Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Dia de los Muertos, Part One

"If you're an adult and you're planning to wear a costume at Halloween... Don't. I will find you. I will hurt you."
--Lewis Black

With all due respect to Mr. Black, Halloween is one of my Top Two holidays. I'm not above wearing a costume, though it's a fine line: you don't want to be that guy who works just a little too hard getting into character. For example, I think it's fine to have an emergency Starfleet tunic hanging in the closet, but you've gotta wear it with a pair of ordinary black pants and shoes. If you're over the age of 20 and you've also got zippered calf boots and specially tailored pants with flared cuffs and no pockets (everyone knows Starfleet pants don't have pockets), that's too much.

Over the years I've built up a nice assortment of props we scatter around the front yard every Halloween. I try to build something new each year, though they don't all work and some get retired in favor of better ones. Since I have finite space in my yard to display them and in my garage to store them, I've gotten better at making props that are light and break down easily.

I already revealed this year's addition, though I've made a few changes since posting that video, such as swapping the belt drive for a more steady and reliable chain drive using junked bicycle parts. Works great, and looks great in the dark.

The ghosts below are incredibly unimpressive in daylight but look very nice at night, gently wafting in the corner. I light them dimly so you might not even notice them at first, but you catch them out of the corner of your eye. Simple and effective.

Below is my pride and joy, the Ghost Catcher, displayed in my garage window. Unfortunately, it's too dark to see the details. The video opens with a wide shot of a mad (or at least mildly peeved) scientist's lab on the left and the Ghost Catcher on the right. It then zooms into the window of the high-voltage (1.21 gigawatts) machine I use to trap trespassing ghosts. Looks like I got three already.

Half the people who try to guess how this works think it's holograms. Nope. The technique is much lower tech--in fact, magicians have used it for more than a century--and (spoiler alert!) it's the same one used in the ballroom of Disney's various Haunted Mansions.

These are the only two props I set up early. I've got a couple of other good ones I'll try to photograph tonight, but it's difficult--both because of the darkness and the visitors. You may've noticed they're all ghosts, without a vampire, mummy, or werewolf in sight. That's deliberate. In the small space available, I'm trying to tell one story. This is the house where the mischievous green ghosts arise, some of whom are temporarily detained by the ghostbusting scientist who lives there. No need to throw in the kitchen sink.

And yeah, I've got a Ghostbusters jumpsuit. No nuclear-powered plasma-shooting proton pack, though; that would be too much.

Friday, October 27, 2006

CR Magazine

Several months ago I was contacted by people starting up a new magazine called CR, aimed at cancer patients, family members, and the professionals who help them. The CR Editorial Board says their mission is to "strengthen collaborations and communications among cancer survivors, patient advocates, physicians and scientists, with the goal of accelerating the prevention and cure of cancer." As I understand it, the idea is to distribute the magazine mostly through clinics, cancer libraries, and doctors' waiting rooms, where the people who need it can find it.

An excerpt from Mom's Cancer, accompanied by a little author's note I wrote, appeared in the fall issue just now out. I think it's great, and not only for the full-page, full-color treatment they graciously gave my work:

Click the image to see a big version (610 kB)

CR is 64 pages packed with solid news about cancer research and treatment, along with good practical advice and first-person accounts of dealing with cancer or helping someone who is. I know just enough about the magazine business to be very impressed with the quality of its writing and design, along with little things like their choice of paper and use of color. I hope it's a huge success for them.

See www.CRmagazine.org for more information about the magazine and the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) that publishes it. It's good people doing good work.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

More on Tilt-Shift Faking

My Photoshopped tilt-shift miniature fakes drew a lot of visitors, a couple of whom wanted to see the original photos and compare them. Here are a few:

For the Disneyland Hotel picture, I cropped the original to focus on the pool area and eliminate the background, then applied the gradient blurring as described in the tutorial I linked to earlier. In this case, I didn't mask any features to keep them in focus, although it probably would've looked good if I'd masked that one palm tree that juts into the beige roof. Notice how the tree is sharp at the bottom and blurry at the top; it would've been better all sharp (since the top of the tree is theoretically in the same focal plane as the bottom). But that's nit-picking.

For the ampitheater, I kept the entire stone wall in focus while gradient blurring the rest of the top and bottom of the picture. Then I cut out the arched windows to let the now-blurry background show through. I could've done more with the red-rimmed stage at lower right; in the tilt-shift image, it's hard to tell what and where it's supposed to be.

As I also mentioned in the first post, one trick that helps the illusion is increasing the image's saturation to brighten colors and make the surfaces look more plastic and shiny. That worked really well in the next pair:

Not too boring, I hope. I'm sure I'll play with this more later. What I find really intriguing is thinking about how we perceive what we see, the cues we use to judge relationships and distance, and how those cues can be manipulated to fool us. It's pretty subtle and almost always completely unconscious. The eye-brain connection is an amazing thing.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Charles Addams Bio Review

Cartoonist Edward Sorel has written a nice review of a new biography of Charles ("Addams Family") Addams for the New York Observer. I knew little of Addams other than his work, and the glimpses Sorel offers of Addams's life, his own regard for Addams, and the way things worked during the glory days of The New Yorker magazine made interesting reading, I thought.

If nothing else, it makes one long for the days a cartoonist had a shot at ladies like Jacqueline Kennedy, Greta Garbo and Joan Fontaine.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Revenge of the Infernal Machine

Back on October 15, I posted a short video of a contraption I built and challenged you to guess what it was. Opinions included something "for Halloween," "a medieval torture device," "automatic dog skritcher," "newfangled sock dryer," "Gertie's toothbrush," and "editor motivator."

Jim, who wrote that "It's for Halloween. Exactly what, I do not know..." was half right, although I don't know how much credit he deserves since "Halloween" was one of the tags I put on the video. (You wouldn't cheat, would you Jim?) I think the two clips below, showing the next step in the process, will clarify everything.

If you take the contraption, paint it black, add styrofoam balls and tulle, and paint them fluorescent green, you get this:

Then you paint on black eyes, wait until dark, turn on a black light, and get this hard-to-photograph apparition:

You'll have to trust me that it looks better in person, and will look WAY better behind a bush and under a tree in my front yard on Halloween, where vaporous spirits have been known to erupt from the ground one night each year.

I trust no one thinks me less manly because I know what tulle is.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

I Got a Rock

My wife and I went to the Charles M. Schulz museum on Saturday for an afternoon of special events. First was a showing of "It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown" in the museum's swell little theater. As we sat down, we both realized it'd been years since we'd actually watched the show, and the experience of seeing it projected large with a hundred or so other people was unexpectedly entertaining. There's something very cool about watching it with a crowd that laughs and says "Aww" at all the right parts. There were also a lot of very cute children--some costumed for the occasion--and, for some reason, a full TV camera crew skulking about taping everything. We never quite figured that out.

After the screening and a quick snack at The Warm Puppy Cafe at
Mr. Schulz's ice rink next door, we made our way to the event I was most interested in: a panel discussion by four professional cartoonists on their work and the impact of "Peanuts" on their lives. The guests were Keith Knight ("The K Chronicles"), Darrin Bell ("Candorville" and "Rudy Park"), Michael Jantze ("The Norm"), and Paige Braddock ("Jane's World"). I didn't take notes for a detailed report, but I did walk away with two or three new thoughts about the art and craft of cartooning that made it a good day for me.

Keith Knight, Darrin Bell, Paige Braddock, Michael Jantze

I was excited to meet Darrin face-to-face. In addition to his paying job(s), Darrin operates Toontalk, one of the few places where professionals and amateurs can meet on the Web to talk about cartooning. So I wanted to thank him for doing that, he had some nice things to say about Mom's Cancer, and we had a good three-minute conversation before he had to go sign books.

I'd briefly met Keith before, at the Alternative Press Expo (APE) in San Francisco, after exchanging a couple of e-mails with him. I reintroduced myself and met Keith's wife Kerstin, who was terrific. Kerstin had a potentially cancerous health scare a while ago (I'm not divulging anything personal; Keith wrote about it in his comic), which is why I got in touch with him in the first place. Kerstin's tumor was large and serious but benign, she looks great, and while the cartoonists were put to work my wife and I enjoyed several minutes talking with her.

All in all, a couple of hours well spent.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Fantastic Voyage

Very deliberately returning to the utterly trivial....

I've been playing around lately with a Photoshop process called the "tilt-shift miniature fake" technique. It's definitely fun and I think the results look pretty cool.

I recall seeing photos a while ago by a photographer named Olivo Barbieri, who shot aerial pictures of famous places using a complex and expensive tilt-shift lens, which allowed him to leave certain parts of the image in focus and others out. One interesting side effect of the process is that it mimicks the narrow depth of field one gets when taking pictures of miniatures. In other words, it makes the real things look like models.

Just a few days ago I came across a tutorial for faking the same effect using Photoshop. I won't go into details--the tutorial covers it pretty well, although I tweaked it some--but here are some of my better results. Remember, these all began as actual photos of full-size objects. Some are more successful than others.

A parking lot by a rail line near Venice, Italy. To the extent this "works" (and this isn't one of my best ones), it's helped by the high point of view that matches the angle at which a person would look at a miniature model. I kept the yellow light pole in focus by masking it from the blurring effect; I think that really helps sell the illusion.

Cacti in Tucson, Arizona. The one on the left is probably 20 to 25 feet tall. Again, I masked the two tallest cacti to keep them sharply focused while gradient-blurring the background and foreground.

Generators at the base of Hoover Dam. One trick that helps sell the miniaturization illusion is cranking up the picture's saturation so everything looks overly bright and plastic. I love the garish yellow, orange and red that resulted in the far background.

My second favorite picture. This is the swimming pool at the Disneyland Hotel. I think this picture has a lot going for it. First, the high angle. Second, the lack of people that would give your eye something to lock onto and provide scale. Third, Disney landscaping is made to look cartoony and fake in the first place; the little pirate ship at center was intended to look like a toy, which greatly reinforces the illusion that it is one.

My favorite result so far. This is a small (but not that small!) ampitheater at the Acropolis in Athens. This one involved a lot of masking to keep the stone wall sharply focused all the way to the top of the frame. Then I had to cut out the little windows to let the blurry background show through.

I'm sure this is a technique I'll continue to play with. If you'd like to see more, there's a whole Flickr group dedicated to other people's fake miniature pictures (again, some better than others). Have fun!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

More Miriam

Melissa Block, who interviewed Miriam Engelberg and me for NPR's "All Things Considered," broadcast a very nice remembrance of Miriam yesterday. The three-minute segment, which you can hear here, captures Miriam's voice and some of her personality, I think. It's good.

I've corresponded with both Melissa and USA Today reporter Liz Szabo since Miriam died, and it is evident they both considered Miriam more than "just another assignment" and were very moved by her passing. That's good, too.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


I'm extremely sad to interrupt my trivial musings about drawing on walls, watching old cartoons, and losing meaningless competitions to report that Miriam Engelberg has died. Miriam wrote a graphic novel titled Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person that came out shortly after mine, and for several weeks we shared press coverage in USA Today, National Public Radio, and elsewhere.

Miriam and I traded a few e-mails before meeting briefly at one of her book signings, and we had more time to talk when we were both interviewed on NPR's "All Things Considered" in June. In August, I blogged that the breast cancer she never quite beat had metastasized aggressively and she had decided to stop treatment.

I thought Miriam was a first-rate humorist who precisely captured essential (in the sense of "the essence of") insights into her cancer experience. When I read some of her cartoons, I was amazed by both their raw honesty and the guts it took to write and draw them. As two people who both decided to tell cancer stories with words and pictures, I think we shared something unique. And I just liked her as a warm and funny person very, very much.

©2006 Miriam Engelberg

Miriam kindly added me to her mailing list and I received the e-mail below from her friend and Web helper Gina a few minutes ago. The fact is that although I sent a note to Miriam after she entered hospice care, I didn't hear from her again after our NPR date. Even in June she felt the symptoms of brain tumors coming on, worried about what the seemingly inevitable would do to her husband and son, and felt as fragile as a bird when I hugged her goodbye. Still, in the absence of news it was easy to imagine the best, making this e-mail a shock if not a surprise. I barely knew Miriam and she must have had a thousand closer friends than me; I can hardly imagine what they're all feeling now because I feel as desolate as I have in quite a while.


This is the email I've dreaded sending out since I took over Miriam's online mail and I find myself trembling as I'm writing this.

Miriam Engelberg died at home earlier today. She had her family and close friends with her and was not in a coma. As far as I can tell, she didn't suffer and was spared the intense pain many go through with cancer. I like to think the love, humor and good karma she shared with everyone protected her from the worst aspects of dying.

During the past several weeks, Miriam had been sleeping more and more and was getting increasingly confused and was having a harder time hearing and seeing. But she was still able to eat (donuts and fried chicken were recent favorites) and, for fleeting moments, could still provide glimpses of the spirit we all loved. But she was certainly fading.

No funeral service has been set and, as you can imagine, Jim, her son Aaron, sister Elise and best friend Gail are all in major shock and everyone's just trying to give them the support and space to help themget through this. Miriam's parents only returned to Kentucky a few days ago after spending over a month here. If there is a public service, I will try to let you all know the details.

It's so painful to imagine a world without Miriam and the magic she brought to everyone around her. She was a very unassuming person about just how special a woman she was but everyone she touched knew it andtreasured her. We've all been so lucky just to have had her in our lives.

be well,

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Overlook Lounge

The Overlook Lounge, 225 E. 44th St., NYC
(I "borrowed" this photo from my friend Mike Lynch's
blog because it's much better than the one I took.
Retroactive thanks, Mike!)

The Manhattan establishment now called the Overlook Lounge has been a bar or tavern for more than 50 years. In 1976, members of the National Cartoonists Society had their annual meeting in New York, met there for dinner and drinks and, reportedly, paid their tab by drawing on the wall. Their art has survived several changes in ownership and the tradition has been revived, spearheaded by cartoonist Mike Lynch. Though much of the new work was done in a single day in November 2005, Mike has continued wrangling cartoonists to fill in empty spots one at a time. When there's not a spot of white left--soon, I think--the entire surface will be sealed. Last week was my turn.

Mike arriving for our lunch date

Here are some photos of the original mural (shown in order from left to right as looking at the wall), with drawings by Mort Walker, Milton Caniff, Gil Kane, Sergio Aragones, Dik Browne, Jerry Robinson, and a couple dozen more.

Here are some photos of the new drawings. Unlike the original wall, which is one long piece, the new cartoons are on three walls that wrap around a banquette table in a niche, just opposite the originals. These pictures also go left to right:

Only Mike Lynch himself could name all the cartooning talent contained on these walls. The newer drawings include work by Dan Piraro, Jules Feiffer, Rick Stromoski, Guy Gilchrist, Ted Slampyak, Don Orehek, Mell Lazarus, Anne Gibbons, Stephanie Piro, Frank Springer, many more.

I enjoyed noticing that both the old and new walls have a Hagar the Horrible--the original drawn by Hagar creator Dik Browne, the new one by Dik's son Chris, who took over drawing the strip when his dad died. At least two cartoonists, Mort Walker and Irwin Hasen, drew on both the old and new walls (there were probably others, but it's a lot to take in).

After fortifying ourselves with beefy Overlook bacon-cheeseburgers and a pint of fine local draught, it was my turn to step up to the wall. I don't mind confessing I was intimidated. I chose my spot--the blank patch in the upper right corner of the last picture above--pulled out a conte crayon and Sharpie, stepped up onto the cushioned seat, and went to work.

I used the conte crayon to faintly sketch out the oval head shapes and features, then pretty much went straight to work with the marker. Sharpie is not an ideal medium and a vertical wall eight feet above the floor is not an ideal surface. I was also a little unnerved by the idea that every jot I laid down could stay there for another 50 years. If I'd had an "erase" function, it would've been better. But I did the best I could under the circumstances and am not incredibly embarrassed by the result:

I like the idea that I made a little piece of history and contributed something that maybe a scholar of the cartooning arts will work to puzzle out someday ("Who the heck was this guy?"), and I wouldn't have done it if Mike hadn't insisted. Thanks, Mr. Lynch.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Gertie the Dinosaur (again)

Mark Evanier, whose "News From ME" blog is one of my daily reads, posted this 12-minute silent-era film a couple of days ago. It's Winsor McCay's "Gertie the Dinosaur" circa 1914, and this movie is an interesting artifact. McCay originally showed the short cartoon within this movie as part of a live vaudeville show, during which he stood on stage and "commanded" the dinosaur on screen to do tricks. However, McCay couldn't be everywhere at once, and this film was made to recreate that stage experience for theater audiences around the world.

[NOTE: I originally embedded the Gertie movie here, but something about its HTML coding played havoc with my Blogger template in some browsers. I tried to work around the problem but couldn't solve it, so the best I can do is point you to it at the Google Video site here. It's worth the effort.]

Title cards take the place of words McCay would've said in person. At one point, Gertie catches a pumpkin; on stage, McCay would've tossed it to her himself (although I always heard it was an apple). At another point, an animated McCay comes on screen to take a ride on Gertie; on stage, McCay would've walked behind the screen so it appeared he became part of the movie. The framing story of a group of cartoonists finding a museum and wagering on McCay's ability to "make a dinosaurus live" is interesting only for glimpses of McCay at work and cartoonist George McManus. Also for the fact that 1914 is probably the last time a cartoonist dressed up to go to work.

Though not the first animated cartoon, Gertie is an animation pioneer, appearing years before Mickey Mouse's "Steamboat Willie." She was evidently a popular sensation, the first real animated character in an extended story, and years ahead of her time. Compared to her rubber-limbed, stick-figure contemporaries, Gertie had volume, mass, personality and life. I particularly love how she breathes and flicks her tail. Watch Gertie's tail as she drinks the lake dry: that's superior animation in any era.

I've written before of my enormous admiration and respect for McCay's work, particularly his classic "Little Nemo in Slumberland" newspaper strip, and the fact that the first (and only) self-indulgent thing I bought with my advance for Mom's Cancer was one of the hand-drawn animation cels that comprised the film above. My cel appears at about the 8:41 mark, as Gertie licks her lips after eating a tree trunk. In fact I think it appears twice, as McCay--no dummy--has Gertie lick her lips twice and re-uses the same drawings for each motion. Here's mine:

This drawing is ink on rice paper, about 6 x 8 inches (15 x 20 cm). Animation was at a very early stage; artists hadn't yet figured out the trick of drawing the characters on transparent plastic so they didn't have to redraw the entire background for each frame. For Gertie, McCay and an assistant redrew every mountain, rock, and ripple in the water thousands of times (the movie says 10,000 cels, but I believe that number is disputed. As I indicated, McCay very sensibly used many drawings more than once, as when Gertie sways in time to the music.) Some 300 to 400 of the cels have survived the nearly 100 years since they were drawn. I'm very happy and grateful to be the temporary steward of one of them.

Secret Origin of the Cartoonist

A couple of people have asked for a higher-resolution version of
the cartoon I posted a few days ago depicting "The Secret Origin of the Cartoonist," which I drew for a young man through the Make A Wish Foundation. Very happy to oblige! Thanks for asking.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Infernal Machine

I built this contraption Saturday afternoon:

Any guesses what it's for? (My girls are ineligible.)

Hint: the next step is to paint it black.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Quill Awards: Why I Don't Feel Entirely Like a Big Fat Loser

NEW YORK, NY October 10, 2006 – Reed Business Information (RBI) and the NBC Universal Television Stations have announced the winners of the second annual Quill Awards, named this evening during a star-studded ceremony at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, hosted by NBC News’ Lester Holt, with special performances by Fantasia, Lewis Black, and the Tony Award-winning cast of Broadway’s “Avenue Q.” Celebrity presenters included Anderson Cooper, Liz Smith, Donald Trump, Stanley Tucci, Harry Connick, Jr., Dominick Dunne, Sue Monk Kidd, James Patterson, Judy Blume, Janet Evanovich, Mary Matalin, Suzanne Somers, Rhea Perlman, S. Epatha Merkerson, Judd Hirsch, Ann Brashares, Marianne Williamson, Dana Delany, and Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), among others.

--From the Official Press Release

I could post 20 pages about the 12 hours between 11 a.m. and 11 p.m. Tuesday. But I don't have time to write it and you sure wouldn't want to read it. Here are some bullet points, most drafted while sitting in airports on the way home.

The Overlook Lounge: Years ago, in a pub that sits in the shadow of the Chrysler Building, a group of cartoonists filled a wall with drawings in lieu of paying their tab. The wall has been respected and preserved through changes in ownership, and the tradition revived with contemporary cartoonists today. So one of the first things I did after deplaning from my red-eye flight to JFK early Tuesday was meet my cartoonist friend Mike Lynch at the Overlook to draw on their wall. I took some pictures and will devote a whole post to this humbling honor in the next day or two. If you'd like a sneak preview, Mike's already written about it on his blog.

The City: With a few visits under my belt, I'm pretty comfortable navigating Manhattan and using the subway. This trip, my expertise grew to encompass the subtle distinction between "local" and "express." Also, the fact that "Rockaway Ave." and "Far Rockaway" are two different places.

I hadn't seen Grand Central Station since my first visit to New York more than 10 years ago, and I kind of stumbled on it by accident this time ("What the heck is this big building in my way--Oh!"). It is simply the sort of magnificent public space that has always distinguished the world's great cities from the wannabes. I wandered and ogled.

The weather was perfect and it's easy to understand how New York City can sometimes seem like the center of the whole universe.
Harry N. Abrams: No one at my publisher's offices could believe I'd never been there before when I darkened their door Tuesday afternoon. I'd met many Abrams people, but never on their home turf. It was one of the highlights of the day and, by itself, made the trip worthwhile. They expressed so much genuine warmth and appreciation for Mom's Cancer that I was a little overwhelmed (thank you, Sylvia). Somebody welcomed me home and that's kind of how it felt. Very nice.

Above: Editor Charlie Kochman and
me at the Abrams offices, 4 p.m.
Below, same guys at 7 p.m.
We cleaned up all right.

The Venue: The Quill Awards ceremony was held at the American Museum of Natural History, which, like Grand Central Station, embodies the ambitious architecture and purpose that help define greatness. From the dinosaur fossils in the entry hall to the diorama displays throughout, it is an iconic institution. Following a reception under the dinosaurs, we were directed to the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, a large room whose focal point is a full-scale model of a blue whale suspended from the ceiling. Whoa. Comics journalist Heidi MacDonald noted that it would have been the perfect place and time for a supervillain to smash through the roof to threaten the pampered, overdressed elite of Gotham City, and she was right.

Above, attendees in Milstein Hall
under the whale (with TV cameras
and teleprompters beneath its snout).
Below, Heidi MacDonald and Charlie.

The People: The press release above lists some of the people who were there to present awards. I got a close look at a few of them. I shared an elevator ride with Rhea Perlman, with whom I made eye contact and traded a "How 'bout this?" smile. I saw a lot of Judd Hirsch--during the reception, we just always seemed to end up standing near each other. Anderson Cooper. Harry Connick Jr. Joan Didion. Many familiar faces I couldn't put a name to.

My favorite sighting of the night was crossing paths with Donald Trump, his wife Melania, and the man I know only as "The Old Guy Who Works for Trump on The Apprentice." I was going down an otherwise-empty staircase as they were coming up. Charlie later pointed out what a great service I could've done for humanity with just one small shove. I could'a made it look like an accident, too.

Location, Location, Location: The first omen that it might not be our night came when we were seated in the balcony. We reassured ourselves that was only because Abrams is a small publishing house that had RSVPed late. The view was nice. Had we won, it would've been a short, easy trot down a few steps to the stage. But, in fact, I observed over the evening that none of the winners emerged from the balcony. Thus, should you ever find yourself in a similar situation, I think you can rely on this rule of thumb: If there is a flight of stairs between you and your potential award, you ain't getting one.

My view of the stage, with
Lewis Black performing.

The Food: Surprisingly great. A salad of greens and cheesy-stuff, a perfectly grilled filet mignon, potatoes, green beans, creme brulee, all the wine you could drink. Organized service. Well done.

Deprived of a trophy to bring home, I stole part of my
table's centerpiece (left) instead. Charlie liberated the
book-reading chimpanzee from another table for me.
I added the inscription to the base with Sharpie marker.
Below is a photo of my prize as it appeared
in situ.

Chip Kidd: One of the leading art directors and graphic designers in the world, famous for the book covers he's designed, presenter of the Quill Award for Best Graphic Novel, and a friend of Charlie's. I had opportunities to talk with Chip before and during the Quill Awards and--without betraying confidences that would reveal Chip's true thoughts about the allegedly humorous remarks scripted for him, most of the winners, and almost every aspect of the entire event--I will report that no one I've met uses the word "ghastly" with as much verve as he does. After the awards, Chip invited Charlie and me to his apartment, where we were joined by Charlie's girlfriend Rachel (whom I think the world of) and poet, literary critic, opera librettist, and Yale Review editor J.D. McClatchy. And the five of us sat on Chip's 17th-story balcony overlooking Manhattan sipping rum and saying spiteful things about other people until we all felt much better about everything.

Sour Grapes: Of the Quill results themselves, almost anything else I could say would sound like sour grapes. Had I won, I would obviously think they were the most perceptive, prestigious, and fairly decided awards around. Therefore, without expressing any opinion at all, I'll just offer three data points from which you may draw your own conclusions:

1. Approximately 200,000 English-language books were published last year.
2. From among that number, the Quill Award nominating committee chose 95 books (in 19 categories) whose authors included Frank McCourt, Doris Kearns Goodwin, E.L. Doctorow, Maya Angelou, Joan Didion, and the Dalai Lama.
3. From among that number, the voting public decided that the winner of the top Quill Award for Book of the Year was this:
Book of the Year. Can it
repeat at the Pulitzers?

My Bottom Line: I wanted to win. I'm disappointed I didn't. I think in this case the platitude that "it's an honor just to be nominated" is more true than usual.

As I told Charlie and Chip "Name Drop" Kidd, my hopes for the Quill Award were less about the prize itself than what it could've done to bring new readers to Mom's Cancer. I don't mean to sound like a big sap, but I really just want people who could maybe get something from it to find it. To that end, I met one or two people who might help us accomplish that anyway.

My trip could've gone better, but all I really missed out on was bringing home a bauble. Compared to everything wonderful that happened, it's not a huge loss.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Preliminary Post Mortem

Just returned home from New York City, where Mom's Cancer did not win the 2006 Quill Book Award for Best Graphic Novel. I lost to Naruto Volume 7. I hear it was much better than Naruto Volume 6.

My will to live remains strong. More tomorrow.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

A Hand-Me-Down Wish

Geoff Hassing is a cartoonist who knows a guy who knows a kid who has a serious disease. Geoff's friend works with the Make A Wish Foundation, whose purpose is to help very sick children's dreams come true--in this case, the dream of a 10-year-old boy named Bryce who wants to be a cartoonist and hoped to meet Bill Watterson of "Calvin and Hobbes." Mr. Watterson turns out to be very hard to reach, so Bryce settled for his second choice: meeting George W. Bush so he could thank the president for signing legislation to fast-track some drugs that might help his condition.

I love the fact that it's easier to meet the President of the United States than Bill Watterson.

Anyway, Geoff thought he could honor the spirit if not the letter of Bryce's first wish, and put out the word to cartoonists who might want to inscribe an original cartoon and send it to Bryce. Unfortunately, I don't part with my Mom's Cancer originals--few of which would probably be appropriate for a seriously ill kid anyway. With Bryce's ambitions in mind, I thought I could do a new piece of artwork that also had some good advice for an aspiring cartoonist. So I came up with this:
The original is about 8x12 inches, India ink and wash on bristol board, done with all the same brushes, nibs and stuff I used for Mom's Cancer. I wish my lettering were neater; I'm out of practice and working at a different scale here than I did for the book--and since I'm sending Bryce the original, there's no opportunity to fix it in post-production! But overall it captures what I wanted.

Frankly, although some syndicated and otherwise successful cartoonists are pitching in, I doubt getting a batch of drawings from cartoonists he's never heard of will measure up to Bryce's Watterson hopes or his Bush reality. But if he's serious about making cartoons, he should learn a lot from seeing some real-life examples. Well done, Geoff!

Thursday, October 05, 2006


I just figured out that my main website, www.momscancer.com, has been mostly offline for the past couple of days. I've fired off a very heated (all right, obsequiously sycophantic) e-mail to my site's host and hope all will be well soon. Meanwhile, my apologies to anyone who tried to get there and found their way here instead. I'm working on it. [LATER UPDATE: Seems to be all fixed now.]

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

My Lunch with Paul

I first met Paul Giambarba on the Internet, where we both occasionally participate in the same cartoonists' forum. Chances are you haven't heard of Paul, but he's a real professional's professional: one of the guys whose career goes back fifty years to what I consider the Golden Age of cartooning and illustration. His website summarizes some of the highlights of his career as an artist, designer, writer, educator. However, a list of his accomplishments doesn't hint at his deep knowledge of graphics, typography, printing, publishing, and the nuts and bolts of the commercial art world. He's the real, complete deal.

Among Paul's career highlights was serving as Polaroid's first art director for 25 years beginning in 1958. Paul designed the angular rainbow-striped graphics that not only instantly identified his product as more exciting and hip than its "stodgy" competitor Kodak--a branding strategy companies like Apple would later use to great advantage--but I think helped define the look of a generation. I took the liberty of lifting the picture below from his website:

Paul Giambarba created that. If you're of a certain age, one look at those boxes really takes you back.

As we got acquainted on the Web, it emerged that Paul had once lived in my hometown. A couple of weeks ago he said he was coming back for a visit and would love to get together, which we did for lunch today. He and I talked for more than two hours over sandwiches and beer. I won't share too many details since Paul wasn't speaking "on the record" (although when I asked our waiter to take our photo, I warned Paul it was going on my blog), but we had a terrific conversation about art, careers, families and life that I'll always treasure. He shared some wisdom about the business that I'll take to heart and couldn't have been warmer or more encouraging.

Paul's website is densely packed with examples of his work, both commercial and personal. One of my favorite sections is a collection of more than three dozen short essays he wrote about the great illustrators of the past century. If you visit, also be sure to see a collection of ink and watercolor sketches he made during a visit to Europe in 1955. It's all great stuff.

Plus, he picked up the check. That makes him my friend for life.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Moderating Expectations

This time next week I'll be in Manhattan, unrolling my tux from my carry-on bag, feeling a little queasy, and getting ready to attend the Quill Book Awards. The Quill people have posted a commercial here and some clips of last year's awards here, and I can safely say that--although the Eisner Awards were pretty cool--I've never been to anything quite like that.

Now that voting is closed I can tell you what I really think...which is that the Quills strike me as an odd duck. Reed Publishing and Al Roker Entertainment have done a swell job of creating a glitzy event that makes the book world look glamorous. At the same time, as I wrote a while ago, I saw almost no awareness among the award's bookstore partners, no way for people to vote but online and, except for one page in "Parade" magazine, no advertising. You have to wonder about the usefulness and validity of awards that, as far as I can tell, are decided by a tiny fraction of the reading public that had to go out of their way to participate. In addition, the Quills seem to have a way to go before they earn the kind of reputation that yields literary respect or, more practically, increased book sales. Maybe that'll come with time.

Despite my possibly uninformed and misguided observations, I am grateful and excited. I also sincerely do not expect to win. Based simply on literary merit, I think Alison Bechdel's Fun Home should win. On the other hand, if the millions of readers who made Naruto one of the best-selling manga series in the U.S. found their way to the ballots (and I'm betting they're more Internet-saavy than most), I think it could win based on sheer numbers.

So in the unlikely event Mom's Cancer wins, do I intend to take a principled stand and decline the award because I believe in my heart that other books are more deserving or popular than mine?

Don't be ridiculous.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Ready For My Close-Up

Back in March, just after Mom's Cancer was released, I was interviewed on the KTVU (Oakland, California) program "Mornings on 2," a fine news and chat show hosted by Ross McGowan. Although it's an old interview, I've just now acquired the technology and skills to upload video to YouTube and thought I'd post it here as my first experiment.

I cringe at how I look, talk, move, gesture, dart my beady eyes, and everything else. All I see is a giant goober, but people I trust who don't live in my head tell me it's fine. Or at least accurate. Enjoy.