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friday robots

 Halloween robots, just chillin’ by a castle. friday-robots-10-30-9And a special bonus! Pumpkins! If you look carefully, you may spy a black cat getting into the festive spirit. Black cats do fine without candles inside them, just FYI.
pumpkins-2009

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comic strip superstar: complete failure

Apparently the fine folks at Amazon and Universal Press Syndicate never received my envelope full of cash: I did not reach the Top 10 finalists in the Comic Strip Superstar contest. Making the top 50 (out of thousands of entries) is nothing to sneeze at; I’m happy with the recognition. It says something that I reached that summit after creating a comic strip on two weeks’ notice. Not bad for a rush job.

As promised, I’m making my entry, Tortilla Flat, available for you to read.

Tortilla Flat is a completely new strip. It stars fraternal twins, a brother and sister, living with their grandmother in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona. The twist (known in writers’ circles as deus ex machina) is, the grandmother spends much of her time visiting a moa bird who lives in her backyard. Moe can speak perfect English, yet he refuses to help Grandma out with her daily crossword puzzle. I can almost hear Garry Trudeau giggling from here!

I hope you enjoy this complete failure of a comic strip. I’m thinking about reworking the premise a bit and making a formal submission to syndicates. Suggestions will be taken in the order in which they are received. (Unless it’s a right hook; I always duck those.)
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looking for calvin and hobbes: a cartoonist’s perspective

searching for calvin and hobbesIf Kubrick had stopped making movies after 2001: A Space Odyssey, the world would be the poorer for it. Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, walked away from the comics page at the end of 1995 and has rarely been heard from since. Watterson’s continued absence from the comics page is felt as sharply as ever, which is partly why this blogger anticipated the first full-length treatment on the man and his masterpiece.

As a cartoonist who has written his fair share of words about comic strip legend Bill Watterson, I was keen to read Nevin Martell’s part-biography, part-homage Looking for Calvin and Hobbes. Fortunately not all unauthorized biographies strive to be muckraking, and this is one. Martell is fan first, investigative journalist second. In his quest to answer a few questions about the reclusive cartoonist, Martell had to strike a balance between wanting to know more about Watterson and not wanting to intrude upon his self-imposed privacy. Some cynics would question how you can honor your subject’s privacy while writing a book about said subject. I don’t know if Martell answers that question, but it is clear that he clearly has a lot of respect for the man who created one of the great comic strips. I gleefully skipped across the same line by reading his book. I did it out of interest for someone who I consider one of my best teachers and certainly one of my heroes.

Don’t misconstrue my criticisms as a dislike for the book. I’ve found that, when you truly appreciate something, you find a thousand more nitpicky things than if you are uninterested in it. I’ve spend so much of my life reading and thinking about Calvin and Hobbes that I’ve come to a few conclusions of my own, and it was honestly a bit jarring to read that Martell’s take could be quite different. That is, of course, one of the great things about Calvin and Hobbes – everybody has their own understanding of it.

Maybe this is why Watterson railed against merchandising, marketing, and inquiries into his personal life: he wanted, more than anything else, to create a strip that would speak directly to each reader, without outside commentary influencing that dialog. When Calvin speaks, he speaks in my voice. When Hobbes pounces, he does it in exactly the way I imagine it. A book like Martell’s only seeks to honor Watterson and his work, but simply by existing it provides what some may mistake as an authoritative voice interrupting our own personal communication with a boy and his tiger.

Watterson’s stand against licensing is part of what made him a hero when I was a kid. How many public figures stick to their principles when fame and fortune are thrust upon them? It certainly turned him into a contentious character around his syndicate, and I count myself one of the kids saddened that I couldn’t have a Hobbes doll of my own. But Watterson took his responsibility as a storyteller seriously. He didn’t want our perceptions of him to get in the way of his work. He also didn’t want to become a businessman, which I can understand completely. We become cartoonists because we want to get out of an office, not become manager of our own.

An especially funny anecdote in Looking for Calvin and Hobbes relates the story of Watterson, then living in New Mexico, receiving a box full of Hobbes plush dolls from a hopeful manufacturer. His reaction? Marching them to his yard and burning them all. How awful to be a kid walking by Watterson’s house at that moment? A moustachioed man burning Hobbes in his yard. I can’t imagine a more horrifying image. Sometimes we have to be the villain in order to do the right thing.

Batman knows that. (Also, Mookie.)

The one piece of information I hoped to gather from this book was Watterson’s working method. Who would turn down the chance to watch Van Gogh paint Starry Night? Or to sit in the studio when John Lennon went through take after take of Strawberry Fields Forever? That, more than childhood trivia, should be this book’s reason for being.

There were a few clues as to how Watterson worked, but unfortunately they were few and far between. Martell focuses on the facts he can find, and since he was not able to talk to Watterson directly, he was forced to rely on friends, cartoonist acquaintances, and old interviews (most of which I have already read).

Martell also made a trip to the Cartoon Library & Museum in Columbus, Ohio, to look at Watterson’s original drawings. I’ve made this pilgrimage myself, and I cannot recommend the library enough – it is literally the closest you can get to the work. But I didn’t need to read Martell’s take on the strips; his insights leaned towards personal rather than artistic detail.

When museums x-ray a painting by Da Vinci, they do it because Da Vinci himself is not around to explain how he made it. Watterson still is around, yet he isn’t interested in imparting wisdom to the next generation of cartoonists. This is a great tragedy. Even when you look at an original Calvin and Hobbes you’re only seeing the finished product, not the process. His few, light pencil marks only tell so much. And of course we can only speculate about how he wrote. This especially applies to the later Sunday strips. How did Watterson decide where to put the panels? How to size them? It would be amazing to see a strip from beginning to end, from dialog written in a lined notebook to pencil sketches of layout to the inked final page.

The interviews Martell undertakes represent a fairly wide circle around Watterson. From cartoonists such as Richard Thompson, Stephan Pastis, Keith Knight, and Bill Amend, to Watterson’s editor Lee Salem, to Watterson’s mom and a couple of his personal friends, to people who are mainly referenced as “color commentary.” It’s cool to hear from Brad Bird, but he doesn’t really tell us much we don’t already know about Calvin and Hobbes.

Martell also annoyingly interprets Watterson’s few interviews as standoffish and cantankerous. Martell sees conflict and strife where I see a man attempting to fully grasp the unusual situation in which he’s found himself. I doubt many of us could explain our lives with as much eloquence and insight as Watterson has done. If he sometimes came off as overly judgmental of his cartooning peers, it was only because he held himself to the same exacting standards.

Surprisingly, Martell doesn’t know much about comics. He is a reader, not a cartoonist. The book would have been helped by someone who knew the comics landscape into which Calvin and Hobbes dropped and how it affected the comics page even 14 years after its retirement. How can you talk about the significance of Calvin and Hobbes if you have just recently become acquainted with Krazy Kat and Pogo, not to mention newer strips such as Cul de Sac, Lio, and Pearls Before Swine? Martell comes off as a competent journalist but a lackluster art critic.

Another funny anecdote. When Universal Press Syndicate announced Calvin and Hobbes would be running as a half-page feature upon Watterson’s return from sabbatical, the reaction from newspapers was fierce. Yet, of the 1800 papers that ran the strip, only 7 dropped it. It kind of makes me wonder what syndicates could get away with if they made similar demands for popular strips today.

Although it wasn’t the main reason for reading the book, I was pleasantly surprised at what Martell uncovered about Watterson’s formative years. He mentions the editorial strips Watterson did while working in Columbus for six months, but he also finds college comics, editorials done for other papers, and a strip he did for his hometown paper when he was in high school. Maddeningly, none of these are reproduced in the book. I’m not sure whether this was Martell’s decision or the publisher’s, but that absence keeps this book from being essential.

Studying the early work of a great artist is always helpful. How did Watterson arrive at Calvin and Hobbes? I’m grateful for the digging Martell did, but mere descriptions fail to do justice to Watterson’s comics.

Looking for Calvin and Hobbes (in Martell’s case, writing, and in my case, reading) is a way to deal with the loss of a beloved comic strip. But it isn’t Calvin and Hobbes I miss as much as Watterson the cartoonist. If he were to return with a 500-page sci-fi graphic novel, or, heck, a DVD player instruction manual, I would be pleased beyond words. Watterson showed us how it is done. His comics are invaluable as entertainment, social commentary, and as a signpost showing us how good the art form can get.

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the gift of cyrus

My brother generously got me a book of Hannah Montana stickers for my birthday. Obviously, I had to use them.
I like the sticker that says “Part Time Pop Star.” It means that half the time she’s just Billy Ray Cyrus’ kid.josh-coloring
This next piece is a bit psychedelic.josh-coloring-2
A lot of people have asked me how Miley Cyrus came up with her stage name, Hannah Montana. It isn’t hard to find out. In her book, Chronicles Vol. 1, Cyrus says, “one time [a friend] asked me why I was using a different name when I played, especially in the neighboring towns. Like, didn’t I want people to know who I was?”

She wanted a name that encapsulated her identity. “What kind of confused me later was seeing an article in a Downbeat magazine with a story about a West Coast saxophone player named David Allyn. I had suspected that the musician had changed the spelling of Allen to Allyn. I could see why,” Cyrus continues. “It looked more exotic, more inscrutable. I was going to do this, too.”

“The first time I was asked my name in the Twin Cities, I instinctively and automatically without thinking simply said, ‘Hannah Montana.'”

That’s how real musicians do it, dear readers.

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APE 2009

L1010385       This year was the first time I attended the Alternative Press Expo, held in a part of Northern California known for earthquakes, big trees, gay people desecrating the Institution of Marriage, hippies, and a heartfelt desire not to be confused with Southern California.

My trip into the heart of Bigfoot Country began with a drive through Redwoods State Park.L1010224The trees there are as big as advertised. In fact, my traveling companion Andy and I came across this tree, known simply as Big Tree. The Park Service calls ’em like they see ’em.L1010261L1010280The scale was confusing as dusk approached. Were the trees really that big, or had we shrunk?L1010290L1010291With trees this huge, it was hard to refrain from just cutting them all down. That was the first reaction of the people of the last few centuries, and I can see why. With something this extraordinary, this powerful, this magical, your first instinct is to tear it to pieces. In spite of this totally understandable response to the beauty of nature, many big trees still stand.

My wife, who was sadly not able to make the trip, had made one request of me: cut down a redwood and bring it back to her. Like any good husband, I wanted to fulfill my duty to my lady. Yet, despite meticulous planning and one of those very long saws, Andy and I couldn’t figure how to load a tree onto my tiny VW. Knowing the wrath I would incur back home, I left all trees standing.

Redwoods are not the only oversized phenomenon in Northern California. Living in those woods is the rarely seen Bigfoot. Here is a plaster cast of a Bigfoot track, seen with my foot for comparison.L1010337The Bigfoot is so elusive that even the museum dedicated to him was closed. Oh Bigfoot, how can we know you better if you never allow us to buy key chains in your image? L1010341
Bigfoot Country.L1010346
But the main goal of this trip was not to find and befriend Bigfoot. It was to sell comics. APE, in San Francisco, is held in a large yet comforting space just south of downtown. This being my second show as an exhibitor, I had no expectations sales-wise. I set up my table and waited for the crush of humanity. This is how it must feel for Bono and The Edge just before a show.L1010372I highly recommend the work of my table-mate, Kenan. If you’re wondering, that’s a comic story masquerading as a calendar on the left side of his table. To the right of Kenan is Cate, who was absolutely not for sale.L1010373I met a lot of very nice Californians at APE. I was also able to reconnect with cartoonist friends, which is nice because normally when two cartoonists see each other on the street they must duel to the death. The townsfolk scatter, the sheriff pretends to be busy, and the casket-maker rubs his palms together in anticipation. But at events like these, the rules are suspended and we all get along.L1010420
After APE was over, I was able to wander the streets of San Francisco a bit. In many ways the city reminds me of a larger version of Portland.L1010401
Instead of the Willamette River, they have the Pacific Ocean.L1010418
They have a number of public transportation options, including these historic streetcars.L1010423

The Castro Theater was playing Grey Gardens. Very amusing.L1010427In spite of these similarities, there were moments when my expectations of San Francisco did not match up to its present reality.

One of my two disappointments was the Haight Ashbury district. Instead of a freewheelin’ love fest, I found million-dollar condos and a Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shop. I love ice cream as much as the next guy, but it was something of a let-down. At least some dude parked his VW bus right on the corner. Thanks for keeping it real.L1010436
On the upside, there was a cool bookstore on Haight which took my Falling Rock books to sell. Thank you! I was pleased to see many such thriving independent bookstores in San Francisco. The kind of bookstore that doesn’t have much space, but somehow manages to carry all the awesome books you’ve never heard of but really want to read.

Besides Haight Ashbury, my other disappointment was Berkeley College. If I had driven my VW to campus 40 years ago, I would have been greeted with a flower wreath and offers to smoke from a dozen bongs. This year, I got slapped with a parking ticket for hopping out of my car to take a few pictures. Enjoy this one; it counts as one of the most expensive photos I’ve ever taken.L1010444I’m sad to say my trip included the discovery that hippies either fried themselves on drugs or went corporate. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

In spite of being let down by the hippies, my trip was both productive and enjoyable. The state of California is only bankrupt in the financial, not the moral, sense. (Except Berkeley. I hate you.) CA certainly knows how to put on a cracking good comics fest. Thanks to APE and to all the people I met. I hope we can do it again sometime.