Thursday, March 12, 2009

An interview with Ed Brubaker

Below is an interview I did with writer Ed Brubaker a few months ago when his new series Incognito debuted. Originally this was going to run as part of my column but, well, que sera sera. Here's the full interview:


Q: So tell me about Incognito.


A: Incognito is an idea I’ve been mulling over since we were wrapping up Sleeper. I often try to think of the inverse of an idea to see what would be interesting — if this idea is interesting to explore in one direction would it be interesting to explore it in the other? Look at a story like The Shield, where you’ve got a corrupt cop who’s trying to save his soul. What if you flip that to the other side where it’s a mobster instead of a cop? I think of things like that sometimes and try to see if there’s a story in there.

Sleeper’s about a good person who for his government goes undercover as a bad guy and slowly loses whatever moral compass he had and starts to realize that the bad guys and the good guys aren’t that different in the ways that they act. And maybe doing bad things for the right reason is just as bad as doing bad things for the wrong reason. There’s a lot of moral gray areas to explore there, so I was thinking "What if you did the opposite, what if there was a bad person somehow forced into a situation where they actually either had to or ended up doing good things, but they’re someone who has no moral compass, who looks down at humanity and ends up somehow through circumstance being forced to live among them and develop sympathy for them perhaps?"

That’s where Incognito grew out of, trying to figure out, is there a story in that character exploration? Then I started thinking of it in terms of a noir story and suddenly I was "Oh, what if it’s a super villain living in witness protection," and everything started to come together from there. All my love of old pulp characters like Doc Savage and the Shadow started to come out. The idea of trying to do a story that’s sort of a mixture between the modern superhero and a '50s noir story really started to appeal to me. I started thinking “What if the pulps had never stopped? What if instead of crime stories and noir, the crime pulp stuff was mashed in together with Doc Savage and the Shadow and Operator Number Five?” What if they made noir-esque stories with these characters? Everything started building from that.

Q: Tell me a little bit about the main character and how you see him. He comes across as not the most likable character, and that’s always a little tricky because you want the audience to have sympathy for him.

A: He’s definitely an anti-hero. That’s the story. It’s the journey of a bad guy. He’s an Eastwood type. It’s that kind of character, Eastwood in Fistful of Dollars or somebody who is clearly an outlaw. And yet we’ll start to see there’s something about this person. I think by the end of the first issue you get an idea that this guy isn’t just this anti-hero who looks down on everybody and feels trapped by this thing. You see some of the wounds this guy carries and how he became who he is. He becomes a more human character even by the end of the first issue, even though he does retain that hardened edge of a guy who was raised on the wrong side. I guess if you’re raised on it, it doesn’t feel like the wrong side.

Zach and his brother Xander were raised -- they’re twin brothers -- and they were taken from a state adoption home and have no memory of it. They’re earliest memories are of being experimented on by this mad scientist guy who was in this evil organization known as the Black Death. They were taking orphan kids and doing science experiments on them to try to turn them into super villains, basically. He was a twin and he and his twin brother were major enforcers for this evil organization and at some point about three or four years ago something happened to his brother and he ended up turning on the people he worked for. Now he’s living in witness protection, but everybody thinks he’s dead. And he’s on drugs that make him a normal person. They shut down all of the enhancements that he’s been given.

Q: That sounds a lot like some of the characters and themes you’ve been exploring in your other books like Criminal. Certainly the idea of family, like the Lawless brothers in Criminal and even the Cap/Bucky relationship in Captain America.

A: There’s some truth to that. We all have a few themes we explore over and over again as writers, whether you consciously know it or not.

One of the main things in this for me came out as an accident in that it occurred to me that the main character was a twin when I was thinking about the themes of the book, when I was fleshing out the ideas of the book early on. The word Incognito has so many different meanings. You’re doing a story about people who put on costumes and run around but doing it in a sort of noir way -- well, all good noir is at heart character studies with a plot taking place around them. You really build your whole story from the character.

So I thought “Who is this character” and it occurred to me that a lot of what the story is about is a guy who doesn’t exactly know what his identity is. He’s living a lie. The person that he truly is taking drugs and is living in this suburban Anytown, USA, kind of place working an office job and pretending to be someone he isn’t. He’s completely incognito and yet he puts on a mask and feels like this is who he is. Or maybe it isn’t. There’s so much about identity.

And it occurred to me “why does this guy go into witness protection” and then suddenly the whole twin thing came up. Identical twins have so much of their identity sometimes wrapped up in their twin. A lot of time they’re really close friends and have mental connections and things like that. So the idea of a twin separated from his brother and everyone thinks he’s dead and he’s living this new life for the first time on his own, but everything about it is a lie. So it really gets to the heart of what the story’s about in a lot of ways.

Q: It’s interesting because your description also fits Clark Kent.

A: Does it though? He was raised to be Clark Kent. Going into witness protection is a lot different. (laughter)

Q: That’s true, but —

A: "As a baby, Superman killed many, many people, but he was able to testify against Kryptonians and moved to witness protection in Kansas to be raised by an elderly family."

Q: That’s my recollection of the story.

A: That’s actually a pretty good story. If I ever get my hands on Superman ...

Q: One of those Elseworlds tales —

A: Even as a baby he had full adult intelligence. That’s a creepy story though. I like that.

Q: But it does sound like you’re playing off the kind of wish fulfillment that a lot of superheroes provide. Especially in that initial 2-page preview, where the lead is saying “I’m better than all the other people I’m surrounded by.”

A: Yeah, it is kind of the flip side of Superman/Clark Kent sitting there and thinking “nobody knows.” This is him sitting there and thinking “Nobody knows I could kill all of you and not care.”

Q: Are you consciously going to be playing off of the traditional superhero tropes in that aspect?

A: I don’t think so. I never consciously set out to do a parody of anything.

Q: I didn’t necessarily mean a parody —

A: No, I know what you meant. But I don’t think I’m consciously trying to reference any other superhero comics at least. There’s little nods here and there to the pulps because when you do a story like this and you’re creating the whole thing from the ground up, you have to do a little bit of world-building. My world-building was creating these pulp-hero characters from the '30s and '40s and they’re not really important to the story at all, they’re just background elements to the world. You may not ever see them in the same way there’s tons of elements in Criminal that nobody ever actually sees. We referenced Sebastian Hyde a number of times before anyone actually saw him.

With Sleeper we did that thing where the characters all told their secret origins in third person which was a little play on the origin stories of characters and a little play on the way origin stories used to be told. I don’t think that’s what I’m doing. Who knows? It’s hard to tell when you’re in the midst of it. I’m deep into writing this project now. All I can think of is the character and the shit he’s getting into. Obviously the point of the thing is to explore the gray area between good and evil from the other point of view. We always see that side of it, the good person doing bad things and how that affects you; on some level this is approaching that.

Q: You talk about taking part of things from the pulps and noir and superhero comics. What things are you consciously taking? Are there any genre tropes you’re taking and how do you roll them up and keep them from bumping into each other, because they’re different genres, or at least perceived as such.

A: It’s kind of apocalyptic noir in this weird way. Noir isn’t really a genre — People think of it as a genre, but the people who think of it as that, when they start to tell you what movies that would fit into that don’t realize how elastic that actually is.

A noir story, if there are rules to it, the main rule seems to be whoever your main character is, nothing good is going to happen to him. (laughs) And at the end of the story he may be dead. If he’s narrating, he may be narrating on his deathbed. It’s more of the way a story is told as opposed to what the story is. Many things that a lot of people consider noir could also be considered straight crime stories. A lot of people consider the Parker novels to be noir, but I just think of them as heist novels. Parker tends to live through all of them and there isn’t a lot of tragedy involved in that process.

I think instinctively I’ve always brought that air of tragic noir element to whatever I'm doing. I’m trying to subvert some of the principles of that genre a little bit by doing this. It’s kind of an experiment to take pulp and make up sort of an evolution of where these pulp styled characters would have gone and how they would have affected a world of also try to tell it through this really character-driven noir story. So it is a little bit of an experiment, but I really like the elements of something like Doc Savage; I love these apocalyptic literature of pulp fiction with these characters who were just sort of weird, crazy, vicious characters who were planning to destroy the world, and you had a guy like Doc Savage who would take out whole organizations and whoever would survive they would take them back to their institute and carve out pieces of their brain so they wouldn’t be bad guys anymore.

There was weird stuff going on in those pulp stories that comics sort of evolved from. As comics started being more and more for kids a lot of that eccentric bizarre early atomic-age stuff just fell by the waste side. That’s the kind of stuff I’m tapping into a little bit with Incognito. Just using that hard, crazy science edge to some of this world. Not as if I’m the first person by any means to explore the pulp roots of what superhero comics grew out of. Alan Moore started a whole line of stuff. But they weren’t the first either. We wouldn’t even have Batman if not for the Shadow.

Q: I talked to you back when Criminal first came out and I remember you saying how with Sleeper, because it was aimed at more traditional comic book readers, you were able to be a lot more experimental in your layouts and design. And with Criminal you wanted it to be very basic so that anyone could pick it up. What about with Incognito?

A: I think it’s mostly pretty straightforward. With every project it seems like Sean starts to experiment a little bit with the way he tells a story or structures a page. With this one, my favorite art from him, maybe ever, is the stuff for Incognito because I love the way he’s doing these no-panel borders, using the gutter space as negative space and hard clean balloons for the word balloons. Everything’s very mechanical except for the stuff that’s hand drawn by him.

Sleeper — he’ll probably do a story like that again, with that kind of experimental storytelling, but I’ve seen what he’s doing now with these odd panels that have these full bleeds. He’s doing this thing where he’ll make certain panels pop so they’ll bleed to the edge of the page.
Q: Of course, Criminal has changed. Both of you have gotten a little more experimental.

A: Yeah, but we’re still basically sticking to a three-tier grid. I can’t remember who said it, but if you can’t tell a story on a three tier grid you can’t tell a story. The first advice I remember reading in a book about experimental layout when everybody was trying to do weird angle panels and imitate Neal Adams with all of his crazy storytelling stuff he did and somebody pointed out that before Neal Adams ever tried that he made sure he could tell a story in 6-9 panels per page. Learn the rules before you break them.

Q: Not to take away from any of the other artists you’ve collaborated with, but this is the third book you and Phillips have worked on and you seem to click together well. What do you think it is that allows you to work together so well?

A: I don’t know. We’re just on the same page about the kind of comics we want to do. I really feel like a lot of what I do pacing wise really fits most of my scripts if you look at any of them have as much description of facial expression and what the character is feeling as it does with "in the background there’s this and this." All my stuff wouldn’t wouldn’t work at all if I didn’t have artists that can really generate empathy from the readers for the characters. Sean just does that really well. We love a lot of the same comics and aspire to do things on the same levels as the books we really dug. A lot of times we’re playing to each other. I feel like I’m writing this stuff to some degree for Sean because he’s the first person that reads anything I write for anything I own.
Q: Is this going to be an open-ended story? Do you have a definitive end in mind? Or could this go on?

A: It’ll depend. I know the end of this story, I’ve got the last scene written already. It came to me early on. It’s definitely left in such a way that if someone were to want to, we could revisit this character or other characters in this world, depending on if I end up sticking with that scene.The plan right now is once we finish this to go back and do more Criminal. We’re having a lot of fun. With Criminal especially built up a pretty loyal, sizable audience of people who are clearly following us over to Incognito. And hopefully we’ll pick up some more from Incognito. As long as people keep buying comics by us in enough quantities that we can afford to keep doing it, Sean and I will put out as many of them a year as we can.

Q: I was going to ask you how Criminal was doing.

A: It’s doing really well actually. We’re one of the more stable books on the market apparently. We’ve been doing about 18,000 an issue. That’s advance orders. I think we’re doing close to 19,000 on final sales. That’s better than most books like that. I always want to reach more people and I feel like it’s still under-performing cause I still hear from people all the time whose stores buy three copies and sell out the first day so I always know they could be selling at least a few more. It’s better than almost everything Vertigo publishes.

Q: I was going to say.

A: Yeah, other than Fables. From my side, once we relaunched with the new format and I think after issue two, the orders for issue three actually went up and in issue four the orders were higher than one even. And we’ve just stayed at that level. One issue I think was 30 copies less. It’s insane to have a book where the numbers are the same every month.

Q: What about the trades?

A: They’re doing really well too. We’ve sent the first one back for a second printing and we’re pretty close to selling out the first print run of the second trade. I’m just waiting to get some statements. but we’re moving really good numbers, and mostly through comic stores. We’re not really doing huge bookstore push because I handle all that stuff myself. Also we’re in print in five or six other countries and our French publisher has gone back to print with the first book. We’re coming out all over the world with this stuff. The more books come out the more they seem to feed each other. Every day I hear from more and more people who are just getting turned onto it, so it just seems kind of crazy, for two years and only 17 issues.

Q: How many issues is Incognito?

A: Five issues and then we’re back to Criminal. We’re doing the next Lawless story after that. Incognito’s just five issues. We’ll probably do more of it. We’ll see how we like doing it the further in we get. So far I like it, which is surprising, because after Sleeper I thought "Let’s just do crime stories and not deal with any of the super-powered stuff at all." But it’s a lot of fun to be back doing something like this with Sean where we get to flex some different muscles and have some fun within that genre. I like working in comics you can do a story like that and a large part of your audience goes into it knowing what a super villain is.

Q: Working for someone like Marvel or DC you’re under these creative restrictions as far as what you can or can’t do with the character. In your case I”m not sure that’s true, because they always say they can’t kill the character and you did.

A: I’ve gotten really lucky with getting away with murder, literally, on books but also I haven’t slammed up against a lot of restrictions. Things you can or can’t say I get a lot, in terms of from month to month it seems to change. There’s never any hard or fast rule. You can say "damn" in a book but you can’t say "damn"19 times on a page. Weird things like that.

I don’t think I could do the work for hire stuff if I wasn’t also doing original work. I think they feed each other at this point for me. I went a few years only doing work for hire stuff when I first started out at Marvel before Criminal. It just seemed like I was going to lose my mind if I didn’t start doing some work that I actually had a stake in and felt like was important to me. I have a big stake in Captain America and Daredevil. They are important to me but it’s a whole different thing when you create all of it from start to finish. You own it and it’s your universe. It’s not everybody else’s too.

Q: You don’t have to worry about tying it into Civil War.

A: But even that stuff, if you take those jobs at Marvel, you can’t complain when somebody says "Oh we want you to tie into such and such." I’ve been really lucky. People think that happens more than it actually does. I have editors who say "Hey our book needs a boost, tie it into such and such a thing." I’ve been on that end at DC. I don’t think I’ve ever been on that end at Marvel but I’m sure there are people who have been.

You’re trying to tell the best story with someone else’s character and I lie to myself and make myself believe I own the Captain America part of the Marvel Universe other than Brian being able to use him in Avengers. But during Civil War Cap was in every third book and usually getting beaten up by the main characters. He probably got captured like nine times during Civil War. I’m the only one who didn’t have him get captured.

You lie to yourself and tell yourself it’s your character while you’re writing it. You have to otherwise you’re not going to do a good job and give the readers their money’s worth. which is what your job is to do. Make people want to keep reading these characters. That’s a great fucking job. It beats flipping burgers, which I’ve done. It beats any job I’ve ever had because it’s still creatively fulfilling. But doing your own stuff is even more fulfilling. (laughs)

I like both. I love Captain America. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve had these ideas that I would grow up and work on Captain America. I probably went a good decade or so without ever thinking about it, but the moment I got that phone call from Brian saying "Hey is there anything you want to do? I know you’re exclusive is ending soon," and Joe called me the next day to offer me Captain America. There was no way I was saying no. It’s pretty cool. It’s the same way I would work on Doc Savage or the Shadow if Marvel had them. I find if I go a full month without writing something that I’m doing — all the stuff is intended to be read and enjoyed by people but Incognito and Criminal, as long as I’m doing something that Sean wants to draw and that I’m really into. Bad Night is one of the best things I think I’ve ever written.

Q: I have to say, I thought that last issue was supurb.

A: Thanks. I was trying to do one of those James M. Cain style things. Jason Star did a book called Twisted City that has the best last scene in a crime story that totally changed everything about the main character in his last moment. I didn’t go for that.

It’s interesting. I do read the odd review and I noticed until issue four’s reviews, almost all people online reviewers were thinking that Jake was having conversations with the Frank Kafka character throughout the whole story. If you read it, you can see that’s not actually happening at all. In the first three parts of the story, up until the very last panel of part three, he never acknowledges Frank’s presence at all. As a reader you can think he’s just imagining what his comic book character would say or do because he doesn’t interact with him. It’s almost like it’s a voice inside of his head, which is what you’re supposed to think. And then you realize it is a real voice inside his head.

That was one of my favorite things I’ve ever worked on and one of the hardest things to write too. There’s not a single scene in there that isn’t important to the big conclusion. Even the first line of narration about the house burning down across the street comes back around. Everything comes back around. I feel really lucky to have a platform to do stories like that. The minute that sales started feeling stable, that sense of “Oh this is going to go away someday,” went away. I started to feel like we have a fan base that is actually following what we’re doing. I was always worried during the first 10 issues cause sales would fluctuate where it would seem like we were doing really good and then the next issue orders would be down 2,000. I knew we were being underordered. I didn’t think it was a bunch of "trade waiters" cause I kept hearing from people who could find part five of a five part story. I think we stabilized 3,000 higher than we’d been selling on the last four issues of the previous run. I can’t believe the same stores are ordering the exact same number every time. But maybe.

Q: I suppose in these times retailers can’t afford to take chances on extra copies of anything.

A: That’s why I’m really thrilled Incognito did as well as it did. It didn’t do as well as I initially thought when we first announced it and everyone flipped out. But that was a week before the economy started to tank completely. Or at least publicly tank. Bad time to be launching a new book. I keep reminding people not to flip out too much about the whole economy thing because: a) that will just make it worse and b) even during the Great Depression 25 percent of the country was still working. Don’t automatically assume you’re going to be in the other 25 percent.

Q: Right. It’s just in the newspaper industry.

A: (laughs) Right. You guys need to get a bailout together. The problem is those stupid news media conglomerates that seem to think you’re supposed to make a profit on journalism. Journalism is supposed to be a break even thing at best.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Graphic Lit: Black Jack



How phenomenal is the mysterious, rogue surgeon known as Black Jack?

He can perform arm transplants! Heart transplants! Even brain transplants!

He’s a whiz at cosmetic surgery, capable of turning the most ugly mug in the world into a Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie look-alike.

He can even operate on himself! In the middle of the Australian outback! While fending off wild dingoes!

I’ve written about creator Osamu Tezuka at length before. Suffice it to say he remains one of the most significant cartoonists ever, having almost single-handedly birthed the manga industry since coming to the fore in 1947 (he passed away in 1989).

And “Black Jack” is one of his most famous creations, at least in his home country of Japan.

Now Vertical, a small-press imprint that has made a habit of translating Tezuka’s works for U.S. audiences, is serializing in what will eventually be a 17-volume collection of these medical tales. The first three volumes are in stores now.

Written for young audiences, the series combines high melodrama (the main character has a thing for wearing long, black capes) with an eye for medical detail (Tezuka trained to be a doctor).

As a result, the squeamish might have trouble with the manga as organs, bones and blood are plentiful and drawn as realistically as possible (in sharp contrast to the series’ more cartoony, slapstick style).

Often, “Black Jack” takes a turn toward the bizarre or downright implausible: That story about Black Jack’s sidekick, a baby-faced, lisping cutie named Pinoko.

She looks 5, but she’s actually 18, as she lived for several years in the body of her twin sister as an amniotic sac of organs before Black Jack built her a synthetic body. Oh, and she thinks of herself as Black Jack’s wife.

I cherish that sort of inspired lunacy from Tezuka. But I think ultimately what makes the manga work is its ongoing themes of humanism, sacrifice and the cruelty we constantly inflict on ourselves.

As a surgeon, Black Jack might be superhuman, but ultimately his adventures tell us a lot about our own frailty.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2009

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Friday, February 20, 2009

Well, that was fun while it lasted

Back when the newspaper that employs me had a books page, I'd occasionally run short reviews of comics, more as a space filler than anything else. One of the higher-up editors, however, who was in charge of redesigning the Living sections at the time, was a comics fan and said "You know, we should turn that into a weekly column. It would go great with that new Friday section we're putting together."

Thus Graphic Lit was born. Overall, the weekly column has been extremely good to me. I got to talk to a lot of artists and writers I admired, I got to be exposed to a lot of great books and new talent, and it led to some interesting and exciting gigs, like giving lectures at my local library or blogging regularly over at Blog@Newsarama, er, I mean Robot 6.

But all that is over, for now at least. The last Graphic Lit column ran a few weeks ago and I've been pretty much told there's no real interest in bringing it back. There's a number of factors responsible for it's passing, the biggest one being a simple lack of space. With the ever-shrinking news hole, we don't have the space to run full-length movie reviews, let alone a weekly column extolling the glories of folks like Kazuo Umezu. Add to that a renewed focus on local news and some changes in my job duties and you've got a death knell.

But what about the video games I hear some of you cry? Well, those are pretty much dead in the water as well. Again, the lack of space is mostly to blame, but to be honest, I've been less and less able to get fired up about video games lately. They require a huge time investment that I just don't have right now. More to the point, though, I find it harder and harder to get interested in the constant cookie-cutter sequels and third-rate "party games" that are glutting the market right now. It seems there's little inspiration or creativity going on in the industry, at least from where I'm sitting.

Don't worry, I'm not going to stop blogging. I'll still be contributing regularly over at Robot 6.

As for Panels and Pixels, well I haven't quite figured out what I want to do with this blog yet. I'd like to keep it going -- I have a lot of ideas, some comics-related, some not. Robot 6 eats up a lot of my free time, though, so I don't know if I could commit to keeping track of two blogs on a regular basis.

At any rate, I have a few more GL columns to post here, including an interview with Ed Brubaker that never got to see the light of day. In the meantime, if you feel like it, drop me a line in the comments and let me know what you'd like to see me do with this space. Should I try to keep Graphic Lit going online? Thrust myself into the video game breech again? Write about something else entirely, like movies or macrame? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Graphic Lit: An interview with Scott Adams


With all the dire news stories about recession, layoffs and other economic woes plaguing the country, it seems fitting somehow to note that this year marks the 20th anniversary of the comic strip “Dilbert,” the ever-funny, ever-savage satire of life in the modern workplace.

Creator Scott Adams celebrated the anniversary recently with “Dilbert 2.0,” a ginormous slipcovered “greatest hits” collection that includes a DVD containing every strip from the past two decades.

I talked to Adams from his studio in California about the new collection and the strip’s legacy. My thanks to Tom Spurgeon and Tim O'Shea for their help in formulating questions.

Q: Tell me about the new 2.0 collection. How did it come about and how did you go about selecting the strips?

A: I got a call in December a year ago and my publisher said “We’d like to fly out and talk to you,” which is an unusual thing. The telephone usually works pretty well for most things. So I knew they were about to ask me something that would be very difficult and there wouldn’t be enough time to do it. That’s usually what that means.

So sure enough, they described their idea for making this big anniversary book and that we would have less time than any book of this size has ever been created basically. But I really wanted to do it and they wanted to do it and I figured it was worth the work so we cleared our calendars and went to work.

Q: And how did you go about picking strips? Were there any criteria regarding what to include?

A: That was a hard process because I had to read every one of my comics several times and there are 8,000 of them at this point. I picked the ones that made me laugh first of all. That was my first filter, because so much time has gone by that I forget my own comics. I get to read them just like a newspaper reader at this point.

Secondly, anything that had a story involved with it. Sometimes I got interesting complaints or answered someone’s interesting complaint with a comic. Or sometimes I did something so naughty I can’t believe it got in a newspaper.

And then anything that was a key turning point in the life of the strip. When a new character was introduced or a major change, I flagged those.

Q: In the early days of the strip was there an “a-ha” moment for you when you felt like everything clicked, both in terms or readership and aesthetic appeal?

A: There were a lot of steps. It wasn’t a smooth increase. There were these points where something important happened. Probably the biggest one was when I started running my email address in the strip. That was about 1993. At the time, not many people had email so it was a big deal to include my email address in the strip, between the panels.

I got all this email from people that said “We like your strip. We don’t love it. But we do love it when Dilbert is doing things at work.” Which was a big deal because up till that point he wasn’t at work very much. He was a guy that had a job but didn’t spend much time at it. He was usually at home inventing something in his basement.

The email was almost universally consistent on that point. So I just changed the strip and put him in the workplace. That’s pretty much when it took off.

There were some other moments, like when Bill Watterson retired it opened up a lot of things. When I published the Dilbert Principle and that was a number-one best seller. That was another big push.

Q: You talk in the beginning of the book about how interested you were in cartooning as a child. What was it specifically about cartooning that appealed to you?

A: You know just about half of every 12-year-old boys want to become cartoonists. It’s just some phase you go through. Apparently there’s some aspect of the maturation process that did not hit me, cause it never really went away. I could rationalize it and tell you it seemed like a good job because I could work for myself and be created and I liked comics, I could tell you all that stuff, but that would be true for every 12-year-old kid. What’s different is it never went away.

Q: But was it something specific about making cartoons or comic strips that took with you as opposed to writing books or making music or whatever?

A: I think it was a function of where I thought my talents were. I knew I wasn’t going to do fine portrait painting because I didn’t have that kind of artistic chops. I have a — usually, not today so much — economical way with words that kind of suits the comic format.

Q: You include a lot of your early work in the book. What was it like to revisit that early material?

A: Looking at my early drawings, the first thing I wondered was why doesn’t everyone become a famous cartoonist? (laughs) Cause obviously there wasn’t much prodigy in attendance.

I really think it was my MBA that made me successful as a cartoonist, which is not a joke. Most artists have the artists have the attitude of “I’m going to do what I think is right and the audience will follow.” But if you have a business degree you say what does the market want and how can I give it to them. It’s probably not a huge surprise that Dilbert is arguably one of the last mega strips to come out in the past 20 years.

Q: You have a lot of notes in the new book. What do you think is one of the big revelations here that readers might not have known about you before?

A: Oh man. My life is such an open book I don’t know if there’s anything.

Q: That’s kind of why I asked the question, because you have been very open about the strip and how it came to be.

A: Well a lot of that was intentional in that I always thought that what made a comic strip more interesting is if you knew a little bit about the person who wrote it. Because if you read it every day it’s almost like you’re forming a relationship with the cartoonist.

As a reader, that’s how I always felt. I felt like I could tell when Schulz was in a bad mood. Or feeling a little blue. It just seemed to be reflected in his strip. And so I took that to the next level and said the more people know about me the more they can enjoy the whole product. So I think the thing that would maybe surprise people the most is that I never considered myself a cartoonist so much as an entrepreneur.

Q: Along the same lines, it occurred to me that you prefigured a lot of the Webcomics that are popular today in that you’re one of the first cartoonists that have had a really direct relationship with their audience. What are the pros and cons of that sort of relationship?

A: Well, I think this ties back to my comment about being more of a businessperson than a cartoonist in the sense that a huge amount of the input I get is negative and always has been. I think from the first time I got email in 1993, every once in a while I get the letter that says “I used to be a fan but you’ve really gone downhill. You’ve lost it. I wish you could get back to whatever you were doing that worked before.”

Every year I get a number of those. And they’re tough to read. If you have an artist’s mentality, that would crush you and you’d just stop doing it. But you would also miss out on all the useful stuff like the people who wrote and told you that Catbert was their favorite character after he had only appeared twice in the comic. I had no intention of keeping him.

Q: Along the same lines though I imagine there must be times where you have to trust your own instincts. How do you know when reader input is worth listening to versus someone just ranting?

A: Well the great thing is you can do both. I can just try something and see what the reaction is. The reaction doesn’t lie. They have no reason to be nice to me obviously. When I do something that doesn’t work, no matter how much I thought it would work, if the reaction is negative I just get off of it.

Q: Can you give me an example?

A: I’ll give you the most direct example. I tried to start a second comic strip, something called “Plop.” It was about a little boy who’s the only hairless Elbonian. It was based on the thought that once I figured out how to be a cartoonist and learned all the tricks that starting a new comic that wasn’t bound by the workplace would be a big hit because obviously I knew how to be a cartoonist, I already had the audience. I had all the assets to make that work.

But I just got eviscerated by readers who saw it. It never got published in newspapers; I tried it out on the Internet first. The trap that was completely invisible to me is that people didn’t compare it to a new comic strip. As if it had been somebody else who had made it. They compared it to where Dilbert was after 10 years of development.

If for example you looked at the first year of the Simpsons TV show and compared it to any comic strip or show you see now, it would look awful. You’d have never predicted it would become on of the biggest hits of all time. And the thing is that when it came out it was compared to nothing, because there wasn’t anything like it. Then they had the luxury of hiring talent and making money and becoming arguable as some people have said the best show ever on television.

Dilbert had already gone through 10 years and people can’t help comparing it to me. So my new stuff didn’t really have a chance. That was a interesting experiment in human behavior.

Q: You talk a lot in the book about people’s overreactions to some strips, the letter from the Square Dance Association being my favorite. Is there a particularly memorable negative reaction that stands out for you?

A: In terms of surprising, I’d say the people who complained about my references to cannibals. I thought cannibals were on TV, the movies, jokes; cannibals are everywhere. It’s just a funny concept. And when I did jokes about cannibals people would write angry letters to their editors, objecting to my cannibal references. That by the way, is an example of something that doesn’t happen anymore. I don’t know if society changed or Dilbert just became more popular, but I get a little bit of a free pass now.

Q: You don’t get those kind of complaints?

A: I’ve written about cannibals since then just to see what would happen and I got no complaints.

Q: That’s another thing you talk about in the book, how you’ve managed to make the humor a little edgier as it’s gone along. It’s interesting to note how certain words have become acceptable on the newspaper page. Do you think that’s just you, or do you think the comics page is becoming a bit more accepting of the kind of PG-rated humor?

A: Well, I think the more successful you are the more you can get away with, so there’s a little bit of that. There’s also the recognition that Dilbert is not your kids cartoon. That gives me a little extra. It’s often on the comics page just as often on the business page. So I think that gives me a little bit of flexibility. But it’s all in the psychology of the editors. I can’t really get in their heads that much.

Q: Do you think you’ve become a better artist as the strip’s gone along?

A: Yeah, I would say so. If you practice this much at anything, you’ll be better. My lines are smoother and the characters look the way I like them instead of whatever they were when I ran out of time.

When I drew on paper, which I don’t do anymore so it’s easier to correct and get it right this time, I used to have a day job for the first six years. So wherever I could do it — an hour an a half — was what it was. Sometimes it was acceptable and sometimes it wasn’t but I didn’t go back. I just didn’t have that luxury.

Q: Do you think cartoonists these days quit their day jobs too soon? Was there a benefit to keeping your day job as long as you did?

A: Well, in the sense that I had more business experience and it’s a business cartoon, but otherwise no I don't think so.

Q: How has corporate culture changed in the years you’ve been doing the strip and how do you keep abreast of those changes?

A: I still get lots of email from people and I am my own business to a large extent. The Dilbert Empire, if I can call it that, is a business with meetings and conference calls and contracts and lawyers and all that stuff. I’m kind of always in it. And I own a couple of restaurants, which give me the human dynamics that you can never imagine without observing them. There’s a little of that.

Then there’s the memories that never really change. I liken it to if you were going to prison for five years and then ten years later somebody says “Oh, you’ve pretty much forgotten what that was like, right?” You’d say, “No, I pretty much remember that.” And then there’s the fact that things don’t change that much. The technology changes. There are things like IMing someone at work versus conference calling them from the next cubicle, so that stuff changes, the ability to outsource is greater than before, but that stuff is in the headlines. It’s not too tough to know where that’s going.

Q: Is it harder to make jokes about the corporate environment when people are losing their jobs? Do you worry about cutting too close to the bone?

A: Oddly enough that’s when Dilbert had it’s biggest surge, during the downsizing of the mid-90s. The more miserable people were the more they wanted somebody to represent their misery, represent their point of view and displeasure of the whole thing. My popularity tends to track with the misery index. The worst time for Dilbert, in terms of licensing and everything else, was during the dot-com era when everyone felt that if they weren’t already a millionaire it must be their own fault.

Q: I had mentioned to someone that I was going to be interviewing you and they said Dilbert was almost too painful for them to read at times. Have you ever gotten a complaint like that?

A: I hear that a lot. It varies from joke to joke. I can see that. There are TV shows about restaurant owners like Hell’s Kitchen. I can’t watch those cause that’s too much like work.

Q: How do you settle on the design of a character, something like the pointy-haired boss? At what point do you look at it and say “That’s the character”?

A: A lot of it is just accident. As I talk about in the book, his hairstyle which has become the defining characteristic for the boss, just defined itself over time. One day my pen slipped I just drew one of his tufts of hair a little too tall once. I made the other one equal and it just drifted into that pointy-haired direction over time until he started to look right. So I have a quote which I said a long time ago, it’s probably the thing that gets quoted the most, that creativity is making mistakes and art is knowing which ones to keep. So the creativity in the character design is mostly mistakes and the art is knowing that Dilbert looks better without a mouth. It’s a mistake by any definition, it just looks better that way.

Q: Is that something you realized as you went along or were you conscious of it right away?

A: He was originally a doodle, and when he was a doodle he had a mouth. There was probably jut some day — I don’t remember it happening — but I’m sure what happened is I drew him without a mouth, looked at it and said “Huh. Looks a little better.”

Q: Like you said, you are one of the last mega-strips. What’s your take on the current state of comics strips? Is it as dire as people are saying the newspaper industry in general is?

A: Well, yeah, things are pretty dire. I think the thing that hurts comic strips the most, I that unlike television and unlike movies that are able to be essentially uncensored so they can drift to accommodate popular tastes which got more edgy, they weren’t allowed to get edgy, and couldn’t grow with the preferences of the public.

Q: That’s a complaint I’ve heard from a couple of comic strip artists, people like Stephen Pastis. The other complaint I hear a lot is about legacy strips. That there’s no room for new people to come in the door, because readers still want Snuffy Smith even though it’s 80 years old.

A: OK, now you’re channeling Pastis.

Q: Actually a couple of people have told me that, not just him.

A: There’s definitely that. Especially if the strip has been handed off to another artist or the kids or something. You’ve gotta assume that it would be unlikely that a second person would have whatever spark that made the first person so special that they got in the newspaper in the first place.

Q: Do you follow the Webcomics scene at all? And if so, do you feel any sort of affinity towards those comics?

A: No, I don’t follow them but I look at the social Web sites a lot like Digg and Reddit, and so quite often they point to them, and when that happens I look at it.

But I do follow Basic Instruction. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that one.

Q: No, I don’t think I’ve seen that one.

A: I did a little experiment on my blog. We tried to get him to become a syndicated cartoonist. We had him switch to a comic strip format and character-driven stuff. That turned out to not be successful but it was a good little boost to his popularity. What he does is just fricking hilarious.

Actually if you want an example, he is the perfect example of what’s wrong with comic strips in the newspaper. Here’s a guy who writes a comic that is completely g-rated, because it’s in a square four-box format and doesn’t draw like other people he has almost no chance of being a popular syndicated cartoonist and yet if you showed it to 20 people, 10 of them would say that’s funnier than anything that’s in the newspaper today. The quality of his art is not a predictor of his ability to succeed in newspapers. I don’t know if that’s true in other media.

Q: I think in comics, timing and being able to tell a joke is much more important than necessarily artistic ability. I think the craft in comics comes from layout and timing.

A: That’s why Basic Instruction is so interesting, because his writing is what is sensational.

Q: How long have you been drawing Dilbert on the computer now?

A: I think it’s been about three years.

Q: Other than the obvious — you’ve had this debilitating health problem — how has drawing the strip on the computer helped you? What are the benefits?

A: A lot of benefits. Anything that involves a straight line I can draw a lot better now. I can finish things in half the time which means if I want to do something that’s a little more complex, it buys me the time to do it. And I enjoy it. It’s just easier. It’s a more pleasant experience.

Q: How so? Can you give me a little more detail?

A: Well pen and paper is kind of tedious. It’s small and tiny and you’re hunched over. Even if you have a drawing board. It feels like work. Since we’ve been talking I’ve finished half a cartoon. (laughs) I did the writing already, I was just finishing up the art work. I can talk with one hand and draw with the other. If I draw a bad line I literally push one button and redraw it. Drawing a bad line with pen and paper used to be a huge pain in the ass. What you do is look at it and say “Eh, maybe it’s not really that bad.”
Q: One of the things I enjoyed in your notes in the book is when you talk about the rules of making a strip. What for you is the most important, number one rule in making a funny comic strip?

A: Well, for Dilbert in particular the number one rule is if there is something you can relate to in it. So I don’t have Dilbert going to the moon and a giant salamander eats his head.

Q: I wouldn’t mind seeing that.

A: I know. That’s the kind of comic I did in the first few years that people objected to. It’s the type of thing that other cartoonists like to read, but the public in general is interested in one and only one thing — themselves. Everybody wants to see something about them.

Even now I’m doing a series where Dilbert will eventually lose his job. You’ll see that in a month or so. But I worry because I don’t take that series too far because all the people who did not lose their job aren’t going to be able to relate to it. So you hope that there are enough people that have been laid off — and I think that’s true at this point — everyone knows somebody close to them that’s going through the same set of emotions so that even if they say “that’s not me” they say “oh my god, that’s Bob. I’m going to send this to Bob.”

So I usually go for something recognizable and then something cruel, something bad is happening to somebody. I make one of the characters a talking cat or something like that so that bizarre is in the mix too.
Q: You were talking before about business culture. Is there anything you can make fun of now that you couldn’t say 10 years ago?

A: There’s the ability to track what your employees are doing, which is interesting because they have company cell phones with GPS. You can track their keystrokes in some cases. you can track their IDs so you know where they’ve been and what they’ve been doing. That’s a little different.

I think maybe just ability to work from everywhere is different. Everything that’s different I would say is technology related. The basic human interactions where you put three people in a room and one of them is an asshole every time, that just never changes. It will always be true that all three people have a different opinion of which one’s the asshole.

Q: You talked about listening to your audience and mentioned getting a lot of negative complaints. Do you worry about jumping the shark, losing a connection with your audience?

A: You’re not in this business unless you worry about that every time you pick up the pencil or whatever this is I’ve got in my hand. You should have a certain amount of panic every time you draw a comic. Without that, I think the whole things falls apart. The reality of whether I need to worry about that is separate from the fact that it’s built into the process. It ought to be.

Q: It’s healthy in other words.

A: Yeah. A healthy fear.

Q: You talk in the book about writing affirmations really helped you focus and get Dilbert published. I was wondering if that’s something you still do.

A: Well you hear me talking, right? I don’t know if you know this story, but I couldn’t talk for three and a half years.

Q: I didn’t know whether to bring it up or not.

A: It’s not a sensitive issue.

So I lost my voice through this thing called spasmodic dysphonia. It was considered incurable, just like my hand problem was. But I was actually the first person — I don’t know if I wrote about this or not — but I was the first person who ever essentially — I won’t call it a cure — but found a way around my hand problem. Through just constant repetition of small motions that weren’t quite the motion that caused me trouble. After a period of years it remapped itself.

At the moment my hand is also fixed because I haven’t used it in a classic drawing or writing way unless I write a check or write a sticky note to myself. But for all of those normal uses — as long as I don’t have to write a college essay — it’s never going to be a problem again.

So I have experience with two incurable problems that I personally have cured. And for both of them I used affirmations. What are the odds? I’m not the only person who had the surgery to fix his voice, but there are probably millions of people who have spasmodic dysphonia, and don’t even know the doctor exists. I kind of came at it through several indirect connections that got me to where I needed to be. Although I probably sound a little nasally or hoarse right now on the phone the thing you don’t know is that is my normal voice. You’re probably wondering.

Q: I thought it might be the phone connection.

A: The spasmodic dysphonia sounds like a bad cell phone connection, so if I were to say “My name is Scott Adams,” which incidentally I could not say, it would sound like “My ame Cott Ada.” That’s all you would hear on the phone. I basically couldn’t use the telephone to order a pizza or spell my name or anything like that.

It’s a good thing my job involves comics. That’s also a reason why I started blogging. It was a way to communicate. And when you don’t have a way you’re used to, you kind of need an outlet.
Q: With the affirmations, do you think it just gives you an ability to focus better? Articulate your goals better?

A: Well, it’s probably several things. I wrote about this in my book God’s Debris, that was my first non-Dilbert book.

I think it’s a number of things. One possibility I’ll call the Boltzmann Brain theory. Do you know the theory?

Q: No, I don’t.

A: If you Google it you’ll find out there are serious physicists who have calculated the odds of the universe just kind of existing in the state that’s perfect for life and the odds that this is all imagined by one brain, because it’s easier for the universe to create simple things such as one brain than an entire universe filled with six billion brains on this planet and other life forms on other planets and all that. There are serious people who say that this reality is not in any way what we think it is. It’s an imagined reality. And if it’s an imagined reality, theoretically you could program it and perhaps affirmations is a mechanism to doing that. Changing what you imagine in other words.

That’s one theory. I don’t accept that theory (laughter), but I’m just putting it out there. It’s one that serious scientists, people who are not even nuts, say is infinitely more probable than whatever you think is real.

The other possibilities are it’s what you said, it’s if you focus more on your goal — and there’s something called reticular activation, which is a fancy name for saying you recognize your own name across a crowded room more than other noises. You just notice stuff that you’re kind of tuned into.

So I tuned myself into all things voice-related and the way I diagnosed my problem with my voice is I woke up one day and thought “I wonder if this has anything to do with my hand problem.” I googled Dystonia, which is the problem with the hand, and voice and up popped a video of someone with spasmodic dysphonia who sounded exactly like I did. That led me down the path that ultimately led me to the solution. It took three and a half years because I tried everything but surgery first, which is rational. But I think back about that moment when I realized which two words to Google, that’s exactly the type of thing that happens when you’re doing affirmations.

Now I can’t say it’s because of affirmations but it’s exactly the type of thing. You notice things or you think of things that you wouldn’t have noticed or thought of without that. So it seems like an insight, but it probably is just a very normal process of focus. The other possibility is affirmations don’t work at all and it’s selective memory. And that I may have done affirmations on lots of things that didn’t work but I don’t remember them. I don’t think that’s the case, you know if you write something down every day for a long period of time it’s hard to forget it. I think it’s worked just about every time.

The other possibility is and this one I kind of lean towards, that on some subconscious level you’re a better judge of yourself than you are on a conscious level. And your subconscious if it even allows you that much time writing something down as a goal, it probably has a good sense that you can really pull it off.

So, for example, if I started writing “I want to become an Olympic gymnast” I’m positive that after the second day my subconscious would find something better for me to do because it knows that one isn’t going to work. When I wrote down “I’ll become a syndicated cartoonist” or “I’ll have a number one bestselling book,” even though those seem unlikely to any rational observer including myself, on some subconscious level I knew I had the ability to make that happen. That’s kind of my best guess.

The way it works is almost irrelevant isn’t it?

Q: Has Dogbert been in the strip lately? I don’t think I’ve seen him in it as often as usual.

A: As a matter of fact I noticed that myself recently. I’m trying to put him back in a little more.

Q: So it wasn’t anything conscious on your part?

A: Yeah, these things happen kind of accidentally. Ashok the intern hasn’t been in lately either. There’s no reason.

Q: I was reading a story recently about the Belgian cartoonist Herge who did a all-ages series called Tintin. They found a bunch of his letters where he rails about how trapped he feels by his character because he’d been doing this character all his adult life. Alongside this question about losing your audience, do you worry about being trapped by Dilbert?

A: Well let me answer the bigger question by saying that cartoonists are the biggest whiners. “Oh boo hoo, I’m a famous cartoonist. I make millions of dollars by sitting in a chair.” (laughter) Well, fuck you. If that’s what you’re complaining about, that you’re trapped by your character that made you famous and let you live in the big house, try a real job.

Q: At the same time I always read stories about people who feel trapped by their characters and start to resent them. It seems odd, but at the same time it’s there.

A: Well, I’m not going to deny that I have those feelings, but I am going to deny complaining about it.

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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Graphic Lit: Best comics of 2008

Readers were rewarded with a wealth of stellar comics this year. There were so many good books, in fact, that attempting to group them in some sort of hierarchy could be a bit of a mug’s game.

Not that it’s going to stop me. As before, I thought I’d trot out what I hope will be my annual awards list, tentatively called “The Moxies.” (What? It was my nickname in college.)

Here then, organized into completely arbitrary categories in order for me to include as much good work as possible, are my picks for the best comics of 2008.

Best Original Graphic Novel: “What It Is” by Lynda Barry. This revealing and fearlessly original work deserves as much attention and accolades as it can get.

Runners-up: “Tamara Drewe” by Posey Simmonds, “The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard,” by Eddie Campbell, “Three Shadows” by Cyril Pedrosa, “Bottomless Belly Button” by Dash Shaw.

Best Debut: “Skyscrapers of the Midwest” by Josh Cotter. New cartoonists shouldn’t be able to create works so assured and emotionally devastating right out of the gate.

Runner-up: “Swallow Me Whole” by Nate Powell.

Best Collection of Previously Published Material: “Willie & Joe” by Bill Mauldin. Fantagraphics’ massive collection of Mauldin’s WWII work gives new generations the chance to experience it.

Runners-up: “The Explainers” by Jules Feiffer, “Breakdowns” by Art Spiegelman, “Where Demented Wented: The Art and Comics of Rory Hayes,” “Jamilti and Other Stories” by Rutu Modan.

Best memoir: “Little Nothings: the Curse of the Umbrella” by Lewis Trondheim. Master Trondheim once again shows how it’s done, this time providing a bit of navel-gazing that never becomes solipsistic.

Runners-up: “Paul Goes Fishing” by Michel Rabagliati, “Haunted” by Philippe Dupuy.

Best European Book: “Alan’s War” by Emmanuel Guibert. Guibert uses his friend’s ruminations to provide a unique look at WWII.

Runners-up: “The Rabbi’s Cat Vol. 2” by Joann Sfar, “Aya of Yop City” by Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie.

Best Manga: “Disappearance Diary” by Hideo Azuma. A chronicle of homelessness and alcoholism that refuses to be gloomy, “Diary” is perhaps the cutest story about despair you’ll ever read.

Runners-up: “Dororo” by Osamu Tezuka, “Cat-Eyed Boy” by Kazuo Umezu, “Red-Colored Elegy” by Seiichi Hayashi, “Good-Bye” by Yoshihiro Tatsumi.

Best General Nonfiction Book: “Burma Chronicles” by Guy Delisle. Delisle chronicles his time spent in a far-off, oppressive country with enormous good humor and insight.

Best New Series: “Love and Rockets New Stories” by Jamie, Gilbert and Mario Hernandez. OK, it’s not a pamphlet and it’s not like the Hernandez brothers are new to the scene. I don’t care. I loved this comic.

Runners-up: “RASL” by Jeff Smith, “Glamourpuss” by Dave Sim.

Best Superhero Comic: “Omega the Unknown” by Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple. Lethem and Dalrymple offer a decidedly off-kilter take on the traditional superhero tale.

Runners-up: “The Boys” by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson.

Best Kids Comic: “Optical Allusions” by Jay Hosler. Hosler drops science with visual aplomb and shows a knack for engaging small minds on tough subjects.

Runners-up: “Kaput & Zosky” by Lewis Trondheim, “Little Vampire” by Joann Sfar.

Best Comic Strip: “Cul de Sac” by Richard Thompson. I don’t care what y’all say. This is one of the funniest strips to come down the pike in years.

Runner-up: “Lio” by Mark Tatulli.

Best Book About Comics: “Most Outrageous: The Trials and Trespasses of Dwaine Tinsley and Chester the Molester” by Bob Levin. I didn’t get around to reviewing this in my column, but I’m recommending it now anyway. It’s a harrowing look at family, art and the legal system via the life of Tinsley, a Hustler cartoonist who found his envelope-pushing work used against him when he was accused of abusing his daughter.

Runners-up: “The Ten-Cent Plague” by David Hajdu, “Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front” by Todd DePastino, “Gary Panter,” edited by Dan Nadel.

Best Comic I Didn’t Get Around to Reviewing in this Column: “Travel” by Yuichi Yokoyama. Obsessed with motion to the point of abstraction, Yokoyama’s comics are unlike anything produced either in Japan or here in the U.S.

Runners-up: “Ganges #2” by Kevin Huizenga, “The Education of Hopey Glass” by Jamie Hernandez.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Graphic Lit: Graphic novel mish-mosh


The end of the year draws ever closer and yet there are tons of notable books I haven’t mentioned.

Let’s try to rectify that somewhat with this quick review:

“Bourbon Island 1730” by Lewis Trondheim and Appollo, 288 pages, $17.95.

The idea of Trondheim doing a pirate story sets up expectations of high farce in the manner of his “Dungeon” series.

The big twist then, is that he and collaborator Appollo play it completely straight, telling a realistic, melancholy tale of colonialism, slavery and the end of piracy that proves to be quite moving and thoughtful despite the fact that the characters are rendered as funny animals.

“Gus & His Gang” by Chris Blain, 176 pages, $17.95.

The unbelievably talented Blain offers a subversive take on the American Western. The catch here is that Gus and his band of expert bank robbers are more concerned (nay, obsessed) with hooking up with beautiful women than making money and keeping one step away from the cops.

Blain portrays the men as hapless romantics, eager to pitch woo but utterly flummoxed as to how to go about doing so. Their cluelessness toward the opposite sex is hilarious and endearing, especially in the case of Clem, a family man who finds himself besotted by an adventurous cowgirl. “Gus” is the rare funny book that resonates as well as entertains.

“Chiggers” by Hope Larson, Antheneum Books, 176 pages, $9.99.

Returning to summer camp, Abby finds herself adrift from her usual clique and ends up making friends with Shasta, the new, weird girl everyone hates.

It’s a slight tale, and I had trouble at times telling the supporting characters apart. Still, Larson shows a real inventiveness (I particularly like the way she handles sound effects) and she takes enough care in shaping her main characters for the book to win over its target audience.

Buy it for the young tween girl in your life.

“Freddie & Me” by Mike Dawson, Bloomsbury, 304 pages, $19.99.

Dawson humorously recounts his lifelong obsession with Queen’s lead singer Freddie Mercury in this memoir. Dawson is a good raconteur and caricaturist, but he never examines why Mercury and his music meant so much to him and as a result the book feels more than a bit superficial.

“A Treasury of XXth Century Murder: The Lindbergh Child” by Rick Geary, NBM, 80 pages, $15.95.

Having chronicled various gruesome true tales of 19th-century homicide, Geary moves up a century to chronicle a news story that held all of America in its grip in 1932 — the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s baby son.

True to form, Geary avoids sensationalism to lay out the details of the crime and subsequent trial in thorough, objective fashion. It’s an engaging, fascinating recounting of a sad tale that underscores what a remarkable talent Geary is.
Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Graphic Lit: Alan's War

Those who sit down with “Alan’s War” expecting a conventional World War II memoir might come away disappointed.

Cope didn’t take part in any big, famous battles. He didn’t join the Army until late in the war and spent a good bit of his initial time in training. He got into few firefights and witnessed only one scene of brutal violence (which was a stupid accident).

Despite — or perhaps because of — Cope’s memoir, “Alan’s War,” transcribed and illustrated by French cartoonist Emmanuel Guibert, is one of the most fascinating accounts of life during wartime I’ve read in awhile.

Guibert (“Sardine in Outer Space,” “The Professor’s Daughter”) met the then-elderly Cope in 1994 and struck up a close friendship that resulted in this book.

Cope is a natural storyteller, relating in relaxed, easygoing detail the people and places he happened upon during the war and afterward, when he resettled in Europe. He exhibits a curiosity that is constantly rewarded by serendipity.

Guibert keeps his backgrounds as sparse as possible in the book, often putting his figures against all-white backgrounds with only the occasional building lining the background. When he does provide detail, the lush black and white watercolors provide a breathtaking contrast.

At times, what Cope doesn’t discuss is just as interesting as what he does. He details his formative friendships in the Army and Europe, but rarely talks about his family.

His wife and children in particular seem pushed aside. Perhaps their presence would have muddied the book’s focus, but their absence nevertheless seems a trifle odd.

What we’re left with in “Alan’s War” is the story of a man for whom war provided the opportunity to expand his horizons and visit the world beyond his backyard, in turn giving him the ability to make decisions in ways that would have never occurred to him had he stayed home.

Perhaps that’s not exactly “The Longest Day,” but it’s a compelling tale nonetheless.Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008