Friday, December 28, 2007

Raindrops on Roses, Whiskers on Kittens

This seems like the right time to remember people whose work--and, when I was lucky, friendship--made my life better in 2007:

My friend Mike Lynch, successful magazine cartoonist and fellow Trekkie, whose impromptu calls I'm always delighted to take and whose blog is terrific.

My friend Patricia Storms, whose cartooning and illustrating career really seems to have taken off lately, and it couldn't happen to a nicer person.

My friend Jeff Kinney, whose career as a best-selling author I can actually claim to have witnessed the very start of. It also couldn't happen to a nicer person.

My friend Paul Giambarba, a cartoonist, artist, illustrator, author, art director and much more, with a multi-decade career I can only envy.

My friend Otis Frampton, writer, artist, and creator of Oddly Normal among other great work.

My friend Arnold Wagner, who made my life better until the evening of August 31.

My friend Ronniecat, who started a blog when she suddenly lost her hearing at age 39 and soon branched out to write about anything else that interested her.

My friend Mike Peterson, a career journalist and newspaper editor in Maine, and a cartooning connoisseur.

My friend Sherwood Harrington, an astronomer, traveler, and better writer than he lets on.

My friend and editor Charlie Kochman, who grasps ideas immediately, figures out ways to make them better, and would never do anything to disappoint me in any way ever.

Writer, comics creator, and Hollywood insider Mark Evanier, whose blog is a daily stop of mine.

Annie and Jazz Age cartoonist Ted Slampyak, likewise a regular surfing destination.

Between Friends cartoonist Sandra Bell-Lundy, likewise likewise.

Agreeably cranky writer and artist Eddie Campbell, who made my week a couple of months ago.

The many artists, writers, comics and cartooning professionals I've gotten to know online, plus a few I've gotten to know in person, including Guy Gilchrist, Stephan Pastis, Michael Jantze and Terry Moore. Thanks for your time.

Annette Street, Professor of Cancer and Palliative Care Studies, La Trobe University, Australia.

My neighbor Larry, who I just discovered reads my blog. Thanks for helping me fish my eyeglass lens out of the storm drain that time, plus for protecting our country. That was good, too.

Martin Mahoney, Jeremy Clowe, and the staff of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Jennifer Babcock and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) in New York City.

People who voted for me in the Eisner Awards in vain.

People who voted for me in the Harvey Awards--not in vain.

Wolfgang Fuchs, who translated my book into German, accepted an award on our behalf, and exchanged some very nice notes with me about it.


People who read my book, and maybe even paid money for it. I don't ever, ever take that for granted. Thank you.

People who read my book and then wrote to tell me about it, themselves, their families, and their stories. Thank you especially.

Everyone else I don't want to embarrass by naming in public but who know who they are.

My wife Karen, who didn't think the preceding sentence applied to her.

My girls, who make me proud.

A happy new year to us all!

*I reserve the right to wake up in the middle of the night, slap myself on the forehead crying "How could I have forgotten them?!" and add names to this post at any time. If that's you, I apologize.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Once More, With Feeling

Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash., an' Kalamazoo!
Nora's freezin' on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!
Don't we know archaic barrel,
Lullaby Lilla boy, Louisville Lou?
Trolley Molly don't love Harold,
Boola boola Pensacoola hullabaloo!

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Polly wolly cracker n' too-da-loo!
Hunky Dory's pop is lolly
gaggin' on the wagon,
Willy, folly go through!
Donkey Bonny brays a carol,
Antelope Cantaloup, 'lope with you!
Chollie's collie barks at Barrow,
Harum scarum five alarum bung-a-loo!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Best Christmas Ever

I won't embarrass my sister by revealing what year this picture of us was taken. Let's just call it an obviously pre-digital era. Possibly pre-transistor. I'm pretty sure we at least had steam engines.

The best Christmases ever experienced in the history of humanity happened in this house, my grandparents' log cabin, on the banks of Rapid Creek west of Rapid City, South Dakota. To call it a "log cabin" conjures images of "Little House on the Prairie" privations and is a bit misleading; it was a full-sized home built in the early 1960s with all the modern conveniences, but the walls were in fact made of stacked and interlocked yellow logs. Plus, "log cabin" sounds way cooler.

This house had the biggest stone fireplace in the world, across the room from which stood the biggest, shiniest, tinseliest Christmas tree in the world (as obviously exemplified above). Although my grandparents had neighbors, their home backed up against pristine Forest Service land. The pine trees of the Black Hills stretched into infinity, the creek was laden with 12-inch trout, and a small pond across the highway froze every winter for us to practice our wobbly skating skills.

My sister and I with Mom and my grandparents' nippy little dog Salome on the pond across the highway. (See, we had color film, too!)

This was where the family gathered for my first nine or ten Christmas Eves. I'm pretty sure my grandma was the best cook in the world, though later in life Mom tried to convince me that her mother had actually been terrible in the kitchen. I'm dubious. Anyone who can line a fireplace hearth with pans of unbaked cinnamon rolls rising under moist kitchen towels and fill an entire house with that sweet yeasty scent is a five-star chef in my restaurant guide.

On Christmas Eve, the kids were readied for bed at some unjustly early hour while most of the adults steeled themselves to drive to midnight church services in town. Some years, depending on how that day's contest between snow and plow had fared, the trip was harder than others. I remember my sister and I, shivering under electric blankets turned to 9, trying desperately to keep each other awake while simultaneously pretending to sleep. Tough task. I still have an absolutely clear recollection, as real as the keyboard I'm typing on now, of hearing sleigh bells on the roof one of those nights.

What can be said of the big day itself? Anticipation, greed, the unthinking cruelty of adults marching children through the living room to the kitchen with our eyes closed so we'd eat breakfast before laying eyes on a single gift (as if there's ever been a child born who didn't master the trick of peeking sideways through downcast eyelashes). The triumph of a Lionel HO oval or G.I. Joe. And disappointments as well, such as the year my uncle broke my genuine Batman flying batcopter before I laid hands on it. I never let him live that down.

Although no holiday celebration could possibly rival my old ones, I hope the coming weeks are good for everyone. Just remember: if there are children in your life, you're making lifetime memories for them whether you intend to or not. Might as well make them nice.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

worrA s'emiT

Lying in bed this morning mulling over physics (no, really! I don't know what's wrong with me either!), I had one of the few original ideas I've ever had. By "original" I don't mean no one else has ever thought of it--it's probably one of those ideas real physicists conceive when they're eight years old and realize how stupid it is when they're nine--but I'm pretty sure I've never seen it anywhere else. I'm posting it here not because I think anyone will be interested, but to create a paper trail for future Nobel Committees to follow.

1. The Arrow of Time. One of the fundamental puzzles of the universe is why Time moves the direction it does. Physics calculations work just as well backward as forward, and yet all the Time we see wherever we look seems to be moving the same direction as ours. (I'm not quite sure how the idea that Time could just as easily move back as ahead squares with the thermodynamic law that the entropy (disorder) of a closed system always increases, but I'll assume someone else already solved that and move on.)

In our universe, when I drop a rock, gravity draws it toward the Earth. It also draws the Earth toward the rock, just much much much much much much less. But if I run the film backward, to observers in our timeframe the rock and Earth seem to repel each other (I assume a native of that universe wouldn't notice anything strange at all). It's not really anti-gravity, it's just regular gravity going backward through time.

2. Dark Matter. As I mentioned a few posts ago, astronomers have figured out that the universe has much more mass than we can find. For example, if you add up the mass of all the stars in a galaxy then look at how that galaxy interacts with others, it acts a lot heavier than it looks. That missing stuff got the name "dark matter," though if I understand correctly it's better thought of as "transparent" or "invisible" matter; it's not like chunks of charcoal floating out there, but more like stuff that can't be seen or felt no matter how closely you look, refusing to interact with our regular ol' protons, neutrons, electrons and photons at all except through gravity.

At the same time, astronomers say that the universe seems to be expanding faster than it ought to. Galaxies and the very fabric of space between them are flying apart faster now than they did billions of years ago, even though common sense suggests they should be slowing down as gravity tries to pull everything together. It's almost as if there were some unknown repulsive force--some mysterious anti-gravity--pushing things apart. They call this "dark energy."

(My wife just walked in and, when I told her I was blogging about physics, she said "Ooooooh!" But I'm pretty sure that was sarcasm.)

3. My Hypothesis: Dark matter is nothing but a whole bunch of regular matter moving backward through time. What looks like a repulsive dark energy to us is ordinary gravitational attraction as seen by someone going the other direction. We can't see or touch the dark matter because it's playing by a different set of physical, chemical and electromagnetic rules, but we can feel the gravitational effects of its mass, the one characteristic that doesn't change no matter which direction time goes.

I leave the math as a trivial exercise for future grad students. QED.

We now conclude the wild-eyed crazyman portion of our blog. Have a nice day.

Me, earlier today

UPDATE 15 Minutes Later: Just uncovered a fatal flaw in my reasoning ("Only one?!" I hear you cry). Bad idea. Never mind. Still pretty sure my flux capacitor will work, however. All I need now is a DeLorean.


Thursday, December 13, 2007

Two Newspaper Stories

Tim Kane of the Albany Times Union in Albany, N.Y., wrote a nice piece on the "LitGraphic" exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum, of which several original pages of Mom's Cancer are the least interesting part. The article quotes curator Martin Mahoney (hey, I know him!) and provides a nice historical perspective on graphic novels/comics, tracing them from their 19th-century roots through the underground sixties, Will Eisner, R. Crumb, and the modern move into mainstream films such as Sin City, 300, and V for Vendetta. An excerpt:

Adjacent to the permanent collection of traditional Rockwell illustrations, the bold irreverence and iconoclastic spirit of "LitGraphic" is only magnified. they can be dark and political or mystical and outright humorous; a number of artists have used the form for bracing works of social commentary.... Nothing is out of bounds: Sexual orientation, racism, feminism, fascism, violence, war, famine and health care fuel intricate narratives and stirring graphics.

Guess I'm the "health care."

For yesterday's New York Times, Motoko Rich wrote an interesting story titled "Crossover Dreams: Turning Free Web Work into Real Book Sales," which looks at exactly that. The article features the best-selling children's book Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney (hey, I know him!), quotes Abrams editor Charlie Kochman (hey, I know him!), and cites the recent publication of Shooting War, a new webcomic-to-book success story, by Anthony Lappé and Dan Goldman (hey, never met 'em!).

I'm not mentioned. Charlie said he told Ms. Rich all about Mom's Cancer and its status as the first webcomic to cross over to mainstream publishing (we think; if anyone has a counter-example, let me know, I'm happy to give credit where due). She didn't take the bait and that's cool. I've been a newspaper reporter and know you can only cram so much into a story, especially a little 1200-word feature. No harm no foul.

Nevertheless, the article touches on a topic of great interest to me: the decision to publish stuff in book form that readers can already get free online. The article offers two examples of different approaches and I offer a third.

Wimpy Kid was first posted to the Website and is in fact still there--all 1300 pages of it. For the book and its sequels, Jeff and Charlie are breaking it up into 200-page bites and, I think, doing significant rewriting and editing. Still, if someone wanted, they could read the entire Wimpy Kid saga right now. And yet the print version has spent 33 weeks on the NYT best-seller list. What's up with that? The article quotes Abrams CEO Michael Jacobs (hey, I've met him! and that's the last of those, I promise): "I think books are still things, thank goodness, that people want to own. The package of the book and the way it feels is something apart and separate from being able to read it online." I think that's right and at least part of the answer.

The authors of Shooting War used the Web as a tease, posting the first 11 chapters in a Web magazine while hoping and intending them to lead to a book deal. They rewrote some parts, added 110 pages, and ended up with a book very different from the introduction that's still available online. That strategy worked for them.

I serialized Mom's Cancer online because I didn't know what else to do with it. I never thought of it as a webcomic per se, but as a comic that happened to end up on the Web. It would be disingenuous to claim I wasn't thinking about print; in fact, I hoped it might become a book from the start. I just had no idea how to do that, and in the meantime I wanted to get my story out.

I stumbled into a good synergy. The many people who read it free online caught the attention of the Eisner Award folks, which probably would have opened some publishing doors regardless. However, in fact, the Eisner nomination hadn't yet happened and Editor Charlie wasn't aware of the webcomic when he accepted my proposal. Still, the fact that I could say "Umpity-thousand people have read this story in the past few months and my readership continues to grow" helped Charlie and me make our case to the publishing-house bean-counters that printing my story was a risk worth taking.

He Who Steals My IP Steals What Exactly...?
So why did I take it offline? One reason is that my publisher Abrams requested--not demanded, but requested--that I do. But I'll step up and say I honestly had no qualms about doing it. The way I looked at it, my publisher and I were entering a business partnership to publish and sell a book. It was in our common interest to make the best book possible and sell as many of them as we could. My partner was making a big financial investment and shouldering considerable risk; my personal risk was negligible. Worst case, if we didn't sell a single book, I wouldn't lose a dime. So it seemed to me the very least I could do to minimize my partner's disproportionate risk was not offer a directly competing product--my Web version--free of charge. I thought it was the professional and right thing to do. One of my proudest days as a writer was when my editor told me the book had broken even. That's when I felt I'd fulfilled my obligation.

I also think an important difference between Mom's Cancer and Wimpy Kid is simply length. My story is about 110 pages, Jeff's is 1300. You can read mine in one sitting; Jeff's takes a few days. Reading Wimpy Kid on a monitor is a significantly different experience than reading it as a paperback in bed or on the playground; mine less so. I don't know where to draw the line--200 pages? 600?--but given Wimpy Kid's size and audience, it seems to me that the risk of free competition is much smaller with Jeff's book than mine.

So I took it offline. Some people were disappointed. If anyone wrote and said, "I'm going through the same thing right now and would really like to read it," I gave them access to the Web version, especially before the book was published. Very rarely, if someone writes from a country where the book is otherwise unavailable, I still do. Otherwise, I've got no problem asking potential readers to pay $12.95 for my book. My mother's Afterword alone is worth at least $12.94.

The reaction that surprised me, and I still don't understand, was hostility. A small number of people seemed really angry, and not because they cared so passionately about my work. I think they're consumers used to getting their reading free, their music free, their games and entertainment free, and they somehow assume a profound philosophical right to get everything they want for nothing. Their rallying cry is "Information Should Be Free!" and they seem deeply offended by being asked to pay money for content or respect a creator's right to control what happens to their own work. an Information Age society--and in a country that doesn't forge steel, sew clothing, or build cars anymore--what do we produce of real value except the creative output of our minds? Indeed, why shouldn't good, creative ideas be the very things we treasure and protect the most? They're certainly rare enough. Honestly, my story is worth $12.95. It contains at least $12.95 worth of writing, drawing and ideas. I think it's worth a movie ticket and box of popcorn. If you don't, don't buy it. But don't tell me my work has no value and I have some social or moral obligation to let you take it and do what you want with it. Nope. My stuff's better than that.

And hey, you know what? If I make a few bucks and my publisher makes a few bucks, maybe we can do something else again. But neither of us can afford to do it for nothing.

Writer Harlan Ellison has had a reputation for offering strong, loud, controversial opinions on professionalism and creators' rights for about 40 years. The interview below was taken from an upcoming documentary about Ellison and captures some good thoughts much more passionately and (fair warning) profanely than I could. It's a worthwhile 3 minutes and 25 seconds. Although I have to admit I hope I'm never on the other end of a Harlan Ellison phone call.

(Note: there's no irony in my posting a free video clip from a commercial film on a free blog. This clip was released by the film's producers with, I presume, Ellison's OK.)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Vast Wasteland

If you are anywhere around my age and grew up watching television in the United States, absolutely the worst possible thing you could do is click this link. (Link removed, see update below.)

I'm not kidding. Don't do it.

And if you do, don't leave it running on your computer all day. That would be wrong.

UPDATE: The link connected to a radio station that played nothing but old TV theme songs, commercial-free, around the clock. However, it looks like that was just a short-term gimmick while they switched formats. Now it's just a plain ol' rock-and-roll station, and more's the pity. They had a good thing going.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

See How It Turns Out

Mike commented on my previous post, "Heh. Not sure astronomy is the best hobby for someone who wants to 'follow and see how it turns out.'" Very funny and true. Most astronomy involves timeframes that make evolutionary biology look like a sprint. And yet, I can't think of a better era for a space buff to be alive.

Mike's comment also got me thinking about a little mental list I keep of things I'd really like to witness in my decades (I hope) left on the planet:

1. I'd like to be around when someone figures out dark matter and dark energy, the invisible something no one can find that seems to comprise 90% of the mass of the universe.

2. I'd like to see a picture of a planet outside our solar system--preferably Earth-sized. Not a wobble, spectrograph, or statistical chart. I want oceans and clouds.

3. I'd like to live long enough to see a permanent manned base on the Moon, something that could mature into a colony. Maybe even something with a little studio apartment set aside for me.

4. I'd like to see us discover evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial life. That would be a turning point in human history, the event that everything else either came before or after. (At the same time, I imagine that people living centuries in the future will envy our virginal ignorance in the same way we're wistful for a pre-Columbian America: "Gee, I wonder what life was like before we found out about the Zorxian Empire? Good times, good times....")

I think I've got a fair shot at the first three; the fourth much less so. Give me one or more of those--plus my family happy and healthy, poverty and disease eradicated, the environment in decent shape, blah blah blah--and I think I'd die a happy man.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Lopsided Universe

Messier 101: A counter-clockwise spiral galaxy

I've always had a passionate amateur's interest in astronomy and once, long ago, hoped it might become more. In college I taught astronomy labs and helped run my campus's small observatory, and "astronomer" seemed like just about the coolest thing anyone could ever put on a business card. I just couldn't convince a grad school to agree with me.

That's all right. The nice thing about astronomy is you can keep up with it as a civilian. You can even do it; I have a small scope I don't pull out too often because my house is surrounded by street lights, but in theory it's a field where amateurs often put together equipment just as good as the professionals' and can still make a contribution.

A few years ago, I was one of millions who turned over a portion of my computer's processing power to help find ETs. A group called SETI at Home (SETI = Search for Extraterrestrial Intellligence) developed a program that anyone could install to help analyze signals captured by a radio telescope. The program works like a screensaver. Whenever your computer is idle it switches over to analyzing data, automatically reporting its results to the researchers and downloading another batch of signals. By distributing the task among legions of ordinary computers, the SETI folks got more done faster than if they'd used the world's most powerful supercomputer. As far as I know my computer never found anything interesting. In fact, as far as I know, the entire project hasn't found much interesting, which is kind of an interesting result in itself. It was fun until they issued an update that gave my computer indigestion and I stopped participating. But it's been a while and I think I might give it another try.

More recently, I've been looking at smudgy little space photos for an effort called Galaxy Zoo. Galaxy Zoo aims to classify galaxies, and its strategy is similar to SETI at Home's: spread out a job too daunting for a small team of researchers among millions of amateurs instead. Once you sign up and pass a test to prove you know what a galaxy looks like, you can log on to Galaxy Zoo and sort them to your heart's content. There's nothing automated about it. You manually click through image after image, deciding whether each depicts an elliptical or spiral galaxy (the two main types) and, if it's a spiral, whether it turns clockwise or counter-clockwise. In practice it's not easy--everything looks like a dim fuzzy blob after a while--but the Galaxy Zoo researchers at Oxford University show the same images to several people to reach consensus. In fact, I got an e-mail from them this morning explaining that each target galaxy has been looked at more than 30 times, and our amateur results agree with a smaller sampling classified by professionals. So far so good.

Here's the bizarre and interesting part: as this article in the U.K.'s Daily Telegraph newspaper explains, the universe seems to have a lot more galaxies spinning counter-clockwise than clockwise.

That is a deeply astonishing result. First, understand that a spiral galaxy that appears to be wound counter-clockwise would look clockwise if we were on the other side of it. The direction of a galaxy's spin is nothing more than an accident of where you happen to be when you look at it. Second, one of the fundamental principles of astronomy is isotropy--that is the idea that, on average, the universe is pretty much the same no matter which direction you look and there's no special vantage point that's better than any other. With that in mind, looking into space from our nowhere-special perspective, you'd expect to see nearly equal numbers of clockwise and counter-clockwise galaxies. If you dump a million pennies on the ground, approximately 500,000 will be heads and 500,000 tails. It's the only result that makes any sense at all.

And yet, I and my fellow Galaxy Zoo galaxy classifiers say the cosmos, as seen from Earth's vantage point, strongly favors the counter-clockwise.

Clearly, I broke the universe.

The researchers are trying to figure out what it means, if anything. Analyzing more pictures might help solve the puzzle. My own suspicion is that they've discovered less about the universe than about the flawed eyes and minds observing it. When confronted by an indistinct image our brains find patterns and fill in details that aren't really there, and I think it's possible that maybe--maybe--there's something hard-wired into us to discern counter-clockwise patterns more readily than clockwise. Like seeing ghostly faces in the static.

That sounds like a reach, but it makes a million times more sense to me than the alternative. In any case, it'll be cool to follow and see how it turns out. Which is the entire point.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I'm Here!

Everything's fine, just very heavy on deadlines and light on blogging inspiration.

In an upcoming post I'll recap the two cancer-fighting walk/run events I plugged earlier this month. In short: Great! Thanks again to everyone who read about them here and was inspired to help out somehow.

I saw the new Disney movie "Enchanted" a few days ago and thought it was very good. Many nice references to Disney classics that you'll catch if you've seen them a thousand times (during my raising of two girls we wore out tapes of "Little Mermaid," "Cinderella," "Sleeping Beauty," and Disney's "Robin Hood") and know some of their backstory. "Little Mermaid" voice actress Jodi Benson has a good role as Patrick Dempsey's secretary, and I've since read that Paige "Belle" O'Hara and Judi "Pocahontas's singing voice" Kuhn are in it as well, though I didn't catch them at the time. I think the movie's real accomplishment is successfully navigating the fine line between mocking the genre (as with "Shrek") and respecting it (I almost typed "respecting the essential validity of its archetypes" but then pulled the stick out of my rear and thought better of it). And little bits of cartoon at the beginning and end sure made me miss good ol' hand-drawn two-dimensional animation, which I understand John Lasseter has restored to Disney after previous administrations scoured it. Good for him.

Thanksgiving (U.S.) at the in-laws was very nice family time. It occurs to me I haven't often expressed thanks to the people who've bought my book, read my blog, or gone to the time and trouble to send me a note. So ... Thank You. It means a lot. Special appreciation for those few friends who were among the first to find Mom's Cancer online and have stuck with me since.

I expect I'll have more to say soon.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Trip Report

The Mighty Housatonic
(I hope to someday learn how to pronounce that)

One of the nice things about travel is it makes you appreciate home. My wife and I are happy to be back, although I return to face a mountain of work that has to get done before Thanksgiving. You may judge how eager I am to tackle the mountain by the length of this post. Let's see how well I can procrastinate.

Elaborating on my previous post's highlights:

1. Western Massachusetts and Connecticut. The Berkshires. Beautiful country, perfect little villages full of nice people. If there is a single home in the entire region that doesn't look like it belongs in a painting by Grandma Moses, Currier & Ives, or Norman Rockwell, we didn't see it. Ordinary houses well off the beaten path have all the clapboard, dormers, gables, cupolas, cornices, finials, and flying buttresses you could hope for (maybe not flying buttresses). Beautiful brick construction of the type we simply never see in northern California because ours all fell down in 1906. We're pretty sure everyone keeps their one-horse sleighs locked up in their garages until the first snow falls, because that was the only detail missing.

We met several locals who were almost apologetic about the state of their trees' leaves. Leaf tourism is a big deal, and we were alternately told that we'd missed the best colors by a few weeks, that we'd see better color a little farther north, or that the colors were bad everywhere this year. As we explained to a few folks: we're from California. Our standards for fall leaf color are pretty low. However, I don't see anything wrong with vistas like these:

2. Opening of the LitGraphic Exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum. What a beautiful facility. I only realized as we drove to it that the reception was scheduled to begin after sunset, and it was pitch dark by the time we arrived at 5:45 p.m. So of the building exteriors and surrounding landscape, I can only say that the photos I've seen look very nice.

The interior, I can report first-hand, is terrific. Galleries are arrayed around a small central rotunda featuring Rockwell's "Four Freedoms" paintings. Many of Rockwell's huge, stunning originals are on display, in some cases accompanied by the sketches or studies he used in their creation. It's not an enormous place; I'd call it appropriately intimate, in an architectural style that seems to reflect a Rockwell aesthetic without calling attention to itself at the expense of the artwork.

The LitGraphic exhibit occupies three galleries in the back, with one dedicated to "historical" work by artists such as Eisner and Kurtzman, and the other two to more contemporary pieces. A tiny side gallery--almost a corridor--has benches facing two TV monitors that looped five-minute interviews with six of the exhibit's contributors, including me.

Me and my wall.
Watching myself on TV.
Because I'm just that vain.

It's hard to estimate how many people attended the opening reception. More than 100 for sure. Several were museum patrons and members, though the museum staff told me there were many new faces they didn't recognize--presumably people just drawn by the subject matter--and they were thrilled with the turnout. The first person we recognized shortly after we arrived was curator Martin Mahoney, who came to my home to interview me. I also reconnected with Jeremy Clowe, who ran the camera and did a fantastic job editing all the interviews into a great presentation. He worked very hard to find five minutes that did not make me look stupid. We also enjoyed meeting their friends and loved ones as well.

3. Meeting Artists. Dave Sim, Peter Kuper, Howard Cruse, Marc Hempel, and Mark Wheatley all had work in the exhibit and attended the opening. I spent a few minutes and had good conversations with each, during which we said nice things about each other. Dave was great, and Peter and I turned out to have a mutual friend in Editor Charlie (not as big a coincidence as it may seem; Charlie knows everybody). Even artists much cooler, better, and more experienced than I admitted that showing their work in the Norman Rockwell Museum was something of a career highlight, which made me feel a bit less like a freshman at the senior prom.

With "Cerebus" creator Dave Sim.

4. Terry and Robyn Moore. I mention Terry Moore of "Strangers in Paradise" separately because we had a little more time to talk and, maybe, connected in a less superficial way than usual at an event like this. We really had a good visit about writing, the creative process, family, all sorts of stuff. As I wrote in my last post, Terry and Robyn seem like especially nice people I look forward to seeing again whenever I can.

Terry (center) and I chatting with a museum patron who was very proud of the comic-themed tie he'd worn for the occasion.

Dinner following the reception was held at the palatial (literally) Cranwell Resort in nearby Lenox, where I got to know more of the museum's staff, curators and administrators. I was impressed by how excited they seemed to be about hosting the exhibit. They talked about the emergence of a new narrative form and the continuum of telling stories with pictures that linked Norman Rockwell to us. Good food and better company. It was after 11 when we finally parted.

5. Guy Gilchrist. Guy began his professional cartooning career at age 14. Mentored by "Beetle Bailey" creator Mort Walker and often working with his brother Brad, he's had an impressive career that's included "The Muppets" and "Nancy" comic strips as well as many books and commercial art projects. Now he works out of Guy Gilchrist's Cartoonist's Academy in Simsbury, Connecticut, which serves as his studio, a school, and a summer day camp for kids.

The first impression any fan of comics and cartoons would have when entering Guy's academy is jaw-dropping wonder. The walls are covered with original art, some by Guy but most by other great pros: Milt Caniff, Stan Drake, Curt Swan, Cliff Sterrett, Jack Davis, too many others to count or recount. As I told Guy, I think young cartoonists can learn more from looking at original artwork for 10 minutes than they can from a shelf full of books, so he's done them a tremendous service right there. The academy is also outfitted with desks, art supplies, light boxes, and computers for the students to make their own comics and flash animations. It's quite an undertaking.

Guy very graciously treated us to lunch and spent about two hours of his day off with us. He's known a lot of the old-guard East Coast cartooning elite and is quite a raconteur. He's also very generous. I won't embarrass Guy (or me) by revealing how generous; let's just say I'm pretty sure if I'd expressed admiration for his microwave oven, he would have unplugged it from the wall and carried it to my car. All in all, it was one of the nicest, most interesting, insightful and engaging conversation I can recall having with any cartoonist. Thanks, Guy.

Talking cartooning over the foosball table. Guy's students do animation at these computers, hence the cels on the wall for them to study.

6. Historic Boston. Not much to add here, except that we spent a day walking the "Freedom Trail" and seeing all the highlights. A couple of hours were spent in the company of this delightful man, who led a group tour and enhanced our understanding and enjoyment enormously.

My wife Karen and I flanking Revolutionary-era hat maker Nathaniel Balch.

We spent some time exploring the Common, the Public Garden and Beacon Hill, and Boston seems like a perfectly fine city that well deserves it reputation for nighmarish traffic. Now, I expected that in the heart of the city, laid out 250 years before the invention of the auto. Jumbled narrow streets are part of the charm. My real puzzlement and frustration was with the modern stuff, which was a lot more baffling than it ought to be. Tunnels you can't get to, streets with five names within four blocks, interstates to nowhere. And the Massachusetts Turnpike: seriously, what the hell? I'm familiar with the concept of toll roads, but this thing's got booths that take cash, booths that dispense little tickets with teeny Excel spreadsheets printed all over 'em, booths at every exit manned by three guys who collect $1.10 from the six cars per hour that wander through. We went through one booth whose entire purpose seemed to be circling us around to a different booth. To misappropriate an old saying, this is no way to run a railroad.

However, it's a poor guest who leaves badmouthing his host, so I'll wrap up by saying we had a wonderful time in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and only regret we didn't have a chance to see everyone we wanted to. Also, I have never seen so many Dunkin' Donuts franchises in my life.

UPDATE: At the request of exactly one person, I've linked the first four photos above to higher-resolution version of the same. OK, Sherwood?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Mini-Memo from Boston

Weather Report: Chilly but clear, perfect for our Nor'east trip so far.

Highlight #1: Western Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Highlight #2: My work on a wall at the Norman Rockwell Museum. Holy cow.

Highlight #3: Dave Sim, Peter Kuper, Howard Cruse, Marc Hempel, Mark Wheatley.

Highlight #4: Especially Terry Moore ("Strangers in Paradise") and his wife Robyn. Nice, nice, nice people. I feel like I made new friends for life.

Highlight #5: Two hours with cartoonist Guy Gilchrist, a kind, generous, and entertaining gentleman. And he bought the pizza.

Highlight #6: Historic Boston. Never been here before, and I love going someplace and having my perspective rearranged. The places in the history books are real, many within a short walk of each other. Cool.

Pictures and more maybe late Wednesday.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Quick Reminder...

...about two worthy causes this weekend that I'm sure would appreciate your physical, financial, or moral support.

On Saturday in Tonawanda, New York, a 5K run and after-party will benefit Lindsay's Legacy, with funds going to the Rhabdomyosarcoma Research Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and to Carly's Club, Roswell Park Cancer Institute's pediatric fundraising division.

Sunday in Los Angeles is the National Lung Cancer Partnership's "Free to Breathe" walk-run. My thanks to my friends and readers who already donated to Nurse Sis's fundraising team, "Mom's Heroes." It's much appreciated. 5K and 8K runs will begin at 8:30 a.m., followed by 1.4-mile and 5K walks at 8:35 a.m. Same-day registration opens at 7 a.m. The event happens at Lake Balboa Park in scenic Encino, where Interstate 101 hits 405.

I imagine that there are dozens of similar events happening in communities near you that would love to have your help, support and participation as well. Look for them!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Meet Momo

This great statue of the Michael Ende character Momo arrived yesterday, my award for winning the German Youth Literature Prize for nonfiction, about which I blogged back on October 12 and 17. It really is a beautiful piece of work, depicting Momo standing on a round clock face with a tortoise named Cassiopeia at her feet and a "time lily" in her hands. I admit I haven't read the book--although very popular in Europe, it apparently only had a small U.S. printing 20 years ago--but I think I'll have to seek it out. Again, my genuine appreciation to everyone involved for the honor.

The sculpture is heavy bronze, with "Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis" inscribed on the front of the base and "2007" on the back. It's hard to get a sense of how truly impressive Momo is by herself, so I took a photo of her with ordinary, everyday objects found around my household to provide a sense of scale:

Please forgive me. I needed the picture anyway and couldn't resist.

Monday, November 05, 2007

LitGraphic at the Norman Rockwell Museum

Lions released from a zoo in war-torn Baghdad; a mother's battle with lung cancer; an American expatriate searching for her identity in Mexico--serious subject matter for any medium, but particularly so for a new wave of critically acclaimed and commercially successful long form comic books. In these illustrated stories, called graphic novels (a mostly grown-up version of the comic book), themes explored include culture, society, and current events, and topics range from heart-wrenching to thought-provoking to risqué....

Next weekend my wife and I will be taking our first trip to Massachusetts for the opening of the "LitGraphic" exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. The show opens November 10 and runs until May 26, 2008, and has nine pages of original art from Mom's Cancer among other work by Jessica Abel, R. Crumb, Howard Cruse, Steve Ditko, Will Eisner, Milt Gross, Peter Kuper, Harvey Kurtzman, Frank Miller, Terry Moore, Dave Sim, Art Spiegelman, and many more.

These Rockwell folks are the same ones who flew a camera crew across the country to interview me and sent an 18-wheeler to my house to pick up nine sheets of paper, and they impress me as a first-class organization all the way. I'm also impressed by the many activities the museum is planning in conjunction with the exhibit throughout its run: children's programs, workshops, artists' visits, symposia for educators. They're not just hanging drawings on the walls, they're doing something with them. Cool.

Of course I'm thrilled and honored to have my work in the exhibit. Also puzzled, but I'll try to act like I belong there. When we were exchanging paperwork, the curator mentioned that there's a decent chance this exhibit will travel to other museums after it closes next May. If so, it could be years before I get my pictures back. That's all right. I'll just be jealous if they end up better-traveled than me.

My wife and I are making a little vacation out of the trip, spending a couple of days in Boston afterward. As you might imagine, we're watching the weather pretty closely; hope Hurricane Hugo is long gone and all the electricity's back on by them. We're also getting more invitations from friends in the Northeast than we can possibly accept. I hope there are no hard feelings when we can't see everyone. It's very nice to be asked, thanks.

Pictures and stories will follow I'm sure.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

I Can'nae Change the Laws of Physics, Cap'n!

That's my oven. It's a 20-year-old Whirlpool with the oven underneath, a microwave on top, and controls for both at the upper right. Yesterday, the control panel went dark. Dead. Joined the choir invisible. Same for the microwave. The oven still worked, although if we wanted to do something fancy like set a delayed cooking time--not that we ever have before--we were out of luck. We couldn't live like that ... like animals. Something had to be done.

It is understood that repairing a broken microwave costs more than replacing it. This wasn't just the microwave, though; it was the whole control panel, too, and they're both integrated with the oven. Either we would have to call in a sure-to-be-exorbitantly priced repairperson or replace the whole darn thing, and what are the odds we'd ever find anything that'd fit into our 20-year-old cabinet hole? Neither option was appealing.

This morning I figured I'd take a peek at its guts. Just in case there happened to be a huge, clearly labeled switch inside that had somehow flipped from "Work" to "Don't Work," because if it were more complicated than that I was pretty sure I was out of luck. I turned off the circuit breaker, unscrewed the control panel at upper right...
"What should I tell the paramedics?" asked my wife.
"Probably 220 volts," answered I.
And there, sitting fat and pretty under a tangle of wires with a big blinking neon arrow pointing at it saying "Look Here!" was a 20-amp fuse. Gingerly reaching in (yeah, I know what a capacitor looks like), I pulled the fuse and checked it with my multimeter. Resistance = infinity; that's a hopeful sign (a good fuse would have had a resistance near zero). Called the hardware store half a mile away, went and picked up a new fuse for $3.75, and popped it in. Asking my wife to watch the oven and scream in panic if she saw sparks or flames, I flipped the circuit breaker and.....

It worked.

I think I now understand how a soldier feels dragging a wounded buddy to safety under fire. How a surgeon feels pulling a patient back from death's icy grip. But mostly, I now know what it feels like to be this guy:


Friday, November 02, 2007

Congrats to Kid Sis; Curses upon Bill Gates

Hey, there's a writer in the family! My sister Elisabeth ("Kid Sis") wrote a screenplay that just won first prize in the 2007 Screenwriting Expo Screenplay Competition!

She won in the "Thriller" category for a movie script titled "Pistoleras," which I have read and she hopes to put into production soon--just as soon as she splices together another independent film she just finished shooting. The awards are sponsored by Creative Screenwriting magazine and I'm sure will draw the attention of investors and scouts looking for emerging talent. If anybody wants to back a feminist spaghetti Western set in a Mexican bordello, I can hook you up.

Gosh, if I hadn't let her read my comics and taken her to see "Star Wars" 30 years ago, who knows where she'd be today? That's right, I'm taking the credit.

We're proud of you, kid.

The Gates of Hell
Bill Gates and I are going to have a long talk someday. Sometime yesterday morning, he sat in his Redmond lair stroking his long-haired cat and pushed a button that made two months of my e-mails disappear. It took me most of the afternoon to figure out where they'd gone and how to get them back where they belonged. Grrrrrr.

I don't wanna hear from you smug Mac or Linux cultists. I've used Macs in professional settings and found them just as temperamental and prone to bog down or crash in the middle of The Big Job as PCs. My experience has not convinced me of their superiority. I don't have the time or interest to tackle Linux. When my computer is acting up, I can usually figure out the problem and I like being able to tinker under the hood. The downside of that: sometimes you have to tinker under the hood. Still, I'm considering making my next box a Mac just because I don't want to have anything to do with Vista. Everything Microsoft has done in the past decade seems based on the assumption that they know how I want to use my computer better than I do, and Vista looks like the worst yet.

Bill Gates owes me an afternoon.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Ridiculous, Meet Sublime

1. This site features a detailed model of Uncle Scrooge's money bin built by 15-year-old Norwegian fan Mats Gullikstad. Based on blueprints sketched by cartoonist Don Rosa and architect Dan Shane for the back of an Uncle Scrooge comic book, the model features hundreds (thousands?) of individually cut coins, a removable wall that reveals 12 stories of office space, 250 individually built desks and chairs, tiny props that appeared in decades of Scrooge adventures, and--of course--a giant swimming pool of money.

2. This site features a super-high-resolution image of Leonardo daVinci's "Last Supper." And I mean super-high-resolution. Zooming in on the 16 billion-pixel image just 20% or 30% reveals the crumbling texture of the wall and its precarious hold on Leonardo's pigments. Zoom in all the way and I'm pretty sure you can see electron orbitals. The site also offers terrific background information about Leonardo's life and analysis of the painting's details and significance. I didn't care for the music, but you can turn that off. It also understandably takes each image a little time to load whenever you zoom, but it's worth the wait. I hope this project is the model for many more like it.

Feel free to conclude what you will from the fact that I think these two topics somehow belong together.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Three Shades

I don't do many "How To" posts about cartooning. I don't feel particularly well qualified--there are 3.74 million people doing this stuff better than me and I think of my own work as just adequate. I write and draw well enough to tell any story I can think up. I try to improve. I also think as fewer and fewer creators show interest in story or craft and readers' standards slip, my work will gradually look better and better.
(That last is a joke, but in fact I think few people making a living cartooning today--some very celebrated and successful--could have gotten a job in the 1950s. There are some legitimate reasons for that: styles and tastes change, and modern readers value a quirky authorial voice. That's great. Still, I can't think of more than a dozen contemporary cartoonists who would've been fit to clean brushes for Walt Kelly, Milt Caniff, Will Eisner or Stan Drake. Including me. Those artists knew so much we don't even know we don't know.)
However, I drew some stuff in the past few days that I thought turned out all right and might make a nice "How To" post. I noticed I'd used three different techniques to show the boundary between light and dark on a shaded object, and thought I could write about the techniques and the thinking behind them.

This is pretty simple but also exacting and a bit tedious. I'd use it to shade a smooth but not necessarily shiny object in bright light; it also makes a fine "Ka-Pow!" effect. Using a crow-quill nib, I start each line at the narrow pointy end nearest the light source and pull the pen toward me, pressing down gradually to make the line thicker as it goes.

You can do this very precisely using a straight edge to make sure the lines are straight and all converge to a single point. In this case I wanted to suggest a less even surface so I did it freehand. I wanted them wiggly and uneven.

The next surface is illuminated by a single bright light source that casts deep shadows. In this case, it's a cavern wall.

I do about 80% of my cartooning with a brush, this included. The technique is almost the same as above: starting at the pointy end of each shadowy spike, I pull the brush toward me (toward the top in this picture) and apply more pressure to widen it as I go.

You can pull the brush at the same angle for every point or, as I did here, change the angles to suggest and enhance the curve of the surface. Each gives you a different look.

The surface below is a hard, dark, and metallic. The points showing the transition from light to shadow are short because the edge is sharp.

I could very well have just drawn a straight line instead, but wanted to suggest a rough texture, like iron. I used the same brush here, and again started with the tip at the pointy end of each spike. But instead of pulling the brush backward, I swept it sideways to make a thicker sawtooth line.

I only notice now that I haven't done any cross-hatching lately. I can cross hatch; I guess I'm just going for a cleaner, slicker look than that. In general, when I find myself wondering if I should cross hatch an area, I decide I'm better off just making it black instead. I think spotting blacks is a dying art--notice how few areas of solid black there are in a typical page of contemporary comic strips or comic book panels--and I try to exercise it when I can. It really helps a picture jump off the paper.

None of this decisionmaking is really conscious. I don't spend a lot of time mulling it over (maybe that's one of my problems...). I do think about what and where the object is, and my pen or brush seems to know how to do the rest. I trust my tools.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Oddly Ends

Oddly Normal creator Otis Frampton had posted some thoughts in response to my October 22 post in his own blog. While I touched on the idea that too few "mature" comics actually aspire to provide mature characters, plots and themes, Otis comes at it from the other direction: too few comics that should be for kids actually are.

Good point. While some sigh in frustration that comics aren't taken seriously as adult literature, it's worth remembering that they're still a terrific medium for juvenile literature--and there's no shame in that. As I replied to Otis, creating quality juvenile literature is hard and important, and I have great respect for people who do it with integrity and responsibility. Comics are big enough to embrace both--or should be.

Can't Think of a Good Segue to....
Family, friends, and regular readers know of my fondness for "Star Trek." Less frequently mentioned is my affection for Monty Python. I hope I'm forgiven, then, for finding the clip below irresistible. Thanks to my friend, cartoonist Mike Lynch, for the lead.

Sorry. I feel happy....

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Walking & Running vs. Cancer

There are two cancer-fighting events coming up that, if you're disposed to support such things, could use your participation or contribution.

The first I wrote about in August: an organization called the National Lung Cancer Partnership is holding four "Free to Breathe" walk-runs across the country this fall. This is their first year and it'd be great if it were successful enough to do a second one. Their first walk-run happened in September in Connecticut; future events are November 3 in Raleigh, N.C., November 4 in Philadelphia, and November 11 in Los Angeles. My sister Brenda ("Nurse Sis") is helping organize the L.A. event. Sign-up information is available at the link above. Brenda has also set up her own fundraising team called "Mom's Heroes." That's the link I'd click if I were you.

The National Lung Cancer Partnership is a non-profit lung cancer advocacy organization founded by physicians and researchers to increase understanding of how the disease affects women and men differently. Its mission is to decrease lung cancer deaths and help patients live longer and healthier lives through research, awareness and advocacy. Although I avoid endorsing anything, I can vouch for this group. They helped me help Mom.

The second event is a 5K run for Lindsay's Legacy in beautiful Tonawanda, New York on November 10. Lindsay MacIver died from alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma at the age of 21, and this run memorializes her life and struggle by raising money for childhood cancer research. Funds raised will be donated to the Rhabdomyosarcoma Research Laboratory of Dr. Frederic Barr at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and to Carly's Club, Roswell Park Cancer Institute's pediatric fundraising division. And there's a party afterward!

I learned of this effort through Lindsay's stepfather, Frank Mariani, a cartoonist, designer and illustrator I met through an online cartooning forum. This is the third year for Lindsay's Legacy, and I'm proud to vouch for Frank as well.

Through the generosity of Editor Charlie and my publisher, Harry N. Abrams, I was able to donate signed copies of Mom's Cancer to both events for them to use as their organizers see fit. These are all good people doing good work. I wish them perfect weather and great success.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Eddie Campbell + A Bonus Tirade

I broke a rule. Turns out it's more of a "guideline" than an actual "rule," but I wanted to explain myself anyway.
In a few long-ago posts I wrote about my tiny collection of original cartoon art. Knowing that I could easily get carried away and bankrupt my family, I established my rule: I would only acquire art from friends or artists with whom I'd developed a relationship. We don't have to be buddies forever; just a couple of e-mails or a nice 10-minute conversation will do. The point is that when possible I'd get pieces directly from the artists themselves and have an emotional connection to the work that conjured a good story or nice memory. Right now I've got Irwin Hasen, Raina Telgemeier, Otis Frampton, Ted Slampyak, Charles Schulz (acquired way before I made up the rule but still a nice story) and Winsor McCay (also pre-rule--but I would have broken it for him anyway).
And now I've got Eddie Campbell. Here's the original Page 80 from Mr. Campbell's recent book, The Black Diamond Detective Agency.

Original p. 80, Black Diamond Detective
by Eddie Campbell. Captions and word
balloons were added in production.

I broke my rule for Mr. Campbell. Never met him, never corresponded with him. I saw him at ComicCon last July and almost approached his table, but he looked too busy and I never got back to him.

Eddie Campbell is probably best known for drawing From Hell, a retelling of the Jack the Ripper story written by Alan Moore. He's the creator of a long-running series titled Bacchus about the Greek gods living in modern times; a few semi-autobiographical works including The Fate of the Artist, which I thought was terrific; and The Black Diamond Detective Agency, based on an unproduced screenplay about a deadly train explosion in 1899 Missouri and a Hitchcock-esque man-on-the-run framed for it.

On paper, I'm not a particularly devout fan--haven't seen much Bacchus and didn't actually care for From Hell, which I found unengaging and lurid in a Bret Easton Ellis sort of way (I concede that if any subject cries out for carving up some women for fun, it's Jack the Ripper). However, Mr. Campbell's contributions are, I think, always excellent. Both his writing and artwork are interesting, witty, well-researched, and thoughtful. His confident, relaxed impressionistic style is built on a rock-solid foundation of craft. He's comfortable with ink, paint, collage, multi-media, typography: whatever he needs to get the effect he wants, he's not afraid to put it on the paper. He knows which rules to follow and break, and why. Everytime I read his work, I come away inspired to try two or three things I'd never thought of. In addition, I always get an absolute sense of integrity from his work.

Reading his blog for a while, I've also gotten a sense for Mr. Campbell as a person and I like the cut of his jib. He seems to be one of a small number of grown-ups working in the comics/cartooning/picture book/graphic novel business, and now I need to go on a little rant to explain what I mean by that.

Here's the Tirade
Comics are in an interesting, tricky place right now. First, there's the problem that much of the general public thinks comics are for kids. Some creators are striving mightily to have their comics taken seriously as literature, while others deliberately wallow in their low-class outsider status and confirm every slander against the entire medium. Others just don't care. Every few months for the past couple of decades, some reporter does a story with the headline "Pow! Bam! Comics Aren't Just for Kids Anymore!" Some of them have been about me. Every comics convention has at least one panel discussion on the topic of when comics will finally enter the mainstream. I've been on some of them.

As comics have been taken more seriously, they've drawn critics, students, analysts, theorists, and cranks. Much of their discourse happens on the Internet, though it occasionally spills over to print. There are people dedicated to making rules, defining terms, arguing what is or isn't a comic, deciding who's in or out of the club. Is it a comic strip, a comic book, an illustrated book, or a graphic novel? There are people who question whether "Prince Valiant" is a comic because it doesn't use word balloons or whether "Family Circus" is a comic because it doesn't show the passage of time via sequential panels. (Answer: they're comics. If your definition of comics excludes them the problem is yours, not theirs.) Webcomics spice the debate with arguments about what is or isn't a digital comic.

There are people who confidently declare that there are only eight kinds of this or four ways to do that, and whenever I hear that I immediately think of three other kinds of this and two different ways to do that, and then I realize what a waste of time it is. It all reminds me of a Victorian gentleman's butterfly collection in which the point isn't to appreciate butterflies or advance science, but to pin the right label on every specimen so it ends up in the proper cabinet drawer. That's the sport of it: getting the taxonomy right. And the way some of these guys talk, if they don't have a drawer for your butterfly, it might as well be a lemur.

In response to such as that, Mr. Campbell once assembled a tongue-in-cheek "Graphic Novel Manifesto." All 10 points can be read at the end of Mr. Campbell's Wikipedia entry; I'll just provide the first and last:

1. "Graphic novel" is a disagreeable term, but we will use it anyway on the understanding that graphic does not mean anything to do with graphics and that novel does not mean anything to do with novels.

10. The graphic novelist reserves the right to deny any or all of the above if it means a quick sale.

Yes! If I could be so bold as to sum up Mr. Campbell's perspective in one sentence, I'd say it's "Just shut up and make the things as best you can!" Don't worry about fitting into someone else's definitions or rules. Don't fret over whether its Number 6 or Number 7 on somebody's list of the only 12 things it could possibly be. It doesn't matter if it's a cartoon or comic or graphic novel. Like the shoe commercial said, Just Do It. If it's good, people will find it. None of them will care what it's called.

This was brought home to me in a small way at the San Diego Comic-Con last July, when I had dinner with Jeff Kinney, author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. We were on our way to watch me lose two Eisner Awards and had a short chat about whether Jeff's book would be eligible for Eisner consideration next year. It looks like a comic--it's got little cartoon drawings with words coming out of characters' mouths--but, on the other hand, most of the book is typeset text (in a font made from Jeff's hand printing), so maybe it's more of an illustrated book or novel with pictures. As we were having this discussion, I realized two things: first, it was a ridiculous conversation that had absolutely no impact on what the book actually was and who would buy and read it; second, this was almost the only context in which that conversation had any merit whatsoever. The only people who should ever care are award administrators who need to decide which trophy to give you and bookstore clerks who need to figure out which shelf to put you on. It's otherwise useless, irrelevant, and probably counter-productive.

Anyway, in the weeks to come, we did figure out what to call Jeff's book: "Bestseller." Now with 26 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List for Children's Chapter Books, including a stint at Number 1.

I've never liked the term "graphic novel," though I accept its practical utility. When I was making Mom's Cancer, I thought of it as a serial comic strip. In light of the rant above, then, I've been especially delighted that it's gotten some recognition from the American Library Association, the German Jugendliteraturpreis, and others as a work of youth literature. I didn't know I wrote a kids' book. Never intended it, my publisher never positioned it as such. It not only broke out of the graphic novel drawer others put it in, but the drawer I put it in. I think that's just wonderful.

Here are some questions I ask when reading anything--even a graphic novel. Does it reward my time and attention? Does it introduce ideas I've never had before? Is it skillfully made? On its own terms, does it accomplish its goals? Is it worth the $2, $12.95, or $200 I paid for it? Is it good?

Some people in comics/cartooning are doing excellent, ambitious, high-quality work. But far too often, based on what I see (which is far from the whole industry), a lot of creators demand literary respect but do little to earn it. They want to sit at the adult table but don't know how to use a knife and spoon. They have no idea what makes great literature great or why theirs falls short. They're their own worst enemies. Not all, but some. Many. Maybe most.

(What's funny is to read someone's high-minded academic defense of their comic as art and literature just as good as anything ever done by Hemingway or Joyce, and then go look at it and find an artless scrawl about a video-gaming slacker with a time machine and wise-cracking dinosaur. You're not part of the solution, dude, you're part of the problem.)

That's what I mean when I say Eddie Campbell is a grown-up. He not only knows how to use a knife and spoon but also a finger bowl and the funny little fish fork (metaphorically; I have no idea what his actual table manners are like). He's cranky. He's sat on too many panels dedicated to dissecting what graphic novels are and when they'll be respected as real books, and he's tired of it. Instead of endlessly debating, he works. He makes books with words and pictures that reward the reader's time and attention, introduce new ideas, accomplish their goals, and are worth the money people pay for them. Even more than his work, I appreciate and respect his attitude toward his work. It's worth breaking a rule--or bending a guideline--to have it in my home. It makes me happy.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

More Jugendliteraturpreis

I got a great note yesterday from Wolfgang Fuchs, the German translator of Mom's Cancer, following our win of the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis. Although I couldn't attend the awards ceremony in Frankfurt, a publicist for my German publisher Knesebeck e-mailed to tell me that Herr Fuchs accepted on our behalf with thoughtful and touching remarks in which he spoke of working on my book at the same time his wife was diagnosed with cancer. She's reportedly fine now, and I couldn't imagine a better acceptance speech. I thought Wolfgang's e-mail was very interesting and, with his permission, I've excerpted it below:

Heartfelt congratulations for your winning the Jugendliteraturpreis 2007 in the non-fiction section with "Mom's Cancer". It was the first time ever in the Award's 50 years history that a comic book won this award. And thus it has become proof positive of my conviction--stated in a number of publications, lectures and articles--that comics are not a medium that can be used for entertainment purposes only.

(Wolfgang and I are in strong agreement on that.)

I found the book straightforward and yet also highly emotional--which sometimes interrupted my work on the translation because it was so easy to identify with the characters and to be swept away by emotion. But--discounting for a moment the award the book brought--it was well worth it that you wrote and drew this book. And I am glad I could help in bringing it closer to German audiences.

(As am I. Wolfgang then provided me with a more natural translation of the award citation I ran through BabelFish's delightful online translator in my previous post:)

In the award-winning book "Mother's Cancer", translated by Wolfgang J. Fuchs in stylistic perfection, Brian Fies documents, diary-like, the problems in coping with his mother's getting cancer: This results in a moving non-fiction comic book which appropriately uses the medium for a sensitive treatment of the topic in an up-to-date format.

(And an explanation of "nut/mother":)

Incidentally, the translation of Mutter as "nut/mother" just shows an ambiguity of langauge that is also present in English. While nut means edible nut, crazy person, and the nut you screw on a bolt, in German "Mutter" in addition to meaning mother also is the word used to described the nut you screw on a bolt....

Wolfgang also described the Jugendliteraturpreis "trophy" to me, a 15-pound bronze statue of author Michael Ende's character Momo. A moment's googling turned up the picture below of a Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis from 2005 that fits his description. What a fine work of art and honor to receive! Many thanks again to Wolfgang for his work and his gracious note.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis

If I read German press releases correctly, the German edition of Mom's Cancer, titled Mutter Hat Krebs, has just won the 2007 Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis (German Youth Literature Prize) in the non-fiction ("Sachbuch") category.

The prizes, which are the most prestigious awards given for children's and young adult literature in Germany, were announced today at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest literary trade convocation in the world. It draws publishers looking to celebrate books, acquire properties and make deals in nearly every country and language on Earth. This is a big deal!
Quoting from the press release: In dem prämierten Sachbuch Mutter hat Krebs, das von Wolfgang J. Fuchs stilsicher übersetzt wurde, dokumentiert Brian Fies tagebuchartig die Auseinandersetzung mit der Krebserkrankung seiner Mutter: "Entstanden ist ein bewegender Sachcomic, der das Medium angemessen nutzt, und eine sensible Bearbeitung des Themas im zeitgemäßen Format darstellt."
Running that through the reliably hilarous AltaVista Babel Fish translator: In the praemierten special book Nut/Mother has Cancer, which was translated by Wolfgang J. Fuchs, documents Brian Fies diary-like the argument with the cancer illness of its nut/mother: "developed a moving Sachcomic, which uses the medium appropriately, and a sensitive treatment of the topic in the format up-to-date represents."
I especially like the translation of "Nut/Mother." Mom would have found that apt.
I was invited to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair and momentarily considered it, but the time/distance/cost equation was too hard to solve. I honestly thought my odds of winning were very low. Sadly, this continues my woeful pattern of only winning awards I don't show up for. I hate looking ungrateful. Now I'm thinking a fall vacation to Germany might have been very, very nice....

What an honor! This is another one of those moments when I really can't believe how far my story about Mom and my family has come. My thanks to my German publisher Knesebeck and Herr Fuchs, who must have done a bang-up job of translating. I suspect he even improved me in spots. I'm also very grateful to everyone at Abrams Books and my editor Charlie Kochman, who made it all happen.
More later, probably.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

S.F. 49ers 7, Baltimore Ravens 9

A portrait of failure:

I yelled "De-fense!" as loud as I could but it wasn't good enough. I'm sorry I let my team down.

Saturday, October 06, 2007


Although I sometimes remember and enjoy my dreams, they're generally worthless to me as a source of inspiration. They're too random and unstructured. The rules of causality don't apply. I've never awoken from a dream with a flash of inspiration, jotted a note on the pad beside my bed, and had it be good, useful, or even very interesting in the light of day.

I always figured that was because the dreaming brain makes it up as it goes along. I assumed that, like a three-year-old telling a story of unrelated events linked by "and then ... and then ... and then ...," dreams aren't created with any particular structure, narrative, or destination in mind. It's as if that process demands some higher-brain storytelling function that just isn't engaged while asleep.

That's what I thought until last night, when I had a dream that was a brilliant short story with a beginning, middle, and a boffo surprise ending with an O. Henry twist that tied all the previous events together. I don't remember all the details but, when the dream climaxed with my car getting towed away, it was just the perfect ironic, inevitable culmination of that story. Perfect.

Now the question is: was this story really such a nifty little gem of narrative genius, or did I just dream that it was? I'll never know. In any case, it made me rethink some of my assumptions about dreaming.

By the way, I have had lucid dreams before. That's a dream in which you realize you're dreaming, and you're suddenly a god with a universe at your command. You can fly, breathe underwater, soar into space, all the while thinking, "This is just a dream, might as well enjoy it." Your own private Star Trek holodeck.

Physicist Richard Feynman wrote in his autobiography of disciplining his mind so he could dream lucidly at will. Every night he went to sleep knowing he'd be the hero in his own romantic fantasy adventures, and he said it was terrific fun for a while. Eventually, though, it began to wear on him, leaving him feeling tired, irritable, out of sorts. He finally realized his mind required the down time he was denying it, and stopped. The brain needs what it needs.

Although I've seldom found dreams useful, I do get my best creative work done first thing in the morning, still lying in bed about three-fourths awake. Cartoonist Lynn Johnston and others have written the same thing. I think the mind can still access the undisciplined freedom of dreams and yet is awake enough to guide it in productive directions. I'll often lie there semi-dozing and finally sit up to write down three or four ideas that are actually good. I've gotten adept at using that state of mind well. In some ways, it's the most productive part of my day.

At least that's what I tell my wife.

Friday, October 05, 2007

What My Harvey Award Looks Like

Pretty cool, huh?
UPDATE: At my friend Sherwood's request, clicking on the photo links to a larger version of the same. It's even cooler.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

An Illustrated History

I have better regular readers than I deserve. I've not been particularly blog inspired and have been otherwise busy for several days, and appreciate the loyalty of all six of you.

When I was a teenager trying to figure out how these things called "comics" were made, my local public library was a lode of meager treasure. The "treasure" was big, beautiful books about cartoons, comic books and comic strips, some written by or including information straight from the creators themselves. It was a meager trove because the library only had about five of them. I knew exactly where they were, had a favorite chair by a window next to their shelf, and spent hours reading and re-reading the same five books. I mourned when one was checked out and mourned more as, one by one, they were pulled from circulation over the years.

Of course those were the pre-Internet Dark Ages. Now we have the miracle/curse of eBay, which is where I stumbled across one of those jewels from my youth and bought it for less than its 1974 cover price of $15. It's The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art by Jerry Robinson, and I'm pleased to say it still holds up. It offers a terrific overview and sampling of newspaper comics from 1896 to the then-present. It's probably where I first saw Winsor McCay's "Little Nemo" and Herriman's "Krazy Kat." Best of all, it contains full-page essays by Milton Caniff, Lee Falk, Charles Schulz, Mort Walker, Chic Young, Hal Foster, Walt Kelly, and others that I remember absorbing through my pores as a kid.
Do kids ever actually spend afternoons hanging out at the library anymore? (Maybe they never did; maybe it was just me. Little freak....)

I met Jerry Robinson at Comic-Con in 2006 and wish I'd remembered to mention this book to him instead of whatever lame hero worship I managed to stammer out. He's had a heck of a career, from his very early contributions to Batman (creating or co-creating Robin and the Joker) to editorial cartoons to syndicated comics to, obviously, comics historian. Maybe someday I'll get another chance to thank him. This book was important to me and I'm thrilled to be reunited with it.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Rachel's Dad's Cancer

Last November, a Georgetown University master's candidate named Rachel Plotnick wrote to tell me that her father had recently died of lung cancer and she was working on a thesis on the topic of comics and cancer. She asked me some questions and we exchanged correspondence that amounted to a mini-interview. The results of her work are now available at Gnovis, Georgetown's online journal of communication, culture and technology. It was also posted in two parts on YouTube, to which I've linked below.

(By the way, Rachel explained to me that the YouTube images are grainier than she'd like and she had to swap out the music she really wanted to use to avoid copyright concerns. She promised to send me a "good" version; however, I think this one is fine, and also the only one I can link to, so....)

There are two things going on in this video, which runs about 17 minutes total. At the beginning and end, Rachel takes a scholarly look at how and why people tell stories like Mom's Cancer, and why comics is an apt medium with which to do it. She writes about the role of families as stewards of memory and tradition, and the responsibility within families to tell our unique stories and pass them down. At the end, she writes about the power of cartoons as icons that allow readers to project their own lives into, and more closely identify with, the story they're reading. I certainly think that's true.

The heart of the video shows Rachel applying her academic insights to her story of "Dad's Cancer." I wouldn't be writing about if I didn't think she did an extraordinary job. Purely from a creative standpoint, it's interesting for me to see how Rachel approached and solved some of the same questions and problems I faced. As I mentioned to her, I'm envious of the tools of motion and sound she has at her disposal that I didn't, and I think she puts them to good use. It's nice work, and Rachel was very gracious to acknowledge my work as part of it.

It won't be to everyone's taste--nothing is--but if you appreciated Mom's Cancer and have 17 minutes to spare, I think you'll appreciate "Dad's Cancer" as well.