Monday, February 27, 2006

The Book Launches

New York City from my hotel window (with Carnegie Hall across the street)

Well, that was extraordinary.

This is a long entry with many pictures; my apologies if they try your patience or connection speed. When possible (which means “when easy for me”), I provide links to more information about people or places you may not know. I’m sorry so many of these pictures are of me and other people standing stiffly and staring into the lens, but that’s how it goes.
ThursdayMy wife and I flew to New York in time to attend a party hosted by my publisher, Harry N. Abrams, at the Society of Illustrators. The society was formed in 1901 to promote and exhibit the best of commercial illustration, where members such as Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle, Maxfield Parrish, James Montgomery Flagg, and J.C. Leydendecker hosted guests like Mark Twain. The walls of this beautiful building are covered with original works by great artists both old and new.
Paintings by Leydendecker and Rockwell. On the wall. Next to me.
It’s hard to gauge crowd size in cramped quarters, but I’d guess attendance easily topped 100, all there to help Abrams celebrate the publication of works by cartoonist Dan Piraro (“Bizarro”), Brom (“The Plucker”), Donny Miller (“Beautiful People with Beautiful Feelings”) and, well, me.
Donny Miller, me, Dan Piraro, Abrams CEO Michael Jacobs, and Brom
The Abrams people invited their industry friends: writers, artists, editors, agents. I met comics writer and historian Brian Walker (“Hi and Lois” and “Beetle Bailey”), Al Jaffee (“MAD magazine”), cartoonist Isabella Bannerman (“Six Chix”), and artist Joe DeVito.
Joe DeVito
In addition, I met Abrams CEO Michael Jacobs and a host of Abrams people who for the past year have been little more than e-mail addresses that helped turn my story into a book. I’m glad we got to know each other at last. Also, I was completely charmed by the young woman who edited the German edition of Mom’s Cancer, with whom I had a nice conversation about conveying my American perspective to an overseas audience.
(One reason I’m withholding the names of some of Abrams’ behind-the-scenes people is that I later got a glimpse of all the would-be writers, artists, designers, promoters, and others who go to events just to hit them up for work. I’d hate to make their jobs harder by outing them in my blog.)

Four introductions really stood out for me:

Mike Lynch is a freelance cartoonist I’ve gotten to know through an Internet bulletin board we both frequent. He mentioned last week that he’d be at the event and said we’d have to be sure to find each other. Contrary to my expectations, Mike turned out to be sociable and well-groomed. Although we’d never really met, finding him there was like running into a friend 3,000 miles from home. I appreciated that.

Mike Lynch

Mort Gerberg has created great cartoons for The New Yorker and many others for many years, and is a friend of my editor, Charlie Kochman. He’s drawn syndicated comic strips, done more than three dozen books, and taught cartooning. I had a few opportunities to talk with Mort over the long weekend and came away hugely impressed with his knowledge and energy. Mort has a mind like a laser, never losing focus while cutting to the heart of a conversation. He understands the business of the business. Best of all, I felt like Mort welcomed me into his world like a peer.

I can’t describe what it meant to have Mort Gerberg thumb through my book and say, “this is great stuff.”

Another friend of Charlie’s I met at the party was
Irwin Hasen. Irwin began cartooning in the 1930s and worked on “The Shadow,” “Green Lantern” and “The Flash” (the original versions), and “Justice League of America.” He co-created the “Dondi” comic strip in 1955 and is a giant in the industry. And, like Mort Gerberg, he couldn’t have been warmer or kinder once Charlie made our introductions.

Charlie Kochman, me, Irwin Hasen

Finally, I wanted to mention Brom. Go take a quick look at Brom's art here or here or here and then come back. I’ll wait.

Now check out this photo:

Those red eyes aren't caused by my camera flash. They really do glow diabolically like that.

I joke. I got to talk to Brom while sharing rides from and to the airport with him, his wife, and two kids. Belying the evidence of his artwork, he is a great guy, very low-key and friendly, and I really appreciated the brief conversations we had about many aspects of his art and the business.

Best of all, my two sisters were able to attend. They’d been looking for an excuse to take a vacation and both love New York, so my invitation to an exclusive literary event was enough to lure them east. I think they had a wonderful time and got a bit of well-deserved attention. A few people who’d read the book seemed to really enjoy meeting the “characters.” If they give me their okay, I may post some photos of them later.

Day One of the New York Comic-Con, the first convention of its type in New York in several years. Comic-Con occupied half of the Javits Center’s main exhibition hall—I think a travel convention took the other half—and it was pleasantly crowded on Friday. That fact should have set off some alarm bells for anyone looking ahead to we will see. I took a two-hour shift signing books at the Abrams table and had plenty of time to wander around being a fan as well.

Meanwhile, editor Charlie dedicated himself throughout the weekend to scouring the floor for friends of his I needed to meet. People like Kyle Baker, Gary Sassaman, long-time DC Comics editor Paul Kupperberg, comics creator Walt Simonson, agent Judith Hansen, Publishers Weekly editor Calvin Reid, and too many others to list.

Calvin Reid and Mort Gerberg
Walt Simonson

Friday night, Abrams had arranged a signing at St. Mark’s Comics in Greenwich Village, a great shop with staff I really enjoyed spending time with (Matt and Matt). The signing was set to run from 8 to 10 p.m., which to a guy from the ‘burbs sounded a little absurd. Who goes to a comic book store at 10 p.m.? But of course the City That Never Sleeps is full of Readers Who Never Sleep and, in the street-fair milieu of the clubs and shops lining St. Mark’s St., we actually drew a bigger crowd the later it got. And by “crowd” I mean one person wandering by the table every 10 minutes or so, but that was fine and some of them were extraordinary people who’d gone out of their way to be there to meet me, so that meant a lot. Since no one minded or had anything better to do, we stayed until 11 p.m. and had a fine time.

Setting up at St. Mark's Comics

Digression: St. Mark's had scheduled me to sign on Friday night and Brom on Saturday night. One of the highlights of the trip for me was the arrival of a fan: mid-twenties, sandy-red hair, an eager and excited glow suffusing his face. He rushed the table with his eyes locked on me as if drawn by a magnet.

“Are you Brom?”

I said Yes, signed Brom’s book, and sent him on his way.

No, I didn’t do that. In fact I broke the guy’s heart by advising him to come back on Saturday. I actually asked Brom later if his fan had shown up, but he didn’t remember one matching my description. I hope he made it.

Comic-Con Bedlam. I hear the organizers planned conservatively, not sure how many people would turn out and not wanting to oversell the event in its first year. They had some 10,000 pre-registrations, which I gather was a healthy number, and on Friday had another 5,000 or 6,000 (rumor has it) show up at the door. Although the ticket lines were long, I think most of those people got in.

Not so on Saturday, when countless thousands MORE showed up. Lines snaked throughout the immense convention hall. Facility staff and security were completely overwhelmed and rapidly lost patience. Finally, around 11 a.m., the fire marshal closed the door. If you left the main floor--even to get a snack, use the bathroom, or attend a speakers’ panel down the hall--you couldn’t get back in. People who wanted to buy tickets that day were turned away. People who’d ALREADY PAID FOR TICKETS IN ADVANCE were turned away. Press and professionals were turned away. Rumor had it that movie director Kevin Smith, who was scheduled to speak as the convention’s star attraction, couldn’t even get in the door. The floor itself was packed tighter than a summer Saturday at Disneyland. It was not a good scene.

With Charlie and Abrams publicist Melody

The only people able to enter and leave the hall with impunity were those with Exhibitors badges. The Abrams people, including me, had those magic golden tickets. In mid-afternoon, editor Charlie got word from a security guard that Mort Gerberg was trapped outside and asking for him. Charlie was pretty distraught: he’d already lost one argument with a guard over getting someone through the door, yet the idea of Mort Gerberg being locked out of a comics convention was absurd. I handed Charlie my badge and he took off. Fifteen minutes later, Charlie and Mort appeared at the table; Mort unclipped my badge from his lapel and handed it back with a grin so big you’d think I pulled a thorn from his paw.

Saturday at 1 p.m. I took part in a panel on “The Future of the Graphic Novel” with
Jessica Abel (“La Perdida,” “Artbabe,” and much more), Grady Klein (“The Lost Colony”), R. Kikuo Johnson (“Night Fisher”) and moderator Douglas Wolk from Publishers Weekly. Douglas had corresponded with us by e-mail and had some questions lined up, and we began by introducing our work. It’s hard for me to judge how many people attended--several dozen at least. It was a big room.

This was the first time I’d taken part in anything like it and, though I don’t particularly fear public speaking, I was a little anxious because I didn’t know what to expect. I was heartened to arrive and find that some of my fellow panelists were as unsure as I was. A couple of us had some notes prepared, we took our best shots at Douglas’s questions, Grady showed a short animation, we did some Q&A, and 50 minutes flew by. I think it went pretty well. I learned that sometimes ideas that seem clear in my head don’t always come out as clearly when I speak them. I don’t want to develop a repertoire of rote responses, but at the same time I realize the same types of questions will always come up and I’d like to have clear, effective replies on the tip of my brain. I’ll work on that.

Before the panel: Jessica Abel helps Grady Klein get a laptop communicating with a projector while Douglas Wolk meets R. Kikuo Johnson.

Talking with an audience member after the panel. I just included this photo because I think it captures the coolest hand gesture I've ever made.

My only regret is that I didn’t really get a chance to talk to the other panelists before or after. One happy surprise from the experience was that I reconnected with Raina Telgemeier, with whom I shared a table at the Eisner Awards when she was nominated as a Talent Deserving Wider Recognition. I spotted Raina in the audience and she’s landed a great job doing graphic adaptations of “The Baby-Sitters Club” series. I really like the clean look and thoughtfulness of her work and, though I can’t claim to know her, suspect she may be the nicest person who ever drew anything. I’m a fan.

After the panel I did another book signing at the booth, after which Charlie treated my wife and me to dinner at his favorite restaurant. We had enough free time on Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings to play New York tourists, which we greatly enjoyed despite some pretty severe combinations of cold and wind. The less said about our flight home Sunday the better.

My wife and I touring Ellis Island

All in all, it was a pretty dazzling and heady few days, due largely to the efforts of Charlie and his Abrams colleagues. It meant a lot that my sisters and wife were able to share much of it with me. Thoughts of Mom—and how happy she would have been for all of us—were always close at hand.

I realize this write-up is overbrimming with sunshine, rainbows, and lollipops. All I can say is that I’m not naturally a hap-hap-happy Pollyanna and that if something had been disappointing or someone a jerk I probably would have written about that, too. But it was truly quite a launch.

I know at least one person who will appreciate this one.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Everybody Needs A Hero

Still pulling everything together to catch a pre-dawn flight east tomorrow, but before I go I wanted to tell you about a little Hero.

Hero is Mom's pomeranian pup, a prancy little fluffball with tippy-tappy toes who helped her through some of her hardest hours. I have rarely seen a dog so devoted, and Mom lit up whenever he was around. He makes brief appearances in Mom's Cancer, including a bit that tells how Mom got Hero as a gift on her birthday.

Hero in life and in Mom's Cancer

Mom always wanted to make a plush-toy version of Hero, especially so that people facing a situation like hers--or otherwise in need of comfort--could have a Hero of their own to hug. She wanted to spread the Hero magic that she felt had strengthened her. When I negotiated my contract with Abrams, I made sure to keep the merchandising rights to the characters so Mom could do whatever she wanted with him.

Mom started work on the project but didn't stay healthy enough to see it through. After Mom passed away, my sisters took up the task. They now have a prototype in hand and hope to have Hero dolls for sale by the summer. See or click on the image below. I think it's an uncanny likeness.

Full disclosure: although I provided some design advice, I have no financial stake in Hero dolls. It's all my sisters' deal. I can also pretty much guarantee that this isn't the start of a Mom's Cancer merchandising blitz. The Hero doll was Mom's inspiration that my sisters are seeing through to completion for all the right reasons. I hope it does everything Mom wanted it to.

Monday, February 20, 2006

If I Can Make It There...

I'm working hard the first half of this week to get day-job obligations squared away before my wife and I leave for New York City Thursday morning. I'm approaching the debut of Mom's Cancer with an odd mix of excitement, apprehension, deep satisfaction, and "wake up in the middle of the night crying out 'What have I done?'" dread.

Enjoy the ride.

If anyone is in the neighborhood this weekend, here's the current schedule of where I'll be and what I'll be doing:

Friday, 6 p.m.: Signing at the Abrams Books booth at N.Y. Comic-Con, Javits Center.
Friday, 8 p.m.: Signing at St. Mark's Comics, 11 St. Mark's Place, Manhattan.
Saturday, 1 p.m.: Taking part in a panel on "The Future of the Graphic Novel" at Comic-Con. Other panelists are Grady Klein, Jessica Abel, and R. Kikuo Johnson. I'll be the one not saying anything intelligent or interesting.
Saturday, 4 p.m.: Signing at the Abrams Books booth.

In addition, I expect to spend much time enjoying Comic-Con as a fan. Maybe I can fill the holes in my "Avengers" comic book collection. On the off chance anyone reading this blog actually shows up at one of the above events or spies me wandering dazed and aimless, it would be great if you'd say "Hello" and introduce yourself. That would make my day.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

No Regrets

Memories of Mom arrive at unexpected times in unexpected ways. Seeing her handwriting always hits me strong. Penmanship is such an individualized expression of personality. I came across an old note from Mom today--nothing important, just a scribble in a margin--and one thought led to another....

The memories don't make me particularly melancholy, just sad. Wistful. As time passes I'm increasingly amazed at Mom's courage in her final months. Because her ordeal worsened gradually, one tiny disaster after another, I didn't really realize at the time what a cumulative burden she was carrying and how gracefully she did so. I'm only seeing it in retrospect. As I wrote in Mom's Cancer, it's amazing what you can get used to.

At any rate, searching my photo archives for something else I found this:
This is me with Mom around the time she was doing her best: after she regrew her hair and moved to Hollywood; before the walkers, wheelchairs, physical therapy, hospitals, and gradual decline. She was happier there than I'd seen her in years. Good sandwiches. No regrets.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Signing in Berkeley and NYC

My wife and I are psyching ourselves up for our big trip to the New York Comic-Con late next week. One of the highlights is sure to be a gala dinner party Abrams is hosting to kick off its spring season at which I'll be only one of several guests of honor. I'll post pictures. While I'm in town, I'm also scheduled to sign books Friday night, February 24 (specific time TBD) at St. Mark's Comics in Manhattan, a legendary establishment.

Closer to home, I'm now scheduled to give a little talk and sign books on Saturday, March 25 at 7 p.m. at:

Cody's Fourth Street
1730 Fourth St.
Berkeley, Calif.

A note for anyone familiar with the area, this isn't the main Cody's Books on Telegraph, but a cozier Cody's closer to the freeway on Fourth north of University Ave.

A lot is coming together quickly. Exciting and stressful times.

Friday, February 10, 2006

My Master

I didn't include my wife and children in Mom's Cancer (except for sneaking them into one panel!) and I don't write much about them here. That's a deliberate Wall of Privacy I maintain, partly because I thought it'd be a bad idea to exploit and alienate my entire family. Especially the part I live with.

It's my I can break it if I want.

I could hardly be happier or more proud that my wife just earned her Master of Public Administration degree from a nearby state university. This isn't one of those Mickey Mouse masters that gives you 40 units for "life experience" and a hearty handshake for showing up to class with your checkbook open. It's the real deal. She attended night classes for five years while working 50-plus-hour weeks the whole time. She dedicated hours on weekends to study groups that she organized herself. Her studies culminated in a grinding two-day comprehensive exam covering every class she'd had (how could she remember material she learned five years ago? I don't remember what I did last month!) that she passed with aplomb. I've seen a lot of people work hard for academic accomplishments, including PhDs, but don't think I've ever seen anyone work with more determination than she did.

So I'm impressed. Congratulations, Sweetie! You earned it like I've never seen anybody earn anything else.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Review: Innocent Bystander

Gary Sassaman is an experienced and respected comic book pro to whom Abrams sent an advance copy of Mom's Cancer, which he was kind enough to review today on his blog "Innocent Bystander." An excerpt:
"[The story is] told simply, but incredibly eloquently, and Fies is as gifted a writer as he is a cartoonist. His web version of Mom's Cancer won the first ever Eisner Award for digital comics last year. But like everything else, it means so much more in book form, having it to read and hold, away from the harsh, bright light of a computer screen. The book gives it permanence and meaning and is a fit tribute to a courageous woman and her family. Lord knows I wouldn't have been so dignified in such a battle. And Mom's Cancer is nothing if not a dignified, sincere account of a horrible time in the life of a family."

Gary (whom I've never met) says more nice things that I appreciate very much. It means a lot coming from someone with his experience and knowledge of the medium. Many thanks to Mr. Sassaman.

By the way, when the bad reviews come in I promise to share them as well. They're part of the experience, too, which is what this blog is meant to be about. But right now everything's looking pretty good.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Mighty Sorry

What looks like laziness to you--my lack of recent blogging--looks like too much other work to me. I'm still laboring under several deadlines for projects I need to get done before I leave for New York Comic-Con and the debut of Mom's Cancer at the end of the month.

I'm currently writing papers on solar power, fuel cells, and the hydrogen economy, if anyone's interested in my day job. None of them will be available to the public, although one of them will be part of a presentation to Congress in a few weeks if my co-author and I do a good job. I sometimes describe my job as taking 500 pages that no one can understand and turning them into 50 pages that anyone can; right now, we're taking those 50 pages and turning them into 5 pages that a utility executive can understand, then distilling those 5 pages into 5 bullet points that a politician can understand. It's hard to do. One of my favorite quotes is from Blaise Pascal, apologizing to a correspondent:

I have made this letter longer than usual,
because I lack the time to make it short.

Finally, and completely unrelated, I came across a quote by H.L. Mencken today that perfectly captured my thoughts on a particular issue:

The trouble with fighting for human freedom is
that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels.
For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are
first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at
the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.