The webcomics blog about webcomics


[Editor’s note: Once again, there are relatively few direct quotes in these recaps, and those that exist are italicized. As a caveat to the reminder, the latter portion of this post comes from a conversation with Jim Ottaviani, but the paraphrase/quote rule remains in effect.]

That title up there makes me think about Frank Zappa’s Project/Object concept¹, which isn’t really tied into the work being discussed at the moment, but what else are you going to call a panel on making comics with factual bases about actual things? And a fine discussion it was, with Chula Vista librarian Judy Prince-Neeb wrangling Randall Munroe, Don Brown, Rachel Ignotofsky, Jim Ottaviani, and Dylan Meconis holding forth on how they get to the real.

But Gary, I hear you cry, Dylan Meconis works in fiction! True, Grasshopper, she does. But anybody that’s spent any time with her knows that she sweats the details to get a sense of place with the greatest verisimilitude known to humanity. She may have mucked up history into a Mirror Universe version of itself in Queen Of The Sea, but by God she got the goats right! We’ll come back to the goats in a minute.

The idea that factual doesn’t have to equal the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth down to fourteen decimal places was a recurring theme. When asked by Prince-Neeb why they get excited by their work, Brown talked about the thrill of talking about Big Ideas and Moments (say, walking on the gosh-darned moon for the first time) and digging not into the BIaM itself, but the hundreds of thousands of much smaller bits and bobs that built up to it.

What Armstrong did in the roughly half-hour from start of the first lunar EVA until that one small step is exhaustively catalogued; what decisions were made between a design engineer and a lingerie seamstress to figure out how to make Armstrong’s suit? There’s room for interpretation there, a bit of impressionism that make the real moreseo².

For Ignotofsky, reality comes from the places where the hard data fears to tread. She’ll dig through a Census for fun, but when there’s little information committed to the historical record about the accomplishments of women, the indigenous, people of color, the LGTBQ+ community, focusing on those subjects for the benefit of kids means that future generations won’t have to rely as much on anecdotes when looking for people like them. The opportunity to see yourself as part of the world is what excites Ottaviani, that and the realization at a tender age that books are things that are made by people leading to the thought I could — should — make a book.

We’re living in History now is how Meconis puts it (you could hear the capital-H in her voice); the minutiae of our daily lives is future history and significant. How we lived our lives then shaped history. That minutiae lends a sense of reality to even the most fantastical world, making it all the more fascinating to the reader.

Munroe was, as may not surprise you, an outlier: I don’t know why I’m interested in anything, he said. Something catches his fancy, he works back to the science, engineering, and math, takes things to the logical extreme (he often ends up at some variation of Of course, now we’re at about 30% of the speed of light and have killed everybody on the East Coast), with the hope that it may accidentally cause a reader to learn something. Or, as Meconis put it, We’re big on tricking people!

So they all have some reason to share their work, but why pictures? Munroe’s decision is based on efficiency: you can see a big block of text and decide not to read it, but a picture on the page? You’ve already seen it; at least some part of it seeps through³. Ottaviani added that it’s pretty much impossible to stop reading in the middle of a comics page like you can in the middle of a paragraph; additionally, half of Science works from pictures already.

Sometimes, the motivation is elsewhere. Meconis notes that Writing + Drawing is like Juggling + Chainsaws; you can get attention if you’re good at either, but if you combine them, it’s a great way to get attention on the internet as a teenager! [Editor’s note: yikes.]

The bulk of the discussion was on research techniques. Munroe is relentless, digging down into the details of various commissions and committees that exist in the world, because that’s where the weird stuff (like how much water is legally required to pass over Niagara Falls, and how much of an act of war it is to alter it) lives. Ignotofsky haunts libraries and looks for the odd grace notes (like the famed painter in the early 1800s Paris how lived as an out lesbian, and was made to pay for a license to wear trousers; Munroe perked up and desperately wants to know if the office that issued that license issued others).

Meconis is fond of finding the one person that cares about a narrow subject more than anybody else, which is why she spent time on a Geocities site about heritage goat breeds maintained by dissident goat-breeders in remote Scotland. They have opinions on that newcomer Nubian goat, and arguments to back up those opinions. It might not make it to the Annals of the Royal Society, but it’s no less accurate. Plus, fiction! You can pick and choose where you want to be accurate.

Ottaviani is big on the personal interview, but has the advantage of mostly writing about people who are (or were recently) alive, and have/had friends/acquaintances who still are. He particularly noted that you can get a super accurate feel for a person without ever talking to them directly, citing the classic work of New Journalism by Gay Talese, Frank Sinatra Has A Cold (bonus: a pre-famous Harlan Ellison appears and almost gets his ass kicked). Add in a little visual reference (Ignotofsky: Get the photos! Get the clothing right! If you’re going to draw the dog, make you it’s the correct breed!) and you’re golden.


After the panel, I was lucky enough to sit down with Jim Ottaviani for a one-on-one discussion about his work, his artistic partnerships, and what’s next. His latest science bio, Hawking (art by the inimitable Leland Myrick, who also drew Feynman) released about two weeks before SDCC, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The first point of discussion was about the depiction of Jane, Hawking’s longtime wife, academic partner (when you can’t tie your own shoes, you certainly aren’t typing your own manuscripts), and primary caregiver. They divorced after Hawking became HAWKING, but remained on what I’d call unusually good terms for exes. Throughout the book, Jane is subtly, but progressively, depicted as … frustrated? annoyed? it’s tough to give a single word to the emotional heft in Myrick’s illustrations.

I read it as one part We’ve been married for more than two decades, why can’t you manage this one simple courtesy that’s annoyed me since before we were married and I’ve told you about it forever and MY GOD I hate you sometimes (everybody married more than a week has seen that look on their spouse’s face), one part You’re getting a bit full of yourself, Dr Hawking, and a few dozen parts absolute weariness at being a 24/7 caregiver, requiring ever-more challenging efforts, without so much as an afternoon off in who knows how long.

I think it’s an intimately truthful detail, to allow the great man to not be perfect, and ultimately sympathetic towards Jane, recognizing the tremendous sacrifices she made over decades. Ottaviani said the purpose was to show all of those emotional elements, with an addition of a growing distance between the couple — they had fundamentally incompatible belief systems4, exacerbated by his growing fame.

I read the entire later relationship between them as a classic case of being able to love somebody without liking them very much. He allowed that some of the friends of Jane Hawking were concerned about how she would be portrayed — it would be easy to cast her as a villain, abandoning her husband who is bravely clinging to life (not true, and Ottaviani and Myrick aren’t that lazy) — and concluded that he hoped his own friends would be as protective.

Ottaviani’s subjects, as our conversation hit on several times, could be complicated people. Richard Feynman is in a bit of a reappraisal, with people looking past the genius (especially for teaching) and seeing some really retrograde treatment of women for a big chunk of his life. He was also, to put it mildly, his own biggest cheerleader. His stories always make him look good, or smart, or funny, or popular, the center of attention. Hawking, by contrast, never tried to stick out (and I think even less so the more his ALS progressed), but found himself famous. Balancing that reticence with the obvious glee he exhibited while guesting on Star Trek or The Simpsons must have required a considerable effort (not to mention the fact that anybody with a measure of fame will attract cranks5).

My most burning question was who Ottaviani wants to cover next. He’s already hit the big name scientists and engineers that people might actually recognize (in addition to Feynman and Hawking, he’s covered Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruteé Galdikas, Turing, Bohr, Oppenheimer and Szilard, and goodly bits of Einstein all throughout), so who next? I made a pitch for Claude Shannon6 (because you can never have enough Shannon), and he’s got some potential candidates in mind; it’s more than deciding that a scientist or engineer needs the Ottaviani treatment, it’s finding work that lends itself to visual representation and finding the right artist for the project.

In the meantime, he’s doing a series of two-pagers for the Royal Society Of Chemistry celebrating the Year Of The Periodic Table. Myrick’s got his own projects coming up, so it would be a while before they got to work again. I remarked how Myrick’s style provided a natural transition from depicting people to depicting scientific concepts and diagrams, and that led to a side discussion of art styles ranging from Mike Mignola to the Franco-Belgian ligne claire school. He’s not just writing for comics, he has a deep and abiding love of the form and the artists who make them. Asked who he’d like to work with, he replied Everybody I’ve already worked with, which is a pretty extensive list.

We finished out by making each other extremely envious of the other’s original comic art collection. Ottaviani has several Richard Thompson originals, including one of God bouncing dice off Einstein’s head. I have several Larry Gonick original pages featuring Shannon. In the end, it was a really pleasant conversation between a couple of engineers, talkin’ about comics and fountain pens, the sort that leaves you wrapped up until you have to walk briskly to your next appointment. If you ever have the chance to do the same, I recommend it.

Spam of the day:

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¹ Key takeaway, and I quote:

In the case of the Project/Object, you may find a little poodle over here, a little blow job over there, etc., etc. I am not obsessed by poodles or blow jobs, however; these words (and others of equal insignificance), along with pictorial images and melodic themes, recur throughout the albums, interviews, films, videos (and this book) for no other reason than to unify the ‘collection.’

² Cf: Kazu Kibuishi’s abstract landscapes, which look more real to us the less detail he adds.

³ Meconis noted the downside: parents can more easily find something to be offended by in a picture than by reading things line by line. This point would be echoed in a couple of the teacher/librarian panels over the course of the Con.

4 Jane being rather more a Christian than Stephen, and he being frankly rude as shit in his dismissal of her beliefs.

5 I’ve actually met one of Hawking’s cranks and the dude struck me as somebody I should slowly back away from, making no sudden moves. I can’t imagine what dealing with him must be like in a severely limited body.

6 Let the record show that he recognized Figure 1 on the cover of my notebook.

Gosh, Wouldja Look At That

I believe that by this time, I have made the case that Larry Gonick is a national treasure. His use of comics to educate (across seemingly all fields of knowledge) is unparalleled, and if you are not familiar with the three volumes of The Cartoon History Of The Universe¹, you need to remedy that.

You may recall the word last month that Gonick was selling originals; you may also recall that he and I corresponded, seeing as how some of the few thousand pages he’s drawn in his career dealt with Claude Shannon, who I may have mentioned once or twice.

It’s done. The Shannon pages from The Cartoon Guide To Computer Science (sadly out of print) are now mine. They are installed on the wall over my desk, where I can feel the spirit of a playful polymath encourage me to look at problems that are interesting and solve them to the extent that the effort is both meaningful and fun.

Should you have some topic that Gonick has expounded upon that is near and dear to your heart, I encourage you to contact the man, as he is making his work available for exceedingly reasonable prices. If I were to win one of the fuck-you huge lottery jackpots this week, I’d make him an offer just to get his entire archive into Jenny Robb’s hands and loving care.

But not my three Shannon pages. Those will be going to the Electrical Engineering department at my alma mater

Spam of the day:

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¹ The first of which was — no kidding — edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis.

Some Surprises

Things are happening quickly. History barrels on.

  • Following up on the Tumblrpocalypse (Tumblrgeddon?) from t’other day, I’m seeing a lot of posts indicating utterly nonsensical this is adult content !!!!11one!! judgments from Tumblr’s algorithms. For a representative sample of how bad those naked people- and smut-identifying tools are, let’s look at just one set of flagged images, from Yuko Ota:

    a cool compilation of posts that were flagged by tumblr for containing pornography

    Included are a photo of the cover of her Offhand art book, a photo of the cover of Our Cats Are More Famous Than us, two update teasers from Barbarous, a picture of a gargoyle and mutant bird Maw, and the Maw plushie.

    What the hell, Tumblr? And this is just one creator, with a relatively short thread of WTH. I’ve seen literally hundreds of entirely inoffensive images that are about to be purged to heck and back because the entire class of content that Tumblr built its growth on is now officially icky¹. As people are grabbing up their Tumblr contents to preserve them, they are also looking for new places to keep all that stuff for display.

    Various Mastodon and Ello proponents are out there, but C Spike Trotman is pointing folks towards Pillowfort³, which as of this writing is experiencing stability issues to the massive land-rush. Under The Ink is keeping a running list of NSFW webcomics and creators, so that everybody can find stuff when it all settles again.

  • Another intriguing possibility? PornHub:

    Tumblrs: Pornhub welcomes you with open arms. Join our amazing community of millions Curators: Customize your personal feed, create playlists, generate gifs and more Creators: Upload videos, photos, gifs & share text posts to a massive audience. Earn revenue on your content.

    Turns out they’ve always allowed non-video content, and they are probably the site least likely to ever decide that hosting naked people and smut is beneath them, so there’s that. Gonna get tripped by a lot of nanny filters, though.

  • And for those of you not dealing with the Tumblr thing today, here’s another surprise: Larry Gonick — indie cartoonist since small times; I first read his Cartoon Guide To Computer Science 35 years ago in high school, which is where I first learned about Claude Shannon, whose wisdom I have built my life around — is having a sale.

    Including originals.

    Time to get me a unicycling engineer that teaches me about Boolean logic.

Spam of the day:

Take part in a simple survey and get a guaranteed prize

I see no reason that your email — translated from the original Russian — should make me hesitant to click on your surely-innocent link.

¹ I’m told² that in addition to the tsunami of inappropriately-flagged images, a bunch of people are loading their formerly SFW Tumblr with as much hardcore porn as they can, figuring that if they’re gonna be flagged/shut down, they may as well earn it. Well done, I say.

² I don’t have a Tumblr account and so cannot verify.

³ She’d know, she’s the publisher of lots of quality smut. A peddler, you might almost say.

Less Than A Week To Go

I believe that I’ve made no secret of the fact that the book that I enjoyed the most in 2017 — not just the graphic novel I liked best, the best book period¹ — was The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag. I also believe I’ve made no secret of the fact that it was my distinct pleasure to tell Ms Ostertag that in person. Ever since I learned that a sequel was in the works, I’ve been eagerly looking forward to The Hidden Witch.

It releases on Tuesday, the very eve of Halloween. I am already bouncing off the walls in anticipation. In fact, I may have reacted to the news that Ostertag is having a launch party in LA on Saturday by trying to figure out if a quick cross-country round trip was practical².

But for you lucky SoCal types, The Hidden Witch will debut to the public at Secret Headquarters, 3817 W Sunset Blvd in Los Angeles from 3:00pm to 5:00pm. Afternoon, perfect for your younger Ostertag fans! She’ll be signing! There will be candy! Wear a costume!

And above all, tell Molly that I’m very proud of her, will be lining up at the local bookstore to purchase on the 30th, and that I’m pretty sure that The Hidden Witch will be my favorite book of 2018.

Spam of the day:

Trust us, it’ll only take days to drop your belly bulge

Mofos, if I drop any part of me I’ll disappear. I’m a twig.

¹ Bear in mind that in the same year I read an excellent biography of Claude Shannon, the man that invented the field of electrical engineering upon which I concentrated my undergrad and graduate studies, the man whose seminal Figure 1 is my Pietà. Sorry, not sorry.

² It is not.

Because I Think It Will Be Of Interest To This Community

It was late on Friday when I saw the tweet from Scott Kurtz, and later one from Katie Rice. Rice and Kurtz (and now me) are backers of a Kickstart for a customizable notebook, and it strikes me that this is exactly the sort of thing that comics creators will love, so I’m surprised to not have seen any others yet.

Let me back up a moment.

I’m a sucker for Moleskine-type notebooks¹, but will admit to being disappointed by the actual brand over the past couple of years. Yes, yes, covers with The Simpsons on them, wonderful, but the hard covers and indestructible bindings that first made me love Moleskines have been compromised. So when a London design shop decided to offer customizable notebooks, in sketchbook dimensions (A5, or 21 cm x 15 cm²), with your choice of paper (plain, ruled, or dot grid in ivory; sketch, or pure white) in heavy weights (90 to 140 gsm), your choice of elastic band and ribbon bookmark, and full color DIY covers, I was hooked.

And in case you don’t feel up to designing the cover yourself (instructions and templates are here [PDF]), Book Block are offering your choice of prefab designs:

We will be putting together a selection of limited edition notebooks for you to choose from. A number will be from our artist friends, and we’re hoping to draw some from the crowd. All artists will be paid for their work. [emphasis mine]

If I wasn’t in before reading that last line, I am now because project leader Stefan Johnson is paying his designers. I spent a couple hours on Saturday messing around in GIMP wrestling my design into the template and saving it at 600 dpi. Up top you can see what the template looks like, with design to the right on the front cover; the spine and back cover will be plain white. If you click the next link, you can see the image that I’ve chosen by itself and rotated for legibility.

This, my friends, is Figure 1 of Claude Shannon’s A Mathematical Theory of Communication [PDF]³, the basis of information theory, the wellspring from which all modern communications theory derives, and not coincidentally why the internet works. If you are me, it (and Shannon) holds the same importance that, say, the double helix (and Franklin, Watson, and Crick) would for a biologist. It is the closest thing in the world that I have to religion or spiritual belief; it is the only thing I’ve ever seriously considered getting tattooed on my body.

But I won’t necessarily get my notebook.

Here is where I should disclose that I backed the campaign at a level that requests blogging in exchange for early bird pricing; I assure you that I’d have been writing about this project regardless, though. See, since I backed Book Block on Saturday, only another thirteen people have pledged, and the project sits now at a mere 20% of goal. While Kicktraq has the project trending towards 140% of the £10,000 goal in the 40 days remaining, I am not willing to leave this up to chance. I want my personal philosophy encapsulating notebook, dammit.

I know that at least some of you want a sketchbook that is uniquely, unmistakably yours, in which case you should be checking out the campaign while it’s still running. With a promised delivery date of November, this could make an excellent holiday gift for the artistic type in your circle (or, given that it’s a Kickstarter, a belated holiday gift, depending on which holiday we’re talking about).

Spam of the day:

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You bozos know I don’t have a PayPal account, right?

¹ Not to mention Moleskine-inspired comics.

² Call it 8.25 x 6 inches.

³ Originally a paper in the Bell System Technical Journal, July and October 1948. With slightly different contents, it was published the in book form the following year as The Mathematical Theory of Communication, with supplementary material for a general audience by Warren Weaver. Consider the former to be the Vulgate and the latter to the be King James Version.

:01 Week Continues

As we saw yesterday, other things are occurring in webcomics — Tavis Maiden is Kickstarting print volume 1 of Tenko King and more than halfway there; Wes Molebash has launched his latest strip about family, Molebashed¹ — but you’ll have to follow up on those by yourself. Because today is dedicated to continuing our dive into the cornucopia of graphic novel goodness that Gina Gagliano at :01 Books was kind enough on me. I speak, naturally, of review copies, and we look today at the book that has the greatest potential to change lives.

I know that we all talk about how a particular book (or record, or movie, or whatever) changed our lives, but Secret Coders (words by Gene Luen Yang and pictures by Mike Holmes) may make the cliche literally true. In order to explain why, I have to tell you about three times that my life was nudged into the direction that ultimately stuck.

Firstly, I am of an age such that I experienced the educational experiment known as The New Math; along with the approach to teaching arithmetic described by Professor Lehrer, I was taught set theory at the age of six: sets, intersections, unions, differences, subsets, supersets, and Venn diagrams². Nobody gave much thought to what a six year old would actually do with set theory, so it lay dormant in the back of my brain.

In early high school, my father and I soldered together our first computer, a Sinclair ZX-81, and in my spare time I picked up a copy of Larry Gonick’s sadly out of print 1982 edition of The Cartoon Guide to Computer Science. I learned about names like Babbage and Lovelace, Hollerith and Turing, Von Neumann and Zuse, and Mauchley and Boole and Hopper and especially Claude Shannon. The others were obsessed with making machines to compute, Shannon was obsessed with the communication and density of information³, and that seed nudged me in the direction of communications and information theory during my college career.

About the same time, I was watching my four year old niece play on the computer — she showed me how drawing the lines and using the symbols would make a little raccoon dance — and it dawned on me that she didn’t know how she was being trained to think logically. The symbols she was drawing were logic gates and the lines she was drawing were were signal pathways; she was getting her own version of the Venn diagrams that I’d had nearly two decades earlier, until she got bored with the exciting low-res RGB display and it would enter its own dormancy period in her brain. Some time later, I stared my present career teaching databases, and those Venn diagrams became even more important so that I could describe relational theory and the whole thing came full circle.

The lessons, taken together, are these: you can teach very sophisticated ideas to very young kids; words + pictures have a uniquely strong impact when it comes to teaching; making it into a game (instead of math class) makes it more likely to make the jump from dormant to obsession.

Which is why Secret Coders might read as a somewhat simplistic story of a school with mysterious secrets, outcast students determined to figure them out, and reasonably obvious puzzles woven into the text with a Can you figure it out? presentation style.

Except the first of those secrets? It’s how to do math in binary. And those puzzles? The solutions are computer programs, in Logo to be specific. The characters might be middle schoolers, but the book is aimed at kids eight and up, just about the exact age cohort that got Venn diagrams 40 years ago and dancing raccoons 30 years ago. The lessons are hidden in the games, but the outcome is children will think logically, solve problems by breaking them down, and incorporate concepts like sequencing and recursion.

Yang (a computer geek since the summer after fifth grade, according to the afterword) clearly had his own version of those three moments, because the three lessons that I learned over the course of 25 years are fairly jumping off the pages. And if Yang’s figured out how to set out the puzzles in a way that grade schoolers can follow, Holmes has created vibrant, engaging, easy-to-follow illustrations for those abstract ideas so that the kidlings won’t get lost.

The ability to not just use technology, but to be in control of it, will be of greater importance to the kids that read Secret Coders than it would have been to me at that age; I am part of the last generation where the path of being completely non-technological would not be an impediment, but today it’s a necessity. The world needs engineers and engineers need to learn how to approach problems with the tools available and bash their way to solutions. Learn a little Logo without realizing it? It’s a quick jump from there to other languages, and from there to a controller that moves a robot, or gathers up data, or keeps a rocket on path. In twenty, thirty years somebody that’s changing the world is going to remember Secret Coders (and its sequels, this is a series) and realize it was the moment that everything got nudged into a particular direction.

Secret Coders releases 29 September; that’s enough time to find a ROM of Rocky’s Boots for the budding programmer in your life.

Spam of the day:

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¹ We at Fleen do not condone the bashing of moles, and are surprised that Molebash — a pastor! — would engage in such a barbaric practice. For shame, sir. For shame.

² Venn diagrams were the best thing of all because it let you do math by drawing with crayons. That habit never really left me, as I fell back in later years to graphical approximations in lieu of formulae to the consternation of every math teacher I ever had in school, but to the utter delight of my Electromagnetic Fields professor, Dr Frank Acker, who regarded approximation as the engineer’s birthright.

³ Also juggling, unicycling, and the construction of robots to juggle and/or unicycle. Also rocket frisbees. He’s basically my hero and the person that the 21st century most depends on that you’ve never heard of. That book fell apart from overuse fifteen years ago and I can still see every scribbly drawing of Shannon on his unicycle explain the concepts of signal, noise, and information.

My Favorite Scientists

A friend of mine recently told me about how when he was younger, Ender’s Game¹ was his favorite book, and now many years later, his mother had read it and while it wasn’t necessarily her cup of tea, she understood exactly why it was his favorite: Because the hero is a pre-teen that saves the world in space by playing videogames. Oooh, burn, Mom.

Likewise, Richard Feynman will always be my favorite scientist; as a little baby engineer, his famed audiotaped² lectures on physics were considered a marvel of clarity, and then early in my undergraduate career the first of his autobiographical volumes came out³ and we learned something else about Feynman — he screwed around (literally and figuratively) and had fun and lived his life in a way that exemplified the notion that if you weren’t overly concerned with what other people thought about you, it was probably for the best.

He was a complex, brilliant, difficult, charming, obnoxious genius that wanted to know the why and how of everything, a man who at certain points of his life knew things that literally no other human knew, a man who could reduce the most complex concepts in physics to squiggles on a chalkboard, a man who joked and told stories and played in samba bands, a man who got laid a lot. Around 20 years old he was everything I might aspire to be, and it’s one of the great losses of my life that I’ll never get to meet him4. He was nowhere near as awesome as his stories made him out to be, probably, but that’s part of the point of telling stories, getting to make yourself look better.

Two years ago he got a really good biographical treatment — certainly not his first — in graphical form, from Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick, published by the good folks at :01 Books. Given the importance of Feynman Diagrams (the aforementioned squiggles) in modern physics, having his story told in slightly squiggly pictures is a natural. It’s hard to think how they might top themselves.

Until now.

Ottaviani and Myrick are taking on the one physicist who may be as influential, as complex, as colorful a character, with as involved and messy a life as Feynman (although he was probably never investigated by the FBI as a possible subversive): Stephen Hawking. And given that Hawking has been locked into his own body for decades, unable to speak for himself, the silent medium of graphic fiction may be the most expressive means of describing the inner thoughts of the man. Oh, and the fact that he’s still alive to talk to doesn’t hurt; that’s not just an abstract possibility, by the way:

Hawking author Jim Ottaviani says, “July 4, 2012 was a good day in physics and for Gordy Kane, Leland and me. Not only was the Higgs boson revealed to the world, but Gordy — a prominent physicist and author of The Particle Garden — won a long-standing $100 bet with his friend Stephen Hawking on whether there even was a Higgs. And in an email letting us know about these things, Gordy and his wife Lois also added an ‘Oh, by the way….’ They told us that Stephen had read and enjoyed our Feynman book (!) and invited us to come to Cambridge and talk about doing a book about him. We didn’t get on a plane that same afternoon, but we did start planning our trip, and this book. Like I said, a good day.”

Hawking is due for release in 2016, and a preview is presently available on Boing Boing. It’s not much compared to the full book, and it’ll likely be different by the release date, but it’s enough for now.

¹ No link because seriously, screw Orson Scott Card.

² “Tapes” were these things that stored information on long strips of magnetic ribbon. Ask your parents.

³ The sequel was posthumous, and in large part dealt with his role in the Challenger disaster investigation, which also resonated for us. It was January of my freshman year when the associate dean of students Tom Miller (aka your official buddy at Rose-Hulman; by the way, he’s still there and still your buddy despite the fancy VP title and tie) found me and some friends on a couch in the Union building and told us, The Space Shuttle just exploded.

That day, more than any other in our technical education, reinforced the idea that our actions as engineers would have consequences. We wouldn’t know for a long time what had gone wrong, but something had — something was missed, or not anticipated, or done wrong.

4 Others on that list: Claude Shannon, Chuck Jones, Jim Henson, Stephen Jay Gould.

Stop Doing Things, Howard

Three mentions in four updates puts this blog in danger of becoming All Schlock All The Time. I will forgive you this time oh my Evil Twin, since we are talking about the occasion of your 4000th consecutive daily update without any skips, fillers, guest strips or other aberrations. I believe that aside from the rarefied company of strips with a 4K count, yours may be the only one to claim no hiatuses, missed updates, etc. for the entire length of its run.

The other webcomickers mentioned in this post don’t have 4000 daily updates, but I’m guessing that they all intend to one day, one way or another. Let’s give ’em all due attention, shall we?

  • I have a dilemma. Consider the following email from Jean Tripier:

    My new webcomic Travelogue is out! It is a unique webcomic with 1) great art 2) real stuff and 3) maybe some funny ones as well. You can have a look at

    Now consider this screencap of the of website in question. In case you can’t read it, the text waaaay down in the lower left corner reads:

    © 2011 Loading… Oops! You need JavaScript turned on to view this site!

    Now I realize that not everybody has my somewhat fanatic level of reluctance to enable JavaScript for anything but the most trusted websites, and then only if absolutely necessary. Consider me an anomaly in that regard, I’m fine with it (as I am due to my choice of Opera for web browser). But to have a site entirely dependent on active content, with no compelling reason given, not even a hint of what I’m missing to try to convince me that the hidden treasures are worth whatever incremental risk executable content might bring to bear on my computer?

    I want to believe that Travelogue is everything that Tripier claims it is … but sorry, no. Want to reach the widest possible audience? Minimizing the use of heavyweight websites and unnecessary technology, and including at least a teaser for those that don’t meet your technological standards are mandatory. Hopefully I’ll be able to tell you about Travelogue in the future but for now, I’m afraid it’s a non-starter.

  • In a similar vein, consider the following email from GC Goebel:

    Hey webcomics people, two things:

    One: check out my site. It’s newish, funny and no one goes there. Like a nude internet cafe.

    Two: how do you guys find out about new comics (besides shameless emails of this sort)? Where am I supposed to get the word out? I’ve posted on a couple webcomic directories and set up a deviant art profile, but figure I must be missing something other folks know about. Thoughts?

    For those that find item One compelling, the site in question may be found at; for me, unsolicited links that promise, hint at, or reference nudity automatically increase the ol’ index of suspicion, so I haven’t been. As for item Two, the answer is lots of ways. The shameless email has a long and honorable history, as do other methods that are pretty hit or miss:

    • Project Wonderful ad link trails (pick the best looking/ugliest/most intriguing PW ad on a page I frequent, click on it; repeat the process wherever I end up. Anything catches the eye within five or six hops, investigate)
    • Eavesdropping (about a year ago, I happened to be talking to Danielle Corsetto while one of Randy Milholland’s fans was talking to him right next to us; she mentioned her webcomic which I eventually checked out, and which has surprised me a couple of times — if you want to see an atypical treatment of a strip club and the ladies who work there, check out KK Skipper’s [usually NSFW] Pink Parts)

    But mostly I rely on the work of the late Claude Shannon, a personal hero of mine, a man who likely never read a webcomic in his life. It was by studying Shannon’s work in Information Theory that I realized something that has served me well in life: Consistency is more important that correctness. Buckle up kids, this will take a little while.

    Here’s our man, an aspiring geek studying hell of communications systems at nerd school in the late ’80s when his mind is blown by a thought experiment: two weather forecasters broadcast each night at 10:00pm. One is right about the following day’s weather 9 times out of 16, the other one is flat-out wrong 15 times out of 16. However, the latter conveys more information than the former, even with that dismal record.

    Because Mr Wrongpants is so consistently wrong, a viewer of his broadcast can comfortably do the opposite of whatever he says and be confident that it’s the right course of action. Ms Prettygoodpants, on the other hand, is only a bit better than random chance; if you follow her advice you’ll be disappointed nearly as often as not.

    Finding the pattern, and being able to map that pattern to your own needs, is the key. For years when I took a newspaper subscription, I would eagerly read the movie reviews because the staff reviewer was of great use to me — she was so stunningly pseudo-highbrow, so amazingly full of herself, that in short order I learned that certain dismissive phrases from her would guarantee me a good time at the theater and that anything she gave three or more stars to was likely to be pandering Oscarbation. I hated reading her horribly constructed writing, but she was incredibly useful to me.

    A’course, it’s better to find consistency that matches my tastes in a predictable way rather than sitting in opposition, so I make a habit of reading reviewers who are good writers — think Matt Zoller Seitz, the staff of the AV Club, Heidi Mac, the Spurge, and Chris Sims. None of them has an exclusively webcomic focus, but you know what?

    I know a lot of webcomickers and other people with a pretty heavy webcomics focus. A lot a lot. They aren’t full-time review types, but that doesn’t matter as long as I have an idea of their tastes. Some have tastes that match mine, some don’t, but I can use their mentions of what they like or don’t like as a guide for what I’m likely to like or not like.

    While that answers the very specific question of how I find new webcomics to read, it doesn’t do much for the followups, which address how a creator can spread the word of their own work. And for that, I don’t have a good answer. Actually, I have a very good answer, but it’s not in the form of Follow these steps, pay for ads in this place, and you will see x number of followers, plus or minus y percent. It’s simply: Do good work.

    Do comics so good that people get so excited that they can’t help but talk about them¹. When trying something new, most people place the greatest weight on the opinions of those that are known to them, so it’s a matter of getting outside your immediate circle of acquaintances to friends of friends, then friends of friends of friends. Eventually, one of those friends of friends of friends of friends is friends with Ryan North and he links you and it spreads like wildfire from there.

    But the key point isn’t Ryan North². It’s Do good work. Or, to put it another way (and I’m here paraphrasing either Greg Dean and/or Matt Boyd): Don’t suck; if you do suck, stop sucking as quickly as possible. Strike that chord with your audience, and the notice will follow.

¹ Case in point: I have had to stop myself from writing about A Girl And Her Fed‘s recent plot points about twelve times in the past month because I find it that good, that compelling, and I want to talk about it that much, but even Otter would give me shit if I turned into her own personal nonstop PR flack. Maybe. Probably. I have to stop speculating or she’ll have her vengeance.

² This may be the only context in which that statement is true.

Cool Projects From Cool People

At least one of which, I’m certain, the Cool Person would preferred to not have made!

  • That would be Yuko Ota, who in years past started developing a repetitive stress injury in her right (dominant) hand and arm. Kids! Don’t let anybody in the art community (school, peers, bosses) tell you that pain is normal and you just have to work through it or you’re a wuss. These people suck and I hate them. Because just work through it was the path that Ota took, and it wound up damaging her hand and arm in lasting ways.

    So she started — initially out of curiosity, latter out of necessity — drawing with her left (nondominant) hand to see how well she could do. Eventually, it became a lifeline that saved her career, in that she could do some work with her left while saving her right for more important (deadline, paying, etc) gigs¹. This years-long process is now documented in Offhand, Ota’s collection of her left-hand drawings (and in one spread, matching left- and right-hand drawings done at the same time), previously Kickstarted, now being delivered to backers. Give it a couple of weeks for fulfillment to finish up, and I’ll bet you’ll be able to score a copy in the Johnny Wander store.

    This book is for anybody that likes Ota’s work, anybody that has interest in the how and process of art, anybody that likes to see artistic progress, and anybody with an interest in the biology and anatomy of the human wrist (it’s basically a cobbled-together disaster!). For the latter, see if you can talk a Kickstarter backer out of the limited edition hardcover, which the lenticular image of Ota’s wrist MRI; please note that you cannot have my copy under any circumstances.

    For the art progress fans, it’s fascinating to watch how quickly Ota was able to move from crayon scribble level drawings to work that’s nearly indistinguishable from her baseline skill level; it’s evidence that art and style and more about brain than hands. In a couple of years, Ota’s left hand was able to develop the fine control that her brain spent a lifetime teaching to the right hand. For Johnny Wander fans in general, you’ll see early sketches of Percy and Leeds from Ota’s current work, Barbarous, from 2014, and what appears to be a proto-Leeds from as far back as 2013. Considering that Barbarous launched in 2016, it shows just how long the development of characters and story takes.

    And good news! When I spoke to Ananth Hirsh (Ota’s husband and creative partner) at MoCCA Fest last month, he mentioned that she’s found a treatment that is maintaining her function and keeping the discomfort where it should be. The damage is there, but it’s being contained, and now that you’ve got her example in front of you, Young Artist, make sure you don’t fall into the same trap. Take breaks! Stretch! Take breaks! Working through pain is not a good idea! Take friggin’ breaks!

  • In what will also be a long-development-time project (with an equally long run), Lucas Landherr has been spending a chunk of his Surviving The World wind-down time consulting on a new series for the Crash Course channel at YouTube (a collaboration of John & Hank Green, and PBS Digital Studios). This one will be on the topic of Engineering and launched Episode 1 (What Is Engineering?) yesterday.

    The series is hosted by Dr Shini Somara, and over the next year will be looking at electrical engineering and other, lesser forms of engineering (like Landherr’s chemical engineering, Somara’s mechanical engineering, and Joey Chestnut’s civil engineering); Somara will talk about what the engineers doe in their disciplines, and show how they apply the laws of science to the solving of problems and the making of things. Or, as David Malki ! put it, how to make math louder.

    I’m certain that the entire series will be enlightening and teach people (many of whom have no idea what my professional tribe does) the hows and whys of engineering. And here’s hoping that we get some much served attention paid to the engineer who, perhaps more than any other, was responsible for modern communications and computing. Yes, I will always find a way to mention Shannon. Figure One, yo. Right-hand rule represent.

Spam of the day:

Save on printer ink

Nnnnnope. Nope, nope, nope, the spam filter is also telling me that you’re attempting to steal my identity just by looking at this ugly piece of garbage on the screen. Bugger off.

¹ Which is to say, she was able to damage her right hand more slowly while investigating possible treatments.

Fleen Book Corner: Feynman

But first, some quick bits from over the weekend:

  • Graphic Smash went away over the weekend for a little bit, but appears to be back now. Judging from some of the comments in our posting on this topic over the weekend, there seems to be an expectation in some quarters that the Modern Tales family of websites, like the stars at the end of The Nine Billions Names of God, will start blinking out without any fuss. We’ll see.
  • Eric Burns-White has announced the return of the new Websnark, should you wish to update your bookmarks or RSS subscriptions. Mr E B-White got into the talkin’ ’bout webcomics game a good 14 months before this page debuted, and for a pretty good while there he and I were roughly contemporaries. The ways to tell us apart were relatively few:
    • He has a bigger thesaurus than I do
    • He has one more wife named Wednesday than me
    • He’s got a beard

    Apart from that, we are roughly contemporaneous in age, in temperament, and interests,and despite the exceedingly kind words he has for this page (and the hack webcomics pseudo-journalist that runs it), he’s already got more words written today than I’ve managed in the past week or so. Ooh, did I just make fun of Mr Snark for excess verbiage? Burnsauce¹.

  • The Joe Shuster Awards for excellence in comics by Canadian creators were handed out at the Calgary Expo over the weekend; the award for Outstanding Web Comics Creator/Créateur Exceptionnel de Bandes Dessinées Web went to Emily Carroll for her body of work, including the truly excellent His Face All Red. Carroll burst onto the scene seemingly from nowhere last year, and it’s heartening to see that new talents can be recognized; the Shusters remain the paragon of stripped-down, quality comics awards.

Okay, book time. This one meanders a bit, so bear with me. As always, thanks to the good folks at :01 Books for the review copy.

There are people that I’ve met that have given me a thrill (Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ira Glass, Scott McCloud, Neil Gaiman) and those who I will never get the chance to meet (Chuck Jones, Jim Henson, Stephen Jay Gould, Claude Shannnon), whose absence cannot ever be filled. But primus inter pares of these luminaries is Richard Feynman².

A bit of context: in the mid- to late ’80s, a budding geek like me, full into the rigors of Nerd School, couldn’t not know about Feynman. His first book of personal anecdotes released about the same time he came to the public eye as a result of his role in the Challenger board of inquiry, and then he died just as the wider world was getting to know this curious character. We nerdlings knew of his famed lectures on physics, his Nobel-winning work on quantum electrodynamics, but what made us adopt him as our tribal ideal, as the ur-geek, were those stories from his life.

Plus, the guy got laid. A lot.

And that was what made him stand out, what relates him to those others in those lists up there; no, not the sex — the stories³.

Feynman was a born storyteller, whether it was stories of his life and experiences, or the stories that told how the world around us works, the stories that translated the highly abstract mathematics of physics that even physicists found to be obscure into the language that nearly anybody could understand. He knew the value of approximations and round-offs and pictures. Pictures! Two others independently did the same work that earned Feynman the Nobel Prize, but it’s the Feynman diagrams that let you skip the calculations and come to the answer with just a few squiggles4, 5, 6.

So what I am saying is that Richard Feynman has been a big influence on my life. This book was made for me, and as such it was going to get a rave from me as long as it is more than merely adequate in terms of writing and art. Fortunately, it is far more than merely adequate.

Jim Ottaviani has combed through a multiple-meter-tall stack of stories, technical documents, biographies, and writings on Feynman, and brought together the best bits in a mostly-chronological (with occasional flashbacks and flashforwards, as any good storyteller might use to break up an overly-linear tale) fashion.

Opening on a talk that Feynman gave at his old high school, the bulk of the book could well be a graphical representation of the most riveting, meandering assembly those students ever got. Best of all, near the end of the book Ottaviani works in excerpts of some of Feynman’s famed lectures (introductory physics for freshmen, and also on QED) in his famed conversational style — those that never “got” physics, read these few non-threatening pages, and let them convince you to look up the originals.

Artist Leland Myrick does a great job of making cartoon Feynman evoke actual Feynman, without losing any of the expression and looseness that good cartoons can bring to bear. For those familiar with Feynman and other famous scientific luminaries, they all look like themselves, but not so much as to be reduced to “others”. We can identify with this one lanky fellow with the wavy hair (which occasionally looks like the wavy part of a Feynman diagram) and like him. His voice gets inside the reader’s head (if you haven’t ever heard recordings of Feynman, go look some up) and makes us feel that, like the best storytellers manage even in front of enormous crowds, this story is meant for an audience of one.

Starting from the observation of the what (Feynman’s father taught him in observing the world), one can develop the basis to determine the how and why, whether it’s the how and why of a bird pecking at the ground, or the how and why of the universe’s workings. For those that weren’t familiar with Feynman before, you’ve got the beginnings of what he did, the ways he behaved, and can start to put together the how and why of one man. That translation of knowledge from one mind to another, and done in a way to make more interesting than mere transfer of fact? That’s the essence of storytelling. Feynman appreciated it like no other, and Ottaviani and Myrick are worthy practitioners of the art.

¹ Or Burns-Whitesauce, if you prefer.

² Maybe Benjamin Franklin; I have a feeling that he was probably as much fun as Feynman, and probably knew more dick jokes.

³ One might argue that Shannon was not a storyteller to the degree that the others were, but given that his work made possible all the modern forms of communication, we can consider him a builder of storyteller infrastructure. It’s my essay, I’ll gloss where I want to.

4 And with the inclusion of pictures, Shannon’s right back in the running since his famed Figure 1 encapsulated an entire field of study into just one diagram. If I ever decide to get a tattoo, it’s gonna be this.

5 One of the greatest teachers I ever had, Dr Frank Acker, was big on diagrams. I once completed an entire final exam on electromagnetic fields forgoing calculations and formulas and using the field diagrams he taught and got full credit. Although the answers weren’t as “correct” as if I’d done the math, it was far easier and well within the 2% tolerance than any physical parts would have been expected to meet.

6 Speaking of diagrams, I’d like to thank whatever deranged freak decided that New Math was a good idea, which led to me learning Set Theory at the age of six, leading to a life-long love of Venn diagrams and pictures in place of formulas. I’m probably the only person that actually benefitted, though — the Venn diagram of today’s adults that took New Math and those that saw any benefit from it hell of looks like an eight.