Cartoonist Attacked

Lars Vilks, creator of the infamous cartoons depicting Muhammad as a dog, was head-butted today as he gave a lecture about free speech at a University in Sweden. The full story is here.

After Lars was attacked, “Allah Ackbar” meaning God is Great was chanted from the largely approving crowd.

Pretty intense video, huh? It’s strange seeing Muslims who’ve adopted the latest fashion trends, who embrace the medicine and technology for which science is responsible, who attend a university of knowledge and reason, who live in a country with a strong secular humanistic tradition, who enjoy the freedoms and protections western civilization has helped cultivate … it’s strange seeing them behave so irrationally based on such primitive beliefs. What an interesting time we live, a time in which we’re able to watch the modern and ancient worlds colide… on YouTube.

New Equation Needed: Apply Within

I valet at a restaurant. Often, at the beginning of a shift, I’ll check the reservations. This will let me know what kind of night to expect. Like most people in 2010, I need money to survive, so when I check the reservation book, I’m hoping it’s busy. The other night it looked rather slow, but there was a reservation for a large group of 20 people.

Upon seeing this, I caught myself thinking: “Here’s hoping they arrive in 20 cars.

I examined this thought and found it funny and strange. Another me, in a context outside of my job, would obviously prefer these people walk or carpool. It appears my ideals of conservation are at odds with my desire (and necessity) to make money. But it’s not just me. The car companies also hope these 20 people own automobiles and wear them out quickly. And the Oil Companies? To them, “carpool”, must be a dirty word. I imagine the word creates an uneasy feeling, like “cholesterol” or “diabetes” might to a McDonald’s executive.

My aim is not to vilify these companies. After all, they are largely made of people who, like myself, must earn a living. My scorn is directed at the system and our outdated modes of thinking, for as long as consumption = profit, it’s like we’re paid to burn our own house down.

(click to enlarge)

Here’s an Earth Day card for our planet, courtesy one of my favorite living artists, Richard Thompson.

Children’s book writers are allowed to have political opinions, right?

A few days ago, my friend Sarah questioned a drawing in my portfolio: the president marionette. “I thought you liked Obama,” she said. And she’s right, as far as presidents go, I do like Obama. However, if you believe Obama or any president holds any substantial power in this world (or even this country), I think you’re mistaken.

But my friend is right. Perhaps the drawing misrepresents my politics. After all, there are more deserving people who could be drawn attached to puppet strings.

Children’s book writers are allowed to cuss, right?

I was on my way to an a illustrator’s critique group put on each month by a few guys from the Austin SCBWI. It would be my first time attending and I was excited. I got it my car, headed west down Ceasar Chavez, north up I-35, west on 38 1/2 Street, and BAM! Traffic at a standstill. “Must be construction,” I thought as I cut my way down some side streets trying to find an alternate route. Detour signs littered the road. “Oh no! The Austin Marathon is on today!” I remembered, while cursing the chicken-legged men in their short shorts.

I spent a good 30 minutes trying to find a route to the critique group. I even went way north and tried to come down Lamar. No luck. The critique group was isolated, surrounded by a moat of runners.

“North Lamar… I don’t get up here often,” I mused. “Maybe I’ll stop by Half Price Books.” (the best used bookstore warehouse in the world, for you underprivileged non-Texans)

So that’s what I did, and even though it wasn’t my first choice, perhaps it was fate which brought me to cart away a pile of life changing books.

First up, The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker. List, $60. HPB: $19. A huge book, weighing probably 15 pounds, it has every New Yorker cartoon published from 1925 to 2004. Many of the 68,000+ cartoons are actually printed in the book, the rest come on 2 CD’s. Some of these cartoons are so brilliant they give me shivers. I guess I’m weird that way.

These two were published in 1937.

And since graphic novels seem to be all the rage these days, I picked up a few titles from a great publisher called Top Shelf Productions. These aren’t your superhero comics, folks. These are amazing feats of visual art – and literature too!

My favorite so far is Dear Julia, by Brian Biggs. It has breathtaking artwork and a fascinating, suspenseful story which plays out like a foreign film (and not one of those crappy, hard to understand foreign films). I highly recommend this book.

Another Top Shelf book I found was an autographed copy of James Kochalka’s The Sketchbook Diaries. Basically it’s just a daily journal in cartoon form. Most of the entries I find pretty boring, the funny part is: I can’t stop reading it!

The drawings are so simple and the situations so mundane, it actually inspired me to start a cartoon journal myself! I’m no Indiana Jones, but my life feels a heck of a lot more exciting than his!

And then today, I was walking near the river/nature area near my house, when I was struck with an idea for a middle grade chapter book (I blame Because of Winn-Dixie!). It was crazy, everything just came to me at once! Plot, characters, settings, everything! And while I suspect it’s natural for a writer to fall in love with his own ideas, I really believe I have an objectively good book idea on my hands!

Cartoons, graphics novels, picture books, chapter books, short stories, long stories, dumb stories, smart stories.

I could go in any number of directions, but I still don’t know what the fuck it is I’m doing.

Book Review: A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever!

At the SCBWI conference there was a bookstore selling books by authors and illustrators in attendance. Having just won a Caldecott Honor a week prior, a little book called All the World (written by Austinite Liz Garton Scanlon, Illustrated by Marla Frazee) seemed to be getting All the Attention. So mid-way through the day, when it was announced there were only 3 copies left, I hastily made my way to the bookstore, brutally pushing little old ladies out of the way when necessary. I still wasn’t quick enough. All the World was sold out. It turned out to be a blessing, however, because instead I picked up another Caldecott Honor book by Marla Frazee titled, A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever!

I’m so glad I found this book! Even though All the World is very good, this book is more along the lines of what I’m looking to do.

First off, it’s illustrated by Marla Frazee, so needless to say, the pictures are wonderful and fit the text as seamlessly as a soundtrack. But how is the story itself? After all, Marla is known as an illustrator, not an author.

I think she nailed it. The characters feel lively & real, and she clearly knows what makes young boys tick. The average boy (especially when he gets together with a friend) is not interested in museums or learning about flowers at nature camp. Marla knows and shows that young boys are happy to be left to their own devices, which most often include: rough-housing, eating junk food, and playing video games. She doesn’t forget how adults present “edifying” activities for children, but understands that ultimately it’s the children who decide what interests them.

Not everybody likes this view of children, and many still believe that picture books must show how children should behave rather than how they do behave. Taking that a step further: some people believe children’s books must show how the world should be as opposed to how it is. (examples: this amazon review, and this blog post) I have no problem presenting an alternative world to kids – a Utopian vision for example – but to gloss over reality and pretend everyone is “perfect” represents a covert form of moralism, which I find repugnant and obsolete since the days of Ursula Nordstrom.

I think those who complain that this book has no moral, fail to see the subtle lesson contained within. Marla allows this lesson to go down as sweet as syrup, so that you don’t even know you’ve learned something important about life. I think that’s the way to do it.

Personally, I learned a lot of lessons from this book – especially about illustration and the craft of picture books. For me, it was an education on the pacing and layout of picture book illustrations. I enjoyed how Marla used many illustrations on a single page, weaving them in and out between the text, creating action and a sense of cohesion. I also liked how she avoided repetition by breaking up these multi-illustrated pages with glorious, full, double-page spreads. It allows the reader to take a break from the action, rest, and enjoy the beautiful scenery. I also learned how speech bubbles, which are traditionally found in comic books, can make a wonderful addition to children’s books as well.

Finally, I learned a thing or two about humor in kid’s books. Often time it seems that children’s books resort to cheap laughs by using potty humor (and it’s true: young kids do love booger jokes), or over-the-top silliness. In contrast, in this book Marla Frazee uses a quiet kind of humor boarding sarcasm. A favorite device she uses is incongruent text and image. For example, at one point it reads, “He had never been away from home for an entire week, so he was very sad when his mother drove away.” Yet right under this text it shows the boy with a great big smile on his face yelling: BYE! At another point it reads, “Nature Camp was just so great.” And the picture shows the boys hiding inside the house on a beautiful day, speech bubbles reading: “Wanna go outside?”, “Nope.” I love how Marla gives her audience credit by allowing smart humor. It’s a smart choice on her part. Most of the children I know have a more sophisticated sense of humor than their adult counterparts.

Yikes! This review became much longer than I expected, but there’s just so much in this book. I recommend it to anyone, but especially to writers and illustrators working on their craft.

Finding Time, Revisited

The last post was an exercise in creative writing and ranting. The reality is: it’s unfair to blame others, or even my job, for what I perceive as a lack of time to pursue art & writing.

Every artist who earns a living from their work understands it requires immense effort and dedication. It’s one thing to have a job where you know what’s expected of you and have a boss who makes sure you do it. Working for yourself is another thing entirely, and I’m slowly learning that if you don’t have a very high level of self-discipline, your chance for success is nil.

Taking an objective (as possible) look at my current circumstance reveals how I respect the boss at my day job more than I respect my “inner boss”. At my day job, I take care to arrive on time, dressed properly, ready to work. How often do I bring that kind of attitude to my personal work? Rarely. Too often, the activities of the day have drained my energy and I’m content to sit back and watch the Daily Show or mindlessly surf the internet.

For a while now I’ve begun to suspect that I need to dedicate a portion of my day to creative activities — and not just any portion, but the beginning of the day, before other activities and inner guilt crush opportunity for creative discovery. This new year, 2010, will be the start of this change. A night-owl by nature, I’ve painfully begun to rearrange my sleeping schedule so that I may rise by dawn, take Brutus for a walk, pour a glass of orange juice, and begin work. So far this schedule has been met with jihadist-strength resistance and sordid success. Yet I believe with persistence this practice will prevail, and once it becomes routine, has the potential to absolutely transform my life.

Finding Time

Where did my time go? It must be around here somewhere… I swear I just had it!

Maybe it’s on my desk.

Hmmm… wallet, dirty dishes, bills and overdue car registration. I start moving the clutter and unearth a sketchbook and some lonely pens. Sorry guys, I’ll be back with you as soon as I find my time! The notebook which once housed my thoughts peeks out from under a pile of books I’ve been meaning to…

The phone rings.

I glance at the caller ID and see it’s my mom. Sorry mom, I’m trying to find my time right now! The machine answers and I listen…

“Hi honey, guess my busy boy is out enjoying the day. Gimme a call when you can, it’s been… allllmost a month now…”

The guilt hits me. Not even Judas Iscariot would ignore a call from his mother! It’s okay, it’s okay though! I’ll call her back as soon as I find my time! It’s here somewhere!

Okay… who had it last? My girlfriend. I love being with her, but if she takes my time without asking one more god-damned…!

Okay… calm down…. deep breath…

I walk outside and into the backyard. The sun and trees help me think.

Maybe I left my time with a friend. Nah… not likely. I try to hang out with each of them once a week, but often fail miserably. And I don’t even have that many! Maybe I need less friends. Less people to give my time. Less people to disappoint.

I sigh and look at the clouds.

Maybe I need to live in the forest. Far away from this society and it’s endless mental trash. Far away from this culture and it’s entertaining sedatives.

I could live alone surrounded by pines, just me and my little cabin. Then I could take my time and lock it in a little chest and hide it underneath the floorboards. I’d walk the mountain side during the day, and chop wood, and grow vegetables, and talk to my goats and to myself and then at night I would come inside and make a little meal and drink a little wine, and when the forest became dark and frightening, I would lock the doors and the shut the blinds and remove the floorboards and unlock the chest and then it would be just me with my time, all to myself, forever.

Wait, wait, I know! I left my time at work! It’s okay though, I have to be there in 20 minutes.