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Archive for 2014

The Long March is OVER

Written on Tuesday, April 8th, 2014 [permanent link]


In the spring season of school talks, I often get asked how long it takes me to make a Chester comic. The answer varies widely because some of the books are just reprints of four stories I drew years ago for the Daily Press but others are created from scratch. The fastest I ever went from blank pages to a completed book was the George Washington biography I did for Mount Vernon: just a shade over four months from start to finish.

The worst I ever did was the book that just ended yesterday.

My World War 2 Tales book has sold well for many years. Boys still love to read about WW2 because it has cool technology and a simple moral structure — like Star Wars. But World War I remained the biggest gap in the timeline of my book subjects. Teachers and students struggle to understand that war because it was such a mess of obscure European politics and because the battles never really went anywhere. It was one big mudpit. But MY mission is to make such dense history into an understandable story (like I do in Constitution Construction, for example), so in the summer of 2009, I waded into the mud.

Yeah. You read that right. SUMMER OF 2009. I rough drafted the pages while sitting on picnic benches at a Boy Scout summer camp in North Carolina. The Scouts enjoyed seeing my progress from day to day and making suggestions of jokes and details to add. In the coming months I drew the pages in finished form, and by Labor Day of 2010 I had the children of friends coloring in the pages on my computer. All good! The heavy lifting was done!!! But the more we all nibbled at it, the farther the finish line seemed to pull away into the distance.

What happened? This book got sucked into the very sinkhole that I warn young artists about: a never-ending fussiness that swallows you up when you don’t have a stated deadline. For my whole career I’ve been able to punch out something decent in a defined time — the hallmark of newspaper cartooning — but this was a book driven by just me. And for once my drive sank into the complex details of the pages, and I got stuck. All I had to do was finish coloring this British uniform or that map or the German veteran in the last panel on the last page. But I couldn’t muster the care and attention to detail that it takes to finish art that is historically accurate.

There were plenty of excuses to point to. It was easier to indulge my curiosity elsewhere than to knuckle down on finishing the details of the WWI book. My creative hours got crunched when I began contract work at Historic Jamestowne in January 2011 so I could get paid while learning the latest historical discoveries for 17th century America (I’m still out on the island and having a good time — last weekend we married off Pocahontas on the 400th anniversary of her wedding!!). Then I got a contract to do a book about Oberlin, Ohio — my home state, and a town with a lot of cool 19th century history that I hadn’t drawn before. Then I got a contract to do a book about Lexington, Massachusetts. And then contracts to draw for Colonial Williamsburg. And when someone brings you a check to draw new stuff, you take the check.

That’s why “the cobbler’s children have no shoes.” Once I got distracted, it was hard to find a clear direction out of the WWI mud. This spring — goaded on by my son who was at that Scout camp in 2009 (who is now a HIGH SCHOOL JUNIOR) and by the oncoming 100th anniversary of the start of World War I (THIS AUGUST!!!) — I pushed through to finish the book. Every one of those Scouts and kids who helped me years ago is going to get a free copy of this comic.

If I can track down their college dorm room addresses . . .

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