Saturday, October 23, 2021

Book in Common at Randolph-Macon

I'm home from Randolph-Macon College, a small liberal arts school in Ashland, Virginia, which chose "A Fire Story" as this year's Honors Program Book in Common and invited me to talk about it, which I did on Thursday (which meant flying to and fro all day Wednesday and Friday). 


One of the entrances to the school, and you'll immediately notice the one feature that delights me every time I travel back east: bricks. We don't have many brick buildings in northern California. Ours all fell down in 1906, and we're not allowed to build them anymore. More than any other indicator, bricks are what tell me I'm in terra incognita.

A "Book in Common" is a book that all the students read--in this case, all the students in the Honors Program, but also many others as I discovered. It often reflects some theme that different classes build the year's curriculum around, in this case "resilience." I feel well-equipped to talk about that. 

My day began with a VIP campus tour (in a solar-powered golf cart!) given by Robert Patterson, the school's director of corporate and foundation relations. I had lunch with three staggeringly smart honors students, spoke to three classes, had a great half-hour chat with Provost Alisa Rosenthal, dinner with a select group of students and faculty, then the Main Event: a community lecture attended in person by about 30 and, due to Covid, another 140 or so watching on Zoom. 

I took this photo of the quad in the center of campus. A professional took the next one that I stole from the Web.

Courtesy of Randolph-Macon College, even though I didn't ask.

During my morning campus tour with Robert Patterson, who's on the right here, I saw this small campus observatory atop a building that looked so much like the small campus observatory I spent countless nights in at UC Davis that I practically begged for a tour. Robert obliged by rousting Physics Dept. Chair Deonna Woolard (left) from her office, and she was kind enough (and had the keys!) to let me in.

The observatory's telescope. This is a real nice set up, much better than the one I had. When Covid abates they'll resume public viewing programs here, which is very near and dear to my heart because I ran the same at Davis. XO

These are honors students Sam, Cara and Trixie, who took me to lunch off campus. They are remarkable young women and fine representatives of their school. Our future's in fine hands.

That's a long whirlwind day, but a really good one.

A word about Randolph-Macon College: I was very impressed. It's a small school, only about 1400 students. As Robert pointed out, many of their students come from high schools bigger than that. It's a beautiful campus established in 1868 (the school was founded elsewhere in Virginia in 1830, and you scholars of U.S. history may infer why it had to relocate in the 1860s). 

One of my big takeaways: an education there would be unusually personal and intimate. Everybody seemed to know everybody else. Classes are small. Faculty wear many hats, and are encouraged to follow their own quirky passions or areas of research and take students along with them.

Another big takeaway: for a small college, they have a very robust offering of majors, including in hard sciences like physics, chemistry, geology, biology. One of the girls who took me to lunch is a neuroscience major. Those sorts of classes require expensive labs and such that other colleges can't afford, but the facilities I saw in my tour looked modern and excellent. Small, but high quality.

One of the classes I spoke with was Dr. Amber Peacock's course on "Discerning Learning and Achievement," which hit the resilience theme hard. Great students and teachers that I didn't get any pictures of. Instead, this was my second class, Drawing, with Prof. Kristen Payton, who's farthest to the right. This was about half the class, the other half was out of frame to the left, with the usual mix of students who are very serious about art and others who just want the general ed credit. A real nice conversation about art, intention, authenticity, finding your own style and voice, etc. 

My third class was Printmaking, also with Prof. Peyton. Just four students, but very sharp and engaged. I said repeatedly, and wasn't joking, that I'd LOVE to take this class. Printmaking is something I'm very interested in and hope to pursue. They're doing it now. 

I went to a big school, the University of California at Davis. I don't know what enrollment was when I went there, but now it's about 30,000 undergrads and probably wasn't much different then. That environment worked for me, I thrived and loved it. But spending a day at Randolph-Macon made me nostalgic for a different education I could have had. I think a student there is very lucky.

A few photos, some of which I nicked from the college website because I didn't have a chance to take many pictures myself. Thanks to Randolph-Macon for choosing my book and inviting me to talk about it, to Dr. April Marchetti for being a great host and guide, and to the students who couldn't have been sharper or more engaged (I joked that they must have told the dolts and duds to stay off campus for the day). Go Yellowjackets!

My host, chemistry professor and head of the Honors Program, April Marchetti. She's great, and I'm not just saying that because she bought me dinner and drove me everywhere. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Guy Maniscalco

 

My barber died and I'm sad. 

Guy Maniscalco was 84-ish and had cut my hair for 21 years. He'd been a barber since 1962. Guy was East Coast Italian, old-school and charmingly profane. His favorite joke: "I'm gonna give you an 'orgasm haircut.' Girls are gonna see you walking down the street and have an orgasm."

Over the years I heard most of his life story. He left an abusive father and family very young, headed west as soon as he could, and in the 1970s opened a big (16 chair?) barbershop in San Carlos, south of San Francisco, where, to hear him tell it, he became the unofficial team barber for both the S.F. Giants and 49ers when they played at Candlestick Park. As he neared what for most people would be retirement age, he and his wife Mary sold that business and moved to the Wine Country, where he toiled in smaller and slower barber shops until finally winding up working for himself in a hole-in-the-wall he rented in an odd old commercial business park. Mary died about 10 years ago; Guy still marked every anniversary and talked things over with her urn on his mantel at home.

Guy was a friend, a good man, and the best barber I ever had, one who took a lot of pride in his work and moved with the kind of grace and efficiency you only get after you've done something a hundred thousand times. It was always a pleasure to watch such a skilled craftsman do the only thing he ever wanted to do. I'll miss him a lot.




Friday, October 1, 2021

Juvenilia

I just got the best email! Completely out of the blue, somebody sent me a photo of a drawing they'd found among a deceased relative's effects and asked if I'd done it. Yes I did. I was about 23.

Sometimes artists publish examples of their "juvenilia"--work done when they were very young. I will never do that, because I didn't have many examples of my early art even before 2017, when I lost it all. This is about as close as I will get to seeing something drawn by Young Brian. 

As I said in my reply (below), I'm both embarrassed by and proud of it.

I replied to my correspondent:

"Oh my gosh. That is an unexpected flashback that made my day. Yes, it's mine.

Working off of old memories that may not be 100% accurate....

From about 1983 to 1986, I was a reporter at the Woodland (Calif.) Daily Democrat. It was my first job out of college, and I think I only got a part-time position there because I was the fastest typist who applied, since I had almost no other qualifications. I started in sports, then went to Davis where I worked city beat, then to Woodland where I also did city beat.

Along the way, my colleagues on the DD discovered that I could draw, and I did a lot of graphics and illustrations for the paper. After I'd been there a short time--maybe while I was still doing part-time sports, around 1983-1984--the DD put out a special edition to commemorate . . . something. I don't remember exactly what--it wasn't sent to subscribers, it was a run of the paper done just for the paper's owners and staff. There may have been a banquet to which I wasn't invited. My illustration celebrated the career of (Googling quickly) Charles Paynton, your relative I presume, who at that point had been at the DD for decades and did a column titled "Backtrailing" (again, Google tells me this, I didn't remember it). Maybe the event was his retirement from the paper.

The gag of the cartoon is that Mr. Paynton was an old-fashioned fellow who didn't cotton to all the new-fangled technology that was then invading newspaper production. He'd have been happy clacking away on his ancient typewriter forever. 

Attached is the only photo I have of me from around that time and sitting in the newsroom of the Woodland Daily Democrat, where you'll see the type of computer terminal I tossed into Mr. Paynton's trash can.

Thanks for the memories and a look back at an early cartoon that I'm both embarrassed by and proud of."



Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Colorado Wildland Fire Conference

I haven't taken a lot of photos myself, but the conference is running an "Eventstream" for participants to pool their photos online in real time, and somebody posted this picture of me getting started.

I'll be heading home tomorrow after another half-day in Grand Junction, Colorado, at the Colorado Wildland Fire Conference, whose organizers asked me to deliver the opening keynote address this morning. The conference draws a couple hundred firefighting and fire mitigation professionals, mostly from Colorado but also throughout the western states. 

After a warm and moving introduction by conference organizer Schelly Olson, who lost her home in a wildfire, I began by saying: "I am not a wildfire expert. I am a wildfire survivor. Which makes me a KIND of an expert...." Went on to tell my fire story, show the KQED video, do some readings from the book, and distill some lessons learned from our fire that they might use in their own communities. If wildfire has hit anyplace harder than California the past few years, it's Colorado, and they appreciated a perspective they don't often hear.

I think it went very well.

The conference arranged for a small local independent bookstore, Out West Books, to order stock from Abrams, and shop owner Marya herself came to handle sales. I think we sold enough today, and maybe a few more tomorrow, to make it worth her trouble.


Marya selling books and me signing them.

To steal an old joke from Disneyland's Jungle Cruise, it's the BACK SIDE of a book signing!
I know you've always wondered.

I was a little intimidated coming to talk about fire to a roomful of fire professionals, but they couldn't be more welcoming. It's also my first plane flight and big in-person event in a loooong time, so that's weird.

It's a great group of people doing important work and I'm honored they invited me to their party.

EDITED TO ADD:

Interesting article here about the Colorado Wildland Fire Conference by Dan West of the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. Interesting to me, anyway, because I didn't know there was any press there and Dan didn't talk to me. He didn't need to, and his piece quotes me accurately, it just strikes me odd that he didn't introduce himself. Back when I was a journalist, I would have! Also, the conference had a lot more going on than two keynote speakers, though I'm pleased to be featured. Anyway, this is where I and my faithful Red Shirt were on Wednesday.

Photo by Dan West, Daily Sentinel

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

A Fire Story Teaching Guide

I'm excited and proud to announce that Pop Culture Classroom has created a Teaching Guide for A Fire Story that I think is excellent.

The guide is a six-page (free!) PDF meant for teachers who want to teach the book to students. It sums up settings, characters and key themes, and suggests research, discussion questions and essay ideas for the students. The guide also connects A Fire Story to Common Core standards for grades 11 and 12, and finally provides a list of books, games, and online information related to the topic.


I had a chance to review a draft of the guide and was blown away by how carefully and perceptively they'd read my book. I think I made three minor suggestions, all of which were incorporated. And it's challenging! There are questions like "Why do you think the author did this?" and "Why do you think the author didn't address that?" that I wish I knew the answers to!  

Nothing would be more gratifying than to see A Fire Story taught in schools. (I think it's a fine book for high schoolers; there's one naughty word that probably disqualifies it for younger students.) This guide makes that much more likely. Thanks to Pop Culture Classroom for doing such a terrific job!

Monday, July 26, 2021

Drawing for Dollars: Supporting the Cartoon Art Museum

In a parallel universe, I'm at San Diego Comic-Con right now drawing sketches to raise money for the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. Since I'm in the plague universe, I and many other cartoonists are doing the same thing at home (as we did last year). Here's how it works: you pay CAM $10 or $20 for a drawing by your favorite artist, and we'll do it and mail it to you.

My dance card filled up surprisingly quickly, so I'm sold out. The nice thing about doing these at home is that I can take my time and find proper references, unlike at the San Diego Convention Center where people are standing there waiting, the wifi is lousy, and I'm desperately trying to recall what Chewbacca's face really looks like (a dog/gorilla?). Got some strange requests this time but enjoyed them all! Four of the five paid a bit more for color, but since I had the watercolors out I just tarted up all of them. I will inscribe them as requested before mailing.

Thanks to everybody who commissioned a piece from me to support a good cause!

Request: "Tom Strong--battle worn, flying his jetpack please." The Tom Strong character is cool, kind of an old-school throwback "science hero" type, in the mold of my own Cap Crater. I couldn't find any reference of him flying a jetpack, but he often scoots around in a backpack-helicopter thing, so I went with that.

Request: "The Atom Indigo Lantern (DC Comics character)." My knowledge of The Atom begins and ends with the SuperFriends era of TV cartoons, but apparently Ray Palmer's been through some stuff since then, including a whole "microscopic barbarian king" and "sort of like a Green Lantern except purple" phase. Interesting career choices. I like drawing the fiddly bits.

Request: "Marvel Superhero." I emailed the customer to ask if he had a particular favorite, and he replied that he liked Hawkeye. Gather around, kids, while I show you what Hawkeye looked like in the comics before Jeremy Renner played him in the movies. I've always loved the character myself and have doodled him for decades. I was pretty proud that I thought of him shooting a bullseye through the "O" in "Cartoon."

Request: "John Carter, Warlord of Mars please, with alien dino ride." The challenge here is that John Carter is a pulp hero who's had a lot of different interpretations over the years. Specifying "Warlord of Mars" led me to the comic book with that subtitle, so I modeled mine after that version. Gave a lot of thought to what a Martian dinosaur might look like: red skin for camouflage, wide webbed feet for running over fine sand. The orange peak in the background is pure fancy--Mars has none of those--but it reads as "alien planet" so works for me.

Request: "The two garbagemen (Dick Miller and Robert Picardo) from 'The Burbs,'" which is a 1989 Tom Hanks movie. My first thought: what a weird request. Then I found a couple of clips of these guys online and saw the appeal. They're only on screen for a minute or two, but were a very funny comic duo, kind of a Laurel and Hardy. I think it's my favorite.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Fire Story Interview: Counterpunch

Here's a new Fire Story interview with John Hawkins for Counterpunch.org, conducted by e-mail a few days ago. He asked some questions no one has asked me before, and the conversation expanded a bit beyond the book. I think it's a good one!

An excerpt:

Q: A Fire Story does an excellent job of describing what people lose in the fire — material and systems and relationships. Can you elaborate on this? And how has the fire altered your understanding of life? The bigger picture…

Fies: Well-meaning people say, “You and your family survived, everything you lost was just stuff.” People who mean less well sometimes say, “I wish I’d have a fire to clean out all my stuff!” I want to punch them all in the nose. I write about this in the book: “stuff” isn’t just material possessions, it’s memories and history and roots.

The fact is, I don’t miss 95 percent of the stuff I lost. The catch is that the other 5 percent breaks my heart. We left a car in the garage that melted into a puddle that I haven’t spent even a minute thinking about, but I will always miss the first sonogram showing that my wife was going to have twins.

Monday, June 28, 2021

"Daisy, Daisy, Give Me Your Answer, Do."

 


It's been one of those days.

Trying to update my Adobe Creative Suite this morning, I somehow managed to crash and burn my computer, then sweep up those ashes, put them in an envelope, and mail them to Iceland, where they were burned again in an active volcano. 

In my long history of swearing at computers, Windows System Restore has about a 50% chance of working. After two hours of clicking, clanking, and chugging ones and zeros, it looks like today's my lucky day. My computer is experiencing the deja vu of reliving last Thursday while I'm back in operation. Adobe Creative Suite can wait to be updated another day.

Yeah, I had everything backed up. I'm kinda a stickler about that the past few years. It still would have been a heartbreaking pain. I did not need this reminder that too much of my life and work lives on these stupid boxes, nor how fragile and ephemeral it all is. But I got that reminder today, and I am happy to share it with you.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Comics Chat!

Henry Chamberlain, the proprietor of Comics Grinder, has interviewed some of the biggest names in comics for his podcast. Until yesterday, when he interviewed me. We talked for almost half an hour about how I came to be a cartoonist and touched on all my books, with a focus on comparing/contrasting "Mom's Cancer" with "A Fire Story." I think he's one of the more knowledgeable and thoughtful people in the comics press, and I enjoyed our conversation a lot!

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Bookplates! Getchyer Bookplates!

With "A Fire Story" officially out in paperback (updated and expanded!) it's an apt time to again mention that, in lieu of signing books in person, which still feels dicey, I'm happy to mail a free signed bookplate to anyone who asks. For those unfamiliar, a bookplate is a sticker (custom designed and signed-for-real by me!) that you stick in your book, and blammo! Signed book.

I don't need proof you actually bought the book. First, my readers would never lie to me. Second, my autograph is worthless, so you can't flip it on eBay. We're on the honor system.

Just email your address and any inscription you'd like to brianfies@gmail.com and I'll pop one in the post. And thanks!

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Release Day!


Today is the official release date of "A Fire Story" in paperback, updated and expanded, just like it says on the cover! I can't promise that if you walk into your local heroic independent bookseller they'll have them stacked to the ceiling, but it sure would be nice if you went in and asked. If you already bought the hardcover and wonder if you really need another one, I understand. Just give me a call and I'll read you the new stuff over a cup of cocoa. 

Monday, April 5, 2021

The Return of the Last Mechanical Monster

COMING THIS FALL: 192 pages of full-color Eisner-Award-nominated action and adventure! Plus a robot paper doll you can cut out and glue together yourself! It's THE LAST MECHANICAL MONSTER, in hardcover, from Abrams ComicArts!

I began working on LMM about 10 years ago, after Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? was published. After Mom's Cancer and World of Tomorrow I wanted to do something fun and fictional. This is the project on which I spent about a year writing and penciling more than 100 pages before realizing it wasn't the story I really wanted to tell. I turned all those sheets of paper over and began drawing a new version on their backs. I never regretted that "wasted" time because I figured I had to go through that to find the right story I DID want to tell.

At the time, publishers weren't interested. That's fine! I serialized it as a black-and-white webcomic, and it was nominated for Eisner Awards in 2014 and 2015. GoComics.com later picked it up, and after Editor Charlie and I did A Fire Story it came full-circle back to Abrams ComicArts, where it has found a very happy home.

This is the cover, which was just finalized a few days ago. Charlie and I are doing final edits now (Oxford commas, bah!). We'll put it to bed in a couple of weeks, then it's off to the printer and into your heroic local independent bookstores in September.

My fourth book. I really love this story and hope you will, too.

Monday, March 15, 2021

The Moment Between "Before" and "After"

Today is my daughters' birthday. Usually I make a joke about the Ides of March and post a cute photo of them as babies cuddling with each other or asleep on my chest. Thought I'd go in a different direction this time.

This is the very first photo I ever took of both of them together, moments after their births. There would follow hundreds of other photos of them together, but this was the first. You can see their little bald heads; they eventually grew hair. They were a few weeks premature and weighed about 5 pounds. As I recall, each had her own dedicated nurse. They were basically healthy but spent a couple of days in neonatal incubators. Karen needed more recovery time than they did. A few decades earlier, probably none of them would have survived the pregnancy.

There are very few moments that abruptly cleave a lifetime into "before" and "after." This is my happiest one. Happy Birthday, Chiquitas!

EDITED TO ADD:

HERE'S a story: we took the girls out to a nice restaurant for their birthday tonight, our county having recently opened to very limited indoor dining. Karen looks across the room at one of the four other parties in the place. "Do we know her?" I take a peek. "She looks familiar." A few minutes later she hails us, and we compare notes. Turns out she was our Lamaze coach before the girls were born, and her birthday is the same as theirs.

"I remember that you had twins!" she said.

"Well, here they are!" I said.

"Small world" doesn't begin to cover the incredible chain of circumstances that brought a woman who helped prepare us to bring our daughters into the world to that place at that time on this night. She seemed delighted to see how her work turned out. If I could've given her a long hug I would have.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Apartment


In my never-ending effort to fill my cultural gaps (we all have them), last night I watched for the first time Billy Wilder's "The Apartment," starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. It's a 1960 Oscar-winner, often listed as one of the best films of all time. I can see why.

Lemmon plays a low-level insurance executive who works his way up in the company by loaning his apartment to his sleazy superiors for their extramarital affairs. This leaves him locked out of his own apartment a lot, and with neighbors who are both impressed and disgusted by all the action they they think he's getting. MacLaine plays an elevator operator with bad taste in men, including Lemmon's married boss.

These are surprisingly mature themes. Not that people in 1960 didn't have affairs, but to see them portrayed so openly and casually on screen is a mild jolt. Nearly every man but Lemmon is a cad, and even he's an accomplice. MacLaine makes it clear that she's a "good girl" who's been around the block a few times. 

The movie's also a white-hot critique of mid-Century corporate culture, a pretty common theme of the time. Lemmon works at a desk in a grid of hundreds of identical people sitting at identical desks on an office floor that vanishes into infinity. They enter and exit elevators summoned and dispatched by stern women with clickers, like orca trainers at Sea World. In a few years, all those people's tasks will be taken over by computers, and it's easy to conclude the computers did them a favor.

Lemmon is terrific. I'm more used to old Jack Lemmon, whose quirks and mannerisms I didn't always enjoy, but young Jack Lemmon was a rubbery coiled spring who could make putting a kettle on the stove interesting. And MacLaine . . . sigh. She's impossibly beautiful as well as a complete, complex character in her own right. Two terrific performances. Add the avuncular Fred MacMurray and Ray Walston playing against type as disgusting jerks, and you've got yourself a movie.

I kept an eye on old tech. I am not a scholar on the history of electric blankets, paper towels or instant coffee, but was surprised that Lemmon's tiny apartment had all three. He also had a nifty tabletop television remote that looked to be hardwired to the TV, an old fridge with the compressor on top, and a match-lit gas stove. I read that Wilder deliberately designed the apartment with a realistically cramped layout and well-worn furnishings, some borrowed from his own home. It feels lived in. The film is an unintentional time capsule of its era.

I also kept an eye on details that play differently today than they would have then. Sexism, obviously. Men are execs and women are secretaries. MacClaine's entire job is to stand in the elevator and push buttons for people, and she has to laugh off handsy men pinching her butt as a condition of employment. Also racism. The only black person I can recall seeing is a shoe-shine man; the only Asian is a restaurant piano player whose album is titled "Rickshaw Boy."

I don't think drinking and drunks, which the movie is loaded with, are as funny as they used to be. The office Christmas party is a drunken bacchanal of unbridled lechery. And I was really struck by The Apartment's attitude toward suicide, which isn't exactly played for laughs but more lightly than felt right to me. MacClaine tries to kill herself with sleeping pills, after which Lemmon confesses to her that he once tried to shoot himself. Like it's just something folks do when they break up. Near the end of the film we hear a loud bang and wonder if Lemmon has finally done himself in, and the "joke" is that he only popped a bottle of champagne. Kind of cringe-inducing, I thought.

I quibble (understanding that my quibbles could be someone else's deal-breakers). The Apartment is a sophisticated film that expects its audience to keep up. Great dialog. There are a lot of small grace notes. I caught one bit where, early in the movie, a drunk Lemmon says "three" to MacLaine and holds up four fingers, and much later MacLaine does the same to him. It tells you these characters are on the same wavelength without actually saying so. They don't make a big deal out of it, both moments pass quickly, but if you catch it it's terrific. 

Recommended for its sharp writing and brilliant performances. May want to avoid it if its 60-year-old attitudes toward infidelity, sexism, racism, alcoholism, or suicide would make it hard to enjoy.

Monday, January 18, 2021

And the Livin' is Easy

 It's 80F (27C) with clear blue skies in northern California this afternoon. A perfect day!

That's a problem. It's the middle of winter. It should be 20 degrees colder and raining. We're breaking high-temperature records that have stood for 150 years. Average rainfall to date is 18 inches; we've had 6. If it doesn't rain hard in February and March, we're in for another drought and a kindling-dry fire season next fall. Worldwide, 2020 was one of the hottest years ever (graph from NASA's GISS Surface Temperature Analysis).

The expanded edition of "A Fire Story," coming out in a couple of months, hits the point that it's a book about living in a climate-changing world. I didn't really say that in the original book but the time since has made it clear to me, and convinced me that I shouldn't be coy about saying so. 

Today is beautiful. Karen and I had a picnic. I never would have expected Armageddon to be so . . . pleasant.