Friday, March 31, 2006

A Few New Reviews and a Comment

Louie pointed me to this March 28 review on The Onion's A.V. Club, which reads in part: "Creator Brian Fies began it as an online comic addressing his mother's lung cancer, and he writes and draws in a newspaper-comics-friendly style that's inviting to look at and easy to read, but does nothing to soft-sell his family's difficulties." The A.V. Club graded Mom's Cancer an "A-minus."

Back on March 12, Florida's St. Petersburg Times ran a brief review by staff writer Margo Hammond that began, "This unflinchingly honest graphic novel is a welcome departure from the excess sentimentality that followed the death of Dana Reeve...." Though I didn't find the coverage of Ms. Reeve's passing as excessive as Ms. Hammond did, I appreciate her recommendation and am happy she picked up on my story's lack of pathos. I did that on purpose.

Watermark Books posted a March 22 review by Mark Bradshaw on its website, which reads in part: "The pairing of light-hearted medium and troubling subject matter works surprisingly well: Fies's sweet-faced characters are brave but a bit bewildered by their medical adventure, and they find that cancer treatment, like cartooning, can contain heroic efforts and absurd comedy." I'm grateful both for the review and for Mr. Bradshaw knowing that the possessive of "Fies" is "Fies's." A lot of Fieses don't even know that.

I also understand that Entertainment Weekly magazine reviewed Mom's Cancer in its new issue out today. I haven't seen it yet, but hear that I earned a "B-plus."

What is it with reviewers and grades? Are they all frustrated grammar school teachers?

I have a hard time with reviews. Even when they're good--and I haven't seen a negative or hostile review yet--I wonder why they weren't better (what would have gotten that B-plus up to an A?). A writer friend reminds me that I'm lucky to be reviewed at all, and he's absolutely right. The enormous majority of books come and go without raising a ripple. Most writers would kill for the press I've received and I'm genuinely appreciative.

I thought I learned long ago to separate myself from my work and take criticism like a pro. As a writer, I've worked with a lot of editors to dispassionately hack up my prose and make it better. It's part of the job. I don't take it personally. But Mom's Cancer is different. It is personal.

There's also the fact that, for better or worse, Mom's Cancer is cast. Even if a reviewer were to pinpoint one change that would improve the story 300 percent, there's nothing I could do about it now except say, "You know, you're right. That would have been a lot better."

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Where's My Book?

Mom's Cancer is showing up in more places than I expected. Oh, I knew it'd be in bookstores, and indeed friends and readers have written to tell me they've seen it in Georgia, Texas, Minnesota, New York, and points elsewhere.

What I mean is that it seems to be showing up in a variety of locations within bookstores. I personally have found it on the "Graphic Novel" and "Biography" shelves. Others have seen it in "Health," "Disease," or "Memoir." In rare instances I appreciate enormously, a couple of independent bookstores have simply stacked it on the front counter.

On display just inside the front door of a bookstore in Santa
Monica, Calif. You'll have to take my word that Nurse Sis
is standing right beside the table but is cropped out because
she made me promise not to show the picture to anyone.

Where a bookstore decides to put your book can be very important. Good placement has made many a bestseller, while poor or thoughtless placement has buried many a deserving work. This can be a real problem for graphic novels, which more often than not end up on the same shelf as "Dilbert." There's nothing wrong with "Dilbert"; we just don't have that much in common.

Rob Wynne found Mom's Cancer in good company
at a Borders near Atlanta, Georgia and took this
photo with his camera-phone, which made my day.

That's frustrating. Comics are a medium, not a genre. Graphic novels can be biographies, mysteries, histories, romances, horror stories, science fiction stories, coming-of-age stories, or anything else prose books can be, but somehow--just because they all have drawings in them--they often end up on the same shelf.

I understand why that happens and, frankly, if you're a graphic novel fan and know what you're looking for, it makes them easy to locate. The readers who lose out are history buffs who'll never find Eric Shanower's Age of Bronze, political or travel buffs who'll never find Guy Delisle's Pyongyang, or whoever my potential readers are who'll never find Mom's Cancer.

Which is why I'm happily surprised to see so much variety in my book's placement. It would be interesting to track which spots yield the best sales, but I don't suppose there's any way to do that. Pity; it sounds like a fun experiment.

Lynda found it at a Barnes & Noble shelved
with other cancer-themed books. She bought
the second one from the left. (Thank you!)

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Cody's Fourth Street, Berkeley

Last night's talk and signing at Cody's Books in Berkeley went very well, I think. My wife and I went early to meet our friend Christina for dinner, then walked to the bookstore for the event. Although I've spent a little time around the U.C. Berkeley campus over the years, I'd never been to this part of the city and enjoyed it a lot.

The staff at Cody's was extremely welcoming and helpful. A few surprises awaited me: my wife's boss and his family came, as did my wife's aunt and uncle. Walking to the podium to unexpectedly find familiar, friendly faces was great albeit a little disorienting. "What are they doing here?" Weird, but in a good way.

I've done a couple of signings before but this was my first real talk before a book crowd. I told my story: how my mother was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer, its impact on our family, how and why I decided to write the book, reaction to it both from readers and my family, its publication, Mom's passing, etc. I don't really know what people want or expect to hear: do they want me to talk about cancer? Family dynamics? Comics? Book publishing? A couple of months ago I had coffee with a syndicated cartoonist who said that people who come to book signings only want to know one thing: How to get published themselves and take my place. That might be very true for a cartoonist in his position, but I think the nature of my book draws a different crowd. I tried to strike a balance among all of those topics and left time for audience questions to fill in any gaps.

While I very much appreciated everyone who came, two people I met last night really stood out:

Margo Mercedes Rivera-Weiss is the librarian and art gallery coordinator for the Women's Cancer Resource Center ( of Oakland. The WCRC co-sponsored the event and is very active in community outreach, advocacy, and services. We talked for about 10 minutes before the event and I appreciated the opportunity to meet her and find out more about the center.

Sarah Trejo is the patient services program coordinator for the National Brain Tumor Foundation ( headquartered in San Francisco. Sarah and I had corresponded by e-mail before and discovered we had a link through my publicist at Abrams, whose boyfriend is currently biking from Alaska to Argentina to raise funds for the organization. Sarah is a triathlete who was kind enough to mention my book in her blog and bring her entire family to last night's signing, and I really enjoyed meeting her in person.

Characteristically, I now have a mental list of 20 things I plan to improve next time, but I think my approach worked and I did well. I didn't count but would guess that about 30 people attended, and we probably sold slightly fewer than that many books for the fine folks at Cody's. They said turnout was good and seemed pleased. So was I.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Last-Minute Reminder

I will be at Cody's Books, 1730 Fourth Street (not the Cody's on Telegraph) in Berkeley, Calif., at 7 p.m. tonight. It would be great to see you there.

It would be great to see anyone there....

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Mornings on 2

I just got home from the studio and will write more soon. The short version: Nice people. Good interview. No barf. I'm happy.


KTVU is one of the bigger, better television stations in the San Francisco Bay Area. Now a Fox station, they were independent for decades and at one point tried to become a national Superstation like WGN or TBS. I believe they have the largest news organization in northern California and the highest-rated 10 o'clock newscast in the country. So it was pretty exciting to be invited to appear on their morning show.

Everyone I met there was great. I arrived about 40 minutes before my interview and was ushered into a green room with six professional automobile drivers and a guy from Consumer Reports who were there to talk about new cars for 2007. Nice guys, and chatting with them gave me something to focus on other than the small monitor showing what was happening live through the big double doors right around the corner.

My "handler" was Michele, whom I took to be a producer though I don't know her real job title. She'd asked me to bring some family photos to show during my segment; I included some images from the book as well. She gave me a five-minute warning, guided me into the studio, stood by my side until the commercial break before my segment, and sat me on my chair. As we walked into the studio, Michele asked me how many television interviews I'd done and did not seem comforted by my answer: "Counting this one? One."

But I've actually spent a fair amount of time in television studios (different story, different time) so I was pretty comfortable in the environment. However, I'm still always struck by how business-like and unglamorous they are in life. Besides the three newsreaders and weatherman, there were no more than five other people in the enormous room outfitted with four different sets (anchor desk, weather station, a couch set, and the chair-and-table set we used). It was a surprisingly low-key affair.

I met the host, Ross McGowan, and we had just a few seconds to chat before we returned to the air. I was very impressed with Ross. He's been doing his job a long time and would have every reason to coast, but it was obvious he (or someone working for him) had really done some homework. When I go into an interview, I have a mental checklist of key points I plan to make. Before I even opened my mouth, Ross's introduction made two of them for me. He asked apt questions and it felt like a nice conversation. He made it easy. After we went to commercial I shook Ross's hand, signed his book, spread thanks all around, gave high fives to the car guys, picked up a videotape of my appearance, and was escorted to the door. Start to finish, less than an hour.

I just watched the tape and was only slightly mortified. I spotted things I need to work on if there's ever a next time. Sideways glances at the monitors and teleprompters made me look nervous and shifty. I seem to have a couple of new wrinkles I never noticed before. Alas, I fear little can be done about my hideous face and voice. But overall I am very happy with the result and grateful to KTVU for the invitation.

One fun post-script: as I was driving home I got a call from Nurse Sis, who told me she'd heard the broadcast in L.A. and congratulated me for doing a nice job. I was mystified. Did she somehow find it online? A podcast? No... her local friend Lorna (who left a comment in the previous post) called her and held a phone to her television for the entire segment! I thought that was fantastic. Thanks, Lorna!

Monday, March 20, 2006

Bay Area Media Alert

I just found out I'll be on the KTVU (Channel 2 in Oakland, Calif.) television program "Mornings on 2" this Thursday, March 23. I'm scheduled to be interviewed for about five minutes at 8:15 a.m. This is in advance of my appearance at Cody's Fourth Street in Berkeley at 7 p.m. Saturday.

For those beyond the San Francisco Bay Area who won't be able to see the show, I expect the first 4½ minutes to look a little something like this:

The last half minute may involve either speaking or barfing. I haven't decided which way to go yet. Tune in to find out!

Friday, March 17, 2006

Two New Reviews

Arnold Wagner is an old-school cartoonist, and I say that with great respect. He wrote "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Cartooning" a few years back and is a historian of the art and craft of comics. He also knows more about nibs than anyone I've ever met.

I got to know Arnold the same way I've gotten to know a lot of people in the past couple of years, via the Internet, and he's been kind and encouraging to me. If he weren't, I wouldn't have mentioned him in my book's acknowledgements. Arnold recently posted a review of Mom's Cancer on his blog, saying it is "honest about the difficulties, including those most of us don't think about, about the dark moments, but there's warmth, humor, and hope along with the kind of reality most of us know." Aside from this review, I think a few minutes touring Arnold's website is time well spent.

David LeBlanc is the editor of the Comic Book Network Electronic Magazine, a text e-zine sent to more than 1,400 subscribers. David reviewed Mom's Cancer in his March 10, 2006 issue. Since his archives are a bit difficult to dig into and he gave permission to reprint his work, I've pasted the review below.

Many thanks to both Arnold and David.

By David LeBlanc
There are a few graphic novels, or long story arcs of series that stand out by how they affect your thinking or just your enjoyment of the reading. For me some of those are MAGE:THE HERO DISCOVERD, PEDRO AND ME, FAITH A FABLE, INNOCENT BYSTANDER and a few more perhaps. I now add to that list MOM'S CANCER. The aforementioned titles are ones I purposely bought extra copies to give to those I felt should read them. MOM'S CANCER will be shared with others I love as well.

When the Eisner committee decided to recognize comics created for the web with their own award, Best Digital Comic, MOM'S CANCER won the first ever Eisner for the web version of this story. It is a non-fiction account of his mother's battle with lung cancer and the interaction of her three children as that struggle progressed. It covers the two years from 2004 through 2005 in the lives of Brian, his two sisters, his mom and his stepfather. As often is the case with serious subject matter, the author looks back to earlier times to examine the basis of beliefs, feelings and motivation of some of the characters.

I too lived through the diagnosis and battle against cancer of my own mother, though not as intimately as Brian and his sisters had to. This is not so much about the disease but about the effects on those involved with the patient. It is not a how-to cope book either. Rather it is a frank telling of one story. He shows how each sibling played a part - nurse sister was the guiding figure cutting through the red tape and making sure things happened, younger sister lived with mom and bore the day to day care-giving duties while Brian offered what help that he could and learned as much as he could about what was going on to be informed on what to expect.

It is remarkable that so much information is passed along during the course of this journey. No two cancers are alike and some may be shocked to learn that treatments are often altered as you go
with changing circumstances rather than some fixed regimen that is followed explicitly. At the later stage in the cancer Mom had, only 5% survive so it is easy to see the choice not to go through extensive chemotherapy, which is seriously debilitating, is made by many. There is really one thing that stands out - the support of family in caring and understanding is most important if the patient is to fight the fight.

Brian has a delightful cartoon style you will warm up to instantly. His scripting and sense of humor makes it readable from first to last. Regardless of how the story may end, it is a story of hope. Another person may have been resigned to her fate and that would have been a different journey. This one is about a choice to fight and not give up. It is uplifting to see these people not give in to despair. I hesitate to say how it ends, though there are really two endings. I will say I teared up reading the afterword. Anything that affects you emotionally like that is well worth your time and money. This one's a keeper.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Happy Birthday, Girls!

Happy Birthday to my twin daughters, born 18 years ago today ... back before I went gray, not that I'm implying any correlation. The law may call them adults (we reminded them last week that if they were planning any crimes they'd better get cracking), but they'll always be my babies. And love to my wife, who did most of the heavy lifting.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Good Press

My Internet friend Mike Peterson is a journalist in Glens Falls, N.Y. and one of Mom's Cancer's earliest readers and champions. Mike runs the "Newspapers in Education" program for the Glens Falls Post-Star and does a wonderful job of incorporating comics into his projects aimed at young readers. In a recent "Honor Roll" supplement of his newspaper, Mike dedicated a page to Mom's Cancer that I think provides one of the most insightful analyses of my story I've read.

What I like about Mike's piece is that it introduces comics as a medium that can address serious, complex, mature topics. That's news to a lot of people. In addition, he focused on individual pages or panels and dug down to examine what's really going on in them--something Mike regularly does in his analysis of political cartoons for a feature called "Drawing Conclusions" (available at, which seems to be offline today). His article is a nice piece of work that I really appreciate.

With Mike's permission, I've put a 2.3-MB PDF of the page on my website. It can be downloaded HERE or by clicking the picture below. Thanks again, Mike.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

"No Experience in Cartooning..."?

The Associated Press article about Mom's Cancer has been released. I found it online here (thanks to D.D. Degg!) and I suspect it'll show up in other places before long. That's what the AP does.

I've been a writer and journalist for a long time, and interviewed a lot of people. I think I've done a good job of accurately quoting subjects in context, but now that the roles are reversed I have to wonder. Some of my quotes don't sound like me, and if I said those words they didn't come out quite like I intended. It's a truism of journalism that most people believe reporters get it right except when writing about anything involving them, and I'll vouch for that. Maybe it's like hearing your own voice on a tape recorder.

I am nevertheless pretty satisfied with the story. It also features cartoonist Miriam Engelberg, and I was grateful to learn things about her and her forthcoming book, Cancer Made a Shallower Person, that I didn't know. The only passage that raised my hackles was one that began, "Fies had no experience in cartooning." I don't see it that way.

As far as I'm concerned, I have more than 30 years of experience in cartooning. I just seldom managed to get paid for it.

In my teens and twenties I worked very hard at it, and was serious about trying to start a career as a cartoonist or illustrator. I studied the work of masters. I practiced with all the tools I could find: brushes, pens, nibs, inks, washes, watercolors, gouache, charcoals, papers, duotone. When I was a reporter at a small newspaper I published scores of cartoons, spot drawings, and illustrations. I learned how to shoot my own photostats and cut my own color separations by hand.

I also submitted all types of work to all kinds of publications. Mostly, I failed. (Although as I've mentioned before, I did once get a nice gig illustrating a light bulb catalog. They come in an amazing variety of shapes and sizes.) There's little shame in that; most people trying to pursue creative vocations fail. Unlike some, I've been good at other things at that people would pay me to do. But I never stopped working on my drawing skills, learning and applying as much as I could while whittling away the unnecessary. I think that's what both good writing and cartooning are about: trying to master the tools needed to capture the essence of something and evoke precisely the effect you're aiming for in your reader.

Editor Charlie has been on the receiving end of this screed before, and I think it took him aback--I'm usually a pretty easy-going guy. I'm not sure why I feel quite as passionately about it as I do. The Mom's Cancer mythology is essentially right: I did appear out of nowhere to win an Eisner Award and land a book deal my first time batting in the big leagues. It's a good story. I understand that. So what's my problem?

I hate stories that makes cartooning sound easy. It's too disrespectful to an artform I love and the professionals who work hard to make a living at it. Everybody already thinks it's easy, and a few famous examples of everyday folks who sent their doodles to a publisher or newspaper syndicate and hit the million-dollar jackpot only reinforce that idea. I would hate to contribute to that misperception.

I've spent a long time learning how to cartoon, and it's only in the past couple of years that I think I might have begun to get a handle on it. It is very hard to do right. It is very hard to make something look so easy that everybody thinks they can do it. If it were easy I would have been published decades ago instead of accumulating shoeboxes of rejection slips.

I didn't just dash off Mom's Cancer. It distills years of study and hard work, and more thousands of hours of practice with pencils and brushes and pens than I could calculate. Just as important were the 20-plus years I worked as a professional writer. If that experience gave me the skills to make it look easy, then I succeeded.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Going APE

I just accepted an invitation to take part in a panel at the Alternative Press Expo (APE) to be held in San Francisco April 8 and 9. My panel, "Hey, Kids! Graphic Novels!" will be sometime on Saturday, April 8; I don't know the time yet and I'm not sure I'm at liberty to say who else might be on the panel. A couple of people I'd like to meet, for certain.

I haven't been to an APE, but by reputation it's a nice, smallish, affordable, low-key event focusing on alternative and self-published works. It's organized by the same people who do the Comic-Con International in San Diego, and they seem to know what they're doing. I'm honored to be asked.

Click the logo for more information.
Don't stare at the's hypnotic.

UPDATE: The graphic novel panel will begin at 2:30 and the organizers are kindly making arrangements for me to sign books for an hour afterward.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Last-Minute Media Alert

Just got off the phone with Jacki Schechner, the "Internet Beat" reporter for CNN. With the sad death of Dana Reeve, the network is dedicating much of today's "The Situation Room" program to the subject of cancer. We talked for about 10 minutes about Mom's Cancer, why and how I did it, how it began as a Webcomic, reactions to it, etc. I also gave Ms. Schechner some digital images from the book and pointed her to relevant online resources that I think have value, including mentioned below.

CNN, "The Situation Room," 5 p.m. Eastern time (2 p.m. Pacific)...which, as I write this, is about 38 minutes from now.

I'll report back after I see how it goes.

UPDATE: What I learned today about TV journalism is that when the reporter says your story will be on "in the five o'clock hour," she means 5:57. Still, I have no reason to complain:

I thought Ms. Schechner's very brief report on online cancer resources was fine for what it was, given her obvious time constraints. As an occasional journalist myself, I'm impressed by how quickly she developed the story, from initial contact to on-air report in a couple of hours.

MORE UPDATE: I just received a nice e-mail from Ms. Schechner explaining that the show ran short on time and apologizing for her hurried report. Maybe she'll keep my work in mind in the future, and I certainly appreciate being included. When I got up this morning, I had no idea I'd be on CNN before dinner. That's pretty cool.

Monday, March 06, 2006

In early 2004, Dr. Phil Berman discovered he had lung cancer with metastases throughout his body. A radiologist himself, Dr. Berman has survived through bad days and good with, as far as I can tell, his personality, humor, reason, and compassion intact. Also his sense of style: his site, "," got its name from his resolution to paint one toenail red for every year of survival. So far, he's up to two.

In its creator's own words, " is an online community designed to help people whose lives have been touched by cancer. Whether you are the one with cancer or it’s a friend or family member who you are caring for, offers a supportive online environment where you can share your experiences via an online journal (blog), learn from others and find support for the challenges you are facing. members include cancer survivors, family members, doctors, nurses, researchers and others who are actively involved in the fight against cancer. is also an online resource providing members with the latest cancer news & information as well as additional resources for people seeking help and support."

Dr. Berman and I have corresponded off and on for a while and I think he's created a very important resource for a lot of people--not least because of the understanding and credibility he brings to it as a cancer survivor himself. His kind review of Mom's Cancer on his blog,, gives me a handy excuse to recommend his site and work to anyone touched by this disease and looking for others who will understand. If you think that description might apply to you, it probably does. Check it out.

More NYC

Editor Charlie just mailed me a CD of photos from our big New York book launch. Charlie and the Abrams photographer both caught a lot I missed. With his permission, I thought I'd post some of them:

The Society of Illustrators, perfect site for the Abrams party kicking off their publishing season.

The first floor of the SOI set up before the party began.

The same room in mid-celebration. We later adjourned to the third floor, which had about the same dimensions, a bar, and even more amazing art on the walls.

Signing at St. Mark's Comics.

The Comic-Con panel on "The Future of the Graphic Novel." Left to right are R. Kikuo Johnson, me, Grady Klein, Jessica Abel, and moderator Douglas Wolk.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

My Latest Project

Here's how I spent a couple of hours this morning:

For the past few years, my girls' Girl Scout troop has organized an annual Father-Daughter Dance. They rent a hall, hire a DJ and photographer, organize door prizes, arrange for pot-luck snacks, and charge enough to cover their costs. It's a great event--a nice thing for Dads to do with their girls, and many of them dress up like they're going to a prom. This year's theme is "Under the Sea."

On their way out the door, the girls get a patch commemorating the event to sew onto their Girl Scout sashes or vests, and that's my design for this year's patch above. I've designed a few other patches for various events and enjoy it. It's an interesting challenge in limited palette (four colors this year, not including the pale blue background of the patch material) and canvas (this is going to be small and embroidered by machine, so no fine lines or details).

Look for my new book, "Collected Girl Scout Patches," coming from Abrams this fall.