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.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Skamania County Reads

In the unlikely event you're near the town of Stevenson, Washington in the Columbia River Gorge on Thursday night, I will be there too and you should come say "Hi." The friends of the local library system chose A Fire Story as this year's "Skamania County Reads" book, which means they've distributed copies of it and held events like book groups, art exhibits, and fire safety seminars leading up to my visit.

I'm scheduled to give four comics-making workshops for students from two local schools in the morning and afternoon, followed by a community talk at Hegewald Auditorium at 6 p.m. That's a lot packed into one day, but I'm game. 

You may recall I did a similar event last year in Hood River, Oregon, which is a few miles upstream and on the opposite bank of the Columbia from Stevenson. The Eagle Creek Fire scoured the Gorge at just about the same time my fire tore through Sonoma County in 2017, so both towns thought my book was a good fit for their local concerns. Also, the Stevenson folks flat out told me they'd noticed what Hood River did last year and basically said, "Hey, we should get that guy." And so they did.

Having a book named a "community read" or "book in common" is an enormous honor for me. The idea that a library or college finds something I wrote interesting and relevant enough to ask everyone to read it is amazing. I didn't even know such things existed when I started writing books, but it's one of the most gratifying benefits of the job. Both Fire Story and Mom's Cancer have been so honored. I'm proud of that.

Monday, May 8, 2023

Geek Out Napa Valley

I had a good time at Geek Out Napa Valley on Saturday, a small first-time comics convention--I'm calling it a "micro-con"--put on by librarians and aimed mostly at kids. They fit a lot of pros and vendors into one regular-size meeting room, with other activities like a robotics demo and a bake sale on a patio outside. I also took part in a panel on "Cultivating Creativity" with writer Matthew Gilbert (Stranger Things novelizations and Nickelodeon), who I didn't know before but consider a friend now. Also had a chance to connect with cartooning pals and my friend Jim Sharkey, who stopped by. I also want to mention cartoonist Nomi Kane, who I didn't get a photo of but we had a nice conversation anyway.

The con did something brilliant I've never seen before: they put me and guest Matthew Gilbert on either side of Karen Bock Provenza from the local independent bookseller Napa Bookmine, which ordered our books, so that if someone wanted to get a signed book all they had to do was buy it and walk three feet to the left or right. I knew she was going to be there but did not expect her to stock all four of my books, so I was thrilled! We sold a nice number of them, too.

The side patio, with robotics and a station where attendees could turn art into a pinback button.

A little bake sale to support the robotics team.

The con coincided with Free Comic Book Day, and the library gave out hundreds.

I didn't know what to expect at an inaugural micro-con, and honestly feared the worst. But it was just the opposite. Staff were enthusiastic and engaged. Attendance was steady and flowed nicely. Folks bought books. People even came to see our panel! Honestly, I've flown across the country for enormous literary festivals only to talk to fewer people and sign fewer books than I did in a side room of the Napa Public Library an hour from home.

I love these tiny cons because everyone is there for the right reason: they love comics. Or they're at least curious enough about comics to poke their head into a free event. Invariably, I see an excited kid trailed by a parent or grandparent who doesn't quite get what's going on but suddenly realizes their kid's not a weirdo, that comics are a real thing that a lot of people like and actual adults make. 

Adults and kids being passionate about reading and art. What's not to love?

Andrew Farago from the Cartoon Art Museum, his wife, cartoonist Shaenon Garrity, and their son Robin, who is an old convention pro.

Cartoonist and Schulz Studio staffer Donna Almendrala, who managed to acquire a 1-year-old son since the last time I really got to talk to her.

Cartoonist and teacher Gio Benedetti.

Matthew Gilbert and his wife Jess, both really nice, smart, interesting people that I hope to spend time with again. My panel with Matthew was one of the best I've done.

No micro-con would be complete without a micro-costume contest.

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Paul Giambarba

Just a couple of days ago, I was extolling the virtues of a good obituary. Now I'm writing one, knowing it won't be good enough. I just learned from his son, Andy, that my friend Paul Giambarba died on Monday. He was 94.

I met Paul as a professional cartoonist on a private cartooning forum nearly 20 years ago. He had deeply personal experiences with cancer, including the death of his beloved first wife, Ruth, in 1978, and he thought I'd done a good job on Mom's Cancer. But cartooning was the least of Paul's talents and professions. He was a hugely influential graphic designer, author, editor, publisher, photographer, painter, printmaker, typographer, illustrator and more.

In 2006, Paul visited my hometown, where he had lived years before. We had a long lunch. Paul refused to take my money. We talked about art, careers, families, people he'd known and jobs he'd done. He was a great raconteur. I will always treasure that lunch, and we kept in touch afterward.

My lunch with Paul.

I don't really know where to start with a life and talent so large, so I'll start with Polaroid.

Beginning in 1958, Paul was Polaroid's art director for 25 years. He designed the angular rainbow-striped graphics and packaging that looked terrific stacked on a shelf and instantly branded Polaroid as more exciting, youthful and modern than its stodgy yellow-and-black competitor, Kodak. Paul's campaign was a breathtaking success. Huge! Revolutionary! Decades later, Apple followed his playbook to persuade you that Apple computers were cooler, edgier and hipper than stuffy old PCs. If you believe that, thank (or blame) Paul because he did it first. 

Paul Giambarba created that. If you're the right age, one look at those boxes really takes you back.

Some of Paul's design sketches for Polaroid

At the same time, Paul turned his photographer's eye to pushing the capabilities of the Polaroid camera--not a high-quality optical instrument by any measure--into something that could create art. While kids were snapping instant pics of each other at the beach, Paul figured out how to make the camera sing, and literally wrote the book teaching others how to make the most of it. If you ever see Polaroid prints hanging in galleries or museums, as I have, thank (or blame) Paul for that, too. 

When I said "Paul literally wrote the book," I meant "literally" literally. That's his son Andy on the cover.

Overlapping his Polaroid years, Paul and Ruth moved to Europe in 1955, an adventurous time to explore the Continent and an artistically fertile, inspirational period for Paul. With Ruth as his favorite model and muse, Paul pursued art and photography while embodying the best of Midcentury Modern graphic design in his work.

Ruth, 1959.

Greeting card collage, 1969

A few years back, Paul offered some of his prints for sale. I always loved this graphic, done as a poster for a 1972 sailing regatta in Italy, and asked to buy a small print of it. Paul refused to take my money (again) and sent me this beautiful piece, which hangs on my wall.

Following his Polaroid years, Paul was a design consultant for Tonka Toys and other corporate clients. As a cartoonist and illustrator, he was a regular contributor to Sports Illustrated, This Week, True and Spy magazines. Paul and his work were written up in many trade publications, and his list of awards from advertising, art direction, design, and graphic arts organizations is long.

Paul lived the last decades of his life on Cape Cod with his second wife, Fran. He told me that after traveling the world he felt the most at home there, and the region inspired him to do more art and write more books. Paul remained very active in what for other people might be retirement, and was remarkably open to new technologies and ideas. In particular, he embraced Photoshop--having spent most of his career doing paste-ups, layouts, color separations, typesetting, etc. the laborious, manual way--and, as he had with Polaroid half a century earlier, really pushed its capabilities to serve him instead of the other way around. 

Fran and Paul in 2008, photographed in their home by my cartoonist pal Mike Lynch.

Paul published many books of local interest through his own Scrimshaw Press.

Scratchboard art.

In more recent years, Paul enjoyed a well-deserved Renaissance of sorts, as Polaroid suddenly became hip again and people got very interested in the man who'd made it hip in the first place. Through a group called The Impossible Project, which set out to manufacture modern Polaroid film, he became the subject of documentaries and art exhibitions. The company even produced a special line of film named after him. It was a nice, graceful cap to a career he was rightly very proud of.

Have you ever in your life been this cool? Me neither.

What a tremendous honor and privilege it was to know this man--a 5-and-a-half-foot giant from the Golden Age of illustration and design. I'm sad he's gone but Wow, what a life! How lucky he was to find two great loves in Ruth and Fran, enjoy a wonderful family, and be celebrated for a career doing what he loved. 

Here are more examples of his expansive work, mostly nicked (as are many of the images above) from Paul's blogs and portfolios. What a gift.

Watercolor, Montauk Lighthouse

Watercolor. Look how he painted the smoke from that boat! Simple but elegant design work.

Kenneth Starr, Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky

Paul McCartney and Heather Mills

Donald Rumsfeld

Collage. The cover to a Spanish textbook.

A cartoon I don't know much about but think is great in its characterization and detail.

Photo of writer and artist Edward Gorey and his cat, 1981.

Photo of historian and writer David McCullough, 1980.


Monday, May 1, 2023

Dame Edna

Dame Edna Everage has written an "uncharitable" obituary for comic actor Barry Humphries, recently published in the Daily Telegraph. I'd normally let it pass unremarked, except that I really appreciate a good obit and (at the risk of ruining the joke) Humphries and Dame Edna were the same person, Dame Edna being Humphries's internationally famous drag persona. Dame Edna's obit of Humphries is brief but as catty, sassy, and brassy as the Dame herself. 

Obit writing can be an art. I wrote some obits way back when I worked on a newspaper and don't claim I was any good at it--I was perfunctory at best--but it made me appreciate writers who do it well. In particular, "The Economist" magazine often featured back-page obits that were masterworks of grace and style. I can't find a version that isn't behind a paywall, but read the first two grafs of this obit of watchmaker George Daniels and tell me you don't wish you could have known that man. 

I also want to note Humphries's passing because several state lawmakers have tried or are trying to ban drag performances in the presence of children. Those states include Tennessee, North Dakota, Florida, Arizona, Arkansas, Texas, West Virginia, Nebraska and South Carolina. Woe to anyone in those states who stages a performance of Shakespeare's "As You Like It," whose heroine Rosalind dresses as a boy, or runs a revival of "Some Like It Hot" or "Tootsie."

I'd have trusted Dame Edna with my children more than I'd trust 99.44% of the public servants writing and passing those laws. She was lovely.