Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Italian Job

Deadlines. You know the drill.

Editor Charlie forwarded me the cover art for the Italian edition of Mom's Cancer, which is being published next month by Double Shot-Bottero Edizioni. Looks a lot like the English edition, which is fine with me--although I also don't mind when a foreign publisher changes things up to fit their perception of the audience, as the French did. I find that very interesting. I'm surprised the Italian editors didn't translate the title.

I guess some writers demand painstaking control over how their work is presented overseas. I certainly understand that need but don't necessarily share it. My publisher Abrams has my foreign rights (which, as I've explained before, I voluntarily and happily assigned to them) and our understanding is that the pictures and words of Mom's Cancer remain as unaltered as translation allows. As long as I get that, I'm pretty flexible about format, cover art, soft or hard cover, etc. Of course I want it to look its best, but I figure the foreign publisher's job is knowing what appeals to their market. Since selling books is in our mutual interest, I don't mind investing some faith in them.

I got a very nice note from the Italian editor about a week ago, telling me that they debuted my book at a big national book fair and got a lot of positive response. They seem enthusiastic about it, which feels great. As always, I'm a bit befuddled and bedazzled that people I don't know halfway round the world are reading my story in a language I don't speak. Don't know if I'll ever get over that. Hope not.


Thursday, May 17, 2007

I Feel the Earth Move Under My Feet

I live in Earthquake Country and we had a fine little one yesterday: a nice, sharp boom-shudder that sounded and felt like a fully loaded cement truck had run into our living room. Somewhere in the house, something I still haven't found fell off of something else and hit the floor. My wife and I looked at each other, our attention quite engaged, and flinched through that fraction of a second of waiting to see if it stopped or got worse. It stopped.

Our sport is guessing whether a temblor is small and nearby or large and distant. This was certainly the loudest one I can remember but it left nothing swaying, so I guessed it was a pip-squeak magnitude 2 directly underfoot. My wife was more impressed and guessed a magnitude 4 farther away. The U.S. Geological Survey has a nice website that within 10 minutes told us it was a magnitude 3 whose epicenter was four miles beneath a high school less than a mile from our house. We called that one a tie.

Magnitude 3 is nothing, a trifle. My personal best was of course the magnitude 7 Loma Prieta quake of 1989, which knocked a section out of the Oakland Bay Bridge and interrupted the Giants vs. A's World Series. I was working as a supervisor in an environmental chemistry lab at 5:04 p.m. on October 17 when the earth broke 110 miles away. I suddenly felt dizzy and thought it was just me until I saw everyone else reeling, too. Now, the official advice is to stay indoors and ride it out under a sturdy piece of furniture; in 1906, a lot of people were killed when they ran outdoors and got clocked by falling debris. All I know is that everyone in the lab simultaneously realized they did not want to be inside a concrete slab building filled with hazardous and flammable chemicals and gases if it decided to come down. I got behind my co-worker Ken, who is about 6-foot-7 and 250 pounds, and followed him out like a running back on the heels of a blocker. Out in the parking lot I saw the most amazing sight: asphalt rippling like waves on the ocean, with parked cars bobbing up and down like boats. It was, frankly, both deeply disturbing and really cool.

(I imagine my friend Sherwood, whose home I reckon was right on top of the Loma Prieta epicenter, has a much scarier story to tell, assuming he was in the area at the time.)

There's a kind of irrational, fatalistic insouciance that goes with living in Earthquake Country. I think you either get used to the idea that the world can shake itself to bits at any second or you move away. I have a friend who grew up near my neighborhood back when it was a plum orchard and remembers how the neat ranks of trees were split and offset by the faultline that ran through them. I always laugh when I tell people that, although it's not really funny. But the fact is that, although some locations are better than others--bedrock beats alluvial plain--almost nowhere on the West Coast is safe.

I don't believe in fate but I do trust probabilities and statistics. Big quakes happen on scales of decades to centuries, while major quakes (like 1906) happen on scales of centuries to millenia. Modern building codes give me some confidence that my wood-frame home will survive anything short of total disaster. We take the prescribed precautions. All in all, I'll be here a relatively short time (geologically speaking) and like my odds better than if I resided in Tornado or Hurricane Alley. For us, living here is worth the risk. Still, it's interesting to get a little kick in the pants once in a while. Makes you think.

My Little Earthquake, all over in
about half a second (courtesy USGS)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Nobody Tells Me Anything

A quick note to mention that Bill Reed at the Comic Book Resources blog "Comics Should Be Good!" named Mom's Cancer one of the "365 Reasons to Love Comics": specifically, Reason #133. It's a good write-up and I appreciate it. Bill made his selection on Mother's Day (last Sunday), which some might question but I think is entirely appropriate and touching. Nice comments, too. Thanks.

Recommended by the NY Public Library

Happily continuing the theme of much-appreciated recognition, I just learned that the New York Public Library recommended Mom's Cancer as one of its 2007 "Books for the Teen Age" earlier this month. The library's 78th (!) annual list of recommended books is 19 pages long and comprises probably a couple hundred titles, with a few dozen graphic novels scattered among them (available online as a huge pdf; I'm on Page 10).

As I've written a few times before, I didn't set out to create a book for teens--nor would I consider many of the library's other selections primarily teen reading--but I'm honored. I deliberately wrote Mom's Cancer to be accessible to all ages, from little kids to grandparents (I think I actually said something like that in my initial book proposal). Since that includes teens, I'll take it.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Mom's Cancer Wins the Blooker

More than a word that sounds as if it were made up by Mel Brooks, a "blook" is a book that originated as a blog or similar online content. Such as mine. Lulu is a print-on-demand publisher that each year awards Lulu Blooker Prizes to blooks in fiction, nonfiction, and comics. Such as mine.

As announced this morning, Mom's Cancer has won the Lulu Blooker Prize for comics. Judge Paul Jones said, "Mom's Cancer takes web comics beyond science fiction parodies and fan boy remixes of superhero comics. The story telling is engaging. The story is important, as well as fun, surprising and rewarding to read. Well-drawn and a real winner." The other judges on the panel were Arianna Huffington, author Julie Powell, philosopher/writer Rohit Gupta, and journalist Nick Cohen.

The nonfiction and overall first prize winner is Colby Buzzwell's My War: Killing Time in Iraq, which began as a series of blog posts from the front. The fiction winner is Andrew Losowsky's The Doorbells of Florence, whose subject appears to be exactly as described--photos of ornate Italian doorbells accompanied by short stories about the people or events behind them. That sounds just odd enough to check out.

This is terrific recognition that I appreciate very much, and not just because it comes with $2500 (wow, that's like ten college textbooks for my kids!). Blogs are increasing in literary, cultural, and journalistic importance at the same time print-on-demand publishers such as Lulu have the potential to transform the publishing world. It feels like a vital, interesting place to be tangentially connected to, even if my book was not self-published (which was not a prerequisite for the prize).

All my thanks to the judges and others involved with the Blooker, I'm very grateful. This is nice.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

San Diego e Italia

Yesterday I firmed up plans to attend the International Comic-Con in San Diego this July--meaning I finally found a place to stay, which is a genuine challenge when 100,000-plus descend on a city. As I mentioned earlier, the people who decide such things were nice enough to nominate Mom's Cancer for two Eisner Awards, and it seems polite to show up even though I don't expect to win (not being humble, just analytically realistic). It's a fun event regardless. I'll get to sign some books at my publisher's booth, see a few friends, and no doubt make one or two new ones. My wife and I also enjoy the city itself and we'll make a nice, not-all-comics-all-the-time vacation of it.

I also found out yesterday that the Italian edition of Mom's Cancer will be published in June. And that's literally all I know about that. I'm looking forward to seeing what they did with it.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Cartoon U.

I steal all of my ideas from Mike Lynch, who pointed me to an article in the Christian Science Monitor about the first graduating class of the Center for Cartoon Studies. Located in Vermont, the center offers a two-year, $30,000 degree program whose mission appears to be teaching students to produce literary graphic novels. This emphasis seems a bit different than that of the Joe Kubert School, which has been running successfully for 30 years and takes a very hard-nosed vocational approach to comic art education.

As I commented on Mike's blog, I have some mixed feelings about a program like this. Drawing an analogy with journalism, the best reporters and editors I knew never went to journalism school. They majored in history, political science, English, or even hard science, then used that background to enrich their journalism careers. Some never went to college but had decades of life under their belts. A good editor once told me he'd rather hire kids who know something about the world and teach them journalism than those who know nothing but journalism and teach them about the world. I agree with that sentiment.

Turning to cartoon school, I just wonder if they're missing the point that cartooning isn't technique, it's ideas. Art Spiegelman didn't win a Pulitzer for Maus because he's the best cartoonist ever--he's not--but because he communicated great ideas. I knew a lot of kids in high school and college who were excellent cartoon artists but quickly fizzled out because they had nothing interesting to say about the world. Good cartoonists are smart, curious and well-read--really, all the qualities required of a good writer plus the ability to draw. Surely that description fits some graduates of the Center of Cartoon Studies, but I wonder if anyone there ever emphasized that?

Still, I'm sure these students worked hard and learned some great stuff--just as journalism school students work hard and learn some great stuff--and some will surely go on to achieve tremendous things with their training. It'd be interesting to survey that graduating class in 10 years and find out how their expectations met reality. I suspect some--many?--most??--will discover they're the best unemployed cartoonists they know.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Medical Humanities

My stats tell me there's a bunch of y'all who check my blog regularly and are more loyal than I deserve. Thanks.

One of Mom's ambitions for Mom's Cancer was that it might help physicians, nurses, and other medical professionals better understand the experience from the patient's side. We saw some signs that was happening almost from the start. One of the first, best e-mails I got when Mom's Cancer was still an online webcomic was from a nursing instructor in Australia who asked permission to include pages of my comic in her course materials. I've heard of it showing up in oncology clinics and smoking cessation programs. And probably the highlight of my entire book experience was a talk I gave to a group of hospice and healthcare professionals in Tucson last July, some of whom said my story would change the way they approached their jobs.

When Mom's Cancer first came out, my publisher Abrams got a list of oncologists and sent free review copies to a whole bunch of them. I thought that was a great idea and appreciated the expense and effort very much, but it's very hard to tell if something like that pays off. If Abrams got any response they didn't mention it to me. Just one doctor who really likes it and recommends it to patients and colleagues could make the whole push worthwhile, but you'll never know. It feels like throwing pebbles into the ocean.

A while ago I was helping my daughters buy college textbooks (by "helping" I mean "handing my charge card to the cashier") and saw Art Spiegelman's Maus and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis stacked up for a literature class. Since everything's about me, I started wondering why Mom's Cancer couldn't be a textbook somewhere. But where? And with an epiphany that should have occurred to me months before--that in fact other people had explicitly told me but I hadn't quite registered--I realized that medical schools teach courses in "Medical Humanities" whose entire purpose is training new doctors to understand their patients' perspectives. Duh. Once I set my mind to it, it wasn't hard to put together a list of professors teaching Medical Humanities at medical schools across the country. Although I was perfectly willing to buy the books and pay the postage myself, when editor Charlie heard my plan ("You want how many books?") he took care of it even though I doubt it was in his budget. For which I'm grateful.

I've since heard back from a couple of profs who thanked me for the book and said they think it'd make a nice addition to their curricula. We'll see if they follow through--or more likely, we'll never know if they follow through. Pebbles in the ocean. The idea of flocks of new docs coming out of medical school having read my book is tremendously exciting. That's what it's all about. Mom had it figured out from the start.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Wimpy Kid: I Told You So

My friend Jeff Kinney's book, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, just made the New York Times Bestseller List for Children's Chapter Books, entering at number seven. Wow. I'm struggling to come up with a simile for how cool and amazing it is for a first-time author to crack the bestseller list right out the gate: like a minor-league pitcher getting called up to the majors to throw a no-hitter in the deciding game of the World's Series? Cooler than that.

I met Jeff at Comic-Con International in 2006, when our mutual editor Charlie brought us together so Jeff could tap the deep pools of experience and wisdom I'd accumulated during my whole year in the business (that's sarcasm). We had a good talk, I liked him a lot, and we've kept in contact since. I also reviewed Wimpy Kid when it was published earlier this year, and I'm feeling a little smug that I saw this success coming a mile away. You never know what the book-buying public will go for but I had a good feeling about this one--which, by the way, is the first of a three-book Wimpy Kid series and, I strongly suspect (hint hint), much more to come.

Anyway, congratulations to Jeff, a great guy who I know truly appreciates his good fortune. My young Padawan learner has become a powerful Jedi knight with more midichlorians than I'm apparently packing. If it were anybody else, I'd be jealous; in Jeff's case, I'm just very happy for him.

Comic-Con 2006: Jeff Kinney on the left, me on the right, and our mutual editor Charlie Kochman butting in uninvited. I just noticed I'm wearing that same shirt today. I need a new shirt.