Saturday, June 15, 2024

Serendipitous Art

 

I was putting my phone in my pocket after taking a photo when my finger slipped and I accidentally took another. Usually those are blurry shots of my fingers or feet and are instantly deleted, but I liked how this one turned out so much I kept it. It's a painted cinderblock wall seen through the pickets of a metal fence. If I made abstract art, this is the sort of abstract art I would make. Which I guess I did!

Friday, June 14, 2024

My Stalker

Don't look! Act completely calm and normal! Just blink twice if there's a giant Marilyn Monroe behind me. 


She's there, isn't she? I knew it! That dame just will NOT leave me alone.

Saturday, June 8, 2024

Words, Images & Worlds

Here's that other podcast I alluded to: "Words, Images and Worlds" with Jason DeHart! I didn't know Jason before he asked me to guest on his show, but we have many mutual friends and he's just about the most prolific podcaster I've ever seen. Seriously, he's done hundreds of them, with some very impressive creative-type people. Also me. 

I enjoyed our conversation very much, and if you have 23 minutes to kill, you might too. Thanks, Jason.

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

October Sky By The Minute

I also drew their logo.

I seem to have a good side hustle in the prestigious, lucrative world of podcast guesting! I shared one podcast link a few days ago, and today drops the latest episode of "The October Sky Minute," the podcast that reviews the wonderful 1999 movie based on Homer Hickam's bestseller "Rocket Boys" one minute at a time, hosted by my friends Jim O'Kane, Hal Bryan and, for today only, me.

I love the movie and love Hal and Jim. The point of the podcast isn't to just talk about the minute of film on hand, but to invite interesting people for interesting discussions. To that end, they've landed many stars from the movie, Homer Hickam himself, and others including the president of the Estes model rocket company and an expert on picket fences (for an episode in which an errant rocket takes one out). Can't imagine why they asked me, but we ended up talking about parenthood, chemistry lab, model rocketry, and "Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow," so not the usual stuff from me. It was a nice genuine conversation and I think that comes through.

I did an entirely different third podcast that should be released soon. They were actually all recorded over a long stretch of time but are dropping pretty close to each other. I'm not doing ALL the podcasts, it just seems like it.

Friday, May 31, 2024

Dare to be Great


Here's a podcast I did a few weeks back with my friend, Shawn Langwell, about creativity and purpose, titled "Dare to be Great, Dare to be You."

Shawn is a local writer, as is his wife Crissi, and he gives talks and writes books in the general areas of success, motivation, confidence, self-improvement, etc. If you're interested in hearing me drone on for 54 minutes and 3 seconds about my thoughts on creativity, self-expression, fear of failure, and why I don't want to read your comic ripping off Lord of the Rings, this is the podcast for you! 

And I can understand why it wouldn't be. I just listened to it and even I'm sick of me. But Shawn is a good host and I think we had an interesting, real conversation.

Thanks, Shawn!

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Rocketeer Catalog Launch

The cover of the exhibition catalog. It was a great show! Although all the auction pieces have been sent to their winning bidders' homes, CAM still has a fantastic exhibition of Stevens's original art.

I had a nice afternoon and evening in San Francisco yesterday, participating in the Cartoon Art Museum's launch party for its Rocketeer Exhibition Catalog, which commemorates an exhibition of "Rocketeer" cartoonist Dave Stevens's original art as well as tribute pieces drawn by other artists, including me, which were later auctioned off. Proceeds from the auction benefited both CAM and the Hairy Cell Leukemia Foundation in Stevens's memory. About a dozen contributors came to meet fans and sign catalogs assembly-line-style. 

I arrived more than an hour early just so I could walk around the waterfront and play tourist in San Francisco, because Why Not? The brown lumps in the foreground are hundreds of sea lions that have taken over some docks in San Francisco Bay. The multicolored lumps in the background are hundreds of people on Pier 39 watching them bark and bellow. I'm on Pier 41, which I had pretty much to myself.

I love the Musee Mecanique, tucked into a warehouse in the back corner of Fisherman's Wharf. It's a haphazard collection of old arcade machines ranging from the 1800s to Pac-Man. Admission is free, most of the games cost 25 cents to play. I spent $2 and had a wonderful time. Highly recommended!

Dave Stevens's sister, Jennifer Stevens-Bawcum, who oversees his archives and creative legacy, blessed the project and attended last night as well. She was lovely. I got to touch base with some friends (including the generous Scott Burns) and meet a couple of new ones, which was lovely too. CAM hosts Andrew Farago, Summerlea Kashar, and Ron Evans made us feel welcome. 

An unfortunate shot of Jennifer Stevens-Bawcum, for which I apologize, but I'm posting it because it's one of only two photos I took of the evening and it provides a nice overview of the signing set-up. Next to Jennifer is syndicated cartoonist Jonathan Lemon. Next to him is the space where I sat, and beside me was Denis St. John from Charles Schulz's Creative Associates. Behind Denis are Tom Beland and Jon Bean Hastings, and the ponytail behind Jennifer's shoulder belongs to Brent Anderson.

Cartoonists Jon Bean Hastings and Tom Beland held down the end of the horseshoe of tables. The gent standing in the background to the right of the "Gorey" sign is artist Steve Leialoha.

Here's a photo of me, Jonathan Lemon, and Jennifer Stevens-Bawcum taken by my friend Scott Burns, with cartoonist Chuck Whelon and Tina Whelon standing at right in the background.


My page--37, for anyone who's curious.

We signed a LOT of catalogs, which CAM is selling online and on site. The museum itself is worth a visit if you enjoy the graphic narrative arts. A great event in a great institution!

Alcatraz and a gull who had no fear of, or really any interest in, me. A fine day on the Bay.

EDITED TO ADD: Here's a new group photo from CAM that I'm parking here so I'll know where to find it later. Thanks!




Friday, May 17, 2024

Amazing Adventures

Lifetime Goal Unlocked!

In 2023, the Amulet imprint of my publisher, Abrams Books, put out a book titled Marvel Super Stories, an anthology of short stories about Marvel superheroes done for middle-grade readers by cartoonists who don't usually do superhero comics, such as Jerry Craft, Nathan Hale, Lincoln Peirce, Maria Scrivan. You may not know all those names, but 8- to 12-year-old kids devour their graphic novels. 

Shortly after that book was announced, it came up in conversation with my editor at Abrams, Charlie Kochman. I said I thought it was a great idea, and it would be a real thrill for me to do something like that someday. I was a Marvel comics reader from the age of 10, and at one time I'd collected every Avengers comic in print, going back to issue #1 from 1963. In my late teens and early twenties I wanted to draw superheroes professionally, and submitted work to both DC and Marvel. I got some encouraging replies and even a tryout, but nothing came of it. It would be a lifetime bucket-list achievement for me, I told Charlie, if I ever got to write and draw an Avengers comic.

"Well, we're doing a Volume 2," Charlie said. 

"Oh?" I replied, slow on the uptake.

"Send me a proposal," said Charlie, "and we'll see what John (Jennings, Amulet's editor) and Marvel say."

"But I'm not a middle-grade author," I said, arguing myself out of a gig.

"You actually are," Charlie said, pointing out that Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? won an award for best astronautical literature for young adults and was picked up by Scholastic. The Last Mechanical Monster made the American Library Association's best graphic novel list. Even Mom's Cancer won a youth literature prize. 

"Oh!" I replied, still slow.

Each of the 15 Marvel Super Stories is six pages long, plus a couple of pages introducing the character. I drafted a script, drew finished black-and-white art for the first three pages, and hit "Send." A while later, I got word: I was in!

My short Avengers story features the Beast, a furry blue mutant who began as an X-Man but later joined Earth's Mightiest Heroes. I set the story in the era of MY Avengers, which the Marvel folks told me I needed to address because the Avengers' roster and headquarters have changed a lot since I was young. A caption box on Page 1, explaining that this was a tale from the team's past, did the trick.

Two Avengers covers featuring the Beast from back in my day.

I won't say more, except that a couple of other Avengers also show up and I didn't get to use my first choice of villain because someone else had already claimed it. Luckily, the Marvel editors suggested a substitute villain, a deep cut from the Avengers' earliest days, who worked out even better! 

It was an interesting challenge capturing the proper tone. Light, lean, clear. The Marvel editors had a few notes that helped me find it. I also realized I'd have to draw smaller than I intended to achieve the right balance of detail in the art and legibility in the lettering. These were easy but necessary adjustments. An invigorating creative stretch! I also drew a couple of panels that I think may be the best artwork I've ever published.

Although the story is meant for young readers and I aimed for that, I didn't condescend. I wrote and drew an Avengers tale I would have done if Marvel had hired me when I was 24 and said, "Brian, we need to fill six pages in the back of the next issue, what've you got?" As far as I'm concerned, my story really happened. It fits with the chronology and mythology. To me, it's canon.


I did these renderings of the Beast for the cover above, which unites all the superheroes appearing in the book drawn by the artists who did their stories. The cover designer gave me a rough idea of the pose they needed and I returned two slightly different options that I thought would fill the space well. Part of the Beast's arm is missing because I knew it would be hidden by the "E" in "Adventures." 

Marvel Super Stories: Amazing Adventures comes out October 22. I can't express how delighted I was to contribute to it. Comics can be serious nonfiction adult literature. They're a medium like film, TV, theater, print, radio, etc. that can tell any type of story those other media can. You can't do books like mine if you don't believe that.

But sometimes comics can and should just be fun for kids! There's nothing wrong with that, either. Especially if it checks a big item off your bucket list!

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Karma


In today's installment of "People Who Have No Clue How the World Works," meet billionaire Gina Rinehart (right), the richest person in Australia, who is leaning on the National Gallery of Australia to remove a portrait of her (left) by indigenous artist Vincent Namatjira.

If she'd kept her mouth shut, the painting might have been seen by a few thousand people in Canberra instead of millions around the world, and she wouldn't have revealed herself to be a thin-skinned humorless bully.

I've never heard of Ms. Rinehart but can't help but think Namatjira captured the essence of her soul. 

I love it when people who deserve it get hoist with their own petard.

See also: The Streisand Effect.

Saturday, May 4, 2024

Star Wars


May the Fourth.... 

Quiet rainy Saturday, so Karen and I sat down and watched "Star Wars" this afternoon (at her suggestion!). The original REAL Star Wars, that is. It's the first time I've actually seen the whole thing in many years. I have thoughts:

It's delightful! The first film had a lightness of spirit that later films--and certainly Episodes 1, 2, 3, 7, 8 and 9--lacked. I kept coming back to the word "whimsy" and what a careful touch it takes to pull off. Whimsy isn't about jokes and funny characters; other Star Wars movies and series had jokes and funny characters, but remained as self-serious as a dirge. The tone of the first one was unique. I miss it. 

Everyone was so young. In three years, Star Wars will be 50 years old. Fifty years before 1977 was 1927, the black-and-white silent era of "Metropolis" and Charlie Chaplin. I'll just let you sit with that a bit.

Carrie Fisher was amazing. 

The first 30 seconds of Star Wars remains one of my greatest cinematic moments and memories. It's impossible to convey to someone younger what a thunderclap the Star Destroyer soaring overhead and going and going and going and going was. We'd never seen anything like it. Movies would never be the same. Narratively, those first shots also tell you a lot: we see a small spaceship desperately running from an enormous, angular, brutalist gray spear tip. Before we meet a single character, we know who the underdog good guys and tyrannical bad guys are, and which ship to root for.

In retrospect, the sequels and prequels (such as "Rogue One") just don't fit together with this story. To the extent they do, they depend on the subtle, nuanced performance of Alec Guinness. He was working on another plane than the other actors, and entire movies were wedged into a single sideways glance of his. When Kenobi says "I don't seem to remember ever owning a droid" or tells Luke about his brave betrayed Jedi father, he gives a look that suggests there's more to the story. At the time, there was NOT more to the story. That's all Guinness.

Half the look and feel of the Star Wars universe comes from its thoughtful sound design. This viewing I was especially struck by the sound of the Death Star, a kind of echoing thrumming mechanical heartbeat that makes it sound like you're in a moon-sized space station even though you only actually see little bits of it. The new Star Wars rides at Disneyland smartly use those same sounds to great effect, building whole environments around them, knowing that they're embedded in our collective subconscious. No other universe sounds like the Star Wars universe.

I really enjoyed my revisit to that universe. Although we watched the "Special Edition" with some modern effects, there was enough of the original look and charm left to take me back nearly 50 years. It's been a fun ride.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

The Pubs Biz


Print wonks and friends curious about how publishing works: this article, "No One Buys Books," summarizes good and interesting information that emerged from Penguin Random House's recent attempt to buy Simon & Schuster. Among the bullet points:

--In one year, out of 58,000 titles published, 90% sold fewer than 2000 copies.

--In the same year, 50% sold fewer than 12 copies. Read that again: Half of all books sold less than a dozen. 

[EDITED: In comments on Facebook, author Rebecca Solnit questioned this number. Surely just the author's relatives alone would account for a dozen sales! The figure came from the Department of Justice as part of its antitrust action but nobody knows how they arrived at it. One industry expert says the percentage of books that sold fewer than a dozen copies is more like 15%. Either way, it's a big, sad number.]

--Out of every 100 books published, 35 are profitable. 

--Most books don't earn back their advance against royalties, meaning that the money an author receives at the beginning of a project is probably all they'll ever get. 

--Publishers are very hit-driven, looking for the million-selling unicorn. The problem is, it's very hard to tell in advance which those will be, so they place a lot of bets on books and authors that turn out to be duds. Penguin Random House said that the top 4% of titles drive 60% of their profitability.

--The closest thing to a sure bet are big names like John Grisham and James Patterson, as well as celebrities, musicians, and sports stars, but even they can surprisingly tank. Singer Billie Eilish's book sold 64,000 copies in its first eight months, which would be a fantastic number for me or most authors but a big disappointment if you're a publisher expecting Eilish's 97 million Instagram followers to pick up a copy.

--A publisher's backlist of old books can be a gold mine. Eric Carle's Very Hungry Caterpillar has been on the bestseller list for 19 years. 

MY TWO CENTS: All of this matches my observations and experience, and none of it surprises me. If anything, I'd say the situation is more dire in my graphic novel niche.

I won't discuss my sales numbers, I figure that's between me and my publisher, but I am happy to report that each of my books has sold more than 2000 copies, so I'm in the top tenth percentile already. Yay me?

Most of my books have earned out their advances, such that I get a modest royalty check a couple times a year. One of my books never will, so I'll never see another dime from it. Yay me again?

It's certainly possible to be an enormously successful graphic novelist. Dav Pilkey and Raina Telgemeier do very well for themselves. My publisher, Abrams, puts out my friend Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, and I have no doubt that his 300 million copies sold make it possible for Abrams to take risks on books they might not otherwise, including maybe mine.

Don't write books thinking you're going to get rich; don't write books thinking you'll support even a lower-middle-class lifestyle. I began Mom's Cancer as a webcomic 20 years ago, and Abrams published it in 2006. If you divide the money I made from four books, plus random short comics for anthologies and such, over the past 18 to 20 years of what I'd call professional authorship, I earned WAY less than minimum wage. During much of that time, I had a day job; during that ENTIRE time I had a supportive spouse who had a good job with benefits. That's the dirty little secret of how most writers survive.

The numbers are discouraging. As they say about most people in most arts, the best reason to do it is because it's simply something you must do to have a happy, fulfilling life whether the money follows or not.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Fred Weisel


Here's a good article from our local newspaper, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, about a friend of mine. I worked with Fred Weisel (or as I know him better, "Jonas," because he's a fancy writer with different pen names he uses for different purposes) in a small science-writing firm, where he was my boss and editor. 

He was one of the best editors I've ever had, one who could not only instantly spot the problem in something you'd written but knew exactly how to fix it. Since that company went out of business--gosh, more than 20 years ago!--our careers have followed similar arcs as freelance science writers and then as book authors. We still get together for lunch every couple of months to compare notes and gripe about our publishers (kidding, Charlie!). There aren't many people I can talk shop with and he's my favorite.

The hook of the article is that Jonas, who writes mysteries set in our local Wine Country, recently won the prestigious Nero Award for Best American Mystery Novel of the Year! He beat bestselling authors with big publishers who actually have marketing budgets. For an obscure author with a small independent publisher, it's an astonishing accomplishment. If there's any justice, he won't be obscure for long.

Jonas told me one of my very favorite stories about being a writer. I'll give the short version but his is better. In his first book, Jonas had one character kill another with a grape knife, a short curved blade used in vineyards to harvest wine grapes. But he wasn't sure if that would actually work, so he went to the hardware store to buy one. 

"Odd time of year to buy a grape knife," said the clerk, making conversation. "Oh, I'm not harvesting grapes," said Jonas. "I just want to see if you could use it to kill someone." The clerk's face went ashen as he slowly backed away, and Jonas was in the parking lot before he realized why. 

Writers.

Friday, April 19, 2024

Enterprise Ahoy!

The 3-foot studio model of the starship Enterprise today, as discovered in an abandoned storage unit, a little worse for wear.

This is the feel-good story of the decade for me and what I imagine is a very small subset of my friends.

When the pilot episode for the original Star Trek series was shot in 1965, the starship Enterprise was a 3-foot-long model. The better-known 11-foot model, which is now on display at the Smithsonian, was built later, when the series was picked up for production.

The 3-foot Enterprise was used some in the early days, including the title "Swoosh" shots shown throughout the series, but was eventually retired and ended up on Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's desk, where it remained until 1979, when Roddenberry loaned it to the studio making "Star Trek The Motion Picture" and it vanished.

After its days as a working prop, the model graced the desk of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry until it disappeared in 1979. One way the modern experts authenticated the rediscovered model was matching the wood grain of the display base seen in this photo.

Nobody knew where it was for 45 years. Had it been stolen, lost, destroyed? One rumor was that Roddenberry's son, Gene Jr., nicknamed "Rod," had thrown it into a swimming pool. It was a cosmic mystery: Where was the original Enterprise?

I don't want to brag, but I always had a pretty good idea what had happened to it, and I knew how it would eventually turn up. I figured it would surface as soon as the guy who in 1979 said, "Hey, this is cool, I'll take it home!" died, and his survivors had no idea what to do with it. 

I think I was pretty close. Several weeks ago, under circumstances that remain murky, the model turned up in an abandoned storage unit. Someone bought the contents, innocently listed the model on eBay, and Trekkies went nuts. A crack team of Star Trek model experts, people who'd worked on the TV shows and movies, authenticated it. It was the real deal. 

The model with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy in early publicity photos for Star Trek.

It had also taken some wear and damage; one of the experts speculated that it had been dropped at some point. The two long cylindrical engines have a noticeable sag, which brought a smile to the face of everyone who'd built the Enterprise plastic model kit as a child, because it was nearly impossible to keep those things straight. Turns out it was pretty tricky on the real one, too!

The 3-foot model also had a cameo in the Star Trek episode "Requiem for Methuselah," in which Leonardo daVinci (yes, that one) shrank the ship and everyone in it down to a handy desktop size. Not one of the better episodes.

In recent days, all the parties have worked out a deal to return the model to Rod, who remembered seeing it around the house as a child. Rod has vowed to have it repaired, restored, and displayed for the public to appreciate it. Maybe at the Smithsonian next to its larger sibling?

For fans of the original Star Trek and its creators, particularly the brilliant Matt Jefferies who designed the Enterprise and established the look and feel of 60 years of Treks that followed, it's a happy day. Kill the fatted tribble! The prodigal starship was lost and is found! The Enterprise has come home.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Surveyor 3

Pete Conrad at Surveyor 3, with Apollo 12's lunar module in the background. That part sticking up next to Conrad is the video camera, which he and Bean unbolted from the lander and took back home with them...

Today is the anniversary of one of my favorite Space Age events. On April 17, 1967, the unmanned Surveyor 3 successfully landed on the Moon, captured some images, and did some science. Although it was a scientific and engineering triumph, that's not what makes it one of my favorites.

Two and a half years later, Apollo 12 landed about 600 feet (200ish meters) from Surveyor 3, and astronauts Pete Conrad and Alan Bean ambled over for a look. That was not a coincidence. 

With Apollo 11, NASA would have been happy to land anywhere flat, smooth, and on the Moon. Neil Armstrong piloted his lunar module some distance from the planned landing spot, but since that spot was littered with boulders nobody had any problem with it. With Apollo 12, they wanted to see how close they could get to a pinpoint target: Surveyor 3. Pretty close, it turned out. 

As part of their mission, Bean and Conrad detached Surveyor 3's video camera and brought it back to Earth so NASA could study the effects of 2.5 years of lunar exposure on metal, electronic components, etc. That camera is now in the National Air and Space Museum, where I paid my respects last month. If you look closely, you'll see small chunks cut out of the metal housing where NASA took samples to analyze.

...Where it resides in the National Air and Space Museum so I could take this photo of it! Notice the rectangular bites taken out of it--by NASA, not metal-eating Moon monsters.

I just find something very human and romantic about casting a note in a bottle into the ocean and then tracking it down years later to see how it's doing. I think it's one of the coolest things people have done in space.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Horses Lie


On a main road a few miles from my house sits a horse stable and riding arena, where I was delighted to see this sign appear several months ago. Finally had the opportunity to take a photo tonight.

There are many stories contained in this sign: The concerned citizens who think they're seeing a veterinary emergency. The 911 operators tired of taking calls about dead horses. The stable hands tired of having sheriff’s deputies roll up to check on the dead horses. The old equestrians rolling their eyes at city slickers who think horses only sleep standing up. A lot had to happen before the stable decided to pay for and put up a sign. 

And the fact that it should read "lie" instead of "lay" is just the chef's-kiss cherry atop the sundae. This sign is perfect exactly as it is. 

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Talking Graphic Meds and Mom's Cancer at 20

My class. Faces are blurred because I didn't ask their permission to post a photo.

I did a talk and workshop for a small group of med students taking a course on Medical Humanities and Ethics at Stanford University today. Everybody made a comic about a health-related subject, after which--by the powers vested in me by mostly me--I dubbed them Practitioners of Graphic Medicine quod erat demonstrandum. They made some genuinely good comics.

Mom's Cancer is about 20 years old now. I did the webcomic in 2004-2005 and Abrams published the book in 2006. I am astonished and gratified that not only is my family’s story still in print but that it is taught in medical schools, and once in a while I get to talk about it and the qualities of comics that, I think, make them a unique storytelling medium. The fact that I give those talks to med students who were toddlers when I made the book is its own weird, unsettling reward. 

But seriously: if you'd told me 20 years ago that I'd be lecturing at medical schools in 2024, I would have believed you less than if you'd said I'd be living on the Moon. With a jetpack.

By the way, if you ever take a header off an electric scooter and land on the sidewalk like a sack of cement, do it at a medical school. One poor unfortunate soul did that right in front of me today. I was first on the scene, but by the time I asked, "Hey, are you all right?" we were surrounded by eight people in surgical scrubs doing a full exam. I left him in better hands, and later saw him limping along with his busted scooter. Glad I could help.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Trina Robbins

With Trina at the Cartoon Art Museum in 2023.

I'm very sorry to hear of the death of cartoonist Trina Robbins and add my condolences to the many that her partner, artist Steve Leialoha, is surely receiving now. I didn't know her well but we met and spoke a few times--including at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, where I think she and Steve made a point to show up for every special event, and once when I interrupted their breakfast at San Diego Comic Con for a lovely brief chat. 

Trina and Steve when they came to see me talk about A Fire Story at the Cartoon Art Museum in 2019.

Trina had an interesting and unusual career, successfully transitioning from Underground comix in the 1960s and 1970s to mainstream comics, notably Wonder Woman, in the 1980s until now, while keeping a foot in both worlds and remaining well-respected in both. Not many creators could pull that off. 

She was just one of those people whose personality was a beacon of light: happy to be there, happy to meet you, happy to see you again, happy to discover a comic she'd never seen before. I don't know if Trina was naturally humble or just mastered the conversational trick of asking the other person about themselves, but she always reflected the spotlight onto others. 

I've met a number of old pros who welcomed me to the comics community with open arms, treating me like a peer even when they'd never heard of me or seen my work. It's a classy quality that the most accomplished and secure creators pull off with grace. Trina will always be at the top of my list.

A gallery of just some of Trina's work. She had a huge bibliography in both fiction and historical nonfiction.


Friday, April 5, 2024

Asked and Answered

Snappy, accurate answers to actual headlines I found in newspapers and online this morning, to save you the trouble of reading the accompanying articles:

Q: "Did That Earthquake Have Anything to Do With the Solar Eclipse?"--Slate

A: No.

Q: "Were the Quakes in Santa Rosa (Calif.) and Taiwan Related?"--Santa Rosa Press Democrat

A: No. 

Q: "Why Was the New Jersey Earthquake Felt Several Hundred Miles Away?"--Washington Post

A: Because it was an earthquake. That's what they do.

Q: "Is A.I. Already Taking Jobs?"--New York Times

A: Yes.

Q: "Buy Groceries at WalMart Lately?"--Associated Press

A: No.

Q: "Want an Elephant?"--Washington Post

A: No. 

Q: "Why Is Technology Mean to Me?"--New York Times

A: It's mean to everyone, columnist David Brooks. You're not special. 

Q: "Will Animals Act Weird During the Total Solar Eclipse?"--Associated Press

A: Some. Your cat will sleep through it.

Q: "Michael Douglas as Ben Franklin?"--Washington Post

A: Sure. Why not?

Q: "How Much Would You Pay to Make Sure you Never Sawed Off a Finger?"--New York Times

A: $10.

Q: "How Well Do You Remember the Week?"--CNN

A: Frankly, much of it is a blur.

Monday, April 1, 2024

Covid Shmovid!


Covid Update, Day 5 and Final: Though still testing positive--the line was so bold this morning it almost felt sarcastic--I feel about 91% back to normal so I'm calling myself over it. Will continue to follow CDC guidelines and take extra care around vulnerable folks. Unless I take a dramatic dive, this'll be the last I have to say about my bout with the 'Vid. Thanks, everyone, for your encouragement and caring emojis!

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Covid! Getcher Covid Heah!

Covid Update, Day Three. Because I know my friends and "friends" care. 

My sister texted a bit ago asking if I was kicking its ass. I replied that it's a mutual ass-kicking. I'm doing all right, but this is the weirdest virus I've ever had. Every few hours I rotate through a suite of different symptoms: first sore throat, then that goes away and I get aches and pains, then sneezing and coughing, then high fever and chills, then a deep fatigue, which is where I am today. Can't wait to find out whether I get green spots or my ears fall off tomorrow.

A couple of wags have asked if I'll be making a comic about it. This drawing is my reply. It would be 200 pages of me sleeping in my beanbag chair, interspersed with episodes of eating, showering, and tippy-tapping on the computer, like I'm doing now. Riveting literature.


I'm very confident I'll be fine (although the fever worried me, but it fell to a reasonable number pretty fast). If you don't hear from me for a while, assume I'm napping.

Friday, March 29, 2024

Dr. Glen Erickson


Oh. I just learned that one of the important mentors in my life, Dr. Glen Erickson of UC Davis, died in 2021. I caught a mention of him in an alumni newsletter and looked him up.

I majored in physics at Davis but my real passion was astronomy, of which Davis offered very little at the time (in recent years the school has become a cosmology powerhouse!). I clearly remember when Dr. E. came into my freshman astronomy class and asked if anyone wanted to earn half a credit helping him with a little project. I sprang out of my chair faster than a meteor.

For the next year or two, we spent long nights in the small campus observatory doing photometry on an object called Nova Vulpecula. By measuring the brightness and color of a variable star over time, you can deduce a lot about its age, size, fate, etc. Every quarter I wrote up a little report and got my half credit. Dr. E. never published our research. I think he just liked doing it.

In retrospect, Dr. E. was incredibly patient with me, especially when I took his "Mathematical Methods for Physicists" course my junior year, which was deliberately designed to separate the wheat from the chaff who maybe ought to reconsider their life choices. I struggled. He helped. I passed.

At the same time, I was involved in the Astronomy Club, for which he was the advisor, and we spent a few evenings peering through the Lick Observatory's historic 36-inch refractor (life-changing!) and doing more photometry at UC Berkeley's Leuschner Observatory. I also ran the university's public viewing program and TA'ed astronomy labs on the roof of the physics building.

I earned my degree, graduated, and kept in touch with Dr. E. for a few years but then drifted away, as students and teachers do. That would have been the end of it except 25 or so years later, when a UC Davis physics professor I didn't know contacted me out of the blue and asked if I'd like to speak to a weekly seminar he held on the general subject of "What You Can Do with a Physics Degree."

I wasn't sure I was the right person for the job. I've never worked in physics, never done real research. I was an environmental chemist for 12 years, but that was mostly pushing buttons. I was an odd choice; he assured me that odd choices were just what he wanted.

So I went, along with Karen and our daughters, who were UC Davis students at the time. And who did I find when I walked in the door but Dr. E., then a retired professor emeritus. He saw my name on the schedule and came!

The first thing he did was pull out a framed caricature I'd drawn of him and posted in the astronomy library 25 years earlier. I remember clearly: it had hung there for a week or so and then one day it disappeared. I figured someone had tossed it. But Dr. E. had taken it himself, kept it in his home office, and now, decades later, wanted me to sign it.

That meant the world to me. I'm glad my wife and kids were there to see it.

I told the seminar about how I used physics in my brief career as a newspaper reporter, taking on any story remotely science-tinged (including the Challenger disaster) and writing a weekly astronomy column. I talked about how I drew on my physics background to pitch stories to the producers of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," "Deep Space Nine," and "Voyager." I never sold one but learned a lot about character and story structure that has served me well. I talked about my environmental chemistry career, which was really just physics (heavy metal spectroscopy), and my subsequent career as a science writer specializing in renewable solar, wind, hydrogen fuel cells, etc.

I think it went well. Everyone seemed happy. My host took me, my family, and Dr. E. out to lunch.

I again began to almost apologize for not being a model physics alumnus. I didn't go to grad school, didn't continue in the field, never contributed to answering the great questions of science. Dr. E. sat back and twinkled.

"You're a very successful physics graduate," he said. "You made physics a part of everything you've done. You integrated it into your life. You are exactly what I always hoped my students would become."

Well.

Wow.

Holy moley.

I'd spent the previous 25 years feeling like a mediocre student who'd more or less wasted my degree--kind of a physics failure, really--and Dr. E. turned that perspective around 180 degrees in half a minute.

I, in turn, said how much his support, encouragement and friendship had meant to me, and I could tell that meant a lot to him. If you have a mentor who changed your life, and I hope you do, take the time to thank them while you can If you can be a mentor, do it.

As a cartoonist, I've long considered my physics education my "secret sauce." It's an unusual background (but not unique, Jim Ottaviani!). It colors all of my books to one extent or another, and wait until you see my next one: a real science-palooza! Physics has never been something I do, but it is the lens through which I see the world. It's kind of who I am.

Dr. E. gave me that. I'll always be grateful.

EDITED TO ADD: I KNEW I had this photo someplace! I just had to dig for it (through the few small boxes of old photos we saved from the fire).


This is Dr. Erickson and I on the roof the UC Davis physics building on Picnic Day 1986. Picnic Day was (and still is) a very popular open house held in the spring. Former students return, prospective students explore, everyone throws open their doors and puts on a show. I had graduated by then, but was working in the area and still came back to campus from time to time.

I forget the details on this telescope. It was old and historic, maybe an Alvan Clark? It's obviously been set up to project an image of the Sun on the white screen at the bottom of the business end.

Some of my happiest times happened on that roof.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

The Intellectual Life #24

A Peek into the Intimate Intellectual Life of a Long-Married Couple, Part 24:

(Karen and I are waiting in Terminal 2 of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to board an airplane for a 6-hour flight home.) 

Brian: Y'know, whenever I'm about to end a trip like this, I often think, "What if I just didn't get on the plane?"

Karen: What would you do?

Brian: I have no idea! That's the point! What would I do?

Karen: Don't you want to go home?

Brian: Of course! But haven't you wondered? I'd have to figure out how to eat and sleep and get a job . . .

Karen: No. I just want to go home.

Brian: I could be the oldest Congressional intern! Or mow the grass on the National Mall!

Karen: I don't get why you don't want to go home.

Brian: I do! But it's like when you're standing on the edge of a cliff and wonder what it would be like to just jump off.

Karen: I never, ever wonder that.

Brian: Really? I mean, I'd never want to actually DO it, but--

Karen: I would never, ever even think of that.

Brian: Huh!

(Karen side-eyes me in wary silence until our boarding group is called, perhaps wondering if an annulment is still possible.)

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

These birds were inside the terminal and appeared to live on crumbs dropped by travelers. I can't imagine how they'd ever get out. Maybe they don't need to; it's a pretty cushy life!

"Positive" is Good, Right?

My turn!

This is my first skirmish with the 'Vid. I feel all right: scratchy, phlegmy throat and some aches, like a mild cold. I am vaccinated and am on-boarding hot tea as I type, and Karen has banished me from our shared living space. We had some plans next weekend that I've spoiled, including a fun wedding celebration, and I feel bad about that. 

Of course I caught it during our recent trip, either from the throngs of tourists in DC or the wretched refuse with whom I spent 6 hours in a plane. Let this be a lesson: Never go anywhere or do anything. Play it safe. Just stay home and drink tea and watch the world pass by your window.

Nah. No regrets. 

Will keep you posted.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Washington, DC

The White House. We were surprised that tours were self-guided. We were allowed to peer into, but not enter, many rooms. Others we could loop through. Karen and I were both struck by how small everything seemed. Still very classy and grand, with beautiful woodwork, decoration, and architectural detailing, but intimate. Even the East Room, which runs from the front to the back of the White House, and the State Dining Room, are not the awesomely grand spaces you might expect. That alone gave me some perspective on how 19th century Americans saw the work of governing, which was only reinforced when we later saw the surprisingly grand-but-intimate spaces of the Capitol building. 

Karen and I are home from a five-day vacation to Washington, DC that we took to celebrate our anniversary! Karen has been to DC a few times for work but I, a West Coast guy, never have. I think it's a pilgrimage every citizen should make, and mine was long overdue.

We hit many museums and monuments. The cherry trees were fully abloom, drawing throngs (plus us) to the Tidal Basin. We took a self-guided tour of the White House and, thanks to our U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman and his intern Charlie, got a personalized tour of the Capitol. We went to the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, both under renovation, and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM), likewise renovating. Toured the National Portrait Gallery, U.S. Botanic Garden, Library of Congress, the National Zoo, and more. We walked nearly everywhere; took the easy and convenient Metro everywhere else.

I won't list all the places we went because one thing I've learned about visiting DC is everyone says, "OMG, do not miss the National Barbed Wire Museum, it's the best thing there!" If anyone posts a comment like, "Hope you didn't miss the National Barbed Wire Museum!" I will reply, "It sure is terrific, isn't it?" Maybe we did, maybe we didn't. We did the best we could in five days and couldn't have seen it all in another ten. 

The White House. My general impression of security throughout DC was that it was appropriate and maybe lighter than I would have expected in these insurrectionist times. While the White House is certainly a fortress, the Capitol and Supreme Court building were approachable.

The Washington Monument through the trees. 

Our timing on the cherry blossoms was perfect--as was many other people's. Depending on the time of day, the major cherry blossom walks ranged from pleasant to impassably crowded.

The Jefferson Memorial across the Tidal Basin and through the blossoms.


We made a special effort to find the celebrity cherry tree nicknamed "Stumpy" (I'll save you the trouble of asking a bemused park ranger like we did: it's near the Jefferson Memorial). Stumpy is a stunted "Charlie Brown Christmas Tree" of a cherry tree that is due to be chopped down, along with 140 other trees, so that the wall surrounding the Tidal Basin behind it can be rebuilt. There are petitions demanding that Stumpy be saved. I'm not optimistic but was happy to make its acquaintance.

My favorite thing about traveling is assembling my own mental map of a place--especially a famous place, where I've seen all the landmarks individually but have no feel for how they relate. You can study maps, but nothing beats walking for tying things together. We were on Day 4 when Karen and I realized we hadn't seen the Supreme Court building and had no idea where it was. Turns out it's behind the Capitol, and if we'd walked another 20 feet when we toured the Library of Congress on Day 1 we would've stumbled right into it.

I know: yokels from the sticks. But I'm not too proud to play tourist when I actually am one. You can learn a lot by asking simple questions, and some of our favorite interactions came from talking to folks like groundskeepers and docents who were more than happy to share. 

Trust me when I say this photo dump only skims the surface. We took hundreds. It was a great trip. Five stars, would recommend!

The Library of Congress, a space genuinely too large and awe-inspiring to photograph. This is the reading room, where specially vetted researchers get access to the library's resources. We were not vetted. The building is vast, with many displays ranging from a Gutenberg Bible (ca. 1455) to Steve Ditko's original art for the first Spider-Man story. Not to be "the barbed wire guy," but the LOC is worth a visit.

You may know that the Library of Congress began when Thomas Jefferson sold his personal library to the nation. Those books are housed in a special gallery. If it's not obvious, the shelves have glass on both sides so visitors can see both the spines and edges of all the books. Ribbons denote whether a particular book was actually Jefferson's or an identical substitute of a book known to be in his collection. The depth and breadth of Jefferson's prodigious intellect is displayed here, especially since there's little doubt he actually read all of them. History, philosophy, religion, fine arts, science, logic, reason. I was struck by one volume I wish I'd taken a photo of: it was titled "The American Revolution," published in London in something like 1790, and I thought, "Dude! You WERE the American Revolution! Why do you need the book when you were there?!" Maybe he appreciated an English perspective. Probably griped about everything they got wrong. 

At the National Portrait Gallery with an unfinished portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. It's widely considered the best likeness of Washington ever painted, including by Martha Washington herself, and was the model for the etching made for the $1 bill. I very much appreciated its sketchy "work in progress" quality, much more interesting to me than the other finished portraits around it. 

I found a new favorite artist at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which is in the same building and intertwined with the National Portrait Gallery: Alma Thomas. It's risky to say that, because there's a possibility that everybody else already knows about Alma Thomas and I'll come off like, "Hey, this Rembrandt guy is pretty good, ever heard of him?" But she's new to me, and I'm not afraid to admit that I don't know everything but can be taught. Honestly, a lot of modern art leaves me confused at best and cold at worst, but there was something about her work that really excited and spoke to me. You could see the thoughtfulness and deliberation in every brush stroke. I thought she was just terrific, and the Smithsonian has the largest collection of her work in the world. 

Through all the landmarks, monuments, and museums we visited, there was only one time I turned a corner and said, "Hey! I know her!" Not the subject of this piece in the National Portrait Gallery, cartoonist Alison Bechdel. I've never met her. Rather, I know the artist, Riva Lehrer. She's a friend through graphic medicine. Riva is obviously a great artist; she's also a kind, friendly, compassionate person and disability rights activist, and it was a real thrill to see her work hanging beside Everett Kinstler's, Elaine deKooning's, and Gilbert Stuart's. 

An unusual angle on the Lincoln Memorial, I think. When I'm in a place like this, I like to look in the corners and edges. Like, everyone knows that the Lincoln Memorial has the famous statue of Lincoln with his speeches carved into the walls around him, but what does the ceiling look like? Now you know, too. 

The Vietnam War Memorial. I don't have anyone close to me who served in Vietnam. I was way too young, and my parents' generation was a bit too old. Even without a personal connection, this memorial is deeply moving, especially with the addition of little notes and mementos left for loved ones by visitors. A beautiful design free of the typical bombast you might find at, for example, the nearby World War II memorial, which is all towering columns and gushing fountains. It's great for what it is, but it was a different war. 

Cherry blossoms weren't the only flowers a-poppin'. Tulips were everywhere, and made beautiful picture frames. 

The National Air and Space Museum (NASM). Many of my friends probably know that NASM has, and recently beautifully restored, the studio model of the USS Enterprise from the original "Star Trek." What fewer may know is that you never saw the port side of the Enterprise because that's where the electrical wires protruded from the model. On the rare occasion they had to show that side of the ship, they shot the starboard side with reversed decals and flopped the film. This is me peering into the corners and edges again. BTW, the Enterprise was lit up when we arrived (they turn on the lights for a few minutes at the top of every hour) and I took about 300 photos of it but will not bore you with any more of them. 

The Apollo 11 Command Module "Columbia." I teared up. What a privilege to see this craft. I don't even know what to compare it to. It's as if you could visit the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria without the taint of colonialism, just the pure heroic spirit of discovery. To me, this ship is the embodiment of the greatest thing humanity has accomplished in its couple million years as a species, and I was alive to witness it. How lucky I am! 

At NASM still, with Neil Armstrong's spacesuit, which was recently conserved because some of the layered materials used in its construction are already breaking down. I can only repeat what I said in my notes on Columbia. I am standing three feet away from Armstrong's suit, which still has Moon dust ground into its knees. Armstrong's actual honest-to-God suit. What a time to be alive. I teared up again. 

At the Jefferson Memorial, where Karen noticed a nifty alignment with the Washington Monument between its pillars. 

Intern Charlie from Congressman Jared Huffman's office gave is a fine tour of the Capitol, including passes to sit in the House and Senate galleries--less than riveting since Congress is not in session, but still very cool. The Capitol rotunda itself is a towering cathedral to the ideals of freedom and democracy, and the view up into the dome is breathtaking. But, as with the White House, we were struck by the intimacy of the 19th century approach to government, the twisting maze of corridors and tiny rooms where important things happened. Even the chamber of the House of Representatives seems much smaller in person than it does during the State of the Union address on television. It's hard to imagine how they fit 435 people in there for regular business, let alone hundreds more for that address. I appreciated the perspective. 

While there were many visitors throughout DC and the Capitol grounds, there were also many moments like this, where Karen had the east steps of the Capitol entirely to herself. Well, almost entirely..... 

.....As you'll notice this armed officer keeping an eagle eye on her to make sure she's not an insurrectionist fascist who's about to vault over that barricade. 

Probably my favorite unexpected find of the trip was the U.S. Botanic Garden, part of which is housed in that greenhouse to the left. We just wandered past it and decided to check it out. Smart decision. 

George Washington advocated the establishment of such a garden to promote the importance of plants and collect flora still being discovered throughout the continent. Established in 1820, it's been located in various spots throughout its history and is the oldest continuously operated public garden in the United States. 

The U.S. Botanic Garden has areas representing different ecosystems: tropical rainforest, desert, Hawaii, etc. We walked into one little space and both said, "Hey, this looks like our yard." We were in the Mediterranean garden, in which you'll find weather and plants like those around the Mediterranean (naturally) and that little orange patch in California, which is where we live. It was funny to see our ordinary landscaping represented as some rare and exotic ecosystem, but sometimes you've got to go someplace else to appreciate what you've got. 

The view of the National Mall looking from the Capitol toward the Washington Monument. 

The National Zoo has a carousel. Who doesn't love a carousel? All the animals were different. Karen rode a bison and I rode a bear. 

Tamarins at the National Zoo. I like Tamarins. They seem less impressed with me. 

As I mentioned, this was an anniversary vacation for us: 40 years. I hesitate to mention that because people tend to say "Ooo!" and applaud. Don't applaud. We're not that adorable and I, frankly, am something of a curmudgeon. But we do clean up all right.