Sunday, March 12, 2006

"No Experience in Cartooning..."?

The Associated Press article about Mom's Cancer has been released. I found it online here (thanks to D.D. Degg!) and I suspect it'll show up in other places before long. That's what the AP does.

I've been a writer and journalist for a long time, and interviewed a lot of people. I think I've done a good job of accurately quoting subjects in context, but now that the roles are reversed I have to wonder. Some of my quotes don't sound like me, and if I said those words they didn't come out quite like I intended. It's a truism of journalism that most people believe reporters get it right except when writing about anything involving them, and I'll vouch for that. Maybe it's like hearing your own voice on a tape recorder.

I am nevertheless pretty satisfied with the story. It also features cartoonist Miriam Engelberg, and I was grateful to learn things about her and her forthcoming book, Cancer Made a Shallower Person, that I didn't know. The only passage that raised my hackles was one that began, "Fies had no experience in cartooning." I don't see it that way.

As far as I'm concerned, I have more than 30 years of experience in cartooning. I just seldom managed to get paid for it.

In my teens and twenties I worked very hard at it, and was serious about trying to start a career as a cartoonist or illustrator. I studied the work of masters. I practiced with all the tools I could find: brushes, pens, nibs, inks, washes, watercolors, gouache, charcoals, papers, duotone. When I was a reporter at a small newspaper I published scores of cartoons, spot drawings, and illustrations. I learned how to shoot my own photostats and cut my own color separations by hand.

I also submitted all types of work to all kinds of publications. Mostly, I failed. (Although as I've mentioned before, I did once get a nice gig illustrating a light bulb catalog. They come in an amazing variety of shapes and sizes.) There's little shame in that; most people trying to pursue creative vocations fail. Unlike some, I've been good at other things at that people would pay me to do. But I never stopped working on my drawing skills, learning and applying as much as I could while whittling away the unnecessary. I think that's what both good writing and cartooning are about: trying to master the tools needed to capture the essence of something and evoke precisely the effect you're aiming for in your reader.

Editor Charlie has been on the receiving end of this screed before, and I think it took him aback--I'm usually a pretty easy-going guy. I'm not sure why I feel quite as passionately about it as I do. The Mom's Cancer mythology is essentially right: I did appear out of nowhere to win an Eisner Award and land a book deal my first time batting in the big leagues. It's a good story. I understand that. So what's my problem?

I hate stories that makes cartooning sound easy. It's too disrespectful to an artform I love and the professionals who work hard to make a living at it. Everybody already thinks it's easy, and a few famous examples of everyday folks who sent their doodles to a publisher or newspaper syndicate and hit the million-dollar jackpot only reinforce that idea. I would hate to contribute to that misperception.

I've spent a long time learning how to cartoon, and it's only in the past couple of years that I think I might have begun to get a handle on it. It is very hard to do right. It is very hard to make something look so easy that everybody thinks they can do it. If it were easy I would have been published decades ago instead of accumulating shoeboxes of rejection slips.

I didn't just dash off Mom's Cancer. It distills years of study and hard work, and more thousands of hours of practice with pencils and brushes and pens than I could calculate. Just as important were the 20-plus years I worked as a professional writer. If that experience gave me the skills to make it look easy, then I succeeded.


Anonymous said...

Brian, I've gotta smile because I, too, have been on both sides of the interviewers' pad. Sometimes it seems you're lucky if they get your name right. But (A) she did get your name right and, even better, the name of your book, (B) it was (as you note) only one sentence in an otherwise highly positive article and, finally, (C) anybody who even glances as your work would instantly you didn't just start sketching that day at the doctor's office.

And now, as an interviewer, you know why some politicians and celebrities have that annoying tendency to answer whatever you ask them with whatever they came there to say, even if the question and answer don't particularly match up -- they've learned from hard experience to keep it s-i-m-p-l-e.

Scary, huh?


Anonymous said...

My engineer husband drew cartoons all his life. They were printed in the college newspaper, his WW2 Army unit paper, the local Lions Club monthly, but any he submitted elsewhere were turned down. Used to get the occasional drink in a bar, a baked alaska for our table on a cruise ship, and lots of enthusiastic responses to the family Christmas greeting he did for 45 years. But not one cent. I know you do not hit it big without years and years of work.

The chronicle of your family's ordeal is such a gift. Thank you for it.

Lynda said...

The best I can draw is a smiley face and you probably could even do that better. I am not an artist.

I enjoy writing. I like to create pictures with words. Even then, I don't always do a good job. But I still plug away at it. Practice makes perfect.

Light bulb, eh?

Sarah said...

I work for the National Brain Tumor Foundation and we just receieved your book yesterday.

I must say...I am so deeply impressed by this entire work. I realize you've heard all of this before, but as somebody who talks with brain cancer patients (both primary and metastatic - often from lung) on a daily basis, I don't think there's a better way you could have depicted everything. Not only what the patient goes through, but how cancer is a family disease and truly affects everybody, and in such different ways. I especially loved your portrayal of yourself and the 'cramming' - I talk with a lot of people like that. :-)

The radiation part was fabulous, too - we got a laugh out of that, because once again, it just couldn't be more true.

I plan to be at your signing (I live in Berkeley - NBTF is located in SF), and am going to contact your publisher to let them know we want to put an announcement about the book in our monthly eNews and our quarterly newsletter.

I cannot thank you enough for this treasure. Good luck with everything!

Sarah Trejo
National Brain Tumor Foundation

p.s. I put a link to this website on my own blog, too!!!

Brian Fies said...

Mike, thanks as always. I appreciate your perspective because I don't have any.

Anonymous, I think I would have enjoyed your husband's company very much. I'll need a few more Christmases to catch up to him; I've only been drawing my family's card for about 20 years. Cartooning is a wonderful skill to have--it's like knowing a magic trick you can pull out and perform once in a while--and I'm sure it was much appreciated in your family. Thanks for your kind comments.

Lynda, practice may not make perfect, but it can make you better than most. What's wrong with "light bulb?" Too cliche?

Sarah, I'm also writing you privately, but wanted to thank you publicly. Notes like yours mean more to me than you could imagine. Thank you.

Lynda said...

No, just surprised. I figured they would take pictures, but I guess that can be more expensive than drawing them. ;)