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.