The webcomics blog about webcomics

Thanks, I Needed That

Hey, thanks for that time off. As readers of this page probably know, I traditionally spend the end of April at Alaska Robotics Comics Camp, which means I’m largely off the grid for a week or so. And as anybody probably knew, the entire world is full of canceled or postponed events, and Camp was one of them. Big sads all around.

But Pat Race and Aaron Suring, the stellar fellows behind AK Robotics, Camp, and numerous other projects, got a brainstorm that at least some part of the Camp experience could be improvised online. It was a last-minute thing because of other stuff they had front-burnered, but it came together. Over the space of five days nearly three dozen sessions occurred, mostly on Zoom, with Camp alumni and would-have-been first-timers coming together to form the intentional and intensely weird community that coalesces around Camp each year.

I already had vacation time blocked out for Camp that left me with no work obligations, so I decided to replicate the Camp experience as much as possible — between the round trip to Alaska and the fact that there’s no internet at Camp itself, I opted to step back from social media and the news¹ for the same period of time that I would have been gone anyway. The only question is if it would succeed the way that people really needed it to.

Yes, Zoom sucks² and we’ve all got Zoom fatigue, but it worked; it worked to the degree that during the opening session, which was mostly just people introducing themselves, saw attendance go up during the nearly 90 minutes it took for everybody to say hi. It worked to the degree that people who were supposed to attend Camp for the first time raved about the virtual experience and have had to recalibrate their expectations for the real thing being even better. There may not have been campfires, drizzle, ravens, and s’mores, but it worked.

There were skills demos, hangout time, socially distant boardgames, and one memorable presentation on the evolution of orcs in fiction, games, and fanart (from the original evil and pretty racist sword-fodder to he big to the modern pinnacle of he big and horny³). There are plans for a zine of favorite recipes (a quaran-zine full of cui-zine, if you will). People that might not have been able to make it regardless of pandemic got to attend. Relationships were established and re-established. Cats and dogs showed up on camera. By my estimation, at least a half-dozen people were logged in every hour the Camp events were running.

I’m not sure there’s a lesson here other than one that we all already know — human connection is important — but it’s worth reiterating. Every year at Camp I give a variation of Lesson One that we teach to Lil’ Baby EMTs — You are the most important person in the world, your safety and well-being are paramount, you cannot help anybody unless you first take care of yourself — and I’ll admit that this year I was saying it as much for myself as for anybody else that needed to hear it. The theme kept coming up, at discussions of [waves hand] all of this, of economic realities, of cooking, pretty much nonstop: I don’t want to ask for help. Other people have it worse. I’m doing okay.

Everybody that said it was sincere, and everybody that heard it was also sincere in stomping on that shit and saying Stop. It’s okay to ask for help. Any kind of help. And the thing is, I’m pretty sure that everybody was, at some point or another, on either side of that exchange. There’s a lot of self-denial going around, mixed with a lot of (in many cases, frustrated) desire to help others.

There’s room for a lot of intentional and intensely weird communities out there, and I encourage you to find and/or found them as you need to. For some of you that will mean applying to #ComicsCamp next time it comes around. For others, it will be grabbing friends and friends-of-friends and getting online and just hanging out being awesome/stupid together. For all of us, it will be a step towards a better frame of mind while we’re still taking rainchecks on the in-person connections we’re all so desperately craving.

Oh, and if you did want to take a whack at forming your own community — online for now, maybe IRL later — Pat and Aaron are full of excellent ideas and have worked out a lot of wrinkles. Maybe they could add a We advise you on community building and support tier to the Alaska Robotics Patreon4? Regardless — take a deep breath, make some contacts, and go lift each other up. The world and all of its bullshit will still be here when you get back, but the burden will be a little bit lighter.

Spam of the day:
I was going to include the email I got offering me quick turnaround on mortuary body racks, but that one got me so mad that I called the company to yell at them for spamming something so inappropriate, and it turned out that one of the other Garies Tyrrell (who thinks my email is his email) was supposed to be the recipient. So not evil spam after all!

¹ As much as I’ve written here in years past that Camp is a place that gets my head on straight, I have to acknowledge the act of stepping away from the shouty echo chamber is a big contributor to that rejuvenation.

² It’s also a tool I’ve used all day, nearly every day, for more than two years at the day job. I like to think that my Zoom wrangling skills helped make it suck a little less for the virtual Campers.

³ It was the mostly hilariously WHAT-filled ten minutes of the past decade.

4 Which could use your support, or maybe take a look at the prints, shirts, comics, calendars, postcards, and other stuff at their shop, which they won’t be able to take to/sell at conventions, or out of their store in Juneau, which is likely seeing its entire tourist season drop to zero.

Camp 2019, Until Next Year

And then #ComicsCamp was all done until next year; breakfast on Tuesday followed by an all-hands closeout session, followed by packing up and clearing out. Most everybody that attends is on a midday flight from Juneau to Seattle, and then onwards. Some few people will be on flights around 6:30 or 8:00pm, and a handfull of unfortunates¹ won’t fly out until 5:40am on Wednesday, generally because we’re making our way east across three or four time zones.

Those that need to be on the bus get their stuff together and say goodbye and help clean and pack up common resources until they have to leave. The dozen or so leftovers and locals stay until noon or so, sweeping and cleaning the main lodge and bathrooms, mopping the kitchen and packing out leftover food. By 1:00pm we’re checking into our hotel for the last night, and making plans for lunch and hang-outs in town.

The thing about 78 awesome people in close proximity is it can sometimes be hard to interact without a constantly-shifting population of participants, and a desire to pull ever more people in — it’s the usual convention Who’s going to dinner? problem writ somewhat smaller. But with a half-dozen people at The Rookery for lunch, or maybe ten at In Bocca Al Lupo for dinner (divided into tables of four), it’s easier to have a small conversation².

Thus, questions that have nothing to do with comics or creative careers come to the fore: If you won the fuck-off huge Powerball jackpot, where are you going first? If you were stuck on a desert island, what three books would you take? What one movie prop would you like more than any other?³.

Also, beers, and an invitation back to Rob & Pagan’s place to catch that week’s Game Of Thrones — the battle at Winterfell, y’all — with a big screen and an Aperol Spritz close to hand. If you ever have the opportunity to watch like your fifth GOT episode ever in a room full of enthusiasts and then have to go back to your hotel and immediately pack up your stuff to squeeze in 4.5 hours of sleep for a 4:00am taxi, I encourage it.

Coincidentally, as I was wrapping up this year’s Camp recap, Los Angeles resident Dave Kellett shared his recollections of Camp, in the form of the latest Comic Lab podcast. I think that the infectious joy in his voice (which is hard to convey with words on the screen) is matched only by the infectious nature of his Ursaphobic Stan Lee impression (ditto). If I have to hear it in my brain until I die, so do you.

¹ Hi, how ya doin’?

² Or to share tater tots with those whose lunch order tragically does not include them.

³ My answers:

  • Portland, to make legal arrangements with Katie Lane so I don’t fuck up my life.
  • The Great Outdoor Fight, the collected Digger, and the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf.
  • The dress jacket worn by Kenneth Branagh in his version of Much Ado About Nothing, which set off a lengthy discussion of the various versions of that play between me and Molly Muldoon, leaving Tillie Walden thoroughly bemused that we each knew so much of the text by heart.

    That Molly, though — she’s got opinions on Claudio (which I thoroughly agree with).

Camp 2019, Every Creator Needs That Reassurance

So there’s still some of #ComicsCamp Monday to discuss, and it all fits a theme, even if it didn’t all happen at the same time.

Kazu Kibuishi spoke about making a living at comics, and while he spoke about work process in terms similar to his public session on Saturday, it was more a conversation about finding what works for you. Remember the contrast between Kibuishi and Tillie Walden’s work styles? Let’s add a contradiction — in all that formal process, Kibuishi finds it helpful to draw at the speed that somebody would read the page.

Pages that are meant to make you linger and consider carefully? More time on that puppy. Middle of a fast action scene, flipping breathlessly? Speed it up. I’m tempted to call this a variation of Scott McCloud’s observation that manga panels have varying levels of detail to draw your eye to what’s important now (Understanding Comics, page 44 in my 25 year old copy).

Apart from that, Kibuishi shared that he’s putting more thought into character designs for future series, with an eye to make cosplay cooler and easier to build¹. Oh, and there was a great digression about the benefits of drawing to Dick Dale instrumentals, both because they’re super awesome, but also because of the wealth and breadth of inspirations behind them — Dale made surf guitar standards out of the Lebanese folksongs that his family taught him.

But if there was one thing that lay under Kibuishi’s talk (and multiple others) it’s that while he can discuss what works for him (process, satisfaction, definition of success), it’s different for everybody. Remember the session back on Sunday about financial stability? After that one, posterboard-sized sheets started appearing in the main lodge, each bearing an anonymous pie chart indicating sources of income. Some of them look vaguely similar, some have scant resemblance to most others, a few are gonzo-unique outliers. But no two are the same, and arguably no one is better than any other, even if each creator who shared their experience probably wants to change some things about their balance.

Let’s get back to that commonality thought for a moment — everybody’s experience is in some ways similar, and in other ways utterly unique. The act of working, for most cartoonists, in isolation can make it seem even more unique, especially when the doubts kick in. But when you look at the experiences of peers, and near-peers, and will-be-peers, the journeys to finding that unique set of success conditions start to look familiar. And during the secret session, that point was made again.

I’m being coy, so forgive me. You may recall that Los Angeles resident Dave Kellett made a film about comic strips, and the transition from the newspaper page to webcomics. It’s pretty neat. That movie is about 90 minutes long, and it’s built from about 300 hours of interviews, including with some of the biggest names of comic strips that you love with all your heart. There’s exabytes of stuff that didn’t make it into the film, and LArDK shared some of it. I’m not mentioning names because while it was judged that this likely wouldn’t cause the creator in question any distress, it’s also not meant for mass consumption. But I will share this:

Every creator, no matter how famous, also needs to hear from time to time that their work had an impact on readers. Every creator, no matter how successful, needs that reassurance that they’re doing good work.

Speaking of universality, after dinner on Monday night the question came up — in the same vein as the pie charts indicating proportions of income sources, could there be a report on the ranges of income? A bit of brainstorming among LArDK, David Malki !, and Ryan North determined there could be an income band axis, a years as a cartoonist axis, and some color coding to determine satisfaction². Brio supervised from the couch.

The survey sheet remained up until after breakfast on Tuesday morning, and people added their input. In some respects, no surprises — people at comics as career for a short period of time reported income clustered at the bottom of the range, and the top end was reserved for long-time vets. After about five years, the entire range of income was represented, and after ten years the satisfaction score was mostly positive — either because regardless of income, people found ways of working they enjoyed³, or those who weren’t satisfied with comics as a career mostly self-selected out before spending a decade of their life at it.

I suspect that if you put the easel up with the same income survey today and magically gathered all the same Campers to add their responses, there would be differences up and down the sheet, of only because much of the response came as the booze table was being steadily worked down so there would be less to pack up on the morrow. For my part, I did my traditional Create A Camp-Commemorating Cocktail duty, and came up with a tasty concoction that was eventually named for Brio:

2 oz Laird’s applejack
0.5 oz Aperol
0.25 oz simple syrup
0.25 oz St Germaine
dash aromatic bitters
dash citrus bitters
dash ginger bitters

Muddle one wedge of lemon and one wedge of lime to liquid ingredients. Shake over ice, strain, and drink carefully, musing on how we’re all figuring out our way in the world.

Even if you can’t see all the writing, you can probably see no two pie charts are quite like each other. Bonus views of the dioramas from Saturday night.

Income vs time vs satisfaction, with about 55% of Campers responding. Still not enough for real statistical significance, but enough to get the idea — you’re not the only one trying to figure this shit out.

¹ The result, he said, of seeing an Amulet cosplayer with an intricate, complicated, difficult build of a costume and realizing that if he’d made the character a bit more work on his end, it would have made things much easier for the fan.

² I helped with the layout a little, and because I’m a stickler for such things, I asked if the income numbers were constant dollars and if they should account for US/Canadian exchange rates. However, I did not contribute data to either the income survey or the pie chart collection. For starters, my pie chart would look like a circle with one color for DAY JOB.

³ Plus, not everybody is trying to make comics their sole gig.

We Interrupt This Series On Camp For The Only Important News Today

Details soon enough, I'm sure. Let's just let them rest for now.

Congratulations, Kate and Morgan. We love you.

Camp 2019, Safe And Whole

One of the things that I find most valuable about #ComicsCamp is that there’s a degree of honesty, of willing vulnerability that quickly becomes a cultural norm; you start out meeting strangers¹ and a couple of days later you’re sitting on a couch sharing your deepest insecurities about your career, artistic evolution, and/or life. In a couple of instances, you talk about them in a room of a couple dozen of your new best friends, simultaneously looking for and providing reassurance that it’s gonna be okay.

There’s a lot of raw edges at times, trying to find walking the line between feeling exposed for becoming totally emotional, and feeling comforted that everybody there has your back. And because of that, there’s an agreement in the culture of Camp, that we may talk about what was said, but not who said it or under what circumstances², I am in a couple of cases not even going to mention who was taking the lead in sessions. Here, then, is how Monday shook out:

10:00 am Hey Let’s Draw Each Other w/ Scott C Procreate & Clip Studio w/ Lucas Elliott & Gale Galligan Comics Collaboration w/ Alison Wilgus
11:30 am Board Game Jam w/ David Malki ! Mid-Career Burnout Comics & Community Event Planning w/ Jen Wang, Pat Race, and Aaron Suring
2:00 pm Making A Living Drawing Comics w/ Kazu Kibuishi Z-Brush & Stop Motion Animation w/ Nikki Rice
3:30 pm Games, Books, Hangs Let’s Talk About The Hard Stuff
5:00 pm Games, Books, Hangs SECRET PANEL w/ Los Angeles resident Dave Kellett

Lot of open space during this day, time to mess around in impromptu groups and make it up as you go along.

  • Scott C provided loose direction to three round tables of artists, each getting five minutes to draw another person before rotating to the next person at the table; after a while the tables were shuffled, and in the end you got a bunch of new portraits of yourself. I can’t draw for crap³ but I love watching it happen. Elsewhere, the mysteries of Clip Studio were deciphered by Gale Galligan and Lucas Elliott, and Alison Wilgus talked about creative collaboration, something she has a bit of experience with.
  • David Malki ! is known for a bunch of things, but at Camp he’s known primarily for Always Doing A Bit With [Los Angeles resident Dave] Kellett. Are Dave and Dave being serious right now? was asked with increasing frequency as the weekend progressed. Nah, it’s a bit was the invariable response. It was a relentless iteration of voices and premises, polishing the humor ever finer until it shone like a laugh-chuckle diamond4.

    But he was also known for boardgaming, playing everything with cheerful ruthlessness (or possibly ruthless cheerfulness), and designing new games throughout the weekend and at the Jam. If you see him, ask him how to play Mine, which features tension and splodey things.

  • Jen Wang knows a thing or two about organizing comics events, what with being one of the founders of Comic Arts LA. Pat and Aaron put one this one-day con and camping event that you may have heard of. Between the three of them, there’s a mountain of event planning experience, and if you get the chance to hear any of them opine on the topic, I urge you to take advantage.

The first of the big raw emotion sessions dealt with the serious condition of career burnout — there’s some data I’ll share later on about how folks in the various stages of their comics careers view success — and the feelings that Nothing Is Working Like It Should and This Sucks and the very real possibility of those mutating into I Suck. Folks from all ends and durations of comics careers contributed to how they experienced and dealt with feelings of burnout, and let me assure you — everybody feels those creative doubts, everybody is subject to imposter syndrome. Some thoughts, without names:

Because I put myself on the page, I have to figure out how to stay safe inside.

Best advice I ever received: Don’t let being an author take over from being a writer.

When caught up in [the work] I felt like I gave my life and soul and there was no way to stop.

I’ve had a self-made career, in the self-published, self-promoted space. But there’s not a [contract] that obligates me to that.

Everything I was asked to do, I said yes.

To do this, you have to ask others — family — to sacrifice.

I want to be able to maintain a relationship with my work that’s healthy.

There’s more (and plenty of crossover with the other big raw emotion session that afternoon, which was focused on self care in all aspects of life): family and friends that don’t understand the sheer amount of work that’s involved, even if you can do it on the sofa; money and how to keep it from interfering in personal relationships5; how to keep the career dream from colliding with the family/friends/relationship dreams.

My contribution to these discussions is pretty constant, and it comes from a place about as far as you can get from creating comics, and it’s something I want to repeat for everybody. As you probably know from reading this page, I’m an Emergency Medical Technician, and in my spare time I’m Deputy Chief of Operations for my town’s EMS agency. I also teach lil’ baby EMTs how not to kill their patients. The first thing — literally, the very first thing — that we teach lil’ baby EMTs is a simple three-word mantra:

I’m Number One.

When I roll up onto the scene of a horrific accident, patient(s) on the verge of death, onlookers everywhere, emergency apparatus hopefully screening me from the highway traffic whizzing by with too little attention paid? The most important person on that scene is me. In all circumstances, no matter what, I go home safe and whole6.

Second most important person? My partner. I will pull her back out of the way of a speeding car; I will not throw myself into her, knocking her free of the speeding death vehicle and take the impact myself7. Next? Everybody on that scene that is not already sick or injured. Don’t make more patients.

The actual person we’re called to help? They come last.

The goal is that the entire population of people in and around my response scene is no worse off than if I’d never showed up. I can only make things better for the initial patient if I (and my partner) can work, and nobody else gets added to the list of patients. If keeping everybody safe means that we can’t get to that patient and they die on scene? That’s too bad, and simultaneously the best possible outcome8.

There’s a reason why that emergency information card in the plane’s seat pocket tells you to secure your own mask before attempting to help others. If you aren’t able to protect yourself, you won’t be in a position to help anybody else, and now you’ve got more people damaged or dead. People will tell you you’re being selfish, but it is absolutely true — you must take care of yourself first.

Anyway. There was an uncertain laugh when I shared my screw everybody else, I’m going home alive rule, but I think the context — not a creator, but a representative of your audience — as giving permission for everybody to take a step back and take care of yourself first. We’ll be here when you’ve got something ready for us at your pace. You have to set boundaries, you have to be able to say no, you have to adopt a pace of work that will not injure you, physically or emotionally. Success can’t require sacrificing your life and soul.

More on how to reach that success, and what it looks like, tomorrow.

Up top, two portraits of the blogger with moustache. Lucas Elliott wasn’t at the Draw Each Other session, as he was presenting elsewhere at the same time; it didn’t stop him from doing a bunch of quick portraits during the remainder of Camp, including one of me. Shing Yin Khor did the other, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, delicate and perfect. Coincidentally, they are two of the finest cabinmates you could ever ask for.

The cabin where the the Burnout and Hard Stuff sessions were being held featured a loft. Not content merely being a giant among men Ryan North climbed the ladder and loomed even larger over we tiny creatures below. He’s so tall, it’s impossible to get all of him in focus at once.

¹ Sometimes very strange.

² Barring explicit permission, which I have chosen not to ask for.

³ Give me a pair of drafting triangles and a circle template, and I’ll make circuit diagrams so beautifully symmetric it’ll make your eyes water, but that’s not what we’re talking about here, is it?

4 Either that, or by the 57th iteration, anything (no matter how stupid) is hilarious.

5 Especially in two-creative-career relationships. If you’ve never heard LArDK talk about the balance he and his wife struck to develop both of their careers without risking financial ruin, dig through the recent archives of Comic Lab.

6 I will admit for myself one exception to this rule: if there is a cadet on my crew, I have promised their parents that I will bring them home safe and whole. They’re number one-half.

7 There is a terrible sort of calculus in this logic. If my ambulance is hit by an idiot turning left through a red light, injuring me and my partner? It takes four additional crews to deal with that situation: one to help me and my partner, one to help the idiot that hit us, one to help the patient we were originally dispatched to, and one to replace us until we’re able to ride again. This self-protection is doctrine because my presence is a force multiplier for the general health level of my service territory.

8 Remember the tiger that got out at the San Francisco zoo a dozen years back and killed/injured multiple people? At one point on the security cameras, an ambulance can be seen coming up to where a person — maybe still alive — is laying in the road, and the crew doesn’t get out to render aid. They were excoriated as cowards for not rushing out into the open, not knowing where the tiger was, with nothing to defend themselves but a stethoscope and a blood pressure cuff.

They did the right thing. EMS personnel are more poorly paid than you realize, not that any salary is sufficient to require tiger suicide as a job function. I’m a volunteer, and I sure as fuck am not getting killed to satisfy anybody with an opinion about my bravery for free.

Camp 2019, One In 87.5 Million

I was writing very quickly.

It’s time I introduced you to someone; his name is X’unei and he introduced himself on Saturday night to the assembled #ComicsCamp cohort in Tlingit.

He told us about himself, at some length, before generously repeating himself in English. He is a university professor, and has his hands in novels, poems, screenplays, filmmaking, music, visual arts, and oh yes — he is one of perhaps 80 people in the world that can speak Lingít Yoo X’Atángi. I am fond of quoting a cartoon cat that describes his expertise as being held by one dude or even none in a million, but in a world with 7 billion humans, X’unei is literally one in 87.5 million.

He has an English name, but he prefers X’unei, a name which is rooted in this language, this people, this place. Because of how time works in Tlingit (both language and worldview), he is not only X’unei, but he is every X’unei that has lived before and every X’unei that will live in the future¹.

So X’unei has seen 400 or so indigenous languages at the time of European contact dwindle to maybe 300, and will see perhaps another 100 lost in the next 50 years. There’s two dozen languages native to Alaska, and most of them are dying; he’s looking to the speakers that remain — many of whom are in their 80s — and wondering if the 130 or so people who are studying this one language — which may be 15,000 years old, born in the southwest near the Navajo, spread north into Canada, and then along the rivers and glaciers until it made its way back to the coast — can keep it alive.

He has so much to tell us about this place that we’ve found ourselves, about those who came to claim the land and called the Tlingit inferior because they don’t write things down; about the elder who countered that she can tell a story that takes ten days and it will always be the exact way that she wants to tell it.

So as not to make a terrible botch of things — I took a lot of notes, but I’m certain I missed more than I caught and I may very well have gotten details wrong here — I am going to spare you a lot of what X’unei taught us, and point you to Lingít Yoo X’Atángi, his online language resource.

You can hear the sounds of the language, there and on his YouTube channel, and you can learn about the 61 sounds you need to make in order to speak (26 of which are not in English), and the four vowels that each come with four variations (long vs short, high vs low). You can try to break yourself of the habit of up-talking to indicate uncertainty or a question, and try to get used to the fact that virtually all of the sounds are made behind the teeth² and a bunch of them require you to take your lungs out of the equation.

All of that? That’s the easy bit. Thinking in Tlingit is very different from thinking in English.

There’s a lot of metaphor³, and verbs classify based around whether or not they have happened yet. There’s a suffix that indicates a thing that performs an action (a ladder, a saw), a way to turn a verb into a noun. There are siblings that may be your kin, or any Tlingit of the same generation. The metaphors are more than a linguistic construct, they’re a way of thinking of the world, a way of looking at how things are and then describing your place within it4.

And the stories, always the stories. The story of how the Tlingit people came to their lands by passing under a glacier, about not speaking the word for the brown bear because they’ll come, about announcing your intentions at the edge of the forest before you enter to hunt or forage in the house of your grandparents. About the place names that are lost, about the true owners of this land who will take you away if you whistle at night unless you carry tobacco and copper with you, about the Salmon People who will teach you the value of the food you might disrespect. About how they know all these things happened, really happened. About how they tell the stories so they don’t forget.

And if you start to wonder if maybe there’s a few too many stories, then X’unei will tell you about the time he saw a youngster ask an elder How come every time I ask you a question you tell me a story? and was answered with Let me tell you a story about that….

We dipped out toes into a vast ocean, one that serves as a means to connect a people across past and future (and if X’unei is every X’unei ever or to be, then we who come to Tlingit lands are the same people who stole them, and hopefully the same people who will act to decolonize them). It was a gift freely given, and one that I will do my best to treat with the respect it deserves.

No other pictures today; if you can make out my scribbles in the photo up top, good on you.

¹ He told of meeting an elder who expressed that his own uncle had been named X’unei; afterwards, the elder referred to him as Uncle.

² What’s the hardest job in the world? Tlingit lip reader.

³ For example, there aren’t colors, per se, but there are comparisons to common things. One particular blue is the blue of a Stellar’s jay.

4 I think this relates to how X’unei said you might not name your kids for a week or so, because you have to see who they are. I’m guessing the ubiquitous Have you decided on names yet? ritual that parents-to-be go through around the seventh month are utterly alien to the Tlingit mindset.

Camp 2019, A Bit Of Physicality

So what, I hear you cry, actually happens at #ComicsCamp, Gary? And that’s an excellent question, since to the outside world it looks like a bunch of creators go off-grid for about three days, and everybody knows as soon as you get more than two creators together, 90% of their time is spent figuring out where to go for dinner and exactly how many people are in the group and can you get them all to show up at the same time¹. But with actual ample time, and the dinner plans questions off the table, other things must be found to fill the hours.

Thus, a slate of activities designed to share skills/provide guidance and context to careers, as well as time to play (or invent) games, skip rocks on the water, sketch, hike, paint, play outside like you haven’t since you were a kid, or just kick back and do blessed nothing for the first time in forever. Just show up on time for your shift prepping or cleaning up a meal, and all is cool.

Since most of us can imagine what it’s like to do most of those things (although, and I can’t stress this enough, you are probably not accounting for the deeply majestic beauty of the Alaskan semiwilderness), I’m going to share mostly about the programming.

Last year, almost by accident, most of the first day’s programming involved craft-type sessions (Ravenstail weaving, painted pillow-making, wool felting, bookbinding, and more), and this year continued the tradition by design. There was going to be heavier stuff a bit later, and a bit of physicality would cleanse the mental and emotional palate so that heavy lifting could be approached fresh.

Thus, the Sunday schedule looked like:

10:00 am Artifact Drawing w/ Amber Rankin Knitting & Crocheting w/ Nikki Rice Sketchbook Construction w/ Tess Olympia
11:30 am Friendship Bracelets w/ Cat Farris Printmaking w/ Jim Heumann Travel Watercolor Kits w/ Shing Yin Khor
2:00 pm Tlingit Language & History w/ X’unei Financial Stability w/ Rebecca Martinez Shrinky Dinks w/ Lee Pace
3:30 pm Comedy Writing w/ Ryan North Puzzle Making w/ Chris Yates Podcasting w/ Alison Wilgus

The only thing to note about scheduling is that it quickly becomes impossible to not put cool things up against each other, so decisions had to be made.

  • 10:00am Amber Rankin is an animator with a background in artifact documentation for an archeology company; she brought some artifacts and talked about how drawing them isn’t quite like other still life subjects. Not being much of a draw-er, I left that to folks who would benefit from learning another way to interpret the stuff in front of them.

    Tess Olympia (as she prefers) is a program manager with Sealaska in early education. While I’m a sucker for notebooks and would love to learn how to construct my own, I didn’t want to take up limited materials and keep somebody who would actually use a sketchbook for sketching from being able to participate. So a handful of us broke out needles and hooks and messed with fibers — some for the first time, some at a high level.

    Me, I learned one knit stitch — the titular knit stitch, as in knit one, purl two — at Camp last year, and since then I’ve been playing with the math of knitting, seeing what happens if I do this, or try that. I have a ball of garbage yarn that I use to experiment and when I get an effect I like, I move it to a nicer project. The very nice, been-knitting-longer-than-I’ve-been-alive ladies at the local knit shop tell me I do everything wrong, but I do it consistently and get interesting results, so they have no complaints. I used the time to finish off a project² that’s taken my time on airplanes since last June or so. Catch me in person and I’ll tell you about it.

  • 11:30am Jim Heumann is a printmaker from Juneau, and he brought the supplies for cutting linoleum sheets for relief printing. Shing Yin Khor brought a stack of tins like you’d get Altoids in, a big bag of little square trays, about 1cm on side, and a couple dozen tubes of concentrated watercolor paints. Paint in little trays, trays in tin, and with a water supply and brush, you’ve got a travel painting kit. Again, I left those to the actual artists, to consume neither limited materials, nor time on equipment.

    But you know what was never a thing at any of the camps I attended as a kid? Friendship bracelets. Maybe the Boy Scouts though they weren’t masculine enough. But once you learn a pattern for knotting and have embroidery floss in front of you, all it takes is patience, leaving time to talk and get to know people Cat Farris and I had spent some time already bonding over our respective greyhounds, and this one was a no-brainer. I actually gave the bracelet I made to a friend at Camp, because hey, it’s there in the name!

  • 2:00pm Man, I haven’t seen Shrinky Dinks since I was a kid, and I saw that Lee Post got some really nice ones produced. I would have absolutely done the session on finances with Rebecca Martinez — having worked corporate for a couple of decades and thus been exposed to the idea of financial planning, I felt that I could probably contribute — but it was up against the session on Tlingit Language and History.

    After last year’s sessions by Lily and Ishmael Hope on Tlingit traditions, I wanted to know more. I wasn’t alone, either; offhand, I’d say it was the best-attended session of Camp, apart from the all-hands opening and closings. It was also very information-dense and I’m still going through the four pages of notes that I took³, so that will get its own writeup later.

  • 3:30pm Chris Yates and Alison Wilgus know puzzlemaking and podcasting, respectively, like few others. But being the rare white guy that doesn’t think he should have a podcast, and not having a wood shop at home, I opted to hear what Ryan North had to say about comedy (or, if you prefer, humour) writing.

    It was substantially similar to a session he did two years ago with Kate Beaton (who couldn’t attend this year for the best of reasons), a session that challenged me on one of my core beliefs in life: that Ryan North (and Kate Beaton as well) is effortlessly funny, when the core message of the workshop was no, this is a learned skill like any other.

    Which, okay, yes, to write something and put it into the world and have it be funny, that’s a skill to learn and practice and perfect. But it’s also true that Beaton (and North), in casual conversation and completely off-the-cuff, will leave me laughing because of all the funny that is spontaneously produced. Learning to write funny things is not the same skill as having perfect timing or an ideal, dry intonation that makes everything you say funnier. So I’m half conceding on my core belief, but an acknowledgment that their creative work is funny because they’ve spent years practicing their craft, which is learnable.

    Case in point: North provided us with two pages from The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (art by Erica Henderson with inking assists from Tom Fowler) with the dialogue stripped out, and had us fill in our own. It was a tough exercise, trying to come up with words that fit an already-set situation, and in only about ten minutes. I felt my contribution was about three hours from being serviceable, but when read out anonymously by Ryan it got spontaneous laughs, which was maybe the best feeling in the world. I still think it could be much tighter (or maybe work better with a different page of art), but it’s still a sense of accomplishment.

    Even more importantly? Of the twenty or so pages that Ryan read out (again, all anonymous), none of them wasn’t funny, and all of them were substantially different gags. One starting situation, twenty different directions, one common result. Your approach for success, North observed, doesn’t have to be the same as anybody else’s to be real and valid. As I mentioned previously and will again, that was a recurring theme to Camp, and one that all creators should take to heart.

    Oh, and Brio the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel spent most of Ryan’s session gently snoring on a giant beanbag chair. That dog got some serious love over the weekend.

One of my favorite parts of Camp each year is when people present for five minutes on a topic that they’re passionate about. Ever wonder about why the Middle East is so screwed up? Let Beth Barnett tell you all about the Sykes-Picot Agreement! Were you curious about how new commercial flowers are produced? Jessi Jordan has hand-fertilized hibiscus until it produced colorful new mutations! Tiny things on YouTube! #twentyninezine! Carnivorous plants! Thermochromic pigments! Retired racing greyhound adoption! Everybody has passions beside comics (at least, I hope they do), and it’s great to share.

Geez, there are just no pictures pertaining to this day that are landscape and would make a good header, you know that? Way to plan things out, Past Gary.

Brio snoozin’ on the bean. That bean bag chair, btw, was large enough to accommodate 3-4 Campers or one very small dog. There was also a giant stuffed bone-in ham pillow.

The comic page blank up top (click to embiggen, naturally) featured one of my favorite submissions, where Tony Stark only said I’m Tony Stark, over and over again. It was tough to get a clear enough photo of my effort to read the dialogue because my phone camera’s face recognition kept picking out Tony Stark heads as areas of interest and letting the other bits go slightly out of focus. My absolute favorite submission used this template, involved Tony Stark talking about how often he eats candy off the ground/out of the garbage, and the computer voice sadly intoning Oh, Tony. No. North’s version of those pages can be found in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up The Marvel Universe which is great and you should read.

Five Minute Talks by Beth, Alison, Jessi, Cat and me, Kerstin, Molly, Tony, Inari, Maarta, Leila, Ana, Cleo, Allison, and Haley.

¹ Answers: The eighteenth place suggested, four more than the final count everybody agreed upon, and no.

² A lot of which was me adding a few zillions lengths of fringe to edges. Rather than take the time to bury stray bits of yarn from the start and end, I spent literally hundreds of times more effort to hide them in a forest of similar yarn. Genius!

³ Including some very sincere discussion about how much the Tlingit language is intrinsically tied to the Tlingit people, leaving me with some thinking to do on how much I should share rather than just pointing you to resources presented by Tlingit speakers.

It’s like when Lily Hope told us last year about art collectors that try to commission her to weave traditional robes and she tells them she can only accept the commissions if the finished pieces stay with the clan. If you want something to hang on your wall and congratulate yourself on your refined taste, she can make you stuff that is of her own design and meaningful to her, but decidedly not traditional.

I’m thinking of it as being the difference between something made or shared by a Tlingit person, and something that is of the Tlingit people. In New Jersey, we learn about the people that originally resided here in fourth grade (or at least, I did way back when), but it’s abstract — there haven’t been any Lenape people here in generations and collectively we who live here now aren’t required to confront what happened. Some of the indigenous Alaskan peoples, though, they experienced first contact with settlers in living memory. The absolute least that I can do is to really think about how to approach this topic with the respect it deserves.

Camp 2019, Creative And Arguably Delicious

Travel to #ComicsCamp is a relatively straightfoward thing; there’s a bus, there’s a bunch of Campfolk on it, there’s the sun in the sky and fabulous vistas to pass through, and then you’re there. First up — announcements (watch out for bears¹, keep the cabin doors closed or ravens will get in), and intros (including a live demo of the Pacheco:North ratio; cf: yesterday), which take a while when there’s nearly 80 people to get through. In short order a set of identifying photos were taken and posted, book- and game-libraries established, lost-and-found, borrow-what-you-need, and snack tables set out.

Jeste Burton, kitchen wrangler of beloved memory, introduced herself and got to work; by the time pack-in was done, a dinner of roast potatoes and sprouts, spinach salad with mixed vegetables, pickles, and flaked chicken was approaching readiness. She really is a marvel, and the job she does delivering meals with a few dozen dietary restrictions to be mindful of is nothing less than extraordinary.

But no group meeting of this size, with a mix of familiar faces and new, ever took place without a social activity, and this year’s was even more bonkers than last year’s bizarro science fair posters.

Teams were formed. Craft supplies were made available. A two-word prompt was provided, with the instruction given to make a shoebox diorama embodying that prompt. I’m going to guess that this was dreamed up by Sophie Lager, one of the local Juneau folk who work very hard for months to make Camp happen (and a dear friend of mine), who apparently revels in the insanity that this set of instructions would foreseeably cause given the very creative people in the room and the extensive booze table in easy reach.

  • Ever wonder what an airplane whale looks like? I heard the first balloon pop during construction and a cry of dismay exclaim Oh, no! My baby!, but the second one held². Those pipecleaners at the bottom allowed the waves to move back and forth, too.
  • I personally felt that fire meeting made the most creative use of materials, what with the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos™ being used for the combustion effect. Creative and arguably delicious!
  • Most elaborate honors probably go to gryphon harpoon, what with that delicate, curling scissor work. Given the short time allowed for construction, it’s super clean and impressive.
  • I only got one in-focus photo of ham geode, so you will just have to imagine how the lid folds up to show that the box represents a pig, which you can then look inside. It’s like an fMRI, only infinitely more disturbing.
  • I didn’t find a caption for this one and never found one of the team to explain the prompt. Ocean cave, or cavern ship, perhaps? The stalactites and stalagmites with googly eyes were a nice touch.
  • It was all the file folders full of documents that made office boat so delightful. I have to believe Lucy Bellwood was involved, since the flag up top is pointed in the correct direction.
  • The pine laboratory took into account both the the noun and verb meanings of pine to talk about how desire is made, which combined with the star-headed monster on the right gave a decidedly creepy vibe.
  • I think the prompt was ferry mongoose which okay, little weird. But labelling every element like it’s a bad editorial cartoon? That’s some genius right there.
  • And then there’s this atrocity, for which I can only apologize for my part in bringing it into the world. Given the words family heart, my group decided that naturally that meant there was a family (Grandpa, Mommy, Sis, baby, dog, and cat) all linked by branching blood vessels via their necks to one monstrous, floating, common heart. As perversions of nature go, it’s pretty darn adorable, thanks to the enthusiastic ability of Andy Runton to put a cheerful smiley face on anything. I’m so, so sorry.

But the thing is? It worked. People got to know each other, fires (both of friendship and literal variety) were stoked, hangouts initiated, and scrounging for one the advanced copy of Guts that Raina Telgemeier was able to bring with her³ begun. Some tapped out early, some were at it until the early light of dawn started hinting over the mountains to the east.

A little while before departing Juneau, I noticed a pair of skydivers — they’re small and hard to see because phone cameras don’t do a great job of picking out small, light-colored things against vast swathes of uniform color, but there you are. If you draw a line from the tramline anchor station on the ridge along the 2 o’clock angle, you’ll see one of them close in, and one about a third of the way to the picture’s border.

You can see the first one better in this photo, and I’ll note about five minutes later I lost sight of them, and I’m not sure if they came down on this side of the ridge or not. The other seemed to be well over the Gastineau Channel, but I lost them also; they could have landed anywhere from the cruise ship docks to the old mining site on Douglas Island.

Now here’s the thing — when I saw the skydivers, I made an involuntary half-whistle, half whoooo sound. This prompted one of the local ravens to mimic me, repeating my vocalization for as long as he could see me. They’re not only smart and capable of holding grudges, they’ll make fun of you, too.

I’ve blurred these two photos a little for privacy. Thanks to a small Polaroid camera, everybody got their picture taken and placed on the big Who’s In Camp board. Not only could this help you identify fellow Campers, but if you were to leave (for a hike, or to head to the local beach for aurora hunting, say), you could shift your picture to the OUT column so we’d have an idea where everybody was. There was a sign-out sheet nearby with times. Nobody’s seen you for a bunch of hours? We’d see if the dogs (one lab, a pair of huskies, and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel in an inflatable cone of shame) could sniff you out.

¹ Aaron Suring recommends making yourself look large by putting your arms up and being loud; Hey, bear! being a potentially useful turn of phrase. Within 24 hours, this led to Los Angeles resident Dave Kellett adapting his long-running Stan Lee impersonation by deciding that Stan was a) at Camp, and b) extremely afraid of bears. If you ever wanted to know what ursaphobic Stan Lee shouting Hey, bear! sounds like, feel free to ask LArDK for demo.

But be warned that about six dozen people will never, ever get that particular set of phonemes out of their brains.

² Two and a half days later during pack-out, I had to dismantle that particular diorama and the balloon simply would not pop. I stabbed it with a pen and it slowly farted out air at me.

³ It was never not being read, and at the end of Camp, one Camper4 was chosen randomly to present that well-thumbed copy to a kid in their life, because Raina is awesome.

4 It wasn’t me, so you’ll have to wait until 17 September along with the rest of the world, kids in my life. Rest assured, it’s Raina’s most personal, relatable, and ultimately reassuring work yet. It’s almost like she’s friggin’ great at making comics or something.

Camp 2019, A Study In Contrasts

Saturday is a big day for #ComicsCamp; there’s the one-day convention at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center for the people of Juneau¹ that needs to be set up, conducted, and torn down. There’s hotels and accommodations to be checked out of and luggage packed. There’s the travel to the campsite itself, up by Eagle Beach, and getting settled into what for many will be their third bed in 48 hours. Hopefully, there’s time to eat² somewhere in the middle.

This year the Mini-Con featured signings from nine creators from the 10:00am opening until the 5:00pm closing, a board game room, children’s book readings at the Juneau Public Library, and sessions at three nearby venues. In no particular order:

I want to talk about two of those at some length, partially because they were the only two I got to see in their entirety around my show volunteer gigs, and partially because they provide a study in contrasts. As such, they neatly illustrated a recurring theme explored at Camp (of which more later) that success looks different depending on who you are, where you are in your career path, and what your expectations are. No one interpretation is correct, and though there are similarities (particularly in the financial realm), every successful creative career is its own thing.

That being said, it would be difficult to find two [web]comics creators that work more differently than Kibuishi and Walden. Kibuishi is a planner — head down, work in service to a larger goal (often related to caring for others). He spent his college years as an award-winning editorial cartoonist4 and was on track to animation prize winning fame when a robbery cost him his computer and more than a year’s work. He began a stint as an architectural graphic designer and helped sell billion dollar projects around the world — interesting work, to be sure, but it wasn’t telling the stories that he had in him.

September 11th prompted him to quit and shift back to stories, which led to Copper, then a stint as a Creative Director at an animation studio and commercials, and then the big leagues: Disney hired him to direct the feature film Let’s Get Francis.

Which you’ve never seen. Nobody has, because a fair amount of studio productions are made just to keep somebody else from making them, with no intention of ever being released. It’s possibly in the Disney vaults somewhere, waiting to be released the week before a big-screen adaptation of Amulet, or maybe it was wiped to recycle drives like the early days of cel animation. Kibuishi didn’t want to get lost in the process — after all, the first work on what became Frozen started while Walt was still alive — and so he left Disney, made a pitch around Amulet, and then it’s a straight shot to today.

Well, except for that bout of meningitis that put him in a coma and gave him amnesia. The lasting effects of that were he got to read his own books and enjoy them as new things, not realizing he’d made them, and a need to be even more meticulous in his work processes than before. Oh, and the time it took him to get back to Amulet was spent painting the covers for the American editions of the Harry Potter books for their 15th anniversary.

How meticulous is his work process? He’ll draw out scenes for his stories and then rearrange them until they make sense as a book. Each scene, each page will be run through an average of 5 to 7 versions before he decides he’s got something he can commit to; tricky pages may take as many as 20 revisions. It’s a lot of planning, years to get the book finagled the way he wants it, but it has its rewards — there’s a subway station in New York City where the mosaic tile features a kid reading a copy of Amulet, which prompted a sincere Whoa when he saw it5.

Now let’s talk Walden. She’s 22 years old. She spent a dozen years as a competition-level figure skater, as chronicled in Spinning. Not chronicled in Spinning is the fact that art and comics were her twin brother’s thing growing up, and after the usual period of time drawing comics as a young kid, she left that area of expression6 to him — she still had skating, after all, and several instruments that she plays. Comics came when she was 16 when her father signed her up for a two-day comic making workshop that possibly he wanted to attend himself.

A two-day workshop with Scott McCloud, who saw something in the non-comics-making teen and told her he was looking forward to seeing what she did (knowing McCloud, he was both a) entirely sincere, and b) actually did see something of her future success by the end of those two days). So you’ve got that kind of encouragement and no real skill at comics and the rational thing is to bring it out as a funny story but never do comics — but you don’t have the work ethic imposed by skating coaches (one of them Russian) who would tell you things like Run and don’t stop until you throw up.

So you spend your days at 16, 17, 18 doing nothing but comics. You eke your way out of high school, you talk your way into the Center For Cartoon Studies MFA program despite not having a bachelor’s degree7. You put your work online and get contacted by a British publisher who prints your first three books. Then you do Spinning and On A Sunbeam and the forthcoming Are You Listening? (a comparatively brief 320 pages, compared to 400 for Spinning and 544 for Sunbeam).

So how do you create so many comics, which are so very good, so quickly, even with the single-minded devotion to work of a border collie on pure, uncut espresso? How do you deliver more than 1200 pages of comics by the age of 22, period, much less in the time since your graduation from comics school?

You do so by treating comics like jazz.

Walden works straight to ink, no designs or character studies, no extensive planning. The page gets drawn and the characters — What’s her haircut? Long, because my hand’s still moving! — and story reveal themselves. It’s not sloppiness or haste or inattention to detail. It takes a great deal of proficiency, a great deal of discipline, a complete mastery of the fundamentals to sit at the drawing board cold and just let it all wash over you and out, the way that Coltrane or Parker or Monk could on horn or piano.

And like Coltrane or Parker or Monk, you have to be ready to deal with the consequences and imperfections: Maybe the drawing looks a little funky. I have this attitude that nothing bad will happen if I screw up. That courage leads to a deliberateness to make the story work, and also to a reality where many Tillie Walden originals simply don’t exist — they’re discarded when their purpose has been served. The point of Tillie Walden’s comics is the process and the act of creation; the books are a product (or possibly even a byproduct) and exist for you guys.

I suspect that for both Kibuishi and Walden, Hell looks something very much like being forced into the other’s creative work habits. And yet, they both fall in love with their characters, who they are, how they change, and the things that happen to them that make them different people.

And deep down, there’s a reflection between them.

Walden talks and answers questions with long, arcing responses that are perfectly structured to anticipate followups and address points you didn’t even realize that you were asking about, all while drawing and filling her space with whatever whim takes her8. Her lines are crisp and perfect, each one adding the precise detail needed, iterating the page through the versions of what it has been and will be9.

Kibuishi paints while he talks, off the cuff, returning to previous ideas, conversing casually, but he builds his paintings up out of abstract swathes of color, stopping before he gets too detailed. Your brain, he explains, makes this look more detailed and real when it fills in what’s missing. If I kept painting this, it would look less real to you. He’ll never make another painting quite like it, given how unplanned, improvised, and jazzlike it is.

Neither is correct. Neither is wrong. Neither should be emulated. Both have found ways that work for them multiple times in multiple creative arenas. Their paths to comics success have been about as different as they could be and yet I find myself willing to drop cash on an unknown book by either solely because I know that they’ve found the tops of their respective games in service of their stories. The differences don’t matter, only the fact that they’ve found ways to perfect their skills.

And we get to read the comics.

Mostly, they’re in the text above. For reference, this is what the floor looked like at opening, just a few of the 972 people that made their way over. And here’s what the greater Juneau region looks like.

¹ And beyond; everybody in Alaska has a frequent flyer number, and they are used to hauling halfway across the state for something interesting. Over the years, people at the Mini-Con have identified themselves as being from Fairbanks, Homer, Anchorage, Ketchikan, and Sitka. Don’t think I’ve spoken to anybody from the Aleutians or Nome, but it also wouldn’t surprise me.

² Did I mention that there’s great food in Juneau? Pretty sure I did. That includes a couple a tasty food trucks right outside the JACC, one of which does awesome steamed pork buns.

³ The two of whom were last seen together explaining the Pacheco:North Ratio of standard cow:big cow, which they demonstrated live at Camp.

The wisdom of letting Pacheco (who had for sale at her table custom hotel door hangers that on one side read Gettin’ My Bone On and on the other side read Fuck Off; I meant to buy ten for random distribution on my next hotel trip but failed to do so) near youth is best debated another time.

4 Well, he kept coming in second to this one other guy, but then again that other guy just won a Pulitzer, so no shame there.

5 It’s also technically a copyright violation, but Kibuishi and Scholastic decided that it can slide.

6 Which idea calls back to a question Kibuishi fielded — when asked When did you start drawing comics? he replied When did you stop?

7 Walden: Suckers!

8 Walden: I’m going to draw a house. No, a boat.
Audience member: A houseboat!
Walden: Yes! I don’t know what houseboats look like, but I’m going to draw one anyway.

9 And, at the end, I’m gonna put Bart Simpson up here.

Camp 2019, A Living Breathing Thing

For those who are new around here, there’s this thing called #ComicsCamp, run by the fine folks at Alaska Robotics (which is a comics shop¹, game shop, art supply shop, and gallery) in Juneau, and it involves bringing creative folks into schools, public events, and a one-day convention before giving them a weekend of recharging and also s’mores. I’ve been privileged to attend three times now, and you can read about my previous experiences at Camp here, here, here, here, and here. Those two series will read differently from each other, and from the one that’s starting now — Camp’s a living, breathing thing, and it changes.

It started for me a couple of days before my travel with a bit of a panic — the SSD in my laptop decided it had reached end of life and bricked itself good; there’s a hard drive in there, too, but it was a tense couple of hours getting Linux reinstalled and data salvaged. Fortunately, I keep a bootable USB drive attached to the power converter cable, so I didn’t have to go searching too far. The whole thing’s a lot slower than it used to be (or should be), but that’s an issue for later this week; it got me through what it needed to, which was ensuring that the creator presentations for one of the public events — about which more momentarily — were tested and projectable.

In addition to seeing a swathe of Campers arrive, Thursday 25 April also saw public events: storytime and a ‘zine making workshop at one of the Juneau public libraries², the Juneau Makerspace got some hands-on puzzle-cutting knowledge from the master, and a lecture by Ryan North on How To Invent Everything which he should know, on account of he wrote a book that tells you how to do exactly that. In case you’re looking for the high points, they include:

  • Young Ryan first became aware of the notion of time travel when he was six and saw Back To The Future for the first time; it made an impression³ and he was particularly struck by the Chuck Berry scene and thus had an appreciation of the Bootstrap Paradox at a far younger age than most of us.
  • Having decided to write what is surely The Most Dangerous Book In History, North found himself staring down literally years, plural, of research4 to determine not only what the key technologies of human history are, but also how to create them from first principles while simultaneously not imparting knowledge that might hurt or kill his readers. This led to what may have been the most existentially self-evident question of all when North asked himself (and I quote):

    Have I accidentally decided to do something impossible?


  • But he persevered, and found within all that research to find a key thought re: human inventiveness and creativity; namely We are not as smart as we think we are. He rattled off a series of key inventions in history — human flight, or the stethoscope5 — and found that they came about centuries or millennia after we had the basic parts and just failed to put them together6. In the case of arguably the greatest invention in human history7 — written language, which allows us to preserve knowledge across time, space, and culture — we were about 200,000 years late.
  • The more basic the technology, the later we were, and the further back in time you go, the worse things get. Now-ubiquitous crops were terrible, people died because they didn’t know to wash their damn selves, and the only positive of the past is that if you do end up there, you can name things after yourself.


One thing you should know about Juneau is that it’s basically the same as Portland or Seattle, just smaller; you’ve got great food (shouts-out to The Rookery Cafe and In Bocca Al Lupo, who both fed more than their share of Campers before and after our time off-grid, and the astonishingly good Coppa Ice Cream), great cultural institutions, and great people. Give them something fun to do, and they’ll arrive in droves, as they did for the Kickoff Event at the Valley branch of the JPL. In addition to music from the Marian, Seth & Maria Rockin’ Teenage Combo, you had:

  • Cat Farris reading from her graphic novel, My Boyfriend Is A Bear. Fun fact! Farris and I spent several days bonding over our greyhounds, because greyhound people are the best people.
  • Molly Muldoon talking about how to solve a murder all Agatha Christie style. Fun fact! Muldoon’s rules for dealing with murderers left an impression on everybody who went to Camp, and who spent a great deal of time making sure there were extra exits from everyplace. Can’t be too careful!
  • Alex Graudins explaining how improv can help you make friends and be more creative in all aspects of life. Fun fact! Graudins illustrated Science Comics: The Brain, and included dearly beloved and sadly departed pooch Reginald Barkley in three cameos, not two as I’d previously counted.
  • Alison Wilgus explained Tsiolkovsky’s rocket equation, and why it’s such a jerk. Fun fact! I have one about Wilgus’s trademark red glasses, but it’s not my story to tell. Sorry!
  • Gale Galligan shared her knowledge of bunnies, who are adorable but also super gross. Fun fact! I am not kidding, what rabbits do with poop is gross.
  • Dik Pose spoke about baseball. Fun fact! You don’t need a presentation to talk baseball; just like on the radio, a voice and some imagination is pretty much the purest expression of following the game.
  • Michael Grover shared comics about starting a band when you’re a ghost and have no hands. Fun fact! Don’t feel bad, Jake Spooky, many bass players have never played bass, or even seen a bass.
  • David Malki ! talked about the social history of beards. There was other stuff in there, but it was really about beards. Fun fact! The band’s musical outro was an improvised, lyrics-ignored version of Wonderwall, chosen solely so that Wondermark could be sung in the chorus.
  • Tony Cliff read his forthcoming children’s book, Let’s Get Sleepy. Fun fact! There are enough Tonys Cliff in the world that trying to search for this Tony Cliff and Let’s Get Sleepy produces a lot of results on Marxist class struggle.
  • Jen Wang talked about chickens, which come in a bewildering variety of sizes, colors, and shapes. Fun fact! There are hen-to-rooster trans chickens.
  • Tillie Walden read Shel Silverstein poems. Fun fact! Silverstein wrote more great poems that conventional mathematics can count; for every one of his poems you love, there are dozens that other people love just as much.
  • Lucy Bellwood talked about Jeanne Baret, who defied expectations and traveled the world cataloging and categorizing botanical specimens for pre-Revolution France. Fun fact! Baret collected and described more than 6000 species, but the gentleman of society who sponsored her took all the credit and named a couple dozen species after himself. She got one plant named for her like five years ago.
  • Shing Yin Khor talked about the numerous dinosaur statues — some of which bear only passing resemblance to what we know about actual dinosaurs — of Holbrook, Arizona. Fun fact: the dinostatue:human resident ratio of Holbrook (approximately 1:149) is much greater than either the whalestatue:human resident or dogstatue:human resident ratios of Juneau (both approximately 1:32,000).

Afterwards, local Camp helper-organizers Rob & Pagan volunteered their lovely home for dinner and dessert supplied by Coppa. At Pat Race’s request, they came up with a Squirrel Girl-themed ice cream called Eat Nuts And Kick Butts (peanut butter with salted caramel ribbons and a chocolate layer on top). Ryan North, naturally, was given the honor of the first scoop which turned out to be necessary, as the solid-frozen carton required a Ryan-sized man’s strength to break through. It took some doing, but he ultimately succeeded; it was a good omen for the days to come.

Juneau is a fabulously beautiful place, and given the landscape found all around, there is little surprise that it’s a vertical city. I once made the mistake of trying to go to a restaurant by the most direct route and wound up taking four separate sets of outdoor staircases.

Remember what I said about arriving in droves? This crowd came out at 6:00pm on a Friday night.

Remember what I said about Coppa’s ice cream? Here’s the Peeps flavor, with real decapitated Peeps throughout. And here’s the ENAKB variety being duly selfied by North, who then did his best ceremonial ribbon cutting pose for the crowd. It proved to be a hard-frozen challenge requiring mighty struggle, but in the end it was worth it.

¹ And a damn fine one, too. So fine, in fact, that they’ve been nominated for the Eisner Spirit of Comics retailer award this year. If you’re an Eisner voter, Pat Race, Aaron Suring, and everybody at AK Robotics are stellar human beings with a real sense of service for their community.

² The one on Douglas Island, one of three in the Juneau Public Libraries system, all of which saw events.

³ To the degree that he wrote an e-book that is a page-by-page deep reading of the novelization of Back To The Future, which among other things has Opinions on the subject of Mr Strickland. What I am saying is that Ryan North has probably thought a lot more about time travel — real and fictional — than you or me.

4 He was maybe halfway into the process when we spoke about it at Camp 2017.

5 The only time something was invented, North reminds us, because somebody was too horny to otherwise do their job.

6 Or, in the case of the compass, neglected to put it to its practical use. Rather than navigation, the Chinese originally used compasses for fortune telling.

7 No, not dogs. Humanity has domesticated about 16 different species, and only dogs are workmates, guardians, helpers, and friends that know our minds and read our expressions. Given how thoroughly and completely they have tied their lives to ours, it’s reasonable to say they domesticated themselves, or at least deserve credit for the assist.