The webcomics blog about webcomics

Fleen Book Corner: Good, Good Boys

The Adventure Zone: Here Be Gerblins is maybe the book that is least for me that I’ve ever looked forward to. I believe that I’ve mentioned that I don’t listen to any of the McElroy-related media empire — not because I’m not interested, but because I know that I would get sucked into listening to every. single. damn. one. they do, or are associated with. Every month or so I can go by YouTube and see which bits are attracting all the new animatics, and I quite enjoyed their guest turn on Bubble, but that’s as far as I can go. I have work, people.

But TAZ:HBG has brought me right up to the precipice. If I fall into a McElhole, it’s because of this book.

Which is weird, because it shouldn’t have worked. A story made up on the fly (and remade) by four different people (brothers Justin, Travis, Griffin, and dad Clint), and adapted to story form by two (Clint and artist Carey Pietsch) should be a mess. Griffin surely knows the pain of every dungeon master who’s ever lived as the players derail everything you’ve planned and go off in a million directions … and when those players are known for digressive goofery and several thousand tangents per second? There’s no way to get a single, coherent narrative from that starting point.

Except they do. Credit to Griffin for clearly having an idea of where he wanted the story to go and accounting for all the fuckery his family could throw at it. Further credit to Clint and Pietsch for finding a way to pare down to that story, while still coming up with means to include the best fourth-wall breaks, character introductions, scene shifts, and the flavor of the gaming sessions¹. It’s straddled the line between playing a game and what the lives of the collectively-created characters are like in the game rather nicely.

But that’s not why you should read the book. You should read the book for one exchange, during the last of the increasingly-difficult boss battles, when who the McElroys are comes through. They’ve spent 200 pages playing characters who are willing to tolerate each other, but who range between self-regard, self-delusion, self-interest, and self-aggrandizement.

Magnus (human, fighter, played by Travis) is cocksure, rushes in without thinking, and generally makes things worse. Taako (elf, wizard, played by Justin) full of himself, not above a bit of thievery, and generally makes things worse. Merle (dwarf, cleric, played by Clint) is grouchy, doesn’t like his family or the mission, and generally makes things worse.

Then the Big Bad threatens a town that they don’t care about at all. Taako’s fled to a place of marginal safety and for once, Magnus hesitates.

Magnus: I’m not leaving with all these people here!!
Merle: Magnus … you can’t save everybody.
Magnus: Maybe not — but that doesn’t mean you can’t try.

And there it is. Despite playing a blundering jerk for hours and hours, Travis can’t help but find a place to inject the fundamental decency for which the McElroy boys are known. It’s going to cost Magnus his life, it’s going to derail the game (and the podcast series)², and Travis’s dad reacts the only way he can.

Merle: Well … shit.

And then they’re off, transformed from adventurers to heroes. Even Taako finds a way to to care — despite insisting that he doesn’t care — and act to help Magnus and Merle. They’ll still be jerks, they’ll still try to scam their way through life, but they’ve turned a corner without really intending to. Griffin may have set the conditions that made it possible, but when Magnus, Merle, and Taako could have cut and run, Travis, Clint, and Justin decided that they wouldn’t.

It would be a hard thing for one author to pull off — heck, it’s taken masters of character growth like Randy Milholland and Meredith Gran hundreds of strips over years to accomplish such redemptive arcs — and four people working occasionally in parallel (but just as often at cross) purposes pulled it off in the space of a minute. Pietsch conveyed the entire thing in three pages, and the centerpiece, that emotional turn from Magnus and Merle in three panels.

And that’s why this book that isn’t for me, one that I looked forward to from a remove, was ultimately worth it. Because in and around all the goofs and sniping and shit-talking and messing with the DM and each other, little grace notes pervade. You can be a bit of a dick, and still want to save the helpless. It’s a hell of a message.

Oh, and the whole thing with the sshhkxxx? That’s one great story hook you came up with, Griffin. Nice one.


Spam of the day:

100’S celebs and artists like Ms. Hudson are eating this fruit every day. With this amazing fruit your body will enter Ketosis without changing diets or gym you can lose 4lbs a day

Okay, EMT hat on here — ketosis is your body’s metabolic mechanism to desperately attempt to keep your brain alive when you’re starving it of glucose. It is not a means to — as the subject line of this spam promised — get abs.

_______________
¹ My favorites, in no particular order:

  • DM Griffin appears in inset panels when he interacts with the story; on his first appearance, the players panic and he has to calm them.
  • Scrolls appear to introduce new characters and their defining abilities.
  • What must have been wildly looping, heavily descriptive role-playing (Well, I say ______. Okay then, I say _____ in response, and suck it!) is constructed into naturalish dialogue.
  • Running gags about game mechanics appear, as do repeated hints by Clint about popular songs; at first, the boys mock him out of character, but by the end, they’re referencing Oklahoma and The Girl From Ipanema in-character and it works.

² Unless Griffin can make with the DM magic, fudging rules and consequences to keep the story going that is.

Up Close And Personal With Books

See that? That’s a stack of review copies from :01 Books, who remain the best folks in whatever cohort or clade you care to name. Summer convention season, a ramping-up to a 50 book/year release schedule, and the shifting of people to cover Gina Gagliano’s former responsibilities allowed a backlog to develop for a bit, but now I’ve got ’em, I’m gonna read ’em, and I’m gonna let you know what I think of ’em. Speculation: they’re great.

For those not on the reviewer list for a top-flight publisher, there’s still ways to dive into the wonder of an amazing graphic novel. For instance, those on the West Coast in general, and the Bay Area in particular, have the opportunity to look at the making of one of the more acclaimed books of the past year: The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui.

The story of her life as a refugee and immigrant, and the effects of those times on her life, is getting the spotlight treatment by the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco; as part of CAM’s Emerging Artist Showcase, a selection of Bui’s original artwork will go on display on 30 August (two weeks from tomorrow, as I write this) and remain until mid-January.

At the same time, The Best We Could Do is the San Francisco Public Library’s One City One Book selection for 2018, with discussion groups, exhibits, and author events to come in October. Even if you can’t make it to CAM, if you’re from the Bay Area, you probably aren’t too far from a library, and can get in on the reading, experiencing, and learning.


Spam of the day:

In Less Than 20 Minutes, You Can Cover Your Families Future

Families, plural? How did you know? Yes, I need to cover my family’s future, and also the future of my secret families in other cities that nobody knows about!

It’s Raining Again

Not terribly hard, but after yesterday’s downpour, there’s a lot of groundwater. Like, a lot a lot, and I’m hoping that today’s drive home is not a crapshow. In the meantime, there’s two books you should be aware of.

Firstly, the latest Iron Circus Smut Peddler iteration, this one about gettin’ it on with robots. If you followed ICC Generalissimo For Life C Spike Trotman on the Twitters last night, you know it funded out in the first four hours, will be going for only 15 days (pretty sure that’s a record for brevity), and has already passed the second creator’s bonus level. And if you didn’t know all that, now you do.

Secondly, Abby Howard’s new book releases today, and she celebrated by illustrating a comic for Zach Weinersmith (I really love their collaborations). A sequel to last year’s Dinosaur Empire (which was great), Howard sends Ronnie and Ms Lernin to before the time of the great lizards, to the Age Of Fish and beyond, when the seas were alive with critters curious and lethal.

Ocean Renegades¹ looks at the Paleozoic Era, when water was where it was at, evolutionarily speaking. From soft-bodied jellies to sailbacked dimentrodons, Howard takes you through a few hundred million years of nifty critters, and I can’t wait to obtain and devour this great book.

How can I be so sure it’ll be great? Because I got to speak to Ms Howard for about two minutes in San Diego this year, and thanked her for all of her comics, especially Dinosaur Empire, and thanked her in advance for Ocean Renegades which was surely going to be awesome. If it wasn’t going to be awesome, she would have had to tell me — it’s like they have to tell you if they’re a cop, it’s the law. Anyway, Abby Howard knows more about prehistoric beasties than you do² and lucky us, she’s willing to share.


Spam of the day:

_______________
¹ Not to be confused with the occupants of OceanRenegades.com, a Jersey shore basketball team.
² Man, I hope she gets to do a book on the post-dino mammalian periods. Ever see the ridiculous things that lived in the Age Of Horns? Hippos, rhinos, pigs, deer, rabbits, horses, sloths, all with horns growing up out of their snouts. Probably fruit bats, too. It was a weird time.

How The Heck Do You Deal With [Counts] 15 Nominees?

Presumably, everything will settle down in the next couple years?

This is just schizophrenic. And by this, of course, I mean the revamped Harvey Awards, which now have only six categories, but fifteen nominees in Book Of The Year:

  • BLACK HAMMER: SECRET ORIGINS by Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormston and Dave Stewart
  • BOUNDLESS by Jillian Tamaki
  • EVERYTHING IS FLAMMABLE by Gabrielle Bell
  • HOSTAGE by Guy Delisle
  • KINDRED by Octavia E. Butler, adapted by Damian Duffy and illustrated by John Jennings
  • LIGHTER THAN MY SHADOW by Katie Green
  • MONSTRESS by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
  • MY FAVORITE THING IS MONSTERS by Emil Ferris
  • ROUGHNECK by Jeff Lemire
  • SHADE THE CHANGING GIRL by Cecil Castellucci and Marley Zarcone
  • SPINNING by Tillie Walden
  • THE BEST WE COULD DO by Thi Bui
  • THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS WRONG by Mimi Pond
  • THE FLINSTONES by Mark Russell and Steve Pugh
  • THE PRINCE AND THE DRESSMAKER by Jen Wang

That’s one-shot memoirs, original graphic novels, creator-owned and IP-farming monthlies, original work and adaptations, all-ages and mature readers only, all mashed in together. Whoo boy, the old Harveys were a charlie foxtrot, but this one is going to be extra chunky.

Plus, any list that includes neither The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl nor Giant Days is immediately suspect.

Most of the Book Of The Year Nominees appear in other categories, which include Digital Book Of The Year, Best Children Or Young Adult Book (those are very different things, BTW), Best Adaptation From A Comic Book/Graphic Novel, Best Manga, and Best European Book. We’ll call out the Digital Book Of The Year nominees as relevant to Fleen’s readers:

Solid contenders, all. Likewise, Best Children Or Young Adult Book is a pretty consistent and self-similar set of nominees:

  • BRAVE by Svetlana Chmakova
  • REAL FRIENDS by Shannon Hale and LeUyeun Pham
  • SPINNING by Tillie Walden
  • THE PRINCE AND THE DRESSMAKER by Jen Wang
  • THE TEA DRAGON SOCIETY, by Katie O’Neill

We’ll see how it all shakes out. The Harvey Awards will be presented during New York Comic Con, 5 October. Voting is by industry professionals (Heidi Mac tells us that anybody receiving a Pro or Artist Alley badge for NYCC in 2016-2018 automatically qualifies to vote), with applications for pro status due … sometime soon? Their website doesn’t actually say, but get on that if you want to vote because it’s less than two months for them to get everything done.


Spam of the day:

Good chance just have been made to you

Having retired from Superman-inversion duties, Bizarro now composes spam text.

_______________
¹ This is the title of the first collection of Check, Please! from :01 Books, due out soon, and not the name of the webcomic. I’m not sure what’s up with that.

² In their announcement the Harveys deadnamed Stone, who announced transition and a name change to Tess nearly a year ago. I mean, come on, it’s only his pinned tweet.

Ups And Downs And Ups Again

Those who follow me on the tweetmachine know that I’m in San Diego, and it’s weird. I can walk into a restaurant in the Gaslamp and just sit at a table! Streets have people on the sidewalks, but not throngs! People are walking their dogs on patches of green adjacent to Harbor Drive, instead of there being enormous installations of Nerd Shit! It is, in a word, Paradise.

  • But we all know that Paradise is flawed, that hideous maldesigns cause it to be lost. In this case, I’m here a week too early:

    SAN DIEGO: I’m appearing at the incredible San Diego Maritime Museum (YES THE ONE WITH ALL THE BOATS) next Thursday, 8/16! Come hear me talk about boat comics ON AN ACTUAL BOAT. Free signing in the gift shop 6-7pm, then a lecture inside the museum! AAAAA. https://www.facebook.com/events/1927332380657504/ …

    Lucy Bellwood is bringing her 100 Demon Dialogues tour to this town next Thursday, and it’s on a boat and I won’t be here, what the crap.

    If you haven’t had the pleasure of a Lucy Bellwood talk, you owe it to yourself to attend; if you haven’t been around Lucy Bellwood on a boat, I recommend you get from 100+ SPF sunblock, or possibly one of those airport firefighter suits because she is going to be incandescing with excitement, y’all. Fun starts at 6:00pm, runs until 9:00pm, and will take place at 1492 N Harbor Drive¹. Signing first in the gift shop (until 7:00pm), then a talk about Bellwood’s nautical adventures from 7:15pm on a boat (museum admission required).

  • It’s an up-and-down time for Lucas Landherr these days. His good, good dog (they’re all good dogs) died, which sucks; his daughters have never known a time without Westley², so I imagine it’s been a sad time around the Landherr homestead.

    Then scant days later, he got recognized by the professional society of Chemical Engineers for what he’s done to make ChemE education more effective; specifically, he’s the recipient of their 2018 Award for Innovation in Chemical Engineering Education:

    Prof Landherr has had the opportunity to work with student and professional artists to write a comic on teaching pedagogy for Chemical Engineering Education. This initiative is an opportunity to further work with the medium for broader instructional purposes.

    In addition, Prof Landherr’s work with Crash Course, in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios, has helped influence how engineering topics can be taught through another unique visual media. Prof Landherr has been working as the engineering consultant of the “Crash Course: Engineering” series that covers fields and topics throughout all of the main branches of engineering.

    For those keeping track at home, the American Institute Of Chemical Engineers also named him to their 35 Under 35 list last year, he was recognized for teaching in 2016 by the American Society For Engineering Education, and he’s taken a number of named awards at Northeastern for education innovation and teaching.

    And I bet he’d trade any of them for another snuffle from Westley. Well done, Dr Landherr, best wishes to your family in this time of loss.


Spam of the day:

Please activate your new Gumtree account

Not be be confused with Gumroad, Gumtree is apparently the UK version of Craigslist; I’ve known for some time there’s at least one Gary Tyrrell in the UK who thinks my email address is his, and Gumtree really wants him to confirm the account he signed up for. Either that, or Russian spammers have just supplied his email address (that is to say, mine) along with an “account name” that’s a combo platter of Cyrillic letters and a URL that there’s no way in hell I’m clicking, in an attempt to hijack a legit merchant to send their links past some (but not all) spam filters. Either way, please figure out that your email is not mine, UK Gary Tyrrell

_______________
¹ Pro tip, about three blocks south, at Broadway on the water? Great taco stand.

² Westley Landherr is also known as German, faithful labcoat-wearing hound of Dante Shepherd.

And We’re Back

Doing better, thanks for asking. I’m going to do some catch-up to clear some items that are timely, and we’ll return to Fleen Senior French Correspondent Pierre Lebeaupin and the second part of his look at Japan Expo Paris.

  • Item! Jon Rosenberg is many things — a webcomics pioneer, cranky dude, connoisseur of office supplies, father of three, and owner of my soul. He’s been running webcomics endeavours since 1997 and for much of that time, it’s been a one-person deal.

    Today, Goats Amalgamated Industries doubles in size, as a new employee (or, more likely, a new boss) joins up. Amy Rosenberg is — apart from the questionable judgment necessary to marry Jon — a skilled designer and artist in her own right, and has been doing yeowoman’s work these past dozen years, working a corporate¹ job to keep the insurance that one must have when one has kids — particularly one with medical challenges. But Alec is a whole lot better now, and Amy’s metaphorically flipped corporate America the double bird, quitting her job and joining Jon in running the comics stuff, including clearing an extensive backlog of Kickstarter and Patreon rewards.

    It’s a risk. It’s an act of supreme optimism. It’s a move in service of art and humor and light-heartedness at a time when we desperately need all three. It’s possible to support Rosenberg, Rosenberg, Rosenberg, Rosenberg, and Rosenberg, LLC, through Patreon, assuming Patreon is working today.

  • Item! Zach Weinersmith, in accordance with prophecy (and his threats/promises of the past couple of weeks) launches a new comic today, along with co-writer Greg Weiner (his brother, and an actual political science professor) and artist Dennis Culver. It’s an explainer of how American government works, and it’s called Laws and Sausages.

    L&S launches today, with four multi-page episodes (on Separation Of Powers in two parts, Impeachment, and How To Communicate With Your Elected Officials), and it’s already got a sub-reddit².

  • Item! Chris Hallbeck has been running something very unusual at Maximumble for the past two weeks or so — an ongoing storyline (never happens) about people with actual recognizable character faces (really never happens). And now it’s spun off to its own site, and we’ll get the continuing adventures of Pebble And Wren a novice monster kicked out of the cave by their parents, and the little girl they’re supposed to haunt (her dad thinks having an under-bed monster is traditional). It’s hell of cute.
  • Item! Steven Conley launched a Kickstarter for a hardcover collection of The Middle Age. That was last week, just as things were interrupting life, so sorry that you’re late finding out, but on the bright side, Conley’s made goal in the meantime, so it’s less hope the campaign funds and more pre-order at this point. Bonus!

    The collection will include the first three chapters, two of which are available in print form already, the third in digital collection. What, you want print? That’s what the Kickstart’s for — three chapters, 100-odd pages, full color, shipping in October.

  • Item! Another new book, but this one you’ll have to wait for. Next year, Evan Dahm will have Island Book coming from :01 Books, and some time after that, a new book from Iron Circus. It’s about Christ’s decent into Hell, based on Gospels both apocryphal and canonical, deconstructed to get to meat of the matter. The Harrowing Of Hell is being worked on now, and features the cartooniest stigmata you’ve ever seen. Follow Dahm on Twitter to keep appraised.

Spam of the day:

This important expiration notification notifies you about the expiration notice of your domain registration for search engine optimization submission. If you fail to complete your domain name registration search engine optimization service by the expiration date, may result in the cancellation of this search engine optimization domain name notification notice.

You’re trying to fool me into thinking that my domain is expiring, and if I don’t give you money it will result in … you no longer notifying me you want me to give you money? Oh, screw you, scammers.

_______________
¹ Read: soul-destroying.

² Wait, don’t Zach and Greg have a brother that’s recently the CTO at Reddit?

Serial: Not Just A Great Podcast

[Editor’s note: As in the past, these panel recaps are based on notes typed during the session; all discussion is the nearest possible paraphrase, except for direct quotes which will be italicized.]

That is, there are special challenges in doing book series, and Dr Rose Brock of Sam Houston State University in Texas wanted to tease out those challenges with the help of Jenni and Matt Holm, Raina Telgemeier, and Traci Todd, head of children’s publication at Workman; the latter had invaluable insights to offer on the production end of things.

It’s a huge topic, and discussion ranged from What made you want to collaborate? (directed at the Holm siblings; Jenni’s answer: I didn’t have to pay him. Matt’s answer: The [prose] book she was working on featured an older brother who communicated with a younger sister via comics he drew, and I created those cartoons; it wasn’t published until years after the Babymouse series debuted.) to the challenges of starting new series (Jenni again: We were up against a lot of hurdles in 2000, 2001, going to publishers, children’s imprints, trying to convince them to do a comic when they didn’t have an art pipeline, they didn’t know if girls would read them, they didn’t know if bookstores and libraries would buy them.)

Sticking with Team Holm, there was discussion of collaboration (Matt: Jenni does the story in storyboard form, I’ll revise and do thumbnails and send them to Jenni, and she’ll lay them out, figure out how the comic will look. She was a video editor before an author, so it’s like that — I’m shooting raw footage, she’s editing.) and the amount of time it takes to finish a project (Matt: For a traditional graphic novel about 100 pages long, it’s about a year from start to finish, from Jenni starts writing to I turn in the last of the art. We’re almost always working on other projects at the same time. There’s a lot of back and forth. One of the things you learn on a series is you have a lot of organization, we’ve got due dates in 2020, 2021.), a topic which others had perspectives on.

Raina wishes she had a collaborator to trade off with: I write a script in thumbnail, it’s all there but really rough. It can take from a month to two years to get through that stage, especially with autobio — I look through old photos, ask friends and family if they remember specific aspects of what we went through. And then we edit my life. They’ll tell me “Well, we don’t really like the character’s motivation here and I’m like “Well….”.

For those wondering, Raina estimates Smile is about 95% true and Sisters is about 90% true, mostly because dates got changed and cousins excised to keep the story flowing. Her next book, bee tee dubs, [I]s also a memoir, it’ll be a sort of prequel to Smile, which I haven’t really announced before. Then I draw for however long and send it off to my colorist. Scholastic would like it to be a very regular process, but it can take two years, it can take five years.

Keep those production timelines in mind, because Matt noted that the first Babymouse took two years before anybody not named Holm or their editor saw it, so the work was very much in a vacuum. The later volumes, there was some expectation about how things would go, but the first was a tabula rasa. By contrast, Raina started in minicomics and webcomics, where the feedback is fairly immediate; once she started working on Smile, it would be years of working without that feedback process.

It was also a time of having to set reasonable expectations; Scholastic launched their Graphix imprint with BONE by Jeff Smith, a nine-volume epic that was done, all it needed was coloring. Some in Scholastic’s hierarchy took that to mean that any graphic novel series could be produced on a six-month cycle and Raina had to point out that no, adapting the Baby Sitters Club books would take considerably longer, and her original works longer still. It seems obvious to us, but this was a new area for the publisher at the time; as it was, she wound up doing four books on a yearly basis, which is insanely fast.

Speaking of new areas, Raina pretty much invented (as noted by Mark Siegel a couple days ago) the area of middle grade memoir (and I’ll go further and say graphic novel memoir in general), so that led to new questions: How do you determine what you’re willing to tell about your life? As Raina noted, There’s always going to be a limit of this thing will make this other person really uncomfortable. With Smile, my editors looked at the webcomic and said There are too many characters here and for a story about having no friends you have too many friends. She tried to stick as close as possible to the emotional core, and if I have to swap out who actually betrayed me, well, everybody betrays everybody in middle school.

Since editors were brought up, Brock asked Traci Todd about being an editor, and she talked it up with enthusiasm: Being an editor was not a job I realized I could have until I was an editor, so if you feel you can’t be an author or illustrator, it’s quite gratifying. Editors acquire stories they are quite passionate about; they are just as invested as the team creating the book and when you see those pieces start to fall in place, you’re all on the same page, you just know the readers are going to connect with the imagery and the text. Even better, asked her favorite series to work on, she said I haven’t had it yet. I loved the things I worked on [which to date is licensed work] but I’m still waiting for my favorite. That’s the answer of somebody profoundly committed to making the next comic the best that’s ever been.

Quick questions followed, starting with Advice to yourself as a baby creator?¹
Jenni: Don’t do four books the first year.
Matt: Yeah. Desperately try to get regular schedule, don’t stay up too late working, it’s always better to stop and come back. Self-care is huge, thank goodness I had a dog and I had to chop firewood to keep the house heated.
Jenni: It took us years to realize that every book is not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and then the series is a megamarathon.
Matt: Say No more often.
Raina: Be a curious person and have interests and make friends with your fellow creators. If you’re a person who is interested in science or the outdoors or politics or society, you won’t burn out all your inspiration after six books. Don’t lock yourself in your room all the time.
Traci: Be brave. As an author I had a book I’d worked on over a decade I was too afraid to share but then I did and now it’s going to be published. Related: be open to feedback and be gracious about the feedback you receive. Anybody giving you feedback wants the best for you and wants your work to be incredible.
Matt: Talking to humans is feedback. Talking on Twitter or Facebook is torture.

What are some of your favorite books that people haven’t discovered?
Jenni: Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol. [all agree]
Matt: The problem is when do we have a chance to read?
RT: Sci-Fu by Yehudi Mercado. A kid DJ in Brooklyn is abducted by aliens and has to defeat them in DJ battle. Gale Galligan used to be my assistant and has taken on the Baby Sitters Club series. She’s very manga influenced, it can be so shoujo, so good.
Traci: There’s a new series I’ve heard of, about a little girl that can see a T-Rex nobody else can see, like Calvin & Hobbes. [Editor’s note: I’ve not been able to identify this series; if you recognize it, please let us know in the comments.]
Raina: The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag and its sequel, The Hidden Witch.
Jenni: Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka.

Questions from the floor followed. Asked what jobs they wanted when they were kids, the panelists replied:

Jenni: Ballerina, but I got fired from the ballet when I was about four years old.
Matt: I wanted to do this, but this didn’t exist when I was a kid. I wanted to make those books of comics, the collections of daily strips that I didn’t know until I was 10 or 11 that comic strips were out every day.
Raina: I wanted to be trapeze artist, then a farmer. I knew I would wear overalls and a hat; I grew up in the city and I think the thought of having space outdoors was the most exciting thing ever. Then at nine years old I decided to be a comic strip artist. I’ve had zero career aspirations since except to be a cartoonist.
Traci: I wanted to be a writer and thought the only way was to be a journalist, so went to journalism school and hated it.

When you’re writing books and you want to put in people you know, do you have to ask permission?
Matt: Change all the names. When we did Sunny Side Up, it’s fictionalized, it didn’t happen on that timeline, we eliminated two brothers from the family.
Jenni: We changed it a lot. Babymouse, I mean I am Babymouse, he’s Wilson Weasel. Felicia the mean girl is based on a real person but we’ll never say her real name. Make her a cat and she’ll never catch on.
Raina: I wish I had talked to you guys before I started this. I use real names and I make people look like they are and my dad likes to argue with me about that’s not how that happened, that’s not the order it was in. I have both the good side and the bad side about writing about my life, mostly good.
Matt: Don’t put real people’s names in, dedicate it to them.

Are you making more Sunny books?
Jenni: Matt will start drawing the third next week, it’ll be out Fall 2019: Sunny Rolls The Dice.

How do you keep yourselves organized?
Jenni: I scribble out chapters as I go along and keep it on the wall. I use a MacGyvered storyboard; I use Scrivener in my novels, but it’s overkill in graphic novels.
Matt: For Sunny, it’s set in the summer of 1976, so I had to do a ton of visual research — cars, the airport, the clothes, it’s all a giant folder of stuff for me and for our colorist. In terms of series, as we do twenty Babymouse books, I have to go back and make sure I’m doing characters right. I’m constantly going back to my old stuff. I have PDFs of every book when I’m on the road.
Raina: The minute I’m drawing, I lose details. I have blueprints of things like a classroom from all angles, where each kid sits, I’ve been looking at that for six months. I write outlines before thumbnailing, but it gets updated pretty constantly.
Jenni: It’s fun to remember when you see something from the ’70s, like seeing Sunny in the front seat with no seatbelt.
Matt: Photo reference was shocking. I didn’t remember how many people wore plaid pants, everybody all wearing jeans, no girls in dresses …
Traci: I think that’s one of the things an editor has to watch for; I’m constantly making sure kids are wearing bike helmets, seat belts. Memoir’s one thing, but in fiction we want to make sure we aren’t setting a bad example. We have a duty and obligation to readers of the book.

I love that line — a duty and obligation to readers of the book. Readers, all of these people not only want to tell the best story they can, they want you to be the best you can be. That’s why comics (especially middle grade/YA, where so much of the best work is being done) is so great.

_______________
¹ That is, a creator in the baby stage of their career, not somebody who makes baby humans.

In Case Of Stairs, Here’s Some Fire

[Editor’s note: As in the past, these panel recaps are based on notes typed during the session; all discussion is the nearest possible paraphrase, except for direct quotes which will be italicized.]

I’m going to do something I don’t believe I’ve ever done. I’m going to ask you to go elsewhere (two elsewheres, actually) to figure out what Scott McCloud said in his spotlight presentation on the occasion of 25 years of Understanding Comics. The first thing to do is to track down a copy of the Comic-Con 2018 Souvenir Book, because on pages 140-145, you’ll find the text of the presentation that McCloud did for the opening 10 minutes or so of his session. The essay didn’t offer enough room for pictures, though (I counted 18, if all the cover photos of foreign editions of UC are separate items), so he added a bunch more for his reading of the same material — about 200 in all. Guy knows how to keep things rolling along.

The second thing you need to do (or maybe the first, since the first may be really difficult) is to click on the image up top. Jason Alderman had been unaware of the McCloud session until about 10 minutes before I was going to walk up there; he decided on the fly he needed to go when I mentioned that McCloud would likely talk about his next book, which will be on visual communications (a topic near and dear to Alderman’s heart, and mine). He had his pens, but no suitable sketchbook for his famed sketchnoting. I offered the use of my notebook, which resulted in both the sketchnote above (which you should immediately embiggen) and the fact that I now have an Alderman original sketchnote (muwaa ha ha ha).

Let’s be clear — Alderman and I sat in the same session, in adjoining seats. We both set out to capture the same content in real time. He produced an image, I took down 1205 words, many correctly spelled. What we learned from this is that the old ratio is wrong — a picture is work approximately 1.2 thousand words (and probably 1000 words longer that by the time I finish). Go study that picture; examine it closely, and then you can come back here for some context.

_______________

Very well then: in the fall of 1991, during a rare tornado watch in Providence, Rhode Island, McCloud left the basement where he and his wife, Ivy, were huddling for safety when he heard the phone ring. The call was good — Kevin Eastman (of Ninja Turtles fame and lately fortune) was calling to say that his new publishing company, Tundra, was going to publish Understanding Comics.

To date, the book has outlived the publisher by approximately 24.8 years, and has become one of the most required pieces of reading on college campuses, with multiple disciplines using it to teach their stuff. It’s been translated into more than 20 languages. It has killed at least two publishers¹, and has a history intertwined with McCloud’s older daughter², as they were conceived, gestated, and birthed in parallel.

The book is a testament to McCloud’s obsession with how things work (more about that in a few moments), in that he couldn’t just make comics, he had to take them apart to see all that made them unique (particularly, during the Q&A, the fact that comics is the only artistic medium where past, present, and future exist together within human perception; music, movies, TV, plays, all the visual and performing arts depict now, a series of nows, but comics have those panels across time).

A professor who played doubles tennis with Will Eisner arranged an introduction, a job in production at DC happened to be near Books Kinokuniya in Manhattan a half decade before manga really made an impact in its first translations, and 15 years before it exploded into whole bookstore sections. Zot ran at the late Eclipse³ and started getting really good about the time he wanted to be spending time on UC4, meaning some of the most humanistic stories of that otherwise grimdark decade were done under duress.

Oh, yeah, and the first graphical web browser came out a few months after UC, which doesn’t mention computers once.

A slow start picked up momentum as the reorders came in, and kept coming; convention appearances became teaching gigs and seminars, symposia and workshops for corporations and academia. And still, it feels like unfinished business: for every project completed, ten more are rolling around in McCloud’s head, but so many readers (both those that read it back then, and those that have never known a world without it) are taking UC’s ideas out for a spin and creating their own takes on his theories.

Qs were chosen by Winter, with As from all three as appropriate; the first dealt with McCloud’s next book, which was the topic of the closing presentation, so we’ll hold discussion until then. Except to say that McCloud noted, The form of the book is a comic, but it doesn’t have “comics” in the name so it’s a big step for me.

A seemingly prosaic question got the best laugh of the hour: when was UC first used in a university setting? McCloud recalls that it was at Michigan State, but isn’t entirely sure of the timing. He once found himself humblebragging about the situation to Neil Gaiman: I remember talking to him, all these colleges are using my book, it’s a big deal and he said “I know, it’s like when all the women that line up at a reading to get their breasts signed” and I’m, “Yeah”. I’ve always found McCloud to be very modest about his accomplishments and the importance of his place in history, and I firmly believe that comes from the core of who he is; this little bit of perspective-setting surely didn’t hurt, though.

Asked about what he thought about the presentations of comics on mobile devices, and the tension between whole-page approaches and panel-to-panel scrolling, Ivy gave him a strict limit with a stern Five minutes. You know that last panel in UC with Sky in Ivy’s arms? She’s talking about how you just finished reading a couple hundred pages of his theories, but she has to listen to it all the time? Yeah, the presentation of comics on mobile interfaces falls into that category, leading McCloud to start with Thank you for the question, Pandora’s Box.

It’s a dilemma, in the literal sense — on the one hand people hate scrolling, but a lot of that comes from technical limitations that have been addressed. Panel-to-panel is more intuitive, making things like a little movie, but see above and how comics aren’t movies, movies are always now and you lose an essential part of comics in this way. But I don’t want to be the guy that insists on purity. Maybe it’s not technically comics by my definition, but are people reading it, are they enjoying it? Somebody invented a form that mutates my model, but it’s enduring.

Nevertheless, the form that accentuates the all-times nature of comics is essential; McCloud noted that Korean webcomics are all scrollers now (and they’ve brought the interface here, cf: Webtoons), and if that’s what they’re reading on phones, if you don’t take advantage, that’s a storytelling challenge (or possibly failure). He clearly had another 3-4 hours of rant in him, but stopped to get in one last question about his inspiration for The Sculptor:

[gesturing to Ivy] She’s my inspiration.

It’s a long-gelling story, one that a 25 year old McCloud started and a much older McCloud finished from a different place of technical, storytelling, and theoretical development. He likes that fact that the book got both a lot of love and a lot of hate, that nobody is indifferent. I achieved at least one of my goals which was to create narrative momentum — a lot of people told me they read a 500 page graphic novel in one sitting and that’s nuts.

And that left enough time for his second presentation, a preview of his next book on visual communications, on his absolute loathing of a plaque next to an elevator in a La Quinta motel in Tennessee and what he learned. It was called In Case Of Fire. This is the plaque, and he shared some of the interpretations of what this meant to people:

  • In case of a Goliath attack, hide in a companion cube and get upvoted to safety
  • Use chopsticks to remove cooked children from hot oven
  • In case of 2 fires, ride the elevator heading to the larger fire

He mentioned the difficulty he had getting information from public websites that are supposed to talk about areas affected by Southern California wildfires, all down to poor formatting, and contrasted with the experiences of Sky (who is functionally blind) and how accessibility is either granted or denied by the choices made. There are no neutral visual decisions, he half-shouted: scale, rotation, hue, saturation, wording, contrast, font, placement, all of them matter. His realization is that it doesn’t matter if you’re blind, or have neurological or language issues, we all have cognitive limits and all of us are served or not by visual design.

He brought up Google results for what the words are meant to convey: In case of fire use stairs, and filtering out the gags, went to work. How does this read for somebody that scans images left to right? An awful lot of people are wandering towards the fire or have simply turned their backs to it, but even those that don’t could be just as easily read as In case of stairs, here’s some fire or Have a pleasant stroll in the vicinity of fire or Skip merrily down some stairs away from fire. Even word choice affects interpretation: use is a bad word in this context.

Anyway, he said, that’ll be like 20 pages of the book.

Lots of things are going to be like 20 pages of the book; we’ve talked about the literal years of research he’s done, about how 90% of what he’s digging into will probably never be shared, but which will give him to context to decide how to prune down and present the key ideas of the 10% that does make it in. He’s evangelical about the topic, noting that Culture has recognized the importance of each and every word, but denies the importance of each and every picture, not to mention how satisfying great visual communications design is — think about the wordless, nested, entirely clear (yet complex) instructions on an airplane emergency evacuation card.

Look for In Case Of Fire: The Elements Of Visual Communication (a title which he hopes invokes Strunk & White, but which will be nowhere near as slim5) in the next couple. Come to think of it, he never did say couple what.

Asked in the closing seconds if he got angry at fonts like Papyrus6 or Comic Sans7, McCloud replied, Comic Sans doesn’t make me angry, fonts don’t make me angry. I look, I say “Wrong”, I change the font. He contrasted the very haphazard nature of Roman characters to the very deliberate and nature of written Korean, concluding Fonts don’t make angry, but they very rarely satisfy me. And he made a recommendation, so you’ll have something to read while waiting for the next couple: I’m Comic Sans, Dammit, (which appears to actually be titled I’m Comic Sans, Asshole, but there were kids present), which ran in McSweeney’s. Kids, maybe hold off on reading it until you’re older.

And with that, the presentation ended with applause, and then he took another hour in the hallway, talking to everybody that had something they wanted to share with him. As a bonus, there was a guy dressed as Sean Connery in Zardoz adjusting his loincloth about 3 meters away, but I don’t think Scott ever noticed; whether it’s researching a book or answering an earnest fan’s question, he is a master of the monofocus.

_______________
¹ In a page full of small images captioned This is not a _____, the logo for Tundra is labeled This is not a publisher. By the time most purchasers of the first edition of 6000 copies read UC, that statement was true. When Denis Kitchen published the second edition through Kitchen Sink Press and had McCloud substitute the KSP logo for Tundra’s, the same thing quickly became true.

DC had their crack at it, with their “bullet” logo substituted in when they were the publisher; one might wonder if the curse shifted from the publisher as a whole to merely their cinematic universe offerings. It’s with HarperCollins now, and they wisely decided to let the DC logo stand.

² Sky, who wasn’t present with Ivy and younger daughter Winter, but had many stories about her shared. She didn’t exist when McCloud drew Ivy holding her on the last page of UC, but preceded the book into this world by approximately two weeks, meaning that last panel isn’t a lie.

³ McCloud’s really got a thing for defunct publishers

4 The “Earth stories”, still looked back upon by readers as the highlight of the series.

5 He’s mentioned a length of about 250 pages, but he also used that number the first time he told me he was working on The Sculptor, which came in at 496. Given all the research he’s doing, I will not be one bit surprised to see him go significantly long.

6 About which, let’s be real, there’s nothing wrong except rampant overuse.

7 About which everything is wrong.

The New Mainstream

There may be nobody in comics and graphic novels more able to predict where it’s headed than Mark Siegel of :01 Books, if only because of the talent that he has fostered: entire imprints are being established around :01 alumni like Gina Gagliano and Collen AF Venable. It was :01 that brought comics into the world of literary awards, it’s :01 that is the sole publisher that cuts across all age ranges (picture books, kids, middle grade, teen/YA, adult) and all topics; the only limitation is that it’s going to be a comic.

So how did we (the expansive we of the entire world o’ comics, not the royal we embodying Siegel alone) get here? I’ve got my own theories, and one of them is that a good deal of :01’s success is predicated on the fact that Siegel takes time for people; he’s never been too busy to talk to me, and if he’s not absolutely delighted to see me, he’s done a damn good job acting like it. During our quick chat before the start of his (rather under-attended) talk at SDCC, we ranged from the tragedy of Last Man getting cut for lack of sales¹ to the dangers of projecting the laptop before verifying what’s visible on the screen². Although the focus was on :01’s place in the evolution of the graphic novel, he did take about a minute to talk about his own creative work — including a quick animated clip promoing the 5 Worlds series that he co-writes; think Miyazaki crossed with Jansson and you won’t be far from the mark.

As you might expect, he talked about the milestones that :01 has been through — starting just as manga was peaking, and as the comics-buying demographic went from 85% male (mostly aging) to 65% female, American Born Chinese getting a National Book Award nomination and the Printz honor (the first comic work for both) in the first year of operation, ramping up from ~20 books a year to ~50 — but also looked at the industry as a whole:

Raina Telgemeier and Scholastic Graphix released Smile and literally started a revolution; middle grade memoir is now the single most successful category in comics. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home runs on Broadway. Nimona is found in the Library of Congress, was also nominated for the National Book Award, will be a feature film, and Noelle Stevenson is now showrunning the She-Ra reboot. This One Summer became the first book to take both the Printz and the Caldecott honors and was the most banned book of 2016³. The March trilogy took every honor under the sun, and the concluding volume won the National Book Award. Spinning is the latest runaway cross-audience hit (hello Eisner award, 2018).

It’s not coincidental that most of those who created the works cited above? Women. There is in any given :01 season a roughly 50-50 split in creators along gender lines, not because :01 is looking specifically for women, but because they’re creating the most interesting work these days, from high-brow to pulpy, young to old, ambitious to goofy, for comics and non-comics readers — by great new voices, and a worldwide talent pool as Siegel put it. The American graphic novel is now doing what Japan did in the 70s, what France did in the 80s and 90s: it’s about any topic, designed for any age, being treated as any other book would be.

The way we got here — where graphic novels form what Siegel calls The New Mainstream — was entirely dependent upon the building blocks of the past. It works like this:

(2006: The New Mainstream)
(2000: The Manga Invasion =====)
(1986: The Graphic Novel ==========)
(1970s: Indy Comics =================)
(1960s: Underground Comics ===============)
(1960: The Silver Age ========================)
(1938: The Golden Age ===========================)

It was much nicer in Siegel’s slide deck, but you get the idea; we can’t get to where we are without having had each of the previous eras. The kids that read Golden Age comics grew up to create the Silver Age. The reaction to mainstream comics and the Comics Code Authority was the genesis of Underground and the Indies, where if you wanted to make a comic you could just make it yourself. The Graphic Novel served those that had read all of the previous stages and wanted something more. The Manga era, coupled with the example of Graphic Novels brought us to the current stage, where librarians and booksellers are as important as individual readers, for a catalog that’s author-driven, not dependent on a single genre or visual style.

At the same time there’s an element not in the diagram, but which Siegel made sure to discuss: webcomics is what indies and zines used to be — a proving ground and place to develop your talent, and spans all the time frames from the birth of the Graphic Novel to today. Take a look at the milestones section above, and realize that pretty much all of those creators came up through webcomics.

But even with this historical confluence, there’s things you have to do to make it all work, and Siegel admitted there is a secret recipe:

  1. Brilliant, talented, skilled creators (he used both words, drawing a distinction I think is often lost between talent and skill)
  2. Belief in editorial care (editing is not meddling, it’s a support to good storytelling; Siegel described how :01 uses a “story trust”, where people workshop stories, with a shot of Skype call of himself, Gene Yang, and Sam Bosma, working with Vera Brosgol on Be Prepared)
  3. Bridging fields, ages, genres, nations (the creators of The Dam Keeper came from Pixar and said We only want to be in the house of Gene Yang; Scott Westerfeld, an established YA writer, got paired up with Alex Puvilland to The Spill Zone; Nidhi Chanani did illustration work before Pashmina; webcomics creators like Gigi DG, Ngozi Ukazu, and Evan Dahm are getting approached to either reprint with :01 or do new originals works)
  4. Pushing up, broadening, exploring the medium (the Science Comics will be branching to a history line and a maker line, featuring topics like knitting (!), baking, and car repair)
  5. Librarians

This is too large for a parenthetical. Librarians are champions of graphic novels, and they’ve been instrumental in giving them legitimacy. They’ve spent money, they’ve gone from a single shelf to graphic novel sections in each age-specific area in their libraries. I’ve seen the changes since the SPLAT! symposium back in 2008 (cough, largely organized by Gina Gagliano, cough), where libraries had a programming track, maybe the first time that had happened at a comics event, and where the conversations were centered on How can I justify this in my budget? These days it’s about justification, it’s about figuring out how many copies to order to satisfy the waitlist and how long they’ll last before falling apart from use.

That’s it! Simple! Just spend a bunch of time in publishing, a bunch of time in comics, a bunch of time editing, a bunch of time building up your skills and credibility, then figure out all the budgets and promotion and logistics, whether this book is going to have a print run of under 10,000 or over 100,000 … okay, not simple, but not magic either. It’s all about respect for the medium, respect for the creators, respect for the readers.

And librarians. They rock.

_______________
¹ Right at the time of an amazing cliffhanger, too; Siegel says he was convinced that committing to six volumes would have built an audience, but alas, it wasn’t to happen. Then again, they say that Robert Kirkman’s a fan, so maybe some day we’ll get it back.

² A fair amount of my teaching is driven by presentation from my laptop, and I’ve come damn close to having confidential emails shared to my students. There was a very oblique reference to something that Siegel’s been working on nearly as long as :01’s been a company that showed for about two seconds and you’ll not hear the story from me until it’s well and truly announced, but take the lesson, kids: double check everything before screen sharing.

³ Which, Siegel notes, is great for sales because it keeps the books on the radar of buyers. For that matter, those foil stickers on the covers that say PRINTZ or CALDECOTT on them? They mean that about 80,000 librarians will order that book every two years forever. As Siegel noted later, graphic novels can have a slow burn. Unlike monthly comics having to establish high sales immediately or get cancelled (or movies depending largely on opening weekend), graphic novels can ride out a long tail.

The Long And Short Of It

So Saturday had some stuff going on, huh? The Steven Universe movie announcement (cough, cough, scoop here) caught everybody by surprise; I think there’s been more leaks from the Mueller investigation than there were around the movie news. The day started with the Eisner news from the the night before and ended with the news from the Prism Awards¹. The folks at Prism are presumably enjoyed a well-deserved sleep-in today as their website isn’t yet updated with the winners, but Andrew Farago of the Cartoon Art Museum tweeted a list of winners, which included Molly Ostertag’s The Witch Boy for Mainstream Comics and Graphic Novels, and Blue Delliquanti’s O Human Star³ for Webcomic.

In between, you had things like Scott McCloud talking about the twenty-fifth anniversary of Understanding Comics, which means there’s a significant number of significant talents in comics (say, Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, who I got to catch up with, and who remains a delight) who not only don’t remember a world without Understanding Comics, they’ve never lived in a world where it didn’t exist. As you might expect, that discussion involved a lot of pictures and words and will take a while to write up². It’ll be worth it, I promise. I’m also working on a recap of the presentation given by Mark Siegel of :01 Books on how comics and graphic novels came to be what he terms The New Mainstream. Good stuff.

Oh, yes, and Shing Yin Khor now has the best challenge in comics and/or power tools history in front of her: how to disassemble an Eisner award trophy³. It was pretty easy to take apart the brick that represented the Ignatz Award for the Elements anthology and distribute the pieces to the many contributors; scroll through Khor’s Twitter and I believe you’ll find pictures of her with the sledgehammer used. But the Eisner will take some planning and possibly a Dremel. I think the coolest approach would be to take slices from the globe, leaving a Death Star II effect, but I’m certain we’ll get to see the end result soon enough.

Speaking of Khor, on the occasion of a Comics Camp mini-reunion last night, I fulfilled one of my impromptu goals for the week and captured a photo of that included both the Sawdust Bear and the Toronto Man-Mountain. The original photo is up top, but using extremely high-tech, computer, zoom in on sector 7 and enhancement, we at Fleen have extrapolated what the remainder of the scene may have looked like, which you may find here.

Cosplay included some deep cuts; the most mainstream was San from Princess Mononoke, and I also caught Assassin Bug (look him up, kids; all the *pool characters owe a narrative debt to AB), and this one pleasant fellow with a moustache (yes!) who talked to us a bit about the importance of sunscreen and left his card when he moved on. Nice guy.

Panels to keep an eye on today include:
1, 2, 3, . . . 20?! How To Create (And Survive) A Successful Graphic Novel Series with Jennifer and Matthew Holm, Raina Telgemeier, Molly Ostertag, and Dr Rose Brock of Sam Houston State University. Room 11 at 1:00.

Comics Of The Internet: The Memes, The Myths, The Legends with Matt Kolowski and Kiersten Wing from comiXology, Hope Nicholson, Megan Kearney, Nick Franco, and David Malki !. I suspect this will heavily reference the one comiXology title that got announced t’other day about webcomics gone viral. Room 29AB at 2:00pm — 3:00pm.

_______________
¹ Which shares its name with way too many awards — in photonics, PR strategy and campaigns, Greater Boston-area building trades, medical-surgical nursing, Colorado social impact, and paranormal romance writing are just on the first page of the Google search.

² Much like McCloud describes his next book, as having to research a very long book so I can write a short book, I suspect that I will have to come up with a lot of words to condense down to a readable length. Might not happen until the flight home, but then again I’ll probably spend it catching up on sleep and my knitting.

³ Which, bee-tee-dubs, McCloud confirmed a suspicion of mine: the globe of the trophy is based on page 3 of Understanding Comics.