Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Help in the studio

Ordinarily I will have one cat helping me at my drawing table. This is the primary reason I use dry coloring and toning materials rather than wet washes and paints. That and the fact that I can leave dry methods at any point for other interruptions and use them easily in the field. Lame, I know, since intrepid painters and dip-pen artists have been working in adverse conditions for centuries. But being a belt-and-suspenders kind of guy I believe in a margin of safety.

Because I've been working in the studio more than usual lately, the cats have decided to increase their efforts as well. They've put on a double shift on my table now in case I thought I was actually going to get a lot of work done.

Proving my wisdom, they are lying right in the middle of what would be a cooling puddle of colored water if I'd risked doing brush work.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day 2011

On this solemn day of barbecues and trips to the beach, we honor those who serve our country, especially those in harm's way right now. That's what I keep hearing, anyway.

Actually today we remember the ones who didn't make it. Because that is commonly forgotten in the rush to try to make service members and veterans feel properly appreciated, every American holiday is simply turning into a combination Armed Forces Day and Veterans' Day. Is there any hope our species will just outgrow the bloodletting or are we hopelessly locked into the model of combat without end, amen?

We salute those who have been sacrificed to human combativeness. Honoring the fallen is the best we can do, even though it comes a distant second to actually learning to get along.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

You can't go home before the pig roundup is finished

About a mile from home on Elm Street we saw the lights of cars stopped in the road in front of us. The one facing toward us approached slowly. I rolled down the window.

"There's a pig!" the driver called.

I looked ahead in the patches of headlight glare. A young woman was just trying to snare the beast with what looked like a brassiere. The pig jerked its head away, snapping the flimsy garment. I pulled in behind the car in front of me. The cellist put the emergency flashers on as I got out.

The woman who had been trying to snare the beast asked, "Do you have any rope? My bikini top just isn't handling this."

Do I have any rope? We could probably have woven a sturdy and sizable net out of the amount of rope I typically have stashed in my car. In this instance I pulled out a piece about 15 feet long that's thick enough to tow a car. I know this because I've used it for that during a snowbank mishap or two.

"Is it yours?" I asked.

"No," she said. "It belongs to my neighbors up the road." She gestured in the direction we had all been headed on our way home after a long day.

"They went to get help," she said.

The young woman seemed very confident and capable. That was good, because I did not feel like going to the mat with 100-plus pounds of porker. I tied her a lasso and handed it to her.

The pig had its own ideas. We shadowed it and nearly got a line on it once or twice, but it evaded us and went into the woods. One more herder joined us from a truck that stopped. Then when the pig went into someone's yard, the couple in that house came out to join us. At that point the pig changed course and started heading back toward where the young woman told us it lives.

I kept hoping the cavalry would show up so I could retrieve my rope and go on home. Instead we gained more recruits as our straggling chase took us several hundred yards along the road.

One pair of guys had a snare with them that they intended to use on the pigs foot or snout. The couple who had joined us from their house had brought out a bucket of grain. We tried to bait the pig with it, but a few fumbled snare attempts ruined that gambit. The pig went into another yard and made another stand in front of the house.

I knew this house. An enormous Saint Bernard had lumbered out from it once and bitten me as I rode by on my bike. I'd chatted with the owners. I wouldn't call us friends, but we parted cordially. Still I wondered how they would react to an impromptu pig rodeo in their yard at 10:30 at night.

They actually didn't wake up for five or ten minutes while the herders urged each other with suggestions and instructions and dove in unsuccessful tackles that the pig greeted with outraged squeals and thrashing escapes. We ended up all the way behind the house before the homeowner stepped out onto the deck to see what the hell was going on.

As luck would have it, the pig turned out to be his. We had inadvertently returned it to its home after all. We declared victory and dispersed.

The cellist had left me so she could go on and take care of our friend's cats. I set out in the warm summer darkness to walk the rest of the way home. As the other herders passed me in their cars and trucks they called out friendly good nights. I have no idea who they were. We just did what needed to be done.

The cellist was able to take care of the cat chores and still make it back to retrieve me by the Pine River Bridge. Now for a shower and some sleep before I get up at dawn to test rivers.

I'm thinking about bacon for breakfast.

Monday, May 23, 2011

What do you call two exhibition halls full of cartoonists?

In this case it was called the Maine Comics Arts Festival.

My friend Jamie had half a table at the event, which was held this past weekend at the Ocean Gateway in Portland, Maine. I went over on Sunday, meeting my associate George over there with his wife Delores.

Portland is a great little city. My favorite part is that I can sneak in a side entrance until I don't feel like driving any farther and park for free on Sundays. I won't tell you how its done because I don't want the route to get crowded. Suffice to say it's not the obvious one, but it's quite direct. Metered spaces are free on Sunday, so I can ditch the car and walk, which is my favorite way to get around the tight confines of a downtown area. I could have parked near the venue for free. I just wanted the walk.

Not knowing what to expect, I brought a drawing kit, a camera and my netbook in case I had the opportunity to sling some ink with anyone. It turned out that horizontal space was scarce and the place was crowded, so I lugged that dead weight just for the exercise. I did get to show a few sketches to some people.

Jamie is very well informed about our cartooning world. I wish I was as outgoing. The next best thing is knowing him, though, because he made sure I didn't miss anything good that he'd found.

George is another asset. A lifelong traveler, he quietly observes his surroundings and is not afraid to strike up a conversation. He spotted Jeffrey Lewis, who is a musician first and a cartoonist as a sideline. Big G saw the CDs and asked Jeff about himself. As a result we both bought some music. Turns out that one of Jeff's musical collaborators is a friend of my musical friends and teachers Seth and Beverly. Jeff probably didn't know that, but when I started putting ones and zeroes together on the Internet after I got home the connection soon surfaced.

Jeff's CD turns out to be a grin a minute and great to cartoon to. Maybe that's because I know all the connections. Still, anything that helps me stay happily at the drawing table for more than a few seconds is welcome. For some reason I find it very hard to settle down and draw compared to the hours I'll spend on a piece of writing, or sawing cacophonously at the violin in hopes of improvement.

Jamie said George and I should be sure to check out Mike Lynch, a genuine professional gag cartoonist who sells to real magazines like Reader's Digest, Playboy, the Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business review and others. That was an excellent tip, because Mike turns out to be an extremely nice guy. Maybe I only think that because he busted out laughing at one of my drawings. Every little bit helps.

I had brought two books of Nordic skiing cartoons George and I had drawn during our time at the Jackson shop. When I told Mike it was a collaboration he said he'd noticed the two styles. Nordic Confidential I and II were just hacked together in a mix of rough sketches and more finished renderings, just to get the material out.

George also spotted the title "Bikeman" at one exhibitor's table. The writer and artist there is Jon Chad, who also turns out to be connected with the Center for Cartoon Studies, where I met Jamie at their one and only gag cartooning workshop in 2006.

When I asked Jon if he was a cyclist, he declined to identify himself as such. As we talked, though, he said, "I love my bike. I love taking care of it and going places on it." I bought the two issues he had left of his Bikeman comic. It's not so much a graphic novel as graphic serialized fiction. While I would spell more meticulously and perhaps make different decisions in the drawings, I totally agree with his affection for his bike and the simple joy of going places on it. To me that is the essence of biking as opposed to a specific specialty in cycling as a sport or "lifestyle."

The Center had a lot of table frontage at the festival as well. I did not try to stop Robyn Chapman in mid flight, but it was nice to see her nonetheless. She seemed like a magical creature when I went to cartoon camp in 2006, popping up all over the neighborhood in White River Junction at moments when I needed help or guidance. At the festival she was doing portfolio reviews for aspiring cartoonists.

Time and again we tell each other: just keep cartooning. It's good to hear it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cartooning: The Original Social Media

My friend the talented and prolific cartoonist Jamie Smith wrote in his blog recently about how he likes to work in public spaces like cafes because the background noise of people helps him concentrate.

As often happens with Jamie's observations, it made me realize something: cartooning is inherently social. As also so often happens, I feel like an idiot for not realizing it sooner and incorporating the principle years ago.

It makes perfect sense. Who is the cartoonist? The doodler draws in the back of class and hands the sketches around for the reward of laughter. Even the most awkward social outcast who draws will try to find someone with whom to share it. Fine art might or might not be snooty, but cartooning is always looking for a friend.

Writers have been known to haunt cafes and bars, too, but their art takes more time to absorb. A cartoonist has the unique ability to dash off a sketch that can be appreciated in seconds, but viewed over and over.

A stand-up comedian can snap off a hilarious observation, but repetition might make it tiresome to the performer or the audience. For the cartoonist, the panel or page can be as fresh as when it was new. If the material doesn't depend on a topic that goes stale, every new viewer can enjoy it at full potency. The cartoonist can draw in a room alone or with a handful of people, but the product can be reproduced and distributed almost infinitely.

When I moved to the woods in 1987 I did not fully appreciate how the isolation of rural life would affect my ability to work. I have the same need for social contact that any cartoonist has. When I lived in a small city I liked to go out into it to watch people. I didn't need to meet them, just to have them around. Then I got pulled off into outdoor writing, which is a strange name for the genre, if you think about it. I did do a lot of the writing outdoors, but the term refers to writing about activities conducted outdoors. The craft required that I do these outdoor things. I wanted to know if they were really a good option for the working class compared to the more expensive and destructive pursuits marketed to them. The answer turns out to be yes and no. By the time I came back around to my original goals I was already here with a snug home and an income that looks better and better as other sectors of the economy topple.

A recent public radio segment I heard featured some people interviewing for jobs at a call center. The salary was $20,000 a year. The company they were applying to work for has very strict policies. One applicant came in with very businesslike attire and years of experience to try for this job that pays what would barely be a living wage in many parts of this country. Seriously, try to have a halfway decent place to live, a somewhat reliable used car and regular dental checkups for $20,000 a year in the Baltimore-Washington area. Forget trying to live in a truly nice place and have a solid vehicle and maybe a family for that kind of money. So my steady trickle, which has actually managed to exceed call center money after all these years, doesn't seem like such a stupid choice.

Jamie mentioned that some other cartoonists have said they run the radio or have the TV news on in the background. I get drawn into the broadcast, which can be good for generating ideas, but hard when I'm trying to follow through on one of them.

Ideas flow when I'm supposed to be doing something else. The social context of work or school provides the base level of activity that stimulates the brain and offers the promise of someone to laugh as soon as you finish and show them your work. In Jackson I could often do good finished renderings. In Wolfe City I can't. I drag home bedraggled scraps of scratch paper with scribbled doodles and notes and hope I will have the energy to overcome my media paralysis and actually finish some of them on my so-called "days off."

Web publishing offers the possibility of a worldwide audience. The tricky part is hooking up cash flow to this exposure. You also have to avoid getting sucked into the vast array of truly fantastic passive entertainment and educational material on that same worldwide buffet. Your odds of being seen are really no better than if you scrawled on the wall of an alley in a second rate city on the skids. The difference is that the city can now be anywhere in the world, with the correspondingly greater number of lost pedestrians who might stumble into your seedy neighborhood and appreciate your doodle. Unless they leave a comment, the social aspect is conspicuously lacking. And processing and responding to those comments requires another chunk of your time.

Home alone today with cats climbing on me or my table, I have to try to get some work done.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

I Ponder Economics

In this world of illusion you have to choose your level of illusion carefully. If you have none at all you can easily become suicidally depressed, whether you act on it or not. Depression is by nature a slow-motion suicide because you sit and wait for death when you do nothing else with your time. So it pays to avoid the realization that all human existence is pointless unless it propels you into a hardworking pursuit of distracting hedonism. In that case you become a driver of the economy. You have to pay for those physical gratifications somehow, and that means trading goods and services.

If you want to try for happiness you have to come up with a solid set of stories you tell yourself about the things you do to fill your day and calm your mind for sleep at night. I was going to say lies, but if you know they're lies they will cease to work and you're back to suicidal depression or a knowing pursuit of distraction in a vast cosmos of pointlessness. The veil will inevitably slip from time to time, leaving you staring into the fathomless blackness.

If you decide your life has a point or points, pursuit of them will provide the structure to support the comforting facade you place over the big black hole. You can equally validly decide that you simply like certain things in life and will enjoy them as much as possible until the end, making no bets about their higher purpose or what experience might lie beyond the point where our perception appears to cease.

While you're here you have to figure out how to generate income.

I know a lot of people in the realm collectively known as The Arts. They are actors, writers, directors, painters, cartoonists, musicians and even tradespeople who have an artistic approach to their work. The tradespeople have an advantage over the purely artistic types because they offer a practical service like auto repair, carpentry or plumbing in their own eccentric way.

The unifying trait in the artistic personality is independent thought. Their creativity might be completely derivative, but every artist feels independent and does not perform well under someone else's authority. My auto mechanic started his own shop because he did not like how he was being told to fix people's cars to low standards in shops where he was merely an employee. For the luxury of setting his own standards he undertook the endless work of being his own boss. He's staying afloat, but he can't tolerate helpers with low standards any more than he could work for an employer with them. He works as hard as he can to meet his own standards for as many customers as he can serve at that level. It means a lot of six-day -- if not seven-day -- weeks.

Many of my friends in the pure arts: music, drama, visual media both serious and humorous, teach others their craft. The money they get for lessons and classes helps fund their more speculative creative ventures. However, they create more creators as they go. If even a fraction of the students go on to put up their creations for the public to view, judge and perhaps purchase, they fill the display with more and more for the consuming public to pay for, or not. That money has to come from somewhere. Even the money for lessons has to come from somewhere.

Right now, the Internet has evolved to a point at which creative people, good or not so good, can put up their work and possibly gain some income from it. I gather from my musician friends that the model is not serving them well because their intellectual property can escape through too many leaks without producing a return flow of cash. While a performer can gain worldwide exposure, apparently it's very easy to lose all benefit of the fame because the cash flow fails. In fact, according to one musician's article, musicians now find themselves paying more and more services to publicize them while receiving no money in return. If no one has to pay for recordings anymore, the only sources of income are live gigs and authorized merchandise. That seems like a throwback to the age when musicians played not only without being recorded, but without amplification except by their own numbers and the acoustics of the performance space.

Returning to the concept of what is worthwhile in human existence, how much should we care about people who have chosen to devote extraordinary amounts of time to perfecting skills that do not produce food, build shelter or move people and goods from place to place? The answer begins with the fact that we are not ants. We as a species seem to believe there is more to our existence than mere existence. We evolved these arts as a way to enrich our lives. The fact that some of us prove more adept than others at them complicates matters because then the arts of a few become desirable by a larger audience that finds itself incapable of doing as well, or who simply like the product even if they are fellow creators.

Many adult advisors did their best to convince me to get a good job and do art as a hobby. As far as they were concerned I was throwing away my life by chasing a dream of creative success. Was it because they'd seen my art and knew it wasn't good enough to succeed or did they give the same advice to any student? I'll never know.

How often do you find yourself looking at something and asking "but what good is it?" It seems like a reasonable question when looking at a piece of art that seems badly done or in poor taste, or listening to music that's disturbing or sloppily performed. In the realm of pure art, so much is subjective that a lot of it can seem like crap and a certain amount undeniably is. But apply the same question to everything you see, not just art, and be ruthlessly critical. Keep at it long enough --perhaps not long at all -- and you question the value of nearly everything. And that's a good thing. You want to keep checking your assumptions not just once but as many times as it takes to get around all sides of them and make them prove their worth. Even if you continue apparently unchanged, at least you ran the checklist.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

This just in: Osama bin Laden is still dead

At the cost of billions of dollars and thousands of lives the man most associated in the public's mind with the 9/11 plot has finally been gunned down by an amazing team of fighters from the United States.

In terms of cost effectiveness, chaos is always a better deal than order. That would not be true if all was chaos. Nothing would be a good deal. But if your hobby is anarchy or subversion you definitely get more bang for your buck as the evil genius planting bombs in unexpected places or sending suicidal minions out to blow themselves spectacularly to smithereens as a political or philosophical statement. While the chumps try to keep a functional society going, you can hide out in your lair, plotting. Release the occasional propaganda video to stir the pot.

Osama may be dead, but who really won? We have no idea how much he might have been enjoying life. What did we really take from him? It could have been everything. It could have been not much. Rumors had circulated about his poor health. He could already have been on the way out. And he can't have been surprised that the forces of retribution continued to hunt him. The magnitude of the hunt will give the dead man an aura of greatness among those inclined to admire killers who accept their own death as the price of their lifestyle choice. Is that supposed to make it all right?

Now that first impressions are wearing off we can get down to the serious long-term business of arguing over it. It has to be used as political football for as long as it will rise nicely to a sharp kick. It will go flat eventually, but hardly soon enough.

Meanwhile, the actual snuff operation has the makings of a great movie. Who's got the hot hand writing that shit these days? This one practically writes itself. When was the last time a mission like this worked so well and could actually be publicized?