Friday, December 30, 2005

The Halfway Game

When my mind wanders, it occasionally comes to rest on the Halfway Game. I first read a newspaper or magazine article describing the game several years ago. It always changes my perspective on things, and the New Year is the perfect time to play it.

The game works like this: think of a landmark event in the past and then count back twice that number of years to see what the event was "halfway" to. For best effect, the second event should have some relevance to the first. For example, in 2006:

* The debut of the television series "Star Trek" 40 years ago (1966) is halfway to the release of Fritz Lang's classic silent science fiction film "Metropolis" 80 years ago (1926).

See? If you play it right, the Halfway Game has two salutary effects. First, if you're old enough to remember "Star Trek" you probably think of it as fairly modern and "Metropolis" as absolutely ancient. Now you have to make an unsettling mental adjustment: either "Star Trek" is half-ancient or "Metropolis" is half-modern. Second, I think the game instills a good gut feel for time's passage and, in this case, the pace at which science fiction and the film industry have changed as well. In any case, you feel old.

More, in reverse chronological order:

* Madonna's "Like a Virgin" (1985) is halfway to The Beatles' Ed Sullivan appearance (1964).

* The Stephen King novels "Pet Sematary" and "Christine" (1983) are halfway to Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960).

* The start of Ronald Reagan's first term (1981) is halfway to Dwight Eisenhower's second (1956).

* "Star Wars" (1977) is halfway to "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948).

* The memorable television season of 1973-74 ("All in the Family," "MASH," "Mary Tyler Moore," "Bob Newhart") is halfway to the first commercial television broadcast (1941).

* The beginning of the Apollo program (1966-67) is halfway to Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight (1927).

* John Kennedy's election (1960) is halfway to the start of World War I (1914).

* The debut of Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" (1950) is halfway to the debut of "The Yellow Kid" (1894), generally considered the first newspaper comic strip.

And finally: if you haven't already, double your birthdate and see what you are halfway to. And try to have something intelligent to say when a kid asks you what it was like being an eyewitness to history. Like it or not, you were. Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Spirit

One of my Christmas gifts was the book Will Eisner: A Spirited Life by Bob Andelman. I've been reading bits and pieces, not really dedicating myself to starting at Page One and proceeding in order, but am so far enjoying learning more about the man whose work I've long admired.

So I was already in an Eisner frame of mind today as I cleaned my office for the new year and came across this:

This framed cover of one of Eisner's later works was part of my table's centerpiece at last July's Eisner Awards ceremony. Each table had (if I recall correctly) three pictures of different Eisner covers that the nominees were invited to take home afterward. When I unexpectedly won the Eisner, the title of this piece seemed so appropriate I couldn't imagine leaving without it.

My only regret about the whole Eisner Award experience (and a regret I mentioned in my acceptance remarks) is that I never had a chance to meet the man before he died in January 2005. Mr. Eisner used to hand out the awards himself; no offense to Jackie Estrada who runs the awards program or Scott McCloud who handed me mine, but getting an Eisner from Eisner would have been uniquely amazing.

I admit I haven't read Minor Miracles yet, but I will.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Let Nothing You Dismay

"Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash., and Kalamazoo!
Nora's freezin' on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower alleygaroo!

Don't we know archaic barrel,
Lullaby Lilla Boy, Louisville Lou.
Trolley Molly don't love Harold,
Boola boola Pensacoola hullabaloo!"

--Walt Kelly (1948)

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Therapy Toolbox Internet Radio Show

Here's that audio interview I mentioned in the last post:

It runs about 55 minutes. There were a few things I wish I'd remembered to say and a couple I wish I hadn't said at all, but overall I think it went fine. Interviewer Jon Filitti really did his homework and came prepared, and it felt to me like we were just having a nice conversation. I've interviewed a lot of people before (as a freelance writer and long-ago newspaper reporter) and appreciate a job well done.

Does anybody like the sound of their own recorded voice?

Thanks to Jon and Deborah Harper for the opportunity and the soapbox (and for putting together that cool webpage above). I'll be updating my website to include appropriate info and links soon.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Can You Hear Me Now?

Whew. I just finished a one-hour phone interview with Jon Filitti, a mental health expert, family counselor, and program coordinator for the Dubuque (Iowa) Community School District's "Family Support" program. Jon runs a website called "Out of This World" ( through which he uses comics to reach out and help adolescents deal with their problems. He wrote a few weeks ago asking if he could talk to me about "Mom's Cancer," how and why I created it, reactions to it, the Eisner Award, publication, etc. Jon is a comics creator himself who came at me with a list of thoughtful, well-researched questions that made the hour fly by. I enjoyed it.

The interview will be available online as soon as Jon's electronic wizards do the voodoo that they do so well. I'll let you know where and maybe have more to say about it later. He'll also send me an MP3 that I'll have to figure out what to do with. Meanwhile, here are some other sites that Jon and his colleague Deborah Harper are involved with. It looks to me like they do good, interesting work.

While you look at those, I'll start figuring out what "podcasting" means.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

First...Herriman and McCay...

Diamond Comic Distributors is the biggest mover of graphic novels, comic books, genre magazines, trading cards, etc. in the world. If you see such products in any store anywhere, chances are good that Diamond put them there. Every month, Diamond publishes its "Previews" catalog of work due to be released in a few months; shops place their orders and Diamond ships 'em out.

After reading yesterday's blog, comic strip historian D.D. Degg was kind enough to send me this scan of an advertisement Abrams placed in this month's "Previews." As I've done for the catalog pages I posted yesterday, I linked this image to a larger version on my website. To see it bigger, just click on it.

I saw an earlier draft of this but not the published version, so many thanks, D.D. There are two Best Parts to this ad:

Best Part #1: The Tagline. "First...Herriman and McCay.... Now....Piraro and Fies." I laughed and laughed when I read that. George Herriman created the classic "Krazy Kat" comic strip, the first place scholars look when they argue whether comics can be Art. Winsor McCay created "Little Nemo" and "Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend," two all-time great comic strips from the early 20th century. I've already written about my admiration for Mr. McCay in my entry about "Gertie the Dinosaur" on September 27. In any list of history's best cartoonists, Herriman and McCay are near the top. Dan Piraro is a fine contemporary cartoonist who does the comic strip "Bizarro." I've never met Piraro and can't speak for him, but I'm certain that at least I have no business being in that sentence.

When I saw the draft I called editor Charlie and sang him the "One of These Things is Not Like the Others" song from "Sesame Street." He understood my bemusement and explained that the point wasn't to compare Piraro and me to the Greats, but to remind buyers and readers that Abrams had published books about Herriman and McCay...and now books by Piraro and Fies. Abrams wants you to know they understand the medium. They've got comics cred. In that light, the line made sense. Then he told me the even more mortifying and embarrassing ad that Abrams considered before Charlie shot it down in favor of this one, and I considered myself lucky.

Best Part #2: Seeing my drawing of Mom at the top of the page. Somehow that struck me so strongly. Mom would have gotten a huge kick out of that.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Catalog Shopping

Editor Charlie just sent me the spring catalog for Abrams Image, the new imprint I'm helping Abrams Books launch. This is the catalog that goes out to all the buyers for bookstores informing them of the wonderful new publications they simply must order today to satisfy their demanding, discerning customers in March. And leading off the slim gold-covered catalog is a two-page spread of:

I know that text is too small to read. However, you might be able to make out the yellow rectangle at the upper right of the bottom page--the one that reads "100,000-copy first printing." Holy moley, that's a lot of books. It's also a tangible expression of Abrams' commitment to Mom's Cancer. I'm a bit nonplussed by their faith, but appreciate it.

UPDATE: I've now made both images links to larger versions on my website. Just click on either image to see them bigger.

Monday, December 12, 2005


I've enjoyed making my own Christmas cards for a long time (I don't actually remember ever buying any). Since my twin girls were born, each year's card has featured a cartoon of them and whatever pets we happened to have at the time. The girls are 17 years old now. Strung on a ribbon across the wall, 17 cards provide a sentimental timeline of our family's history. Here's this year's:

The cards also offer a nice overview of the past two decades of affordable reprographics technology. My earliest cards were done by commercial printers, sometimes in one color and sometimes in two (e.g., black and red), with color separations done by hand. Results were entirely out of my control and could be uneven; I might wait two or three weeks to get my job back from the printer only to find that he'd cut them all crooked or mixed up the colors--too late to correct and reprint.

Later, they invented color photocopying. Quality was pretty shaky at first. Color fidelity was a big gamble and I could only use thin glossy paper. A year or two later the color reproduction was better and I could photocopy onto cardstock. But I still had to be very careful to draw and color with an eye toward an unpredictable outcome.

Enter the 21st century. Desktop publishing. Photoshop. Inkjet printers. Wow. At last I'm in control of all the variables, start to finish. If the colors on the screen don't match those that come out of the printer (and they seldom do), a little trial and error gets them close enough. I can play with image size and placement, and even customize greetings if I want to. I can print exactly as many as I need, and if I run out I can print more.

Twenty years ago, I could not have imagined having this capability sitting on my desk. Remembering the time, effort, and expense I used to dedicate to achieving a tremendously inferior result, I never take it for granted.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Pontificating Pedagogue

The art class talk went fine, I think, although I'll have to await a final review from my girls. In addition to touching on a few of the points I mentioned here December 1, I raised some ideas tailored to art students looking ahead to university studies and careers in the field. I'm pretty sure these things are true:

--"Write (or draw) what you know" is good advice, except too many people don't know anything interesting. You've got to be curious and observant about the world. The best artist in my high school fizzled out immediately after graduation because, although he was technically proficient, he had no other interests and nothing to say. The last time I saw him he was airbrushing t-shirt art at the county fair. Technique by itself is empty and insufficient.

--Work the Seams. By which I mean, create a niche by being a little different. Apply your own quirky interests and specialization to whatever you do. Don't just be an artist; be an artist with a passion for astronomy or medieval literature or bottle caps. Find a place where two or more interesting things come together and bring as much of that collision to the table as you can. Someday, something you do will connect with someone.

I hope I wasn't quite as preachy as that makes me sound. I don't think I was. Mostly I talked about the process of creating Mom's Cancer and publishing the book, and saved the sermon for the end. The class seemed interested and asked questions until we ran out of time. I enjoyed it.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

One Thing Leads to Another

I've been asked to talk to my girls' high school art class next week. Some of these kids are very talented advanced placement students already preparing portfolios for future academic and professional careers. I've spoken to high school classes before, usually on the topic of "how I lucked into a career combining two things I love best: science and writing." Now that I've got a published graphic novel in hand, I suppose I can extend that list to include "art," yet I have a nagging fear that some of these kids are already way ahead of me.

I was thinking about what I might discuss when my eyes settled on this laminated card pinned to my bulletin board, my first official press pass:

What a goober.

This was where my professional writing career began, fresh out of college at a small daily newspaper in central California. I got the job of part-time night-shift sports writer based on paltry clips of an opinion column I wrote for my college paper plus, I suspect, my ability to type fast--a skill not as common 20 years ago as it is today. I must have been the only applicant, because anyone else with respiration would've been better qualified. I nevertheless got a foot in the door and covered a season of high school basketball before a full-time (daytime!) position opened on the city beat and I was on my way.

One day the editor bellowed out into the newsroom: did anyone want to fly to Fresno for the weekend to cover the opening of a new power plant? Since no one else spoke up and I was trying to build a reputation as the go-to science guy, I took the assignment. It turned out to be a good story about a hydroelectric turbine complex dug deep inside a mountain between two lakes. The place looked like the cavern lair of a James Bond villain. I had fun, wrote the feature, and forgot about it.

Helms Pumped Storage Hydro Plant. I was there.

Twelve or thirteen years later, after a decade away from journalism, I applied for a position with a firm that wrote scientific, technical, and marketing material for people in the energy industry. I passed their writing test and showed up for the interview with one relevant clip: the power plant story. I got the job. And thanks to that job, just a couple of years later I was ready to break out on my own.

I derive three lessons from that story for the young'uns. First, take on tasks nobody else wants because someday, somehow, in a way you can't imagine, one of them will pay off. Second, one thing leads to another in unpredictable ways that only make sense in hindsight. A column in a college newspaper leads to part-time sports writing leads to full-time reporting leads to freelance magazine writing leads to something that begins to look like a career. Be ready for unexpected opportunities.

Third, if you want to be a writer, write. Anything. I learned the most about writing by covering a season of high school basketball. Two or three games are easy; by the tenth or twentieth you're working mightily to keep it interesting for both your readers and yourself. Because, let's face it, every high school ball game (or city council meeting or planning commission hearing) is pretty much like any other. I figured my job was to pay attention and figure out what made this game, meeting or hearing special, and then explain that. That made me a pro. (My personal definition of "professional" is "doing a good job even when you don't feel like it." Or, as Charles Schulz said, "writer's block is for amateurs.") I suspect that applies to art as well.

By the way, in my three years as a reporter and close to ten years as a freelance writer/journalist/editor, I've never once had to show a press pass to anyone. Too bad.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Congratulations! It's a Book!

A few days ago I had one of the coolest experiences of my life: opening a package containing five advance copies of my book. Real books. Mine.

The first print run is done. Most of it is on a slow boat somewhere in the Pacific, but the printer flew a batch to Abrams to distribute to reviewers, major book buyers, heads of state and captains of industry, etc. And Abrams sent five to me. I'll get more later--although not as many as you might think. I understand that one problem authors face is everyone assumes they've got free books to pass out like candy. Not so. Luckily, I do get a pretty good discount.

I immediately mailed two of the five books to my sisters, which explains my delay in posting here--sometimes Kid Sis and Nurse Sis actually read this thing, and I wanted the books to be a surprise. They arrived yesterday. Surprise accomplished. I only wish I could have done the same for Mom.

After all the months of work, after actually living through the events depicted in Mom's Cancer, you may be able to imagine what it meant to finally hold this book in my hands. To feel the cloth binding. To smell the pages. Reading has always been a tactile experience for me anyway--there's something about the the physical sensation of reading a book that plugs directly into my brain--and when it's my own work... Wow.

I've inspected it cover to cover and am entirely thrilled with the result. Abrams is a classy publisher, most renowned for their quality art books, and I think they did a first-class job on mine. My thanks to Charlie, Isa, Brady, Mark, and all the editorial, production, and design people at Abrams who had a hand in this. I hope (and think) they can be proud of it.

Regarding Postcards: Several people wrote to ask for my promotional postcards (see November 22 below) and I've fulfilled all the requests I received. The offer still stands: anyone who wants a postcard as a memento or several to distribute is welcome to e-mail me and let me know how many, where to send them, signed or unsigned, whatever. Some of the cards I just mailed out will be going to cancer centers and clinics throughout North America, for which I'm extremely grateful. Others will just become tattered bookmarks and that's good, too. I've got plenty left.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Want a Postcard?

Let me tell you about this postcard:

Last July, shortly before Comic-Con International, editor Charlie thought it'd be a great idea to print up some promotional postcards for Mom's Cancer. Especially if I happened to win the Eisner Award, it would be nice to have something to pass out and perhaps sign. Even if I didn't win, I could distribute them at the freebie table and raise some awareness. As I recall, we were still designing the cover at that time; Abrams' art director quickly produced a semi-finished version, I approved the art and copy the same day, and they were off to the printer as a top-priority rush job.

So 500 postcards were supposed to be delivered to my hotel in San Diego the first day of the convention. Day One: no cards. Day Two: no cards. Day Three: no cards. Repeated phone calls to my hotel's Guest Packaging Department confirmed that they had nothing anywhere that looked like it might be a 500-postcard-capacity box addressed to anyone whose name was even vaguely similar to mine (with a name like "Fies" you adapt to misspellings). Editor Charlie was mystified, the printer said he shipped them; still, no cards. I won the Eisner, Comic-Con ended, my family and I went home...still no cards. A day or two later I got a call from the hotel: "Oh, yeah, they've been sitting here for a week. You should have called our Guest Packaging Department." Grrrrrr....

So since July I've been tripping over a box of 500 postcards sitting next to my desk, not quite sure what to do with them. A few of Kid Sis's correspondents asked for some to distribute among their friends and workplaces. When we get closer to the release date I think I'll mail some to selected booksellers. But the more I think about it, the more I realize the best use for these cards is probably to get them into the hands of people who want them.

So here's the deal: If you want a postcard, e-mail me your address and I'll send you one (I vow to never use your address for evil). If you want a bunch (within reason), tell me how many. I'll sign none, one, or all of them, whatever you want. Your end of the deal is if I send you a bunch you have to promise not to hoard them. Spread them around, help people find out about the book. That's what they're for. I'll be very grateful.

Monday, November 14, 2005

More Sadness for My Family

I spent the past few days in Reno, Nevada, where my Uncle Cal passed away yesterday. His wife and children, some of his grandchildren, and Nurse Sis and I were able to be there for him and he knew it, which I hope was helpful and comforting to him. Uncle Cal was Mom's big brother and only sibling, and his death so soon after hers is quite a blow.

Out of respect for his family, I don't feel free (or inclined) to share many details about his passing, which had both horrific and transcendant moments. I was constantly conscious of the fact that all decisions were up to my Aunt Norma and their children; I figured my role was to listen, support, and advise when asked, and to try to make sure that, whatever happened, they'd have no regrets. With Mom's experience so fresh in our minds, I think Nurse Sis and I were able to help our family navigate some rough waters. Only time will tell if we succeeded.

Uncle Cal at Mom's birthday party in Mom's Cancer.

Uncle Cal was a huge influence on me. He and my aunt took in Mom when she was a young single mother with two brats in tow and made a warm home for us. Until I was 10, he was the father figure in my life. His two sons, both younger than me, went on to become pretty good baseball players; I joked that he was so good at teaching them because he made all his mistakes first on me. He was a great man who will be greatly missed.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

How I Cartoon

All quiet on the literary front. As far as I know, printers in Asia are churning away, chunkity-chunking out copies of Mom's Cancer while I sleep peacefully through the night half a world away. I look forward to getting one in my hands. Meanwhile...

On my main site ( I used to have a "How To" page describing how I drew Mom's Cancer. I took it down after a while--don't remember why, maybe it occurred to me that no one cared. But what is a blog if not a repository for material about which no one but its author might care?

My method is very "old-school" cartooning, with a bit of computerization thrown in at the end. Increasing numbers of cartoonists work entirely on computer and love the results. I haven't yet found a technology that gives me the same versatility and control I enjoy with a brush. Plus, for me, the act of putting pencil and ink on paper is the most satisfying part. Why would I want to give it up? In some circles, this makes me a dinosaur.

I begin with a script and a blank sheet of 9-by-12-inch 2-ply vellum bristol board. Following a rough thumbnail sketch on scratch paper, I rule in borders and lettering guides in light pencil, then rough in the captions and word balloons:

The words go first because it's critical that they have enough room and the eye follows them around the page as intended. Then I pencil the art. It's still pretty loose at this point:

I rule borders and other straight lines using a fountain pen, and letter with waterproof black India ink using Speedball nibs B-6 and B-5 (for bold).

Art is also inked with black India ink using a variety of small sable or synthetic brushes. Fine details and lines (like those on Mom's shirt or the pattern on her hat) are done with a crow-quill nib.

After erasing pencil lines with a kneaded eraser, I scan the art into Photoshop to add shading and any color needed. I also do a fair amount of editing at this stage...fixing mistakes, erasing blemishes, and sometimes rewriting entire bits of dialogue by cutting and pasting words or even individual letters. A few years ago, this would've been done with X-Acto knives, rubber cement and White Out. Computers are much better.

When I had the time to sit down and work non-stop, I could finish two or three pages per day. However, I very rarely got such time and did the best I could, when I could. The hardest part? Laying down Line One on Day One, knowing that I had more than 100 pages and many months to go. Anne Lamott tells a story about her 10-year-old brother struggling to complete a huge report on birds the night before it was due. Overwhelmed and immobilized, he asked his father how he could possibly get it done. Dad answered, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird." That's how I did Mom's Cancer: bird by bird.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Where I Will Be

We're starting to put together some plans for promoting Mom's Cancer early next year, including a multi-city book tour at some point. Right now I have just two firm dates:

New York Comic-Con, February 24-26, 2006, New York City. This will be my book's big coming-out party. Abrams is hosting a booth at which I'll spend some time signing, and we'll also take the opportunity to meet some booksellers and media people.

Comic-Con International, July 20-23, 2006, San Diego, Calif. These are the nice people who gave me an Eisner Award last July. I've been invited to take part in a spotlight panel and I'm sure I'll sign some books.

I've started a page on my main website where I'll post events and appearances as my schedule fills in. Right now, the list of cities involved in my multi-city tour is a mystery. As excited as I am to have my book coming out soon, this is a fairly daunting and intimidating prospect. It's all new to me (aw, poor baby). Still, I'm grateful that Abrams is so dedicated to promoting Mom's Cancer; I realize how unusual it is to receive such support. Luckily, I've got a few months to practice becoming witty and charming. I'll need it.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Brain Trust

My editor Charlie Kochman (right) and I: the Mom's Cancer Brain Trust.

I met Charlie and his girlfriend Rachel at the airport yesterday as planned (see October 25), and we spent a couple of hours getting to know each other better over lunch. Charlie shared some great behind-the-scenes stories and I very much enjoyed talking with Rachel, especially since one of my daughters is interested in pursuing her profession. I admit I was nervous going into my first face-to-face with my editor. I mean, it's probably too late to pull the plug on the book, but you never know....

I'm going to say some nice things about Charlie now that I'm sure will come back to haunt me when we're locked in bitter lawsuits in a few years. I really had no idea that people as caring and conscientious as Charlie existed in the publishing business, and I have no idea how he's managed to survive with those qualities intact. His contributions to the book version of Mom's Cancer are significant. Not so much in content--the words and pictures are all mine (though he suggested some edits and additions I was generally happy to adopt)--but in form, approach, strategy, production quality, and a lot of other things that matter greatly, Charlie's work has far exceeded any expectations I had. If Mom's Cancer is the success we hope, much of the credit will be his. If it's not, it won't be for lack of effort; I couldn't imagine how any editor or publisher could do any better. My book was lucky to land on his desk.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

A Bald Spot

A few months ago, a reader wrote to ask if Mom had ever felt competitive with the other patients undergoing chemotherapy at the same time she was. His own mother had been through the same thing and obsessively measured her progress against that of her cohorts.

That wasn't something I'd noticed during Mom's treatment and I didn't address it in Mom's Cancer, but as I thought about it I realized my correspondent was right. Most patients' chemo was done on a regular schedule so you tended to see the same people every session. Mom's peers included an annoying loudmouth that Mom prayed wouldn't sit next to her and a young Hispanic woman who always switched the television to Spanish-language soap opera. In a situation so frightening and uncertain, it was impossible not to compare and compete: Who went bald first. Who got fat or thin. Who looked better or worse. Who stopped showing up at all. "Winning" meant living.

I thought this was a great insight and considered adding a new chapter to the book about it. But since I hadn't noticed it in my own family's experience I had a hard time writing about it, making it "real," and fitting it into the flow of the story around it. I couldn't figure out how to express this abstract, internalized concept in drawings. I couldn't make it work.

Instead, I drew a new spot illustration that I thought touched on the idea, and hoped that we might use it to fill out the book's page count. It turned out that 128 pages filled up faster than I expected and the new drawing wasn't needed. So that's the story behind this never-to-be-published piece:

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

O Canada

Terry replied to my post of October 22 to let me know that, in addition to being available on Amazon, Mom's Cancer can now be pre-ordered on Canada's Indigo Books. Thanks very much, Terry.

Friday will be an interesting day. I've been working with my editor at Abrams, Charlie Kochman, for more than half a year now. It's been a tremendous working relationship, and on occasion a personal one, but we've never met face to face. However, the day after tomorrow Charlie and his girlfriend are flying to California to attend a wedding and I'm planning to meet them at the airport, maybe treat them to lunch. I'm looking forward to it.

I have half a suspicion that Charlie just wants to make sure I actually exist. And I had half an inkling to send one of my daughters in my place to tell him the entire project was a hoax concocted by a 17-year-old girl. But no...I like Charlie too much to let all the blood drain from his face like that.

Saturday, October 22, 2005


That was my Amazon ranking yesterday. Right between a "Touchy Feely Board Book" titled That's Not My Lion and the memoirs of "60 Minutes" correspondent Mike Wallace. In your face, Mike Wallace.

I owe it all to Thursday's commenter Anonymous, who was probably the first person on Earth to buy Mom's Cancer. Thanks, Anon!

Thursday, October 20, 2005

My brother-in-law just informed me that "Mom's Cancer" is now available for pre-order on


Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Start of It All

I've told the story of how I decided to do "Mom's Cancer" before. I had driven Mom to a chemotherapy session early in the course of her treatment. Chemo takes a few hours and Mom typically slept through it. I'd brought along some paperwork to pass time but got bored, so I turned over a sheet of paper and drew a sketch of Mom reclining in the chair.

I thought the drawing and its few captions captured something true about the experience in a way that words alone couldn't. Chemo's not dramatic, it's tedious. Ordinary comforts like a strawberry milkshake or a CD player contrast with the extraordinary medical technology and biochemistry employed. The unusual becomes the norm, to the point that Mom could sleep through procedures that might have terrified her weeks before. I'd been thinking about finding some way to communicate Mom's cancer experience, and this drawing convinced me that cartoons might work. I went home and started writing "Mom's Cancer."

Immediately below is that first sketch, followed by the finished art. This sketch is an important scrap of paper to me; it's where "Mom's Cancer" began.

Monday, October 17, 2005


Just a brief report on the memorial celebration we held for Mom yesterday, because I don't have energy for a long one. It turned out very well, with all the right people and just the right amount of them. Friends and relatives, some flying halfway across the country on short notice. A perfect amount of food (it's hard to order when you don't know whether to expect 30 or 300 guests). People even seemed to like my PowerPoint presentation, which many of them took home on CDs I'd burned as mementos. Pretty exhausting, and it's hard to turn it off Sunday night and get back to work Monday morning.

Just one more photo of Mom, this one from her days as a model around age 19. I'm afraid I cut this career short for her--by being born. My mistake. I love Mom's modeling pictures and it took my sisters a week to figure out where she had hidden them.

I guess one good thing about a memorial is you learn new things about someone you thought you knew about as well as anyone could. Mom inspired and even saved the lives of people I didn't even know. That was great to hear.

I'm going to try to keep this blog focused on the book and off the maudlin from now on. But I'm sure I'll write more about Mom from time to time. After all, she is the book. And it is my blog.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Wonderful World of Color

I wanted to say a little more about the pictures I posted yesterday.

Each is a single poster-sized sheet of paper with 16 pages on it, with another 16 pages printed on the back. A book goes together like a complex jigsaw puzzle. It looks chaotic on these big sheets but, when the pages are cut, collated, and glued or stitched together in the right order, it all falls into place.

Those who saw "Mom's Cancer" online may remember that it's mostly black and white. I used color sparingly and deliberately to add extra meaning or punctuation to the narrative. I wanted the effect to be like the change from B&W to color in "The Wizard of Oz": a signal to the reader that something different was going on.

When "Mom's Cancer" was an online comic, I had complete freedom to use color or not as I chose. But in the physical world of ink and presses, Color = Cost. B&W printing takes one run through the press; color printing takes four. I don't know actual numbers, but conceptually color printing takes four times the ink, film, time, and labor as B&W (the only cost saving I can think of is that you only have to pay for the paper once). So from a publisher's perspective, it's evident why color is a big deal.

Look at the 16-page sheet above. Only two of the pages (at upper right) are full-color images. The rest are black and white. IF I had laid out the book so that those two pages were also B&W, this sheet could have been printed much less expensively. Now, I'm a cooperative guy, so when my editor and I first laid out our plan for this book--it's called a "book map"--we looked for ways to economize on color printing. He'd write me a note saying something like, "if we could keep the color to pages 7, 8, 17, 18, 55, 56, 111 and 112, that would be great." And I'd shuffle, slide and sort the pages as best I could, then reply something like, "well, I'd hate to give up my blue dots on page 6." And he'd sigh gently and go back to the map.

To my editor's and publisher's great credit, they never pressured me to compromise. We never found an ideal solution--my color pages were scattered and clumped all wrong, and no amount of shuffling worked without breaking up the story. So they bit the bullet and decided to print the entire book in four-color, even if 95% of a sheet was B&W. I find that amazing. There is one page in the book with a spot of color that I doubt most readers will even notice, but to me that one spot is a dramatic and thematic key to the story. If I'd had to change it to black and white I would have. But I'll always be grateful that I didn't.

Friday, October 14, 2005


Posted below is what 48 pages of book looks like on its way to the presses. And this is little more than a third of it. I enjoy everything about the printing process.

Memorial services Sunday. A process I expect to enjoy less.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

More Photos

Just a few more pictures of Mom. I'm preparing a PowerPoint slide show to present at a memorial service this weekend and these are some of the photos I've scanned for it. PowerPoint can be a dangerous tool in the wrong hands, and I'm doing my best not to make it an interminable bore. For me, this project is a real nice way to recapture the scope of Mom's life. I'm burning several copies as keepsakes for family and close friends, and I think they'll make a fine way to remember her by.

This is one of my favorite photos from my entire life. Mom, Nurse Sis and I dressed for Easter. Incidentally, those green gloves of Mom's are the pair I borrowed when I dressed up as Robin the Boy Wonder (I also had the requisite red vest). Stylin'!

Just a nice shot of Mom.

Mom and I during her chemo. Her hair later grew back very well and she looked great. Me, not so great.

Friday, October 07, 2005

About the Book...

Somebody asked me about the book. Understandably not my highest priority right now, but I've still got responsibilities and a job to do....

"Mom's Cancer" has been put to bed and is on its way to the printer. In a coincidence I can only compare to Charles Schulz dying on the day his last "Peanuts" strip ran, Mom passed away hours before my book's final deadline. Next question: will the book address Mom's death? Yes. I had time to write a page, very much like what I posted here on October 3, and add it to the last page of the book as a kind of coda.

I wasn't sure it was the right thing to do. My editor said it was my call but argued that it needed to be addressed. Other people I respect and love argued against it. After thinking it over for a couple of days--days during which I knew I wasn't thinking straight anyway--I went with my first instinct and decided I had to do it. When I created "Mom's Cancer" I resolved to be as honest as possible about the experience, and hiding the fact of Mom's death would've violated the spirit and purpose of the story. What clinched the decision for me was recalling that back when I began writing and drawing "Mom's Cancer," I didn't know whether Mom was going to live or die in days, weeks, or years. In any case, I set out to report the story. And so I have.

We'll see how that works out....

Photographs and Memories

I've been going through old photos in roughly chronological order to prepare a slide show summarizing Mom's life for what I'm calling her "memorial celebration." I thought I'd share some favorites here, and may post more as I work through the decades.

The top photo is Mom with her older brother Cal. The bottom is her junior prom in 1957. What a babe.

Monday, October 03, 2005


I’m sorry to have to write that Mom passed away the afternoon of Saturday, October 1. She died peacefully and painlessly with family and friends, including my sisters and me. She was 66.

It seems odd to say that Mom’s death came as a surprise but, until even hours before the end, we and her physicians always saw a reasonable path to recovery. In fact, I’d flown to southern California just three days earlier to help move furniture in preparation for her return home from the hospital. But her body had simply had enough.

As far as we know, Mom died free of cancer. She beat it. However, she took steroids to control brain inflammation caused by the brain tumor and its radiation treatment. Administered in high doses over a long time, they were as damaging to her body as cancer would have been. The steroids had to be reduced, renewed inflammation put pressure on unexpected parts of her brain, and the end came quickly.

Mom never regretted moving to Hollywood. Despite her struggle in recent months, I don’t think I ever saw her happier living anywhere else. She loved her new neighborhood: the brilliant bougainvillea spilling over her back fence, the giant avocado tree next door that dropped guacamole hailstones into her yard, the towering palm at the curb, the yellow curry dish from the Thai restaurant around the corner. This was where she needed to be.

The publication of “Mom’s Cancer” will go ahead. Mom always sought purpose in her life and, in recent months, her suffering. She shared in the production of “Mom’s Cancer”: the drafts, proofs, correspondence with my publisher and the public. She wrote the book’s Afterword. Nothing made Mom more proud or happy than hearing from readers who said her story had helped them or that they’d quit smoking because of her. She told me she thought she’d found her purpose after all. I didn’t disagree.

She lived and died well. I will miss making new memories with her.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Gertie the Dinosaur

Sorry for the tease. Yesterday's entry marked my acquisition of an original drawing from a 1914 cartoon called "Gertie the Dinosaur," created by the man I consider the best cartoonist who ever lived, Winsor McCay. Some references call Gertie the first cartoon, but she wasn't. There had been several earlier experiments. What Gertie was was the first animated star and, in my opinion, way ahead of her time. Years before Disney's rubber-legged "Steamboat Willie," Gertie the Dinosaur had substance and personality.

(Gertie was actually McCay's third try at animation. His first two short films, featuring a boy (Little Nemo) and a mosquito, were supposedly so convincing to audiences of the time that they thought he'd somehow shot them in real life. So for his third movie, McCay decided to feature a creature he couldn't possibly have filmed live: a dinosaur.)

McCay used his Gertie movie as part of a live vaudeville act in which he interacted with the dinosaur on the screen. She did tricks on command. At one point in the performance, McCay threw food behind the screen that Gertie caught and ate on-screen. At the conclusion, McCay himself "stepped" into the screen and an animated version of the cartoonist took a ride on the beast. By all accounts, the performance was a sensation.

Until the advent of computers, virtually all animation was done on cels, transparent celluloid sheets onto which the characters were inked and painted. Artists only made multiple individual drawings for objects that moved--sometimes an entire figure, sometimes just an arm or mouth. Because cels are transparent, the animators only needed to create one background painting for each scene, on top of which they layered the cels and shot one frame of film. Then they swapped out the bits that moved and shot another frame. Repeat 100,000 times and you've got a movie.

In 1914, they hadn't figured that out yet. In Gertie, Winsor McCay and a single assistant hand-drew both character and background in every frame. Every single frame. They redrew every rock, water ripple, and blade of grass thousands of time on sheets of rice paper that, like tracing paper, were transparent enough to allow them to copy from a master drawing underneath. Then McCay glued each sheet to a piece of cardboard so they all lined up, and shot them.

There are somewhere between 200 and 300 original Gertie cels left. As I said yesterday, until a few years ago I assumed they were long destroyed. Once I discovered otherwise, I learned all I could about them and kept my eyes open. Finally, a couple of weeks ago, everything came together: a beautiful full-figure Gertie pose, good condition, a reputable dealer, and a fair price. I couldn't pass it up. I'd always resolved that I didn't deserve to have a Gertie until I could pay for it with my earnings from cartooning. Thanks to Abrams, that finally came together, too.

To read more about Winsor McCay and Gertie, see

Monday, September 26, 2005

Look What UPS Brought

Some of you will know what this is and some of you will not. As of 20 minutes ago, it is mine.

It's old and it's important. Ten years ago, I didn't even know it (and about 300 others of its kind) still existed. The first time I saw one, I was thunderstruck. For the past five years, I've kept my eyes open, learning and looking. On my Lifetime Top Ten List, this was numbers One through Three ... and yet, I knew in my heart I didn't really deserve to have it until I was a cartoonist.

So now I've got a book coming out in a few months and some (a little) advance money from my publisher in the bank, and I swear that one of the first coherent thoughts I had after winning the Eisner Award was, "maybe this means I've earned the right to have it." So, whether I really deserve it or not, and with the backing of a family definitely more understanding than I deserve, I bought it. (On the other hand, I figure my wife's lucky in some respects ... she could have married one of those classic car guys.)

This means a lot to me, and I'm going to give it the best home any steward ever could. As Belloq said to Indiana Jones as Indy aimed a bazooka at the Ark, "We are simply passing through history. This is history."


Someone wrote to ask about the endpaper; my poor powers of description in the previous entry left her puzzled. Endpapers cover the reverse sides of the front and back covers. Mine should look a little something like this:

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Blog-Only Exclusive!

Today's pulse-pounding, over-hyped title is meant facetiously, by the way. I don't have much to report on the publication front right now, but wanted to put up some new content. So I thought I'd post and talk about some new art I've done for the book.

This drawing of a game pawn and die, suggested by my editor, echoes the "life is playing the odds" theme of my story. We're going to use it as a stand-alone spot illustration on one of the opening pages, and then again as part of a fine repeating pattern for the endpapers. The endpaper effect will be subtle--imagine this drawing shrunken very small and colored beige against a tan background, repeated in a diagonal pattern.

This was just a miscellaneous spot drawing I did of Mom and her dog Hero that we'll also use in the book, probably on the title page. I'm a modest guy, but I've got to say I like how Hero came out: he's attentive, doting, ready to help Mom any way he can. That pretty much captures their relationship, I think.

This is a skectch that won't be in the book, or anywhere else. I described earlier (August 3) some of the decisionmaking that went into designing the cover. This was one idea I had, and I drew it up in about five minutes using a brush-pen that was a new tool for me. This was the first time I'd taken it out for a spin and I liked the line it produced. If I'd discovered it earlier, I might have done the whole book in brush-pen. Colored in Photoshop.

Let me know if you'd like to see more unpublished, preliminary, edited or rejected art from Mom's Cancer. I've got bucket-loads of it.

Monday, September 19, 2005


Just to acknowledge the obvious: I've moved my "What's New" stuff from my website to an actual blog. This blog.

I like blogs and blogging. Some of my best friends are bloggers. But I never really wanted to be a blogger. Still, the fact is that updating, maintaining, and archiving is so much easier here it seemed foolish to resist just because I never pictured myself know, one of those people. Then I thought about it a few more weeks and it seemed even more foolish. Then a few weeks after that I capitulated.

A quick note on the purpose of this blog. A lot of people--friends, family, readers--are interested in how the book is going and tend to ask similar questions about it. I find the process of publication infinitely interesting and educational myself. I can't tell you how much I've learned in the past year. In addition, as we get closer to Spring 2006, my publisher and I will arrange events and appearances that I'll announce here. And I like the idea of involving others in my book's creation; when you see it in the store, you'll know how it got there. What you probably won't read here are many humorous or insightful musings about my life and family. I'm in enough trouble already.

No real news on the book right now. I returned comments on the proofs, we're picking at a few technical nits, and as far as I know all is well.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Newer Proofs

I received my printer's proofs today and, at first glance, everything looks great. Especially the trapping and registration (see Aug. 31 below). Over the next couple of days I'll go through every page with a loupe (a little magnifier, like a jeweler uses) to find stray smudges or spots, misaligned colors, etc. I'll also read the book all the way through twice or thrice, checking for different problems each time. This is the final draft and it's important to get it right.

I love my family and I love my book, but to tell the truth I'm getting a little tired of looking at this thing. After you spend a few hours scrutinizing for microscopic flaws, flaws are all you see.

We're talking to folks in other countries about foreign language editions. I can't say more now, except that I am looking forward to starting a collection of Mom's Cancer translations. I don't know what they'll make of my U.S. idioms, though. I've thought about providing annotations explaining images or references that North American readers would take for granted. When we get a little further along I'll have to ask my editor about that.

I'm reminded of an early review by a blogger in the U.K. who liked the online version of Mom's Cancer but commented that it was "very American." I've always wondered what he or she meant by that. Is "very American" good or bad?

Wednesday, August 31, 2005


"Trapping" is an obscure but interesting part of the pre-press process. When a color picture is printed using four colors of ink (cyan, magenta, yellow and black, or CMYK), each color is put down on the paper via a separate pass through the press. If the paper lines up perfectly with each pass, all the colors align and you get perfect registration. Very often, though, if you look at four-color printing closely enough, you can see that the inks are just a bit off. You'll see a colored halo on one side, or colors slopping out of their black boundaries, or a gap where colors don't meet up.

Good registration (left) and bad (right)

Trapping helps minimize registration problems by spreading out the non-black colors a few pixels so that, even if registration is a little bit off, they still have some "wiggle room" to fit and overlap as intended. With Photoshop, trapping is as easy as pushing a button (I can't imagine how anyone did it pre-digitally, or whether they bothered at all). Coincidentally, a private cartoonists' board I frequent just had a long discussion about trapping.

That discussion came in handy when I got word late last week that the printer wasn't happy with my color registration. It wasn't coming out right. Not lining up. Within half a second I realized the problem: no trapping. When I submitted my final image files to Abrams they were trapless. Trap-free. Bereft of trap. My trapping had shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain, and joined the choir invisible. The subject never came up and I never thought to ask. My bad.

So I spent a few hours this morning speedily trapping the 26 color pages scattered throughout Mom's Cancer. I envisioned the overseas printer tapping his toe, glancing nervously at his watch, paying overtime while the presses waited in idle silence for my upload.

Assuming my trapping worked, I should have first proofs to review in a few days. Next book, I'm hiring a high school kid to take care of this.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Back Cover

Abrams has turned in our final digital files to the printer, with the first real printer's proofs expected back in a couple of weeks. Below is the back cover and spine of the book. I'm very, very happy with it. Whoever thought of putting those wordless panels of Mom across the top was inspired. (Yeah, I drew the pictures for the book, but I didn't think of laying them out like that for the cover. It was either my editor or Abrams' art director, and they don't remember who deserves the credit.) I also drew the little Eisner Award at lower right just for the heck of it; my editor surprised me by finding a place for it here.

By the way, the price shown here is what it will be: $12.95 ($17.95 in Canada), which I think is an exceedingly reasonable price for a hardcover. We want Mom's Cancer to be an affordable "gift book." If folks want to buy two or three of them, I'd be all right with that, too.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Vote of Confidence

I got some exciting news from Abrams this morning. My editor just presented Mom's Cancer at an internal sales meeting that went so well Abrams decided to greatly increase my first print run. I'm not sure I'm free to report the numbers, but it's a big jump that I take as a big vote of confidence. They expect the book to do well. I reminded my editor that if they all end up sitting unsold in a warehouse it's his fault, not mine.

Thursday, August 04, 2005


I've just approved a promotional "Sell Sheet" that Abrams will send out to book buyers. It's a nice piece; if I can get permission to post it on my website I will. I see that they're not just trying to promote the story, but the story behind the story: how Mom's Cancer began as an anonymous webcomic on the Internet, the long odds against it being noticed and becoming a book, the Eisner win. We're not just selling pictures printed on paper--we're selling me and my family. I get that.

It'll be interesting to see what bookstores make of Mom's Cancer. I really hope they've learned from previous graphic novels that they don't all belong on the comic strip shelf (not that there's anything wrong with that...). I think the fact that my book will be hardcover and smaller than most graphic novel/cartoon books will help it stand out and could be the best, smartest decision my editor made.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The Front Cover

Yes, that's the book cover design below: the culmination of many weeks of work. We went through dozens of potential cover sketches before arriving at this. I like it, Mom likes it. I'm especially thrilled with the title font found by Abrams' art director.

Designing the cover was an interesting process. My editor gravitated to this image (which is a close-up of a page in the book) right away: the horizontally split panel instantly communicated "graphic novel" to him, and there's some (deliberate) symbolism in the mind-body separation. Some have worried that the cover may be too bleak. We tried even more depressing images, uplifting images, abstract images, images with the whole family. We kept coming back to this as the most direct, honest summation of what the story is about. Mom's Cancer isn't a gloomy tale of torment nor a hap-hap-happy romp about a family dancing into the sunset. It's a true story about slogging through.

The thing about covers is they're at least as much about marketing as they are editorial. A book cover is a billboard. We need a strong image to catch the reader's eye and sell the book, and Abrams has a committee whose job is to figure out how to do that. An interesting insight I've had while working on the cover is that decisions like this rarely come down to Good Choice A vs. Bad Choice B. Much more often, we're trying to decide from among Good Choices A, B, C, D, E, F and G. That's a tougher challenge.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

New Proofs

I returned comments on a second set of proofs to my editor today. These preliminary proofs are printouts of how the book pages will actually look when printed. This is the place to fix mistakes, because any additions or repairs become increasingly costly as we move toward press. This thing is actually starting to look like a book now, though we're still fussing with how to best organize it. We're making final decisions about details such as font size for the front matter and afterword, spellchecking for the thousandth time (and still finding errors!), and tweaking the art files to look their best.

I now have an ISBN, the barcode number by which distributors, bookstores and libraries will know Mom's Cancer: 0-8109-5840-6. I find that fact oddly thrilling.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Eisner Awards

The comics industry's Eisner Awards, named for pioneering writer and artist Will Eisner, are given as part of the annual Comic-Con International convention. One of the largest conventions of any kind anywhere, Comic-Con drew more than 90,000 people to San Diego, Calif. in July 2005 for a four-day celebration of comic books, comic strips, movies, video games, toys, animation, and anything loosely connected to science fiction and fantasy. It's huge.

The Eisner Award is commonly referred to as the industry's "Oscar," given for excellence in 26 categories in addition to special awards for humanitarian work, the Hall of Fame, etc. Eisners go to writers, artists, colorists, letterers, retailers, one-shot projects, limited series, continuing series--and, for the first time in 2005, digital comics. The Eisner judges defined "digital comics" very precisely so that, for example, most animated work would not be considered. In early 2005, Mom's Cancer was nominated for Best Digital Comic.

This was my first Comic-Con, and it was overwhelming. My wife and two girls came along and we found "Kid Sis" (the true comics geek in the family) at the event. I got to meet in person some people I'd come to know on the Internet, make some new friends, and shake hands with some childhood idols. I encourage you to seek out the work of the following creators, even if you normally wouldn't, because justice demands that good people be rewarded: Otis Frampton (Oddly Normal, a very charming character and series), Frank Cammuso (Max Hamm, Fairy Tale Detective), Raina Telgemeier (Smile, The Babysitters Club), Eric Shanower (Age of Bronze), and Ted Slampyak (Annie, Jazz Age Chronicles).

The awards ceremony is traditionally held Friday night in a large ballroom. It is structured much like the movies' Academy Awards, with noteworthy presenters giving the awards a few at a time, interspersed with special presentations or recognitions. The evening seemed to move very quickly until the Best Digital Comic category and then very slowly afterward. What happened in the few minutes between is a blur. When presenter Scott McCloud read the list of nominees and announced that Mom's Cancer had won, my priorities were to move quickly, remember to mention everyone important, and not make a fool of myself. I am told I largely succeeded.

The Eisner Award is a tremendous honor that I never expected to receive. It's extremely gratifying. Much of the success of Mom's Cancer has come because readers found it online, connected to the story in a very personal way, and recommended it to others. I appreciate that most of all.