) Wolverines!

Not a Wolverine.

Honestly, I was about 96% sure that University of Michigan students are Wolverines, but since I haven't cared about college sports since I was in college, I thought I'd better double-check.

I got home late last night from an exhilarating and exhausting trip to the University of Michigan, where I gave three different talks in two days. I think everything went very well. Unless my hosts were lying, so did they. I've never been to Ann Arbor and found that it lived up to its reputation as the quintessential Midwestern college town. I had some time to do my favorite thing in new places: wander aimlessly. Even better, I got to do it through light snow flurries, which is an exotic treat for me (not so much for others who don't live in coastal California, I know).

I did not make it to Zingerman's Deli, which a couple of people told me I must. Now I have a reason to go back.

Several months ago, professor Alex Stern asked if I'd be interested in talking about Mom's Cancer with her class on Health, Biology and Society. Indeed I was, and since I was flying two-thirds of the way across the country I encouraged her to find as much work for me to do while there as she could. I was subsequently booked to speak at the Ann Arbor District Library the evening after the class, and talk with honors students at a luncheon the next day.

Three different audiences with three different talks, and not really one I could pull off the shelf (I do have a couple of standard stump speeches but they didn't fit the bill). I'm not afraid of public speaking but I was a little nervous taking three untested talks for their first spins around the track the day of the big race.

I think it worked out.

My hosts and instructors of the Health, Biology and Society course, Laura Olsen and Alex Stern. The class is a fascinating interdisciplinary thing pulling together material and students from science and humanities to focus on the socio-economics of cancer. By the time I got there, all the students had read Mom's Cancer and were frighteningly well prepared.
About 80 students take the class. Big group! Before I shot this photo I said, "Anybody who doesn't want to be on Facebook look away," so students whose faces you can't see obviously have something to hide. After the class I signed a lot of books and had some great one-on-one conversations. The future is in good hands.

Alex said the students are used to collaborating on worksheets and projects in their table groups (which they've all wittily named), so I suggested we could do jam comics, in which everyone draws the first panel of a comic and then passes it on for someone to draw the next, and so on. It's a great improvisational storytelling exercise whose success depends on the participants' willingness to play along and have fun. These guys were terrific.

Weather was crisp but not unbearably cold, with an inch of dry icy show on the ground and occasional flakes drifting through the sky. The campus is home to roving gangs of squirrels that are fluffier, fatter and browner than those I'm used to, and nearly tame thanks to food handouts from big-hearted students. The squirrel at the top of this post was literally begging at my feet.

They put me up at the Michigan League, which looks like a typical student activity center (cafe, study areas, meeting rooms) except it has a hotel hidden on its fourth floor. Weird but nice. I remarked to someone that one of my favorite things to see while traveling is bricks. We don't have brick buildings in northern California. Ours all fell down in 1906. 
Wandering Ann Arbor. Look at all the bricks!

If your college town doesn't have an old movie theater converted to showing obscure arthouse films and Oscar shorts, you're going to the wrong college.
Some of the people who dropped by the Ann Arbor District Library that evening. The girl at center in the salmon-colored shirt next to Alex Stern is her daughter Sofia, who is a budding graphic novelist, likes plain cheese pizza, and is my new best friend, not least because knowing me puts her only one degree of separation away from her hero Raina Telgemeier. 

Jim Ottaviani is the writer of science-themed nonfiction comics. His subjects have included physicists Niels Bohr and Richard Feynman, Quantum Theory, the Moon Race, Jane Goodall, and Alan Turing. Jim and I are Facebook friends but had never met, and I didn't even know he lived in Ann Arbor until he told me he'd try to make my talk. And he did!

In addition to Jim, two other creators whose work I know and appreciate showed up completely out of the blue. Jerzy Drozd teaches comics, makes webcomics and podcasts, and with Ernie Colon illustrated a graphic adaptation of the Warren Commission Report (published by Abrams ComicArts!). His wife Anne Drozd, in addition to being his collaborator on several projects, is also on the library staff and introduced my talk.

I expected Jim to show and was excited enough about that, but to get Anne and Jerzy at the same time was like Christmas morning.

With Jerzy and Anne.
Enjoying adult beverages after the library talk with Jim, Jim's wife Kat, Anne and Jerzy. It turns out we've all worked with my pal and editor Charlie Kochman at Abrams, and so traded much intelligence and strategy.
Heh heh heh.

Wednesday morning I had some wander time before lunch with about 15 or 20 honors students. This was a less formal setting and I aimed to say more than I usually would about the history of comics as an artistic and literary medium (the Art of the People!) still working to gain respect. Hope I made a good case. I had an especially nice pre-lunch conversation with philosopher and honors program advisor Henry Dyson.

The luncheon set-up. I sat in a comfy chair up front while students grabbed a plate of food (good stuff!) and ate while we talked.

After lunch I went downstairs to a car waiting at the door to whisk me to the airport, where after about seven hours on two planes (separated by a rice bowl dinner at LAX) and another hour and a half dodging fender-benders on a rainy drive home, I oozed into bed dreaming of snow-blown bricks and hungry squirrels.

This trip was a nice career highlight for me. Thanks to Alex and Laura for making it happen (and for teaching my book!); Jim, Kat, Jerzy and Anne for talking shop; Sofia for drawing me a picture; and the students for being good people and good sports. Great school and town! Someday I'll be back for Zingerman's.

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