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.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Some Recent Mentions

British writer Jan Marshall left a comment on my previous post asking permission to borrow my artwork to accompany her post about Mom's Cancer. Of course that's fine--reproducing an excerpt of a work for the purposes of criticism is allowed under copyright law and I'm happy to comply--but I always appreciate it when someone asks. It strikes me as both professional and polite.

Anyway, Jan has now posted a nice review of my book on her blog (dated Sept. 24), which I appreciate very much. I also read quite a bit more of her blog and found it very engaging, with topics touching on her 99-year-old grandfather, books, photography, poetry, and some good opinionated information on cancer. Thanks Jan.

There are some nice short write-ups about the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) exhibit "Infinite Canvas: The Art of Webcomics," to which I contributed four original pages from Mom's Cancer, by The Beat's omnipresent Heidi MacDonald, Pulp Secret, Wizard, and Fleen. the latter focuses on curator Jennifer Babcock, who was about as nice and personable as she could be with me. A lot of artists and works are represented in this big exhibit and, at first glance, I don't see a single mention of Mom's Cancer in any of that brief coverage. That's fine. It still looks like a pretty great show and I hope anyone in the New York area checks it out... and reports back to me.

Comics Reporter Tom Spurgeon recently summarized the results of the Harvey Awards, including the one I won and the two I lost. I understand that my trophy has made its way from Cartoon America author Harry Katz, who very kindly accepted it on my behalf, to the desk of Editor Charlie, who is holding it hostage until he can have it professionally photographed with the other Abrams Harvey Award won by Dan Nadel for Art Out of Time. I think sometimes Charlie also closes his door, gently lays the awards on the floor, and rolls around on them. When mine arrives, I intend to inspect it for unhygienic smudges.

Harvey Award results were also summed up by ICV2 News, which I mention only because their story's third graf begins, "Other key 2007 Harvey winners include: Brian Fies...." I like the word "key." It makes my ego puffy.

Finally, the Oregon Statesman-Journal published an obituary for my friend Arnold Wagner, who died August 31. I noticed something with Arnold's passing that also struck me after syndicate editor Jay Kennedy's death last March: the number of people who came forward with nearly identical stories of friendship, encouragement, and generosity was enormous. A lot of people who didn't know each other and might have assumed their relationship was unique started comparing notes and realizing, No, Arnold and Jay treated everyone like that. That's a really nice way to be remembered, I think.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Avast Ye Bloomin' Cockroaches

For the desk-bound pirate in your life.

Dead men tab no tables... nor apparently backspace, spellcheck, ten-key, or ctl-alt-del, either.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Arr? Aye!

Nearly as important as defending the right of free speech is defending the right of very, very silly speech, an aptly timed example of which is International Talk Like a Pirate Day, Wednesday, September 19.

Wikipedia summarizes the growth of this most wonderful and pointless of holidays, from its humble origin in 1995 to its emergence as a worldwide phenomenon following columnist Dave Barry's endorsement in 2002. Note that it is not International Dress Like a Pirate Day, although I can't imagine how anyone would object if you did. People wear shamrocks on St. Patrick's Day and Santa caps at Christmas; who's to snicker if you show up for work with an eyepatch, parrot,* buccaneer boots and cutlass? Especially a cutlass.

So this International Talk Like a Pirate Day, please remember to answer your phone with a hearty "Ahoy!" Begin sentences with a growly "Arrh!" Refer to family and co-workers as "matey" and "scurvy dog." Work the word "Avast!" into casual conversation.

If we're afraid to talk like pirates, the terrorists win.

*As with bunnies at Easter or dalmatians following the release of a new Disney movie, the American Humane Association cautions the public not to purchase parrots just to celebrate International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Very often, such parrots become neglected as the festive joy of the holiday season fades, with many winding up in animal shelters or abandoned to join marauding flocks of feral parrots. Participants may want to consider renting or leasing a parrot for celebratory purposes from a reputable parrot broker. Please be a responsible parrot owner/renter.

More Cartoons Matter

Some follow-ups to my previous post, from The Times of London.

Reaction from cartoonist Lars Vilks:

Mr Vilks arrived back in Sweden from Germany yesterday and made light of the assassination call. “I suppose that this makes my art project a bit more serious. It is also good to know how much one is worth,” he said.

“We must not give in. I’m starting to grow old. I could die at any time — it’s not a catastrophe.”
From the same article:

A leading Swedish daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, yesterday republished the cartoon in an act of solidarity with the local paper that first printed it.

Thorbj√∂rn Larsson, the editor, said in an opinion piece: “We live in a country where freedom of expression is not dictated by fundamentalists, nor by governments. To me, publishing it was the obvious thing to do.”

The daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet urged Swedes to defend their right to free speech in the face of religious fanaticism. It said: “Freedom of expression is not a privilege for the media companies and journalists but a guarantee that citizens can have different impressions, numerous sources of information and inspiration, as well as the possibility of drawing their own conclusions.”

Go Sweden.

UPDATE: Just found this by Oliver Kamm, writing in the magazine Index on Censorship:

The notion that free speech, while important, needs to be held in balance with the avoidance of offence is question-begging, because it assumes that offence is something to be avoided. Free speech does indeed cause hurt – but there is nothing wrong in this. Knowledge advances through the destruction of bad ideas. Mockery and derision are among the most powerful tools in that process. Consider Voltaire’s Candide, or H L Mencken’s reports – saturated in contempt for religious obscurantists who opposed the teaching of evolution in schools – on the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial.

It is inevitable that those who find their deepest convictions mocked will be offended, and it is possible (though not mandatory, and is incidentally not felt by me) to extend sympathy and compassion to them. But they are not entitled to protection, still less restitution, in the public sphere, even for crass and gross sentiments. A free society does not legislate in the realm of beliefs; by extension, it must not concern itself either with the state of its citizens’ sensibilities. If it did, there would in principle be no limit to the powers of the state, even into the private realm of thought and feeling.

The debate has not been aided – it has indeed been severely clouded – by an imprecise use of the term ‘respect’. If this is merely a metaphor for the free exercise of religious and political liberty, then it is an unexceptionable principle, but also an unclear and redundant usage. Respect for ideas and those who hold them is a different matter altogether. Ideas have no claim on our respect; they earn respect to the extent that they are able to withstand criticism.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Cartoons Matter

I think this is important:

The Associated Press

CAIRO, Egypt -- The leader of al-Qaida in Iraq offered money for the murder of a Swedish cartoonist and his editor who recently produced images deemed insulting to Islam, according to a statement carried by Islamist Web sites Saturday.

In a half hour audio file entitled "They plotted yet God too was plotting," Abu Omar al-Baghdadi also named the other insurgent groups in Iraq that al-Qaida was fighting and promised new attacks, particularly against the minority Yazidi sect.

"We are calling for the assassination of cartoonist Lars Vilks who dared insult our Prophet, peace be upon him, and we announce a reward during this generous month of Ramadan of $100,000 for the one who kills this criminal," the transcript on the Web site said.

The al-Qaida leader upped the reward for Vilks' death to $150,000 if he was "slaughtered like a lamb" and offered $50,000 for the killing of the editor of Nerikes Allehanda, the Swedish paper that printed Vilks' cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad with a dog's body on Aug. 19.

Vilks said from Sweden he believed the matter of his cartoons had been blown out of proportion.

"We have a real problem here," Vilks told The Associated Press by telephone. "We can only hope that Muslims in Europe and in the Western world choose to distance themselves from this and support the idea of freedom of expression..."

...Al-Baghdadi added in his message that if the "crusader state of Sweden" didn't apologize, his organization would also attack major companies.

"We know how to force you to retreat and apologize and if you don't, wait for us to strike the economy of your giant companies including Ericsson, Scania, Volvo, Ikea, and Electrolux," he said....

More here.

I'm struck by the fact that al-Qaida conveys the generous spirit of Ramadan not by offering mercy to those who offend them, but by providing an extra large bounty on their heads. Not being raised on a farm, I can only wonder what lamb slaughtering involves and why it's worth an additional $50,000. I was unaware until now that Sweden had taken part in the Crusades. And I believe "we have a real problem here" is a masterpiece of understatement. Indeed, we have an enormous problem here.

If Western Civilization means anything, it's that freedom of speech, press, and religion are inviolable. Anyone offended can peacefully protest, boycott products or media, and express their competing point of view. Free speech carries risk and consequences, and I have little patience or respect for those who whine "censorship" whenever someone objects to their message. You have a right to speak and others have a right to disagree. If Al-Baghdadi's reference to Ericcson, Scania, Volvo, Ikea, and Electrolux were a call to boycott (which I definitely don't infer from context), that's fair play. But he can not put a price on writers' and artists' heads with a bonus for "extra messy."

Well, obviously he can, but it's barbaric and wrong. This is so self-evident to me that I simply can't understand anyone in the West who fails to regard it as a serious strike at civilization's most essential foundations. Or more: anyone who apologizes for it, expands definitions of hate speech to embrace it, or reassigns or fires cartoonists and their editors to pacify it. The timidity and cowardice I see astounds me.

I can't imagine any circumstance in which I'd draw a cartoon defaming The Prophet (PBUH), any more than I would Jesus Christ or the Buddha. I just wouldn't do that. But today, Ich bin ein Swedish cartoonist.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Home Again

Just returned home from a great summers-end vacation that included a visit to my sisters in Southern California. However, for the most part it did not include easy Internet access, which explains my lower-than-usual profile 'round these parts. I would have mentioned my plans in advance except I've got this thing about not announcing to the world that my house is going to be vacant for a week so everyone is welcome to drop by and help themselves to my stuff.

It was great to come back to all the nice comments on my previous post, plus some additional e-mails from friends and strangers alike. I've since learned that Harry Katz--author of the book Cartoon America, which was also published by Abrams and nominated for a Harvey Award--attended the Harveys and very graciously accepted awards on behalf of Dan Nadel and me. I shared a table with Harry and his family at the Eisner Awards, really enjoyed meeting him, and appreciate his being there for me now. He has generously promised to send me my Harvey Award as soon as I pay a reasonable ransom.

A Miniature Interlude:
So we're on vacation and my wife and I want to go one way and our two daughters another. My wife has a cell phone and I give the kids mine in case we need to communicate. "What if someone calls?" "Don't worry. No one else even knows my cell number. I don't give it to anyone. The only people who could possibly call you is us." Four minutes later: deedledeedledeedle. It's Editor Charlie calling from New York.

What really puzzles me is how Charlie got my cell phone number. There's no way I let him have it.

Something more substantial later....

UPDATE: I edited this post and removed some comments because a remark meant as a joke was taken seriously by some friends. Dry humor is hard to communicate online, and the words that sounded one way in my head obviously didn't come off the same on the page. Sorry 'bout that; entirely my fault. Do over.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Hey, I Won!

Late-breaking results posted on Newsarama (thanks, Newsarama!) tell me I won the 2007 Harvey Award for "Best New Talent."

My wife says Funny, it looks like the same old talent to her....

It's a great thrill. Thanks to my readers, thanks to the Harvey voters, and congratulations to my Abrams-mate Dan Nadel for winning "Best Biographical, Historical or Journalistic Presentation" for his great book Art Out of Time: Unknown Comic Visionaries 1900-1969. My compliments also to the other winners.


Friday, September 07, 2007


I was just absent-mindedly reading some light news stories when I came across the most remarkable sentence. I had to stop and read it over three times before I believed that it really meant what I thought it did. The sentence began:

"Michael Sands, a publicist whose clients have included the divorce attorney for Britney Spears' ex-husband Kevin Federline, said..."

Parse that: Britney married Kevin. Who has a divorce attorney. Who has his or her own publicist. Who gets quoted in a story that has nothing to do with Britney, Kevin, or Kevin's attorney.

What a world, what a world.

Still, publicist-to-the-stars'-husbands'-attorneys Michael Sands is doing something right. He's obviously on at least one reporter's contact list, filed under "Desperately Need a Quote from Someone Distantly Related to the Entertainment Industry Late Friday Afternoon When No One Else Picks Up the Phone."

Harvey Awards will be presented at the Baltimore Comic-Con tomorrow night. I'm up for three Harveys and am pretty certain I have no chance at two (remember, I have an excellent track record predicting the results of awards for which I'm nominated). The third one ... honestly ... immodestly ... maybe I have a shot. A month ago I hoped to make it to Baltimore and find out for myself, but ultimately couldn't. Editor Charlie thought he might go but he's not free either. So if anyone wants to attend an awards banquet, say a few words on my behalf if I win, and then mail a Harvey Award to me (I'll pay postage!), please feel free. If you're ruggedly handsome with thick dark hair and a strong chin, you can even pretend to be me. Sign some books, draw some doodles. I won't mind.

More seriously, I do wish I could be there. As I wrote a while ago, if someone honors your work with an award nomination, it just seems minimally polite to show up. I want to reiterate that I don't take the Harvey Award nominations for granted, I'm very grateful for the recognition, and incredibly appreciative. My absence is in no way meant to be cavalier or disrespectful. It's just life.

Thursday, September 06, 2007


Friend of the Blog Amanda ("Shrinking Indigo") replied to the previous post to point out that my work is on the poster for the MoCCA exhibit. Why, so it is.

She also promised to check out the show and let me know how it looks. That'd be great! ...and same goes for anyone else in the vicinity of 594 Broadway in the next few months. Right now I don't plan to visit New York City before next January, but y'never know. I like the town and it would be fun.

Thanks, Indigo.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

MoCCA: Infinite Canvas

I see that New York's Museum of Comics and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) is promoting the exhibition Infinite Canvas: The Art of Webcomics, to which I've contributed four original pages from Mom's Cancer. The show will be up September 14 through January 14, 2008, with an opening reception on September 13. Unfortunately I won't be there, but I know some people who might make it and report back to me.

"The exhibit explores three aspects of online comics," reads MoCCA's blurb. "The unique format and design of webcomics, their appeal to niche audiences, and the transitions between web and print comics." Curator Jennifer Babcock further explains, "webcomics are free of the space constraints and editorial censorship to which printed comics are often subjected...." I agree with that sentiment completely. I also think that freedom to break all the rules doesn't necessarily carry an obligation to do so.

Let me back up to explain that the exhibition's title, "Infinite Canvas," comes (to the best of my knowledge) from Scott McCloud's notion that the Internet provides just that: an infinite canvas. Online, there's no need to restrict a comic to three or four panels, stick to traditional comic book page layouts, or draw in black and white. No need for most of the artistic constraints imposed on comics by 19th-century printing press technology. No need to avoid words that might emotionally scar five-year-old Suzy or give Grandma the vapors. We're finally free. Free!

So why do so few cartoonists take advantage of the limitless space, time and language available to them? Why do so many webcomics look exactly like their print counterparts? Why did mine?

I can't speak for anyone else--although I have some notions--but I put considerable thought into how I wanted Mom's Cancer to interact with the electronic medium that transmitted it. First, I designed the pages to be proportional to a least-common-denominator computer monitor. I wanted anyone on any computer to be able to read each page without scrolling or clicking. That in turn mandated the size I needed to draw to produce art that would be clear and legible at on-screen resolution. My decision was a deliberate break from the infinite canvas idea, which can obviously demand significant reader interaction (and allow the cartoonist to play with story flow as scrolling reveals and conceals information). Those were features I willingly gave up so that my readers could apprehend each individual page as a unit of story--a thought, an idea, a chunk of time. I did that on purpose.

Also, I always had hopes that Mom's Cancer might see print. I didn't know how, I couldn't imagine who would publish such a book, but I wanted to keep my options open. I drew in black and white, colored in the cyan-magenta-yellow palette needed for press, and saved high-resolution versions of everything (not high enough, I later learned, but that's another sad story). I think that same hope motivates more web cartoonists than would admit it, and partly explains why so few break out of the shackles of print: they want it. Print still matters.

For similar reasons, I wrote and drew Mom's Cancer to be as all-ages as possible. It's an adult story, but I wanted it accessible to readers from young children to great-grandparents. There's not a dirty word in it (I actually thought long and hard about the "My God" on Page 99 but couldn't conceive of anything better). I fought my first impulse to draw it dark and gothic with scritchy-scratchy cross-hatching, partly because I wanted it to look as friendly and familiar as a 1950s' comic strip. I wanted people who'd never read a comic or graphic novel to get comfortable and ease into the story, where I hoped to hit 'em between the eyes. The web gave me complete freedom--including the freedom to approach the audience however I wanted.

Still, I share McCloud's frustration (as I perceive it) that almost no one has grabbed webcomics by the horns and exploited the new medium's potential to create something never seen before. Literature done in a new visual language that couldn't have existed until today. Why do so many webcomics consist of tiny, repetitive, static panels of talking heads when they could be ... ANYTHING? I would very much like to see that someday--maybe even try to do it. But that's not what Mom's Cancer was intended to be. I've always seen it less as a webcomic than as a comic that happened to be on the web, and never pretended it was anything else.

More Arnold Wagner

One of the Internet forums Arnold participated in was Toon Talk, hosted by cartoonist Darrin Bell (Candorville, Rudy Park). Another poster there, Armand Anloague, compiled some of Arnold's Toon Talk contributions over the years and I thought they were worth sharing, both for their content and the insight they provide about their author. With thanks to Armand, here's Arnold:

ON STRIPS VS. PANELS: "I've always seen a correlation between cartoonists and comics. The gag cartoonist is doing standup and the the strip cartoonist is doing situation comedy. Not everyone can do both. I'd make a third classification for a few like Wiley. There are comedians who don't really fit into either class. Fanny Brice, Red Skelton, and Carol Burnett are examples. They have a repertory of characters they use without order or set frequency. Wiley obviously does that. Larson also did it to an extent, his cows were the most noticeable example, but you can go through one of his collections and make a list.

As gag cartoonists most of us never develop a strong connection with the audience, not the way a strip artist can, or the way Wiley or Larson could (can't believe I'm putting those two in the same category). That isn't to say the strip artist has it easier, developing characters that the reader connects with isn't easy."

ON LEGACY STRIPS [Note to those not hip to comics lingo: a "legacy strip" is a still-published comic that has outlived its creators, e.g., Blondie, Dick Tracy, etc.]: "This plays into the myth that it's the legacy strips that are keeping newcomers out of syndication. Syndicates don't have a limit for signing strips. They sign those they think they can sell. If they haven't signed a strip that's the reason. They may be wrong, but it has nothing to do with numbers, budget is the only other factor involved.

Actually the legacy strips help with that. The profit from them pays for launching new material. If we knocked out all the strips not done by their creators tomorrow it wouldn't change anything for the hopefuls, unless it makes it harder. It would be huge benefit to those already syndicated who don't have enough papers to make a decent living, but have a good product, and I'm all for that."

ON HUMOR VS. GAGS: "There are basically two kinds of strips, those that use gags, and those that use humorous situations that we can identify with. In the long run humor is better than gags. Strips that become popular are ones that we identify with. Appeal tops funny every time. In addition to Dilbert another strip that takes a lot of hits here in a mostly male forum is Cathy, and yet the feature has a huge and very loyal fan base who identify with it."

"A mistake too many beginners make is thinking they need a knock 'em dead gag every day. If that were true, or even half true, Mutt and Jeff would still be syndicated as one of the hottest strips around. Generally that approach may result in a strip that's hot for a year or so then fades rapidly without ever building a strong following. If you look at the top strips they have a much larger repetoire. That's true of gag cartoons, stand up comics, sit-coms, the works. They do the ironic, the satiric think bits, the pathos, bathos, maybe even a touch of tragedy now and then. They may be nostalgic or sentimental. Variety makes them real."

ON STYLE: "Without naming the guilty, copying a style is not good. At least four features looked so much alike I had to check to see if they were by the same person, they weren't. A sophisticated and fairly illustrative style hooked to slapstick humor kills the gag. Colored art that is busy and doesn't have good contrast is hard to read, and you only have a couple seconds to get your premise across. Contrast and simplicity are better. If you have to use templates or tracing to make the strip you're wasting your time, and don't fool yourself by comparing it to Dilbert. He spent a lot of time developing his style.

Assuming that the goal is syndication (and that may be a false assumption in some cases) there were features that would have failed simply due to the language or the situations. Others used formats that wouldn't fit in papers. Old gags, gags that telegraphed the punch line, and captions that should have been polished for better tempo and impact, were also very common. Never use the first idea you come up with."

ON WORKING: "The one thing never to do is stop and wait for the muse to return. In any of the arts the difference between a pro and an amateur is that the amateur waits for their muse, the pro does their best and works through it."

"The reasons vary, but it's always because of pressure we put on ourselves making us tighten up. Some of the work I've been happiest with was when things went wrong and I had to get something for a client yesterday. No time to redo or be careful, quality wasn't the issue, having something on paper was."