Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Daylight! I see daylight!

Forgive the lack of posting lately. Between the NYCC, illness, work and assorted writing projects, I've been swamped. Regular posting should resume by tomorrow. In the meantime, you can read my thoughts on last weekend's con here, and see some pictures I took here and here.

I've also been meaning to point to this GameDaily Biz story here, on the gap video game critics have in their knowledge. I've got a couple quotes in there. My thanks to Kyle Orland for including me in the piece.


Thursday, February 22, 2007

If you happen to be in Central Pa next week ...

There's a couple of comic-related events taking place in my stomping grounds that are worth noting.

On Monday, Simcha Weinstein, author of “Up Up and Oy Vey: How Jewish History Culture and Values Shaped the Comicbook Superhero,” will discuss his book at 7 p.m. at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. For more information, call 291-3837.

Than, at the same college on Wednesday, Alison Bechdel, author of graphic novel “Fun Home” and comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” will give a lecture at 8 p.m., in the college's Stahr Auditorium. The talk is free, but tickets are required. Contact, Tineka Lebrun at 291-4244. I'm pretty sure I'm going to this one by the way.

Then there's this little event taking place on Saturday, March 3. Kids Love Comics Day will feature a bunch of small press cartoonists giving workshops for grade schoolers on how to make your own comics. The whole thing is being organized by Amelia Rules! creator Jimmy Gownley. I talked to him yesterday about the event for my next column, and it promises to be an interesting show. You can read the full information on the event here.

I'll also be attending the New York Comic Con this Friday and Saturday in the Big Apple. I'll have my little press name tag on so be sure and say hi if you're going.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Under the weather

I'm currently laid up with some sort of stomach virus, so posting will be down until I'm feeling better. Sorry.


Tuesday, February 13, 2007

VG review: "Lost Planet"

Capcom, for Xbox 360
rated T for Teen (ani­mated blood, mild language, violence), $59.99.

“Lost Planet” is your average shoot-em-up with one really neat idea tacked on: If the monsters don’t kill you, the cold will.

In addition to doing battle with evil mercenaries and giant bugs in the barren, arctic world of “Lost Planet,” you also have to keep warm.

Your body temperature keeps dropping the longer you stay out in the cold. Once it hits zero, it’s game over.

The good news is that most of the big, bad bugs and some items carry “thermal energy,” which, once dropped, will replenish your warmth index.

As with most games of this ilk, there’s a variety of challenges, monsters and weapons to pit your skill against. In addition to covering ground on foot, for instance, there are a number of “vital suits” — giant, mechanized armor — that you can enter and attack with, as well as protect yourself from the cold.

Some of the ways the developers incorporate the weather into the game are great. Carrying heavier weapons, such as the Gatling gun, will weigh you down and make it difficult to move in the snow. Certain valuable items will be buried deep in drifts, and digging them out will use up precious time and energy.

Ultimately, though, enough isn’t done to really make you feel as though you’re in constant danger of freezing to death. True, I was playing on “easy mode” (mainly because I’m horrible with most shooters), but the thermal energy was plentiful enough that I never really felt like it was that much of a problem. Perhaps if I had played on “hard” instead.

For those who crave online play, “Lost Planet” has some nice features, including “team elimination” and “fugitive,” where a group of players must hunt down a rogue person.

I must confess that I didn’t get far in “Lost Planet.” After being swallowed by a giant worm for the 40th time, I moved on. Those who are fans of this type of game, however, will undoubtedly be able to stick it out longer.

“Lost Planet” attempts to bring a fresh coat of paint to some tired walls and, I must admit, it’s some pretty paint. Ultimately, the room hasn’t changed that much. At the end of the day, you’re still just going around blowing up giant bugs. And I’m really tired of going around blowing up giant bugs. 

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Monday, February 12, 2007

Graphic Lit: An interview with Jeff Smith

For the past few years, Jeff Smith has been riding high on the success of “Bone,” his epic, highly acclaimed saga that’s perhaps best described as a cross between “Lord of the Rings” and “Pogo Possum.”

Now that the series has been finished and collected (most recently by Scholastic in nifty full-color volumes), the question is: what next?

Enter DC comics, who asked Smith a few years ago if he’d be interested in reviving one of their oldest superhero franchises: Captain Marvel.

The result is the four-part “Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil,” the first issue of which went on sale this week.

Smith talked to me from his home in Ohio about the new series and the challenges it provided:

Q: As someone who’s had what has to be the most popular independant, creator-owned book in the history of comics ...

A: (laughs) I’m going to like this interview.

Q: ... what would make you want to, for next project, take on a corporate-owned character, never mind a superhero?

A: You know, that’s a very fair question. A couple of things. First of all, after working for 12 years on “Bone” and really putting my all into it, as I was getting near the end of this opus — I mean it’s a single, 1,300-page story — I have to confess to a little panic setting in as to what I was going to do after that. I though whatever it is it needs to be different, because it’s going to get compared to “Bone.” You couldn’t take more of a left turn than doing Captain Marvel.

The other thing was it just hit me right. When DC comics called me sometime in 2002 as I was getting near the end of “Bone” and suggested I take a run on Captain Marvel, it just seemed to fit. There’s something about that character that’s a lot more likeable, more ... whimsical is a loaded word, but you know what I mean. There’s something about this character that seemed to fit with my sensibilities and I took it.

Q: Let’s explore that a little more. What is it about Captain Marvel that you think is so appealing?

A: Captain Marvel is one of the few characters in superheroes nowadays, in modern comic books that hasn’t gone through this process of being recreated in some kind of realistic, grim and gritty way. You’ve seen the movies, they’re just a little bit more realistic, Batman’s real, he looks like a guy in a bat-suit.

That doesn’t really appeal to me though. I think superheroes should have a slightly more direct emotional impact and what I mean by that is worry less about if Superman actually would look out of place standing on a street corner waiting for a taxi and just have him fly in and save the day. Does that make sense?

And Captain Marvel, since he hasn’t been changed, is one of the few characters from the hey day of comics, the golden age, when they were a mass medium. When Superman and Captain Marvel first appeared, they swept the nation and every kid knew who Captain Marvel was. There’s a generation, your parents, my parents, who knew who that was. And even we still know the word. We still see “Shazam” in hip-hop videos and movies and everywhere.

In fact just the other day I was watching the Beatles “A Hard Day’s Night,” on DVD and Paul McCartney turns to the camera and says “Shazam!” It’s everywhere. So there’s something about that character that’s actually connected to the beginnings of comics, and I was interested in that.

Q: It is a character whose core hasn’t been messed with too much, but it’s been a character that a lot of people have tried to mess with and failed a lot. There’s been a number of attempts to graft him into other books. How do you update the character for modern times? What did you decide to keep and what did you alter to make it your own?

A: Modern attempts to update Captain Marvel have basically been attempts to pull him into the DC comic book universe alongside Green Lantern and Batman and Superman. And I think that doesn’t really work cause Captain Marvel is just a lot gentler. There’s talking tigers and things. And talking tigers just can’t talk to Batman.

Q: I don’t know. I’d like to see that.

A: Oh, there’s talking tigers in my comic, but I don’t have Batman. That was one perameter I put around the project right then. It’s self-contained. Captain Marvel, and that’s all that’s in the story. There’s no Flash or anybody else.

What I did was bought some old Captain Marvel comics from the golden age, and I watched the old Republic movie serials, the old Saturday afternoon movie serials, and the last thing I did was go buy a DVD of all the old Fleisher Brothers Superman cartoons from the ’40s. Have you ever seen those?

Q: I know of them.

A: They’re gorgeous. I just started to look back at some of that early material and try to figure out what it was that was so appealing about superheroes, or at least figure out what was appealing to me. It’s just like going back in rock and roll or something. Like listening to Little Richard. The further back you get, and you get to the more core material, the guys who originated it, you start to get into the DNA there and it starts to break apart and you can really get right back to where it’s just a lot cleaner I think. Like I said, Captain Marvel hasn’t really
successfully been modified so he’s still a pretty clean conduit straight back to the source.

Q: OK, but what did you look at and say, well I can’t use that, I have to alter that, or that’s not going to work with today’s audience?

A: I did try to pare it down and simplify it like take the idea of the most helpless young boy, an orphan, Billy Batson, he has a magic word, he turns into Captain Marvel, and I thought, what kind of a story could we tell? He has a sister named Mary that he doesn’t know about until the
story starts and then he has to search for her.

I thought well we’ll have Billy, who’s Captain Marvel, Mary Marvel, and of course you have to have the wizard who gives him the magic word. And I just threw in Talky Tawny cause I can’t resist talking tigers.

But there’s so much more of the Marvel family that I just thought well, that could be brought in later if somebody wants to. It gets too complicated if you try to tie everything in.

Q: You’re adapting an original story from the classic series, the "Mr. Mind" story right?

A: Right. “The Monster Society of Evil” is one of those legendary stories that everybody talks about when they get together at comic book conventions. It’s a serial that was written and printed over 2 and half years, from 1942 to 1945. It was really long and was in some ways the very first long form comic. It’s written about in encyclopedias about comics. Steranko’s history of comics. It’s just one of those things I was interested in. And it’s pretty goofy by today’s standards. Really really silly stuff. So I tried to keep it fun but still make it so that a modern audience could have fun with it and not roll their eyes too much.

Q: I was just talking a week or two ago to Darwyn Cooke, who’s bringing back the Spirit.

A: I’ve seen just a few things of that, but it looks pretty sharp.

Q: It seems you both are working on — you both have different styles and storytelling methods — but you’re both taking established and well-known characters and updating them but also harking back to the original material.

A: I wasn’t afraid to change things. I was given a pretty clear directive from DC to go ahead and make changes that needed to be made. They had final say of course.

But ultimately the main thing you don’t want to change is Shazam, a boy turns into the most invincible being on the planet.

Q: Usually in the Captain Marvel mythos they’re the same person. You portray them as two different people or I guess two facets of the same personality, which I thought was really interesting. What made you decide to do that?

A: That’s how I read the original. It seemed to me it’s almost like Aladdin and his magic lamp. When Billy Batson says Shazam he’s rubbing his lamp and the genie comes out to protect him. And Captain Marvel is the genie.

And when I read the old comics, there were instances where Captain Marvel and Billy referred to each other as separate people. They were one, but they were two entities. It was never explained. And so you won’t really see it explained in my book either. It’s just there.

Q: It really puts it in the area of wish fulfillment, which I guess is what a lot of what Captain Mavel’s about.

A: Yeah. I see a lot of Captain Marvel being played off like Tom Hanks in “Big,” he says "Shazam," he gets the body of Superman but he has the brain of a 12-year-old. And that just kind of misses the point to me. It’s wish fullfillment. You get to be Superman.

Q: I was amazed at how willing you were to drop out the dialogue and just let the visuals tell the story. It reminded me of just how unnecessarily wordy 99 percent of superhero comics are these days.

A: I’ve noticed a lot of descriptions of the pages that have been seen describe it as being “open” there’s a lot of room for the characters. I think they’re talking about the same things you are. I can only imagine that comes out of the fact that I write and draw. All those comic books are part of a studio system where one person writes and scripts and another person draws it and another person inks it and colors it, etc.

I’m doing everything myself, so I don’t write words just to write words. I don’t feel any need to. If he’s running down the hill I don’t have to have him say “I’m running down a hill.” Or have a little box in the corner saying “Meanwhile, Billy ran down a hill.” Whereas understandably if you’re just a writer, you might put words in there to describe to the artist what he’s supposed to draw.

Q: It’s also like you’re not afraid to be quiet, which I think a lot of American comics are.

A: I appreciate that. I love animation. There’s a lot of old newspaper strip cartoons that would use quiet panels. Garry Trudeau, Pogo. Those are my heroes. You gotta have time to think. And sometimes there’s a balance between how much you want the person to use their brain and which way.

Q: Did you come across any stumbling blocks in doing a book like this?

A: Oh, huge for me cause if you remember my last project, which was “Bone,” it takes place in the woods. It’s sort of like a “Lord of the Rings” that takes place in Southern Ohio. It’s all caves and rocks and trees. All of the sudden I had to draw the lower east side of New York. I had to draw cars and taxi cabs, sewers and straight lines. It was very, very difficult.

Q: Did you have to get a lot of reference material?

A: I made quite a few trips to New York actually. I have a blog where I keep a Shazam production journal. I took my trips and posted my pictures: “This is going to be Billy’s rendezvous point with Talky Tawny.”

Q: Yeah, I didn’t see that but I was reading your blog before I called.

A: Did you see the secret code stuff?

Q: Yeah, I didn't get that. What was that?

A: That was one of the fun things I discovered when I went back and looked at the old comics. The original Monster Society of Evil story was the first comic to use secret decoder rings, so it was full of little messages that you had to use your secret decoder ring to decipher.

It was a really simple code. It was basically the alphabet backwards. A=Z, B=Y. So just for laughs I put a couple blogs up where I wrote a line in the old monster code, just to see what would happen. And within an hour I had two comments back from people who wrote me responses in code!

That was fun. So of course now I’m going to keep going. I’m going to actually put Easter eggs in. You’re going to have to read the code to figure out where the Easter Eggs are. I’ve got little videos of me inkning panels and stuff. It’s going to be fun.

Q: Talking about "Bone" for a minute, I imagine the series is still selling well, that the Scholastic volumes are doing really well.

A: Yeah.

Q: I remember when you started reselling the all-in-one edition alongside the Scholastic edition, there was some talk as to whether the two would compete against each other.

A: Exactly. In fact, part of my agreement with Scholastic was to take all of my self-published black and white versions off of the market. And I had been publishing Bone in different formats — comic books and then in graphic novels and the compete 1,300 page book. We made an agreement we’ll sell this for one year and then we’ll take it off the market. And then the color books can start. And we were just shocked by how well the big one-volume edition did. It was the best selling thing we’ve ever done. And then the color books came out and they were best selllign books. of course, they were published by Scholastic and it was on a scale that I had never even contemplated before as a little, underground comic book artist.

About a year, there were only the color versions available from Scholastic. And they did a really beautiful job. I love them. But there was a little part of me that missed the black and white original version. I noticed that comic book stores weren’t carrying the color scholastic books as much as regular book stores were. So I approached Scholastic last summer and said “I sold a lot of those black and white books. Not as many as you sell. you wouldn’t even notice if I brought them back.” And they said, “You know, go ahead.” They felt historically the one-volume edition had a place, should be there for a reason. So I was very happy and my wife and I brought the one volume back. And it’s been doing gangbusters since last fall.

Q: So once you finish "Shazam" what are you working on next?

A: I have another independant project I’m working on. It’ll be science-fiction. But that’s about as defined as it is right now. Probably next year.

Q: Are we going to revisit "Bone" at any point? Is that story pretty much finished or will we see those characters again?

A: No, it’s done. It’s like Moby Dick or The Lord of the Rings. It’s finished. I’ll try to think of an excuse to draw the Bones again in something short, but I don’t think I’ll do a story. That’s out.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006


Friday, February 09, 2007

Apparently I don't have enough to do

You may or may not be aware of this, but this week I put on my linkblogging hat (it looks dashing on me) and joined the family at Blog@Newsarama. I'm a wee bit concerned about being able to post regularly during the week, as my time has been stretched thin lately, but so far it's been pretty smooth sailing. Of course, now that I've typed that everything will be shot to hell next week I'm sure.

My thanks to John, Kevin and the rest of the Blog@ for welcoming me into their bosom. In a metaphorical sense of course.

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

VG review: Bookworm Adventures

PopCap Games, for the PC, $29.95.

I’m not sure that word puzzle fans were wishing they could defeat fantastic monsters in between rounds of Boggle. Nor am I sure that Final Fantasy advocates were sitting around crying, “If only I could have used Scrabble tiles to defeat the monster instead of a plus-10 sword.”

Yet that is exactly what you get with “Bookworm Adventures,” an ingenious, delightful little game that manages to weave two seemingly disparate genres together seamlessly.

The game is an ambitious sequel to PopCap’s 2002 “Bookworm.” In that one, you simply built words out of a variety of tiles that then got fed to Lex, a cute, bespectacled worm.

In the sequel, Lex must travel through some classic story books to rescue his beloved Cassandra. Naturally, there are a number of monsters and assorted foes that want to block his path.

To defeat your opponents, you merely have to spell words using the letter tiles provided (unlike in the first game, the tiles don’t have to be touching one another). The longer the word, the more damage you will do. Using rarely used letters such as Q and X will net you extra damage, too.

Along the way, you’ll pick up items that will help you in your quest, as well as raise your health and strength.

This is good, because your adversaries will be throwing as many hazards as they can at you, including but not limited to poison, fire, chains that lock your tiles up and more. Thankfully, you can fight fire with fire thanks to the gem letters that pop up when you use long words.

Best of all, certain enemies have weaknesses, and spelling “metal” words, such as “gold” or “silver,” will do more damage. This adds a real layer of strategy to the game that makes it all the more addictive.

The game has a strong sense of humor; Lex’s witty repartee is constant but never grating.

The only real flaw in “Bookworm Adventures” might be that it’s too short. You might not have been asking for a game like this, but once you play it, you’ll be happy it’s here just the same.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Swag of note: AdHouse stickers

Look what Chris Pitzer sent me in the mail! AdHouse Stickers!

The $4.95 price tag on the back of the package tells me these will be available in stores, which is nice, as they're pretty nifty stickers.

Clockwise from top left we have stickers by Paul Pope (PulpHope), the AdHouse logo, Josh Cutter (Skyscrapers of the Midwest), James Jean (Process Recess) and Jamie Tanner (The Aviary). I didn't know AdHouse would be publishing Tanner's work and I am suddenly excited by the news, because he's very, very good.

Here's one more picture:

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Monday, February 05, 2007

Graphic Lit: An interview with Larry Gonick

For more than thirty years, Larry Gonick has been drawing comics about such unusual topics as math, science and history.

It’s history that Gonick is probably best known for, as his ongoing and acclaimed “Cartoon History of The Universe” has attempted to document in irreverent and informative fashion the entire story of mankind.

The fourth and latest volume, “The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Part One,” is out now. It’s a fascinating and freewheeling tour of the period from 1492-1781, pinballing from the Aztecs and Age of the Explorers to the Protestant Reformation and American revolution, with stops along the way for the Sikhs, Galileo, John Locke, Shakespeare and much more.

I talked with Gonick from his home in San Francisco about his new book and the challenges of telling the history of the world in comics:

Q: Why the name change? Why not do History of the Universe Part IV?

A: That was the publisher’s decision, not mine. They wanted to rebrand it slightly. These concepts are mysterious to me.

Q: Is that why the format changed too? It seems a little smaller to me.

A: It’s a little smaller, yes. I’ve done a series of science books with Harper, which is the publisher here, and they’re all in this format, so they’re just making it uniform with everything else of mine they’ve done.

Q: How do you put together a book like this? Do you do all the research first and then draw it out? Do you take a chapter at a time?

A: I wish it was that simple. I do most of the research first. I guess I do it a chapter at a time.

Q: Can you break down for me in particular how this book worked out?

A: I do enough [research] to have a grasp on the whole book. And then I outline the book in some detail so I don’t find myself having half of it done and realizing that I left something crucial out. So I do try to work out what’s going to be in it in some detail well ahead. But I do keep reading while I’m working on it and finding out new details and sometimes I do have to take it apart and put it back together again at least in sections.

So that’s sort of the big picture. Then in more detail what I do is write it first, usually one section, one 48-page volume at a time. I write the text and then rewrite it and rewrite it, shrinking it down and by the third draft I’m thinking of exactly how it’s going to be paginated. In a comic you have to think of it in terms of pages unlike an ordinary book. So every double-page spread has information assigned to it let’s say. I know I’m going to cover this here, this there. Then I write it fully and then I pencil it on boards and ink it.

Q: How much research in general do you do? I have this image of your entire house being surrounded by books and you at a drawing table.

A: You’ve been here! Well, first of all I don’t work at home. While we do have a lot of books at home I’ve got a wall of books at my studio.

But a lot of the books I use I don’t own. I find the good ones, I spent a lot of time at the public library in my day. That amount of time is dropping more recently for two reasons.

One is that with inter-library loan all I have to do is go online and look through their catalog and they’ll send stuff over to my branch. That makes life easier. Especially since it costs $2.50 an hour in the meter at the San Francisco Public Library.

The other reason is the Internet, which is just phenomenal now. I can remember when it was just coming on as a research tool it wasn’t too good. But now it’s amazing. The number of old books that are online in full text is staggering. If you want to find out about the Enlightenment you can go read David Hume. I don’t know how many people want to do that but you can if you want to. I’m working on the next one now and I’m finding all kinds of great stuff. John Stewart Mill’s father wrote a history of the East India Company, where he looked at their account books year by year. He’s a really good writer and it’s a wonderful book.

So that’s another great resource and of course, it’s also a great resource for graphics, for images and things. It used to be you had to have a collection of images on hand that you could draw on and you’d have to flip around.

Q: What do you look for in a history book? Are there particular things that make you say “This isn’t of any use to me” or “This is the bible on this subject”?

A: That’s a really, really good question. You absolutely put your finger on something that happens but I’m not exactly sure I know how to say what it is. It’s like I know it when I see it.

But that definitely happens. I’ll look at something, sometimes it’s a part of the book that’s useful. I’m reading a book on the French Revolution written by a Canadian historian and once he gets to the revolution itself its really pedestrian, but his discussion of what France was like beforehand is much more extensive than many. So I can tell it’s good for that. He clearly knows what he’s talking about. Sometimes you read things and you see special pleading or just sloppy writing and you put it aside. You can tell when they know what they’re talking about.

Q: So to a degree it’s intuitive?

A: Well it feels like intuition. Obviously to some degree there’s something going on that involves comparison with other things you’ve read. Something analytical is happening. It’s not just a feeling. It’s like love at first sight.

Q: How long did this particular book take you?

A: Probably about three years I would say. It’s kind of what they take if I don’t do anything else. I usually have other things to do but there’s about three years work in it.

Q: What are the benefits of comics as a teaching tool? What can comics do education wise that a textbook can’t?

A: The first thing you realize about comics once you’ve lived with them for many years is that it’s the only medium that you can read over and over and over again. I’ve got a collection of "Pogo," I’ve read those books a hundred times. I have no other book I’ve read more than twice. I think my maximum with a movie is six, that being the Beatles’ “Help!”

But people do read comics over and over again. It has to do with the graphics obviously. The storytelling rhythm and the way the graphics come at you, pop up all at once and you can stare at it for as long as you want.

Of course, the other thing is compared with a textbook you’ve got the graphics and it’s a form that’s well suited to opinion. You have the option of being more irreverent. Not always to the delight of real historians.

Q: What drew you to this particular niche, doing these cartoon histories?

A: Because it’s a niche. There wasn’t a lot of competition in that particular ecology. My career track was determined, I was in graduate school in math a long time ago and I had been drawing a little bit but I never thought I could make a career at it because I couldn’t see how anyone could sustain a lifetime of ideas for comics. And then someone showed me these nonfiction comics and I realized that was a way.

Q: What were those books?

A: Those were books by a Mexican cartoonist who draws under the pen name of Rius. He used to do a weekly comic book in color that were nonfiction. He had a little nonfiction essay in the middle of it actually. He had characters and there would be an eight-page section in the middle that told some political story. And he also did some longer pieces. He’s the founder of this series of books called “The Beginners” books. He did the first ones and they’re very beautifully done in a light and funny style.

So this friend of mine had seen these and wanted to do something like this and so we did a project together on tax reform, which was the dullest subject he could think of and therefore needed it the most. It was a real eye-opener. It was an epiphany for me. I started doing these comics. This was back in '71 I think. And I’ve been doing them ever since. History just happens to be a subject that works really well.

Q: Why is that do you think?

A: It’s got a lot of good stories. Better stories than you can make up. And very complicated ones too. So you can do extended pieces. That can be a problem sometimes if you have limited space.

Q: Was there a particular era or historical figure you enjoyed writing about in this book?

A: I tend to like looking at beginnings of things, so the section on the beginning of the Aztec Empire, which isn’t very much known about anyway, that was a lot of fun to write. They were really bizarre. That’s not just me saying it, the other Native Americans living in Mexico thought they were pretty strange too.

The whole story of the Netherlands and William of Orange is a great story that also doesn’t get told enough. He’s kind of a personal hero because he was like the unassuming founder of a nation who commemorated his victories by founding universities rather than statues of himself. In fact, it’s almost impossible to find a picture of him. He’s very scarce.

Q: Was there something you wanted to tackle but didn’t feel you had enough room to get to?

A: There’s always stuff like that. The medium is very rigorous in terms of what it will allow. You can get less in 250 pages than you might think. I can’t think of anything right off the top. Of course I did this book a while ago.

One thing is the witchcraft trials and what that was all about. The real height of witch burning was during the later part of this book. And I probably could have said more about the Incas. The stuff that usually has to go unfortunately are all these colorful, really crazy stories that a lot of times are sidelines and don’t really contribute to the main plot.

Q: You touched on this a little, but I was wondering if your books attract any sort of controversy within academic circles. Do you get hate mail from historians?

A: No, there are the ones who really like it and the ones who are sort of indifferent. No, I don’t get hate mail. What a concept. Historians tend to be very measured people. They’re not haters. Political scientists, they’re haters.

Q: Well part of the reason I ask is that you do take some pot shots at modern historians. What bothers you the most about the way history is taught these days?

A: Well that’s a very interesting question, because when I started history was not taught the same as it is now. There’s been quite an evolution over the last thirty years. When I got in, I felt much more strongly about the kind of problems that historians were having then than I do now. When I started it was done in a much more traditional way. Since that time we have oral histories and people’s histories and multicultural histories and now what’s called global history. It’s sort of come in vogue.

The one thing you can say for sure, the one held constant is, most of the time they teach in a way that makes it dull. The history textbooks just don’t have the life they ought to. So that for some reason doesn’t change.

Q: Why do you think that is?

A: Well I think the reasons are different at different times. There’s something going on now that I worry about a little bit which is that the conflict has been written out of history to some extent. And history is conflict. History is the story of conflict and how civilizations put themselves together and how they contend with each other.

I’ve seen the world history book that my younger daughter used in high school three years ago and it was dreadful. It doesn’t have an active verb. It was astonishing. It doesn’t have any interesting verbs, no visual does anything. ... Civilizations “spread,” they don’t ever fight with each other. And so a lot of this stuff is totally swept under the rug.

I suspect I know the reason for this and that is conflict resolution is a big deal now in schools and I intuitively sense that people want to play down the role of violence in the world. Particularly since we seem to be more violent than ever. People hope that if they pretend it doesn’t exist that kids will stop doing it.

Q: Moving on from there, do you have an overriding theme or idea behind the books? In other words, is there something in particular you’d like readers to take away from the book?

A: There again, that’s evolved over time. When I started I wanted people to understand how much of history is driven by material needs and desires. That oftentimes slogans and ideals and such are the expression of need. I still believe that. A lot of so-called rational thought is really rationalization.

I mean how else can you explain that two people who describe themselves as completely rational can come to completely opposite conclusions? That are for some reason in accord with their self-interest? Happens all the time.

As I get older, and it all seems more complicated to me, my goal is much amorphous. I just want people to appreciate history and realize that if you want to understand what people are about, it helps to see what people have always been about.

Just to take one example, without naming any names, you can see many examples of history where people were leaders of nations, had agendas that they kept absolutely to themselves, and put out all kinds of cover slogans to mask their behavior and those slogans were taken seriously.

A good one from the past is in the next book. King Leopold of Belgium when he took over the Congo, not only didn’t he say anything about economic gain, but he explicitly denied he had any interest in economic gain. He talked only about spreading Western civilization to the benighted heathen and claimed he was going after the slave traders who operated from East Africa. Once the story came out, which it did thanks to a public relations campaign, he had his administrators burn all the documents. Took days. And they did it in the middle of summer and all the radiators in the Congo administration building were steaming hot.

Q: Tying into that, I did notice that you took a few pot shots at the Bush Administration.

A: That was just a reflex.

Q: Do you think there’s something that Americans could learn from the past that’s relevant to today’s political situation?

A: Yes and the answer is to have your eyes open and try and understand what the facts are instead of believing what people tell you. The wonderful thing about the modern age is you can get access to pretty good information. Not complete, obviously there’s a lot of stuff buried, but you can find out a lot and it doesn’t take that much effort. Just cruising around the Internet will get you lots of news.

Q: One of the things I enjoyed about the book the most is how you show how events are linked to events that don’t even occur to you at the time.

A: I appreciate that because that’s also one of my narrative goals is to do exactly that.

Q: It’s not something I picked up in your other books, but definitely in this one. I really appreciated, just to give an example, when you talk about Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation and you talk about why didn’t the Pope beat them down and suddenly I was like, “Well yeah, why didn’t the Pope beat them down?” It’s something I had never, ever asked in my own history class. And you point out how it’s in direct relation to the Turks and if the Turks hadn’t been there then it would have been a completely different story.

A: The Turks of Eastern Europe are completely written out of history as we learn it. I don’t know why. That’s another thing. A lot of things are written out of history as we learn it.

Q: Why do you think that is? Why don’t we learn about these links? Another example is you talk about Henry VIII and how the Pope was being held prisoner is why he wouldn’t annul the marriage, which was something I never learned.

A: Well Spanish history is pretty written out of our history books.

Q: Well why is that? Is it because you only have two years to learn all these events and there’s only so much you can learn?

A: That’s part of it but the other question is how do the teachers choose what to cover and the answer is that ... history is many things. We’re talking as if world history should be a comprehensive record of the past and give you a global perspective on things. But that’s not what history is always. Sometimes history is learning the traditions of your culture. And that’s absolutely something that’s taught in school, because school is all about enculturating you.

So our history until fairly recently has centered on the Anglo-Saxon tradition. We don’t even learn that much about France, which is weird because you always learn about feudalism in Europe, but feudalism only existed in that pure form in France. And to some extent in England when the Normans got in. But we don’t learn much about France either.

Our history is really English-centered and Spain is the traditional enemy of England. And it’s also Protestant-biased for that matter. Those who teach it that way want to say that Protestantism triumphed because it contained a more advanced truth. It spoke to some cultural need that existed then. But of course if you say that, if you think about it other heresies that were fairly successful earlier than that, they must have satisfied some kind of need because a lot of people subscribed to them and yet they were crushed.

Q: How many more Modern World volumes will there be? Is the next one the last one?

A: Yes.

Q: And that takes us up to modern times?

A: As close to the present as I can get.

Q: Are you going to include things like 9/11?

A: I’m planning on taking it right up to the present as I write, so yeah. I may retreat from that. The narrative scope in these story arcs sort of needs that in a way because I see the last couple of hundred years as being the spread of enlightenment ideas all over the world. It is euro-centric to some extent. Europe has colonized and also convinced people that our models of society and ways of making government are good ones. These are the ways people think about government up until very recently. And I would say up until about Vietnam or maybe a little later there’s been a lot of re-evaluation of this. I think Islamist movement is an expression of some kind of deep discontent with Western models. I’m not in sympathy with it, but I’m not in sympathy with any kind of totalitarian impulses and I don’t think they have a monopoly on them unfortunately.

Q: What else are you working on? Once the Cartoon History is done are you going to go back and focus on a particular era?

A: I’m probably done with the history books for now. I’ve done a series of science books and I may have a math project in mind, since that’s kind of where I started, but I’m kind of ... I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do. I’d like to see some kind of animation project done with the history. Once I’m done I’ll have time to devote to that. I can’t work on it now because the books take so much energy.

Q: What’s your timeline for the next book?

A: Another couple of years and it will be done. I’m writing the first 48 pages now and some of it actually seems to be getting into final draft mode.