Wednesday, January 31, 2024

LumaCon's A'Coming

This is my favorite photo from the first LumaCon in 2015, by my daughter Robin. Those kids are 9 years older now. As are we all. Sigh.

Saturday, Feb. 3, you can find me at my favorite little comics convention in the world, LumaCon, at the Petaluma (Calif.) Community Center. 

This is the tenth LumaCon. I was invited to the first, when it was even smaller--a microcon?--and have attended nearly all of them except when I had a conflicting event. LumaCon is a FREE comic-con organized by local librarians with the sole mission of encouraging the love of comics. Pros sit beside high school kids peddling homemade stickers and zines, and it's a delight. 

Everybody is there for the right reason. I've met many parents or grandparents who were dragged in by a kid and said, "I didn't know comics were a real thing that people actually did." They're happy and a bit dazed to see that their kid is part of a community. For some young fans and creators, that little bit of connection and affirmation is a big deal. 

If you're in the area, drop by. Like I said, it's free, so zero risk. I bet you'll like it.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

How to Cartoon (or not)

Long post. A social acquaintance wants to do a graphic memoir and, unlike a lot of people who ask about that, looks to me like they have the chops to try. They emailed me some questions about materials and process, and I thought y'all might find my reply interesting. My fundamental answer is the two words I closed my email with: "Whatever works!" Here's what I wrote:

"I’ll reply to your questions in order, but my overall reply is that things like pens, paper, etc. don’t really matter. Just find the materials that work for you. I have professional cartoonist friends who use ballpoint pens on cheap printer paper and others who are 100% digital. Figuring out the tools and process that work best for you will take some trial and error. 

"My lettering these days is a typeface of my own hand-lettering that I apply in Photoshop. That’s purely practical for me when it comes to editing and translating into foreign languages later. In my first book, Mom’s Cancer, it was all done by hand on the original art with a Speedball nib (a B-5½, as I recall). But you don’t need to pull out an ink bottle just for lettering. Micron pens can give your lettering a nice, crisp look. Try a size 05 or 08. If you want to get fancy, try one with a wedge-shaped tip for thick and thin lines, but that’s advanced stuff.

"A word about Micron pens: I really like them for a few reasons. They produce a consistent black line. They’re waterproof. And once you give them a few minutes to dry, they’re smudge proof so you can erase over them. 

"I am a cartooning dinosaur. My paper is smooth Bristol board, which is traditional cartoonists’ paper. I pencil with non-photo blue pencil—I expect your printer friend is right and it’s not really a thing anymore, but like I said: I’m a dinosaur!—and ink with whatever tool gives me the line I want. Often a small pointy watercolor brush with India ink, or a brush pen, or crow-quill nib, or a Micron. I even have a dip pen made of glass that I use sometimes. I know what each will look like and choose accordingly. 

"Not sure what you mean by “adapting to changes in layout.” By the time I get around to inking, my layout is pretty set. I’d suggest thumbnailing before drawing, by which I mean doing a quick sketch of how the panels will be arranged on the page, with text and action scribbled in. Doesn’t have to be time-consuming, you could literally take five minutes to make sure you have room for all your words and the reader’s eye will move through the page the way you want (left to right and top to bottom, which sounds obvious but you’d be surprised how often people mess it up). If something big really needs to change, like I need to add or remove a chunk, I’ll do that with Photoshop if I can or draw it over from scratch if I can’t. But that doesn’t happen often. 

"Cartooning can be as low- or high-tech as you want. I always tell people that I could take them to a decent art-supply store and set them up with everything they need to be a professional cartoonist for $40. That’s one thing I love about comics: the barriers to entry are very low. These days that’s kind of deceptive, because honestly you really will need at least a computer and scanner to send your comics to someone else or put them online. And then we could talk about tablets and apps and programs and stuff. I know a lot of cartoonists who swear by Procreate on the iPad, which I haven’t used but they say does everything they need.

"I hope that’s a good start. I’m not being coy when I say that any way you can figure out how to make marks on a piece of paper (or pixels on a screen) could be the perfect storytelling medium for you whether anyone else would do it that way. Whatever works!"

Monday, January 22, 2024

Academically Inclined

From time to time, someone like a doctor, professor, or student will cite me in an academic paper, usually for Mom’s Cancer but sometimes A Fire Story, too.* It's always a bit of a dizzying honor when smart people find my work deep or interesting enough to write about. It's especially interesting when they infer things I never implied--or never meant to, anyway--but that's OK. Once my stories are out in the world, whatever you take away from them is usually fine by me. It often makes me seem cleverer than I was.

No such reservations about this article by P. Ardhra and Sathyaraj Venkatesan, which focuses on A Fire Story in the context of climate grief, which is a good lens to see it through. I think it's thoughtful and insightful, and not just because it's quite complimentary, although I'm sure that colors my opinion 😉. 

This is the sort of recognition you never think about when you sit down in front of a blank page to write/draw something, but it turns out to be among the most gratifying. A happy unintended consequence. My thanks to the authors and the "Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics."

*Still waiting for someone to do a Ph.D. dissertation about an old man and his giant robot. 

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Awards Season

Awards season is coming around, so all my cartoonist friends check out the Reubens, Eisners, and anything else you might want to submit for. I didn't publish anything in 2023, so will not be playing this year. 

Mostly I wanted to share this postcard from the National Cartoonists Society, of which I am a member (life-long goal unlocked!), because I was tickled by the address: "Brian Fies . . . 

". . . Or Current Resident."

In case I moved and the new owner of my house just happened to be a cartoonist thinking to him or herself, "Gee, I published these great comics in 2023, I just wish I could get some professional recognition for them! But how...?"

It seems statistically unlikely.

Anyway, if you're one of my several friends this might apply to, get your entries in and I may be one of the dozens of NCS members judging your work and deciding your fate. Don't even think about bribing me (nudge nudge wink wink).

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

In Jeopardy

Watching Celebrity Jeopardy last night (we're not regular Jeopardy viewers but sometimes you need something to eat pizza by), in the category "Trees," the clue was "This Bay Area city has a tree on its official flag (it's the type of tree featured in the city's name)." 

I shouted out "Walnut Creek!" The correct answer, of course, was the much-better-known Oakland. However, spurred to high dudgeon (the best kind of dudgeon), I looked up the flag of Walnut Creek. Guess what I found. A walnut tree. 

I was right, Celebrity Jeopardy! HA! Had I been playing, you'd have been forced to accept my technically correct response. Bow before me, Ken Jennings!

Also, I want to be a celebrity. As "Saturday Night Live" parodied years ago, the clues are ridiculously easy. I'd run every category, and Karen and I together would be invincible.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

The Intellectual Life #22

A Peek into the Intimate Intellectual Life of a Long-Married Couple, Part 22:

(Delayed a day to not spoil yesterday's puzzle.) Karen and I both play Wordle first thing in the morning. She gets up earlier and does it first. After I do it, we compare notes. Neither of us has a go-to start word, we try to use a different one every day.

Brian: Got it in three.

Karen: So did I!

We compare results.

Brian: Oh, neat, we used the same first word!

Karen (ominously): We used the same second word, too.

Brian: That's weird. You must have read my mind.

Karen: I solved it first. You read MY mind!

Brian: No, I'm bad at that. You must have telepathically pushed the answer into my mind!

Karen: Why would I do that?

Brian: To help me?


Brian: Worst superpower ever.

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

Monday, January 8, 2024

My Origin Story

Me around age 14, holding a tempera painting I did of Dr. Strange. I didn't have much juvenilia even before my 2017 wildfire; now I don't have anything but a few photos and scans that survived on my computer backup drive.

I've just discovered a thing going around where artists and cartoonists talk about how they got their start. I don't usually bite at "things going around" but this one intrigued me, so:

"My whole life as far back as I can remember."

That's the short, best, honest answer. Always loved to draw. Always loved comics, or any text combined with visuals in general. I remember being very young and transfixed by rotating neon signs and animated logos on TV. If words were colorful or moved, they had my rapt attention. 

I began submitting comics strips to syndicates when I was about 13. Was sure I'd be the world's first 14-year-old syndicated cartoonist. I wasn't.

I also submitted pages of superhero art to DC and Marvel in my late teens and early 20s. (For a long time, my drawing style was "realistic"; I didn't develop the more "cartoony" style I've used in all my graphic novels until I was 25 or so.) At one point, DC asked to see more samples to decide if I was worth hiring. I wasn't.

Did cartoons and graphics for my college paper. After graduation, when I got my first job as a newspaper reporter, I also did cartoons and graphics for my small daily paper. Learned a ton about photostats, paste-up, color separations, and the nuts and bolts of printing that still serves me well. Tried to get work at bigger papers. I didn't.

An illustration I did when I was a newspaper reporter. This isn't my best artwork, even for the time, but I did it very fast on deadline so I'm inordinately proud of it. Graphic journalism. And yes, there is a street in Woodland, Calif. called "Dead Cat Alley."

Spent my 20s and 30s submitting comic strips to syndicates. Caught the eye of King Features editor Jay Kennedy, who worked with me for more than a year to see if one of my strips was worth signing. It wasn't.

Me trying to be Gary Larson. I wasn't.

Tried to see if I could be a single-panel gag cartoonist, like Charles Addams or Roz Chast. I couldn't.  

Created and tried to sell a children's picture book. Didn't. 

One picture book idea: a girl is drawn through a telescope and explores the universe. Kind of a Magic School Bus thing. All watercolor, I liked this one.

During those years, I also picked up whatever freelance cartooning and illustrating work I could. I illustrated a lightbulb catalog once. They come in a surprising assortment of shapes and sizes.

A lightbulb in its package. I drew about a hundred of them for a catalog once.

When I was in my early 40s, my mother was diagnosed and treated for metastatic lung cancer, and I decided to tell my family's story in the form of a webcomic. Although I had scant professional cartooning credits, I had sufficient experience and skill to pull it off. 

Went viral. Won some awards. Got a book deal. Instant 30-year success story. Now enjoying a half-assed career and working on my fifth graphic novel. 

I use my story as an example of perseverance. I didn't "make it" in my teens, 20s or 30s as I'd hoped, but I kept trying. I wasn't single-mindedly obsessive about it--I had other careers and a marriage and kids and a life. But I plugged away as I could. 

I also use my story to explain how nobody has the Magic Answer or Secret Recipe. This is why I have no advice for anyone starting out; what worked for me won't work for you. Everybody I know who made it has a different origin story. 

All I can suggest is this: do a lot of work and cast it out into the world however you can. Someday, if you're skilled and lucky, one of those seeds you plant will bloom, but you'll have no idea which one until you look back years later, when it will seem like it was inevitable.

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

New Year's Process Post

Watercolored pages scattered all over my work table and floor.

Starting 2024 with Process! I'm painting a library of watercolor textures to use in my comics. They're abstract blobs in a riot of colors that I can digitally insert into my art to (I think) give it some uniqueness and pop. I did a bit of this on Last Mechanical Monster and A Fire Story, and plan to do a lot more.

Why not just watercolor on the actual art? I've tried. I wish it worked. But I draw my comics on smooth Bristol board, which doesn't take watercolor very well. And I've tried drawing my comics on watercolor paper, which doesn't take ink very well (or more precisely, takes ink TOO well). Plus, for printing purposes, it's much better to keep black line art and colors separate.

"Smoke and Clouds." Keep in mind that I can make these shapes transparent so that any color under them shows through, so a red cloud on a yellow sky turns orange. If I wanted to, I could even change them to different colors, although I'd probably rather paint new blobs in the color I wanted.

Why not just do it ALL digitally? Photoshop has a lot of "watercolor" "brushes" that can fake it pretty well. Well . . . I don't want to. So there. I find myself increasingly drawn to *authenticity* in comics and art. I want to see the imperfect hand of a creator, not the perfect pixels of a machine. Nobody else could duplicate my abstract blobs. Even if I cheat by marrying them with the art digitally, they're still all from my hand. 

I hope you get to see them in print in a year or two.

An example of how I digitally merged actual watercolors with line art in Last Mechanical Monster. Both the green wall and the blue sky are real watercolor. I like the look.