Wednesday, February 28, 2024



I've been corresponding with a professor who's writing a paper on "intermediality," or how different media connect, combine, and cross-pollinate. As part of our ongoing discussion, she asked me, "Is it possible to unravel the web of media that influences your work or your storytelling style?" I liked my answer well enough that I asked her if I could share it here. She said I could so I am (lightly edited):

We are all the sum of our influences and nobody creates in a vacuum. I don’t think it’s possible to “unravel the web of media” that influences my storytelling, but there are times when I’m consciously aware of them. They are tools in my toolbox. 

I have thought things like, “I could pace this like a Hitchcock scene,” or “I could compose this like a Wyeth.” Part of the job of making comics is understanding the language of visual storytelling: how and why some compositions and sequences of images evoke moods, emotions, or a sense of time or place that the reader may not even be consciously aware of. 

I think a big part of one’s individual style comes from curating influences and making connections that other creators wouldn’t obviously make. Sometimes it's a song; pop lyrics are terrific at economically capturing a character or situation. When I do a drawing in one-point perspective with the vanishing point on a character at the center of the image, I know I’m using a tool that was used by Leonardo DaVinci in “The Last Supper” and Stanley Kubrick in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Other artists have other tools. 

Not that every panel is so precious. Sometimes, honestly, you’re just trying to tell the story any way you can. I once heard cartoonist Justin Green say, “The dirty secret of comics is that a lot of it involves copy fitting,” which I thought was hilarious and true. You can employ all the theory and obscure influences you want, but sometimes you just have to cram the words and art into a tiny box. 

Almost all cartoonists (and, by extension, I’d say almost all writers, artists, musicians, etc.) begin by imitating others they admire. My cartooning influences go back a century, and include both comic books and comic strips. There are some things I’ve drawn that are deliberate echoes of a particular page of a particular comic that was published in 1967. I bet nobody else has that tool!

Style emerges when all the influences blend together into an unrecognizable amalgam that becomes yours. One reason I always encourage young cartoonists to draw from life as much as possible is to help them develop a unique, less derivative style. There’s no reason or excuse to draw a hand in the style of Jack Kirby, Carl Barks, Herge or Tezuka when you have a perfectly good hand attached to the end of your own arm. Draw that. 

I also encourage cartoonists to read widely and be curious about life outside of comics. Comics made by people who’ve read nothing but comics are usually much less interesting than those by people who know history, science, philosophy, or whatever peculiar interests and knowledge they bring to the work. I always say that if you have a passion for collecting bottle caps, and can write or draw something that makes me care about bottle caps as much as you do, I will be your fan for life. 

Style sneaks up on you and evolves. For a long time, you can look at your own work and see its influences, and then one day, without realizing it, you can’t. It’s just yours. My style is different than it was 10 or 20 years ago—perhaps not in ways that would be apparent to a reader, but are obvious to me. Learning and improving is the goal. Part of that process is remaining open to influences and intelligently incorporating them without imitating them. 

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

ALA Loves Last Mechanical Monster

Here's a very day-making surprise: my latest graphic novel, The Last Mechanical Monster, made the American Library Association's 2023 long list for Best Graphic Novels for Adults!

That's truly an unexpected honor, not least because my book came out in 2022, but I guess it made the cut-off date (other books from 2022 are also on the list so I assume it's not an error). I had no idea and was not looking for it until I got to the "L" titles on the list and thought, "Hey, I know that one!" 

I count 30 other fiction books on the full list. Considering the hundreds (thousands?) of other graphic novels and thick comic books published every year, I'm in elite company.

It would be authorial malpractice if I didn't provide a link to buy my book. This goes to Amazon, although I'd encourage everyone to support their heroic local independent booksellers.

Very nice. My thanks to the ALA Graphic Novels & Comics Round Table and its selection committee, not a single one of whom I know in real life so the fix was not in!

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

"Oh, Waiter?"

Home from a date night that went so wrong it almost circled back around to right....

Once a year our local business folks hold Restaurant Week, during which participating restaurateurs offer a limited menu at an attractive price to lure in new visitors. It's a very popular promotion. We like to take the opportunity to try new places or cuisines, stretch a bit beyond the familiar. 

Our date gets off to a good start. The space is long, narrow and small, with maybe 15 tables, a bar along one side, and the kitchen in the back. It's modern-fancy; we're ready for something special. We're greeted by a man we learn is the owner, and you couldn't ask for a happier, friendlier host. He says it's his first day ever taking part in Restaurant Week, and we're delighted to tell him that's why we came. He's knowledgeable about the menu, answers all our questions. We're in good hands.

Our three-course meal starts well. We notice our host is the only person in the front of the house, and he's already hustling like a plate spinner on the Ed Sullivan show (look it up, kids). Then more people come in. Right about then Karen says, "I don't think they have any idea what Restaurant Week is going to do to them."

Our host disappears into the kitchen. Five minutes. Ten minutes. A couple walks in the door, waits to be seated, leaves. Two men walk in, sit at the bar, wait a while, leave. There's nobody minding the tables or the bar. Nobody comes to take customers' orders. 

We will not see the owner the rest of the long night. He's cooking now. Instead, hospitality is in the hands of a younger man, maybe the owner's little brother, and a deer in headlights would have shown more poise and presence of mind than this poor kid. He's lost, wandering from table to table holding plates of food, asking each customer, "Did you order this?" A customer asks for a beer; the kid spends five minutes opening and reopening every door behind the bar before reporting back that he couldn't find one.

Meanwhile, nothing's coming out of the kitchen. We realize they're deeper underwater than the Titanic. A couple beside us is grumbling. Another couple behind us tells the kid they're tired of waiting for their order and leaves. The kid emerges from the kitchen a half minute later with their food in his hands and just stares at the the empty table. His brain has melted. Having no idea what to do, he puts their plates on the corner of the bar, where they sit the rest of the evening. 

At first, Karen and I are bemused. The food is tasty, we're in no hurry, and we can put up with a lot. "Let's see where this goes." After a while, though, I'm feeling acute second-hand embarrassment fading into horror. They seem like nice people and the first day of Restaurant Week is a complete disaster for them.

We had a good date. We thought the food itself was great, but food is only half the dining experience. The other half? Not so great. But it's a story, and sometimes a story is worth the not-so-great. 

I won't name the restaurant because I sincerely wish them the best. We probably won't be back anytime soon. But we're glad we went.

Friday, February 9, 2024

Having Fun at Twenty-One

Everybody on Facebook is posting photos of themselves at age 21. I don't know why. But I'm in. This is me fiddling around in my university's observatory. We had a nice 8-foot-long telescope and I hosted most of the public viewing sessions for three or so years. I got so good that I could grab the front of the scope and spin it around to point at a particular object in space without even looking. Did a couple of small research projects with my physics prof mentor. This dome was my cathedral.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

The Grammys

Today's PSA: I didn't watch the Grammy Awards but wanted to see the performances everybody's been talking about. Couldn't find them online because the Grammys have been dropping the copyright infringement hammer on anyone who dared post a clip (as is their right). Well, I found them, obviously enough at, so if you want to see Joni Mitchell or Taylor Swift or Billie Eilish or the Tracy Chapman/Luke Combs "Fast Car" duet, a little digging there will turn them up. 

The "Fast Car" situation interests me. First because, from what I've read, straight white male country singer Combs took some heat for "appropriating" the signature song of a queer black female singer-songwriter. Their performance, in which Combs's respect for Chapman and her delight at performing with him were both apparent, just glowed. If it's OK with Chapman, it oughtta be OK with everyone else. 

(Parenthetical note (which is why I put it in parentheses): I remember when someone asked Lindsey Buckingham what he thought of the Dixie Chicks' hit cover of Stevie Nicks's "Landslide." Buckingham took a long pause and then said, "I'm happy for Stevie." Ha!)

I've also been surprised to see "Fast Car" described as a black anthem or a queer anthem, when I always took it as a "poor kids stuck in a crummy life yearn to hit the road" anthem, in the same vein as a Springsteen song. Right there is how you know that song is Art: listeners take away from it whatever speaks to them and their lives. 

I've experienced a bit of that with my books, esp. Mom's Cancer and A Fire Story. People sometimes glean meaning I didn't intend, but if they find something that's meaningful to them, who am I to argue? When I reply, "You're very perceptive, most people don't pick up on that," I may be among the people who didn't pick up on that. I think that's wonderful. 

Wednesday, February 7, 2024


I recently mentioned in passing that I had no "juvenilia," or artwork done when I was young, because pretty much everything I'd created before 2017 was lost in our wildfire. A high school friend, Beth, said that she had some and would send it on. It arrived today.

First, I have to tell you how much it means that Beth held onto things I drew when we were both kids for DECADES. She joked that when I became a famous artist she could sell them for millions. The part of that that's not a joke, I think, is that even when we were 16 or 17, she saw some potential and thought they were worth saving. So that's deeply touching.

And now she gave them back. That's even more deeply touching, although I expect I disappointed her on the "famous artist" part of our deal. I still have time, Beth.

I will thank her privately, but decided to post them publicly for one reason: they are embarrassingly bad. I sort of remembered being better than this at 15, 16, 17 and 18, but here's the evidence I can't deny and it's painful for me to face. The good news is, I got better.

That's today's sermon: No one but the rarest prodigy springs fully-formed like Athena from the brow of Zeus. When you're a kid who gets recognized for your intelligence or artistic talent or athletic ability, you probably aren't actually GOOD, you're just better than the other kids around you. But with encouragement, perseverance, education, experience, and (I think this is important) some real professional feedback, including criticism and rejection, you can get good. 

No false humility: I am a good, confident, professional writer and cartoonist now. But I wasn't born that way, and I sure wasn't when I was a teenager. The kid who drew this stuff had a LOT to learn. 

The grown-up who wrote this is still learning. I always figure that if you look back on your earlier work and cringe, it just means you're getting better.

Thank you, Beth.

An 11x17 poster. My scanner cut off the bottom but you get the idea. Star Wars, Rocky, and The Wiz nail my era of high school exactly.

I don't know if this was a rough draft of the previous "Pops Concert" poster. All I can tell you is that I drew about 100,000 Enterprises and Klingon spaceships in those days, and these were two of them.

Thor and Spider-Man. Urgh. There is nothing good or right about these figures. But, like I said: it's good I've made some progress.

A harpy. Not sure quite what or why this exists, but I suspect it was done for a class assignment, and probably paired with the next drawing....

...which I take to be Cerberus, the three-headed hellhound of Greek myth. I'm not sure what the dog in the foreground is about--perhaps it is imagining its inner savage self--but out of all these five drawings it's the one figure I can look at and think, "Hm, not bad, kid."

Sunday, February 4, 2024

LumaCon 2024

I spent most of yesterday at the sincerest little comics convention I know, LumaCon in Petaluma, Calif., a free event organized by librarians with the mission of encouraging a love of comics and, more broadly, literature and creativity, in kids. This was the tenth LumaCon. I've been to most of them, and will keep going as long as they'll have me.

I get a few things out of LumaCon. First, a chance to touch base with local comics pals like Alexis Fajardo, Tom Beland, Denis St. John, Mary Shyne, Gio Benedetti, Emily C. Martin, Andrew Farago, Shaenon K. Garrity, Donna Almendrala, and Maia Kobabe, some of whom I only see once or twice a year at things like this. Since we were all working there wasn't really time for deep conversations, but a quick "What's new with you?" is always nice.

My table set up. Vaguely, the right half of the table is for selling books and the left half is for talking comics.

I like to bring original art, like the two pages at bottom, to talk about how things I draw with ink on paper become a published book. I think it's important to explain and demystify the process, and convey the idea that real people make books and you can, too. I remember having that realization when I was a kid, and it made a big difference.

An overview from one corner of the main room at the Petaluma Community Center, with many young artists showing and peddling their work in the foreground. I'm always impressed with their skill and enthusiasm.

The main hall has a raised stage, which offered this craft area where kids could cut up stuff and glue together cardboard shields and such.

Mostly, it's a chance to connect with people, especially younger people, about making comics. Although I do sell my books (and actually sell better at LumaCon than any other venue), I'm mostly there to share what I know about cartooning with kids who want to absorb it. One of my favorite interactions yesterday was with a boy around 15 or 16 with whom I had a long conversation about storytelling, and the importance of being authentic and unique without worrying about what's hot or trendy (by the time you follow the trend, everyone will have moved on to something else). Tell stories that mean something to you and the right people will find them and love them. He really seemed to light up, which is the whole point of LumaCon for me. And he didn't buy a thing.

That and the family that bought THREE of my books in one shot! That hardly ever happens. That was cool, too.

I also got something out of sitting next to Maia Kobabe, author of the most-banned book in the U.S., "Gender Queer." Maia has taken an ungodly amount of heat from right-wing book burners, and every time we meet I check in to see how that's going. In my opinion, Maia has handled the attacks with poise and grace. Yesterday, I overheard more than a few teenagers tell Maia some variation of "I really needed your book. You showed me I wasn't alone. Your book saved my life." I asked if that happened like twenty times a day and Maia acknowledged that yes, it did, and that's what made all the vitriol endurable.

Comics aren't always important, but they CAN be. That's one thing I love about them.

Lots of youthful energy and creativity. Fun and play. Arts and crafts. Everybody there for the right reason. My daughters Robin and Laura there most of the day helping me with my table. Nothing but positive sincerity as far as the eye could see. Plus a bake sale! What more could a comics convention be? Thanks for having me, LumaCon. I hope to see you next year.

To my right sat my friend Lex Fajardo, creator of the "Kid Beowulf" series and editor at the Charles Schulz Studio. I think he's drawing a sketch for a fan.

Another Schulz Studio staffer, Denis St. John, makes dinosaur and horror comics on his own time.

From right: Cartoon Art Museum curator Andrew Farago, cartoonist Shaenon Garrity, and their son Robin, who has been to so many conventions he's totally jaded, which I find delightful.

Cartoonist Tom Beland, one of my favorite stylists, said he has new work coming out soon, so look for it.

Maia Kobabe was busy all day. I was lucky to get this shot unobstructed by fans.

These evil-doers were also there, but didn't cause any trouble.

Some furry folk outside in front of the bookmobile, which did brisk business. After all, the whole convention was put on by librarians.

The Bake Sale! I took this photo late in the day, when most of their goods were sold. Through the window behind them, students from the Culinary Arts Program at Casa Grande High School sold tacos, tostadas and such, which I ate for lunch and were very good.