Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Deck Us All!

I've been posting my favorite bit of musical doggerel by "Pogo" cartoonist Walt Kelly on Christmas Eve as long as I've been online, and see no reason to stop now. Whether anyone reads it is nearly irrelevant. If I've learned anything the past few years, it's the importance of tradition.

All my best wishes.

Bonus Post: Walt Kelly's Christmas Card in 1954!

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Miami Book Fair

Home from the Miami Book Fair, the largest of its type of thing in the country--bigger than the L.A. Times Festival of Books, which I attended in April and is set up very similarly. This was my second time at the Miami fair; my first was 10 years ago promoting Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow. I've gotten smarter in the intervening decade--primarily realizing that the purpose of going to the Miami Book Fair is to promote my book (duh!)--and think I made the most of it. Plus I had a blast!

I was invited to the fair to be on a panel titled "Comics! The Memory Hole: Your Life in Pictures." Moderated by Kristen Radtke with Hevin Huizenga, David Heatley, and writer Cecil Castellucci, the panel drew about three dozen people. I loved the theme. We talked about how memory and memoir work, how accurate memory really is, how you decide whose and which stories to tell, and how comics may be the ideal medium for stories like memoirs. Afterward, we all signed books, and also had opportunities to sign stock at booksellers' tents set up on the street.

A sneaky selfie of (L to R) Radtke, Heatley, Castellucci, Huizenga and me during our panel.
Signing books under a red canopy filtering Miami sunshine.

Miami Book Fair Highlights: spending enough time with cartooning greats Diane Noomin, Bill Griffith (Diane's husband), Patrick McDonnell and his wife Karen that I think I get to call them friends. Meeting cartoonist Chris Ware. Breathing the same air as Joyce Carol Oates. Wandering aimlessly among a couple hundred booksellers' booths. Spending time with cool cartoonists/book people like Jim Ottaviani, Leland Myrick, Paul Pope, Erin Williams, Joan Hilty, Andrea Beaty (Ada Twist, Scientist), too many others to mention. Pontificating on my panel. Enjoying an exclusive author's party overlooking still bay waters on a languid Miami night. Most of all, getting some quiet time with my friend and editor, Charlie Kochman, just to talk about life and stuff.

The great value of events like the Miami Book Fair is never the panels you do or the books you sell, which by themselves don't come close to making the trip worthwhile. It's what happens in the times and spaces between.

A fuzzy hotel lobby photo of Editor Charlie, Patrick McDonnell, Patrick's wife Karen, me, and writer/editor/designer Chip Kidd.

Enjoying a break the next day in the Author's Lounge with cartoonists Diane Noomin, Bill Griffith, and Patrick McDonnell.
Patrick interview by Editor Charlie on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Patrick's comic strip "Mutts," and a new Abrams book celebrating his art.

Sunday morning breakfast I stumbled upon (and joined) writer Jim Ottaviani, Editor Charlie, Bill Griffith, and artist Leland Myrick strategizing for their upcoming panel titled "Biography: Mind Over Body."

And here they are doing that panel! Jim and Leland have a new book on Stephen Hawking, while Bill did a book on circus sideshow performer Schlitzie, on whom his comic strip character "Zippy the Pinhead" was based. I have both books--very different but both great.

Chip Kidd (right) interviewing cartoonist Chris Ware. If you don't know who Chris Ware is, I can't explain him to you; if you do know, I don't have to explain him to you. I asked Chip to introduce me to Chris after the talk, and Chris and I had a very nice, brief conversation.

Also, why is everyone so afraid of sitting in the front row? This isn't grade school anymore, and you came here specifically to see these people. Sit in the front row!

Saturday morning I watched author Joyce Carol Oates be interviewed by writer/editor Chris Beha. She was brilliant and said some things that'll stick with me.

See? Sit in the front row!

I couldn't get to the front row for Sunday morning's talk by comedy writers Adam Mansbach, Alan Zweibel and Dave Barry, who discussed and read from their new book "A Field Guide to the Jewish People." Very funny.
You know it's true.

The Great Ape

Editor Charlie brought me a gift that requires explanation.

Waaay back in 2006, Mom's Cancer was nominated for a Quill Award. Never heard of it? The Quills were a short-lived attempt to create a fancy high-profile televised awards show for books. So I flew to New York City, and Charlie and I black-tied our way to the Museum of Natural History where we enjoyed an enormous banquet in an auditorium with a full-scale blue whale hanging from the ceiling.

We cleaned up good.

I wasn't kidding about the whale. Comics journalist Heidi MacDonald was there and said it was the perfect time for a supervillain to smash through the roof to threaten the pampered elite of Gotham City. She was right. 

One of the Quills' fatal flaws, in my opinion, was letting the public vote on the winners. The public has terrible taste. In a year in which people like Doris Kearns Goodwin, E.L. Doctorow, Maya Angelou, Joan Didion, and the Dalai Lama all published books, the Quill Book of the Year Award went to Tyler Perry's Madea character for Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings. That's my sour-grapes way of explaining why Mom's Cancer didn't win.

The Quill Awards' 2006 Book of the Year.

This is where I formulated Brian's First Law of Award Shows, which is that if the organizers seat you such that there's a huge staircase between you and the stage, you aren't winning an award.

Our view of the Quill Awards stage with, I believe, Lewis Black presenting. Note how far we are from the stage and reflect on Brian's First Rule of Award Shows.

Anyway, to make a long story short (too late), Charlie and I soothed our hurt feelings by stealing the plaster centerpieces. I took one, he took one, eleven years later mine burned up, and last night Charlie gave me his.

Despite losing the Quill, the night turned out to be one of the most memorable of my life. That was the night Charlie introduced me to Quill presenter Chip Kidd and his partner Sandy McClatchy, and we went back to Chip's astonishing apartment to sip brandy while sitting on his balcony overlooking the lights of Manhattan, planning a Batman opera that never got made.

BTW, that was also the night I passed Donald Trump going up a long marble staircase while I was going down, and I could have prevented this whole mess and made it look like an accident if I'd only known. Such is a world without time machines.

So Charlie's gift is a reminder of a night I lost an award and ended up not caring at all, and having a friend who understands how much a stupid red plaster chimp can mean.

The view from my Miami hotel room. Nice work if you can get it.

Monday, November 18, 2019

A Boy and His Tiger

Now it can be revealed: a few months ago my pal Andrew Farago asked if I'd do a drawing for an auction to raise money for the Cartoon Art Museum. I was happy and excited to, especially given the theme: "A Boy and His Tiger: A Tribute to Bill Watterson!"

I understood my charge to be celebrating the comic strip "Calvin & Hobbes" in my own style without actually using those characters. Here's what I did. It's about 11 x 14 inches, ink and watercolor on watercolor paper.

CAM has gotten contributions from cartoonists such as Patrick McDonnell, Harry Bliss, Mo Willems, Lynn Johnston and more. Early next year they'll all be exhibited at the museum, and sometime soon auctioned off on eBay. Visit HERE to see a few more, and watch for more to come!

And thanks to Andrew and CAM for letting me play with them.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Tom Spurgeon

With Tom at last year's Comic-Con International in San Diego.

Like many in the comics world, I'm stunned to hear of the death of Tom Spurgeon, the Comics Reporter--journalist, writer, editor and critic whom it seems everyone in the community knew and respected.

I can't claim Tom and I were close but he was an early champion of my work going back to Mom's Cancer, and his knowledge and passion for comics were unmatched. He loved to shine light on good work that deserved attention. Tough but fair and kind.

I think we'll hear a lot of stories in the next few days from people whose lives and careers Tom made better. I'm one of them.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

It's Over

Thursday Update: Well, we’re in an Evacuation Warning Zone, our natural gas (space heating and hot water) is off, and the place is a mess but....

We’re Home.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Washington Post

Michael Cavna of the Washington Post wrote to ask how I was doing, and then wrote an article about it.

Wednesday is "Whew We Made It!" Day

Wednesday Update: our neighborhood made it through the night, which was an important milestone. Winds that could have pushed the fire into town weren't quite as bad as predicted, and firefighters successfully corralled it. Keeping in mind that I'm no fire scientist and fire has a mind of its own, it looks like we're gong to be all right.

 Other communities on other edges of the 120 sq mile burn are still in danger. Something like 90 homes have been destroyed but it could have been SO much worse. The only reason the Kincade Fire didn't burn thousands of homes and kill hundreds of people was extraordinary planning, strategy and execution. Turns out we learned some lessons from two years ago and applied them well this week.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Tuesday is Electricity Day!

Tuesday Morning Report: We're fine, still hunkered down with Laura and Robin in their apartment in Novato. Karen brought home delicious Vietnamese take-out last night after a busy day of saving the county.

Best of all, the electricity switched on last night! We're out of the 19th Century back into the 21st! No idea how long it'll stay on--PG&E keeps threatening to turn it off--so we're charging up everything we can and not taking it for granted.

Still no idea when we can go home. We hear from people still in the area that there aren't actually any roadblocks, we could drive in anytime, but we'd rather stay safe, smoke- and ash-free, and out of the way of firefighters. Today will be another bad wind day and the Kincade fire could turn any direction, including straight down the path the Tubbs fire took in 2017. Things are looking better but we're not out of the woods.

Our new house has one of those Ring video doorbells. I open the app every hour or two just to make sure my front porch is still there. I can even see a little bit of the street through the fisheye lens. Looks good so far.

Everything is all right when you're walking a dog.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Col. Mustard with a Rope in the Study

Early Monday morning update for worried friends: my family and I are safe and will continue to be. We are 35 miles from danger, unless living without electricity is dangerous. We like to think of it as camping indoors. The pic is us playing Clue last night by electric candlelight.

My house still stands (a couple of brave/foolish neighbors stayed behind and send pics) but the fire got close overnight, about a mile. We know how quickly a fire can eat up a mile.

We’re cautiously optimistic (not to mention fatalistic)—unlike 2017, firefighters have resources and strategy, and are fighting hard to save neighborhoods. Assuming our neighborhood survives, no idea when we’ll be able to return home; at least a few days, I’d think. Officials say they might contain the fire by Nov. 7 (!).

No news from us is good news. Thanks for caring.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Didn't We Already See This Movie?

Update: Thanks for all you good thoughts and comments via Facebook, they help! Here's what's up with us:

Until now, the Kincade fire has been a relatively well-behaved wildfire many miles north of us. It destroyed some homes and buildings, but hasn't killed anyone and pretty much kept its destruction to the backwoods. That's expected to change tonight, however, with hurricane-force winds forecast--a chillingly similar situation to two years ago, though they're coming from the north rather than east this time.

We understand better than most how far and fast a fire can travel when propelled by 70 mph wind.

Karen's been leading part of the County's emergency response since very late last night/early this morning. Her main job has been figuring out where 50,000 evacuees can go for help, shelter, services, etc., setting up at fairgrounds and schools. Meanwhile, I packed up the house, starting with the few treasures we saved from the last fire. I had all day. The sun was up. Neighbors all helped each other. These are advantages we didn't have in 2017, but which made me really appreciate what a great job we did last time when we had 20 minutes in pitch darkness.

The officials who choose evacuation zones are being very conservative. They won't know where the Kincade fire is going if/until the winds kick up, so they're evacuating basically every different path it might take. One of them goes through my neighborhood. Another marches 30 miles straight west to the Pacific Ocean. They're covering a lot of bases. Tonight it seems like half the county is under mandatory or voluntary evacuation.

Meanwhile, our daughters Laura and Robin have taken us in to their apartment, halfway between home and San Francisco, just like they did two years ago. We're fine and safe. Had a nice dinner. Just blew up an air mattress. We can do this for a day or two.

Today was weird. For me it felt kind of like a "do over," a chance to avoid the mistakes I made last time and get it right. Almost leisurely. We packed and evacuated well. This is not the sort of skill one wants to master. It's possible--not probable, but possible--that our home won't be there this time tomorrow. That's a strange, unsettling uncertainty to live with.

Deja Vu

Son of a bitch. Here I am fleeing for my life from another fire. Again.

We expect we'll be OK, but we thought that last time, too. Not taking any chances this time--fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me!--and I've got most of the day to pack the car instead of 15 minutes.

I think I just found a new ending for the expanded paperback "Fire Story" coming out next fall; I just don't know what that ending is going to be. I probably wasn't supposed to announce that yet, but screw it. I'm having a bad day.

Monday, October 14, 2019


Live Worms Gallery on Grant Ave., the LitQuake event site. A good, arty, intimate space for a book reading.

Last night's LitQuake reading in San Francisco went very well, but it was a close call. If I'd known when I agreed to the gig that it was also the date of SF's big Columbus Day (excuse me, "Italian Heritage Day") Parade AND Fleet Week, I might not have come. Every street was gridlocked and Columbus Ave., a major diagonal artery through the city that I had to get to the other side of, was the parade route. People stopped their cars in the middle of intersections to watch the Blue Angels fly over. Sigh. People.

Nevertheless, I got there, and even had a few minutes to drop into the Cartoon Art Museum to see Andrew Farago and pick up my art from their recently closed "Fire Story" exhibition.

A terrible selfie with Cartoon Art Museum curator Andrew Farago, whose current exhibitions include all the original art for the classic "Foul Play" story from "The Crypt of Terror," a landmark in comics history. Wish I'd had more time to linger because I love CAM, but traffic and time conspired against me.
Hoofing it halfway across San Francisco has its charms. This is Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral in North Beach, the Italian neighborhood that Joe DiMaggio grew up in, with landmark Coit Tower in the background.

Cable cars lined up halfway to the stars. Well, really they were just parked there, but it sounds more romantic the other way.

Then walked about a mile and half to the Live Worms Gallery, where three other artist/writers and I talked about "Books to Look At." Gallery owner Jody Weiner and his wife, artist Nancy Calef, were terrific hosts, and after sorting out some AV problems (Sigh. Machines.) we had a good literary event in a quintessentially San Franciscan space.

I got the the Live Worms Gallery just as a couple of band members from the Italian Heritage Day Parade happened by. I'm gonna call that instrument a tuba, which means it's probably actually a sousaphone. I always make that mistake.
I sneaked a photo of the Live Worms space and crowd during my introduction. In the foreground in the blue cap is artist Mark Ulriksen (with his wife Leslie) who's done something like 55 "New Yorker" covers and has a great career as an illustrator/artist. I'm a fan, so it was especially nice to get to know him.
Same scene as I walked back to my car a couple hours later. Nice little town we've got here.

I met some great people at LitQuake, including fellow speakers Mark Ulriksen, Jon B. Cooke, and Jeremy Fish. Proud to be a part of it.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Two Years On

In my new studio! Press Democrat photo by John Burgess.

My hometown newspaper, the Press Democrat, interviewed me for a special issue on how people are doing two years after the fire. They also asked me if I'd draw some new "Fire Story" pictures for them--they didn't specify what they wanted, left that entirely up to me. So I drew the three new pages shown online and printed in this morning's paper.

I like the article by Dan Taylor and I'm grateful for the coverage, really! Every column-inch of newspaper real estate is valuable, and they gave me four (!) pages. But when I saw how big they ran my artwork, I cringed. Most comics and illustration artwork is drawn larger than the size it'll be printed at because shrinking a drawing tightens it up and hides its flaws. The PD magnified them much LARGER than their 8 x 12 inch original size. I think they hold up all right, but Yeesh! Imagine a close-up of your face blown up to the size of a billboard, showing every pimple and pore.

Anyway . . . There are other stories about other people in this edition, too, and together they make a point I tried to make myself: there's such a wide variety of post-fire experience, from tragedy to triumph, that no single story captures them all. Most people are still muddling through, even two years on, dealing with frustrations and two-steps-forward-one-step-back as best we can. It's been hard.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Out of the Mountains

Last week I spent two days visiting Feather River College (go Golden Eagles!), which was both the best and worst professional experience of my life.

Feather River College is in Quincy, Calif., a beautiful Mayberry gem of a town in the Sierra Nevada. Nestled in a valley surrounded by forested mountains, it's got a four-block-long downtown of hundred-year-old buildings. Everyone in town seems to know everyone else, and goes out of their way to be friendly to strangers. I was even treated to a roof-rattling thunderstorm, my favorite kind of weather. Quincy is great.

Even the street lights make you feel welcome.

A stretch of downtown Quincy . . .

. . . where I found my name in lights! Well, my book's name. This is the local movie theater, which also doubles as an events center where I spoke on Thursday evening. It's a lovely Art Deco jewel, nothing fancy but lovingly saved and restored. They don't make 'em like this anymore.

The small two-year college invited me up because the instructors got together and chose A Fire Story as their "Book in Common" for the year, meaning all the students have to read it and some classroom activity will revolve around it. I talked to six different classes on Wednesday and Thursday, ranging from maybe 20 to 80 students each, then concluded Thursday night with a community lecture at the Art Deco movie theater/events center downtown that drew about 100.

I tried to tailor my talks for each class. For Environmental Studies, I touched on climate change and conflict at urban-wildlife boundaries (i.e., are there some places people just shouldn't be allowed to build houses?). For Creative Writing, I talked more about process, and how I approach writing fiction and nonfiction. My host, English professor Chris Connell, couldn't have made me feel more welcome. The students were engaged, the faculty is super-dedicated to their jobs and their kids, and I think the whole thing went wonderfully.

This is the drawing class I spoke to, with instructor Josh in the background, in just about the nicest student studio space I've seen. They're working on making their own comics with a six-panel grid I provided. Sometimes art students have the hardest time with these exercises because they think they need to draw "good," which only bogs them down. Quick and messy is the ticket!

One of the larger groups I lectured to. This was two or three classes combined, all watching KQED's animation of "A Fire Story," which gave me a chance to sneak to the back and take this photo.

Some of the Feather River College grounds, which surrounded a large grass quad and sprawled for quite a way in different directions. Beautiful campus!

The back side of the library, where I spoke a couple of times.

So what's the "worst" part?

When I got to town Tuesday night, I picked up a stomach bug or food poisoning or some damn thing, and spent the night curled on a tile floor driving the porcelain bus. Stomach cramps made it too painful to sleep, except maybe when I passed out with my head cradled on the loo. In the morning I got dressed and went to lecture to classes at 8, 9, and 10:30 a.m. To quote Captain Kirk in Star Trek 4, they weren't exactly catching me at my best.

I clued in the instructors in case I needed to make a dash for the door, but didn't bother the students with it. If any of them noticed me white-knuckling the lectern to keep from keeling over, they were nice enough not to say anything. I'd hit the bathroom, barf, lecture, hit the bathroom, barf, lecture, lather, rinse, repeat. I only had to bug out of one class for a minute, but it happened at a good time when I had the students working on drawing their own comics, so no harm done. By midafternoon I was looking up directions to the local hospital, because I knew if I couldn't even keep down water I was gonna need an IV pretty soon. Then I did my fourth lecture of the day.

Then I sat on my glasses and broke their frame. At that point, all I could do was laugh, and start watching the sky for falling frogs or meteors.


I got some sleep Wednesday night, and in the morning started sipping (and retaining!) Gatorade and bought super glue to fix my glasses. Felt pretty fair for my two morning talks, and by the evening was fit enough to have a light dinner salad with some faculty. I think the evening community presentation went great.

Dinner before my community talk with (clockwise from me) English instructor Joan, English instructor Joe, counselor Monica, English instructor and my terrific host Chris Connell, and college president Kevin Trutna. I'm not eating any nachos.

The view from the back of the theater where, again, I took advantage of my animated video to sneak to the rear and get a photo.

I drove home Friday, and only learned later that an e. coli alert had been issued that day for the town of Quincy! Residents were advised to boil their drinking water . . . the same water I'd spent three days trying to hydrate myself with. I'm no Scotland Yard detectivist, but I think I'm seeing a pattern.

Just a couple of typical vistas on Highway 70 to and from Quincy.

On the Feather River. Couldn't be prettier.

In contrast, also on Highway 70, the remains of the Camp Fire stretched to the horizon.

This Quincy community was very near last year's devastating Camp Fire, which destroyed Paradise. You have to drive through those scorched, barren hills to get to Quincy, they see and live with it every day. In fact there was a big forest fire blazing just east of town when I arrived. Fire is uppermost in their minds. All of that made it a tremendous privilege and honor for me to come here and talk about A Fire Story with them, and I'm just glad I managed to pull myself together enough to do it.

On balance, the "best" far outweighed the "worst."