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.