Tuesday, July 31, 2007

After the Con

Well, that went pretty much as I expected.

Comic-Con International in San Diego was a tightly packed pressure cooker of crowds, noise and fun. Compared to the past two years, my impression was that the mob was a little less unruly, perhaps because convention organizers stopped selling tickets and advertised the fact that particular days were sold out. We had no trouble getting our badges. In terms of organization and crowd control, Con organizers seem to have learned from past difficulties. Still, 120,000 people in one place is a bunch no matter how you slice 'em.

A short movie I shot on Saturday, the busiest day, panning the convention floor from the mezzanine. Booths are downstairs, several simultaneous panels are going on upstairs. It's all more than anyone could possibly absorb.

People-watching is a terrific sport at Comic-Con. We criticize TV newscasts and other media for only focusing on the outlandishly costumed, complaining that the weirdos don't represent the normal level-headed comics fans like us, but in fact we're just as bad. People in good costumes drew conferees who couldn't wait to take their pictures, and if they got together with a few friends--like the Batman-Robin-Catwoman trifecta or a gaggle of Star Wars Stormtroopers--they could stop traffic for 20 yards. Usually in the worst possible spot.

Galactic bounty hunters come in all sizes.

Klingon on a cell phone. "Can you hear me now, P'takh?"

All in all, my general thoughts on Comic-Con were well summarized by Mark Evanier, who moderated approximately 153 panels and has been attending the event since it began. In his blog Mark wrote: I sometimes think that anyone can have a great time at that convention if they'll only do a little advance planning and make the effort to find the convention they want to attend. There are a lot of conventions occurring simultaneously in that hall, ranging in intensity from the high-tech, high-pressure trade show located where the toy and videogame companies are situated, all the way down to the friendly and creative low-tech con in and around Artists' Alley. What interests you is probably in there somewhere but you have to go looking for it. It won't find you.
I found my convention.
The Eisner Awards were long, more than three hours, but the ceremony moved along most of the time. My sister Elisabeth ("Kid Sis") came and it was great to see her. I thought most of the presenters did a commendable job. Actor/comedian Brian Posehn was very funny, as were Ben Garant and Tom Lennon from "Reno: 911." Garant and Lennon noted with surprise that no Eisner Award winners had yet thanked God for their victories. That became a running gag after they left the stage, as a couple of winners thanked God sarcastically and Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese) appeared to do so sincerely. The evening's other running gag involved trophy presenter and co-host Jane Wiedlin, guitarist for the Go-Gos. Ms. Wiedlin is an attractive woman whose responsibilities included herding winners off the right side of the stage to have their photos taken; after a while, the winners deduced they could get a nice embrace from her if they pretended to walk off in the wrong direction. My two categories were near the end of the evening and I had the pleasure of hearing Neil Gaiman mispronounce my name twice. Then I lost and slumped back to my hotel to silently weep myself to sleep.

Paul Dini and Mark Evanier presenting Eisner Awards, with Jane Wiedlin to the left. It may be hard to see at this resolution but the award second from the right was missing its spinning globe. Unbearable suspense built through evening as everyone wondered who would win the broken trophy. As I recall, it went to comic book artist Paul Pope (I assume Comic-Con will get him a new one, although personally I'd be tempted to keep the broken one).

My book signing on Saturday didn't draw a big crowd. However, quality more than compensated for quantity. People who've read and appreciated Mom's Cancer enough to seek me out at a convention are invariably the nicest people I've met. Almost every conversation touches me in some way and reminds me why I wrote the book. The people staffing the Abrams booth told me they got similar reactions even when I wasn't there. It's hugely gratifying.

Signing books, with my editor Charlie Kochman and his girlfriend Rachel (left) and Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney and his wife Julie (right).

In addition, I met and answered a few questions for a master's candidate at Northwestern University doing a thesis on the form and aesthetics of graphic memoirs, including mine. I saw some of his analysis and it's quite academic and literary, not at all "fanboyish," and I'm sure we'll follow up with each other later. It's a treat to talk to someone who takes the medium seriously, not to mention flattering to be considered worth studying.

Nice People
[Fair Warning: all of the people I mention below can be described as "very nice." Some even as "extraordinarily nice." This is my honest appraisal of their character; I am not naturally a pollyanna and would tell you if they were jerks--or, more likely, not mention them at all. (So if I met you at Comic-Con and don't mention you below, assume you were a jerk.)]

Editor Charlie took a small party of us to dinner Friday night before the Eisners, including my friend and bestselling author (I never get tired of writing that) Jeff Kinney. Jeff's Diary of a Wimpy Kid has spent 14 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List for Children's Chapter Books; I believe it's currently #2. I met Jeff's wife Julie, and he and I sat at one end of the table talking shop and saying catty things about the Bestseller List's #1. As I probably said too often, if all of the success and opportunities coming Jeff's way had happened to anyone else, I'd be jealous. Knowing him, I can only be happy for him. Jeff and Julie also came to the Eisner Awards and sat through the entire ordeal even though they didn't have to. That's loyalty. Or something.

Other Abrams authors I spent a few minutes with were Brom, whom I got to know when my book was released in New York and whose new book, The Devil's Rose, is packed with his lush and disturbing paintings, and Lela Lee, creator of the Angry Little Girls series, which I understand has an enormous fanbase. Both good people.

Before the convention, I made a list of the people I wanted to find. Top of the list was Otis Frampton, creator of the "Oddly Normal" series published by Viper Comics. Otis is a great guy and we finally had a chance to talk, in contrast to last year when we said a quick Hello expecting to meet up again and never did. I met Otis's wife Leigh, whom he married in Japan over Christmas. Leigh is terrific. Like many spouses, she doesn't quite share her partner's passion for this comics universe, but plunges in fully to provide all the support she can regardless. I grok.

Me with Otis and Leigh. The critter on Leigh's head is one of Otis's characters, Oopie, which Leigh sewed days before the Con and wore for four days straight. That's love.

Second on my list were Raina Telgemeier and Dave Roman, also married (to each other) since the last time I saw them. I found Raina first and had a nice long talk with her about her work on "The Baby-Sitters Club" graphic adaptations and new projects we're both contemplating, and briefly caught up with Dave later. Dave and Raina also both did stories for the latest Flight 4 anthology. Raina didn't believe I'd actually made a list that had her name on it until I pulled it out and showed it to her; then I think she became a bit spooked. Nicest people in the world, buy their stuff so they can keep doing it.

With Raina

I had a long and very good talk with Michael Jantze, creator of the formerly syndicated comic strip "The Norm," who lives in my part of the country. He'd read Mom's Cancer and, like many readers, found ways in which it related all too well to his life. I was very pleased to discover that merely by virtue of being on his cartoonists e-mailing list I am considered a member of the Northern California division of the National Cartoonists Society ("just Northern California," he was quick to point out). I thanked him and said that as an antisocial loner I probably wouldn't be showing up to too many functions; he pointed out that I'd pretty much just defined the word "cartoonist." Just thinking about it makes me misty.

With Michael Jantze

I've met "Luann" cartoonist Greg Evans a few times before, a fact I reminded him of when I reintroduced myself to him as he manned the National Cartoonists Society booth. He's always very nice about it. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: "I actually met you at the Schulz Museum recently, and at the Eisner Awards a couple of years ago."

Mr. Evans: "Oh!"

"Yeah. In fact, I was nominated for two Eisner Awards last night but I didn't win."

"I'm sorry."

"My strategy is to keep introducing myself to you everytime I see you until you finally remember me."

"Well, now I'll remember you as 'that Loser Guy.'"

In print that looks like kind of a nasty comeback, but in person--said dryly with a sly smile on his lips--it was hilarious.

Greg Evans (in green shirt) at the NCS booth.
I swear this photo was in focus when I took it.

I saw some amazing original art and almost bought a couple of pieces in my price range. It was tempting. However, I was stopped by my "rule" that I only acquire artwork directly from artists with whom I've made some personal connection. I've decided that rule doesn't apply to deceased artists and almost picked up a Walt Kelly "Pogo," but that's a slippery and potentially expensive slope indeed. In the end I came home with nothing but some free posters I'll never post, a free t-shirt I'll never wear advertising a movie I'll never see, and four art pens that cost me $10. In point of fact, aside from a few pieces of art and a nearly three-foot-long $1200 USS Enterprise, I didn't see anything I really wanted. No regrets.

Someday, my lovely, you will be mine.

That's about it. My wife and I managed to escape the convention center and spend some time doing other things in San Diego, one of our favorite cities. We didn't rent a car and had no regrets about that, either. Between the city's trolleys and bus system, we got everywhere we wanted to go.

The next notable event on my radar is the Harvey Awards, to be presented at the Baltimore Comic-Con on September 8. Mom's Cancer is nominated in three categories. I haven't made any reservations yet, but I intend to attend. I've got an almost-new acceptance speech all ready to go.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Congratulations to Me!

My forecast for the two Eisner Awards I was up for--posted here
July 18 and completely untouched, unedited, and unrevised in the interim--was 100 percent accurate! As a psychic, I went 2 for 0!

Unfortunately, in terms of actually winning one of the awards, I went 0 for 2.

I still had a very fine time. Just arrived home; more stories and pictures when I have the time and energy later. Thanks for everyone's well wishes and my congratulations to the winners. Which I totally predicted.

Friday, July 20, 2007

38 Years Ago Today

I don't always enjoy everything about being my age, but I will always be grateful I was alive to witness and remember this:

I consider it a rare privilege in all of human history, as if I'd been standing on the shore watching Columbus set foot in the Bahamas or Lewis and Clark reach the mouth of the Columbia. You young punks may have all the strength, speed, stamina, flexibility, resilience, health, beauty, mental acuity (what was my point? My mind wandered a bit. Oh yeah I remember now...) but I've got Apollo 11.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Comic-Con Pre-Flight

Quick note for those interested in how our girls are doing in Scotland: great! Their course on Medieval History & Warfare sounds engrossing without being so demanding that they have no time for fun. They've done quite a bit of exploring on their own, and also tried their hand at Scottish cooking. They'll get to spend a few days in London on their way home and we're looking forward to having them back at the end of the month. Maybe they'll let me post some photos (we haven't seen any yet; their Internet access is limited, plus they have better things to do than sit at a computer typing to the folks).

A tiny slice of last year's Comic-Con

It's hard to believe that Comic-Con International is a week away. San Diego is a city my wife and I like very much and we're going to make a nice vacation of it. I'll also be there to work, which assuages my conscience come tax write-off time. In the unlikely event anyone reading this would like to meet me, I'll be signing Mom's Cancer on Saturday from Noon to 12:30 at the Abrams booth (#1021 in Aisle 1000--look for the big numbered banners hanging from the ceiling).

I may do additional impromptu signings, and will certainly leave dozens of autographed books at the booth; check there for schedule updates. Abrams has several other authors lined up, including my friend and New York Times Bestselling Author (that's a string of words I've never been able to use before) Jeff Kinney, plus a great selection of graphic novels and comics-themed books I'd buy even if they weren't from my publisher. I'm really looking forward to seeing some friends, maybe making some new ones, and meeting some talented creators.

The other place you'll be sure to find me is at the Eisner Awards on Friday night. Jackie Estrada does an impressive job putting the event together and, for the first time, Abrams has enough people and presence to occupy an entire table. Cool. Mom's Cancer is nominated for two Eisner Awards: Best Reality-Based Work and Best Graphic Album-Reprint. A while back I said I didn't expect to win either and might share my guesses as to who might. How 'bout now?

Besides my book, nominees for Best Reality-Based Work are I Love Led Zeppelin by Ellen Forney, Project X Challengers: Cup Noodle by Tadashi Katoh, Stagger Lee by Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix, and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. I must admit I haven't seen the first three works, which you might think would handicap my powers of prognostication. It does not. Fun Home is the 942-pound gorilla in this category--critically acclaimed, terrific sales, and huge mainstream crossover readership--and, as sure as the sun will rise over San Diego Saturday morning, it will win no matter what it's up against. It might even deserve to.

I figure my odds are only slightly better for Best Graphic Album-Reprint, where the competition is Absolute DC: The New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke, Castle Waiting by Linda Medley, Shadowland by Kim Deitch, and Truth Serum by Jon Adams. I haven't seen Truth Serum. Shadowland and Castle Waiting are both worthy works to which I would be honored to lose, but my pick for this category is Darwyn Cooke, whose deliberately retro storytelling and inkwork earned wide acclaim and restored something very fresh and fun to the superhero comic. He's won Eisners before, and I think a lot of the voting pros appreciate his uniquely stylized take and will be happy to reward him for it. However, if some bizarre vote-splitting occurs, I might have a shot here.

Having a sincere near-zero expectation of winning removes any tension or anxiety I might otherwise feel about the trip. As I think I wrote last year, Comic-Con International is fun in the same way being at DisneyWorld with 100,000-plus people is fun: you know the crowds will be crushing, parking impossible (in fact we're going sans auto this year), food scarce and expensive, all the good attractions filled beyond capacity, and you'll never get around to half the things you want to do. And yet, with some patience and strategy, it can be a blast anyway.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Patricia Storms

One of the nice things about cartooning is getting to know other people who do it. Despite being in a competitive business where too many people chase too few jobs, cartoonists have a reputation for being gracious to newcomers and generous with their time and advice. I've found that to be mostly true.

Among the first and kindest pros I got to know after Mom's Cancer gained some notice was Patricia Storms, whose encouragement I greatly appreciated (and which "earned" her an acknowledgement in my book). She lives in Toronto and we've never met, but we've gotten acquainted online and via e-mail, and I think of her as a real friend. Better yet, I think she's a very good cartoonist, with a rich, expressive, confident ink line and a passion for hand-crafted authenticity I really respect. Best of all, she loves books. Over recent months it seems like Patricia's career has really taken off, with several book-illustrating projects and exciting new opportunities. It's been neat to watch and well deserved.

I mention her now because Toronto blogger Debbie Ohi has posted
a nice interview with Patricia, and because I feel like I owe her one. Or several. Now go buy her books. She's a great talent and person.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Dog Days of Summer

Yesterday, I had to teach myself to draw a prairie dog, and it occurred to me I was applying some principles that some of you might find interesting. If not, come back in a few days and I'll try to write something better.

Reference images are a good place to start, and one nice thing about living in the 21st Century is that several hundred prairie dog photos are just a google away. Pause for a moment and offer a quiet prayer of appreciation and pity for old-school artists who diligently clipped pictures out of newspapers and magazines to create their own enormous "morgues" of reference images on every subject imaginable and then cursed themselves for not having a prairie dog on file.

But, to paraphrase Spock on logic, reference images are the beginning of wisdom, not the end.

I don't recall ever needing to draw a prairie dog before. However, I start with the knowledge that many vertebrates--and all mammals without any exceptions I can think of--are basically built the same. We've all got the same parts; only the proportions are different. (I'm talking about quick and dirty cartooning here, not veterinary textbooks.)

Human, Horse, Bird

Human arm, Bat wing

Knowing that is a big head start and helps avoid some common mistakes, like drawing animal legs sticking out of the bottom of bodies like table legs.

Now this is a perfectly valid cartoon cow, depending on what you're going for. However, it will be a more problematic cow to show walking, running, lying down, or chatting about the weather with its fellow cows. It won't move right. Also, if you don't understand how the legs basically attach to the top of the cow instead of the bottom, you miss out on drawing the nice fiddly bits like the hips and shoulders that give your line something interesting to do and help position the cow in space. Since I don't want to spend all day learning how to draw cows, I borrowed the cartoon below to illustrate how an artist who know how cows are put together can do a lot more with them.

I've got no argument with a cartoonist who draws a "table leg" cow, but they should realize it's a choice, with pros and cons.

So with a basic understanding of bone structure and some reference photos, I can sketch out a prairie dog, always looking for how its proportions differ from a human's. I don't need to do a detailed anatomical study--after all, it's a cartoon--and I end up with a critter that might be a prairie dog, groundhog, woodchuck, nutria, or any of a hundred similar rodents. I'm not claiming it's a great prairie dog but for my purposes it's close enough; if I draw it standing in a hole, readers will get it and I've done my job.

However, I still have some decisions to make. How much do I want to anthropomorphize my prairie dogs? Do I want them to move and react like fuzzy little humans (e.g., Mickey Mouse) or retain their essential prairie doginess? In real life, an alert prairie dog looks different than an alert person. Depending on the character and story, I may want to map human poses onto their little bodies to help readers recognize movements and reactions they're used to seeing in people. There are different degrees of this:

Alert prairie dog, Alert anthropomorphized prairie dog, Alert prairie dog businessman wondering if the coyote next door is going to catch him before he gets to his commute train

If I were drawing a lot of prairie dogs or creating ongoing characters I'd have to draw the rest of my life, I'd spend a long time sketching them in every pose and activity imaginable, making sure I understood the shapes and how they moved in space, always looking to streamline and simplify. But in this case I just need a prairie dog to be a prairie dog, and I'm done.

Writing it all out, that sounds like a lot of thought and analysis just to draw some stupid prairie dogs. In fact it's a pretty quick and not entirely conscious process, and I've already made a lot of decisions before I put pencil to paper. But these principles and questions are always in the back of my mind. I ain't sayin' it's the only way or the right way; it's just one way that seems to work sometimes.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Fledglings Update

1. Our two young scrub jays are doing just fine in our backyard, skittering around while their parents fuss over them. They're getting bigger and more aerodynamic every day, though I don't know enough about avian development to predict when they'll be flying. We're trying to leave them alone to develop on their own.

2. Our two young daughters are doing just fine in Scotland, finding their way around a small hamlet adjacent to campus and figuring out which bus takes them into the next decent-sized town. They got e-mail access today and found an Italian restaurant so I know they won't starve. We're trying to leave them alone to develop on their own.