Hello, long-neglected blog. I hope the tumbleweeds and bits of lint accumulating in the corners of this platform have been keeping you warm, even if they’re singularly unable to keep you company.
I’m back because I launched an odd new project on my birthday last month and I wanted to talk about it here to break my long silence and maybe goad myself into blogging more often on a website I actually own.
So: the new thing!
The Right Number is basically a secular confessional housed in a voicemail box. Dial (503) 673-6267 and you’ll hear a brief prompt, after which you can record a response for up to three minutes. All messages are confidential, prompts rotate every two weeks.
The first two prompts (“What’s something you wish someone would say to you right now?” and “What’s something you wish you could say to someone else right now?”) both elicited a wide range of thoughtful, heart-wrenching, funny replies. I’d say it was working as intended if I’d had any real sense of how this was going to go ahead of time, but I didn’t.
As it stands, I’m very happy with the project so far. The user base is still small—an intimate crowd of willing weirdos—and I’m perfectly content for it to stay that way. Recording freewheeling audio updates over on Patreon every two weeks for the last couple years has taught me that sometimes the quality of conversation and connection I’m hungry for online is best cultivated through sustained, vaguely directed projects over long periods of time.
So: that’s the thing!
If you want to play along, you can sign up for this tiny newsletter that’ll send you an email reminder every time there’s a new prompt (usually on Mondays, but I make no promises).
Every so often the cartoonists of Portland get an open invite to a local theatrical production. Sometimes it’s the children’s theater, other times the opera. Occasionally it’s something with extravagant puppets. We get free tickets to whatever’s on in exchange for producing a batch of frantic live sketches, which then get used to promote the production.
This month the call was for a world premier play called Redwood, a story about race and heritage and relationships, intergenerational and otherwise. I’d gotten a mailer for it a few days earlier and really wanted to go, so when the invite to live sketch a dress rehearsal came in I was all over it.
They issue all the cartoonists with these goofy clip lights and send them to sit in a row towards the back of the theater. We then have to do our darndest to draw like the wind throughout the entire show, capturing gestures, faces, moments, scenery—whatever we like. Here’s what I came up with! These sketches were all done straight to ink with a Pilot Carbon Desk Fountain Pen (the least well-named implement in my arsenal).
It’s a challenge for sure, but one I always come away from feeling surprisingly accomplished. It’s also nice to be drawing for folks who aren’t visual artists themselves, because anything you produce seems like wizardry.
If you follow me elsewhere on the web, you’ve probably seen an uptick in posts about something called the Boat Gnome Mercantile Trading Program. Maybe it makes sense, maybe it doesn’t, so here’s a big ol’ post with some background about this zany undertaking and how you can play along.
If you just can’t wait to exchange goods with the Boat Gnome (even if you are, perhaps, a little unclear about what that entails), the Trade-by-Mail Program is already open to Patrons at any pledge level. You can find all the instructions for sending trades through the mail by becoming a Patron and visiting this post.
The Boat Gnome’s desired items for the 2019-2020 Trading Season are as follows:
An interesting shell (level of interest is in the eye of the beholder)
A piece of seaglass (bonus points for unusual colors)
A transcription of your favorite nautical poem (typed or hand-written, as preferred)
A knot (tied in a piece of string, twine, rope, etc and labelled by name)
The story goes like this: there is a gnome—a Space Gnome—who runs a trading outpost in outer space. She releases a list of desirable items prior to sending one of her representatives to conventions around the country. The desirable items are often simple. A nice rock. A cutting from a succulent. A poem. A story.
Traders may present the representative with one of these objects and receive, in exchange, a limited edition enamel pin.
Once a participant has made a trade and received a pin they become a Trusted Trader, and can return to the representative at future events (wearing their pin) and receive additional, special items. Shing also runs a trade-by-mail program exclusively for their Patreon supporters (DID I MENTION YOU CAN SUPPORT SHING ON PATREON?) in case folks can’t make it out to conventions.
I love this project. It’s subversive and human and playful and kind. So when Shing and I were on a ferry coming back from the Wayward Retreat this summer, I screwed up my courage and said:
“Do you think there might be other gnomes? I mean, hypothetically, what if there was also, say…a Boat Gnome?”
I felt self-conscious even asking. Why can’t I come up with my own ideas? Isn’t this plagiarism? But the beauty of this project lies in the fact that it’s not commercial in the slightest. Nobody’s making a profit. It’s a sandbox—a container for play, and as if to prove it Shing immediately shot up off the bench and shouted “YES!!!”
One month later they showed up in the front yard of childhood home in California (long story) and officially inducted me into the Association of Gnomes—a process I can’t recount here, so you’ll just have to flip through this Instagram Story really quick to experience it.
Armed with my gnome hat, I started drafting ideas. Since Shing had already come up with a format for the pins and cards, I decided to keep things simple and just riff on the existing material.
So here’s our Boat Gnome. (Perhaps suspiciously like a smaller version of me, but WHO’S KEEPING SCORE.) I translated this small friend onto a postcard that would mimic Shing’s space-themed offering with a load of nautical motifs.
And then came the PINS, which I wanted to match to Shing’s design so that enterprising traders could line them up in a handsome row on a lapel.
Once I had all my elements assembled, it was time to number all the backing cards and start assembling pins. The final result looks amazing.
The great thing about doing a project that won’t make me any money is that a lot of the perfectionism that usually dogs my steps during production is just…gone. Who cares if this isn’t utterly perfect? It’s a game. People are going to play.
I’ve spent a little over $500 assembling the materials for this project, which would’ve felt impossible three years ago. But I’m finally at a place in my career where not every expense has to turn a profit. There’s so much heart-felt fun to be had exchanging gifts with strangers and friends. And because of the support I receive on Patreon, I can do these kinds of projects. It’s such a wonderful privilege. I’ve already completed over 40 trades with people from all over the country, and the offerings are universally stellar.
I know things have been pretty quiet around here lately, but that’s mostly because I’ve been tied up making this new comic for Google!
Federated Learning is a new field of machine learning research that just hit the big-time at Google’s developer conference this week. I landed a gig working with Scott McCloud and an internal team to translate the basics of the field into an explainer comic.
Most importantly: it’s got a Moby-Dick joke in it.
There’s a lot to talk about with this gig, and I’m going to be diving into what I learned from my first major corporate client experience over on Patreon. This job is the most lucrative freelance contract I’ve ever taken, and I want to talk about how that’s felt (Complicated! Emotional! Empowering!) and what other folks can do to pursue similar gigs. I’m really proud of what we produced, and I think it does a good job of explaining something I would’ve never otherwise learned about.
I also took lessons learned from building the accessible edition of 100 Demon Dialoguesand made sure we had functional alt-text throughout the comic. If you use a screen reader to browse the web, do let me know how it works for you. I’m still trying to get better at making this site and other projects I work on accessible for folks who traditionally get left out of the digital comic-reading experience.
It’s here it’s here! My very favorite comics holiday! February 1st AKA Hourly Comic Day is a group activity where creators around the world illustrate the minutiae of their lives in hasty panels and sketches. Head to Instagram or Twitter and you’ll be bound to see some lovely entries under the #hourlycomicday tag.
I participated for the first time in 2011, which makes this my ninth contribution to the series! (I’m going to do a little print collection next year for #10.) In the meantime, you can read on for a brief window into my life right now:
I love being on Patreon for many, many reasons, but chief among them is the platform it’s given me to record more conversations with creators I admire. I already keep an extensive archive of panels, talks, and classes on my SoundCloud page, but the support and enthusiasm of my Patrons has allowed me to add candid monthly interviews to the mix. Typically these conversations go up for Patrons first, and then (if the artists are comfortable with it) on the public feed a few weeks later.
Back in September I spoke to Tessa Hulls—a dream interviewee of mine for some time. Tessa’s work defies categorization, but it often encompasses notions of heritage, independence, wilderness, and community—all things I am endlessly fascinated by. She did a staggering number of residencies in 2018, all while juggling enough concurrent projects to make my head spin. I am deeply in awe of her energy and dedication.
In this 90-minute conversation, we discuss merging identities to create powerful new selves, balancing finances as a traveling artist, the transformative power of alternative community gatherings, coming into one’s own as a vulnerable communicator, navigating fine art spaces, “pathological independence,” and the current cultural crucible of female rage. Notes on our conversation below:
If you want to see more of Tessa’s work, I’d highly recommend starting with…
I’m back with an appearance on today’s Oh Joy, Sex Toy! It’s been a spell since my last guest comic for Matt and Erika’s charmingly sex-positive series, so I’m thrilled to return and help them with their, eh-hem, overflow of supplies.
Check out my full review of the We-Vibe Sync here!
I’m back in the UK for my biennial pilgrimage to table at Thought Bubble (and catch up with English friends and family in the process). Since I was last in the country they’ve changed the date of the festival to September, which has been an enormous improvement so far. The weather is just beginning to turn autumnal, with a good few sunny days still in reserve.
If you’re planning on heading to Thought Bubble in Leeds this weekend, you can find me in the Ask for Mercy Marquee at Table 43. Thanks to some cunning distribution work, I’ve got a TON of 100 Demon Dialogues books and plushies already in the country, plus copies of Baggywrinkles and fresh sets of watercolor skyline postcards!
As per usual I’ve made a goofy graphic to help you locate me at the event. Here’s a map:
Being in the country a week early has left a lot of room for acclimatization and a bit of exploration. I’ve been going on six-mile rambles near Egham with my current host, cartoonist Dave Whiteland. We’re not far from Runnymede, site of the signing of the Magna Carta. Interestingly, it’s a landmark more beloved by Americans, who tend to view the Magna Carta as the precursor to our written constitution, but there are also a number of beautiful memorials and installations by local artists scattered throughout the open meadows.
I have so many childhood memories of England coming into view out a plane window. It’s a patchwork quilt in hundreds of shades of green. Each border is picked out in dark hedgerows like raised lines of embroidery. After the rigid grids and circles of American crops seen from the sky, it confirms this sense of being somewhere other.
England is walking through fields and turnstiles and picking up fossils from beds of flint. It’s the particular smell of petrol and peat and cold air and river water. It’s tea and smooth wood floors and the familiarity of gentleness. It’s not perfect here, but it brings me back to a part of myself that feels foundational and true.
After the chaos of touring all summer, I decided to forego scheduling a separate last-minute event in London or Cambridge. It’s enough to be here, and to see friends, and to have the festival to look forward to. I hope to see many of you there in a few days.
One of the great pleasures of touring this year has been gathering groups of smart, accomplished people in a room and then asking them about their worst experiences with Imposter Syndrome. I heard raw truths from creators in Chicago and San Francisco, who then brought their wisdom to bear on what we can do to make ourselves feel less alone in the face of these challenges.
These conversations were complex and enlightening, and I’m so glad to make them available for you all to listen to on the web (thanks to the support of my rad team on Patreon). Check out the audio players below to find two new episodes featuring wisdom from Craighton Berman, Michi Trota, Suzanne Walker, Bobbie Johnson, Molly McLeod, and Rose Eveleth.
I’ve got a bunch of new conversations going up soon, so be sure to keep an eye out if you’re in need of more things to listen to. Enjoy!
Keeping you all updated with a few more confirmed tour stops on the great 100 Demon Dialogues Summer Experience.
Catch me this Sunday (August 12th) at 6pm at Other Books in Los Angeles for an intimate chat about the creation of 100 Demon Dialogues. Other Books is a wonderful shop in Boyle Heights that specializes in underrepresented voices and exploring notions of “the Other” in literature. They’ve got loads of zines, small press books, and rare finds. I think it’ll be a lovely night. RSVP here.
Looking ahead: I’m headed south to SAN DIEGO for not one, but TWO events later next week.
On Thursday, August 16th, I’m fulfilling a long-time dream of appearing at the Maritime Museum of San Diego for a free signing in the gift shop at 6pm, followed by a lecture inside the museum ON A REAL BOAT! Admission is $18 for adults (various discounts available) and gives you free reign of the many amazing vessels and exhibits until 9pm. Well worth the price of admission, I promise.
This tour stop will be more nautically-themed, since I haven’t been down to San Diego since Baggywrinkles came out. Expect discussion of scurvy, maritime history, and what I got up to when I crossed the Pacific Ocean on R/V Falkor. It’s gonna be GREAT.
Then on Friday, August 17th, I’ll be at San Diego Writers, Ink with my “Cohabiting with your Inner Critic” workshop. Learn more about that in this blog post or just snag tickets here.
Looking ahead, we’ve got stops in Austin, Boulder, England, and Cambridge (MA):