Wednesday, September 27, 2023

After The Fire USA

Yesterday I had the honor and fun of being the opening keynote speaker at the three-day 2023 After The Fire USA Wildfire Leadership Summit, a national (and even international) gathering of fire prevention and recovery experts that happened to be held less than an hour from my home! I didn't promote it ahead of time because it was invitation only, and an impressive group it was.

Photo of me in my red work shirt waaaay up on the stage, taken by and stolen from Jennifer Gray Thompson, who I hope won't mind. My talk mostly comprised readings from A Fire Story, chosen to set the stage for the rest of the three-day conference.

I read from A Fire Story, trying to tie into some themes such as resilience and "who cares for the caregivers?" that I knew would be addressed later in the conference. Organizer Jennifer Gray Thompson opened the event with a quote from Rebecca Solnit's book Hope in the Dark: "Inside the word 'emergency' is 'emerge'; from an emergency new things come forth. The old certainties are crumbling fast, but danger and possibility are sisters."

That seemed apt.

People said I did a good job. The speakers and panels that followed me were interesting and even important. Maui was on a lot of minds. I knew a few of the attendees, as either fire survivors or fire experts or both--and it was good to see them again. Made a couple of new friends. A great afternoon.

A reverse angle on the room, also by Jennifer. This was at the Hanna Center in Glen Ellen, Calif., and the back of the room opened up onto a patio where vendors set up tables. Perfect weather for it.

Later today, I'll be Zooming into a graphic medicine class at San Francisco State University to talk about Mom's Cancer. Yes, there are now classes in graphic medicine, a whole burgeoning field of medical humanities that didn't exist before 2010 (and I was there!). And yes, it can be difficult shifting gears from Fire Story yesterday to Mom's Cancer today. I'm not complaining--it's a privilege that anyone wants to hear from me at all--but I've got to get into the right headspace lest I start babbling about world's fairs or giant robots.

Monday, September 25, 2023

National Comic Book Daughters Day!

I am reliably informed that today, Monday, Sept. 25, is National Daughters Day! As you may know, I have two of them. Also, in another twofer for me, it is also National Comic Book Day! WOW! 

I am in the rare position of being able to celebrate both events simultaneously by sharing examples of my daughters appearing in comic books--not coincidentally, mine. Happy Comic Book Daughters Day, Robin and Laura! You've already been drawn into the next one, too.

Celebrating Mom's birthday in Mom's Cancer.

Inside the Perisphere at the 1939 World's Fair, in Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow.

Swooning over the Cosmic Kid with the rest of my coloring team, Kelly and Kristen, in Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow.

Providing refuge in A Fire Story.

Gaping at the magnificence of Sparky the Mad Inventor (in his dreams) in The Last Mechanical Monster.

Sunday, September 24, 2023


The Disneyland train station at the entrance to the park, with two tunnels to the left and right separating the real world from "the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy."

The family and I are home from a trip to Disneyland and California Adventure (aka "the old parking lot"). No apologies for being a Disney fan. I understand how the world works: I realize I have been conditioned since birth to feel nostalgia for corporate properties designed to take my money in exchange for a warm fuzzy glow. I have no problem with that deal. Warm fuzzy glows are hard to come by and, in my opinion, Disney delivers them better than most.

We had a very nice time.

It had been eight years since our last visit, and both we and the parks have changed. They added some rides and rejiggered some lands, including the new Avengers Campus, a fairly sterile and unengaging chunk of California Adventure even for a lifelong Avengers fan like me; and Galaxy's Edge in the back corner of Disneyland, which everyone calls "Star Wars Land." The latter is a brilliant and immersive environment that I still think was put in the wrong park. But nobody asked me, so I'll enjoy it where it is.

I saw three neat innovations in ride technology. First, more sophisticated use of projectors in ways large and small, from giving characters completely animated faces to adding a bit of background visual interest to creating an entire universe (e.g., Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway, which places riders into an animated world much like Toon Town in "Roger Rabbit").

Second, they've somehow figured out how to simulate a 3D environment without glasses. It's not quite full 3D but it's close: call it 2.5D, such that when you look out a spaceship window in Galaxy's Edge, you're not just watching a big TV screen. The other ships and planets and such have some dimension and distance from you. Kind of like those old lenticular bubble-gum cards? I don't know how they do it, but it's pretty keen.

Third and most impressive, they've got trackless ride vehicles that can travel anywhere within a space, giving each group of guests a unique experience. The tech was put to good use in both the Star Wars Rise of the Resistance ride, in which escape pods full of riders careen through an Imperial spaceship pursued by Kylo Ren, and Runaway Railway, in which what appears to be three linked train cars separate from the engine and cartoony hell breaks loose.

As I alluded to in my book "Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow," I think Disney is important. I don't think you can understand 20th century America without grappling with Disney, both good and bad: risk-taking entrepreneurship, technological innovation, evolving labor relations, the invention of the teenager, historical myth-making (pro and con), TV and film history, futurism, culture, entertainment, intellectual property law. All of that is distilled into a few square miles of Anaheim, California, the only Disney park with Walt's fingerprints all over it. Or you can just forget about that and ride "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Haunted Mansion," still delightful gems of peak 1960s Disney. 

In addition, in our experience last week, Disney still earns its reputation for terrific customer service. Several cast members went above and beyond the call of duty to solve problems and make sure all our needs were met. There's a story that Walt Disney nearly fired an executive who told Walt he didn't need to pick up a piece of trash because a custodian would get around to it. Walt thought that park quality and guest experience were everyone's business. That work ethic and company culture still seems widespread.

Just a few representative photos that have no images of Karen, Robin or Laura because I think at least some of them would rather I left them out of it.

The Matterhorn in the background, submarines (recently re-themed to a Little Nemo ride), and a Monorail track circling to the right.

For a few months around Halloween, the Haunted Mansion gets a "Nightmare Before Christmas" overlay. It's fun, but I still prefer the classic 99 Ghosts and Paul Frees narration.

Walking through a tunnel into the immersive Galaxy's Edge, a hive of scum and villainy. The full-size Millennium Falcon (not in this pic) is stunning.

I got my first Avengers comic at age 10 and at one time had a collection of every issue of the Avengers starting with #1 (guess what happened to that collection?). So it actually meant something for me to pose as superheroically as I could muster wearing cargo shorts and my dork hat. One reaches an age when vanity is outweighed by the wisdom of preventing skin cancer, particularly when one is a pasty person with thinning gray (silver?!) hair.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Willingham Frees "Fables"

This is the most interesting and paradigm-shifting (by which I mean it changed the way I think) publishing-related news I've seen in a long time. 

Short version: Bill Willingham created a popular and successful comic book series called "Fables" 20 years ago. It was published by DC Comics but, unlike writers and artists who work on Superman and Batman, Willingham owned the intellectual property and copyright to his work. There's no dispute about that.

After years of being (as he describes it in the linked piece) frustrated, lied to, and cheated by his publisher, today he dropped a nuke and made "Fables" public domain. That means anyone in the world has the right to use "Fables" characters and tell "Fables" stories however they want--prose, comics, cartoons, movies, puppet shows--anyone but Willingham himself, ironically, who's still bound by his contract to only publish "Fables" with DC. "Fables" now belongs to the other 8-billion-minus-1 people on the planet.

Wow. Geez. I've never heard of a creator doing that,* but can't think of a reason it's not legal, ethical, and the biggest middle finger Willingham could possibly flip.

To me, it highlights the power creative people have and are often willing, even eager, to give up. My literary lawyer explained it to me like this: when you create something, you hold ALL the rights to it. If someone such as a publisher wants it, they will negotiate to pay you for YOUR rights. More rights should cost more money. YOU hold all the cards, even though it sure doesn't feel like it when you're desperate for your first book deal and it's the only offer on the table. It's hard to believe, but they really do need you more than you need them--as long as you're willing to walk away with nothing. It's even harder to believe, but no deal is better than a bad one, as I've learned from friends who've made bad deals.

A publisher isn't your boss. They're your business partner.

(*Tom Lehrer, whose smart, satirical songs were very popular in the 1950s and '60s, recently made his entire catalog public domain, but not because of a dispute with anyone. He's apparently just a really cool guy.)

Friday, September 8, 2023

NNLM Book Club!

My graphic medicine friend Matthew Noe tells me that the Network of the National Library of Medicine (NNLM) has named A Fire Story one of its three September reading club selections! This month's theme is "Disasters and Emergencies." 

This is a big deal! Also a big honor, since I assume NNLM doesn't often focus on graphic novels. They provide a link to the discussion guide and other neat stuff. 

I imagine the odds of a NNLM Bookclubber seeing this post are low, but I'm always happy to speak to groups like that if they want me. Thanks for the selection!

Sunday, September 3, 2023

Rocketeer on the Block

Hey, this slipped by me! The Rocketeer art I made as a fundraiser for the Cartoon Art Museum and Hairy Cell Leukemia research in memory of Dave Stevens is now up for auction! As I write this, the eBay auction has 3 days 20 hours to go, and the current bid is $510 (which flabbergasts me--thank you, mysterious bidder!). I wrote a blog post about drawing this piece back in February.

The artwork is 3 feet high by 1 foot wide and shows our hero rocketing into the sky above the Bulldog Diner, with his faithful gal and mechanic standing by. It's one of many pieces CAM has been auctioning all summer, and which I believe are now on exhibit at the museum in San Francisco. I need to check that out!

Thanks again!

Saturday, September 2, 2023

Family Style & Buzzing

A few weeks ago, cartoonist Thien Pham, writer Samuel Sattin, and artist Rye Hickman did readings and book signings at the Charles M. Schulz Museum. I've just finished their books, Family Style and Buzzing, and have some thoughts--less rigorous than reviews, but maybe helpful to someone thinking of buying them.

I know Thien a bit--enough to call him a friend, but only because he's so darned friendly--and his Family Style: Memories of an American from Vietnam just makes me gape at him with newfound respect, thinking "How did this guy survive all that?!" 

Pham and his family escaped from Vietnam on a rickety boat, overloaded to bursting, when he was a child. Hope for rescue turns to sinking dread when pirates attack, and Pham's mother tells him to close his eyes. For several pages, we see the raid through young Thien's eyes--that is, his closed eyes, so we see nothing, our imaginations picturing more than Pham could draw. As a HUGE proponent of less-is-more and the idea that negative space is one of the most powerful things a cartoonist can put on the page, I think Pham's choice to publish page after page of black, broken only by the desperate reassuring words of his mother, is one of the gutsiest things I've seen a cartoonist do in a long time. It worked for me. The suspense was tremendous.

Family Style is largely a story of assimilation, seen partly through the lens of food, as the familiar Vietnamese home cooking of Thien's mother gives way to hamburgers and Chuck E. Cheese pizza. Thien's parents go from naive newcomers who don't know how to hail a taxi to small business owners, while Thien grows from a kid who knows a handful of English words to a teenager who's embarrassed by how bad his Vietnamese has become. It's a thoughtful, nuanced, compassionate take.

Thien's story is fundamentally American. It's easy for those of us born here to take it for granted and get a little cynical about our country's ideals, but they're real and sincere to Thien's family, who go through Hell to get here and work hard to succeed. There's an obvious comparison to Thi Bui's The Best We Could Do, which is also about the life of a young Vietnamese refugee, but they have different tones and perspectives. They strike me as complementary, not competitors. You couldn't go wrong reading them both.

Graphic novelist Maia Kobabe interviewing Sam Sattin and Rye Hickman in the Schulz Museum's theater. Thien Pham spoke after this, but I didn't get a photo.

I didn't know Sattin or Hickman before seeing them read from their book Buzzing, a graphic novel about 12-year-old Isaac, who's just trying to get through finals and summer vacation without obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) wrecking his life. We see the main metaphor of the story immediately: compulsive thoughts swarm around Isaac like cartoon bees, droning in his ear that nobody likes him, he's an asymmetrical freak, and his ritualistic behaviors are all that keep his loved ones alive. Sattin draws on his own history with OCD to give insights that only someone who'd been through it could. 

The bees are a great, effective device. As Sattin and/or Hickman (I don't recall which!) explained in their talk, individual bees are essentially harmless. But two or three bees are a distraction, and a swarm buzzing you all day every day is a life-threatening terror. 

A big part of Buzzing involves Isaac finding a group of kids who play a game like Dungeons & Dragons and who accept him as he is, and we see a lot of their imaginary campaigns. The characters the friends create, and the quest they undertake, give some insights into their personalities and how quirks that can be handicaps in one situation can be gifts in another.

A quick word about Hickman's art: I think it's very good, particularly in its thoughtful use of color to indicate place and tone. The fantasy sequences have a style of their own that still fits with the real-world material. Also, Hickman's characters are well-acted; their postures and expressions sensitively reveal their feelings.

Another quick word for my friends in Graphic Medicine: add Buzzing to the reading list.

I was struck by the absence of real villains in both Family Style and Buzzing (aside from Thien's pirates, who are gone quickly). Pham doesn't show us much in the way of anti-Asian racism, and in fact almost all of the neighbors, sponsors, teachers and friends we meet are well-meaning and helpful. Likewise, Isaac in Buzzing finds a crew of caring, empathetic friends with very cool parents. Isaac's mother is overprotective but comes around; his older sister, Miriam, is an overachiever who's sick of all the attention her brother's OCD consumes, but she, too, ultimately supports him. Despite that, the fictional Isaac and real Thien struggle mightily. It's sobering to reflect on how many people with less support turn out all right regardless, and how many don't.

Both books are listed for young adults, but that's just promotional poppycock. If either sounds like something you'd like, give 'em a shot.

Monday, August 28, 2023

Go Go!

I'm pretty sure this is my sister. Honestly, she's looked better.

I've learned late in the day that this is National Power Rangers Day. No, really, you can look it up! I'll celebrate by bragging on my little sister, Elisabeth, whom some of you may know as "Kid Sis" and who, back in the day, was an actor and stunt performer on the early "Power Rangers!"

No, really!

Lis did a lot of work as an extra when she was a young woman in L.A. At one time, I had a sizzle reel of her appearances as a silent background player on a ton of network and syndicated programs. One thing led to another and she found herself on "Power Rangers."

I think most people know that "Power Rangers" originated in Japan. For the U.S. market, the Japanese programs were spliced with American actors, English dialog, etc. What's less well-known is that the Japanese production company also shipped the costumes to the U.S. so that additional action scenes with the Rangers and Monsters could be shot here, and that's where Lis came in.

For her, it was long hot days smothered in foam rubber under the southern California sun. For millions of American kids, it was magic. 

Happy Power Rangers Day, Lis! It's always Morphin' Time somewhere.

Lis taking a breather in half of the Stag Beetle costume, surrounded by her army of Putties.

One of my favorite photos because it tells a whole story in itself. This is Lis and her fellow performers, anonymously toiling on a rainy day with a barebones production crew almost literally in the shadow of the "Hollywood" sign. The glamour of showbiz, kids!

Gettin' Figgy

First figs of the season! Our fig tree is still small--about six feet high and wide--but looks to be putting out dozens of figs this year. People have a lot of good ideas and recipes for using figs, but we just like to eat 'em.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Peanuts Memories

Today's "Peanuts" strip, copyright 1976, brings up a couple of nice memories. Peppermint Patty muses about a shopping center with a bookstore and ice cream shop next door to each other. I remember that shopping center, bookstore, and ice cream shop, which were in Santa Rosa, Calif., the city Mr. Schulz and I both called home.

Schulz's studio is about half a mile from a mall called Coddingtown. In 1976, it had a Books Inc. shop next door to a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop, and the signs Peppermint Patty mentions were actually posted in their windows. Both shops are long gone, but in the '70s I spent a lot of time in both. In particular, Books Inc. was a terrific independent chain that's still around--just not in Coddingtown. Remember when malls used to have bookstores?

That reminisce brought up another memory in the same mall. Later, maybe in the late '80s, I was in a Hallmark store standing in line behind Mr. Schulz, who looked to be buying a few small gifts. He handed his credit card to the cashier, who looked at the name on the card, looked up at him, looked down at the card, looked up at him, and then pulled her eyeballs back into their sockets to ring him up. Neither of them said anything but, as I remember it, he just quietly sighed.

I haven't thought of any of those things in years. It was nice to have the Sunday paper bring them back to mind. And I can't explain the potato chip deal.

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Steve Lieber's Portfolio Review


This advice is making the rounds of cartooning circles. Steve Lieber is a successful graphic novelist and comic book artist, mostly superheroes but also other genres. I'm sharing because I think it packs a lot of wisdom in one tight package and I don't disagree with any of it. 

A great deal of comics craft is similar to filmmaking, and I find it interesting that the art forms developed on parallel tracks at about the same time (origin in the late 19th century, explosion of artistic innovation in the 1920s and '30s, etc.). We pull from the same toolbox.

For example, the "180-degree rule" says that you draw a line through the scene or the characters, and the artist's point of view--the "camera," if you will--always stays on one side of that line to avoid radical changes of perspective that confuse the reader/viewer. 

Lieber's tips about composition, establishing shot (a wide view that shows the reader where they are and who's in the scene), and depth of field also apply to filmmaking. Making a comic is very similar to directing a movie, and a young cartoonist could learn a lot from a film studies course. 

The tip I would emphasize, and the one I always encourage young artists to do myself, is Number 6: Draw from Life. Cartoonists simplify and stylize, it's what we do, but that simplification and stylization should still be rooted in reality. My main complaint about the manga-flavored stylization I see MANY young cartoonists adopt is less about the style itself, which I have no real beef with, than the fact that they're drawing someone else's version of a car or a cat or a face, not their own. Sit down and draw a cat from life as accurately as you can, then simplify it and polish it until you can't possibly draw the cat with fewer lines, and that's a cartoon cat in YOUR style that I bet won't look like anyone else's.

Number 11 is important. Whenever a drawing isn't working for me, and I just can't figure out how to arrange the characters and background, often it's because I haven't defined where they are in space. Establish a horizon line, draw a grid if you have to, and everything usually falls into place.

Number 12 I would amend to advise cartoonists to place the lettering first. Then you don't have to worry about leaving enough room for the words, you're drawing the art around them. Text pulls the reader's eye through the page, it guides them and sets the pace. If a reader gets lost, very often it's because you've placed the text wrong (the other big reason readers get lost is because you've laid out the panels wrong). 

Making comics involves a surprising depth of craft that, when it works, should be invisible. Almost everybody learns by doing it wrong. I still do it wrong, just less than I used to.

Saturday, August 12, 2023

The Intellectual Life #17

A Peek into the Intimate Intellectual Life of a Long-Married Couple, Part 17:

(I made pancakes for breakfast today. Later this morning, Karen and I will visit friends, a wife and husband who both happen to be Superior Court judges.)

Karen: What's that white powder on your shirt?

Brian: Cocaine.

Karen: (Unamused glare.)

Brian: I probably shouldn't wear my cocaine shirt to a judge's house.

Karen: TWO judges!

Brian: It could be pancake flour.

Karen: That's our story and we're sticking to it.

Karen (Looking over a griddle full of flapjacks): This is when my mom would put a pat of butter on each pancake.

Brian: I always liked the idea. Didn't love the execution.

Karen: You didn't like melted butter on your pancakes?

Brian: It just makes a wet puddle in the middle of your pancake.

Karen: A wet puddle of BUTTER!

Brian: My mom didn't do that.

Karen: If she really loved you, she would have.

This has been a peek into the intimate intellectual life of a long-married couple.

Thursday, August 10, 2023


My heart's breaking for victims of the Maui firestorm, which at this writing has killed at least 36. I didn't post earlier because I didn't think I had anything novel or interesting to say about it. This morning I decided I did.

I chose this photo, from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, of flames racing over the hills toward houses below because it could have been taken of my neighborhood in 2017. I was them. Right now, those people don't know what hit them. As I described in A Fire Story, they're living in a tiny bubble, focusing on themselves and their families, trying to meet their immediate needs for shelter and food. They're trying to figure out this afternoon, not next month. In time they'll look up and their focus will expand to other people and longer goals, but not yet. 

If I could advise them, I'd say: Set your priorities. Structure helps. Wake up every day and make a list. Check off what you can, then get up the next day and make another list. Put one foot in front of the other. You will breathe and even laugh again.

Don't be too embarrassed or proud to accept help. I can't tell you how many people I saw who had literally nothing but still declined aid, saying "Give it to someone who needs it more." Right now, that's you. Later on you can pay it forward. Take the help.

If I could advise their relatives and friends, I'd say: ask the victims what they need and really listen. They probably don't need piles of clothes, or teddy bears, or pots and pans, or canned food from the back of your pantry. For the next few weeks they'll be living on a cot or a friend's couch and have nowhere to put that stuff anyway. 

Honestly, for all the good intentions and generosity of people who tried their best, what we really appreciated and used were gift cards to places like Walmart, Target and Safeway (all stores that I see Maui has). Say what you want about big-box superstores, but in our disaster they were the only businesses that stayed open and had everything we needed in one place.

Don't fret about getting back to normal because you never will. The old normal is gone. But you will make a new normal; in fact, you're already making it without even realizing it. Someday, I hope, you'll be able to gather with the people who pulled you through, and who you helped pull through, and say, "Can you believe we did that?" It will feel like a different lifetime ago because it was. Look forward to that.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Robbie Robertson

Singer-songwriter Robbie Robertson died at the age of 80. I was a casual fan who knew his greatest hits, was aware of some of the drama that broke up The Band, and had a lot of respect for his artistic integrity. Safe to say he never sold out. 

I never spoke to, corresponded with, or breathed the same air as Robertson, but I did have an opportunity to work with him a while back. He wanted to write a graphic novel--an insider's history of rock-and-roll kinda thing--and needed an artist. I was asked if I wanted to pitch. As I recall, I doggedly sketched and doodled and drew through a long weekend, and on Monday reported back that I had nuthin'. I couldn't crack the nut. Robertson's concept was fine, I just wasn't the right person for the job, and said so. 

I guess his graphic novel never happened. I don't regret declining. The prospect of committing to 200 pages of art you have no idea how to do would be a special kind of torture, plus I had ideas of my own I wanted to focus on. But sometimes I think it would've been very cool. I bet Robertson would have told a hell of a story.

EDITED TO ADD: My editor, Charlie Kochman, tells the rest of the story on Facebook, much of it new to me. It's better than I told it. Click on that embedded link to read it.

Yeah, the story I tried to develop art for was Robertson's Billy and Mojo idea. I'd forgotten that it was meant to be a children's book, probably because I don't really write or draw differently for children and adults. Deciding which shelf it goes on is someone else's job. 

The nut I couldn't crack was integrating Billy and his cat Mojo into the story. I couldn't just draw Billy meandering through history saying, "Gee, Mojo, here we are at Sun Records!" "Golly, we're on Abbey Road, do you think we'll see any Beatles?" That would have been a terrible comic. But I couldn't think of any other way to do it. Maybe nobody else could, either, and that's why it didn't happen in that form, although Charlie describes how it morphed into a later and very different Robertson book.

To hear Charlie tell it, I never really had a shot anyway. Which is fine. I had fun playing in Robertson's sandbox for a couple of days, which is all it was meant to be.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Ten Most Important Eisner Award Winners

Here's a nice surprise: John Dodge of Comic Book Resources (CBR) calls Mom's Cancer one of the "Ten Most Important Eisner Award Winners" of all time! That's ten drawn from 35 years of awards given to hundreds of comics in many, many categories. I'm on a list with Watchmen, Bone, and Calvin & Hobbes.


Dodge wrote, "Apart from helping to lay the foundation for digital comics as a relevant branch of the wider medium, this win also shined a spotlight on Mom's Cancer as a testament to the kind of heartfelt, deeply moving interpersonal drama that is so often lacking in other, more action centric titles that are themselves indicative of the type of stories that have long dominated the world of comics."

Mom's Cancer won as a webcomic in 2005 before it was published as a book by Charles Kochman at Abrams ComicArts in 2006, and was indeed the first webcomic to win an Eisner in the brand-new category of "Best Digital Comic." At the time, there was considerable debate about whether online comics were actually comics at all. As I recall, Will Eisner himself settled the issue. Since his name was on the trophy, his opinion carried considerable weight.

(I never met Mr. Eisner. He loved handing out his namesake awards in person, but died in January 2005 before I won mine.)

Mom's Cancer is still in print. I give a couple of talks every year to medical students who study it in their medical humanities curricula. I'm always welcome at the annual international graphic medicine conference, some of whose organizers got into the field because they read it. And once in a while I get a royalty check worth enough to buy a real nice dinner.

I couldn't be prouder of a story or more gratified by the astonishingly long life it's had, coming up on 20 years now. I know my friend, Editor Charlie, feels the same. It's truly nice to see that acknowledged by CBR.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Tall Tales by Jaffee

Recently bought at a fair price from a reputable auction: original art for the Feb. 12, 1962 syndicated comic strip "Tall Tales" by the great Al Jaffee.

Jaffee's idea for "Tall Tales" was to turn comics convention on its side--literally 90 degrees. Each strip was tall and skinny, with gags composed to suit the space. Jaffee is much better known for his work for MAD Magazine than a short-lived newspaper comic, so why was I eager to have this? 

First, because I doubt I could afford a Jaffee MAD piece. But also: anyone who's heard me talk or write about my small collection of original comic art knows that I have one rule: everything has to come with a story. I don't just collect to collect. Every piece is by a friend, or acquired from the artist directly, or was drawn by a cartooning hero whose influence I can effuse about for longer than you can bear to hear it.

As I mentioned when Al Jaffee died in April, I met him at the San Diego Comic-Con in 2008, when I was scheduled to sign books at the Abrams booth immediately after him. We had a half hour to chat, and Mr. Jaffee was as interesting, charming, and twinkly as you'd want him to be. The book he'd come to sign was a "Tall Tales" collection by Abrams. Ah ha! There's the connection! I treasured my signed copy until it and my house disappeared. 

When I won the auction, I emailed Editor Charlie, friend and editor to both Jaffee and me, and asked if my strip happened to be in the book. Charlie said "No" and gave me an interesting explanation for it. I had forgotten that "Tall Tales" began as a pantomime strip--no words--which made it popular internationally. A syndicate executive insisted that Jaffee add captions because, he said, "Americans don't like wordless cartoons." In the preface to his book, Jaffee wrote, "I reluctantly acquiesced and, as a result, the words went in and my foreign clients went away," as did the strip shortly after.

I think that background gives the piece some interesting history and texture. Mr. Jaffee would have preferred his strip to remain wordless but it's still a great gag, beautifully drawn. And it comes preloaded with a story.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Ex Libris

How We Spent Our Weekend: Building a bookcase wall for our daughters. I designed it. Saturday was sawing, nailing, gluing and screwing it together; Sunday was trimming, spackling, painting, and sitting back and admiring. We didn't install the two light fixtures, they were already on the wall and we worked around them. I plussed it with a color-changing LED strip on top. 

While I worked on this project, Karen set up an herb-drying facility (mostly a clothes line in a basement, but it's cool!) and did a ton of landscaping. Robin and Laura worked everywhere needed. In the end, it took all of us to polish off the library. 

We have a saying in our family: It's not a real project until Brian bleeds. This was a real project. Luckily, I kept my trivial sanguinary drips off the fresh paint and carpet. I love doing something real that's going to be around a while. Good productive weekend.

No, you can't afford me.

Friday, July 14, 2023

Rocketeer Update

After weeks of wrestling with the unhelpful tech wizards at eBay, the Cartoon Art Museum has kicked off its big summer tribute to the Rocketeer by Dave Stevens with an art auction. You may recall that I inked and watercolored a large (12 x 36 inches!) drawing to raise funds for CAM and the Hairy Cell Leukemia Foundation, which researches the disease that killed Stevens. 

CAM is auctioning off a few pieces per week and I've been told that mine will go under the hammer (that's auction talk!) in late August. Obviously they're saving the best for last. Meanwhile, look at the work being auctioned now and in coming weeks, including some by famous syndicated and comic book cartoonists. Other events will include art exhibitions and guest speakers. 

I'll be sure to let everyone know when mine comes around. Just try to shut me up. 

This is mine. Ink and watercolor on watercolor paper, 12 x 36 inches (30 x 91 cm).

Wednesday, July 12, 2023


My friend Denis St. John and his pal David Yoder do a podcast called "Supermansplaining," and for its big 50th episode they asked me on to talk about The Last Mechanical Monster. So I did.

The idea of the podcast is that Denis is a cartoonist who hasn't really read much Superman, so each week David (who's also a cartoonist) describes a Superman comic to Denis and they discuss it. I think it's a fun idea, especially since some of the old Superman comics got pretty weird. "Well, in this issue, Jimmy Olson turns into a giant turtle-man...." My visit stretched the format a bit.

If 67 minutes of me blabbing isn't too much--and I understand if it is--I think we had a good talk about The Last Mechanical Monster, my work and approach to comics in general, how I decided my story was fantasy rather than science fiction, character development, worldbuilding, and much more, and I recommend a listen. 

Denis and David are smart and fun, and we had a good time. Thanks for the invitation, guys!

Sunday, July 9, 2023

The Dial of Destiny

Last night we saw "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" with our daughters. Safe to say that Indy was a huge influence on our girls when they were kids--one went into archaeology and the other into museum studies; they joke that they grew up to be Indy and his museum pal Brody. Good news: we all liked it a lot.

What struck me from a storytelling perspective is that it's ABOUT something. To avoid spoilers, I'll illustrate with an example from what most people consider one of the best "Star Trek" movies, "Wrath of Khan." IMO, what makes that movie beloved is that it's not really about a space battle, it's about Kirk feeling old and obsolete, finding that he still has a purpose, and learning that you can be good and clever but still lose. Despite the sci-fi setting and trappings, that's real. It's a subtext that resonates.

Similarly, "The Wizard of Oz" isn't really a story about a girl who gets whisked by a tornado to a magical land. It's about a farm kid in the middle of nowhere who yearns to experience the wider world and eventually masters it with the guidance of new mentors and friends. So is "Star Wars." *

(* Obligatory "Hero's Journey" footnote to save you the trouble of pointing it out.)

Not every story needs a subtext. Some provide fine entertainment being no more than exactly what they appear to be. But "Dial of Destiny" is about more than it appears to be about, which I think makes it deeper, richer, and kind of a standout among current movies in general. Other movies have as much action and chases and CGI spectacle. I thought "Dial" had an unusual amount of heart. 

Thursday, July 6, 2023

Cartooning Corner

Cartoonists' Pro Tip: Keep your bottle of indelible waterproof India ink in a ceramic planter saucer or similar wide, shallow container in anticipation of the day you inevitably knock it over.

I learned that lesson at some expense many years ago, when I ruined a wall-to-wall carpet. I don't recall knocking over a bottle of ink since--until today, when my saucer saved a very large piece of art, a table, my pants, and the floor below us from permanent emblackening and eternal ruin. Note the shiny puddle drying in the saucer.

If you're a cartoonist who has gone all-digital, feel free to ignore this tip, although I would still suggest positioning a medium-size neodymium magnet beneath your computer monitor to capture any excess electrons that spill out of it.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Back in Blue and Gold

Inside the Rec Hall/Pavilion/University Credit Union Center. Hasn't changed a bit.

Wallowing in some nostalgia this weekend, as Karen and I returned to our alma mater, the University of California, Davis, to watch our future niece-in-law, Charlene, celebrate her MBA graduation. Forty years ago, when Karen and I graduated in this arena, it was called the "Rec Hall." By the time our girls graduated in the same arena, they'd built a new recreation hall so they called it the "Pavilion." In the years since then, UCD sold the naming rights so today it's the "University Credit Union Center." It's still the exact same brutalist concrete blockhouse as ever. 

The campus has built up a lot since I went there, but the dorm where Karen and I met still stands about 100 yards away. I saw my old observatory atop another building about 100 yards the other way. A lot of good things happened within a 100-yard circle of where I was standing on Saturday. Including Charlene's graduation!

My nephew, Brian, and his brilliant betrothed, Charlene.

Thursday, June 15, 2023

My Reuben Award

If you ever get a chance to do a favor for Karen Green, don't hesitate! 

Karen, the curator of comics and cartoons at Columbia University, is teaching a class on comics and asked me to Zoom in last week to talk about color in storytelling--not just coloring the sky blue and grass green, but using color as a narrative tool to deliver information and evoke emotion. Since all of my graphic novels have had a different approach to color, I leaped at the chance to drone about it! I also touched on the historical methods and limitations of printing color comics, and showed examples of old comics that I thought used color in especially interesting ways. I think my 90-minute talk went well and the students were smart and terrific.

Well, today I got a box from Karen ice-packed with all the bread, meat, cheese, pickles and condiments I need to make perfect Reuben sandwiches straight from Katz's famous deli in New York! Holy Cannoli! As I told Karen when I thanked her, she had no way of knowing that Reubens are my favorite sandwich, going back to when my Mom and I used to make them when I was a kid. It was kind of our quiet thing, and I still judge new restaurants by sampling their Reuben. 

It was an unexpected, unnecessary, but very kind and thoughtful gift. Thanks very much, Karen! I owe you a thousand.

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Great Power, Not So Great Responsibility

Reading the many tributes to the late comic book artist John Romita Sr., whose influential work I admired very much, a lighter realization with universe-shattering implications dawned on me. 

Romita once drew my friends, Wendy and Richard Pini, into a Ghost Rider comic book written by Tony Isabella. Ghost Rider knows the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Avengers. This puts me two degrees of separation from everyone in the Marvel Universe.

Likewise, writer Louise Simonson and artist John Bogdanove wrote my friend and editor, Charles Kochman, into their Superman comic books. In fact, Charlie edits Clark Kent's novels, which means Superman and I share the same editor (which genuinely delights me!). This puts me two degrees of separation from everyone in the DC Universe.

You see where I'm going with this. There's a possibility that I am some sort of multiverse nexus, a portal bridging different realities, which could make me the most powerful and dangerous being in existence. If aliens or time travelers suddenly appear to blast me into atoms, you'll know why.

Tuesday, June 13, 2023


I saw this on a friend's feed this morning and it made me laugh: the fine folks who make Styrofoam once sent MAD Magazine a scary lawyer letter and MAD turned it into a joke. That took some guts.

Way back when I was a newspaper reporter, I got a nearly identical scary lawyer letter from the WHAM-O corporation because I'd written an article about the sport of "Frisbee Golf." That's what the official rules called it, that's what the participants called it, that's what the signs on the course called it, so that's what I called it. WHAM-O, which manufactures Frisbees, insisted that in all future articles the sport must be referred to as "Plastic Flying Disc Golf," and asked for an editorial retraction/correction. We ignored the latter, and since the sport was unlikely to be covered by our paper again, we ignored the former as well. It still made my pulse quicken to know that WHAM-O lawyers were watching my every move.

I understand that companies have to protect their trademarks, lest they become the common names for things they aren't, like . . . well, like all the examples given in MAD's cheeky reply. I also did not know that plastic foam containers, cups, plates, etc. are not actually made of official Styrofoam brand foam products, or at least they weren't in 1990. So I think we've all learned a valuable lesson today.

Friday, May 26, 2023


The mighty Columbia. The beauty of the Gorge is hard to capture in a photo. It's impossible not to stand on its banks and think, "This is the same magnificent landscape that Lewis and Clark saw." Minus the towns and bridges and buildings and stuff.

I'm killing a little time in Stevenson, Washington this morning before heading home after my marathon "Fire Story" day yesterday. As you may recall, the local library system chose my book as their Community Read for the year and invited me to visit. I gave two morning talks and workshops for high schoolers, two afternoon talks and workshops for middle schoolers, and an evening community lecture. It all went great!

First, the Columbia River Gorge is an exceptionally beautiful slice of the planet. Second, Stevenson is a little town full of nice people--I had a meal in a brewpub in which I swear everyone but me were all friends with everyone else and their dogs--and, true to form, librarians are the nicest people of all. Third, they seem to raise their kids right; at least the groups I talked to were attentive and respectful, except for a table of four middle school boys whom I won over in the end by inscribing their "Fire Story" copies with their names followed by "Chicken-ass," which they thought was hilarious. It's an inside joke, you had to be there.

I didn't take many photos because I'm traveling solo and was working most of the time. A long day--I pretty much lost my voice by the end of it--but folks in this fire-scarred region really seemed to appreciate my story and message. It's been a wonderful trip. Now I get to go home.

I started my day at the library, entering through a side door before business hours to be greeted by my poster. They were kind enough to give me one to take home.

The first two workshops were held in the library's art gallery space. This is a group of kids from the private Pacific Crest Innovation Academy working on making a comic strip. After talking with two groups of 14 sharp students, I asked one of the teachers how many kids the school has. "Twenty-eight." "Twenty-eight? In the whole school?" "Yep." "You mean I just met ALL of them?!" "Yep."

One of the fire-themed pieces of artwork on display in the gallery. I liked this one.

Another piece of fire-themed art, this one inspired by the passage in "A Fire Story" in which I wrote about having three keys that didn't do anything anymore but I couldn't bear to part with them. I'm honored. By the way, I still have the keys.

Lunch with my hosts, the Friends of the Library. My main contact was librarian David Wyatt, sitting across from me. Very nice people.

Getting ready for my afternoon sessions at Wind River Middle School. A bit more raucous than the older kids in the morning, but their teacher seemed impressed by how well I held their attention.

Librarian David Wyatt preparing to introduce me. We had about 30 people turn out, which I was assured was great for an event like this in a town this size. I spoke for about an hour and we had a long Q&A after, ranging from whether my family and I huddled and wept after the fire (not really) to updated building codes.

Cruise ships ply the mighty Columbia and I happened by when one was docked at Stevenson. This might be a nice trip to take sometime.