Backstage last Saturday at Comixtravaganza

It happened like this.

A few months ago, Hayden Bass and Jennifer Bisson of the Seattle Public Library -- you know, the smart teen-program librarians profiled here -- were talking about putting together a comics event similar to last year's zine symposium. Hayden e-mailed me asking if I could recommend local comics talent that might be interested in participating in some kind of "Comics Day" at the library. I was happy to oblige, though heaven knows it's not hard to find comics people in Seattle. Mostly I just pointed her to Fantagraphics and a few other folks I knew here in town.

Hayden also asked me if I'd be willing to participate in the festivities and of course I said yes, grateful that with e-correspondence there was no way for her to see me blushing like a schoolgirl. I was enormously flattered and pleased to be asked.

Well, the shindig eventually morphed into Comixtravaganza, and expanded to include all sorts of comics and anime-related events at different branch libraries around town through the whole month of January. The big finale was last Saturday and it was great fun. Julie and I were on hand for the whole thing. Here's how it went.

The first event was a "Comics Workshop with David Lasky." I knew that David was an enormously talented alternative cartoonist, I'd seen a couple of his pieces in the local alt-weekly arts papers here.

What I did not know and was delighted to discover, was that David is also teaching a kids' comics class at a local elementary school. He looked a little overwhelmed at first, as the room filled up, and kept filling up....

... but he recovered quickly. Truthfully, no one was really ready for the attendance; Jennifer told me later that the total head count for David's workshop was a hundred and fifteen, more than double what they thought they were going to get. Seating was at a premium and even though volunteers were frantically bringing in more chairs for the first twenty minutes or so, quite a few of us ended up leaning against the wall or sprawled on the floor.

David is a very soft-spoken guy with a deceptively dry wit. He walked everyone through how to do an eight-page minicomic using just a single folded sheet of paper. Then as a demonstration piece, he solicited suggestions from the audience for characters, conflict, and plot, eventually roughing out a story of a cat working as a coffeehouse barista who has to demonstrate that he shouldn't be replaced by a new automated espresso-making robot/machine. I'm sorry we didn't get a better shot of David's drawings on the board as he sketched all this out, because they were hilarious -- especially when he decided that in order to convey the true Seattle barista look, the cat better have piercings and tattoos.

One of the solicited suggestions was for the audience to supply the cat's name, whereupon my bride yelled, "Genghis!" That is the name of our cat, and I told David later that Julie was tickled that he used it. He grinned and allowed as how he had suspected that was someone's real cat. (Julie has been telling Genghis all this week that he better behave or he'll be replaced by a robot, though I've yet to see any improvement in his behavior. As I write this she is scolding him about clawing the couch.)

I had pushed the entire month-long program hard in class for all of January, and it was nice to see several of my students in attendance. Both Shane and Carlos made it to the workshop, and though I lost track of Shane later I did get to say a brief hello to his dad.

Carlos and his mother I only got to wave at from across the room, but I was very pleased to see them. You see, Carlos is not an academic star, and occasionally has discipline issues -- mostly his difficulty is his complete inability to sit still, not an uncommon thing in middle school but apparently other teachers have more problems with it than I do. Certainly his mother takes these school reprimands very seriously; every so often Carlos has let slip a comment to the effect that he really loves it when our books hit print because then his mother "can see I'm not totally worthless."

So I was delighted to see him, and even more delighted that he brought his mother. For once the kid could strut a little -- comics is something he can DO, and at this event he got to be an achiever in front of his Mom.

One of the reasons I try to get the kids to the various comics events here in town isn't just so they can meet working professionals -- though that's a big part of it -- but also because when they do come, they bring their parents. So the parents can see that cartooning is a Real Thing for their child, it's not just goofing off, it's something they work at.

It really sells the class to the folks at home for them to see comics professionals treating their children as peers, fellow zinesters. Julie told me later that Carlos' mother was a complete convert by the end of the day; she wasn't nearly as disapproving as she looks in her picture, though you can see that she is winding up for another admonition to her son to sit still.

I had to duck out of David's workshop early, because I had my own panel to get to, and I had agreed to be interviewed for the library's teen podcast page. (I don't think it's up yet, but that page is here; audio only, but I think they taped the panel, too. If it's not posted yet I assume it will be soon.)

In addition to myself, several other of the panelists were milling around as well. I said a quick hello to Nicole Pelham from NDP; we've been running into each other at Seattle shows for going on ten years now, a fact we shared a rueful chuckle over.

Nicole and her sister Danielle have been doing these terrific "How to Draw Manga" workshops at Seattle schools and libraries for a while now -- I took my class to one seven years ago, and they are great. Apparently they're doing more extended school work these days, the library auditorium had a whole wall displaying their students' comics from Hamilton Middle School.

It really did my heart good to see that there are more comics programs in Seattle schools than just mine, though apparently my kids are the only ones in town doing actual zines.

The young lady in the green jacket in the lower left corner of that shot, as it happens, was the one doing the podcast interviews. I feel bad that I've forgotten her name, she was really very sweet. She was endearingly nervous and we assured her she was doing fine. To begin with it was me and also Madeline and Rose from the "Serves You Right" webcomic. Here we are up in front of the the sound booth, with Davey Oil on our left -- he was volunteering to do the sound for all the auditorium stuff.

Hayden had put us up there so we could stay unobtrusive and not be gawked at as the audience filtered in, and also so there was a soundproof place available for us to do our interviews. No one admitted it but I think we were all a bit nervous.

It was nice to see Madeline and Rosie, though, despite my mild case of nerves. We had met them at the Emerald City show, they have a table there every year, and I'd actually commissioned a sketch from them last year for my student Madison. I get a big kick out of their strip "Serves You Right," about the misadventures of two foxes. Julie likes their stuff too -- she has one of their promotional buttons she got at last year's convention hanging from our car's rear-view mirror, right next to the one that says "Geek Pride."

I tend to forget that the girls are still in high school; they are amazingly sharp and poised. By the time they're old enough to vote they'll probably be running things in this town.

Madeline and Rosie's web site is here and I urge you all to check it out.

The other panelists I had not met; in fact, I STILL haven't met Eric Reynolds from Fantagraphics, he was at the other end of the dais and somehow every time I went over to say hello I got swept away by someone else. We did our interviews and by the time we were done the auditorium was filling up. Eric from Fantagraphics took his turn in the booth while Madeline and Rosie and I just hung out in the cheap seats for a few minutes. Then I heard a voice calling my name.

It was Dasha, from my Madison class, along with her father and her classmate Nina. Here they are -- that's Dasha, Nina, and Dasha's dad.

I apologize for the picture quality; I cleaned it up some, but really our camera just can't compete with actual press cameras. (Most of the GOOD shots in this column were stolen from Fantagraphics' online gallery.) Dasha was annoyed because they'd apparently been unable to find David's workshop and had been wandering around since two, but they were very excited to be there. I had brought a bunch of our promotional ashcans and I showed one to Dasha's father. I'm not sure but I think it may have been news to him that Dasha did the cover.

I'd run close to a hundred of the ashcans the day before so I'd have them available for people at this event, and Hayden had helpfully provided a table near the entrance for those of us that had stuff to give away. In addition to my kids' books there were also flyers about the Crumb exhibit at the Frye Museum, as well as the release party for Ellen Forney's new book, Lust. (When I say Seattle's a great comics town, I'm not kidding.) I was pleased to see the student books moving briskly, even without the irrepressible Lindon present to serve as the Marketing Fairy.

It seemed to be getting to be time for us to take our places at the dais, so we panelists started moving in that direction. I sat down with Rosie and Madeline on one side, and a sardonic-looking young man on the other. He grinned and said, "Hi, I'm Bill." We shook hands. This was Bill Barnes, the artist of Unshelved, another favorite webcomic of mine and many of my friends.

He introduced me to Gene Ambaum next to him, the writer of the strip. I explained who I was and about the student comics over on the table, and Bill suggested I pimp them to the audience as rare collectibles. "Marketing. Marketing's key."

Hayden took the podium --that's her, up there, behind all that blurring; I swear when we check the pics on the camera's thumbnail monitor they look better than this. Anyway, she introduced our moderator (it shames me to admit that I've forgotten her name, but I believe she was another branch's teen librarian who was something of a manga expert.) Our moderator then in turn asked us to introduce ourselves. I've already done that, so here's a couple more pictures. This first one is Rosie and Madeline, me, and Bill.

And the other half of the dais: Gene Ambaum, Nicole Pelham, and Eric Reynolds.

I'm not going to attempt to sum up the entire panel; you'd do better just checking out the podcast audio, really. But I can give you a couple of highlights.

Mostly what I remember is that it was big, big fun. Bill and Gene are hilarious and often brought the house down. They were clearly the stars, along with the Heffernan sisters; the audience really was interested in the whole idea of online publishing. I was surprised by this, as I'd thought Nicole and Eric would be the ones people were most interested in.

Bill did throw the ball to Eric a time or two and when he spoke he had a lot of good stuff to say. I felt bad Nicole didn't get more of a chance to shine, but on the other hand, it was a lot of fun to watch Rosie and Madeline get the rock star treatment. At one point someone asked about how to make a living from online publication and Rosie said, rather helplessly, "Well, we're still in high school, so it's not really a problem for us...."

Bill added that the amazing thing was how many people assumed being published meant you were rich, which caused Julie, out in the audience, to explode with laughter. I couldn't resist leaning forward and saying dryly, "That's my wife out there having hysterics at that idea."

Bill and Gene had brought a bunch of copies of their own book, and they generously offered a free book to anyone who asked a question. I'd thought Bill was kidding, just trying to wake up the room a little, but by God there appeared a volunteer with an armload of Unshelved books. Dasha and Carlos both shot up their hands when they heard this, and they both had questions. Dasha's was, "How do you train to become a cartoonist?"

Bill said, "You'll be glad to know they've relaxed the stringent training standards for cartoonists in recent years," which got a big laugh. The others went on to talk about how you just sort of did it, you learned by doing.

Finally I couldn't stand it any more. I said, "You should all know, that's Dasha, she's one of mine, you can see her work in that student zine over there. You're training NOW, kitten." As all eyes turned to her Dasha flinched with such terrified embarrassment that I stopped before adding, in fact, she collaborated on the cover. But I suspect there was a little pride buried under the flinch, too.

The Q-and-A format kept things loose and I think we all did okay, though there were a couple of questions that I think we answered more than once: mostly of the how-do-you-do-it variety. Dasha's was in that area, as well as another young lady who wanted to know about how one finds inspiration.

I've noticed this before, the idea that people think there's some sort of secret to the process. This phenomenon persists no matter how many times those of us that actually work at this tell you that the "secret" is simply to sit your ass down and get started. Inspiration is something that usually comes once you've already made some kind of start, and frankly, I think "inspiration" is overrated anyway. What lifts a project up isn't the concept behind it. It's the talent and craft the artist brings to it, and craft, especially, is something that you can learn and improve upon with practice.

But nobody in the audience wants to hear about being diligent and learning your craft and practicing. So they keep fishing for The Secret. I've seen this play out, over and over, at every single writer's panel and artist's panel I've ever been to in the last thirty years, in comics and out. Sometimes I think there ought to be some sort of There's No Secret To Doing This! clause included in the introduction to these events.

No one was snarky about this to the people asking the questions, though. I'm afraid I probably came closer to sounding impatient about it than anyone, though I was trying to be nice: my normal response is usually something a lot ruder when students grump about it. ("How do you get better? Practice. A pencil goes where you push it. You can print your name in capital letters, right? Same skill set, different lines. Learn where the lines should go, get comfortable with the tools. Practice. Are you practicing? No? Then, what, do you think elves are going to do it for you?") That was why I'd finally had to twit Dasha a little from the dais and get her to shriek and flinch; she should know better, after a year in my class.

Carlos asked, "How do you deal with criticism?"

Bill Barnes said innocently, "What criticism?"

I hefted my cane and said, "I arrange to meet them late at night and bludgeon them to death."

We all went on to talk about how you need to consider the source, if it's good criticism you use it and if it's bad you disregard it, the need to develop a thick skin, and so on. I didn't add, is your mother giving you a hard time, Carlos? because that would just have been mean; kidding Dasha from the dais was entertaining, but kidding Carlos that way would have been abusive. I can't tell you how I know that, exactly, but I just do.

There was more, I'm sure, but that's what I remember. When the panel broke up I chatted with a couple of folks that came up to say hello; one of them was Kristy Valenti from The Comics Journal and Comixology. I'm afraid I was a bit distracted by Dasha and Nina bouncing around me but I did manage to stammer out that I was a big fan of the Journal and I'd read her work. (I told her that my first issue of the Journal had been the Ellison one that started all the fuss, #53, and she looked a little nonplussed. It occurred to me later that she was probably in diapers when that issue came out, if she'd even been born at all. That was a depressing thought.) She was there to help Eric sell some books for Ellen Forney, who was the day's headliner.

I found Julie and we started to settle into our seats for Ellen's talk, when Bill Barnes waved and said, "Hey, Greg!" To my utter dumbfounded delight, he handed me a copy of the Unshelved collection that he and Gene had signed, To Greg -- Read responsibly! I was so befuddled by this that my thank-you probably came out sounding like gibberish, but I think they got the idea. I hope so. It was just a lovely, lovely gesture and it's a wonderful book; it passed the ultimate test for a humor book, it made me laugh out loud in public. Recommended.

Dasha and Nina didn't stay for Ellen's talk, which is a shame, because it was terrific.

She had a whole multimedia projection thing going on, but she didn't really need it; she's a riveting speaker and really knows how to connect with an audience.

I ended up falling for one of the books -- I Love Led Zeppelin is a compilation of the various strips she's done for The Stranger and other weeklies. I really recommend it as well, it's a great sampler of her work.

After her talk there was a great flurry and bustle as the audience swarmed the Fantagraphics table to get a book for Ms. Forney to sign. I was amazed to see my student Denny from Aki standing in the room as well. I hadn't thought any of the Aki kids made it. He'd apparently been there all day, but as is his habit, he had stayed quietly in the background. He was alone, no parents, which Julie found a little alarming; she made him promise that he would wait until we could escort him to the bus stop.

Denny looked a little sheepish. "I think this is expired." He held up a tattered bus-transfer slip. Sure enough, it had stopped being valid a couple of hours ago.

I was torn between being exasperated at the kid's thoughtlessness, and being moved that it had meant so much to Denny to stay that he'd deliberately chance being stranded downtown. I told him, "We'll give you bus fare." While Julie fished out some change for him, I went off with Jennifer to retrieve my bag and jacket from her office.

When I got back, I saw that the delay put us at the end of the line for Ellen Forney, but we decided to stay anyway. I told Denny he should come with me and say hello, and he dutifully joined me at the end of the line.

Ellen Forney does a great book-signing -- she makes it a point to chat with and personally acknowledge everyone that comes to the table. This is very nice but it does slow things down some. Fortunately, no one seemed to mind.

When it got to be our turn, I introduced Denny as one of my students and showed her his page in the ashcan. She started to hand it back to me and I told her to keep it, whereupon she instantly turned to Denny and said, "Are you signing?"

It stonkered him. Denny blinked and said, "Uh -- sure."

She handed him a pen. Denny scowled at the book for a second and said, helplessly, "I don't know what to write."

"It's hard!" Ms. Forney agreed.

"Just say, 'All the Best,' " I suggested.

"I usually just write, 'Peace,' " Ms. Forney added.

Finally Denny scrawled something. (I didn't see what it was, but I was amused to note later when I looked at my copy of Zeppelin that Ms. Forney had split the difference -- she'd written, To Greg and Julie, PEACE! Best, Ellen Forney.)

Denny shifted uncomfortably and said, "I really don't like that page, these are better." He hauled out two 11x17 penciled pages from his knapsack, the same two pages he's been obsessing over since last October.

Ms. Forney bent over them, nodding. "These are nice," she said. "You know what you have that will really help you? You have great handwriting. This lettering is really good."

"It's part of the art," Denny said. I had to repress the urge to shout in triumph -- you have no idea how hard it is to get that idea across to most of my students.

Julie motioned to me and I stepped away, mouthing a thank-you to Ellen Forney as I went. Denny hung back for another minute or two, reluctant to let go of the moment. I think he was showing her his sketchbook, and she ended up autographing a page in there for him.

When he came up to us, Julie asked him if he needed to call home. "It's getting late, won't your mom and dad be worried?"

Denny just shrugged, and Julie let it drop, though she was adamant that we would get him safely to the bus stop. The library was closed by now and a volunteer let us out.

As we walked down the block to where Denny had to catch his bus, he suggested he could have just scammed a ride home on an old transfer. Julie was scandalized at this and told him that was plain stealing.

I was more practical. "I've been poor and I've tried the transfer scam too," I told him. "It doesn't work. Once they cycle through the whole alphabet they change the look of the slips, the new ones don't match the old ones. You'd just get in trouble. Take the money and shut up." I grinned at him to take the sting out of it. Denny flushed a little, but he smiled back and nodded.

The bus pulled up and Denny boarded. He waved shyly from his window as the bus pulled away, and I told Julie, "Honey, you shouldn't talk to him like he's going home to Ward and June Cleaver. I'm pretty sure he's not. It's just twisting the knife."

Julie looked very sad. "It's not right," she said. "He shouldn't be out around the city at night by himself."

"He's got us," I said. "Better than nothing. He probably got more parenting from you today than he's had in the last six months."

And, I reflected, for a couple of minutes there he even got Ellen Forney in his corner. That's a pretty big damn deal. That's worth a buck and a quarter in bus money. Hell, that was worth the whole day.

I hope Ms. Forney sees this so she knows what a big damn deal it was.


And that was our day at Comixtravaganza. Thanks again to Hayden and Jennifer, and our fellow participants, and the amazing crew of library volunteers, and all the nice people who came up and said hello and admitted to reading this column. You all rock.

See you next week.

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