Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Highland Fling

In theory, the point of parenthood is giving your children the confidence and skills to be independent. In practice: harder than I thought.

Around noon today, my wife and I put our 19-year-old daughters on a plane bound for Scotland, where they'll earn college credit studying medieval history and warfare for a month. This seemed like a really fine idea a few months ago. It even seemed like a fine idea as the departure date got closer and more concrete, and we had to do things like buy electricity conversion kits and contemplate our girls being completely beyond our ability to swoop in and make their boo-boos all better. It didn't even seem like a terrible idea when a couple of car bombs were found in London yesterday; London's a big city, our kids were only going to spend a few hours passing through, and the terrorists seemed pretty inept anyway.

So today we saw them off to Scotland, waving goodbye at the security checkpoint leading to their departure gate. I swear, less than a minute later and 20 steps away I stopped at a television showing footage of a flaming car crashed into an airport terminal. My wife walked up behind me.

"London?" she asked.

"Scotland," I answered.


It took the network another five minutes to tell us that the scene we were watching was in Glasgow, not our girls' destination of Edinburgh. As terrorism goes, it seemed like a relatively minor incident (and, again, idiotically inept), but I saw that Glasgow Airport suspended flights and, at this writing--with my wee bairns still en route somewhere over the Arctic Circle--we have no idea how it'll impact their flight and the connection they need to make in London. Guess we'll find out in the morning.

Rationally, I know there are a lot of 19 year olds doing much riskier things in the world, and that mine won't be blown up. Whatever happens, they'll figure it out and be all right. But I don't think I'll rest easily tonight.
UPDATE 1: Well, they called when they got to Edinburgh a few hours ago (6 a.m. Sunday our time). That's most of the way there. We're expecting to hear from them when they reach their final destination soon.

UPDATE 2: Took a little longer than we expected, but they made it all the way. Whew.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Freeform Magazine, plus Trees and Jays

A few minutes ago, I e-mailed answers to a long list of questions sent to me by an editor of a Thai art and comics magazine called "Freeform." It was actually quite a detailed and exhaustive interview: my background, my family, my writing and drawing technique, what I've learned, the best and worst parts of the job, etc. I'm again boggled by the idea of people in Thailand reading about me and my work. I'll try to mention it when it appears, although I'm pretty sure it won't be published in English.
We just got some trees in our yard professionally trimmed. We don't have a large yard but we do have some foliage too big for me to handle myself. As a result, I've learned a few new things.

First, regardless of who you hire to trim your trees--no matter how professionally certified or well recommended--they will always tell you that the last professionally certified, well-recommended guys you hired completely botched the job. You're just lucky the trees lasted long enough for these new guys to rescue them from the brink. I've heard it before but this was the first time I noticed it to be a universal constant. I think the same might be true for house painters, car mechanics and plastic surgeons, but need more data.

Second, I learned I am able to keep baby birds alive for two days. Traumatic childhood experience had convinced me otherwise. No, the arborists didn't disturb their nest. In fact, we noticed the two fuzzy fledglings on the ground under the trees a couple of days before cutting began. They're scrub jays, members of a common, aggressive, foul-tempered species with a grating squawk that I nevertheless resolved to protect. Their parents were still tending to them on the ground, feeding them and fending off predators. But what to do about the heavy-booted tree trimmers?

We considered and quickly rejected postponing; it took time to get the appointment, and the arborist already had his crew lined up. We called a veterinarian friend of ours (the same one who blessed our lives with Amber the Simple Cat) and were advised that we could capture the birds and try to raise them ourselves by hand-feeding them mealworms (not bloody likely), or corral them in a safe corner of the yard where their parents could still get to them. We tried that. The risk was that we'd disturb them so much that the parents would abandon them. The tree guys took two days, so each day before they came I laid a towel in a box too deep for the chicks to hop out of, supplied a shallow bowl of water, caught them, stashed them to the side, and left them alone.

And what do you know ... it worked! They're alive! Mom and Dad Jay made themselves scarce while the crew climbed the trees and rrrrevved their chain saws, but the moment the guys broke for lunch or left for the day, Mom and Dad swooped down for a cheepy family reunion. I let the babies out of the box at night and then recaptured them next morning, braving parental scolding and swooping and pooping.

I was struck by how fast baby birds develop, visibly different from day to day. Their wings are coming along; I wouldn't be surprised if they went from furry tennis balls to full fliers very soon. The first day, they were easy to catch, pretty much sitting indifferently while I scooped them up. A day later they were wailing and skittering like little road runners, and their capture took some effort. If I'd had to catch them a third day, I'm pretty sure I would need an anvil, a giant magnet, and a pair of rocket-powered roller skates.
Should they survive to fly, I expect my reward to be a couple of new bossy scrub jays who hog all the bird seed and squawk outside my window at the crack of dawn. But maybe, just maybe, deep in the recesses of their bird brains, they'll think kindly of the big pink monkey who tried to keep them out of harm's way for a couple of days.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Lulu Radio & MoCCA

Two things:

I forgot to follow up on an earlier post and mention that my interview with Lulu Radio is now available online. I just listened to it and, while I always hate the sound of my own voice, it's not terrible. Some things I'd've done differently: I said toward the beginning that Mom was diagnosed with cancer in 2004; it was 2003. I began drawing the comic in 2004. I'm bad with dates.

In the interview, I referred to "Mom's Cancer" a few times as "the project." Listening back, that grabs my attention like a pointy stick jabbed in my ear. Calling it "the project" makes it sound too impersonal, like a new account you take on at work. Trust me, there was nothing impersonal about it. I wanted a word that encompassed not just the comic but the book, the correspondence, the press, the recognition, the whole "Mom's Cancer" ball o' wax, and "project" was the best I could do on the fly. Better next time.

At the end, the interviewer asked me where people can find my book. I mentioned Barnes & Noble and Borders, and added that the easiest and cheapest place would probably be Amazon--which is true, but I wish I'd mentioned Your Local Independent Bookseller. Those are the people who love books, deserve the support, and in some cases have treated my book very well. They're cultural heroes. But another reason authors always urge readers to patronize small independents is that their contracts are probably structured to give them a bigger royalty if a book is sold by a Mom 'n Pop shop rather than a giant chain that gets a big discount on the wholesale price. When a book shows up on a pallet at Costco marked down 50%, the author's getting pennies (a lot of pennies, but still...). Just being honest with you.

The interviewer, Rich Burk, did a nice job and seemed like a very good guy. When we spoke before the interview, he explained that he's a radio announcer who, among other jobs, does play-by-play for the Portland Beavers minor league baseball team. He's got one of those great radio voices that always takes me aback a bit in person: "Wait, are you talking to me? The voices in the little electric boxes never talked to me before...!" Still, it was an enjoyable few minutes.

Item Two: The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) in New York City has asked me to loan some original art from "Mom's Cancer" to an exhibition of graphic novels they're hosting in the fall. MoCCA's mission is the "collection, preservation, study, education, and display of comic and cartoon art," and it has become an important, high-profile, well-respected institution in the field. It's a great honor to be asked and I'm thrilled to contribute. More details as the date approaches, I'm sure.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Mister Wizard

I was trying to think of something to write about the death of Don Herbert, whose "Mr. Wizard" television program was the introduction to science for millions of children--including many who went on to become real scientists and never forgot how important he was to them.

But in fact Mr. Wizard's heyday was a little before my time and I don't have vivid memories of his program, which ran from 1951 to 1965. I know I saw it, and grew up with a general awareness of Mr. Wizard's responsibility for the dry cell batteries and coils of wire that cluttered the floor under my bed. I read one blogger who called Mr. Wizard "a Mister Rogers for geeks," and that sounds about right. Herbert had the same even, direct, patient tone as Fred Rogers, and he never condescended to kids. Mr. Wizard understood that even though you might not know how a coil of wire around a nail becomes a magnet or how a needle gently placed on a cup of water can float, you weren't an idiot.

Still, not really being a rabid first-hand fan, I was probably going to let Mr. Wizard's death pass unmentioned until my newspaper editor friend Mike Peterson referred me to a nice remembrance on the Huffington Post by Marty Kaplan. He wrote anything I might have better than I could have. An excerpt:

It's a pity that scientists today, including those who owe their career starts to him, are so often snobbish about show biz. That mandarin condescension toward the masses is why Carl Sagan, one of Don Herbert's television successors, was dismissed as a vulgar popularizer by many of his peers. Entertainment, as Herbert knew, is the art of capturing attention. Scientists depend on public funding, and therefore on the theater of persuasion. Scientists, like it or not, have become hostages to culture warriors, and their ranking in the public's hierarchy of epistemologies, like it or not, depends on the sympathies of citizen audiences. Evidence and proof, conjecture and refutation, theory and argument: these may be defined by scientists with reference to a community of their peers, but if they have any hope of staving off a new Dark Age, it's their non-peers to whom they must also communicate....

That's one good reason why Mr. Wizard was important and will be missed.

Monday, June 11, 2007

On Economy

Phil May's Self-portrait

Finally, and by complete happenstance, I've discovered the source of a quote that has been a cornerstone of my cartooning philosophy but which I could never track down. I first heard the story decades ago and long ago forgot where. Now I know.

Phil May was born in 1864 and died in 1903, only 39. He was one of the great British cartoonists of the late 19th century, contributing to Punch and other periodicals. In 1885, May went to work for the Sydney Bulletin in Australia, where he came across an editor who thought he wasn't getting his money's worth out of May. Evidently believing he was paying by the line, the editor asked if May could produce more elaborate and detailed drawings. Replied May, "When I can leave out half the lines I now use, I shall want six times the money."

That's what cartooning is all about to me: distilling a thing to its essence, so that nothing but the information needed is presented, and everything that is presented provides essential information. May's reply reminds me of my all-time favorite quote about writing by mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), who concluded a long-winded letter with, "Sorry this post was so long, I did not have time to make it short."

I work on that. In both writing and cartooning, my first inclination is to do too much. If I'm writing a 3,000-word article or 100-page report, I'm very happy if my first draft goes 10% to 20% over because I know subsequent drafts will only improve with tightening. Same with cartooning, I think. I'll draw something several times, figuring out what I can get rid of and what needs to stay, trying for fewer lines and less clutter in every iteration, working hard to make it simple. I always fall short but it's an interesting and worthwhile target to aim for, I think.

When I can leave out half the lines I now use, I shall want six times the money.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Five Centuries of Pulchritude

This clip has been making the rounds and I found it fascinating enough to borrow myself. Five hundred years of female portraits in Western Art. I was especially struck by how similiar many of the women look--how consistent the ideals of female beauty were in several different countries over a few different centuries. And then of course how everything gets more ... interesting ... around the time photography takes over painting's role as an accurate recorder of images, and art becomes more about individual expression and exploration of technique.

It's 2 minutes 52 seconds. Even if the art doesn't excite you, everyone could use 2:52 of Bach in their lives.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Moving Out, Moving On

At the end of Mom's Cancer I wrote that Mom, Nurse Sis and Kid Sis moved to Hollywood and bought a home together, at least partly to realize Mom's life-long dream of living there. In the book's Afterword, added to the last page as it literally went to press, I wrote: "I don't think I ever saw her happier living anywhere than she was in Hollywood. She loved her new neighborhood: the fluorescent bougainvillea spilling over her back fence, the giant avocado tree that dropped guacamole hailstones into her yard, the towering palm at her curb, new friends walking dogs and pushing baby strollers past her door. It was where she needed to be."

I spent the past few days helping my sisters leave that Hollywood house forever. After Mom died, it was simply too much work and expense for them to keep up, and not particularly suited to either of their lifestyles. It was Mom's dream that they shared with her and for her but couldn't continue without her. Kid Sis found a great apartment and moved out several weeks ago. Last weekend was Nurse Sis's turn and it meant making some overdue decisions about Mom's belongings, facing some strong memories and emotions--but mostly it just meant a ton of exhausting work. Packing and moving is hard under any circumstances.

Out of respect for my family's privacy, I never wrote much or posted any photos of that house. Now that they're gone, here are a few pictures of a place that made Mom very happy:

The front porch. Mom loved sitting in the white wicker chairs and talking to passersby like the Queen of the Neighborhood.

Bougainvillea completely covered the backyard fence. Calling it "fluorescent" hardly did it justice.

The giant avocado tree in the yard next door. I shot this a couple of days ago and the tree is considerably cut back from when Mom lived here, when branches hung over the fence and fruit dropped year-round, splatting to the ground to be happily devoured by Mom's dog Hero.

Mom's palm tree, which I suspect was a big reason she had to
have this particular house. It was part of her vision.

It was good to spend time with Mom there and, for my sisters' sake, good to let it go as well. It was necessary and overdue, but sad nonetheless.

Harvey Awards

I've been away from home and office for the past four days (more about that later), without Internet access for most of that time. So it was only upon returning late last night that I learned Mom's Cancer has been nominated for three (!!!) Harvey Awards, which will be announced in conjunction with the Baltimore Comic-Con on September 8. Holy cow! Or, as a cartoonist friend said when he wrote me with the news, "How many awards/nominations do you NEED, man?"

The Harvey Awards are named for Harvey Kurtzman, a creator of MAD Magazine and other pioneering comics work, and sprang from the same wellhead as the Eisner Awards. Both were created after the short-lived (Jack) Kirby Awards faltered in 1987. Like the Eisners, Harveys are nominated and voted on by comics professionals. I've read articles comparing and contrasting the Eisners and Harveys, and confess that the difference is too subtle for me to detect. I'm no historian of comics awards; best I can figure is it's a Shia-Sunni kind of thing or, for "Life of Brian" fans, similar to the schism between followers of the sandal and the gourd. For my part I am genuinely surprised and honored by the recognition, and hope we can all just get along.

Harveys are given in 21 categories. I'm nominated for "Best Artist," "Best Single Issue or Story," and "Best New Talent." A complete list of all the people who are going to beat me is available here. My sincere thanks to the Harvey Awards organizers and the pros who nominated my work. That means a lot.

Friday, June 01, 2007


Two hours ago I finished a big, important, exhausting project that's been getting me up early and keeping me up late for a couple of weeks, not to mention cutting into my blogging time. I'll tell you about it someday. Meanwhile, I'm planning to get back to a saner work schedule that should include time to write here. That is, as soon as I return from a few days' travel starting tomorrow--

Funny. Just as I was typing that sentence (precisely between the words "return" and "from," in fact) I got a phone call from Rich Burk from, who interviewed me for a podcast that'll be posted at Lulu Radio ( sometime soon. You'll recall that Lulu is the kind and generous publishing company that awarded Mom's Cancer the Lulu Blooker Prize on May 14. So if you ever want to hear a six-minute interview with me, featuring my flat nasal voice stammering "um" and "uh," there it is. Or will be.

Incidentally, before we started recording, Rich and I spent a minute debating how one should pronounce "blook." I've never thought about it much but have been rhyming it with "kook." However, Rich was surely correct that it should rhyme with "book," especially since the Blooker Prize is a pun on the more literary and high-minded Booker Prize. So we went with that. Nice guy, nice interview.

Thanks for reading. More and better later.