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 momscancer.com 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 as...you 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?