Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? Brian Fies. Abrams ComicArts. New York. 2009. 208pp. $24.95 hardcover.
We are constantly documenting…from the most ephemeral to the everlasting. Much of art is one form of documentation or another. Most graphic novels are some form of a document, some more specific than others. That brings me to a work in comics that does a wonderful job of collecting a lifetime’s worth of observations into a cohesive whole. Brian Fies is an excellent cartoonist in every sense of the term: an auteur creator who dives in and makes sense of the world with crisp and concise combinations of words and pictures. Brian Fies is someone that I look up to as an example of the cartoonist-explorer or cartoonist-journalist. One of his landmark works is A Fire Story which chronicles the devastating California fires from both a personal perspective and a collection of profiles. You can find one of my reviews here as well as one of my interviews. For the book I’m talking about with you now, Fies explores the futuristic dreams promised Americans at the end of World War II and what has actually resulted. That book is Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?
Fies takes the reader to the New York World’s Fair of 1939 and shares a boy’s excitement and idealism on a visit with his father. Buddy is a boy with big dreams fueled by pop culture, government propaganda, along with the inevitable conclusion that humanity is indeed destined for the stars one way or another. Human progress could not be denied, despite a few setbacks, right? Alternating between inspiring entertainment (Chesley Bonestell’s space age paintings in Collier’s magazine) to bona fide advancements (universal electrical wiring, trans-atlantic telephone cables, high-speed motorways), Fies paints a picture of a future that seemed to only be getting brighter. However, there were still those bumps in the road as well as bumps to pave over in the name of progress.
A cold war was to trigger a space race and propel the space age into high gear. Fies dutifully recounts the back and forth rivalry between the Soviets and the Americans. And then it all seems to come to a head in one transcendent moment. During the two-man U.S. Gemini mission in 1965, two astronauts engage in some playful bickering. Jim McDivitt must coax his fellow astronaut, Ed White, to cut short his spacewalk and return to the ship. This less than by-the-book behavior revealed humanity. And it laid to rest Wernher Von Braun’s concern over whether humans could tolerate the free-falling sensation of being in a weightless environment.
The reality that Buddy, our main character, must face is that the idealism of the space age is not just about idealism but also tied to politics and the military industrial complex. Over the decades, our perpetually boyish Buddy and his remarkably youthful father, get to see the full arc of the space age, from its inception to its dwindling popularity. Fies has a lot of fun extending the life of his comics characters in order for them to get the full picture. The era of the big swagger gave way to a new era of smaller, faster and leaner. But this was hardly a step backward and, truth be told, we were inevitably heading in that direction. That’s what Buddy figures out. Tomorrow maybe be late but tomorrow will inevitably come. And what about those jetpacks we were promised? Well, at the time of this book’s release in 2009, that was still a promise. Today, we’re on our way to keeping it. A jetpack currently goes for around $400,000 but they’ll become common someday, within the reach of anyone, and that’s worth the wait.
Box Brown is a cartoonist that I really admire for being able to take a subject he’s passionate about and distill it to its essentials into a comics format. His previous graphic novel was on the all-time great pro wrestler, Andre the Giant. You can read my review here. Brown’s latest book is all about the all-time classic video game, Tetris. Published by First Second Books, “Tetris: The Games People Play,” is a testimony to Brown’s determination to collect all the pieces to a story and create a greater whole.
Page excerpt from TETRIS: THE GAMES PEOPLE PLAY
You most likely know the game even if you don’t normally keep up with games. It’s right up there with such legends as Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. It’s a game with a simple charm and an uncanny allure with origins dating back to antiquity. You can learn more about it and play it for free at the official Tetris site right here. Essentially, the goal of the game is to arrange little blocks as they fall down your screen in the most efficient way possible. There’s a Zen vibe there in its relative simplicity. Ironically, the innocent little game of Tetris became entangled in a complex legal fight that found the game industry giants, Atari and Nintendo, locking horns.
Tetris was originally created in 1984 by Alexey Pajitnov. Brown faithfully follows the creator’s journey and all related Tetris canon. Now, what you probably do not know is that there is a lot of intrigue behind what happened to this game on its way to becoming a classic. When Pajitnov created the game, it was the result of his passion for games without any other plans beyond that. As a citizen of the Soviet Union, his only plan was simply to be a good computer programmer for the government. Brown runs with the story once a profit motive is triggered.
Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov
And so our story gains numerous twists and turns as a cat and mouse game is played out. It is at this point that all the machinations can get a bit overwhelming. Brown handles all these moving parts well. He keeps to a basically lean and clean grid of panels that helps to steady the eye. And, at various intervals, he will devote a page to a portrait of the next key player in the drama. It is a modest little portrait set off by a black background. It amounts to a perfect pause, a great way to catch one’s breath.
Brown seems to hold back a bit more with his artwork than he did in his last book. He has a rather pared-down style to begin with. For this book, I think he opted to simplify as much as possible for the sake of clarity given all the details involved. Some work in comics is mostly to digest information. Other work is mostly to admire the artwork. And so on. Brown strikes a nice balance of conveying information with a certain zeal and style all his own. Once you start this book, you’ll want to keep with it and get the whole Tetris story.
“Tetris: The Games People Play” is a 256-page duo-tone paperback, published by First Second Books. For more information and how to purchase, go right here.
You’ve seen TED talks on YouTube, right? You can always go right to the source at TED.com. If you’re unfamiliar, TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design. TED began in 1984 as a conference that today covers just about any topic. These are powerful short form talks in more than 100 languages.
Considering the “Greater Than” theme
Have you ever gone to a TED event? Well, there are a number of these around the world. I went to an independently run TEDx event here in Seattle. You can discover more about TEDx Seattle right here. With a zeal to learn and a trusty notepad, Jen and I took in a day of TED talks. For fans of TED talks, you can imagine how cool that is!
KCTS, a proud sponsor of TEDx Seattle
This is the first year for TEDx Seattle, formerly known at TEDx Rainier. This last Saturday, we settled into our seats at McCaw Hall at Seattle Center and were utterly delighted with each presentation: from Ranae Holland, a biologist-turned-reality TV star on the hunt for Bigfoot all the way to Suzanne Simard, a forestry expert advocating for all us to address climate change.
The theme for this event was “Greater Than,” an umbrella concept that reinforces our sense of community which is greater than the sum of its parts. The talks were further divided into sessions: curiosity > assumptions; future > today; together > alone; and > sum of the parts.
We had stopped by Stumptown Coffee Roasters on Pine and overheard a couple of young women. One said to the other: “And you can spend your whole life in public service, like Hillary, and still lose to a man!” That’s a good sense of what clings to the air and will remain in the air for years to come. So, heading to our TEDx event seemed like quite a fitting place to be: a place to try to make sense of the rifts and the shifts we are currently experiencing.
I was curious about how each talk would act as a thread to a larger conversation. Can we answer the big question, How do we all come together? Celeste Headlee, a longtime host at National Public Radio, made the case in her talk that we are far more isolated than we may realize. The healing won’t take root, said Headlee, until we respect each other and form authentic bonds. That struck a positive and constructive chord that reverberated throughout the conference.
Scott Wyatt talks about urban density.
As the day progressed, Jen and I got really caught up in the talks. In fact, there were so many ideas presented that it is a bit overwhelming to attempt to recap everything and do it justice. I will focus on just a few with some brief comments. Scott Wyatt, a partner at architecture firm NBBJ, hit the nail on the head regarding the critical mass we have reached as a crowded city. Part of the solution is to adapt and that is what Wyatt covered. With more and more of us shoulder to shoulder, it compels us to find ways to live in harmony.
Another compelling talk was on artificial intelligence presented by Oren Etzioni, an entrepreneur and AI researcher. His main point was that the robots are not coming for us and never will. No, it’s quite the other way around. It is up to us to embrace the new tech as it is ultimately there for us and to help us come together.
Eliaichi Kimaro. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.
Eliaichi Kimaro presented an outstanding talk on her journey of self-discovery. Given the opportunity and the motivation, Kimaro found herself making her first documentary without any prior filmmaking experience. She set out to tell the stories of her ancestors in Tanzania. What she came back with were stories that would summon deep reserves for healing and transformation. Her wish for all of us is that we flood the world with our stories. You can visit the website for Kimaro’s film, “A Lot Like You,” right here.
We also greatly enjoyed the talk by Judge Wesley Saint Clair who has some impressive ideas on providing options for youth who find themselves in criminal court. No, he said, this is not a Hug a Thug program. Instead, it is a no-nonsense program that provides these youth with an opportunity to become part of the community. It was a moving talk and the judge deserves all the support he can get.
We ended the day on a high note with Suzanne Simard, a professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia. Her talk covered the intricate and complex nature of ecosystems. Simard made clear that climate change is very real. Ultimately, we all must come together, as Simard stated, not only for our sake but for the sake of our planet Earth.
In these uncertain times, we can always count on brave and thoughtful people to speak the truth.
Virtual reality and augmented reality are fast becoming part of our new reality, it’s as simple as that. There will be plenty of skeptics, naysayers, and the like, but we’ve always had that when new technology comes along. I say this after not having held any prior opinion on VR and AR before my visit to this year’s Seattle Interactive Conference. But I feel that I’ve really come around to this new tech. It began to intrigue me after listening to the session put together by POP VP Dave Curry and HTC Vive Creative Director Jonathan Faunce.
The Gear is Here: It’s a Virtual World We Live In!
Faunce and Curry provided a lively look at how new tech is already becoming the new normal in the way companies present their products. A great example is the old store catalog model. Forget print catalogs. Forget even PDF catalogs. The new trend is to provide an immersive experience. Consider Lowe’s Virtual Room Designer. Or IKEA’s Virtual Reality Kitchen Experience. Just type in “virtual” or “VR” and you will soon find that virtually everything will have its own virtual reality experience.
The signs of change are coming. Take 3D GIFs. They’ve been making the rounds these last couple of years and you’ll be seeing more and more of them. As the landscape shifts, big traditional companies will seek help. They needed it with the advent of the internet, and then with the emergence of social media. Faunce at HTC Vive and Curry at POP invite them all to give them a call.
One point that Curry and Faunce made really stuck with me: no matter how much they described VR and AR, you really have to try it to see for yourself. So, I did just that. SIC has a couple of stations, one by 8ninths and one by Samsung, and I dived in. The tech, at this point, is pretty remarkable. At 8ninths, I was completely blown away by my tour of a virtual car. I even got to look into the interior as well as check under the hood.
Samsung Gear VR
At the Samsung booth, I can tell, because I was looking for it, there is no motion sickness that’s going to grab you. If you get a chance, try the rollercoaster demo. In fact, stick around and try as many demos as you want. The more I did, the more I came away with a confidence in the tech. Who knew, but you can go inside a volcano and feel all giddy and get educated all in one.
Resolution will keep getting sharper and the immersive experience will continue to improve but we’ve clearly reached a tipping point. Imagine it this way: we’re already a couple of years in; we’re at the third generation level right now; and it’s just a matter of a few more production cycles. You can choose to join in or miss the boat and let your friend clue you in on how cool her goggles are. Nah, you’ll want to have a pair of your own too.
IndieFlix CEO Scilla Andreen gave a lot of thought and heart to her presentation at the Seattle Interactive Conference. It was definitely one of the best at this year’s SIC. She literally has enough material to do numerous talks and she played off that fact by bringing up one subject, talking about it, and then moving along to another saying that she could really focus on that only to move on to another. It was all masterfully done and quite entertaining. At the heart of it all, Andreen was talking about empowerment. You could say her journey began with empowering herself and how that led her to help others do the same.
We’re undergoing a sea change right now. Women are making inroads that seemed untenable only a few short years ago. At one point, Andreen teased out the idea that we will be seeing a significant change very soon with a Madam President and then she quickly moved along since, as I say, there is much to cover. First off, IndieFlix is doing very well by all the filmmakers who have work up for sale or rental. The RPM payment system that IndieFlix uses pays creators revenue per minute viewed. That is the best method to use and is in pace with how we consume content. Then there is the IndieFlix Foundation that brings home the company’s goals to help support the community through public screenings of activist and educational films. One such IndieFlix-backed film is “Screenagers,” about Millennials and tech.
Consider the title of Andreen’s talk: “To Hurt, to Triumph and to Be Human: Expressing Our Humanity Through Technology.” Andreen not only meets her goal of providing insightful examples of how technology affects us, she takes it a big step further by sharing a personal story. Gently, she peels back the story of her daughter, Rashel, an independent thinker who chose to embark on a career in the coffee business in Ireland. Then the news comes back to Andreen that Rashel has cancer. Andreen turns to the emergency crowdfunding site, GoFundMe. The response is stunning. In a brief time, the family’s goal is more than doubled. But Rashel ultimately passes away. Again, the online response is overwhelming and speaks to the spiritual potential of digital life.
The whole time, Andreen tells her story in a conversational yet very direct way. “The most engaging marketing is honest, not perfect, not slick,” says Andreen. In this way, I’m sure, life can be lived and things can emerge organically. I’ll tell you one thing, letting go and trusting one’s instinct is what has led to Rashel to live on through #ForRashel, an ongoing campaign in support of early detection.
Seattle Interactive Conference is an annual event celebrating the convergence of online technology, creativity, and emerging trends in one of the world’s most innovative cities. I will provide you with a look at this year’s conference, October 18–19, made up of my notes and illustrations. Let’s begin with this comics observation. All you really need to know is that this is a tech conference with lots of folks geeking out over various discussions of future trends in the market.
So our consultant ended up feeling a bit frustrated just tapping away on his laptop and not really tuning into the beauty of his own mind and heart. Well, maybe he’ll figure it out in due time. I’ll have more to say on some of the actual sessions taking place during this unique two-day event!
Once a toy has become an artifact of childhood, it has reached a very special place. For the purposes of this exhibit, a look at American toys spanning three decades, the focus is upon the joy and comfort these toys provided. The context is both simple and complex as viewers are invited to study the various exhibits from their own personal point of view. Did you have a happy childhood? If not, maybe a toy helped you along the way? Sectioned off into three decades worth of childhoods, there is plenty to recollect and reassess.
Contemplating Toys and Childhood
“Toys from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s” is enjoying its West Coast premiere on display at MOHAI here in Seattle. Originating from the Minnesota History Center, this exhibit asks you to revisit many toys that, by today’s standards, would not be deemed suitable for children on many grounds, including common sense safety! Lawn darts, anyone?? Yep, we don’t see lawn darts sold in today’s toy market. They’re basically sharp steel projectiles. They’re not going to cut it, or rather, they ARE going to cut it! But, you see, lawn darts have a home here–on display only. Lawn darts are not subject to recall within the bounds of this exhibit. They are here to conjure up good lawn dart memories, for those who have them. And they’re also here as a subject for discussion. As much as this exhibit is a trip down memory lane, it also invites viewers to draw their own conclusions.
The Game of Cootie, originally launched in 1949
What are your thoughts on Barbie dolls or toy guns? You’ll find them here ready for your marvel or scrutiny. The point is that you’ll find all sorts of toys, whether or not they pass today’s safety or societal tests. The overwhelming nature of childhood memory takes over. Countless kids loved their toys and now we have the nostalgia for yesteryear and contemporary perspective to guide us. You’ll find a lot of kids attracted to the exhibits. You’ll see lots of families with their toddlers, too young to appreciate any nuances but ready to grab at anything not secured. And then there are the adults who grew up in these respective decades. For them, especially, the exhibit features living room re-creations for each decade on view. For these viewers, the couch is right there to sit and go back in time with, alone or perhaps to share with younger family members.
1960s Living Room Re-creation at MOHAI Toys exhibit
Toys are certainly not easy to pin down. Toys resist being dismissed even if the originals are stored away or thrown away. Toys come at you from every direction. At a certain age, they define your leisure, your means of escape. They can become your world, your identity. They’re based upon all you think you know about the world whether from books, movies, television, just about anything. What does a choice in a toy say about a child? What does a toy say about the adult who chose it for the child? The adult who created it? The manufacturer that produced it? The country that embraced it?
Atomic Disintegrator repeating cap pistol, introduced by Hubley in 1954
Alpha-1 Ballistic Missile, introduced by Amsco Industries in 1958
One of the best examples of how toys can make a difference is the American reaction to the Soviet’s being the first in space in 1957 with the Sputnik satellite. That little object in space caused shockwaves in the United States. Toy makers would definitively enter the Space Age and Space Race. Hubley’s 1954 Atomic Disintegrator, right out of science fiction, was all well and good. But now was the time to step up a focus on science and technology. Amsco Industries responded in 1958 with the Alpha-1 Ballistic Missile, “designed by missile engineers, tested in Cape Canaveral.” And, as the display makes clear, kids ate it up! There’s this priceless quote from the exhibit:
“How did I get interested in science and make it my life’s work? Kids in the late ’50s and ’60s could get toys that complemented that interest. My friends and I loved my Alpha-1 Ballistic Missile: Mix up some baking soda and vinegar, put it into the missile, put it on the launch pad, and pull the string. That baby could really fly.”
–Mike Smith, b. 1952, meteorologist
It was fun, as a discerning adult, to wander back and forth between the three living room areas: the wonder and innocence in the 1950s; the keen interest in science and exploration in the 1960s; and a full circle escape to wonder and innocence in the 1970s. It seemed like, after having landed on the moon, and the rise of the Vietnam War, Americans were ready to refocus. Instead of looking to actual stars, Americans were ready to go see the new blockbuster hit, “Star Wars,” entertainment with its roots in 1930s pulp fiction. They were also ready to buy all the Star Wars toys.
Hey, that’s Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon!
I have fond memories of the ’70s as a kid. And I recall seeing “Star Wars” in 1977, at age 14, at our local movie theater at the mall. It would not have occurred to me to buy all the Star Wars figures, let alone a toy replica of the Millennium Falcon. But it was really nice to see the whole Star Wars set on display here at MOHAI. Any kid would have been thrilled to have owned them back then. But I’m sure that I owned a couple of figures. And I know that I went to see “Star Wars” more than once, despite the very long lines. I didn’t question any of it back then, although I was certainly old enough to do so. I was more than happy to accept it just as fun. I didn’t think about profit motives or the future of franchises or the American spirit. This brand new thing called “Star Wars” left you with a good feeling inside. And that’s the best thing any toy can offer.
TOYS at MOHAI!
“Toys from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s” is on display at MOHAI through September 25th. For more details, visit MOHAI right here.
Comics Grinder was recently bestowed the honor of being Freshly Pressed by the WordPress community. What does that mean, you ask? For those of you not familiar with WordPress, it means that Comics Grinder has found its place under the sun and joined the honor roll of Freshly Pressed blogs worthy of note. This is a grid that displays a total of 27 entries from various blogs published on WordPress.com. Each day, three more blog posts enter the ring and move the line along.
Okay, so why should you care? There are a number of good reasons. For one thing, to be Freshly Pressed is sort of a seal of approval. You shouldn’t let it go to your head or take it too seriously but, if you should be Freshly Pressed, you should feel pretty good about yourself, and your blog. A happy and self-confident blogger means better blog posts! Yes, it is a great motivator to keep on carrying on.
Once Freshly Pressed, you never go back.
You feel a stronger sense of community. You cannot help but bask in the glow of acknowledgment. You know you must have been doing something right.
A lot of factors go into being chosen to be Freshly Pressed. I believe it has to do with the overall quality of your blog: its consistency, its sense of style, and its relevance. Ah, yes, relevance. Often, a blog post that is chosen for this honor is reflecting something that is currently going on in the world.
The post that was showcased from my blog is an interview I conducted with illustrator Jessie Hartland about her new graphic novel, “Steve Jobs: Insanely Great.” Now, the new movie is out, “Steve Jobs,” with a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin. Here’s the thing, Jessie Hartland struck a balance with the multitude of facts about a most exceptional person. In this new film, it is well understood that Aaron Sorkin takes no prisoners and goes straight for the jugular in attempting to cast Mr. Jobs in the darkest light possible. I am curious about seeing the film but I don’t have to see it. Maybe I’ll wait until it’s on DVD or not see it at all. I think Mr. Sorkin is prone to overkill in the same way as Oliver Stone. And I wonder what sort of treatment Sorkin would get in a Sorkin-like screenplay.
Mr. Sorkin should be ashamed of himself, if that were even possible for man with such an outsized ego. He has written a story about Steve Jobs that robs him of his humanity. An analysis in Fast Company of the real Steve Jobs and Sorkin’s sad, sad portrayal is well worth reading. Here’s a quick excerpt from the essay by Rick Tetzeli, Executive Editor of Fast Company:
The real man was a real man. He was complicated, and therefore could be mean, pig-headed, and wrong even on his best days. But he only became truly great because he was able to learn, grow, harness his strengths, and mitigate his weaknesses. Sorkin’s vision doesn’t capture any of this.
So, I’m very happy to have helped in my small way to spread the word about Jessie Hartland’s fair and thoughtful depiction of the life of a man who we can all, warts and all, look up to.
If you’re considering seeing the Sorkin movie or are curious about getting a good look at Steve Jobs, then seek out Jessie Hartland’s book.
Steve Jobs, we feel we know him and yet he is something of a mystery and there is an enormous amount to cover. Jessie Hartland has created an illustrated work, a “graphic biography,” that brings the public figure down to a human scale: “Steve Jobs: Insanely Great,” published by Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Read my review here.
Jessie Hartland is the author of the highly acclaimed graphic biography, “Bon Appetit: The Delicious Life of Julia Child,” described by the New York Times as “bursting with exuberant urban-naif gouache paintings and a hand-lettered text that somehow manages to recount every second of Child’s life.”
For her book on Steve Jobs, Ms. Hartland provides us with an engaging and comprehensive look at one of the great technology trailblazers of our time. “Steve Jobs: Insanely Great” is another wonderful example of an all-ages book providing a significant amount of information in a concise and entertaining way. While Jobs is a problematic role model at best, he remains a most intriguing individual.
The full interview with Jessie Hartland follows and includes the podcast at the end.
Henry Chamberlain: Do you believe that your book has brought Steve Jobs down to a human scale and made him accessible to readers? What would you say is your purpose in bringing this book out?
Jessie Hartland: I think more people are reading my book than would normally sit down with a 600-page biography. So, more people are learning about him. He’s such a fascinating guy. I had just turned in the book on Julia Child, which was also a graphic biography, this one was in color. And I was searching for who to write about next. I was considering a scientist or an artist. And then Steve Jobs dies. He seemed like just the right person to write about. It had begun as a picture book, more like the Julia Child book I’d done, for younger kids. The more I read about him, the more I wanted to write about his whole life. My editors had originally envisioned the book ending with the Apple I computer. Only 200 of those computers were sold and that’s not what he’s known for. So, I went back to my editors and said I really wanted to cover his whole life, I want to do it in black and white, and just run with it. I didn’t want to limit the page count and I wanted it to be more for middle grade or teenagers.
HC: What was your thinking with going with black and white? Was that to instantly signal the reader that this is more serious content?
JH: I think a lot of the graphic novels out there are black and white. I like the stark quality of black and white. I like Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis.” I could have used color. It wasn’t really discussed. I think I wanted it to be more about the drawings, the lines, and the words rather than these gauche paintings. If I had done gauche paintings for this one, I probably would still be working on it.
HC: This must be quite pleasing to have these two major films coming out coinciding with your book. That didn’t turn out that way with your book on Julia Child.
JH: Yes, that’s a funny story. I came up with the idea for the Julia Child book years ago, probably two or three years before the film, “Julie and Julia.” I had different editors then and they were saying that no one cared about Julia Child anymore. And so the book ended up without a home. Only later, with my editors at Random House, did the book find a home. The 100th anniversary of Julia Child birth was coming up and there would be press for that. But, had we moved forward earlier, my book would have coincided with the film.
HC: But now you’ve got two major films. The new Alex Gibney documentary, “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine,” comes out this week, September 4th.
JH: Oh, really?
HC: And then you have what I can only imagine will be a very important film, with an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, simply entitled, “Steve Jobs,” coming out next month, October 9th. There have been all the books, these two major films. I can’t think, in recent memory, of so much notable work springing forth from one public figure.
JH: He’s such an interesting character. Here’s this guy, this rebel, this iconoclast. He dropped out of college after only one semester. And then he takes a calligraphy class. He starts a little company in his parent’s garage with Woz and it grew to become the world’s most powerful company. It’s just amazing. Who wouldn’t want to know more about him?
HC: We’re at a very interesting turning point with graphic novels. More and more people are understanding that they aren’t just for kids, if they ever were, really.
JH: Yes, that’s right.
HC: You create a perfect all-ages book with issues that can be discussed between a parent and child. You bring in the issue of his experimenting with drugs. You bring in the issue of his not ready to be a dad the first time around. These are big issues but kids can appreciate the realities of life and these are things that are fair game to include.
JH: I didn’t want to leave out the low points in his life. His denying the paternity to his first child with his high school girlfriend. And, of course, the drug use. He said so much about how important that was. He really liked these psychedelic drugs and they gave him a different viewpoint of the world. For him, it was like looking down from another planet and seeing the big picture. It helped him with his intuition and imagining what kind of products people would want in the future before they knew what they wanted. He didn’t like to do market research. He liked to quote Henry Ford, another great businessman. Ford would say that, if he left it up to the public to decide what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse.
HC: I wanted to ask you about your process. You do a variation on storyboarding. I imagine that you work larger than print size and then reduce your pages to fit inside your binder where you can then shuffle them around as you need.
JH: Yeah, I work a little bit bigger than print but not by too much. Those binders are really important. This book took up two of them since it was so long. The pages let me shift things around. It’s really important to organizing the material. It took two years to siphon through that quantity of material, to winnow it down, and get everything in order. It took a while to wrap my mind around the fact that iTunes came around before the iPod. And then the events involved with Pixar were complicated to sort out.
HC: Where did his catch phrase, “Insanely Great,” originate from?
JH: Oh, I think that goes way back to when he was a teenager. Yes, I love using that in the book. Woz had the idea for a home computer and his employer, Hewlett Packard, wasn’t interested in developing it at that point. And then Woz showed the circuit board to Steve and Steve says, “Insanely great! Let’s start a company!” Jobs was the great salesman with the big picture. Woz was this engineering genius.
HC: Steve Jobs was at the right place and at the right time in so many ways.
JH: Yes, he grew up in and spent his whole life in Silicon Valley. It used to be known simply as Santa Clara Valley. His father was a machinist. He was adopted. His biological parents were graduate students at the time. One of the parents objected to the marriage on religious grounds. Steve was adopted, grew up in the suburbs of Santa Clara. His father worked in the tech industry. He didn’t go to college but he was a tinkerer and he and Steve would go to the local junkyard, fill up the truck with things, and do projects together. They’d put things together. There were tools all around. And the neighborhood was just swarming with engineers. Steve got to know a lot of the neighbors and how things work and what was going on. It was a very exciting time in what was to be known as Silicon Valley.
HC: Steve could just pick up the phone and start talking to the founder of Hewlett Packard.
JH: Yes! That’s right. He needed some parts for his frequency counter, a device that measure the pulses per second in an electronic signal. He had some of the pieces he needed but he was missing some. He knew that the head of Hewlett Packard lived nearby. So, he looked up Bill Hewlett in the phone book and called him up. Bill was so impressed with the young Steve Jobs that he offered him a summer job.
HC: I am looking at a page from your binders. And I was thinking last night, what if Steve Jobs was standing beside you and looking at your process. He might say to you that he had an “insanely great” way to speed up your work flow. However, I am not sure that I would classify your system so much as “low tech” as “hands on.” I don’t believe that there would be a satisfactory alternative for how you work.
JH: I like having little bits of paper around. I like sketching in a cafe and then slip that work into a binder. It is so hands on. And I love painting, working in gouache. This whole book was done in pen and ink. I went through six bottle of India ink and 24 Prismacolor pencils. It’s all hand-drawn. And people will snicker that I didn’t use a computer. But I did. With the gray tones, I had an assistant help me prepare all those files.
HC: Thanks so much for this chat. I know you want to pursue more graphic biographies. You have the one about pioneering computer programmer Ada Lovelace.
JH: That one, the Ada Lovelace book, is written by someone else and will be a picture book for younger readers. Currently, I am working on some art for a local show here on Long Island. The art will resemble totem poles. These will be called, “floatem poles.” They’re made from the flotsam and jetsam that washes up on the beach. And I’m working on some other books. I’m working with an entomologist on a book about insects. And I’m working on a book that features Tartufo, a truffle hound and that will be set in either Italy or France. I am going to Europe in a week to research that.
HC: I wish you a great trip. And thank you for your time.
JH: Thank you.
The podcast is below:
You can find “Steve Jobs: Insanely Great” at Amazon right here. You can visit Jessie Hartland right here.
Steve Jobs is a person who had a lot of great days, so many of which directly impacted the great days of countless others. By that measure alone, Jobs led a remarkable life, a life quite worthy of remarking upon at length. To do this through the comics medium is a worthy endeavor. To do it right, the way Jessie Hartland did, is an inspiration. Her graphic novel, or “graphic biography,” tells the story of a man who, by luck and pluck, ends up going down in history as one of the great technological trailblazers. He was a really nice guy and a bit of a stink but, all told, a person to look up to and to learn from. “Steve Jobs: Insanely Great,” give us an accessible, engaging, and thoroughly entertaining biography.
Jessie Hartland’s style is quite light and breezy, disarmingly so. She packs quite a lot of information in this book, all neatly assembled in a seemingly effortless way. The life of Steve Jobs seems like that of a never-ending race. Just before the starting gun, Jobs is all flexed and ready and then he’s off and never ever really stops until the very, very end. What a life!
There’s all these things he’s supposed to have said like, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” It sends a chill down my spine. I need to get up for a moment and pace around. This day. This time. This life. Study this above page for a moment. It would make a great poster, wouldn’t it? Very simple yet powerful. That is what Hartland has tapped into, Job’s pursuit of something powerful through simplicity. It wouldn’t be the money that would make him happy, although he was happy to use the money to pursue his dreams. Throughout the book, you can’t help but get swept up by the sense of urgency as one bright kid becomes one even brighter man.
Who is this book meant for? Everyone, quite literally. You could say grades 8 and up. It’s definitely something younger readers will appreciate and it seems that Hartland has an ideal reader of say, thirteen, in mind as she is careful to include various details that older readers might take for granted. I especially like her two-page spreads explaining such things as “What’s New! Late 1990s.” Along with a rapidly growing internet and digital cameras, Hartland depicts a rogue’s gallery of portable music players. This, of course, is a sly reference to what lies ahead. Much in the same spirit as her biography of Julia Child, Hartland does her best to balance a myriad of facts. She does a great job, for instance, in lightly touching on the drug use of a young Steve Jobs. It is filed away with an assortment of other exploration and soul-searching, like traveling to India. Idle time is balanced with driven work. Ultimately, this book depicts a life well lived, conscious of the moment.
“Steve Jobs: Insanely Great,” by Jessie Hartland is published by Schwartz Wade Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Visit our friends at Penguin Random House right here.