March 1, 2011

Long-winded Serendipity '11 Recap

Last Saturday, I attended Serendipity, an all-day conference put on by the Vancouver Children's Literature Roundtable. This year's event was billed as an Graphic Novel Extravaganza with a talented panel of guests including Gene Yang (American-Born Chinese), Raina Telgemeier (Smile), Matt Holm (Babymouse), Aaron Renier (Spiral-Bound), Jason Shiga (Meanwhile), and Valerie Wyatt (How to Build Your Own Country). Naturally, I had to go! I may even have to go next year with the already-announced Asian Books for Children.

Alas, I forgot my camera, but I brought a couple books to be signed (and ended up with a few more!).

It started way too early on a cold Saturday morning with a continental breakfast and author signings, but it was a small price to pay to meet and chat (awkwardly) with these comic creators. I recognized a couple fellow SLAISers and at least one VPLer, though on the whole I had no idea who the majority of these attendees were (teachers? librarians? budding cartoonists?). First up, I approached Raina Telgemeier, whose autobiographical Smile chronicles her orthodontic adventures as a teenager. I first found out about Raina and Smile last year after her appearance on The Ink Panthers, Alex Robinson and Mike Dawson's comic podcast where they try not to talk about comics. Anyone who's had braces (myself included) can identify with her charmingly told coming of age story while cringing at the haunting memories of brace wires being tightened. You'll also feel relief that you probably did not have it as bad as Raina who had headgear and the whole bit after knocking out her two front teeth.

Raina was with her husband and fellow comic book creator Dave Roman, who a few years ago actually proposed to her in comics-form! I later realized that my conference package included a pre-release copy of his new book Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity, so I had to hop back to their table later to have him sign his book.

I met Gene Yang next, who really is pretty much the nicest guy ever. In addition to writing and illustrating the award-winning American Born Chinese, he's a high school teacher of computer science in California. I was very jealous of the buyer in the silent auction who snagged an early copy of his latest video game themed graphic novel Level Up, illustrated by Thien Pham. It's out in June, so I'll just have to patiently wait for now.

When I approached Gene, I actually brought a gift for him... One of my favourite childhood comics (I suppose they'd label this a graphic novel these days) was Adventures of the Magic Monkey Along the Silk Roads, which was pretty much the only comic other than Tintin and Asterix at the children's library in Edmonton. I can still picture the beat-up old copy, which had been rebound with a generic purple cover with white writing on the spine. It's based on the same Journey to the West story of the Monkey King that Gene incorporated into American Born Chinese. I rediscovered this book a few years ago when someone donated their entire graphic novel collection to the Strathcona Library. Some research revealed some things I hadn't realized as a kid: the book was commissioned in 1983 by the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto in conjunction with an exhibition on the Silk Road of China with wonderful illustrations done by one of the museum's artists Anker Odum.

I seem to be the only person who's read this on and the only online mention other than used book sites is a dismissive 1984 review from the University of Manitoba. I was pretty oblivious to the legend of the Monkey King and its storied history in Chinese culture, but when I read American Born Chinese a few years ago, I immediately recognized the story and was later inspired to read Arthur Waley's translation of Journey to the West. A couple interesting incarnations have appeared in recent years with Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett of Gorillaz fame collaborating on the 2008 Chinese opera Monkey: Journey to the West. Even a futuristic retelling in video game form was released last year called Enslaved: Odyssey to the West with Andy Serkis voicing and mo-capping Monkey, natch. Anyway, I insisted Gene take my copy of the Magic Monkey comic since it's fairly rare outside of Canada. I've already ordered my replacement copy for 20 cents (plus $6.49 shipping). Here's a link to Gene's tribute to the Monkey King. He actually recommends the David Kherdian translation of Journey to the West as an entertaining page-turner . . . added to my reading list!

At that point, the program was getting ready to begin. To my absolute surprise, the MC was someone I worked with in 2006 during a year stint at the Rutherford Library at the University of Alberta. It's a small library world! We were first treated to a charming presentation by Matt Holm talking about his background as an artist and the creation with his sister of the hit series Babymouse, which was the most checked-out children's title at the New York Public Library in 2010! Towards the end of his presentation, he invited someone up to help create a Babymouse illustration from scratch followed by a Q&A. His and the later presentations were variations of the ones they would typically be doing for school audiences, but heck we were all kids at heart here!

Next up was Raina who was initially joined on stage by Dave to read aloud an excerpt from Smile with Raina voicing herself and Dave everyone else. That's gotta be the first time I've seen a comic read aloud. She then went on to talk about her creative process and her path to becoming a cartoonist, before a quick round questions and drawing. Even the MC noted how novel it was to have guests draw on demand unlike previous guests of previous years ("30 seconds, write a short story, GO!").

After a short coffee break, Gene Yang went up to talk about his unlikely path into comics. He hilariously incorporated emoticons in his presentation representing the dismayed reactions of his parents to various points in his career path. When one of his comics appeared in the New York Times, his dad tromped around to various newsstands to track one down (somewhere in California) and paid FIVE whole dollars for it. Gene remarked, "Believe me, that's a lot for an old Chinese man!"

We were provided lunch boxes with sandwiches, a cookie, an apple, and juice boxes. Like elementary school revisited! During lunch there was also a limited-seating hands-on workshop with Aaron Renier and Jason Shiga who showed us some simple techniques to creating DIY mini-comics. Jason showed us an ingenious choose-your-own-adventure style folding comic, which can also be viewed in this youtube video. Things got a bit weird towards the end when the session devolved into people shouting at them, essentially forcing them to draw a chalk jam comic in 30 seconds. I felt awkward on their behalf and embarrassed on our behalf.

The afternoon featured Valerie Wyatt talking about How to Build Your Own Country, for which she was presented the 2010 Information Book Award from the VCLR. She also discussed aspects of the publishing world since her career has primarily been as an editor. This was followed by another hour with the full panel of guests (minus Wyatt) with everyone taking turns answering questions pre-submitted by the audience. Phew, it was a mighty full day and even I was fading a little by that point.

Lastly, there was a final round of signings. I was compelled to grab Aaron Renier's The Unsinkable Walker Bean once I saw the beautiful drawings that accompanied each of his signings. I forgot to ask him about it, but earlier it came up briefly that Aaron recently did some sort of illustration fellowship at Maurice Sendak's house! Here's part 1 of his blog post about the experience (part 2 forthcoming).

I also picked up a copy of Jason Shiga's Meanwhile (which I had previously read from the library). Meanwhile is a mind-bending choose-your-own-adventure, seemingly modeled after the time travel film Primer. I asked him about it and he hadn't consciously noticed the connection but admitted that Primer was his favourite time travel movie (even better than Back to the Future 2, he said). During the earlier panel, we learned that Shiga majored in Mathematics, which seems unusual for a cartoonist although you can definitely see a mathematics slant in the puzzle-like designs of his comics and stories. His claim that Meanwhile required a computer algorithm to calculate the ideal layout turned out to be a joke that I fell for because designing the book's complicated layout is nearly unfathomable to my puny mind. Another fun factoid that came up that day: Jason Shiga's dad was an animator on the old Rankin/Bass special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer!

After I bought Meanwhile and came back to get it signed he asked me about a hypothetical situation: if you travelled back to time to buy a lottery ticket with the winning jackpot numbers, would they even be the same numbers? He argued they'd be different because the numbers would be randomly generated each time. I blathered about parallel universes and other stuff I couldn't articulate, eventually arguing that they should theoretically be the same numbers. You'd be travelling to an event that already took place, so the numbers would be the same. Shiga said he wasn't sure and we should defer to a physicist. Later that night, I remembered an essay I wrote in a sci-fi film class about Newtonian and Einsteinian paradigms of time travel narratives, comparing the films Twelve Monkeys and La Jetée. Years removed, that essay is borderline unreadable and I can't believe I wrote it, but basically one theory suggests everything has already happened including your time travel so nothing ever changes (the numbers would be the same) and the other allows for divergent timelines (numbers not necessarily the same). I guess it comes down to a philosophical debate about whether you believe in a deterministic or non-deterministic universe. In short, I love me some time travel narratives!

As usual, succinct blogging is not my forte, so I'm going to cut this off here. Needless to say, I had a blast!

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