Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?

My very first post on this blog was about winning the Eisner Award for Best Digital Comic at the 2005 Comic-Con International in San Diego. So it seems somehow symmetrical and right that my very last post follows my report on the same event almost exactly three years later.

Today I'm closing up shop here and opening a new establishment right around the virtual corner at

It'll be the same old stuff from the same old guy, which raises the question: Why bother? Why force my six regular readers to change their bookmarks and links? Who do I think I am?

Well, I'll explain...

First: my site stats show me that a lot of people arrive here while searching for help and information about cancer. Mom died October 1, 2005, and the fact is that I left Cancer World that day and haven't tried too hard to keep up. I'm not an expert on anything except my family's experience. I know Mom's Cancer still helps readers facing the same dizzying, baffling, frustrating challenges we did--I hear all the time from readers who continue to discover it anew--but my blog hasn't had much to offer those folks in a long time and I feel bad about that.

Second, and the reason I made a last-minute trip to this year's Comic-Con after I hadn't planned to go at all: I'm writing a new book. It's a graphic novel titled Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? that I'm working on with my friend and Mom's Cancer editor Charlie Kochman to be published by Harry N. Abrams next spring. Charlie wanted me in San Diego to unveil it, along with other books being released under a new Abrams imprint named Abrams ComicArts, with Charlie as its newly promoted Executive Editor (Publishers Weekly ran a nice item about it here). There's some neat symmetry there as well: my first book was Charlie's first acquisition shortly after he arrived at Abrams; my next book will be his first original graphic novel under his new imprint.

Fact is, I've been working on this thing and keeping quiet about it for more than a year--maybe close to two--although I did let a few hints drop from time to time to time. Both Abrams and I had our reasons for playing our cards close to our vests, but 3 p.m. Saturday in San Diego we tipped our hand. Now that I can talk about my new book--just try to shut me up!--it makes no sense to do it on a blog named for my previous one. It makes even less sense to start a second blog for the new book and try to maintain two! So I decided to carry on with a new blog named after me, less out of ego than lack of imagination. Unless I change my name, I won't face this dilemma again.

This doesn't mean I'm moving past Mom's Cancer, or turning my back on it, or anything like that. I would have none of this without that book and my mother's great gift of allowing me to write it. As I said, I know new readers are still finding it all the time. In fact, Abrams has some new plans for Mom's Cancer I'm excited about. I'll continue to blog about it and Cancer World when I have reason to.

Same guy, same stuff--plus some new stuff.

I hope you'll follow me over to the new place to learn more about The World of Tomorrow but, if not, thanks for being here. I appreciate it.


Monday, July 28, 2008

Comic-Con '08

Overview of about 4% of Comic-Con's exhibition floor.

I'm home from my day-and-a-half whirlwind trip to San Diego for Comic-Con International, and wondering whether I'm going to write a little or a lot about it. There doesn't seem to be a middle ground. I'm gonna try to keep this brief; we'll see how I do.

I flew into town about 10 o'clock Saturday--traditionally the con's busiest day--took a taxi to the Convention Center and got my badge with no trouble. One big difference this year was that Comic-Con was completely sold out in advance, meaning there were no on-site ticket sales. That seemed to change the people-flow quite a bit and, with no enormous mobs milling around the front doors, my first impression was that it was less crowded than usual. That impression was recalibrated once I got inside.

My publisher Abrams had a booth featuring their fine line of high-quality comics-related books, where I met a few people who'd only been e-mail addresses to me before. It's always fun to put a face with the @, and they're all great people who work incredibly hard. Selling books at a convention is a tough job.

My editor, the recently betrothed Charlie Kochman (hi Rachel!), with writer Mark Evanier and me. I arrived at the Con just as Mark was finishing a signing session for his beautiful book on Jack Kirby. Mark is the busiest man at Comic-Con, moderating 17 panels this year, but we had a few minutes to talk before he had to jet off to panel number 7 or 8.

Later in the day, fellow Abrams author and MAD Magazine great Al Jaffee was signing at the booth and I had a chance to talk with him as well. He couldn't have been sweeter. This is what Comic-Con is like for me: meeting people I've admired my entire life, having conversations in which my lips move but no intelligent words emerge, and feeling regret a day later when I think of all the insightful and meaningful things I should have said. It's still pretty cool, though.

Knowing my time was short, I pursued a focused strategy of finding the people I wanted to see and buying the stuff I wanted to buy, getting done in three hours what usually takes three days. I found Raina Telgemeier and had a really nice talk with her about upcoming projects, business strategy, and the terrors that wake us screaming in the night--although I think that last part was just me. There aren't a lot of people I get to talk shop with, and Raina was the first I'd seen for a while so I'm afraid she got the brunt of it. Her husband Dave Roman, who works for Nickelodeon when not doing his own projects, wasn't at the booth then but I caught up with him Sunday morning. I think they're both terrific talents who do great work.

Another talented pair I like is Otis Frampton and his wife Leigh, whom I've considered friends for a while but never really had time to sit down and get to know better until this weekend. Otis created the Oddly Normal series and has several other projects in the works, while Leigh is an expert at Adobe software and graphic design. Together, they're a perfectly complementary creative team, each filling the other's gaps and working together toward some very ambitious goals. Otis and Leigh generously invited me to a dinner party they hosted Saturday night where I met some of their friends and collaborators, including artist Jessica Hickman (illustrator of Oddly Normal Volume 3 and now working for Disney) and Grant Gould. Grant has a book coming out soon called "Wolves of Odin," and when I tell you what it's about you'll probably do the same thing I did when I first heard about it a few months ago: smack yourself in the head and say "Of course! Why didn't I think of that?" Here it is. Ready? Vikings versus Werewolves. As far as I'm concerned, that is your entire successful pitch right there. They should just back the money truck up to his door now.

Otis and Leigh, good people

This is also what Comic-Con is like for me: "Brian, this is Jessica and Grant." "Hi, great to meet you." Smalltalk smalltalk smalltalk, 20 minutes goes by, during which we start to share who we are and why we're there. Light bulbs switch on over our heads. "Ohhh, you're JESSICA!" "Ohhh, you're GRANT!" "Ohhh, you're BRIAN!" Then the real conversations begin. I can't tell you how often that happens, when you suddenly realize the nice person you're talking to is the same person who did that great thing you really liked last year. "Ohhh!"

Comic books and comic strips co-exist peaceably at Comic-Con, not quite overlapping or sure what to make of the other. But like a lot of fans I love both, and appreciate the chance to seek out comic strip art and creators. For example, there are always a couple of vendors displaying original art from Winsor McCay's "Little Nemo" comic strip from the early 1900s. If you go to Comic-Con and see a guy standing in front of those booths just staring at the artwork for 20 minutes, that's me. Long-time readers may recall that I have a small collection of original comic and cartoon art, most by friends and all very meaningful to me. This year I was thrilled to pick up an original daily "Pogo" by Walt Kelly, who occupies three spots in my personal list of All-Time Top Ten Cartoonists. August 11, 1965 is now mine, and I can cross one item off my Bucket List. My kids can finish college later.

The National Cartoonists Society set up its usual impressive booth, manned everytime I passed it by "Luann" cartoonist Greg Evans, with whom I had a nice talk about solar power and other things. Dan Piraro also put in a stint at the booth, and I unfortunately had just a few minutes to chat with Craig Boldman, who does "Archie" and with whom I've talked online before, when he had to race off to take part in a panel.

The NCS booth, with Greg Evans at the helm. This picture's for D.D. Degg.

"Mother Goose & Grimm" cartoonist Mike Peters was the subject of a spotlight panel, which gives creators a forum to talk about their careers or anything they want. It was probably the single most entertaining event I've ever attended at Comic-Con, and impossible to describe afterward. Moderator Mark Evanier played an excellent straight man, asking Mike a question and then pretending to be exasperated as Mike took hilarious 15-minute detours into his childhood or his mother's old television program in St. Louis or his Catholic military school education (wearing scapulas with Jesus's portrait on one side and Patton's on the other), only to end with Mark asking the exact same question and setting off another great story that barely addressed it. What an expressive, affectionate, free-associating, flamboyant personality! I left amazed that he could focus on anything long enough to actually sit down and draw a comic strip every day. It was the most fun I had all weekend.

Mark Evanier and Mike Peters. This picture is fuzzy because the lighting wasn't great, and I didn't intend to post it until I saw the expression on Mike's face. That expression pretty much sums up his entire talk.

Comic-Con would be nothing without several celebrity or near-celebrity sightings. Among mine: movie director John Landis, writer Ray Bradbury (in a wheelchair and honestly not looking real good, but hey! It's Ray Bradbury and he's a foot away from me!), Eric Estrada, Lou Ferrigno, Lindsay Wagner (still extremely rrowr!), Robert Culp (shook his hand and told him I enjoyed his work), others great and small. (Private note to Karen's brother: Tori Amos's book was all sold out and all tickets for her autograph session snapped up two days before I arrived. Sorry, man, I tried.) I had a very nice three-minute chat with writer-actor Wil Wheaton, who was a kid in the movie "Stand by Me," the teen-aged Wesley Crusher in "Star Trek," and now all grown up and writing a blog I like. Wil and I talked about being dads, a subject on which his depth of feeling matches my own.

"Star Trek" HQ, with Avery Brooks (Sisko from "Deep Space Nine"), Jonathan Frakes (Riker from "The Next Generation") and, behind them, Robert Picardo (the Doctor from "Voyager"). All three--and in fact every celebrity I saw at the con--were very gracious toward fans and seemed genuinely happy to be there.

I also want to mention a 17-year-old 'zine creator from Berkeley named Joseph Cotsirilos, who I met on the plane. Unfortunately, we didn't start talking until the plane's wheels touched down in San Diego. I ran into him a couple of times at the Con and wouldn't be surprised to hear his name again in a few years. Joseph, if you see this, your stories about the Marine recruitment center and the spilled drink in the subway in particular showed me you've got a nice eye for detail and observing life's telling moments. That's good stuff. Keep at it.

In addition, I had one cool ego-boosting moment I won't recount, as well as a fun moment with one of the facility security staff. On Saturday I asked a cute, young, petite brunette in a red "Staff" jacket where I could find something; as we were talking she apologized for her strong Irish accent and I reassured her she had absolutely nothing to apologize for. Next day as I walked into the Con she was manning the door, so as I passed by I pointed at her and said, "Hey, you're Irish!" as if I'd just figured it out, and she displayed the funniest mix of surprise, amazement, and bafflement I think I've ever seen in my life. Laughing, I told her we'd spoken the day before, and she said, "Thank God! I thought you could somehow see it in my face!" And that's all the flirting I did all weekend, honey, I promise.

Can you believe this is the short version? And I haven't even written anything about the real reason I was there. That's my next post....

Friday, July 25, 2008

Free to Breathe

Last year I wrote about a charity walk my sister Brenda ("Nurse Sis") helps organize to support the National Lung Cancer Partnership. The organization hosts several "Free to Breathe" run/walks around the country this time of year, including a 5K/1.5 mile event in Los Angeles on August 3. I don't vouch for much--for example, the reason I don't provide a long list of links to cancer-related sites on my blog or at momscancer.com is I don't feel I have the expertise to evaluate them or the time to keep them current--but the NLCP is a worthwhile organization that provided good information for me when Mom was diagnosed.

A few friends and readers were kind enough to donate last year and I thought I'd offer the same opportunity again. Brenda has set up a donation page for her fundraising team, "Barbara's Heroes," and if you're looking for a good cause to support please consider this one. Even small donations will be much appreciated.

I'll be flying off to Comic-Con International in San Diego early tomorrow morning. As I mentioned before, I wasn't planning to go this year, but something came up. I'll warn you right now: when I get back from the convention, things are going to be verrrry different around here.

Friday, July 18, 2008

What Have the Romans Ever Done For Us?

Voters in San Francisco have qualified an initiative for the November ballot that, if passed, would name a sewage treatment plant after President Bush. It's political theater meant as an insult. They think they're being cute and sarcastic--"ironic" in the current (wrong) usage of the term--by associating Bush with the dirty business of cleaning poo.

I come here today not to praise or condemn the president. Rather, I'd like to speak on behalf of sewage treatment.

In an earlier career, I spent many years working as an environmental chemist, a good deal of which involved water quality. I worked for and with engineers and chemists from water treatment plants, and still have friends in the sewage treatment business. And let me tell you: I am hard-pressed to think of much that is more basic to civilization. I'm serious. It's a cornerstone, right up there with roads and clean drinking water. Shut down the sewage treatment plants and see how long it takes diseases we don't even remember to charge back through our communities.

So when I heard about this initiative, my first thought was that it was less an insult to Bush than to all the engineers, chemists and technicians working at that plant who've just been told their jobs are a joke. I think the initiative's a stupid misstep that just reinforces the "elitist" reputation of its backers--evidently happy to use flush toilets as long as someone else gets their hands dirty--that could and should backfire on them. If I were President Bush, I'd proclaim it a sincere honor to have a sewage treatment plant named for me. Heck, if I were Bush, I might even fly into SFO to campaign for the initiative's passage.

More irrefutable evidence that water treatment plants are cool: they can teach you how to drive a starship. Or at least the producers of "Star Trek" thought so; when they needed a location to double for the 24th-century Starfleet Academy, they shot at the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in Van Nuys, California.

I wonder if the ballot initiative's proponents realize that Starfleet Academy will someday be located in San Francisco? We'll see who's laughing then.

Tillman Water Reclamation Facility (top)
and Starfleet Academy (below).

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Where in the World Are My Drawings?

The six of you who've followed my blog a while may remember me mentioning in January that the Norman Rockwell Museum, which borrowed eight pages of original art from Mom's Cancer for its "LitGraphic: The World of the Graphic Novel" exhibition, hoped to loan the show to other museums after it closed. The Rockwell curators tell me it's unusual for an exhibition of theirs to travel, but this one drew a lot of interest and was a real success for them.

Now I've received a letter with some details, including word that, if I agree to extend my loan (I will), I won't see my pages again until 2011. That makes me a little wistful. I'll miss them. However, as I told the Rockwell folks when I attended the exhibition's opening, they're better off hanging on their walls than sitting in a file folder under my desk.

Right now, museums interested in the show include the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois; the Huntington Museum of Art in Huntington, West Virginia; and the James A. Michener Museum of Art in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. I don't have any dates yet, and am told that other venues may be added to the list.

Notwithstanding my own contribution, this is a terrific show with amazing art I'd encourage you to see if you get the chance. I have no idea which works will comprise the traveling exhibition, but at the Rockwell Museum it included original art by Will Eisner, R. Crumb, Howard Cruse, Steve Ditko, Milt Gross, Peter Kuper, Harvey Kurtzman, Frank Miller, Terry Moore, Dave Sim, Art Spiegelman, and many more. All together, it made up a real nice cross section of comic history and art.

I can't express enough what an honor and thrill it's been to have my drawings hanging in a museum. It's other-worldly. And I couldn't have greater respect for or confidence in the Rockwell staff that will be handling the travel arrangements and babysitting my pages for the next few years. They are a first-class group of professionals. Also, very nice. A lot of other people I would've said "no" to.

At the Rockwell opening last November.
That's about as good as I clean up.


Friday, July 11, 2008

Chalk Talk

I've never made a big deal about the fact that a big-time syndicated cartoonist lives in my neighborhood. In fact, out of a high-minded notion of being cool and respecting his privacy, I don't think I've mentioned it at all. Out of that same sense of respect, I won't tell you who he is; I'll just show you two pictures I took of his driveway.

Karen and I noticed these on an after-dinner walk a couple of nights ago. I figure if he's going to out himself so shamelessly and publicly, I could at least share the charming results with you.

Sorry again for the dearth of posts. I'm on a tough deadline for at least the next few weeks and can't remember when I last worked so hard. It's good busy, even fun, but tough to sustain for so long. It's only temporary, I promise. Unless it kills me.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


I am so busy riding the deadline rocket sled that I can't even tell you. Can't tell you now, anyway, but in about a month you won't be able to shut me up.
I wasn't planning to attend the San Diego Comic-Con this year, but it looks like I'm going to be in town for a day after all. Saturday, to be specific, so I should be able to take a nice, leisurely stroll through the exhibition hall and not worry about overcrowding at all (that's a joke, son). I mention it now because I know some of my writer and artist buddies read the blog occasionally and Comic-Con is one of the few chances we get to meet. Don't be surprised to see me popping up at your table mid-Saturday. In fact, you probably shouldn't even take a lunch or bathroom break.
More later. Happy Canada Day (just past) and Independence Day (upcoming) to everyone who celebrates one of them.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Two Sorry Days

I want to say at the top that I don't expect or want any sympathy. That said...

I spent all of today doing the very thing that frustrates and angers me like no other: making a balky computer behave. Yesterday I upgraded my anti-virus software and discovered afterward that my photo uploading software no longer worked. No problem; I'll just reinstall it. Did that, then found that Photoshop wouldn't open, nor could I reinstall it--it froze up every time. This was getting serious. I could live without photo management, but I need Photoshop. Tried to fix that, and I think you see where this is going: by mid-morning I had completely screwed up everything, including the Office utilities (Word, Excel, etc.) upon which paying my mortgage most directly depends. Not only that, but I apparently crippled all the means available to me to repair the damage short of doing a complete reinstall of the operating system. Not my favorite option.

So, while my main computer passed the afternoon backing up all my files to an external hard drive--I hadn't destroyed any data yet but by that point I wouldn't have put it past me--I researched my problem online via laptop. Twenty minutes ago I implemented the most promising solution and ... it worked! Nothing was lost! All I had to do was reinstall Photoshop, which the stupid blinky box allowed me to do this time, and I was back in business.

Like I say, in a world where billions of people have no computers--or food, shelter, jobs, etc.--I'm not asking anyone to feel sorry for a guy with two computers and whose heaviest physical labor for the day involved moving back and forth between them. But I hate computers when they do this--HATE HATE HATE!--and have a lot of excess energy to spew your way. What a waste of a day.

Yesterday involved a gentler kind of frustration. I sat down to pencil and ink a couple of pages and found that I just wasn't drawing well. It was like slogging through concrete. Some days go like that. Sometimes I don't notice when a brush or nib goes bad and I think the problem is mine when it's really my tools'. I remember one stretch of four or five days when everything I drew was terrible, then realized I'd lost all my mojo the same day I switched to a different texture of paper.

That didn't seem to be the case yesterday. I hadn't actually inked anything in more than a week and might've been a little rusty. You just have to work through it, and I picked a couple of pages that I thought would be less artistically challenging than others. Nobody else would be able to see the difference. Happily, in my experience, when I look back later I can't really tell the difference between work done on a good or bad day, either.

Again, no sympathy needed. I'm just venting, and in fact it feels kinda good. Thanks, I feel better now.
P.S.: Perfect. I was just about to hit the "Publish" button when our home's cable Internet went out. If anyone other than me ever reads this, I guess it eventually came back on.

Looks like I picked the wrong day to use technology.
P.P.S.: Got the cable back after about three hours. I should just go to bed now.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Many people who aren't from California and have seen too much "Baywatch" are surprised by how agricultural the state is. California's Central Valley is some of the most productive farmland in the nation, and there are small towns a hundred miles from Los Angeles or San Francisco that are as rural as any you'd find in the deepest backwaters of South Dakota (and I pick on South Dakota because I love it). My father-in-law grew up in such a farm town, and it was to that town that Karen and I drove last weekend to attend the wedding of a friend's son.

We arrived several hours early because we wanted to check out a few things and meet Karen's sister and her family for lunch. The town had maybe 2500 people when my father-in-law was a boy working in his father's appliance store, but because it lies on a big highway and is within commuting distance of the Bay Area (it's a two-hour drive each way but some crazy people do it), it's grown to about 25,000. The highway is now lined with a Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Target and the like, which has destroyed the old downtown district three blocks away. Half the storefronts are deserted, the other half you wouldn't necessarily want to go into, but it still retains the architectural bones and charm of its early 20th-century origin. You think, "man, they'd really have something great here if they could just turn it around," but they probably won't and it'll all crumble away and that's the way of things these days.

After lunch, we all went to the local two-room museum because we'd heard there might be something of particular interest to us there. The "open" sign was up but the door was locked and we walked around puzzled, finally finding an unlocked side door that we obviously weren't meant to go through. But it had a bell on it, and we'd just begun to walk away when an 80ish docent poked his head through the door and beckoned us around to the front. He works in the back, you see, and gets so few visitors that it's easier for him to lock the front door and listen for the bell.

The museum had a genuinely interesting collection of artifacts spanning the town's pioneering days through World War II. It also had what we'd come to see: a poster-sized photo of Karen's father at age 9, standing with his father (Karen's grandfather) in front of the appliance store with two workers, proudly displaying the latest mid-1940s models of Maytag washers. We took some pictures of the picture, which the docent was happy to place on an easel for us, and were talking with the old man when he asked, "Say, whatever happened to your grandfather's rock collection?" Karen replied that her father still has most of it, and we walked away amazed and delighted that this really once was a town where everyone knew everyone else and there were still people forty? fifty? sixty? years later who remembered when ol' Frank had the best rock collection around.

We were reminded again at our next stop, the town's one antiques shop. Like a lot of businesses, the family appliance store used to give away things with its name printed on them: calendars, can openers, dolls. A few survive in the family, but we figured if we ever had the slightest chance of finding more it would be at the local antiques shop. No luck, but we did discover the 90-year-old owner, a woman who'd lived there 70 years and clearly intended to end her days surrounded by stacks of mostly junk. She was a real sweetheart. When we explained who Karen was and what we were looking for, she said, "Oh yes, Frank the electric man! He was so nice!" She told us a few stories about the way the town used to be and how it isn't like that anymore. She's been robbed a couple of times recently--see where they damaged the drawer of the antique cash register with a crowbar?--and when we expressed amazement that she actually kept cash in the old thing she taught my wife the trick to getting it open. Fortunately, her trust was not misplaced.

It became an unxpectedly heartwarming weekend for us, thanks to a museum volunteer and an antiques dealer who couldn't have been happier to meet my wife--Frank's granddaughter and little Bobby's daughter--and made us a bit homesick for a home we never had.


Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Phantom Strikes Again!

Here's what I like about living in the 21st Century. Frank Mariani is a cartoonist and illustrator I've become friends with online. Frank also helps organize the "Lindsay's Legacy" run to fight childhood cancer, which I wrote about last October.

So Frank read my previous post about the Phantom unmasking for the first time in history and dropped a line to his buddy Graham Nolan, who drew the Phantom comic strip for several years until 2006. And Nolan replied with this Sunday Phantom strip from October 2003:

The Phantom unmasked! (Gasp!) In his reply, Nolan noted that overseas Phantom fans were very upset with him when this was published. For now, this stands as the earliest record of the mysterious Mr. Walker's* true face.

Many thanks to Frank and Graham for following up on such a silly subject and giving me permission to write about it.



*For "The Ghost Who Walks"


Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Quick Bits 2

1. The Phantom comic strip has been in continuous publication since its debut on February 17, 1936. In all that time, readers have never seen the Phantom's unmasked face, unless hidden behind huge sunglasses and wide-brimmed hat. Until today:

That's him in panel 3, in bed with his wife, sleeping in his purple tights and stripey trunks. History in the making. You'll always remember where you were when you saw it.

2. Mark Evanier's blog alerts me to a second historic occasion, this heroic shattering of a world record:

I think that clip simultaneously captures everything that's wrong with America and everything that's right with it.

3. When someone asks me what my fee would be to speak to their group, I really ought to come up with a better answer than to snort hot chocolate through my nose and choke.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

New Coolest Picture Ever

I'm not intending my blog to become "all Mars all the time," but c'mon, I can't let this pass:
. My friend Sherwood the Astronomer left a comment in yesterday's post informing me that the reign of yesterday's Coolest Picture Ever has ended, and so it has. We have a cooler Coolest Picture Ever.

This is a shot from HiRISE, the same Mars satellite that took the parachute photo as well as the great photo of the Earth and Moon I loved back in March. It's looking straight down on the Phoenix lander from space. And not just the lander: this image also shows where Phoenix's heat shield, parachute, and backshell (a protective cover ejected before touchdown) all landed.

The quality and resolution of this image is astounding. Phoenix isn't very large, about five feet tall and wide, but you can even make out its two solar panels unfurled to the sides (spanning about 18 feet tip to tip). A person could walk across this picture in a couple of minutes. The beautiful part is that HiRISE is charting the entire planet at this level of detail. I'll bet there are spots on Earth we haven't seen this well.

What a triumph! And how amazing that we take such triumphs for granted. Science has spoiled us.

EDITED TO ADD: Just found this photo, which puts the former Coolest Picture Ever into even cooler perspective. It turned out that the photo released yesterday was a heavily processed blow-up of a much larger HiRISE image. Here's the original:

Hard to see at Blogger resolution, but the inset at lower left shows what that little white speck looks like magnified. This is Phoenix and its parachute drifting in front of the large Heimdall Crater (same photo as yesterday--they only had one shot at this). The probe was still several kilometers high at this point and landed nowhere near the crater. But that's some impressive context!


Monday, May 26, 2008

Coolest Picture Ever

Building on my previous post and tying in to an older one, this is the coolest picture ever. This is a photo of the Phoenix lander and its parachute as it descended toward the surface of Mars on Sunday. You can see some detail in the parachute and even a hint of the lines connecting the chute and lander.
Immediate obvious question: Who took this picture? Why, our old friend HiRISE (High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting and mapping Mars since March 2006. So an Earth probe circling Mars was aimed to take a picture of another probe landing on Mars. What I love about this image is that it probably happened just because someone said, "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if...?" And it is, very cool.

Now that Phoenix has landed, I imagine they'll ask HiRISE to try to photograph it on the surface as well--if for no other reason than to figure out exactly where it is. I've seen HiRISE pictures of the two Mars rovers (Opportunity and Spirit) already there, and Phoenix should be baaaaarely visible from orbit.

What a great time to be alive.

Quick Bits

  • I'm very excited about the successful landing of the Phoenix craft on Mars. Unlike other recent Mars machines, but very reminiscent of the Viking landers of my teens, Phoenix can't move. It will sit in one spot, scoop up soil (and, with luck, ice), and analyze it with a small onboard chemistry lab looking for complex organic compounds. The first photos from the landing site are coming in, and I'm again struck with the wonder of seeing something for the first time that no one in human history has seen before. Terrific!
  • .
  • We're not finding our quail family around the yard anymore, but trust they scuttled away safely. Taking over their niche in our little domestic ecosystem has been a group of three or four squirrels that look like young siblings. They're having a joyous time chasing each other through the trees and digging up Karen's newly planted flower pots. As always, our indoor cats are not amused. Nor is Karen, much.
  • .
  • Following up on this post, the family and I saw the new Indiana Jones movie on Friday. We all found Indy much too indestructable but thought there were enough good character and action moments to compensate. We each had our own quibbles and favorite bits, but on consensus thought it was worth our time and money. Not the painful embarrassment it could have been by any means.
  • .
  • EDITED TO ADD because I forgot to mention that I also made ravioli from scratch for the first time in my life this weekend. Fresh ricotta, mozzerella and parmesan blended with oregano and pinched between sheets of homemade pasta. My girls and I did it together and it was good. Suggestions for future ravioli stuffings will be gratefully accepted.

  • Today is Memorial Day in the U.S. Take a second to remember why.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Orphan Works

I wish I posted more often and regularly, but I've been awfully busy and blogging takes time, what with the thinking and writing and all. My site stats say a bunch of you check in regularly and I appreciate it.

"Orphan Works" is a topic that's really riled up my cartooning and illustrating acquaintances. Senate Bill S2913 is the Shawn Bentley Orphan Works Act of 2008 and HR5889 is its counterpart in the House. If the legislation passes, it will dramatically change copyright law in the U.S., and not for the benefit of creative types. I'm trying to educate myself and haven't actually yet read the text of the bill, so my comments are tentative and based on what others tell me.

As I understand it, Orphan Works are creative products--books, articles, essays, photos, artwork, cartoons--that somebody wants to reproduce but can't find the original copyright holder to pay or ask permission. As the law stands now, you'd be a criminal fool to say "what the heck" and use it anyway; someone owns the rights to the work even if you don't know who. If the Orphan Works bill passes, it would make it legal to do a diligent search for the work's original owners and, if you can't find them, not only go ahead and use it but register it for protection under your own copyright. What exactly constitutes a "diligent search" isn't defined.

Here's part of the problem: before 1978, if you created something and wanted to copyright it, you had to pay a small fee and register it with the U.S. Copyright Office. But in 1978 the law changed so that creators obtain copyright to their work the moment they create it without doing anything at all. You don't have to register or pay a fee; if you made it, you automatically own the legal rights to it and get to decide what happens to it. (If you want, you can still register with the U.S. Copyright Office, which does leave a useful paper trail. But you don't have to.) From the creator's point of view, that's great. It really cuts down on the hassle and expense. The drawback is that it doesn't create an official record for someone else to follow.

So let's say you wrote or drew something a few years ago. Maybe the publisher went out of business, maybe your signature or byline isn't legible, maybe your work is clearly marked “©1989 Bob Smith” but there are a million Bob Smiths in America so good luck finding the right one. Maybe you've got an old family photo posted on the Web. Or maybe you created one of those memes that just floats around the Internet. Next thing you know, someone else could take your work, register it as theirs, and crank out t-shirts, posters, books, movies and breakfast cereals based on your stuff. They could even prevent you from using it. And there's nothing you could do about it.

You can understand where the outrage comes from. Some artists call it legalized theft. Some imagine giant corporations laying claim to all the work they can find and bulldozing any creators who come out of the woodwork to object. Some fear the establishment of a registration clearinghouse--essentially a return to the pre-1978 situation--that could put them out of business (imagine being a magazine cartoonist creating 50 gags a week and having to register them all at $20 a pop).

I can actually see both sides of the issue. As a writer, I'm a very vigorous defender of copyright and I'd be outraged if someone took my words, art or characters and used them without my permission (if there's any exploiting to be done, it'll be by me!). I created 'em, I say what happens to 'em. I really despise the whole modern song-sharing software-pirating mash-up-media "information should be free" ethic. It's disrespectful. As I've written before: especially in a society that produces so few material goods anymore, the most valuable products we have are ideas; if you think my ideas are good enough to steal, you ought to think they're worth asking permission or paying for.

On the other hand... I'm working on a project now that incorporates bits of old artwork. One was copyrighted by General Motors in the 1940s, so I wrote GM (they've got a whole department for the purpose) and paid them a fair fee to license its use. Another was produced by a now-deceased artist in the 1950s, so I tracked down his estate and got their permission to use it. But there are other pieces done for publications long defunct by obscure artists long dead who as far as I can tell left no heirs. They're terrific work I'd really like to use but I can't and won't. That's a shame, and it also seems contrary to the original spirit of copyright, which was to give creators a reasonable time to profit from their work before freeing it for use by everyone (that's called "public domain," which is why anyone who wants to can write a Dracula or Sherlock Holmes story). Instead, the work is locked away and nobody benefits.

Still, it seems clear to me that the current Orphan Works bill is an abomination that ought to be stopped. It's an overkill solution to an insignificant problem. I'd urge you to write your legislators blah blah blah, and I have, but I don't really expect you to. I just thought you'd like to know what they're up to and why your favorite cartoonists may seem grouchy lately.

My copyright registration for Mom's Cancer.
So don't even think about trying any funny business.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

To the Bat Ballot!

Upcoming elections make this a perfect time to pause and reflect on the wisdom of the Caped Crusader:

The nice thing about the clip is that it works no matter what your political persuasion. Because, you see, all the pandering and dirty tricks are the fault of those other guys.... Never yours.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Mothers Day '08

Yesterday was Mothers Day in the U.S., and I let it pass without mention. One reason is that Karen and I were out of town spending the day with our kids. Another is that I couldn't think of much interesting to say.

But of course I was thinking about and missing Mom. It's only in retrospect, and with the perspective of being a parent myself, that I realize how much she loved her children and genuinely wanted nothing but happiness for us. And gave to us unconditionally... including, I realized too late, giving me the final gift of letting me write a book about her. Thanks, Mom. Love you, too.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Cap'n, There Be Quails Here!

About 11 months ago, I wrote about a family of blue scrub jays that had nested in our backyard. Those fledglings are long gone (though I wonder if some of the babies I so carefully nurtured have grown into the annoying squawkers who dominate our bird feeder--if so, nice payback, guys), but today we found that another family has assumed their lease: Quail.

We count seven young'uns. Sorry the picture quality isn't better...

We've seen Dad around a lot in the past week. He's particularly handsome, a finely plumed dandy. He flies pretty well for a quail, too. We've been surprised to notice him watching us from high tree branches overhead. This morning the reasons for his diligence introduced themselves by scrambling over to a small shallow birdbath we have sitting in the dirt, taking a quick refreshing dip, then scurrying back to cover. I couldn't catch it with the camera, but there was a squirrel sitting nearby watching them the entire time, while one of our cats was perched on the windowsill watching both quail and squirrel and cursing the inventor of glass.

Family photo of Dad, Mom and a couple of chicks

I like the idea of our little suburban yard being a nature preserve. Once word gets out, there'll be no keeping the critters away.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

He's the Cool Exec with a Heart of Steel

Karen and I saw "Iron Man" yesterday and liked it a lot. As a once-enthusiastic collector of "The Avengers," Marvel Comics' Justice-League-like supergroup that Iron Man helped form, I'm an old fan of shellhead's adventures.

I found the film very respectful of its source material--unlike many comic book adaptations that wink at their origins--and surprisingly faithful. Southeast Asia circa 1963 was easily updated to Afghanistan today. It has a nice mix of humor and action. Robert Downey Jr. plays Tony Stark perfectly as a suave mix of Howard Hughes, Bill Gates and Errol Flynn. Stark has a satisfying emotional arc from insouciant weapons dealer to conscience-stricken knight, and Jeff Bridges plays the villain Stane with a great combination of warmth and menace. You'd believe he was your best friend until the second he stuck a knife in your ribs, and might even believe him when he said he regretted doing it.

All in all, I'd call it one of the best comic book movies ever and, more importantly, a movie that audiences completely unfamiliar with Iron Man (admittedly a second-tier character) will enjoy. My only caveat is that it's fairly violent; Iron Man doesn't hesitate to kill bad guys who deserve it, and though the deaths are mostly bloodless and off-screen, they might be too much for young or sensitive viewers.

That's all well and good, but I don't normally post movie reviews unless I have ulterior motives. In this case, I noticed an end credit acknowledging the work of four men in creating Iron Man: editor Stan Lee, (who makes his customary cameo in the film), writer Larry Lieber (Stan's brother, who wrote Iron Man's early stories), Jack Kirby (who I believe designed Iron Man's first armor), and ... Don Heck, Iron Man's first artist. I wrote about Mr. Heck in April, citing him as my personal example of an artist whose work I didn't appreciate until my critical eye had matured. Heck's loose brushwork was perfect for the Swingin' Sixties James Bond vibe of the early Iron Man stories. It was nice to see a maligned artist get his deserved due.

Iron Man sketch by Don Heck, done in the late 1960s

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Baby Blues

One of the very nice things about being a member of the Charles M. Schulz Museum is that you don't have to waste a lot of time seeking out your favorite cartoonists. Sooner or later, they all come to you.

So it was last Sunday, when I went to a talk and book signing by the gentlemen who do the successful comic strip "Baby Blues," Jerry Scott (writing) and Rick Kirkman (art). Jerry had been scheduled to appear last year with his "Zits" co-creator Jim Borgman but canceled for a medical emergency, so it was good to finally see him. They gave a swell chalk talk in the museum's little theater, clearly something they have a lot of experience with. Jerry spoke and Rick drew, anticipating and punctuating each other's points like a good comedy team, and they did a nice job talking about the origin of the strip, how their partnership works, how they developed the characters and themes, etc.

View from the back row of the theater. My wife and I habitually
sat up front for these things until we figured out that, when it came
time to queue up for book signings afterward, everyone behind us
got to file out of the room and get in line first. We learn by doing.

The most fun part of the talk was a look at some of the outraged letters they receive from readers--some not entirely unexpected, as when the strip jokes about (and shows) breastfeeding, but others from completely beyond left field. For example, I learned that you never want to anger square dancers. They also marveled at the mail they got when cartoonist Stephan Pastis borrowed their characters for his "Pearls Before Swine" comic strip--for example, showing the "Baby Blues" toddlers driving a car to go on a beer run. The very best part of that story? Stephan himself sitting beside me in the theater laughing his butt off.

I was really looking forward to meeting Jerry and Rick afterward. Jerry I didn't know, but Rick and I have met electronically in an Internet forum. He's said some very kind things about Mom's Cancer and even given me some invaluable Photoshop advice. So I figured he'd recognize my name, and it turned out Jerry did, too, and we all had a very nice conversation for a minute until it was time to move the line along.

Rick, Jerry and me

What Rick is drawing in the photo above. This
brings my collection of original "Mom and Dad
cartoon character art" to two (see Borgman).

Once again, after hearing Scott and Rick's talk, I was struck by how hard these guys work. Anytime I've met professionals at the top of their field (any field, not just cartooning), I came away impressed by the time and dedication they devote to it. That seems like such an obvious secret of success--"hard work, huh, who'da figured?"--and yet it seems to be the one thing I've seen that always separates the achievers from the wannabes. It also always strengthens my resolve to do better.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Cat-Shaving Weather

It's spring. The days grow longer, flowers shoulder their way out of the warming earth, the scent of barbeque wafts through the neighborhood. Have you shaved your cat today?

I've written about Amber the Simple Cat before. Amber joined our family after a veterinarian friend of ours saved her wee kitten life. She was found alone in a field, just a few weeks old, comatose, and our good friend nursed her back from the brink. Then this good, good friend called us and asked if we could give the kitten a home because, if we didn't, he was regretfully going to have to send her to the pound and his heroic life-saving effort would likely be in vain. "Oh, and by the way, she's probably brain damaged."

Well, you can't say "no" to a good, good, good friend like that. I wanted to name her "Eileen" because she had no cat-balance abilities at all (like the old joke: "I lean"), but my wife and kids vetoed that as an affront to her dignity (like how's she gonna know?) so we settled on "Amber" after her golden color. And she's been a fine addition to our family, with luckily no lingering health problems and a disposition just as sweet as she is stupid. Which is very.

Now, Amber is a tabby with long hair. We didn't know about the long hair when we took her in, nor did we anticipate that she'd never really get the hang of grooming herself, she'd hate brushing, and our other cats would be no help whatsoever. All autumn and winter she builds up massive mats and tangles, shedding ever more elaborate tufts throughout the house; every spring when the weather turns warm enough, we have our good, good, good, good friend shave it all off.

If you're ever in my home and want to know if spring has arrived, just look for the naked pissed-off bobble-headed cat.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Ollie Johnston

I'm lifting my head above the surface of work and deadlines to note the passing of animator Ollie Johnston, the last of Disney's "Nine Old Men." Walt Disney himself gave the group its name--though most were only in their thirties at the time--in deference to their pioneering work in the earliest days of the studio, when they refined a new art form beginning with Snow White and progressing through about the 1970s.

Johnston began working for Disney in 1935 and animated movies ranging from Snow White, Fantasia, Bambi and Pinocchio to The Rescuers. He retired in 1978. In 2005, President Bush presented Johnston the NEA National Medal of Arts in recognition of his career. Late in life, he and his partner Frank Thomas--the second-to-last "Old Man"--experienced something of a renaissance, as younger audiences remembered and honored their work. They became the subjects of a popular documentary film, Frank and Ollie, and won much well-deserved recognition. Among Johnston's new generation of fans were director Brad Bird, who used caricatures of Frank and Ollie in The Iron Giant, and the people at Pixar, who put them in The Incredibles (also directed by Bird). It was nice to see.

Johnston in Iron Giant (top), and Frank and
Ollie in The Incredibles, voiced by themselves

There are far more knowledgeable Disney experts and animation historians who can talk about Johnston and his colleagues' artistic contributions. Jim Hill is one. What Ollie Johnston meant most to me was that he and Thomas wrote The Illusion of Life, an inside look at the art and process behind Disney's classic films. Though ostensibly about animation, I think it's also an excellent book for cartoonists and even writers, and one of the first I recommend when asked.

The Illusion of Life is a beautifully illustrated coffee-table "How To" book. I'm sure it's one of the first that a serious student buys when they get to animation school, but I think it's more than that. What I got out of the book was less about how to do the work than how to approach it, and those lessons apply far beyond animated cartoons. I was amazed by how much thought went into the apparently simplest of things. How much analysis lay behind structuring stories and building characters. It's hard, and it's supposed to be hard, but if you do it right it looks easy--even inevitable, as if it were impossible to imagine turning out any other way. I use insights from this book every time I draw.

When I pulled my copy of Illusion of Life off the shelf this morning, I found tucked into its pages a few sheets of paper I printed off the Web more than 10 years ago summarizing advice from Johnston as passed on by Pixar's John Lasseter. Luckily, the same list is still available online. The 30 tips include technical notes that only an animator would need, but also some good advice for anyone creating characters in any medium. For example:
  • If possible, make definite changes from one attitude to another in timing and expression.

  • It is the thought and circumstances behind the action that will make the action interesting. Example: A man walks up to a mailbox, drops in his letter, and walks away. OR: A man desperately in love with a girl far away carefully mails a letter in which he has poured his heart out.

  • Concentrate on drawing clear, not clean.

  • Everything has a function. Don't draw without knowing why.

  • Does the added action in a scene contribute to the main idea in that scene? Will it help sell it or confuse it?

Solid gold principles to write and draw by. More information about Johnston is available from Disney and at the official (and not recently updated) Frank and Ollie website. The Associated Press has written a nice obit as well.

Edited to Add: New links to nice tributes by animator Brad Bird and writer/animator John Canemaker.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008


This little feller rudely woke me up too early this morning. Quick and loud. No harm done.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Seminar: Living Well with Cancer, April 19

I did such a swell job publicizing the last event hosted by the Washington Cancer Institute in Washington DC that they asked me to do it again. This looks like a worthwhile series of free seminars and I'm happy to comply:

Living Well with Cancer – April 19, 2008

Washington Cancer Institute at Washington Hospital Center invites you to its second FREE Living Well with Cancer seminar of the year featuring Alice Matthews Beers, BSN, an oncology nurse and expert on cancer patient recovery. Beers will provide information and guidance on how to communicate effectively with your doctors and other health care providers about post-treatment issues. She will also address the importance of a healthy emotional recovery by discussing how to recognize and manage anxiety, depression and fatigue.

The event will be held on Saturday, April 19, from 9 a.m. to Noon at the National Rehabilitation Hospital Auditorium located on the Washington Hospital Center campus, 102 Irving St., NW, Washington, DC 20010. To register, please call 202-877-DOCS (3627) or register online at www.whcenter.org/livingwell

Friday, April 04, 2008

Casting a Critical Eye

Back when "Calvin and Hobbes" was an actual daily comic strip, a person of my close acquaintance looked up from the newspaper and asked, "Is Bill Watterson a really good cartoonist?" I assured them that Watterson was fantastic, one of the best working at the time, maybe one of the best ever. "I thought so," came the reply. "But it's hard to tell."

I understood the question. Watterson's brushwork is so economical and confident, I could see how it might look sloppy and slapdash to a "civilian." What was evident to me--but, as I was reminded, not to everyone--was the bedrock foundation of artistic fundamentals underlying it. Perspective, composition, expression, use of negative space. Watterson was also particularly smart about what he didn't draw. For example, if you or I set out to draw two characters walking through a snowy field, we might show drifts piled against fence posts, icicles hanging from tree limbs, rocks protruding through a crunchy crust. In contrast, Watterson followed Walt Kelly's directive: the best way to draw snow is to draw nothing at all. Feet disappearing into the ground, a scraggly weed, everything else blinding white as far as the eye can see. With such scant clues, you still immediately get a feel for how deep the snow is, maybe even its texture. That's fine cartooning.

I'm reminded of Jack Benny's ability to get laughs with silence, the audience reading his mind and filling in funnier responses than he could possibly voice. One imagines that the perfect cartoonist would somehow be able to communicate an idea by drawing nothing at all.

(Remember my post on Victorian era cartoonist Phil May? "When I can leave out half the lines I now use, I shall want six times the money." A cartoonist who figures out how to omit all the lines should get all the money.)

Of course there's more to cartooning than economy. A fairly common topic among cartoonists is "artists I didn't think were any good when I was young but love now." You hear names like Steve Ditko, Alex Toth, Chester Gould. My example is a comic book artist named Don Heck. When I was a kid reading Marvel Comics' "Avengers," Heck's credit on the title page made me groan. Part of the problem was that in the 1970s, when I was a young teenager collecting comics, Heck was in poor health and winding down his career. In addition, he was often called in to do rush jobs on tight deadlines when other artists couldn't. Frankly, I didn't catch him at his best.

But my main problem with Heck was that I just didn't "get" his style, which was so different from either the pop-art Jack Kirby or super-slick Neal Adams styles popular at the time. At his best, Heck did loose, sophisticated, impressionistic, dynamic brushwork in the tradition of newspaper great Milt Caniff ("Terry and the Pirates," "Steve Canyon"). He had a great eye for layout and storytelling, and a successful career in romance and western comics before superheroes hit big in the 1960s. It wasn't until I learned a little about the history and craft of cartooning, and maybe tried to do some myself, that I really appreciated how tremendously skillful he was.

Art by Don Heck ca. 1966

I've learned you can come to respect work that you don't particularly like. I recently had a cup of coffee with a syndicated cartoonist, during which the conversation turned to a comic strip done by another syndicated cartoonist. "I don't really like his strip," he said. "It's just not my thing. But you can tell at first glance that he's a great cartoonist who belongs on the comics page." I think that's a mature way to look at things, and I've got a fairly long list of artists like that: I'll probably never buy their work, it just doesn't appeal to me, but they're obviously very skilled professionals doing terrific stuff that somebody out there will really appreciate. I'll also admit there are artists I still don't get despite the raves of people whose opinions I trust. I'm always open to the possibilities that either they're wrong or I need to get educated.

How can you tell the good from the bad? The "so good it looks simple" from the "looks simple because it really is simple"? I'm not sure. Read a lot, I guess. Good cartooning is always clear; if you have to stop and go back because you missed something or don't understand what a character is doing or how the action progresses, that's a failure (the cartoonist's, not yours). You shouldn't have to think about it. If a piece of writing or art makes me care about the characters and feel something--happy, sad, even appalled--I figure it's doing something right.

Honestly, I think I divide other people's work into three categories: 1.) I could do that. 2.) I wish I could do that. 3.) Wow, I have no idea how they did that. I think many people's taste evolves and matures as they realize that a lot of work they thought fell into Category 1 really belongs in Categories 2 or 3.


Sunday, March 30, 2008

More a "Guideline" than a "Rule"

A few entries ago, I posted a photo of my identical twin girls when they were wee babies just a few days old. In the comments, Jan asked, "Shouldn't we get an 'after' photo of the girls, since the 'before' is so lovely?" That's a more interesting request than you might expect.

When I first started blogging, one of the "rules" I set myself was to keep my family out of it as much as practical. Especially after exposing my mom, dad and sisters in Mom's Cancer, it seemed the least I could do was respect everybody's privacy. And in general, I think the less personal information you broadcast about yourself, the better. As a result, I've only posted one or two photos of my wife and none at all of my kids (as non-infants).

However, as I later discussed privately with some friends and fellow bloggers with similar concerns, the unintended consequence is that you end up writing about everything in your life except the most important people in it. That doesn't seem right, either. Besides, we're all friends here, right?

So from time to time, when I have good reason and I get their permission, I'll try to loosen up and sneak in my family. In that spirit, for Jan and anyone else who cares, here's a photo of my girls now, all growed up and headed back to college today after spring break. As good and important as it gets.

Laura and Robin

Edited to Add: And here they were a couple of years ago, when I drew them for my book. That's me at left (yes, I own that Hawaiian shirt) and my wife Karen at lower right.


Friday, March 28, 2008

The Denial of Something Essential

Last weekend I read a Q&A column by San Francisco Chronicle movie critic Mick LaSalle, in which a reader asked why modern film actresses don't get the same loving attention to lighting and cinematography that, for example, Von Sternberg lavished on Marlene Dietrich. The reader asked, "What's missing?"

"Black and white is what's missing," LaSalle replied. "The denial of something essential (like color) creates a longing in the viewer, which translates into an arresting image."

I think exactly the same thing happens in cartooning. It's all about "the denial of something essential," distilling characters and situations into the fewest words and lines possible--just enough to communicate an idea. When information is missing, readers fill in the rest--they yearn to fill in the rest--and the less the cartoonist gives them, the more invested they can become. Paradoxically, the more abstract a story, the more real it can seem. Somehow, a few squiggles of ink become a boy waiting by a mailbox for a Valentine's Day card that never comes. A few squiggles of ink can make you happy or sad. That's amazing.

I've mentioned this before, but I got a modest glimpse of this with Mom's Cancer when I heard from a few readers who said, "I'm not like you, my family's not like yours, and we weren't dealing with cancer, but it's just like you were in our living room." None of the details fit but somehow it still hit home in a way that felt very specific. That's also amazing.

Even more than black-and-white film, I think cartooning demands that its readers do their share the heavy lifting. That's one reason the characters in Mom's Cancer didn't have names: if I don't tell you what they're called, maybe their name is the same as yours. That's also why my editor and I didn't want to put a family photo in the book: it would've turned those abstract characters who maybe sort of resemble you and your family into real people who don't look anything like you at all. The more details I give, the more opportunities you have to find differences between us. I've thought a lot about how and why cartooning sometimes seem to tap directly into a reader's brain, and I think that's close.

I really like LaSalle's "denial of something essential" formulation. Of course for that to work, you also have to provide something essential and meet the audience half way. Otherwise, you've denied them too much to make any connection with the work at all. I think that's the difficult and rewarding (when it works) give-and-take conversation that the best writers, artists and cartoonists have with their readers or viewers.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Storming the Canon

Deadlines. Lots and lots of deadlines. Your loyalty is appreciated and feared.

Rod McKie is a British cartoonist, critic, and Internet buddy of mine, and one of the early supporters of Mom's Cancer who encouraged me to seek publication. He's got a blog I like in which he wrote a recent post about graphic novels that opened with, "Okay, I think I can just about stop doing the nerdy 'graphic novels' air-brackets." Rod argues (if I understand him right) that graphic novels have proven their worth as literature and it's time to quit explaining or apologizing for them. Writes Rod:

Often, a novel is full of impossible, trite and inapt descriptions that seek to convey, for instance, a sense of place. They work in absence of a visual image, employing metaphor and simile and symbolism, and almost always speak of comparison, which is of course one of the constraining limits of language itself. A graphic novel, on the other hand, still uses the same language, but the image is often there, on the page, where 1,000 or more words of descriptive text would be. The written text then, the words on the page, can be more sparse or even non-existent. It seems that when this is the case, the literary critic cannot understand how to 'read' the work, and so, one assumes, how to judge its literary value.

Rod hits on a point I've made before, which is that a good graphic novelist needs to have all the skills of a good writer plus the ability to draw. In any case, Rod then goes on to look at the graphic novels Persepolis, From Hell, Road to Perdition, Blankets, and Houdini the Handcuff King with an eye toward how they might fit into the literary canon. I commented:

That's a nice, insightful essay, thanks for writing it.

I think I'm coming around to the view that the graphic novel's yearning for literary respectability is hardly worth the fight. There's something faintly desperate and pathetic about it, banging on the clubhouse door begging to be let in, and it's an argument that can only really be won by creators doing one excellent job after another for a long time--building, as you suggest, a canon. In this, I think we're sometimes our own worst enemies. I've met comics fans who argue with a straight face that Watchmen is the best work of literature they've ever read. The only possible answer for that is that they need to read a lot more. Too many readers' standards are too low.

In point of fact, I think it's inarguable that graphic novels haven't yet produced anything on par with the best of Dickens/Twain/Joyce/Hemingway/Orwell/Literary Giant of Your Choice. They just haven't. I'd like to think that graphic novels have that potential, but I sometimes wonder if there's something inherently limiting in the medium. In any case, what I'm getting at is that may be the wrong comparison to make. I suggest we worry less about bashing in the door of the other guys' clubhouse than building our own. If, in time, ours becomes interesting and impressive enough, they'll come to us.

It's late at night, that's off the top of my head, and I may change my mind tomorrow....

Well, it's morning and I still feel that way. But it's a topic on which I'm open to argument and willing to be swayed. I look at it like this: let's take a graphic novel that everybody agrees is great: say, Maus by Art Spiegelman. Certainly one of the Top Five graphic novels on almost anyone's list, a Pulitzer Prize winner that crossed over to the mainstream and is taught in college classrooms. (If you don't like Maus, substitute your own favorite.) Great. But is Maus one of the best five books in the library? Not even close. Top 50? Not on most readers' lists. Top 500? Maybe.

Could some hypothetical graphic novel become one of the best five books ever written? As I replied to Rod, I'd like to think so but I'm not certain the medium has it in it. The only way creators and readers will find out is by aiming higher. Even if they fall short, there's a lot of uncharted territory to explore and the results will be interesting.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Cats, We Got Cats

Here's a late birthday present for my girls, who I know will relate, as will many cat owners:

To quote detective Adrian Monk, "I LOL'd out loud."

We all had a great birthday weekend, I think. Now back to work for everyone. Kids, quit goofing around online and study for your finals!


Friday, March 14, 2008

Ides of March Eve

Today is a really good day. The evidence:

1. It's "π Day," 3.14. Please notice that I've manipulated the post time to read 1:59 (p.m.), which pointlessly carries the digits of π out three points further. (If I wanted to do it right, I'd calculate that 0.159 of a day equals 3 hours 48 minutes 58 seconds, and reset the post clock to 3:48:58 a.m. But I'm not that big a nerd.)

2. A few days after 20 years ago tomorrow, I was doing this:

Apologies for the picture's stripes.
A new scanner is on order.

My two little pooquita chiquitas celebrate their birthday tomorrow, and Karen and I are taking a cake, gifts, and a couple of their girlfriends to spend the day at their all-grown-up big-girl university. In contrast to 20 years ago, I think today if they ganged up and used some strategy, they'd have a fair chance of taking me. Good thing I instilled all that respect when I had the chance. Right, girls? Right?

3. One other reason.

I hope you have a great weekend, I think I will.


Sunday, March 09, 2008

One Of Those Days....

Below is my impromptu ranking of some artistic media I've used. On top are those with which I have the most practice, can usually achieve the look I intend, and enjoy working. The farther down the list a medium falls, the more likely it is to make me waste many frustrating hours before throwing away the result.

#1. Ink and brush
#2. Watercolor
#3. Acrylic
#4. Pastels
#10. Oils
#34. Wacom tablet and computer
#73. Dog poo and a wiggly twig
#652. Gouache

Stupid gouache.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Shake shake BOOM! rattlerattlerattlerattle

I felt this cute little earthquake about eight minutes ago.

An amusing trifle, really; just a magnitude 2.2 that wouldn't be noteworthy at all except the US Geological Survey says its epicenter was 5 km directly below my house. Someday the Gates of Hell will open up in my backyard and you'll all be sorry. But I'll be sorrier.

I Can See My House From Here

I find this photo very moving.

That's a picture of the Earth and Moon as seen from the planet Mars. Frankly, I didn't know we had anything in the Martian neighborhood with optics good enough to take a shot like that, and at first suspected it was a fake. But it's real, shot by the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter currently orbiting the red planet. Usually it's pointed down toward the ground. By the way, NASA says that's the west coast of South America in that picture, and in a higher-res version I can just make it out.

What strikes me is that we go to all the trouble of sending these spacecraft out to explore the unknown millions of miles away, yet are moved most powerfully when they point their cameras back at us. It's the same reaction the world had when the Apollo 8 astronauts became the first humans to see the far side of the Moon first-hand* and photographed Earth rising over the lunar horizon as they flew back around. To paraphrase Carl Sagan, everything you know and love, everything that ever happened in all of human history, all the life we have knowledge of anywhere in the universe, is on that fragile little blue sphere.

I've seen a few photos like this before. As I recall, one of the Voyager probes photographed the Earth-Moon pair as it soared away from us on its way out of the solar system. We send surrogate eyes out only to look back and see ourselves more clearly. These pictures get me every time.


* The Soviets took the very first pictures of the far side of the Moon via unmanned probe, which is why most of the craters back there have Russian names.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

In Praise of Pioneers

A recent discussion at an Internet watering hole got me thinking about pioneering cartoonists, comic book artists and writers, and the lack of respect they get. The business has always been cruel to its veterans--comic books much more than comic strips, I think, but both find new voices more compelling, new styles more diverting. They eat their old. That's the way of the world, the way of business, and I understand it. I expect a profit-driven publisher (and publishers who aren't profit-driven don't publish long) to put out what sells.

What pains me is that fans go along.

The newspaper comic strip is just over a century old. Comic books have a history almost as long--at first, many of them existed to reprint newspaper strips--but turned a corner when Superman debuted in 1938, 70 years ago this June. Before the invention of television, comic strips were a major mass medium of entertainment and cartoonists were stars. Millions of comic books were sold every month during the "Golden Age" that began with World War II and lasted about a decade after (again, probably not coincidentally ending with the proliferation of TV). Into the 1970s, comics and cartoons were important and popular cultural touchstones in a way that many, including I, believe they haven't been since and probably won't be again.

That wasn't that long ago! A lot of very creative people who did that work are still alive. A few of them would still love to work. Not many of them get the opportunity.

Attending the big San Diego Comic-Con the past three years, I've gotten used to seeing cartooning pioneers sitting ignored in Artist's Alley, their view blocked by a long line waiting to meet the superstar wunderkind sitting at the next table. I dunno.... I've got no business telling people what to like. But to me, being a fan of something means having an appreciation of its history and the contributions of those who came before. To me, those fans lining up at the wrong table are like baseball fans who worship Barry Bonds but have never heard of Willie Mays.

(It's not the same thing, but I remember reading about a convention whose guests included "Star Trek" actors and Apollo astronauts. The actors drew huge crowds while the astronauts sat alone, chuckling to each other that fans would rather meet people who pretended to explore space than those who actually had.)

I can't say that the experienced pioneers deserve work; that's for the market to decide. But they deserve acknowledgement and respect. I've been lucky to meet a few. I never know what to say and I'm sure I always manage to sound like an idiot fanboy. It seems to come down to "thank you for your work, it means a lot to me," which is pretty weak but I think is better than nothing.

I'd take Willie Mays any day.

Top to bottom: Jerry Robinson, Irwin Hasen and Gene Colan,
talented pioneers and gracious gentlemen all. Look 'em up.


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

On Cheating

Never draw what you can swipe.
Never swipe what you can trace.
Never trace what you can cut out and paste.
And never do any of that if you can hire somebody to do it for you..

--Wally Wood
Master Cartoonist


I hate drawing cars. I'm not good at it. There's always a kid in the high school art class who earns minor fame, and maybe even a little pocket change, drawing beautifully rendered hot rods, with giant exhaust pipes roaring, tires squealing off the page, and every chrome reflection perfectly in place. He (invariably a "he" in my experience) is a venerated specialist, and he is not me.

In theory, an artist who understands perspective can draw anything. Establish a horizon line and vanishing points, and build the object out of simple shapes. It works great for a lot of things. The problem (or rather, my problem) with cars is that they're pretty complex objects, with lots of compound curves and subtle angles. Another problem with cars is that everyone is intimately familiar with them; if a drawing doesn't get the proportions just right, readers know it looks "funny" even if they can't say exactly why. Yet another problem is that every car model has dedicated owners and fans who know every bumper and bolt. I'd really like to get 'em right. .

So when I recently had occasion to draw an old car, I knew I needed help. The first resort is reference photos, and indeed you can google hundreds of pictures of old cars in various states of restoration and repair. That helps, but didn't give me the angle I needed. Evidently, no one in automotive history has ever photographed a car from a spot hovering 30 feet above the front left fender. That's a tough angle to extrapolate from a bunch of ground-level front and side shots.
I needed a model. After combing fruitlessly through dozens of Hot Wheels racks, I found an online vendor of affordable, accurate models of old cars. A couple weeks later, I had a 1939 Chevy coupe ready to pose for me.
At this point I might've drawn it freehand, but I decided not to do that. Instead, I put the model on a sheet of white poster board and took digital photos of it from several angles.

1939 Chevy coupe, with a smaller-scale 1940 Ford on its tail

I chose the photo above, opened it in Photoshop, and made the Chevy approximately the right size to fill the hole I'd left for it in another drawing several weeks earlier.

At this point I might've traced the photo using a light box ... but I decided not to do that. Instead, I converted the color photo into a duotone image, which is like a black-and-white photo except you substitute shades of some other color for black and gray, in this case cyan.

Cyan duotone

I printed that picture onto a sheet of the same 2-ply Bristol board I use for all my cartooning. Then, I used a brush and pens to ink directly over the light blue image.


The tricky thing here is to not get bogged down in detail and draw too tightly, despite the pains I've taken to this point to be as precise as possible. Cartooning is distillation and simplification. It's got to look as loose, relaxed, and hand-drawn as the rest of the artwork that will eventually surround it. I didn't go nuts putting in lots of reflections and spotted black because, again, that wouldn't match the style of the rest of the page.

Next, I scanned the drawing into Photoshop, where I made all the blue disappear (I likewise pencil all of my artwork in light "non-photo" blue so I don't have to erase after I've inked). All that remains is my black line art, ready to copy and paste onto the open road I drew for it elsewhere.

Blue erased, ready to copy and paste

Semi-final (I may add some shadows and such later). The road texture is a charcoal rubbing I did of my concrete front porch.

I ... kinda wish I hadn't had to do that. I'd love to have the skills to dash off any car from any era from any angle, but I don't. I admit I feel a little disappointed in myself--but not much. Over time, I've come to regard both writing and drawing as primarily problem solving. I know what I want to accomplish; now what's the best way to do it? This is the best way I could think of to solve a particular problem and produce the result I wanted.