Saturday, February 24, 2018

Second Light

The story of this photo is the best thing you'll read today.

When our twin daughters were born, Karen and I joined a “Mothers of Multiples” club. Fathers were welcome, too, but that would have ruined the acronym. I won’t rat out my daughters’ ages by saying how long ago, but they’re full-grown adults now.

Parenting more than one kid at a time is hard, we were young and dumb, and the club was a great source of support, commiseration, and what today would be called “life hacks.” Once in a while we’d all get together for a picnic. When Laura and Robin were about 18 months old, a reporter and photographer from our local newspaper, the Press Democrat (PD), joined the party to do a feature story.

No big deal. The club included a family of quadruplets, and we figured the article would focus on them. So we were surprised to wake up the next morning and see a photo of us squatting while our kid defiantly pours a cup of water onto the ground taking up half the front page above the fold. We enjoyed being celebrities for a day and bought a print from the PD, which we hung happily in our family room until it burned down on October 9.

After the fire, my daughter Robin tried to find the photo for us. As an archaeologist, she has access to a nationwide database of old newspapers and found the right date, but of course the quality of the digital copy was far too poor to reproduce. She emailed the PD but didn’t hear back. Roadblock.

Meanwhile, I wrote and drew “A Fire Story,” which the PD published in a beautiful two-page spread. So when Robin told me what she’d done and where she’d gotten stuck, and asked if I knew anyone at the PD, I sent Features Editor Corinne Asturias an email with the subject line “A Favor.”

Corinne replied that she had very little hope a photo that old had survived. Not only had the paper changed hands in the interim, resulting in a thorough housecleaning, but the entire field of photography had transitioned from film to digital. But she said she’d try.

The staff photographers told her there was no chance. As a last resort, Corinne sent administrative aide (I read that as “copyboy”) Dominique down to the archives. And in an envelope in a folder in a file cabinet in a dungeon entombed in leaded type and pulp-paper dust, she found a strip of negatives shot that day at the picnic.

Corinne called it “an overdue karma payback.” We agreed that some archivist back in the day must have taken one look and decided it was just too adorable to throw away. I think the universe decided it owed us one.

However, our happy story has an ironic twist ending.

The photo above is NOT the correct one! It was shot moments before the one published in the paper. It’s almost the same, but not quite. The negative for the published picture is, at this date, still missing. I think I know what happened to it.

My theory is that our negative wasn’t in the envelope with the other negatives from that shoot for one reason: because all those years ago, we bought a print of it. The photographer took the negative out of that envelope to make our copy and didn’t put it back. We were characters in a decades-long O. Henry tale and never knew it.

If so, that’s almost a better story than finding the right negative would have been.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ex Libris

Acquired! When it comes to reconstructing my pre-fire library, I've decided not to try. Mostly I'll pick up new books I'm interested in and let my collection grow organically. But there are a few old must-haves--books that were especially important or useful to me--that I'll go out of my way to find.

These were my freshman university astronomy and physics books. The market in 40-year-old textbooks isn't as robust as you might imagine, but they were relatively cheap and easy to find. I'm not one of those people who scoff that they never use the math they learned in school; I use it every day! Sure, I haven't solved a partial differential equation in a while, but algebra, geometry and trigonometry are fundamental to how I see and interact with with the world.

Similarly with these books: I used to pull them off the shelf all the time! Some of the astronomy's out of date, but the workings of gravity, light and energy haven't changed much in a hundred years. For me, these were references as basic as a dictionary or thesaurus (which, I know, "online," yadda yadda). I feel like I've been reunited with old, warm friends.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Ask Mr. Science Cartoonist: Clean Coal

First of what I hope will be an unnecessary series explaining how things work.

We've been hearing a lot about "Clean Coal" lately, most recently in the president's State of the Union address lauding America's "beautiful Clean Coal." I realized that neither he, nor most people with very strong opinions about it, had any idea what it means. What the world needs is more learnin' from cartoonists, especially one who also spent 20 years working as a science writer for the energy industry.

That's me.

Clean Coal is not a type of extra-special coal. It's a way to burn coal more cleanly.

Coal is a hydrocarbon. So are oil, gasoline, natural gas, propane and methane.

They're called "hydrocarbons" because they're made of hydrogen (H) and carbon (C).

When you add oxygen (O) and burn them in a car engine or power plant, you release energy and recombine all the H's, C's and O's in new ways. For example, you make H2O (water), which is why you see water dripping from a car's tailpipe. You make carbon monoxide (CO), which is why you don't leave your car running in a closed garage. And you make carbon dioxide (CO2), which is a greenhouse gas that traps infrared radiation and helps drive global warming.

It doesn't matter if you believe global warming is real. It's happening whether or not you believe in it.

So burning coal blows carbon out your power plant's smokestack into the air. Clean Coal is a general term for catching it before it gets away. The Department of Energy (DOE) has spent decades researching different techniques and technologies to do it. In recent years, they reached one solid conclusion:

All Clean Coal methods raise the cost of generating electricity and hurt the energy efficiency of their power plants. While some of them look good technologically, none of them make the least sense economically. Depending on where you are in the country, other energy sources--even solar--are already cheaper than regular coal power. Adding the cost of capturing coal's carbon exhaust makes it one of the most expensive fuel sources around. Given that, DOE cut research on Clean Coal a few years ago.

Clean Coal has nothing to do with political philosophies, the specialness of American coal, or the hopes and dreams of our noble coal miners. It's an approach to burning coal cleanly that for now--with our current economy and technology--just doesn't work.

I'll bet it took less than two minutes to read this post, and now you know more about Clean Coal than the president of the United States and most of Congress. Take the rest of the day off.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

LumaCon 4, Supervillainy 0

I looked back through my previous three LumaCon posts to try to avoid reusing any superlatives for my favorite comics-related event of the year, and decided to use them anyway. Yesterday was the fourth annual comics convention organized by librarians in Petaluma, Calif., and I had a great time. I hung out with old friends, met a lot of young artists and comics fans, got a nifty gift basket, and even sold a few books and miniposters. After spending all my earnings buying other people's books and art, I felt pretty good walking away even.

I love LumaCon because it's small and sincere. Admission is free. They have a bake sale. It's aimed at, and I think to some extent organized by, kids. One of its big attractions for me is walking in and finding a pro who's been making comics for 20 years sitting beside a 12-year-old showing off their first homemade comic. LumaCon has a very different feel than any other convention I've attended. It's gentle, encouraging, entirely positive. Everybody's just there to have fun.

There's something else about LumaCon that I haven't quite been able to put into words before: because it's free, it's easy for folks to just drop by and check out. Curious people who might have been driving past and happened in, or parents whose kids love comics and want to find out what it's all about. There's an outreach aspect to it that encourages everyone to be on their best behavior.

I didn't have much to show this year. The fire destroyed all of my original art and my stock of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow books. However, I have replenished my supply of Mom's Cancer. I printed up a miniposter of A Fire Story. Best of all, my daughters Laura and Robin dropped by to help, and brought their pinback button-making machine. For $1 they'd turn any quarter-sized drawing you brought them into a button. They also sold a few with my drawings on them. It was the hit of the day.

My "Fire Story" miniposter, printed on the front and back of 11x17 glossy cardstock. I made them mostly so I'd have something to put on my table. I sold a lot of these at $3, just enough to cover my costs.
A good look at my table manned by Laura and Robin, with their button-making apparatus on the table in front of them. Laura's styling a Captain America dress, while Robin favored an Iron Man dress under a "Stark Industries" jacket. Every day is a Civil War with those two. The boy in green is poking at my little "Best of Brian" slide show. Miniposters are to the left behind his head, Mom's Cancer peeks in at lower right. I only realized when I walked in to set up that I don't own a tablecloth anymore.

Behind Robin in that photo above is my friend Jason Whiton, a teacher and writer who sells a great range of mid-Century pop artifacts: secret agent adventures, mod styling, Thunderbirds, etc. Our mood dampened mid-afternoon when Jason got a text telling him that cartoonist Mort Walker ("Beetle Bailey") had died. Jason grew up knowing the Walkers and other great cartooning families in Connecticut, so the news was quite a blow. For my money, Mort's 1970s book Backstage at the Strips is still the best description of the cartooning life in its Golden Age.

A Pokemon family, all at appropriate scale.

He was a lot less intimidating without the helmet.

My pal Art Roche and his wife Elizabeth sat across from me. In addition to publishing his Knights of Boo'Gar with Andrews-McMeel, Art works at the Schulz Studio.

More cartoony friends: Donna Almendrala, Paige Braddock, Paige's wife Evelyn, and Lex Fajardo. I also reconnected with creators like Maia Kobabe, Izzy Ehnes, and a few civilian friends who came around. 
I bought this charming little watercolor of Paige Braddock's "Stinky Cecil."
These girls insisted that I take their picture. Their dads said it was OK.

There was a Doctor in the house. Three or four, in fact.

Cosplay parade underway.

This is why I love LumaCon. They had an entire room set aside just for people to sit and draw. No talks, nobody buying or selling anything. Just drawing.

My friend Brian Narelle. Brian is a cartoonist, teacher, writer, filmmaker, and something of a gentle roving philosopher of life.
You might have seen Brian a while back as Lt. Doolittle (left) in the cult sci-fi film "Dark Star," which is worth a look if you don't know it.
I didn't take any photos of cartoonist Tom Beland this time around, but I did buy this neat piece of original art from him. Tom has a beautiful, expressive, economical, graceful ink line that I really envy. 
Another stiffly posed portrait with Nathan Libecap, one of LumaCon's main organizers. He's a high school librarian who does it all for the love of kids and comics, and I think that attitude suffuses the entire event. 
Nathan (in orange cape) also moderated a panel that Lex and I did in the afternoon, attended by a couple dozen interested and/or sleepy attendees. The pony-tailed gent sitting right in front of me is comic book artist Brent Anderson, who was soon cajoled to join the discussion because when the guy who draws "Astro City" is sitting in the front row, it'd be stupid not to use him.
Finally, an overview of part of the exhibit hall. Laura and Robin are manning (personing?) my table at center, with Jason behind them. There were also activities happening on the stage behind me, in the lobby outside, and in smaller rooms throughout the Petaluma Community Center and even outdoors.

After four years of LumaCon, organizer Nathan told me he finally felt like he was getting the hang of it. Everything seemed to go all right. I advised him that the only thing I feared was that it would get too big and ruin everything I love about it. He agreed. They'll fight to keep it right-sized.

Somewhere around 3000 people came the last couple of years. As far as I could tell, they were the right people coming for the right reasons.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Query: What Rhymes with "Monomethylhydrazine?"

I once did a book titled Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?, and fake comic books I created within that book featured the Space Age hero Cap Crater and his young ward the Cosmic Kid. Cap and the Kid personified the popular interests of the various decades their adventures were published in: mechanization in the 1930s, the Red Menace and nuclear energy in the 1950s, etc.

Anyway, in 2010 I drew and posted the bit of silliness below. With apologies to friend of the blog and "Comic Strip of the Day" proprietor Mike Peterson, who hates pastiches of "T'was the Night Before Christmas," I wanted to run it again. It makes me happy. If it makes you happy, too, consider it a Christmas gift.

If that doesn't do it for you, check the end for something else that might.

Finally, I can't let Christmas pass without my annual tribute to the man that, depending on the day you ask me, I consider the first-, second-, or third-greatest cartoonist of all time, Walt Kelly, and his great strip "Pogo."

Thanks, my friends. See you in 2018.