Monday, September 24, 2018

Associating with Editorial Cartoonists

I had a wonderful weekend as a guest and speaker at the annual convention of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC), which this year including big contingents from Canada and New Zealand. It was held in Sacramento, Calif., which is a convenient 2.5-hour drive for me, and the folks of the AAEC, none of whom I knew before I showed up for Thursday night's reception, welcomed me as family. Maybe a long-lost cousin with a shady past.

I took pictures. Assume every name I mention is preceded by the phrase "celebrated editorial cartoonist." The convention was a challenge for me in that, while I was very familiar with many of the cartoonists' work, I had no idea what they looked like. Luckily, we wore badges.

The view from my room at the Citizen Hotel, a grand old building which, being a block from the capitol, decorates in a political theme. For example, all the rooms have framed political cartoons, which made the venue a perfect headquarters for the event. 
I had FDR in my bathroom. Would he seek a fourth term? Time will tell.
The first person I ran into even before checking in was Daryl Cagle, who is a cartoonist himself as well as a big distributor of other people's cartoons.
A blurry pic overlooking the opening reception at the California Museum, a few blocks from the capitol. You know it's the California Museum because it has Mickey Mouse statues. There are probably four or five Pulitzer Prize winners in this shot.
I got a very warm welcome from outgoing AAEC President Pat Bagley, who hand-painted his jacket of many happy memories, and Tim Eagan. I had long, interesting, deep-delving conversations with both.

Cartoonist, illustrator, and game designer JP "Jape" Trostle, who blew me away by gifting me a terrific souvenir booklet from the 1964 World's Fair his parents had collected; and incoming AAEC President Kevin Siers, the 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner who introduced my talk.
Comics scholar, and author of about a thousand books, R.C. Harvey. I don't think Bob would argue if I said he has a reputation as something of a curmudgeon, but I found him delightful. 
Scott Johnston is a local editorial cartoonist in Canada. His wife Becky is patient. Terrific people!
During a break in Friday's sessions, I introduced myself to Zunar. Holy crap, it's Zunar! He's a free speech hero who faced 40 years of imprisonment for sedition in his home country of Malaysia. For drawing cartoons. We had a lovely conversation about the value we both find in putting ink on paper (as opposed to pixels on a computer screen) as a tactile way to transfer your soul to the page. After my talk on Saturday, he stopped me to talk about Mom's Cancer. Zunar gave a brief speech in which he said, “In a country with no media freedom, cartooning is the only medium we have.... No dictator can withstand laughter.” Beyond simply meeting an artist like that, having a couple of real conversations with him was a lifetime highlight for me.

I was invited to talk about "A Fire Story" in terms of writing and drawing comics under, let's say, extreme duress. I gave some quick background on myself, especially how Mom's Cancer made the idea of creating a nonfiction comic about a deadly serious topic not quite as big a leap as you might imagine. I talked about process, showed the KQED video, and shared some pages from my upcoming graphic novel.

Of course I have no photos of my talk--I was busy at the time--but I think it went very well. People said they were moved. I signed a couple dozen mini-posters I'd brought and handed out a couple of galleys. Nobody seemed to regret inviting me. Big-name award-winning cartoonists sought me out afterward to talk comics. No big deal.

My friend, Bay Area cartoonist Jonathan Lemon (left), showed up on Saturday. Jonathan will be the subject of a major cartooning announcement soon; he wouldn't even tell me what it is, but remember: you didn't hear it here first. I sat between him and Ward Sutton, who does very smart work and gave what I thought was the best talk of the day on Friday.
One of these things is not like the others.... At the closing gala Saturday night--for which I was woefully underdressed but no one seemed to mind--with three of the best of the best: Rob Rogers, my close personal friend Zunar, and Jen Sorensen. This wasn't just a photo op that I muscled my way into, we stood around a table and talked for quite a while. Hey, nobody told me to bring a blazer!
I thought this was one of the nicest moments of the whole weekend. Behind the lectern at right is Charis Jackson Barrios, winner of the Locher Prize for young aspiring cartoonists. She's done some good work for The Nib and other outlets, and warmly but pointedly noted that she was one of the few women or persons with brown skin in the room. She got an appreciative laugh calling them (us?) "the nicest group of old white guys" she'd ever met. What made this a great moment for me was the woman standing at left: Pulitzer Prize winner Ann Telnaes, beaming as happily and proudly as if Charis were her own daughter.
With Matt Bors, creator of The Nib. The Nib is, I think, a big deal, as an outlet and business model for cartooning in the 21st Century. Matt was there with his wife and toddler daughter, who melted my heart when she lurched up behind me and clutched the back of my knee for balance, just the way my own little blonde babies did so many years...sniff...sorry, I got something in my eye..... Anyway, Matt's cool, too.

I had good conversations (but no photographic proof) with Pulitzer Prize winner Ann Telnaes, Pulitzer Prize Winner Jack Ohman, Pulitzer Prize Winner Mark Fiore, and even some people without Pulitzer Prizes.

An undercurrent running through the convention was diversification. A few panels touched on what editorial cartoonists can do with their skills as newspapers cut, shrink, and die out from under them. New markets. Matt Bors's The Nib is one successful online model. A few folks buttonholed me to ask about graphic novels, and I took a couple of minutes at the end of my talk to encourage them to consider it--they have the skills!--compare and contrast the forms, and describe the state of GN publishing as I understand it. I told them it's where the big money is; hope I didn't steer them wrong!

As I said in my talk's opening remarks, editorial cartoonists intimidate the hell out of me. They're smart, opinionated and fast. On a good day, I'd only claim to be maybe one-third of that. But it turns out they're also kind and generous, which I've found to be true of most cartoonists everywhere. I had a great time.

I took this picture driving home from Sacramento on Interstate 80 because the "Milk Farm" neon sign is visible from the roof of the UC Davis Physics Building about 5 miles away. I happen to know that because when I TAed astronomy labs in college, we'd aim a telescope at the sign and shine its light through a diffraction grating, producing a nice neon spectrum that perfectly illustrated how astronomers know what stars are made of. So I'm just happy it's still there. For science. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018


One of my favorite parts of the book-publishing process is getting proofs back from the printer. This is my first chance to see what my pages actually look like as they'll be printed on paper (sometimes VERY different than they look on a monitor), and my last chance to make corrections before they're bound into books. The magnifying glass isn't for show, I really am scouring for flaws almost too small to see. After my first pass through, my verdict is: looking pretty good!

I'm not the only inspector. Editor Charlie and Art Director Pam are giving it a thorough once-over, and maybe others at Abrams I don't even know about. And after all these months, and dozens of pairs of eyes scrutinizing every jot and dot a hundred times, I can almost guarantee that when a box of these books hits my doorstep next March, and I open the top book to any random page, the first thing I'll see will be a typo.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Talking Mort Walker

A friend has a book coming out I want to plug. Talking Mort Walker: A Life in Comics (716 pages!) is an eight-year passion project for Jason Whiton, who grew up in that legendary place and time when all the best cartoonists lived in one Connecticut county a quick train ride from New York City. Jason knew the families of Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey, Sam's Strip, Hi and Lois), Dik Browne (Hagar the Horrible, also Hi and Lois), and dozens of other lower-profile workaday inkslingers who helped make comics and cartoon illustration an important mid-century art and business. Mort died in January 2018 at the age of 94.

Talking Mort Walker contains "interviews, articles, letters, unpublished photographs, and drawings (that) reveal insights about the child prodigy who grew up to become the Dean of American cartooning." It builds on another book Jason wrote/edited a few years ago, Mort Walker: Conversations, which collected many Walker interviews. The new book includes reminisces and reflections of Walker's work from peers who knew him, as well as those who were only influenced by him from a distance, including, full disclosure, me.

Walker is a large but polarizing figure among cartoonists. He wrote and drew Beetle Bailey for 67 years but, I think it's fair to say, isn't regarded with the same reverence as, say, Charles Schulz, who started Peanuts the same year (1950) and did it for nearly half a century. The big difference: Schulz was an auteur who wrote, drew, and even lettered every Peanuts strip himself. Every panel was pure 200-proof Schulz, expressing his personality and angst. 

In contrast, Walker employed the studio or bullpen model, which was much more common at the time, particularly for creators who came out of the worlds of advertising, as Browne did, or greeting cards, as Walker did. While Walker and Beetle shared the experience of serving in the Army, Mort didn't use his comics to explore his private philosophies and anxieties. That wasn't his job. Walker's name was on his strips but he relied on a small corps of gag men and assistants to get the job done (although, Jason tells me, Walker penciled every Beetle Bailey strip himself). That was a much more common arrangement back in the days when a comic strip could earn enough money to support a team. It was a good system that gave generations of cartoonists a break into the business working for established creators, and is still around today (e.g., Garfield).

It's a different business model that, critics argue, produces comics that are more committee-made commerce than deeply personal art (or "Art").

My opinion? I think Walker's gotten a bum rap. The way he worked was how almost everybody (except Schulz) worked in 1950, if they could afford to. He was very good at it. His strips were published in thousands of papers around the world and his characters became iconic. Modern comics since, say, Doonesbury in the seventies came to value what an individual artist had to say more than the skill with which they said it. Which is a fancy way of saying that a lot of cartoonists became very successful despite not being great artists. Walker went to work every day and hit his deadlines; his work was always polished and professional. It's not his fault that those qualities went out of style.

Walker's greatest influence on me was his 1975 book, Backstage at the Strips (which is what I wrote about for Jason's book). At a time when real information about how to make comics was scarce, and I was a kid starving for real information about how to make comics, Backstage was a godsend. 

This is the edition I had. Newer editions are available pretty cheap.

It wasn't a "how to" manual, but rather insight into a frame of mind and creative process. Walker wrote about a Mad Men era of cartooning that, though I didn't realize it at the time, had already passed. He was an eyewitness describing the easy camaraderie among cartoonists, the early days of the National Cartoonists Society, and his own, ultimately frustrated, efforts to launch a permanent comics museum. I always wanted to be a cartoonist, but Backstage made me want to be a cartoonist sipping martinis with Rube Goldberg and Walt Kelly on Milt Caniff's back porch.

I haven't seen Jason's new book, but know it will be worth a look regardless of one's feelings about Walker. Mort was there, in the center of cartooning's Golden Age, and for seven decades one of its most successful practitioners. I once told Jason I didn't think we'd really appreciate Mort Walker until he was gone. Jason's book, which will doubtless be the most comprehensive memorial Walker will ever receive, expresses the appreciation and respect that many in his oddball line of work held for him, including me.

Jason Whiton at LumaCon in 2016, with his earlier Mort Walker book front and center.

EDITED TO ADD: Jason has written his own blog post about Mort Walker, partly in response to this post and a private e-conversation we've been having since. Check it out, then go read the rest of Jason's Spy Vibe site while you're there!