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.