Ryan Estrada’s The Whole Story

Conflict of Interest Notes: The following review is based on complimentary press copies. Plus, I’m friendly with Ryan Estrada. Also, I hope to submit work of my own to future iterations. That said, I wouldn’t want to contribute my own work if I didn’t honestly think what Ryan is doing is pretty great.

Ryan Estrada has launched a fascinating new publishing venture. “The Whole Story” deals entirely in self-contained e-books (nothing serialized), sold on a model inspired by the The Humble Indie Bundle video game sales. Briefly: a varied group of titles are packaged together and sold on a “pay what you want” system, but with additional rewards unlocked by choosing to pay at a higher rate. The bundle will only be available for a limited time, so if you want it, you need to grab it now.

I’m fascinated by this packaging method, as it seems like a great way to get readers familiar with one creator interested in the work of lesser-known creators packaged with them. Not to mention that web distribution as a whole is still struggling to find a good model for publishing longform narrative comics, which just don’t lend themselves to succeeding on the same model as humor strips. This is the first iteration of this model that Estrada is running, and I’ll be waiting eagerly to hear his report on how successful it was. I’m very hopeful that it will do well enough to justify further such attempts in the future.

The base package, for which you can pay as little as one dollar, includes three books: Estrada’s own “The Kind,” Box Brown’s “A Heart of Stone Work,” and the collaborative experiment anthology Fusion Elementary. As you go up the pay ladder, the books that get added in include a second collaboration experiment (which I’ll explain in a bit) “Fusion Future,” two more Box Brown Titles “Walk Like a Sumerian” and “The Great Dissapointment,” and the “You Can Do It Dong Gu,” the US debut of Korean artist Nam Dong Yoon. Additional rewards include audio commentaries, original art, and additional gift downloads for friends.

The core books of the set are Estrada’s and Brown’s, especially as the latter fills out just shy of half the books available. Estrada’s The Kind is a sweetly horrifying story of new love and inadvertent violence, about a smitten couple, one of whom happens to turn into a bloodthirsty monster every time the moon is full. The awkward romance comprises the bulk of the story, slowly building up to the hilarious grievous bodily harm of the action-filled climax. It’s light hearted and fun, with Estrada’s usual odd humor. If you’ve like Estrada’s comics in the past, you’ll probably like this one to.

Box Brown’s books were more revelatory for me, especially as I hadn’t quite understood the appeal his work seems to hold for so many people prior to reading these three books in a row. I think I’d read the wrong pieces before—most of what I’d seen were journal comics, and were fine as journal comics go, but it’s a form I’m pretty done with. The stories in these books, though, show Brown working out a set of concerns vitally important to him, though mixed fiction, non-fiction, and autobiography. They all relate to faith, documenting Brown’s own journey to comfortable atheism, but also his fascination with various mythological traditions, from the beliefs of ancient Sumerians, to spiritual philosophies of Buddhism, to the bizarre hucksterism of rapture cults. “The Great Disappointment” was the standout of Brown’s books for me, and possibly my favorite of the whole package, and I especially liked the books conceit of bookending the content with quick pictorial summaries of all the major world religion’s creation myths (“Alpha”) and Armageddon myths (“Omega”). The piece detailing Brown’s desired funerary rites in particular has stayed with me, for the intimacy and strange calm that it possessed.

You Can Do it Dong Gu documents several weeks in the life of a six-year-old, and authentically captures the intensity of a child’s equally compelling need to master trivial and impossible tasks.

The most unusual books in the set are Fusion Elementary and Fusion Future, both of which follow the reverse collaboration model of providing writers with completed art, and asking them to make up text to fit. (I was a fan of, and contributor to, Ryan North’s similar Whispered Apologies experiment, so this grabbed my interest right away.) Both exclusively feature the art of Nam Dong Yoon, which is fine, as his art is vibrant and fun. The major difference between the two is that Fusion Elementary gave each creator a standalone short story to work with, while Fusion Future attempts to string all of the pieces written by different creators together into a cohesive story. And it does ultimately create a comprehensible plot, but the need to do so left a number of the pieces along the way less satisfying than they might have been. There are certainly enjoyable bits in there (Shaenon Garrity wrote one of them, after all), but it’s the ones that do the best job of standing alone that are most memorable. As a result, Fusion Elementary, which allows all of the pieces to simply stand on their own, is the more successful of the two books.

For interested readers on a budget, I the sweet spot is the $25 pay level, which gets you all of the books except for You Can Do It Dong Gu. The latter book is enjoyable, but not enough to justify the jump to the $50 pay level, unless you’re really into the audio commentary file also packaged with that level. Six full-length books for $25 dollars is an excellent bargain, though, and well worth the cost.

If you’re not on a budget, then go right ahead and pony up the 50 bucks to get the fun Korean book too. That works out to just a smidgeon over $7/book, which is still a pretty sweet deal.

Update: Ryan adds “And if people post a review after paying any amount, I will upgrade them to the $50 bundle. So you can get ‘em all for a buck, if you want!”


Essays and Articles Reorganized

I’ve just finished reorganizing the pages for my the Essays and Articles category of my publications. Rather than browsing full blog archives, you’ll now find succinct links with representative quotes to make it much easier to find an article you’re interested in.

Most of these are old pieces, but some continue to be perennially relevant, particularly those in the On Writing category. And I hope the creator Interviews remain interesting, even if the works they refer to aren’t all current anymore.

Publications Archive

I’ve added an archive page for my fiction and poetry publication. Not that I write much poetry anymore, but might as well make what’s out there more accessible. I do hope to see the list of fiction publications growing in the coming months.

The Essays and Articles archive has been rolled into the broader Publications archive. Now I just need to give that section better organization.

Review: Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, by Leanne Shapton

First pubished on ComixTalk.com, August 2010.

Photography by Jason Fulford, Kristin Sjaarda, Leanne Shapton, Michael Schmelling, and Derek Shapton.

What is the value of a memory?  What is the value of a single moment shared between two people?  Does the worth of an affectionate gesture outweigh the cost of a petty unkindness?  When does the price of love become too high?  These are the central questions of Leanne Shapton’s inventive second book, Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, a book in which each moment in the affair of two lovers comes with a price-tag clearly affixed.

Important Artifacts takes the form of an auction catalogue, the shared and individual possessions Lenore Doolan and Hal Morris splayed out, photographed, organized, and appraised with an unsentimental eye; we are to witness the posthumous dissolution of Love’s estate.  Is the first known snapshot of the couple, taken at a Halloween party in 2002 worth $25 – $30?  Is Doolan’s hand-drawn Valentine’s Day dinner menu worth $50 – 60?  To whom?

The plot is not worth discussing—two people meet, then fall in love, then share each other’s lives for a while, then go their separate ways.  This is known from the beginning, and there are no tricks or surprises along the way. The challenges these lovers face are as mundane as they are insurmountable—she is a food writer for the New York Times whose life and livelihood reside in her kitchen; he is a world-traveling photographer with a fondness for hotels.  We aren’t here to find out what happens, what grand events transpired.  We’re here to pick apart the minutia, and to witness how those minutia ultimately add up to the success or failure of love.  The clues play out slowly, and are subtly presented—LOT 1104, a collection of birthday gifts from Doolan to Morris, which includes “A gift certificate, unused, for Italian cooking lessons at the Culinary Institute.”  Unused. The other gifts in the set are clearly thoughtful, carefully chosen gifts, but it is that one word that stands out.  It might as easily have said “unappreciated,” or “unwanted,” or simply “rejected.”

Not every moment in the book is so elegantly achieved.  The bulk of the photography is perfectly executed, neutral depictions of well chosen artifacts that put the characters’ tastes and personalities on display with little need for elaboration: her collection of vintage dresses and antique salt and pepper shakers, his tweed suits and collection of hotel room keys.  As successful as these indirect depictions are, where Shapton sometimes falters is in her attempts at the characters’ direct communication.  There are frequent notes between the characters; some, like their postcards and their brief scrawled exchanges on the backs of playbills can seem quite natural.  Their longer notes—frequently notes of apology—are less successful.  LOT 1104 again, also includes a handwritten note from Morris to Doolan: “Darling, Am sorry about last night, please please don’t get offended about the cake, I’ve always loathed meringue and thought I’d mentioned it.”  Morris’ ingratitude is compounded, but in a far less interesting way.  It feels expository rather than authentic.  And what’s more, it’s unnecessary—Morris’ rejection not just of Doolan’s effort, but of her attempt to share her personal interests with him was already so clear that this letter can only diminish the effect.  It is as though Shapton’s confidence in her concept (or her audience) wavered.

The lovers’ personal snapshots also occasionally feel a bit too on-the-nose.  LOT 1108, “A photograph taken at a farewell party for Doolan’s coworker” shows Doolan and Morris at an office party.  Doolan is engaged in conversation with her coworkers, while Morris sits beside her, but turned away reading a magazine, in blatant disinterest of the people around him.  This is a painfully unsubtle image—so much so as to call attention to the fact that it’s clearly staged.  It is a considerable chip in the book’s otherwise impressive authenticity.

Despite this occasional unevenness, Important Artifacts is an interesting concept cleverly executed.  What’s more, it taps into something instinctive—who doesn’t examine their friends’ and acquaintances’ knickknacks and bookshelves for clues to their private lives?  This book embodies the pleasure of investigative voyeurism like no other, making it an eminently worthwhile read for any snoop, peeping tom, or busybody—as well as anyone merely interested in a novel approach to pairing words with pictures to tell a story.

Review: Idiots’ Books, by Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr

First published in ComixTalk.com, August 2010.

Idiots’ Books is comprised of Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr, and husband and wife creative team who produce “odd, commercially non-viable illustrated books” which they sell primarily through subscription service, while also taking their books to the occasional comics convention.  I first encountered them at MoCCA a few years ago, a con they can pretty reliably be found at—it was my wife who discovered them, and upon finding me insisted that I visit their table, as she was certain their work would delight me; she was correct.

As creators, they are prolific, producing no fewer than six books each year (a quick scan of my home turns up 19 volumes.  There are probably a few more tucked into corners somewhere.).  Length varies—some are thick perfect bound volumes; others are not books at all, but wall hangings, or puzzle tiles.  None can be described unambiguously as comics—most bear a closer relationship to picture books or illustrated fiction.  Some (Facial Features of French Explorers; The Nearly Perfect Sisters of the Holy Bliss) are merely collections of absurd portraits, with irreverent captions.  But regardless of form, all are inventive, clever, and beautifully executed.  And very, very funny.

Swanson’s writing is very dry, presenting the most absurd statements with minimal inflection: “Sister Olivia distributed lunches to the broken and decrepit while endlessly whistling theme songs from bygone television dramas.  Her favorite was the one from Hill Street Blues.”  It is a surprisingly versatile style, serving him well across a variety of forms: moving from fairy tale to faux academia to dream like quest story require only minor adjustments to his approach.

Behr’s art is adaptive to the project at hand, shifting from simple cartoons, to ink sketches, to complex full color paintings.  The style she uses for most of the books combines a scratchy line and ink splotches with rich colors.  Her figures are typically deformed and abstracted in ways both comical and horrifying.  And she has a particular knack for creating images that blend one into the next, allowing readers to remix the images to their own liking—an effect seen in the interchangeable tiles she created to accompany Cory Doctorow’s recent novel Makers on Tor.com, as well as in the older Idiot’s Books Ten Thousand Stories and After Everafter.  The latter two are both modeled on the old Mix or Match Story Books, allowing the readers to blend both text and image into multiple combinations, creating smooth flowing, if utterly bizarre narratives.  You can play with a digital version of Ten Thousands Stories online here.

The book that initially won my heart was The Contented, a small spiral-bound booklet, recounting a day in the life of a cloistered monk.  It is a mundane story, as we watch the monk go about his various daily chores: doing the laundry, mending his robes, torturing the prisoners, washing the dishes, and so forth.  The appeal lies predominantly in Behr’s illustration, simple, evocative depictions of the monk in his robe, interacting with similarly simple environments, punctuated with beautiful abstract landscapes that give a sense of the monk’s isolation in his home.  There are, in fact, only six words in the entire story, revealing the monk’s deepest wish.  It is a silly, childish wish—and yet, it leads to a final image that is unexpectedly sad, casting an even greater pall of loneliness over everything that came before.

Following the birth of their first child, Swanson and Behr honored the occasion with another tiny spiral-bound, The Baby is Disappointing, which recounts all the ways in which babies are un-amusing, unproductive layabouts in lofty, despondent prose: “The baby is unmotivated.  It loafs all morning long.  As the afternoon slides past, the world’s work remains undone, and all the while this baby drifts in dreams of better days.  And yet it does not smile.  It does not now how.”

The illustrations in this volume are particularly simple—what appears to be a found image of a kewpie doll blended with ink sketches to illustrate a variety of atrocious conditions to subject a baby to.  It’s bleak, and cynical, and hilarious.  And, of course, it’s ultimately not a condemnation of the baby’s uselessness at all, but rather a portrait of the fears any new parent faces when considering all the ways they can fail to appreciate or understand their child.  (My wife and I found it a particularly enjoyable read while awaiting the arrival of our own first child last year.)

Not every book is comical.  The Clearing is a lovely fable about an old, ruined king, who commits a terrible act of violence against the one living thing he still loves.  This sets him on a quest to atone for betraying his brother in his youth, but ultimately leads to more complex questions about who he is and whether either atonement or revenge are even possible or justifiable.

Given the number of books the pair produces, not every one can be stellar.  Animal House, for instance, which offers portraits of the primary figures of American politics in 2008, depicted as animals, is losing significance rapidly.   But the duds are few, and are far outnumbered by little gems.

At $60/year, a subscription might sound hefty, but given that that price gets you six books, it’s really an excellent deal.  At the very least, if you have opportunity to browse their work at a convention, take it—it only takes a few minutes of browsing for the craving for more of their work to take hold.

Write What You Know (Because Learning Something New Would be TERRIBLE.)

First published on ComixTalk.com, August 2010.

“Write What You Know” is probably the most common advice writers receive, so much so that it is accepted wisdom; and yet this is quite possibly the worst advice ever given to a writer.  Here is what I understand this advice to mean: writers should be lazy and ignorant, and we should never, ever challenge ourselves to try to understand people who aren’t ourselves.

This leads to writers limiting their characters to activities and experiences they’ve had themselves, regardless of whether their own experiences are at all interesting.  Their characters have worked the same jobs they have, pursue the same professions they do, go to similar schools or have similar friends.  Because, according to the rule of “write what you know,” that’s all a person is qualified to write about.

The truth is you don’t need to be a fire fighter to write a story about fire fighters, or a chef to write a story about chefs, or a musician to write a story about musicians.  Nor do you have to have immediate personal experience in those areas.

What you do need is research.  The trick isn’t to write what you know, but to be aware of your ignorance, and remedy it.  Put in the work to attain the information you need in order to make your characters sound and behave authentically. Writing is communication, yes, but that’s not all writing is; it’s also exploration, and that means heading out into unfamiliar territory.  Take as your starting point that you should always write what you want to know—then the process of learning the needed information will be integral to the joy of writing itself.

Of course, there are more challenging consequences to “writing what you know” than just limiting the careers of your characters.  This thinking is also part of what leads straight white males to write exclusively about straight white males, while also setting up the misguided expectation that minority authors will write exclusively about experiences relating to their minority status.  This is a profoundly limiting approach to writing, which leads to a sort of ad hoc segregation besides.  (Author Elif Shafak gave a great TED talk about this cultural expectation, which you can listen to here.)

There are, of course, situations where this advice is given with good intent, in response to a legitimate problem in a writer’s work.  Student writers in particular can be a bit overreaching in their efforts to write a moving story—a middle class white kid from the suburbs who’s trying to write a profound story about the experiences of a slave woman in the deep pre-war south, based only on what they’ve gleaned of slave history in their high school history classes isn’t likely to write an accurate or particularly successful story.  But the problem isn’t that they’re attempting to address an issue outside their experience.  Rather, it’s that 1. They are attempting to address too many issues outside their experience all at once, and 2. They’re assuming they know more than they really do, and consequently, they aren’t doing the necessary research.

The appropriate alternative to this sort of overreaching isn’t to stick strictly to safe territory, but to start there and then move gradually outward, incorporating ever more disparate ideas, experiences, and ways of thinking, while making sure to add to your own knowledge as you go.  Just because you’re writing about someone different from yourself doesn’t mean they can’t have anything in common with you—of course they can, and will!  Find that common ground and you can build from there.

Of course, this is difficult.  Reaching beyond yourself always is.  But that’s the writer’s job.

Review: Family Man, by Dylan Meconis

First published on ComixTalk.com, August 2010.

I’ve never bought into the notion that “the eyes are the window to the soul.”  Sure, they play a role in reading a person’s mood or opinion, but if one were to ask me what facial feature is most revealing, I’d say the mouth, no question.  There’s a treasure of information to be read in the tension of a person’s lips, the crook of a smile, the skewing of a jaw.  By comparison, I just don’t think eyes have that much to say.

Dylan Meconis is working hard to change my mind.

A couple of weeks ago, I received my pre-ordered copy of Meconis’ first print collection of her webcomic, Family Man.  A kinda/sorta/not really prequel to her vampire farce Bite Me, Family Man is a much more restrained story, of loftier ambitions and headier dialogue.  Rather than smartly goofy comedy, she’s now delivering a complex tale of the politics of theological scholarship, the politics of religious/familial duty (not necessarily separable issues), and werewolves, set in Bavaria in 1768.  This is not to say that Family Man is a humorless affair—far from it!—but that the humor here is much drier, and much more rooted in the culture of the time.

The werewolves, I should mention, have played a relatively small role in the story thus far, a point Meconis is tired of hearing, if the withering look she gave me when last I teased her about it (over a year ago—and still few signs of werewolves!) is any sign.  And that’s okay—the hints of werewolfdom we’ve seen thus far have been tantalizing, and the overall tenor of the story makes clear that when we do finally dive into that aspect of the plot, we’re going to see something much more thoughtful and interesting than your typical horror thrills.  Until then I’m more than happy to listen to young Luther Levy debate the merits of Spinoza while lamenting the tribulations of being ethnically Jewish, culturally Christian, and philosophically atheist, in a country and time that has little tolerance for two of the three.

In printing, I find that smaller trim size (though not necessarily quite so small as a manga digest) tends to give a book a greater air of seriousness.  Given the sobriety of her story, I expected that Meconis would make use of this, to create a prim volume that might evoke the academic texts referenced throughout its pages.  I was surprised then, when what arrived on my doorstep was a book with a generous 8.5” x 11” trim.  To be honest, I was a disappointed at first—but my disappointment was short-lived.  What I failed to anticipate was just how much Meconis’ art would benefit from the freedom to sprawl across these larger pages.

This is, in this case at least, an argument for print over web.  The print pages are substantially larger than Meconis runs them online, and all the more rewarding for it.  Counteless little details come into focus that are completely unperceivable in the web version.  Take, for instance, our first glimpse of the remarkable library at Familienwald, built in an abandoned church, displayed here it’s full online resolution:

Note the stained glass windows at the far back of the library.  Now, compare to this scan of the same windows from the print edition:

You see the saints?  Do you see the shape of their robes, their feet, their tiny little halos?  And those details exist in a part of the image so inconsequential to the plot that it doesn’t even matter that you can’t tell they’re there in the online version.

Now, here’s a moment that does matter: Luther Levy’s first meeting, two pages later, with Ariana Nolte, the university’s librarian, and Luther’s eventual romantic interest:

There are a lot of nice details here, but what I want to draw your attention to is that final panel, the first time we get a good look at Ariana as an adult.  She’s clearly a strong woman; her expression is commanding, the odd perspective dramatic, her orders succinct and non-negotiable.  Let’s have another look at that panel, blown up a bit:

When I was flipping through the book, and happened past this panel, I locked eyes with Ariana Nolte, and was startled by her.  This has much to do with the perspective, but also: those eyes.  They stare right out of the page at you in a way that the screen just doesn’t convey.  In that panel, you feel you are looking out through Luther’s eyes, and she is looking straight back at you.  It’s eerie and powerful.

Another thing about the perspective in this panel: it’s not just an unusual angle, but also an outright reversal of the way perspective is ordinarily used to convey power dynamics.  To “look down” on someone is to convey that you feel superior, better, more powerful than they are.  A downward shot from a character’s eyes ordinarily conveys that we are looking at someone weaker.  That we get the opposite reaction here is impressive, and goes even further to cement Ariana’s dominance in this exchange.

It’s those eyes.

More about Meconis’s eyes: they are always active.  She clearly knows exactly what every character is looking at in every panel, and reveals much about who they are through the object of their attention, as well as the particular ways in which they look.  As in real life, Meconis’ characters rarely give a simple forward look at whatever they are looking at.  There are sidelong stares, distracted glances, hooded glares, and this is true of every character in every panel, no matter how minor.  Consider:

I have no idea who the three characters to Lucien’s left are, but I can tell you that the one on the left has no interest in the book he’s reading, the one in the middle is very interested in the university gossip he’s overhearing, and the one on the right is content just to be having a meal.  That’s not just in the eyes, of course (the mouths too, convey much in their set), but the eyes are doing the bulk of the work.

It’s this level of attention to the nuances of character—not just appearances, but what those appearances have to say about the characters’ inner workings—that makes every exchange in Family Man so compelling.  And as good as it is online, it’s even better in print.

Write Every Day. Or Don’t. Either Way, Really.

First published on ComixTalk.com, August 2010.

One of the standard bits of advice that gets trotted out for writers, whether in writing workshops, or seminars, or just at author Q&As, in response to the inevitable “what advice would you give a young writer” question is this: write every day. Set aside a particular block of time each day, during which you will write. Even if you have no ideas, you will write. Even if every sentence you type is worse than the last, you will write. Treat it like it’s your job, because it is, and if you give into letting yourself off the hook because you don’t have an idea one day, you will inevitably do the same the next, and the day after that, and so on, ad infinitum.

For some people this is great advice. But for others, it’s really truly awful advice.

Writing every day helps many writers to stay motivated, and to keep momentum going on works in progress. It helps them to stave off writer’s block, because they don’t allow a lack of ideas to stop the flow of words on paper—a tactic that eventually forces them to push through that block sooner than they otherwise would have.

And if that works for you, wonderful! But for other folks (myself included) treating writing like a 9:00 – 5:00 is a complete creative turn-off. For some, sitting down and writing something awful every day doesn’t work through the block, it just prolongs it. For some writers, there is a lot to say for letting the creative soil lie fallow for a season.

The thing is, writing really is work, and like any kind of work, every writer has different habits and patterns that allow them to operate at peak productivity. For any writer to try to dictate to another writer when and how often they should write, and in what environment, is no different from your micromanaging boss insisting that you can’t possibly listen to music while you type up paperwork, because he tried it once and it ruined his concentration, so obviously it will ruin yours too. Some folks thrive on routine; others shut down entirely.

For instance: my own best writing generally happens between the hours of 12:00 and 6:00 AM, when I’m sleep-deprived and heavily caffeinated. I do my writing in binges—a few weeks on, a few weeks off, producing nothing at all for long stretches, then writing dozens of pages in just a few days. Would I ever advise anyone to imitate my process? NO! Unless it happens to work for you, in which case, have at it.

The important thing is to find your own routine. Try writing at different times of the day. Try varying how often you write, or how long you write, or where you write. (I do my own best writing when confined to a very small room. The best office I ever had was a closet.) And know that whatever routine actually gets you writing is the right routine, and you should never feel guilty about not writing as often or as predictably as other writers say you should.

Jim Ottaviani, T-Minus: The Race to the Moon

First published on ComixTalk.com, August 2010.

[Note: The following interview was conducted in July 2009.]

Since the 1997 release of his first graphic novel, Two-Fisted Science, writer, librarian, and one-time nuclear engineer Jim Ottaviani, has been telling compelling stories about the lives and work of scientists.  He’s written about everything from J. Robert Oppenheimer’s work on the atomic bomb (Fallout, 2001), to Hedy Lamarr’s invention of an early “frequency hopping” communication sytem (Dignifying Science, 2003), to  Harry Harlow’s investigations into the necessity of love (Wire Mothers, 2007).  Along the way, he’s worked with more than two dozen artists, including Donna Barr, Roberta Gregory, Roger Langridge, Steve Lieber, Dylan Meconis, Linda Medley, and many others.

His eighth and most recent book, T-Minus: The Race to the Moon, illustrated by Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon, relates the dual stories of the US and Soviet space programs through the late 1950s and 1960s, as they competed to be first to the lunar surface.  But true to form, Ottaviani’s telling of the story focuses less on the astronauts who made the journey than on the engineers and rocket scientists who made the journey possible.

[Danner] Did you do anything interesting to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission this past July?

[Ottaviani] I did a T-Minus signing at my local comic book shop! We showed Apollo footage, talked about space, I signed some books, and we had Tang on hand to quench our thirst and provide crucial vitamin C. So nobody got scurvy and we had a great time.

One scene that really struck me in T-Minus was the montage of the whole world preparing for the Apollo 11 launch—England considering a public notification system, the pope having a special color television installed.  The only recent events I can think of that had that kind of effect were either national disasters or celebrity deaths.  Am I being too cynical?  Or is it possible that, as a culture, we’ve lost our ability to appreciate extraordinary achievement?

I don’t think we’ve lost that ability. I wonder if one factor among the many that lead to the loss you’re talking about is that it’s more of an effect of us not all experiencing achievements and events the same way, or even at the same time. Your best friend learns about something new via Twitter and gets the full 140 character impact of that, someone else sees it on Fox News and gets their spin on it that evening, I read about it in the New York Times (online) a day later, you hear an extended piece on NPR that weekend via a podcast from the day it happened, etc. ad infinitum.

I won’t argue that more choices—both in terms of venue and in terms of the ability to experience something at a time and place that’s convenient for you—is a bad thing, because it’s not. But I don’t think big chunks of the world stop what they’re doing and all tune into the same, live, broadcast the way they used to. And that collective experience does change our appreciation of events.

Again, that’s just one thing that contributes to this.

Do you see any potential for space flight to ever again capture the world’s imagination the way it once did?

Well, two things about that. First, the world’s imagination was captured by Apollo, but it wasn’t held for long. If you’ve ever seen the movie Apollo 13, you’ll remember how their mission didn’t get much attention until things went wrong. Second, I think the answer is “yes.” Putting people on other worlds will do the trick. The thing is to not make it look like it’s just a trick or a stunt, but to get something out of it and make it part of an ongoing expedition to other worlds. There’s a lot out there to keep us enthralled and excited.

What about the burgeoning commercial space tourism industry that’s been taking its first steps over the past few years?  Do you see potential there, or is it too much of a stunt?

Imagine a long pause here, while I start to imagine a rosy scenario of me riding things that look like jetskis around the New and Improved International Space Station and Resort, and popping in for a quick sip of Tang and freeze-dried pizza when I’ve had enough of that…and then think about it harder and realize that if that sort of thing ever does happen it’s not going to be me on the SpaceSki™ and enjoying LunarDeepDishVeggieDelight®.

I don’t think it’s a stunt, or at least not any more so than climbing Everest has become. But that’s not a flattering analogy, since I don’t have a high opinion of what climbing Everest has become.

Providing an experience only to the wealthy—and that’s what space tourism will be for a long while after it becomes real—isn’t likely to excite, much less inspire, many people. Or at least not much further than to inspire people to say “I wish I was rich enough to do that, but if I was I would spend my money on X, Y, or Z instead.”

Though as an aside, and speaking for myself, space tourism would make my top five list of things to spend my fabulous and excess wealth on, once I had fabulous and excess wealth! I may need to reconsider my plan of achieving this by writing comic books…

Anyway, that’s more pessimistic than I’d like to be, and I do think the spin-offs of space tourism, such as making sub-orbital flights safe and routine, may have payoffs for the rest of us. But I doubt space tourism itself will inspire enough people to make it worthwhile for that reason alone.

I see your point, but don’t most technologies have a long history of serving wealthy early adopters until the development costs get paid off?  I could be mistaken, but my understanding of the history of commercial air flight is that it began by serving wealthy thrill-seekers, until it became economical to offer lower cost flights.  Is there reason to expect a different trajectory for the commercial space flight industry?

Good point. It’s true that commercial air flight’s transition from “full service with china place settings for wealthy travelers” to “no-service city bus in the sky” only took about 50 years. So maybe I’m just impatient.

The difference I see, though, is that commercial airlines always took you somewhere *else*, and not just up and down. So until there’s somewhere to go via commercial space flight, it’s not as much like a trip on a plane as it is like really expensive and very cool roller coaster ride. Again, I’d take that ride if I could!

I know T-Minus is the first book you’ve written with a younger audience specifically in mind, but do you have a sense of who your readers are in general?  Are your books being read primarily by adults or younger readers?

My best guess is that so far my readers are mostly adults. Maybe T-Minus will change that, but I don’t know.

Until the last two, my books have been on more adult topics, so that’s probably why. By “adult topics,” I don’t mean there are things in them that would get somebody in trouble with the school board or get something shelved in a special section of a library, but more that my first few books were unlikely to interest a 4th- or 5th-grader in reading about the Manhattan Project.

Everybody likes astronauts and dinosaurs, though, so my two most recent books seem to have appealed to the broadest group of readers yet. And you never know what works, for whom. I hear about Dignifying Science being used in sixth grade classes, and though I wouldn’t have predicted that, I think that’s great.

Do you find that your books sell primarily to individuals or more to schools and libraries?

I think [schools] are still discovering my books, and comics in general. I know some graphic novels are targeted specifically for a school market, but I tend not to see those…and I haven’t written any. Education is not the main goal of my books—I want them to entertain, first and foremost. I love it when people tell me they’ve learned something, and read one or more of the sources I referenced in the back of the book, of course, but whenever I have to choose between telling a better story or packing another useful fact/theory/idea/whatever into a book, story wins.

As for libraries, the most progressive were early adopters of comics, well before the general public started reading about Persepolisor manga or Watchmenin their local newspapers. But there are a lot of libraries out there, so I think comics are just beginning to reach their potential audience. The body of work that’s worth preserving and being read again and again has increased exponentially since I started writing comics. I hope I’m part of that!

In both T-Minus and Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards, you’ve acknowledged a degree of fictionalization in service to the story.  To what extent do you fictionalize events?  How do you decide when and how to fictionalize events?

The ideal is to fictionalize as little as possible. But any time you depict someone saying something that you don’t have an actual sound recording of him or her saying, you’ve already crossed the line. So you decide on the fly, or at least I do. I draw from documented sources whenever I can, and when I can’t I try to portray the truth of a story or a character, even in the absence of complete documentation.

Make that *especially* in its absence! And I know that stuff about truth sounds lofty. I don’t mean it to, since the goal is just to make a good story, but I can’t think of a better way to say it. And it’s in answering the question “What makes a good story?” that you decide when and how to tweak things: If an authentic quote was three paragraphs long and a bunch of it was an aside or not to the point, or if an interaction between characters happened over the course of two separate days and that’s not crucial to their relationship, I have no qualms about compressing things to keep the story moving.

Have there been instances when there was aninteresting scientific or historical fact that you found particularly fascinating, but had to leave out because it just didn’t fit with the direction of the story?

There have been too many to count over the years—or at least, too many to remember. But I actually have it documented for T-Minus, and there are 36 scenes or fragments of scenes that I’d have loved to get in there if not for space and narrative considerations.

One example: In the best of all worlds there’s a scene in the White House during the Apollo 11 trip where Nixon does a quick rehearsal of not one, but two prepared statements for July 20. There was one for success, of course, but there’s a gripping one they had on hand in case the landing ended in disaster, stranding or killing Aldrin and Armstrong. It’s one of those things you don’t consider now, since I think our natural tendency is to think “Apollo 11 succeeded, therefore it had to succeed.” But that’s not the way things work in real time.  [Nixon’s alternate speech]

I’m curious whether you ever hear from working scientists whose fields your books address.  How do they react to your work?

Occasionally, and the response has almost always been positive. The only negative reaction I remember getting was from three scientists who took offense with the cover of one of my books. In their impassioned letter they mentioned that they hadn’t read it, though, and that really surprised me for the obvious reason that their criticism was based on no…how shall we say, data. So I sent them an email in reply, asked for an address to send a copy to, and then sent one for them to read. But I never heard back. Otherwise, so far so good!

Just the cover?  What was their objection?

Yes, it was just the cover for Dignifying Science that caused the problem. And I don’t want to make such a big deal of it since this is the only blanket, negative reaction in over 10 years. That’s why it sticks in my memory. Readers have pointed out errors or things they think I could have done better, but that’s a different sort of response altogether, and one I’m grateful for—it means they’ve engaged with the books and are sharing their knowledge so I can improve.

Anyway, I don’t remember their exact words, but as I recall they didn’t like showing Hedy Lamarr in an evening gown, in her dressing room. The intent of the image—beautifully drawn by Ramona Fradon and beautifully colored by Linda Medley—was to surprise people by the juxtaposition, since she’s working with lab equipment in that setting. But these folks said the book was disrespectful as a result. I hope they changed their minds once they read the book.

As a writer who collaborates with a great many illustrators, do you find that the artists you work with are enthusiastic about the sciences as well?  Or can it be a challenge to find people interested in drawing about these subjects?

It’s no problem at all to find enthusiastic artists. Sometimes I can’t afford to pay them what they need to get to do the work, or they can’t fit the work into their schedule, but I’ve found very few that don’t want to do a book about scientists. Artists like good characters, and these people are good characters.

There’s selection bias going on here, of course: I only approach artists whose styles and sensibilities—based on the work of theirs that I’ve read—seem like a good fit for the stories I write. But there are plenty of those folks out there. I’m really lucky!

I’ve read that your next two books are on the topics of Richard Feynman and primatologists Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas. Can you tell me any new details about those books yet?

We don’t have official titles for either of the books yet, and I only have a general release date for Feynman. It’s scheduled for Fall, 2010[Edit: the Feynman book has been pushed back to 2011 by the publisher.]. The primatologist book will probably come out in 2011. I think. Maybe. These things are up to First Second, really!

The artist on the Feynman book is Leland Myrick, and Maris Wicks is drawing the primatologists. I’ve seen the completed art by Leland and it looks fantastic. Maris has started sending penciled pages, and guess what? It is fantastic looking as well.

[Update, August 2010] I’ve completed the Turing script [The Imitation Game], it’s with the editor right now, and as far as I know we’re still on schedule for serialization through Tor.com. I’m happy with it, and having worked with him before, I know Leland Purvis (the artist) will do a great job.  I’m working on some other things right now, but they’re in the very early stages so I don’t have anything to say about them!

I imagine that writing about a single individual, as you have done in your Niels Bohr biography (Suspended in Language,2004) and the Feynman biography, would be a very different experience than writing about broader historical events such as in T-Minus or Fallout.  Do you approach the material differently, either in the writing or the research?

Neither are substantially different. Finding, or creating, the story may be a little harder when you have to choose among many points of view (a la T-Minus), but it isn’t easy even when you’re dealing with only one or two main characters. The research doesn’t differ at all. Read, find new trails, follow them, read more, find new trails, follow them, read more, and repeat until you can’t put off writing any longer or you’ll blow your deadline!

The life of Richard Feynman isn’t new territory for you; fully half the stories in Two-Fisted Science pertain to Feynman.  What drew you back?

What drew me back is what drew me in the first time around: Feynman the person and Feynman the character and Feynman the scientist and Feynman the self-made myth. He’s all of those things, and his life spanned such an important period of recent world history that he’s a fantastic character to explore. He was a very public personality, but he’s still not as well known as I think he should be. So just like the Bohr biography I did—Niels Bohr is my other physics hero—I hope this new book helps bring his story to new readers.

One aspect of Feynman’s career that you didn’t touch on in great detail in Two-Fisted Science was his role in the Challenger disaster investigations.  Now that you’ve completed a book entirely about space flight, can readers expect to see those events explored in your book on Feynman?

Yes, though one didn’t necessarily lead to the other. If you’re going to do a biography of Feynman you need to cover his work on the Challenger investigation, because it touches on so many important themes in his life.

Two-Fisted Science didn’t do this because it only showed small snippets of that life—it didn’t pretend to be complete. This book won’t be complete either, really, since there’s simply too much material out there, both published and unpublished. You should see my stack of reference materials! But the upcoming book will touch on all the major events in his life, especially his public life, and his work on the Challenger disaster was his last major adventure. The story about how he is persuaded to do it is fantastic on its own.

I have to confess, despite my own lay interest in several of the fields he worked in, I was completely unacquainted with Feynman until I encountered him in your books.  Considering how many of the 20th century’s major technological and scientific developments he was involved in—from the Manhattan Project, to the space program, to introducing the concept of nanotechnology—why is it that he’s not more widely known?

Quick, name ten living scientists! OK, it’s you, and you can probably do it. But I’ll bet you can name ten living comic book writers or artists *whose work you don’t like* more easily. Now, name one of the people who got the Nobel prize for inventing the transistor…you know, the thingees that make computers and cell phones and TVs and digital cameras and all that stuff work. Now tell me who taught “Defense Against the Dark Arts” in the 6th Harry Potter book, and who plays that character in the movie.

My point? I love comics, books, and movies too, and because I’m that kind of geek I can answer all of the above. Lots of readers here probably can too. But you get the idea: Even the most famous scientists don’t get the attention even minor media celebrities do.

I certainly see your point about relative celebrity, and I agree.  But given that scientists do occasionally achieve broader fame—Newton, Einstein, Hawking—why not Feynman?  Especially considering his personal eccentricities, artistic pursuits, exploits in amateur safecracking, and embrace of public life, on top of his achievements, he seems like a man born for science celebrity.  So what happened? Maybe that’s not a question it’s possible to answer, but it was running through my mind the whole time I was reading Two-Fisted Science.

I really don’t know. Maybe he needed a whole comic book about him.

More seriously, his books remain in print and are popular with a broad audience, so he’s not obscure. But his discoveries are harder to grasp than gravity, relativity, and black holes. Which I guess you could summarize as gravity, gravity, and gravity.

Quantum electrodynamics sounds neat, and it really and truly is. But it’s less easily grasped and visualized, and thus explained, than…well, gravity.

To your earlier point, honestly, I would be much harder pressed to create a list of living scientists than I would mid-20th century scientists!

True for me as well, but that’s the effect of time and more obvious revolutions. In our defense, I think we’re too close to know what the late 20th century means…

Con Report: MICE 2010

(Full disclosure: The organizers of MICE are personal friends, though I was not involved in the planning of the show.)

This Saturday just past saw the first of what looks to be a new annual convention in Boston: The Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo (MICE), organized by The Boston Comics Roundtable.  I’ve been eager to see a show like this in Boston for a long time, and have honestly been quite baffled that no such show existed.  We have a large comics-making community, a tremendous student population, and multiple truly excellent comics shops with strong independent comics stock (I’m thinking in particular of Million Year Picnic and Comicopia).  So it seems a no-brainer that our little city could easily make an indy comics show a great success; and I’m happy to report that it seems I was correct in this belief.

MICE was a relatively small show—only 47 tables, total—taking place in three modest rooms and a hallway at The Art Institute of Boston, but suffered none of the usual drawbacks to small shows: there was a pretty constant movement of people through the exhibitions, great attendance at panels, and a wonderful variety of comics, of satisfyingly high quality.  I heard no reports at all of organizational missteps.  A bit of confusion would have been forgivable, considering this was a first time out for all involved, but it seems there was nothing to forgive.  The space was set up attractively and efficiently, doors opened on time, and a lunch delivery was even arranged for the exhibitors, just like at MeCAF.  When the show was over, break down went very quickly—easily two dozen exhibitors happily volunteered to stay after to help with the clean up.

The focus of the show was entirely on truly independent creators—almost everything at the show was self-published, with a lot of mini-comics and small-scale projects.  This is a type of show that’s getting harder and harder to find.  The first couple of years I attended SPX, it had a similar focus, but more and more the mini-comics seemed to get pushed aside in favor of more traditional bound books.  MoCCA took SPX’s place in serving that type of material for several years, but since the move to the new location, I’ve seen a similar transition in the types of work that do well at the show.  I attribute this to the steadily rising table costs—mini-comics creators simply have no hope of making their table fees back anymore, so they don’t go.  Which means the audience that’s interested in buying mini-comics is beginning to dry up there as well.  I very much hope that as MICE grows, it will keep its focus solidly on the individual creator, rather than publishers.  I’ll say more about sales later in the post, but as a mini-comics exhibitor, if I were choosing between MoCCA and MICE to display at, purely on the basis of profitability, MICE is the clear winner.

One fear I did have going in, knowing it was a small show put on by a large group, was that too large a percentage of tables would be dedicated to BCR members—not that I have any problem with BCR member comics; I’m a BCR member, and I know just how large the BCR is these days, and how many incredibly talented people can claim membership.  But from the standpoint of the long term sustainability of the show, if it seemed like too much of a vanity affair, it would be hard to draw attendees from outside the local area.  My fear here was unfounded, I’m pleased to say—certainly, there were many BCR folks represented, but also a great many folks from outside the group, and many whom I had never before met.

There was a pleasant buzz of activity throughout most of the day, a steady stream passing through the exhibit rooms.  The age range was pretty wide, and I’m tempted to say I saw more high school and college age attendees than I’m accustomed to seeing at indy comics shows.  Admission was free, which I’m sure helped contribute to the large and energetic crowd—I heard rumor that a noticeable portion of attendees were actually walk-ins who spotted the show from the street and just decided to see what it was about.

The show also featured a nice selection of panels, across a range of topics.  I wasn’t able to attend an panels as an audience member, but I served on two panel.  The first was a panel on Writing Comics, which I presented in collaboration with Jerel Dye.  It was the first panel of the day, at 11:00 in the morning, so we went in expecting a pretty small audience—on this point, we were mistaken.  The room filled up quickly with an engaged group of aspiring writers, making for a very enjoyable session.  They happily joined in our prepared writing exercise, asked good questions, and offered each other good advice as well.

Later in the day came the Connecting Comics and Education panel, which for me was a particular treat.  At first it appeared that this was going to be a disappointingly small audience, but folks trickled over the course of the first fifteen minutes, until we had a much fuller room.  The discussion went far beyond the usual “give comics to reluctant readers” refrain, due in large part to the wide variety of experience on the part of the panelists.  All present were teachers, working with students from elementary school up through college, and teaching across several subjects: science, math, composition, social studies, not to mention the remarkable educational exchange program Marek Bennett has set up between his school in New Hampshire and a school in Nicaragua.  Dr. Jenn Cook offered some wonderful ideas for having students pre-write their memoirs as three panel comics as a way of organizing their essays—and idea I will very likely steal the next time I teach a composition class.  All told, I felt like I learned more than I contributed on this panel, and the audience too was very interested—when moderator David Marshall proposed extending the panel an extra half hour, panelists and audience gamely agreed.

As for sales: I should state first that I don’t generally expect high sales.  I’m not well known, and I don’t have very many books, and not all of my books lend themselves naturally to a comics show.  But, of course, anyone selling mini comics is likely to be relatively unknown and have a small number of books, so that’s who I hope these figures will be useful to.

To MoCCA, I brought the following materials:

Bring Your Daughter to Work Day (32 pages, $4.)

Gingerbread Houses 1 (32 pages, $5)

Gingerbread Houses 2 (32 pages, $5)

Character Design for Graphic Novels (194 pages, full color, $25)

Parens, a play  (98 pages, $8)

The play has little impact on the sales numbers, as it doesn’t fit the usual material at a comics show, but routinely sells exactly one copy at each show I attend.

The only change I made at MICE was to add Gingerbread Houses 3 (36 pages, $5), and I offered a bulk deal where anyone who purchased all three issues of GH got a free copy of BYDTWD.

All told, I sold a total of 21 books, for a gross income of $137 at MoCCA.  At MICE I sold a total of 25 books, for a gross of $126 (free copies of BYDTWD are not included in those numbers).  The higher income for fewer books at MoCCA is a result of the character design book—two copies sold at MoCCA, while none sold at MICE, which fits with my theory that higher-priced items with traditional production values are a better fit for that show.

BYDTWD technically sold better at MoCCA, where I moved nine paid copies, as opposed to only two at MICE, But, of course, my freebie offer cannibalized sales of that book considerably, so that’s not a fair comparison.

The biggest difference was in sales of Gingerbread Houses—at MoCCA, most people who looked at the mini put it right back down as soon as they heard the $5 asking price—they were unwilling to pay that much for a self-published mini.  At MICE however, browsers who got as far as asking the price were far less put out by it—there was much less debate as to whether to buy a copy, but instead a debate as to buy just the first or all three.  Most decided on all three, with seven full sets going at MICE, plus one additional copy of the first issue.  At MoCCA, of the 6 people who bought issue 1, only two decided to buy issue 2 as well.

Of course, 21 books vs 25 books, or $137 vs $126 doesn’t sound like a significant enough difference to be worth analyzing, but there are two additional bits of information that need to be considered.  First off, table cost: my half table at MICE cost me $25 dollars, as compared to the $105 I spent for a mere quarter table at MoCCA.  That makes my net profits $32 from MoCCA, as compared to $101 at MICE.

And the other detail is that MICE was just a one-day show, while MoCCA was a full two days.  It’s impossible to know how a second day would have gone, but even so: selling as much in one day at MICE as I did in two days at MoCCA is certainly a far better return on my time investment no matter how you look at it.

The only question I’m left with is whether I want the show to expand to two days next year.  Certainly, my sales numbers argue for putting in an extra day at this show, but I can’t help suspecting that attendance would drop considerably on a second day.  As much fun as the show was, it was pretty easy for attendees to see everything there was in a single day, making return attendance less likely.  Although, a counter argument to that would be the enthusiasm I saw for the panels—if the second day’s programming were to be as robust as the first, that might draw people back.  But that’s all speculation, as I know little of the dynamics of drawing crowds to cons.

Regardless, I’ll be very much looking forward to displaying at MICE again next year.