Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Experimentation -- BAD?

When I published AFTERDEAD 1, I commented that the entire color section in the front -- Pithed -- was the result of experimentation.

What reviewers in our present-day book world -- and especially comics -- don't understand is that experimentation is a desirable quality. They misunderstood, and rather than looking at what I was actually doing, began to make pronouncements about it.

I LIKE what I did in those books. It's what I WANTED to do. I experiment on every single page I write and draw. It's not "wrong" or "doesn't match" or whatever it is they think they're seeing. When I put something out there I MEANT to do it. It's not some clueless accident because I can't copy somebody else. I know, I know: they need to try to get their heads around that.

Admittedly, I don't like my work while I'm doing it. I struggle and cuss and push, and finally release my three-eyed, one-legged babies upon the world, convinced -- as so many artists and authors are -- that They're Going To See Me For The Fraud I Am and Make Me Give It All Back. Then I come back in a year or two and gasp in amazement: "Who did this work -- ELVES?" I always think I was better Back Then and that I'm going downhill now.

This is the final difference between a hack and an author. The hack is trying to emulate what they perceive as a Master -- never realizing that the Master is always tearing apart her or his own work and is never satisfied with it.

I envy the hacks. They know what they're shooting for. Most of the marketing work has done for them. All they have to do is draw and write the pretty pictures that fit a prepared mould, pouring in the contents like any industrial worker and sending it off down the production line. Washington Irving portrays one of them in Buckthorne and His Friends.

The best of them know this, and are happy with it. The saddest are angry because they don't know why an author doesn't recognize them as One Of Us. I've stood in the same room with one of each, the former pumping me for marketing and editorial tips, the latter steaming because he just couldn't understand the difference. He didn't realize that authors like me are the ultimate source of his own rice bowl. He could never have invented Star Trek on his own.

I've done plenty of hack work; it pays well because somebody wants what they want, and they don't want us authors trying to work out anything new, different, disturbing or surprising. They want cottage cheese -- no salt -- not kim chi and chorizo.

I find the hack work I'm asked to do boring and repetitive. It's based in obsessions that have nothing to do what I want to say. But I can turn out a nice little moulded plaster statue, and hide the pouring seams pretty well. My customers are happy, I get to pay some bills or buy something I need. The best of my customers know I'm not going to enjoy what they ask me to do; I might as well be working the line at Boeing. So I ask for at least comparable pay, with benefits. And get some more time to write and draw what I need to.

Working as a reporter on a paper is pretty much the same job; a timid revelation of only part of the facts, told without spirit or insight. No wonder newspapers are dying -- it's not that blogs are faster (which they are) but they're self-correctible, fearless and include film on the spot. Who wants to read the grannie prose when the good stuff is on line? I finally get a job, and it's in a business that might as well be making buggy whips.

It's like a friend of mine said: "Sometimes I wish I were just fat, dumb and happy."

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Creative Life

As a creative freelancer, all you need to read is this number of Mistress Matrisse's Control Tower. Forget the how-to books, the seminars and workshops. This is all you need to know.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Toonie Awards Banquet Address

You're Doing It Wrong
(With stage directions)
By Donna Barr for the Cartoonists Northwest 2009 Toonie Awards Banquet

First, I'd like to thank the CNW folks for asking me to address this (pause) – I almost typed “August Body.” But who wants to start with irony? I believe the official collective noun for cartoonists is – “The Usual Gang of Idiots.” And proud of it!

If you don't get it, corner Basil's granddaughter afterwards (point at her) and ask her to explain.

I had a request to talk about Women in Comics. “Women in Comics is The Panel Subject That Wouldn't Die.”


The title of this address is “You're Doing It Wrong.” It comes from a phrase that was originally used in the movie “Backdraft,” and is now rampant on the internet. It ranges in appearances from the pages of coding instructions and the titles of blogs, to a picture of a rat with the handle of a spoon in its mouth.

Since somebody always asks me why I do comic books instead of some other easier art form, here's my only answer: because I can... write and I can... draw. Okay?

That answer drives interviewers crazy. They always want a tortured history. Or influences. It's the wrong answer. It's why I'll never get a gig teaching art. My entire reply to “teach me to draw” is: Get a pencil and a pad of paper and draw everything you see – for twenty years. See? Wrong answer.

I've always done it wrong. I've drawn the wrong things, and said the wrong – read “unacceptable” – things about them. I've gone down the wrong roads and followed the wrong ideas. The Road NOT Taken for me has always been the one somebody just mowed. There aren't enough bugs and thistles and nettles on that road; you can't eat mowed grass. But you CAN deep-fry cicadas and make nettle omelets.

I don't think this audience is going to be surprised I knew that. It's the job of a cartoonist to be complete garbage brains; it's how we keep it funny. Finding a left-handed link between the unrelated is the birth of the non sequitur and the belly-laugh. Comedy is the strongest horse: nothing's sacred, not Allah's turban, not the Pope's red slippers, not even recipes for kosher bacon bombs. Unlike a lot of writers and artists, we know we're throwing snowballs at top hats.

But somebody always had to do it wrong, at least the first time. It was the wrong artists who decided it would be cool to twist the bodies on Scythia's tattoos. For all I know we're the ones carved the fat ladies and left them in the caves to confuse and awe the local shamans – or we were the shamans. Who else would have figured out how to make caricatures pay? I wouldn't be the first one to define the swimming reindeer heads on the cave wall and the Egyptian Book Of The Dead as “cartoons.”

I might have been the first to define the Stations of The Cross as a comic strip, complete with panel gutters and word balloons. Scott McCloud thought we were all going to be hit by lighting – but Jack Kirby said I was right. Well, if anybody was ever was one of the “Usual Gang,” that guy was. I'd say he was totally off the grid, except there's one named for him.

I've always done my art wrong. When I was a kid, I started drawing German soldiers. Why I did was mostly about fashion, relationships and horses. And cute guys. Girls don't ask about the politics when they've seen a cute guy, especially one who looks good in boots. The politics would come later. In spades. I could bore for England.

When you consider that my parents and their neighbors were part of the worldwide Generation That Couldn't Get Along with Anybody, you'll see why I was always hiding the drawings in the back of the underwear drawers. Who else hid their art there? (look over audience) Oh, didn't you HAVE an underwear drawer? I bet your mother dressed you funny, too. (Use this one depending on audience reaction.)

I've spent 23 years piling up pages about an impossible subject – what genre-minded publisher is going to touch my stuff? I got news for 'em – there's a whole new generation of girls now drawing the same uniforms. But with long hair and faces whiter than anything the original Aryans would have allowed to run around outside a camp for – ahem – “defectives.” It's like Prussia meets Anne Rice. I must be doing something right, because I'm getting really tired of reprinting my books every time I sell out. Which is one of the reasons I went with print-on-demand. I thought Done is DONE, but in publishing the targets keep moving. I'll keep you posted in Penstuff.

When I was asked why I drew what I drew, I answered, “When I grow up I'll find another girl drawing the same thing – and she'll be in Switzerland!” which was my idea of a really far-away place. Forty years later, I did find her – and she was from Switzerland. I also said all the world's money was controlled by a little old Japanese lady living in Switzerland – and now I'm beginning to wonder.

I also used to yell at my dad: “I'm gonna go live with the Indians!”

Now we live in Clallam Bay. We're not exactly at the butt-end of nowhere, but you can see it from there. Guess who we live next door to now? They're getting their language back. And selling t-shirts that say, “Resisting terrorists – for 500 years.” We better hope all they want is casinos – and not 40 acres and a mule.

What do we have on the Olympic Peninsula? A beach, a wood stove and two full baths. Bald eagles in the backyard and harlequin ducks practically underfoot. If you come visit and I'm smoking fish, be careful of the salmon grease on the front doorknob. We also have wireless DSL; talk about your techno-hicks.

Living that far out forced working on the internet. I'll admit the roads on the interwebs can be like navigating Highway 112 during the slide season . But that's just the briar patch for Brer Cartoonist. We can find loopholes in sites – like allowing blog catalog readers to find bookstores through the IndieBound system, even for books that don't have an ISBN number. The trick is using your publisher serial-number base, and putting a fake three-number ending on it. I use XXX like the old cartoon whisky barrels. Think of it as back-roadin' the revenooers.

No matter what you do, part of it is going to be right. The publisher may want you to sign the contract, but she also wants your copyright – even though she can't afford it. That may look good, but if you end up working for ten years without copyrights, you're the typecast Star Trek actors before Roddenberry took pity on them. Just remember: if they can't afford to pay you, they can't afford to sue you.

After watching one of my colleagues fight with Hollywood, I wrote my own animation contract:

Take my work and screw it up any way you want; I'm not going to be buying any of it, or even watching it. But first hand over six million dollars – offshore – and never talk to me again. If you do, you'll pay another million for every contact. I mean it – every time you think you need to bug me again, by any means, for any reason, it'll be another million dollars. Don't ask me if you can make t-shirts or get the wrong voiceover actress or persecute the fans for selling knickknacks; I won't care. I'll be on a beach somewhere. With tequila. And no cell phone.

I once described this contract to an animator, who said, “They'd go for it! No lawyers! And no agents!”

I posted this as part of a binding public contract on my blog. It says that anybody who signs me for a copyright owes me six figures. With its date. Any publisher doesn't find it before signing, it's his own fault for hiring lawyers on the cheap. And not surfing.

We already know how much publishers love us. To quote the Canadian Broadcasting Company's radio series Monsoon house: (Use East Indian accent) “We don't have so many authors, now; less aggravation.”

A Facebook friend and I were laughing about how the economic meltdown affecs artists. Ha! Artists are like – pardon the comparison – black people in the depression: “What economic meltdown?” Everybody should hire us as consultants for living on the edge. We must have liked college because a lot of us are still living on the same budget we had in the dorm. Ramen is your friend.

In cartooning you have a choice: money or legacy. With the first, you're gambling you can save the money for the future; the second lets you pile up owned work. Copies of my books that originally went for $6.00 are going for RS 1300 in India – about $26 bucks apiece. I still own all my stuff and no publisher is going to have to wrangle with anybody else in the negotiation. Except me. (Burt Lancaster Grin).

My legacy is nailed: a reader opened up a contact with the San Diego State University special collections department. Your readers make a great street team and they love being included. I gave Collections a bunch of sketchbooks, art, printed books and the strange toys readers send me, to seed the Donna Barr collection. I have a little glass plaque on the Love Library entry wall, and am a designated heritage member of the university. They put me up at the Hyatt when I went to speak at the opening of my collection because they wanted to emphasize that comics artists are important artists. Cool, huh?

They got collections for everybody, even a complete set of the original Wizard of Oz books. Their original print runs go back to the 15th century. It's the ultimate geek job. If you get a chance at the San Diego Comicon, go beg the Love Library to let you take a peek at the stacks. They have my Inkpot Trophy – and my Toonie. SCORE! (Arms Up)

There are two more roads: an idea nobody else ever thought of, or one everybody's thinking of. Deciding on something original can work for or against you. If it's rather original, it could require a lot of steps to relate to an audience. If it's VERY original, you need dumb luck.

Forks, the town where the Twilight series is set, got lucky when the author said she found it on Mapquest and the publishing industry was in PPD: Post-Potter-Depression. But living 30 miles from the place, I'm wondering whether Meyers wasn't using the bad teeth, living in the dark, and poaching, as a parable about the meth capitol of the Pacific Northwest.

Are we born with our luck? Chinese birth signs come in twelve-year cycles, light and dark. Late baby-boomers like me got the dark cycle. We don't just get the snake, we get the Snake In The Grass – powerful and talented, but nobody recognizes his or her gifts. We get the War Horse. I'm a dragon – but I'm The Dragon In The Rain. Rain dragons see everything as dark and stormy. They never feel at home.

But if I recognize that, I can turn a weakness into a strength. Every time I'm feeling like I don't belong, or that I'm in the wrong place in my life, I just have to remember I'm a Big Wet Lizard, and the feeling goes away.

Well... mostly.

Like I said, nothing's perfect. Then again, Zen Buddhists say EVERYTHING's perfect. So you can't really do anything incorrectly, anyway. If nothing else, it will be a learning experience. You know (quote signs) – a “Learning Experience.” (Look over glasses). Yeah, I think we've all had a few of THOSE. We still try to hide them in the back of the underwear drawer.

So there's no use waffling on whether or not it will turn out right. If there are too many choices, then there's only one way to make a decision and move forward: flip a coin. Or look at a good horoscope.

I don't necessarily believe in horoscopes – mostly because of parallax (point at sky) – but since my day usually has about 14 roads to choose from, the few sentences of instructions and suggestions – usually printed next to the comics pages, which I'm going to be reading anyway – will help me steer me onto one road. It doesn't prevent it from being a road full of nettles – it just keeps me from falling in the potholes or meeting highwaymen. Of course, if you ascribe to the belief that falling in the hole is how you learn to climb back out, you might want to be steering for the ruts, anyway. It's your road.

Like the atheist ad-boards on busses say about God– you don't know, so don't worry about it. Especially when you're lying in bed when your half of the globe is asleep and really can't do anything to you until it wakes up and has its coffee. Any road you take, one way or the other, it's going to be the wrong road.

But it will be PERFECT. (Prayer hands).

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Another Interview

Interview with me by K.A. Laity at Wombat's World. With lots of links! Cool site.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Another Artist Needs Your Help

Comic artist Dave Simons was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Now he has bills, and won't ask himself. But he needs chipping in. Go read, and pass on.

I'm sending this piece of art for the auction. At a pertinent moment in Washington.

If you ain't got money, send art. (Artists are like -- pardon the comparison --- black people in the depression: "What economic meltdown?")

This stuff adds up -- I've seen major medical bills paid off twice in creator and fan campaigns that took in a few bucks at time -- and one big art auction at San Diego Comicon that raked in $30,000 in three hours for an artist's wife's facial rebuild after a bad wreck.

(Click art to see full size. Those of you who KNOW that, have patience with readers who don't.)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Bare Naked Holiday Cards

This is how I stopped hunting envelopes when making my own holiday cards. Print on both sides of a piece of pond or a nice piece of art paper. This is just layout -- make your own with OpenOffice.org's software. It's free, and works with PC and Mac.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Great German Word Hunt, 2

If you were coming up with words for the German prompt buttons, Anne Kirkham of Bremen and Tommy Lee and Sharon Henderson have beat you to it.

Watch for their efforts on the new website, coming soon!

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Great German Word Hunt

Hi, Mad Readers of Mine!

Dave Baxter, of Worst Writer and Kill The Grizzly is doing neat little prompt buttons for my WHOLE NEW Peach-based website (other books will come later, okay? We don't want to scare the new readers with the ENTIRE Midnight Library. It's like building a fire -- little bites first).

He had this cool idea - when you hover the pointer over a prompt button, it reads as the German word.

Now we all know how rich (and slightly warped) German idiom can be. I suspected the Germans were using English words, as the German Lush site.

But... you know we're always going to do something -- ahem -- "original" (with all that implies in English idiom). You native German speakers -- putting your heads into the era in which the Peach lived -- what word do you think the Peach would have used to say "Home," "contact," "register" on a webite? Perhaps even a military-flavored word? Get out your historical thinking cap and put your tongue FIRMLY in your cheek. And have fun! Driving very proper German professors out of their minds encouraged. Dialect encouraged! Private jokes encouraged!

The words we need so far are: About, Archive, Contact, Forum, Store, First, Home, Last, Home, Next, Previous, Subscription.

Dave, I'd like to give credit to anybody who helps out on this or whose word gets used. Maybe when the button opens up, we can add, "Vielen Dank to:!"

And I'll send those who get in a sketch of Udo using their word.

(And if you call me ANAL, Dave, them's a compliment to us Germans! And all the Freudian connotations THAT has). ;))

This is also part of a Facebook Comicon Event , which lists the deadlines.