Category Archives: Comics

Comics, comic books, online comics, and why I laugh at them. Starting your day off with a comic of four is the best thing possible (except for maybe a comic read with a large cup of coffee)

Comics 2015: The Time Is Now Again

One of the best parts of 2015 was watching Berkley Breathed re-animate “Bloom County.” A staple of the mid-80s to early-90s and a definite influence on Sun Microsystems culture (Rob Gingell’s machine was “opus” for as long as I knew him; perhaps only William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” spawned more machine names), Milo, Binkley, Bill, Opus, Steve Dallas and Oliver have returned in a most timely manner. Posting strips online gives Breathed more artistic and cultural reference flexibility (read: less censorship), and the political, technological, social and (sum of previous) Star Wars memes exposed are both unchanged and incredibly relevant. It is, as Geddy Lee sings, like “the time is now again.”

Strips are on Facebook.

Signed strips in reverse chronological order.

My favorite part of the reboot (in addition to the Star Wars references and Bill and Opus once again deciding to run for office) has been the Christmas sequence. The holiday sniffle usually prompted by John Scalzi this year put a soggy exclamation point on the last few strips of the year.

If you’re too young to remember Bloom County in its syndicated glory, start at reboot strip #1 and say hello to the characters. If you ever said “Don’t blame me, I voted for Bill and Opus” (and have said it frequently in the run up to 2016) it’s like the funniest guy in college just reappeared in your daily news feed.

Really, Really Exploring “Calvin and Hobbes”

Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” ran its last strip twenty years ago, pretty much neatly dividing my life into periods of before and after “family at full strength.” Watterson effectively hid from the public eye, despite one cameo drawing appears in “Pearls Before Swine” he had all but ceased to have any sort of real-time presence, and certainly there was very little insight into what made so many of us laugh, chortle and sometimes sniffle a bit at a six year old boy and his tiger.


Watterson has donated his original strip collection to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at The Ohio State University, co-located in the state of his youth, and now Exploring Calvin and Hobbes: An Exhibition Cataloguecontains a wonderful interview with Watterson is now in mass market print.

It’s so worthy of a read; I dropped everything else on this quiet Sunday afternoon, put my feet up on my desk, and dove in. It’s the way I consumed comic strips out of the Sunday papers until I stopped getting a print newspaper. The exploration of the themes in the strip – the seasons, landscapes, dinosaurs – is just intellectual enough to be fun. The whole book reinforces the sense that yes, this is a comic strip served with a very small dollop of social commentary, put on your Sunday plate by a kid who sees life and companionship in his stuffed tiger.

“Calvin and Hobbes” decorated cubes and offices in every company that employed me during its print run. Something about a kid who pushed the limits of reasonable behavior, who created overlay landscapes and sci-fi fantasies for the drudgery of elementary school, always spoke to the engineers who tried to turn those fantastic ideas into products. Without Spaceman Spiff, I’m certain there would be no smart phones and certainly no Internet as we know it (one of the engineers at Sun Microsystems who taught me more about networking that just about anyone else was a die-hard Calvin and Hobbes fan). I have the three-volume slipcase bound collection of the entire series; it is a guilty pleasure to sit and read a month’s worth of strips when I find I could use some inspiration.

In the interview Watterson talks about the theme of friendship through the strip. I always found it a way to challenge the status quo, whether it was through commentary on social norms (as seen by a little kid), the art of the possible, or the kind of kind of trouble you get into when you escape into a world just slightly less constrained than Calvinball. Side note: growing up, a group of us used to build “forts” in backyards other than my own; invariably made from construction remainders we liberated from the houses going up on the other side of Schank Road, they were hammered together to suit our fantasies about forts, bravery, and in one slightly strange turn of events, a circus box office. Reading “Calvin and Hobbes” brings so many of those first grade memories back into sharp focus, and also reminds me to relax the constraints when looking at a problem, with Calvin’s naive yet endearing way of seeing things through a Calvin-centric lens, to find out what is in that big world to be explored.

When the things of your young adulthood end up in a museum retrospective, you should be officially considered either old or suffering from stunted cultural tastes (or both), but I’m thrilled to see Watterson’s work get the long-term home it so richly deserves.

MoCCA Fest From The Other Side

I attended my fifth consecutive MoCCA Festival this weekend, but my first as an exhibitor. Erik and I spun up Amphibimen Comics this summer as a “let’s see what happens” venture, hoping that we’d have enough content and ideas to exhibit at MoCCA nine months later. It came down to the last twelve hours, but we managed to fill our half-table with shirts, comics, original watercolor artwork, and (gasp) business cards. Over the course of 14 exhibit hours, 2 long days, 3 hours of set up, 6 coffees, 3 subs, lots of help from our friend Kristin, and the support of friends and family, we probably spoke to about 200 people one on one.

Lots of observations:

Being sandwiched between two famous people isn’t good for you. My first thought was “Wow, we’re in between the Topatoco tables and Rica Takashima” and that the overflow traffic would browse our wares. The overflow traffic obscured our line of sight. But it was equally amazing to be next to Kate Beaton and Rica all weekend – they are gracious, humble, and completely tolerant of our crap spilling all over the place.

Rica writes yuri (“forbidden girl love”, as a loose Japanese translation, “sexual identity” as a stronger English version). Not sure that everyone who was browsing her half of the table quite grasped that at first, but I’m hoping that anyone who bought her comics went from uncomfortable to understanding. As my friend Jim says “Art should make you uncomfortable” – but that’s just the first step in developing an appreciation for it. Rica also donated all of her proceeds to support Japanese tsunami disaster relief. She and her crew were really outstanding table-mates.

I’m surprised, but not really, how many artists are shy. Erik sometimes says to me that I’m the “people person” in our little operation, and if I think about the artists I’ve gotten to know, they are (mostly) a more introverted bunch. Talking to a few thousand people, doing inscriptions and drawings on the fly, even having to sneak out for food and coffee without a breadcrumb trail of fan boys and girls therefore is much harder than for someone like me who is used to sales, shaking hands, and drawing in traffic. I have a significantly deeper appreciation for show exhibitors who cross outside their own comfort zones to help promote their work (and I’ve added to the list of retirement projects – promotion of independent artists).

I didn’t get to walk around and shop as much as I did as an attendee, and I’ll have to make up the spending deficit in post production. I did, however, get one of Christiann MacAuley’s Steampunk Mr. Peanut t-shirts. Third year in a row I’ve bought something from her. She’s funny.

There’s a collegial spirit at the show that is completely different from technology trade shows. Effectively, everyone is competing for the same eyeballs, the same dollars, the same table traffic. I heard several parents say “Pick one thing” (another side note/rant – when it comes to books, art, or music, why would you ever limit your kids’ consumption? Exposure to variety is good, within budget and reason). Other exhibitors traded books and prints with us, and were happy to talk “shop.” It’s not unexpected, but it’s also a strong statement about the overall feel of MoCCA – it’s independent artists building brands and gaining visibility, not pure commercial interests.

I had the pleasure of meeting SP Burke, the creator of “Oh, Goodie” and a fellow Rush fan. Saw one of his prints of the other Holy Trinity and laughed out loud, we did the instant bonding-over-Lerxst thing, and I offered him a spare ticket for the Rush show last night at the Garden. Yes, he didn’t know Rush was in town, and yes, we had a great time at the show. If only he knew how prophetic his “Working Man” comic (day before MoCCA started) would be [ed note for the uninitiated: Rush finished the show with “Working Man”]

For me the hardest part was changing my mindset between Saturday and Sunday. My expectation on Saturday was that we’d sell a lot of shirts and comics, and I’ve had to worry about walking through New York with a carnie roll of bills. We didn’t even cover our pro-rated costs on Saturday. But another artist told me “I’m happy if I make cab fare from the airport home” I felt better, and once again remembered the goal is to build readership. So we started giving away the black and white comics (total cost to print being a fraction of our outlay) and suddenly we had traffic. Best part of the day was someone leafing through Issue #1 and asking how Erik achieved one of the stippling effects. Close second – Bill Plympton himself picked up a copy, and then he stopped to talk comics with Erik on the show floor.

Final random thought: For years I’ve wondered if the way we teach history and literature (English) is outdated. When we were stuck with a hierarchy of writing forms – letters, diaries, memoirs, journals and books – it made perfect sense to use prose as a way to analyze and convey meaning. But face it – (almost) everyone likes “West Side Story” more than “Romeo and Juliet”. It’s funnier, it has better music and it’s a more contemporary treatment of star crossed lovers. I’ve seen my own kids get to use alternative media to explore the language arts: blogs written from the perspective of Holden Caufield, or a mockup of a character’s Facebook page. Why not? The goal is to teach analysis, critical thinking and to discover thematic elements, and you can do that through any number of expressive vehicles. Put another way: Kate Beaton should teach history through comics, because more people would grok Santayana’s quotes about remembering the past.

Introducing Amphibimen Comics

Short form: My friend Erik and I both have day jobs, but have talked for years about starting our own comics business. He’s the artistic one, the creative spirit, and knows his way around the watercolor aisle at Jerry’s Art Supplies. I’m the nerd, the sci-fi hound, the content manager, the business guy, and the annoying manager type. We’ve been friends since sixth grade, and Erik’s been drawing comic characters for as long as I’ve known him. The cost of entry, available fan base, and ability to mesh audience with content has never been lower, larger or easier (respectively).

So say “hello” to Amphibimen Comics. Follow us on Facebook, where you’ll find updates on our various ideas: t-shirts, art prints, stickers, of course some comic books, a chap book or ten and whatever else we can find ways to produce on a small scale (extremely limited edition figurines?)

There’s a backstory, as there always is: My late aunt and uncle owned a children’s clothing store, and one of the larger plush toys they sold was a very dapper looking frog, wearing a bow tie and notch collar, named “Neil”. I adored that stupid frog. It wasn’t healthy, and it went on for a while.

Between Erik and me, Neil The Frog became a minor super hero. He was battling evil with Jewish neuroses and all of the aplomb, gravitas and, well, hygiene you’d expect of a swamp guy who was forced into literal hemi-semi-formal clothing. This all went on very quietly until Erik and I were charged with painting windows for a high school event (OK, any Freehold Township residents, it was the very firstFTHS Battle of the Classes in 1980), and Erik drew Neil in a variety of superhero like poses, making (I thought) outstanding analogies to the sporting events we were supposedly promoting. Neil became our own goofy Olympic-caliber mascot. Our teacher advisor didn’t see eye to raised eye with us, and Neil’s debut on the wire-reinforced windows was somewhat short-lived.

Fast forward 30 years, and Erik and I have decided to bring the Amphibimen, their villanous rivals, and an assortment of other ideas out of Erik’s sketchbooks and into t-shirts and iPads everywhere.

xkcd and Home Run Hitters

I adore Randall Munroe’s xkcd comic, mostly for the math jokes. I define “geek” as someone who uses epsilon in a sentence, so anything that references irrational number or NP-completeness is good for several laughs.

And here I thought I was the only one who made Erdos number jokes. Unfortunately, Erdos number theorists would dispute validity of newly acquired Erdos deuces (my newly minted term, flame my way) using Hank Aaron as a counter-example of how not to hit a theoretical home run through signature power alone.

Tip of the hockey bubble to Eszter Hargittai – an early morning tweet pointed to the fact that Google searches trying to grok the punchline were trending up this morning.

In case my nerdiness was in doubt, net summary of first hour of consciousness on this Friday: Saw a Facebook status update via Twitter that referenced an online comic that made a math joke about Erdos number 2 and made me think of Hank Aaron.

So I blogged about it. That’s where my kids say “Dad, you’re a nerd”. That’s a geek round-tripper.

MoCCA and Jewish Comics

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m finding little to write about in the hockey world (and won’t have much to say until the draft and free agency roll around). At the same time, I’m moving more and more of my non-work related blogging, rambling and insanity here. Hence the new categories. I’d like to say that I’m doing it to mess with Google’s AdSense algorithms, but that implies far greater reach and impact than I have. I’m doing it because blogging about a variety of topics is like daily exercise for your brain.

This weekend is the annual Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art Festival. Finally having outgrown the semi-random floor layout in the Puck Building, this year the show moves up to the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City, on Lex between 25th and 26th streets (and according to the my sister, the home of some truly great Indian restaurants). In addition to seeing personal favorites Jeph Jacques, Meredith Gran and Richard Stevens, I inevitably find some new Jewish-themed artists, writers or print materials. There’s a great summary of Jewish-themed comics and their presence at MoCCA at the Jewish Comics blog. Last year I had a short but informative conversation with Miriam Libicki, whose comics about serving in the Israeli Army gave me a tremendous perspective of what my two “adopted Israeli daughters” will face when they enlist this summer. I discovered Joann Sfar and her Klezmer-themed comics, one of the bases for a 2007-08 Princeton University freshman seminar. And of course, Meredith Gran is Jewish; Steven’s Diesel Sweeties character Pete is Jewish; and Jeph Jacques has captured enough OCD in Hannalore to make me wonder if she (or the artist) has a Jewish mother hiding in that well-ordered family tree.

I’ll be tweetin’ and meetin’ from 11am on Saturday, with my newly-minted Moo cards literally in hand.

Small-Scale Art For Small-Scale Recovery

My father retired from a long career as a dentist to become at various times a painter, fisherman, gardener, cook, runner and Klezmer fan. I don’t have his aesthetic sense or attention to fine artistic detail, which is why my art ends at geometric doodles on hotel note pads. But my father spends good chunks of the New Jersey winters painting in his basement studio, working off of pictures that various family members and friends email to him as potential e-muse-ments. A few times a year, he frames a cross-section of his work and submits it to a show, or occasionally finds a gallery owner willing to take a few pieces.

Last week I got a smile-generating email from Pops: He sold a painting. On the home studio scale, it’s a nice deal; it’s as much a boost to the artistic ego as to the weekend (and weakened) cash flow. The second line of my father’s email put it in context, though: He was proud to sell a painting when the “real art” market seems to have tanked worse than the local housing market. Sotheby’s and Christie’s can’t move the “name” artists now, with nearly a third of recent auction pieces going unsold.

More than ever, we need art. I’m tired of graphs that go down and to the right; I don’t want to look at red numbers on a screen because there’s only a backwards-looking story in them. Art is healthy. Art is something that makes us laugh, think, feel uncomfortable, or remember what it was like when we took that picture we consider postcard-worthy. Supporting local, small-scale artists will do more for the economy than buying a museum piece because you’ll help a starving artist fund supplies or entertainment, pumping that money right back into the economy. My contribution this week: one not-so-scary Bear Monster shirt from Jeph Jacques’ repertoire. Topatoco, Jeph, UPS, and wherever Jeph spent some of the proceeds on art-enhancing food and drink get small-scary benefits; I just look more bear-like. Both are good things.

Random Thoughts En Route to Berlin

There’s very little glamorous about business travel. Continental has managed to maintain a perfect batting average in the past three weeks: five out of five flights have been an hour or more late. I’m going to spend about 24 hours in Berlin, and while it’s the second time I’m visiting the city on business, I’ve never seen the remnants of the Berlin wall, the Brandenberg gate, or bought a Steiff bear. Hoping to correct some of these cultural deficiencies on this trip, if there are a few spare hours between our last plenary and bulk food.

Music: “In the Cage”, Genesis Live Over Europe; “Pass the Peas”, Maceo Parker Roots & Grooves (the bass line and guitar solo in this version just kill); “Ozark”, Pat Metheny Group As Falls Wichita; “Your Majesty Is Like A Creme Donut”, Hatfield and the North, The Rotter’s Club; “Lines on My Face”, Peter Frampton, Frampton Comes Alive. There’s probably some bizarre Cambridge (UK) connection between Genesis and Hatfield; I’m waiting for someone at our GSE meeting to fill me in (last year, someone handed me a sampler CD of Porcupine Tree and I was hooked).

Words: Finishing up Rush drummer Neal Peart’s Ghost Rider, the travelogue of his 55,000 mile journey during which he attempted to re-assemble his life after the deaths of his wife and daughter. I read his Road Show: Landscape with Drums and adored the travel writing interspersed with behind the scenes concert vignettes so I went one level deeper into his work. Great backdrop for having seen Rush just a few weeks ago; the books provider greater appreciation of Peart’s lyrics on the last two Rush releases.

Threads: I may be able to complete the hat trick of Diesel Sweeties venue-appropriate shirts: I’m currently sporting the metallic Clango shirt to arrive in Berlin, a tangential nod to Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk; on my way to Montreal on Friday I’ll cross the border in my Canada 2.eh maple leaf shirt and then for California the week after, it’s Electric Sheep and obscure Blade Runner references. The electric sheep shirt gets only slightly fewer stares than my xkcd sudo shirt, but that’s part of un-glamour of business travel. I tend to travel comfortably unless I’m going directly from plane to meeting; if I have time to change I’m going to represent the Sun brand in my behavior (despite any number of delays, bad meals and weak coffee servings) but dress code reverts to my peculiar brand of culture.

MoCCA 2008 (and a Haiku)

Went to the MoCCA show again this past weekend, for the second year in a row. Once again, it was an incredibly hot day in SoHo; but it was equal parts fun, laughing and meeting people. Got many compliments on my metallic Clango shirt, and R.Stevens himself noted it was the same shirt that had been on the Great Wall of China with me a mere three months ago. He was in awe that I saw that much on business; I was in awe that he can draw that much for business; we called it even.

[Warning: links may contain content that is strong-R, not work appropriate and definitely frowned upon by someone’s parents. I know you’ll click from home]. Finally got to meet Meredith Gran of Octopus Pie creative talent, as well as Jeph Jacques of Questionable Content. I was truly bummed I missed Randall Munroe of xkcd because he may be the only other person in the world who makes jokes about NP-completeness, and yet he does it professionally.

A few things struck me this year: It was much more crowded than last year, which I take to be a good sign for the self-publishing Internet comic crowd. Richard Stevens was doing a brisk business in themed socks; I ended up coming home with stickers, buttons, a Jacques sketch, an Octopus Pie book, and a hardbound copy of Rutu Modan’s graphic novel Exit Wounds. It was something of a Woody Allen movie setting, with my father (an artist) and sister (a fairly stereotypical New Yorker) accompanying me as we kept running into Jewish themed work and I dreaded that we should feel guilt over having so much fun with the material: Rutu Modan’s work, Hereville (a comic about a young Orthodox Jewish girl), talking to Miriam Libicki (and buying a copy of Toward a Hot Jew, her comic treatise on the Israeli soldier, all puns intended) and leafing through a copy of Joan Sfar’s Klezmer comics (later purchased via amazon.com after I regretted not purchasing it at the show). My take-away was that comics provide another medium for telling short, powerful stories; the graphic novels popularized by train-bound Japanese salarymen convey more than just a simple train of thought. One of the exhibitors, Marek Bennett teaches the value of comics as educational vehicles.

Comics aren’t serious business, of course, because they’re comics, and even Michael Chabon’s story about the comic book lives of comic book creators can’t make them mainstream. I think that’s why they appeal to closet system administrators like me. But I was left the with distinct impression that as an art form ideally suited for online syndication and serialization, one that benefits tremendously from relaxed copyright enforcement (Diesel Sweeties, Octopus Pie and xkcd are all available under Creative Commons licenses) to drive recommendation and readership, and the quenching of our thirst for graphical content with creative use of space and color to convey context as well as information, self-published web comics are in their infancy – the start of another golden age of things parents still don’t approve of.

Cory Doctorow Comics

Combining my love for off-beat comics with an overtly fan-boy consumption of Cory Doctorow led me to my own Brighton Beach Memoirs moment of perfect mash-ups: I’m now in possession of the first three Cory Doctorow comic books based on his short stories.

The artwork is fantastic, the realizations of the characters contain enough subtle hints and jokes to make each panel worthy of a Hidden Mickey-like scan, and they’re, well, cool comics. If you didn’t know that Doctorow and other current fave Charles Stross collaborated on a few stories (and that Stross’ work draws heavily on H.P. Lovecraft), you’d find the sysadm sporting a “Hello, Cthulhu” t-shirt only mildly amusing instead of an entreaty to open “When Sysadmins Ruled The Earth.”

To quote Jerry from Craphound, each one is a poem in colors and a story in layout.