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Archive for 2012

Inspiration Goes Both Ways

Written on Saturday, December 15th, 2012 [permanent link]

Every day I make my pilgrimage to the post office to check the box for new orders for history comix or for checks that pay for previous orders. Some days I get something even better.

Today I got this. The letter and drawings from 10-year-old Donald made me so happy. There was no money in the mailbox today. There was no way to ship out new comix without waiting in line for 40 minutes amongst the holiday shippers. But Donald sent me a gold mind. He sent me a gift that came from his energy and passion and time. His love of Chester reminds me how important my work is. I love working for myself, and it’s nice to make enough money to buy iPhone apps whenever I want to, but a big part of the payment I receive for my work is the feeling that I am inspiring my young readers — inspiration to learn more, inspiration to love the nation and culture of America, inspiration to create their own stories.

Inspiration works both ways. Just yesterday I was back in the elementary school that taught my two sons over a 10-year period. I went into that building to volunteer in their art classes almost every week during those 10 years. I read my favorite childrens books to their classes at storytime. I played on the playground with them. The family of teachers at this school were so dear to my oldest that we had to drag him out of there after fifth grade as he protested that he wanted to graduate from high school there. Now that son is in college. Once a year I retrace my steps up to the front door in a kind of homecoming: the teacher who had my youngest in her gifted writing class asks me back every December to speak about my author work to her current class of gifted writers.

And they inspire me. Yesterday’s session was a great give-and-take with the authors of the future. At one point they were champing at the bit to draw so much that I stopped talking and let them draw, to see what they would create. They had ideas and knowledge and fearlessness. Grownups can get worn down by daily To Do lists and can give in to doubt. Connecting with creative kids is an electrical jolt that propels me forward in my own storytelling.

Thanks to all the young people who dare to be great. You are my heroes 😉

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The Pace of Doodling

Written on Sunday, October 7th, 2012 [permanent link]

Almost every page you see in the Chester comic books was drawn and written on a tight deadline. I’ve spent my whole life practicing that skill: hit some part of the target — and hit it on time.

That’s the curse to the blessing when you get to do what you love for a career. When there is a paycheck at stake, you may run out of time to fine-tune that drawing of an elephant or to find just the right word for “stubborn.” You don’t have to hit the target’s bullseye — but you do have to deliver SOME drawing and SOME words by a certain date. For five years I delivered Chester the Crab adventures that the Daily Press of Newport News, VA, could run Monday through Friday throughout the the school year. It amounted to a giant mountain of one-man content. For four more years after that I did the same kind of educational comic strip for another newspaper in Virginia. Another mountain.

The way to accomplish this deadline art is to keep the Big Picture in mind. Writing a Chester story always meant thinking about all five days of the story at once, being mindful of just how much space I had to fill. (No need to go down a rabbit hole about drawing rabbits just the right way if there’s no room for that kind of detail!) It felt like thinking from the outside in — because if I ran out of time, the first thing to go would be the detail. Draw the outline of a brick building first, to get the idea across; the individual bricks only get drawn if you have time. I still have that dynamic on comics I do on commission — I get a deadline and 24 pages to tell the story of a famous town in Ohio, so I start thinking from the outside in to figure out how fast and well I can fill those pages.

But today, in the corner of my office, in a life of running my own business, lives the exact opposite dynamic — the Doodle.

Most of us remember the Doodle from 5th grade math class or sophomore year German. Many still practice it in committee meetings. After two decades of shooting out drawings like arrows at a target as some for-hire hawkeye, I LOVE going back to the Doodle!

My Doodles help me fill in and expand my old newspaper stories as I convert them for mobile devices. My goal is to double the number of panels from the old print versions. So when I have a spare 10 minutes at the kitchen table, I start a Doodle that may add a panel to the future expanded biography of Patrick Henry. Or I take a cool detail I sketched during a Civil War reenactment with my son and doodle that for a future iPhone version of the Battle of Gettysburg. Here I think inside-out. Because I drew the spine of a story years ago, the big moments of the story are already covered. NOW I can expand a story at any point that seems interesting to me — maybe I’ll draw more panels about the childhood of Clara Barton but focus more of my new Helen Keller panels on her later globetrotting life. Who knows! Each panel I noodle around with now is its own little world.

I’m giving myself the freedom to poke around at the details in each panel. Some of these new panels have taken months to finish.  They’re my little basket of deadline-free fun. But don’t worry — I’ll share them soon.

After I add a few more lines to that barn in the background . . .



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Battle of Antietam

Written on Monday, September 24th, 2012 [permanent link]

A week ago I woke up in a Maryland field to the sound of a rooster crowing.

And then the cannon started.

After that came the bugles that I normally hear for reveille. But the cannonfire was a nice touch. I’M AWAKE! I’M AWAKE!! My 15-year-old son and I were camping just north of the Antietam National Battlefield with 4,000 other reenactors for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War battle. The spread of hundreds of canvas tents under the pink morning sky was inspiring. In our four years of reenacting, I’ve never seen more cavalry or more artillery on the field, sweeping to and fro during the afternoon battles for the spectators.

It’s like watching a moving painting. I portray a battlefield cartoonist, so I’m not marching in the lines of blue and gray but standing back on a hill, furiously sketching what it looks like for 400 men to storm a fence held by 250 other men. And I can also zoom down to sketch details that will add depth my own visual storytelling — how does the pot over the campfire look? How does J.E.B. Stuart hold his sword as he charges? And being in the mix of reenactors gives my other senses a chance to record details for me to use later. How hot is it in the wool clothing at midday? How do your feet feel after a day of marching? What does a Civil War mortar sound like when it fires?

Being on the actual field gives me a chance to research outside the box that a movie or TV show presents. The past 20 years have been revolutionary for the increasing number of historical movies and TV shows we get that have told great stories with great accuracy. But movies and TV shows are still a frame, capturing what a director or editor wants you to see — and leaving out the rest of the story. I’ve found that there’s no substitute for being able to stand somewhere to get a sense of the place and the historical event that happened there.

The visuals are a big part of the story of Antietam — the single bloodiest day in American history. Because Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army was caught so close to Washington, DC, a few days after the battle Alexander Gardner was able to photograph the dead men still in the field. Gardner’s photos were the first ever images to show dead soldiers on the field of battle. A New York Times article about the photographs said it was if the “dead had been laid at our doorsteps.” For civilians who still thought the Civil War was a romantic crusade, those photos were an unsettling window to the brutality and waste of the war.

You can read my story about Antietam — which includes info about Gardner’s photos — by visiting the iTune store!


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