I’ve always loved comics, but I didn’t always appreciate them.

As a kid, I would create my own comics, and I developed a fairly time-consuming routine to produce them---on sheets of my Dad’s typing paper.   Somehow, it never occurred to me that the actual means of comics production would involve using heavier paper in a much larger format.   I was aware, however, that comics were typically not all made by one person, so my title pages would often have credits to people other than myself, including my brother.   I can remember showing him a title page, and him giving me a puzzled look, with his Bucky Beavers still straddling his lower lip, orthodontia still being a few years away.

As it turns out, little moments like that made a far bigger impression on my brother than they did me.   The truth is that I’ve always been self-absorbed, and more interested in ideas than in people.   This is not the sort of thing that most people admit, but it is not necessarily a bad thing to have that orientation, especially if you want to create things that are bulging with many ideas at once.  The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius was once discussing large-scale formal design in symphonic works with Gustav Mahler, who (in response to a compliment from Sibelius) protested  the notion that such works should be tightly focused on developing a minimal number of musical ideas:  'No, a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.'

So it was with comics production.   First, I would actually drew my gutters in pencil, and I’m afraid that more than one page was influenced by Simon and Kirby’s habit of including circles in their page layouts.   Not having a compass could be a problem here!

After having the grid lightly sketched, I would sketch in the word balloons, whose shapes always paradoxically disappointed me.   Keep in mind that in order to do this I would have to be holding a vision in my mind of what sort of action each “cell” on the page would hold, and a rough idea what characters might say, or what narration might be required.   Only after having a page or two outlined in this way did I attempt to draw.

My idea of composition was always wrapped around the understandable prejudice of the action or dialogue required, so in point of fact they often lacked graphic interest, revolving around a nearly-complete action figure or ‘talking head’ sort of appearance.   Details about the world the character might inhabit were often secondary or even superfluous, to be filled later with a wash of color.  

In my innocence, I never absorbed the artist’s discipline of sketching anatomical figures first as blocks or cylinders, and then later alter the rendering to add musculature or wrinkles in clothes, etc.   Everything would be vomited onto the page, in as nearly complete fashion as I could render all at once, with the sort of unmerited confidence and ego that can only children, in their ignorance, can possess.  

This led to problems: for one thing, I already had pronounced stigmatism.  I thus unconsciously tended to “slant” the perspective on figures without meaning to, especially since I was pursuing the dynamism of Kirby and his imitators.   Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it carries definite drawbacks to development.  As a child, I could not appreciate that attempting to duplicate Kirby’s baroque treatment of figure drawing was leading to poor habits, and  I often had the experience that only after completing a page did I realize how exaggerated and unrealistic this or that feature of my composition was!

In addition to lacking skill, I also lacked taste in choosing (and in interpreting) my role models.   At one point, all my superhero fighting sequences were tributes to Sal Buscema, who would typically have a pair of arcs interrupted by a star shape to represent the landing of a blow:

I also became fond of drawing head figures from below, with stylized shading of the lower nose, a la Gil Kane.   When you’re in a hurry to finish the process, and when you don’t have a solid grounding in fundamentals, you tend to seize upon the surface features of a given artist’s rendering as if it were an essential part of composition, rather than a stylistic flourish.

The result?   Many panels with star shapes obscuring figure composition, and many ‘talking head’ shots with weird, exaggerated nostrils.   As my father remarked more than once, all my characters had pig noses.

Once the drawing was in place, polishing was required.   One part of the finishing process I dearly loved, while the rest struck me as mere drudgery.   The part I loved was coloring.   I had a set of some 40 or more colored pencils, and I spent many happy hours sharpening and resharpening them while playing with all the possible ways you could layer different shades to produce new hues and textures.  I was aware even then that the nature of colored pencils would lead to a very different sort of output than the flat poster colors that were the staple of comics then.  It was laborious to achieve a very brilliant red or blue on any part of the page, because you would have to run the same colored pencil over the same ground over and over again to achieve that effect. 

Very quickly, I learned to accept that this was not only time-consuming, but it didn’t look very good, especially on sheets of typing paper already heavily clotted with pencil sketching.   Besides, with my little pencils, I could do so many things that couldn’t be done with color separations then.  Today, some forty years later, I still love using colored pencils.   I regularly require my science students to use them in drawing and coloring figures, constantly exhorting them to shade lightly rather than heavily.

However, coloring was not the only part of finishing the comic.  Completing the comic meant going over things with a pen, and finally committing the balloons and text boxes to specific sentences, in ink.   I quickly learned not to “ink” every aspect of the now colored figure drawings, but unlike the drawing and coloring phase, I was pretty much bound by what had gone before.   So, bit by bit, I would go over the gutters, the lumpy balloons and the figures, and I would have a complete page.   But at this stage of the game, in my mind, the page was already completed, and so to actually physically complete it was a bit of a bore.   I remember many comics where the pages really weren’t that complete that were set aside so that I could start telling the next part of the story.   The impetuous of youth, and all that.  

Another frustration was the realization that I had often misjudged the amount of space needed to convey sentences, so I would veer back and forth between balloons that were crammed with too many words, and balloons that vacuously surrounded too-little text.    Comically, it never occurred to me that the text should have been crafted and polished before the balloon was positioned around it. 

The final result of my enthusiasms rarely satisfied me, and were often trashed rather than kept, but that was okay, because I was ready to move on to the next flight of fancy.   Sometimes that would involve another comic, sometimes I would take a stab at actually ‘writing’ with my Dad’s typewriter, sometimes it would just involve elaborate, self-directed play....which, when all is said and done, is probably more stimulating to mental development than all the scripted lessons and formal education you can muster.

Now, the purpose of all these fond glances backward is not, actually, to memorialize my attempts to craft comics.  As I’ve tried to make clear, they were something I pursued with intense passion and an amusing lack of awareness, but it was not an abiding interest.  This was a phase that probably lasted, at most, two years.   It reached its peak in Panama on those rainy days when outdoor play was difficult, and before my mother had decided I would have piano lessons.   While I would continue to draw and continue to avidly read comics until about 1978, it was hard to keep current on the comics scene in Panama and my restless pursuit of new stimuli for fantasy gradually pulled me toward art history, musical composition and literature.   At some point, I rather foolishly concluded that comics were for kids, and at some point, I started keeping most of my elaborate, self-directed play to myself.

How wrong I was, and how wrong-headed.   Apparently, all that tomfoolery was the stuff of dreams.   My real interest in drawing out these memories is in understanding how my brother perceived it, and how it affected his life.   Yesterday I wrote  about my father’s achievements.   Tomorrow I will tell you about my brother.

Word Count: 1,487
Total:  4,705



In the sport of cricket, if a batsman scores a hundred or more runs in a single match, it's called a 'century' and it's definitely a noteworthy feat....but hardly stop-the-presses, earth-shaking stuff.    For you non-cricketers, and in comparison to baseball, centuries are less common than a two-homer game, but occur more frequently than a no-hitter.  In fact, since people cared to keep such things, which is to say in the last century or so, there’s been at least 25 batsmen who have achieved this feat one hundred or more times....which you might described as a ‘century of centuries.’    Of these many great batsman, one (the great Donald Bradman of Australia) did it half the time he batted: 117 centuries in 234 recorded matches, including 29 Test matches at the highest level.  As you might imagine, his average batting total of 95.14 runs per match is pretty tough to beat.                      

Now, I’ve never had a ‘century’ in the few seasons I tried my hand at cricket, and would’ve been foolish to imagine that I ever would’ve achieved it, at any level.   There are a lot of reasons for that: for one thing, I’m an American.   It’s not our national game, and I never even saw it played until I was in college.  For another thing, I’m as blind as a bat, 20/200 in one eye.   For a third, despite having some decent speed and a rubber arm that never really got sore, I just wasn’t a natural athlete, though Lord knows I tried my hand at ball games of all sorts as often as I could.  I love baseball, especially the fielding aspect.   I could never hit much, but I will cheerfully shag flies for an hour in triple-digit heat if anyone would be willing to hit them to me.   If it was just a question of desire, I would certainly have a few more moments of athletic glory for my mental scrapbook.

Alas. I think the most runs I ever scored in a cricket match was six in a half-dozen overs, and it was sheer luck.   I took a goose egg almost every other time I even got a chance to bat, often on the first or second pitch.    When you consider that in limited-overs cricket the tail end of the “lineup” may never get to bat, that makes it sting only a little bit less.   Imagine: you wait hours for your chance to join the mad dogs out on the green, suit up in the unfamiliar (and ill-fitting pads), waddle out to the pitch, and on the first delivery helplessly watch some height-challenged Sri Lankan spin the ball under your bat.  K-chack!   (That’s the sound of the stumps being sliced off by the delivery).

And, since I mostly got to bat in road games, the inevitable mock pleasantry: “Thanks for coming!”   Which, half the time, really meant something like this: “Foolish American.  This is our game. You don’t belong here.   Go play one of your American games and stop wasting our time.”

So, no century for me, ever, for this aging and flabby American.   But I also wonder: will I ever achieve something really, really great?   A half-century has gone by for me: I have a chance to pursue another half of a century, but the actuarial tables are pretty clear that the odds are not in my favor.   I’m welcome to pursue it if I like, by hook or crook, grasping for more years as I can, but in all likelihood I will not make another five decades.  Cliche alert: the shuffling of the mortal coil is not only inevitable, it’s getting closer, and as I begin my second half-century (one hopes) of life, I also have to wonder:  where is my “century” of excellence, my noteworthy feat?   If I have something like that in me, what is it, and how should I go about pursuing it?

There can be doubt about my brother, Charles Hatfield, or my father, Jerry Hatfield.   Both individuals are published authors and, if you ask the right sort of people, authoritative where their personal interests are concerned.    To those in the know, they are bona-fide experts.   How so?   Let me count the ways, starting with my father.

Dad’s a retired Air Force officer, but his first love has always been motorcycles and their history, particularly the storied Indian marque.   He has published 14 books on motorcycling, which have ranged from broad surveys of racing history, archival accounts of major firms, guides to buying and restoring vintage bikes, even “coffee-table” photo albums. 

Most of these books, including the albums, have included many photographs that Dad shot himself, largely in 35mm color film, and in most of his books Dad has been heavily involved in the reproduction, enlargement and placement of vintage negatives (often from large-format cameras that are largely extinct).    For books like this, it’s not just about the writing, but about the production and design.  I dare say there is no author on the planet who can speak with more authority on what it takes to produce such books. 

Dad’s last two books are especially worthy of admiration in terms of the energy and research they required, but they differ wildly in character and scope.  His Standard Catalog of American Motorcycles (2006)  is, its subtitle asserts, the “only book to fully chronicle every bike ever built” in this country prior to the 1990's, with over 1,200 illustrations.  It is a “just-the-facts-ma’am” kind of book that only specialists can produce, a broad survey of hundreds of different manufacturers and thousands of models.   It will no doubt serve as the standard reference on this topic for years to come.

Dad’s last book, Flat Out! (2007), has a tighter focus and very different tone, filled with colorful anecdote and commentary about the past community of daredevils who tuned, built, raced and attempted to break records with motorcycles.   It is an in-depth history of the career of iconic motorcyclist Rollie Freea labor of love that took a decade to get into print due to the research involved and the significant negotiations required to gain access to critical materials.  Eventually, it became clear that to produce a book worthy of the topic, Dad would have to self-publish.   The result is a tour-de-force of design and production that sold out within a year.   Today, used copies of the Flat Out! are offered on Amazon at over $175.00, which is to say more than a hundred dollars more than the original list price.

Long before Dad’s last book appeared, vintage cycling enthusiasts came to regard him as an eminence.   As a result, Dad has been a keynote speaker at many gatherings of such folk, and has (on other people’s dimes) traveled all over the United States, Australia and New Zealand sharing his enthusiasm for antique motorcycles and their history, and he has appeared as a bona-fide expert on television programs on cable and public television, and in 2008 was interviewed by collector Jay Leno, who maintains a world-famous collection of classic cars and bikes.   Leno, who apparently has some other gig that makes him well-known, also wrote the introduction to Dad’s last book.

Are these last two works my Dad’s ‘century’?   Only he could really answer that, and assess the significance of his work to a larger audience.   But there can be doubt that, when it comes to producing an original body of work in an authoritative manner, my father has set the bar pretty high.   With the possible exception of Floyd Clymer, there hasn’t been any American in the last century who can top either the size, diversity or quality of Dad’s books on motorcycling.   I kind of hope he has another book in him, especially since (being in his seventies) he no longer has as many opportunities to actually ride bikes that are older than he is.   In my next post, I’ll describe some of my brother’s achievements and try to grapple with the notion that, as accomplished as he is, that he somehow thinks I deserve some credit for his success.

Word Count: 1,347
Total:  3,218



What is it with Americans these days when it comes to free speech?  

On the one hand, everyone seems to have an opinion, and the ability to express that opinion is, of course, enshrined in the Bill of Rights subject to certain limitations regarding “clear and present danger” and the like.

On the other hand, increasingly people want to defend their right to free speech, but they also seem to want to compel others to dignify their view, or at least feature their views prominently.   Fail to comply with that, and risk being judged exclusionary.   People even seem to want to enlist the government to compel companies or private citizens to endorse their views, or at the very least to not contradict them.

 "How dare you contradict me!   That violates my right to not be contradicted!"    Really?

The Chick-Fil-A thing is just the latest example of this disturbing trend, and like most examples, it began as a flashpoint in the never-ending "culture wars."  The President of Chick-Fil-A (one Don Cathy) said things that he really believed about homosexuality, things that are repulsive to most gay men and women.   Unable to deal with speech that is arguably divisive, some of the proponents of marriage equality have urged a boycott of the chain.   In a predictable backlash, Chick-Fil-A supporters made a statement by flooding the chain with business, with lines in the parking lot.   Here in Fresno, where I live, many of these lines occurred in the peak of the day, in triple-digit temperatures.   One has to admit that those who flocked to Chick-Fil-A at that moment were putting comfort aside in order to stand with the beleaguered fast-food chain, though the extent of that support is exaggerated in part by the fact that there are only two Chick-Fil-A locations in all Fresno County, and one (within the CSU Fresno campus) is not readily accessible to the general public.

Well, I for one will not be joining the supporters of Chick-Fil-A.   I’m not a big fan of the food, and as I’ve gotten older my views on marriage equality have moved from skepticism to open support.   Marriage is a civil contract between the state and consenting adults for the disposition of real property and the custody of minor children.   To Christians, of course, it is a sacrament but those are really excess trappings from the point of view of the state.  We can not insist that the government adopt any particular sectarian understanding of marriage in what is a secular arrangement.   We routinely hear ministers intone that “what God has joined together, let no man bring asunder”.....but the statistics on divorce inform us, bluntly, that fallible human beings not only dissolve marriages, they do so at a rate that can only be described as routine, common and typical.   Apparently what we privately believe marriage represents to God carries no weight with the state.   Thus, the argument from religious tradition as to what could or could not be marriage in God’s eyes doesn’t carry a lot of weight with me.   

At best, those opposed to marriage equality are reduced to appealing to a vague sense of “what everyone has always believed” about marriage   Even that is shaky, however, because there are many examples of societies that condoned homosexual displays and relationships, whether we are talking about shamanism or classical Greece.   In many of those settings, relationships were not merely condoned, but codified.   Were these counter-examples in harmony with the traditional Judeo-Christian understandings of marriage?   In most cases, no, but some are harmonious with other views on marriage that were widespread within the Roman Empire a few millenia ago, views which prevailed in Roman society for centuries.   Only a gross ignorance of classical history could excuse the foes of marriage equality from not acknowledging that these counter-examples exist.   Again, opposition to marriage equality tends to emerge on sectarian grounds, and thus attempts to privilege that viewpoint runs the risk of privileging this or that sect in the public square, and that risks exposing the opponents of marriage equality to legal challenges based on the Establishment Clause.

Now, regarding free speech:  Don Cathy and other like-minded business folk have an absolute right to assert their belief that homosexuality is not compatible with their understanding of marriage.   They have the right to contribute financially to organizations which seek to advance their viewpoint in the public square, and no one has the right to tell them otherwise.   But, conversely, Mr. Cathy and other like-minded business folk can not expect anyone to believe that their freedom of speech translates into immunity from controversy, or to unpleasant outcomes for their business and their shareholders.

Because, you see, consumers like me have an absolute right to assert our belief that Don Cathy is wrong to oppose marriage equality.   We have an absolute right to draw public attention to the fact that Chick-Fil-A donates money to organizations that actively work to oppose marriage equality.   We have an absolute right to urge other consumers to not purchase Chick-Fil-A products, so that our consumer dollars are not used to support policies that we oppose.  That, too, is free speech.

But so much of the public narrative has been turned on its head: when interviewed, many of the folk standing in line in the heat to “support” Chick-Fil-A went out of their way to assert that they weren’t so much opposed to marriage equality, as eager to defend the company’s right to freedom of speech!   What?   This is mind-boggling, though it certainly goes along with the “corporations are people” mentality of many conservatives and libertarians in this post-Citizens United world.   But, of course, no sane person is arguing that Chick-Fil-A doesn’t have the right to contribute financially to organizations that oppose marriage equality.  No one is arguing that Chick-Fil-A’s CEO doesn’t have the right to publicly oppose the marriage of gay adults.   Yet, this is precisely the argument that many of Chick-Fil-A’s supporters are claiming to oppose.  To paraphrase, “Oh, I’m not really against gays.   I just want to defend free speech.”

Well, the supporters are definitely displaying freedom of speech, and to the extent that even a misguided and unfounded belief can be safely shared in a republic like ours, that shows support for the concept of free speech.  But freedom of speech itself was never threatened by those who urged a boycott of Chick-Fil-A, any more than it was threatened when Don Cathy boasted of his lifelong fidelity to one woman.   Apparently, to some conservatives, public opposition to their viewpoint and a threatened boycott amounts to a limitation on their freedom of speech, and this goes hand-in-hand with a narrative in which the Christian majority is said to be persecuted by the secular, presumably anti-Christian minority.

In other words, these folk no longer conceptualize freedom of speech as a right qualified by constitutional precedent, but as an absolute entitlement of privilege.   And, if we are to be truthful, we must admit that in much of this country the views of Christians, especially evangelical Christians, have been historically privileged.  Even when the law did not spell out the sectarian details, communities have tended to elect Christians over non-Christians, and promote a common culture that wraps patriotism in a gloss of Christian piety, and in general to ignore non-Christian ideas: “majority rule”, and all that.

But, my fellow Christians, the world has changed.  Christians should be well-educated enough to not confuse historical privilege within the culture to a constitutional right.  Christians should be sufficiently well-informed that we do not fall prey to snake-oil cottage industries within the churches, that will tell us things contrary to fact and reason.   David Barton, from this point of view, is no different from Kent Hovind, because they are both phony ‘experts’ who derive income from selling belief systems in the churches that superficially seem to be consistent with historical Christianity, but which abuses history of any inconvenient facts.

We need a new term for this intellectual tendency of many political conservatives, especially Christians, who confuse historical privilege for rights, who treat their own beliefs as entitlements and who feel persecuted whenever they are reminded that others do not share, or even oppose, their cherished beliefs.   I suggest “privilegism.”

Word Count: 1,372

Total:  1,871


Today is my 50th birthday, and I will celebrate my half-century in a number of ways.   I will be playing keyboard tonight at Tokyo Garden in Fresno between 6:30-7:30, defend my team’s winning Fresno Pub Quiz ways at the Landmark restaurant between 8:00-10:00, then return to Tokyo Garden to have an adult beverage and pal around with some fellow musicians.

Also, today, I reactivate my blog in earnest, and with a modest goal: namely, that I will write a half-million (500,000 or more words) on my blog this year.  I often give writing assignments to students of 400-600 words, and one would think from their reaction that it is a form of ingenious torture on my part to, you know, actually compel them to compose paragraphs and link them together in response to a prompt.

I’ve calculated that, in order to achieve a modest goal of a half-million words per year (there are many who have done a million in a year), that I will have to average 1,370 words per day.   I am going to set this goal for myself, and (if I am spared) will attempt to hit my yearly target.   My goal is to not only provide a very present counter-example to student objections, but to emphasize the importance of regular writing.   Good writers achieve skill in writing by writing, and rewriting.   Just as there is no substitute for practice in athletics, there is no substitute for skill rehearsal in writing.   To help my students, I plan on requiring them to write more this year than ever before....and, frankly, to rewrite.

An ancillary goal to this is to not only enliven my blog presence, but to force myself to read and think about new things.   Since I didn’t teach summer school, and since I am now pretty much completely recovered from last summer’s spinal injury, I have been able to expand my reading lists (more on that in subsequent posts).   This has reminded me that intellectual growth becomes stunted by over-specialization or over-emphasis of certain topics or concerns.   My blog has a heavy interest on science education and the challenges it faces, but after several years of emphasizing this topic, I’ve lost my mojo.   Forcing myself to write to a certain limit, every day, will essentially force me to grapple with new ideas and experiences that might otherwise not have penetrated that part of my intellectual life.   And yes, “intellectual life” sounds pretty pretentious, but you have to remember that “intellectual” is not synonymous with “smart” or even “gifted.”   An intellectual is not necessarily any wiser than Joe Six-Pack, but they are interested in ideas.  You don’t have to be an Einstein to have that interest, but if you want to share your interests effectively, if you want to communicate with people outside your immediate social circle, you must write.  And, when dealing with difficult or controversial things, you must almost certainly constantly reevaluate what you have written, and when appropriate, revise and reform:  rewrite!

Word count:  499



It's the converse of the usual Latin phrase.   In this case, a seller (through Ebay) provided an item, but either failed to describe or failed to notice a defect in the merchandise, which in this case is a Louis Vuitton accordeon wallet described as being in "excellent condition."

My wife and I would like to believe the seller made an honest mistake, but we think that the wallet is definitely not in "excellent condition" and present the following images as evidence to that effect.   First, here is the wallet, opened but with the inner compartment zipped up:

If we unzip the wallet and carefully look from the outside, you can see some white patches under the zipper.   What could that be?

Further inspection reveals that the interior material is frayed and flaking.....

This is a material defect, and, in our judgement, the sort of thing that a seller could've honestly missed but which also precludes the item in question being described as being in "excellent condition."  

We hope that by posting these images on this blog and providing a link to this blog, that our seller will be able to see what we see, be appropriately surprised, and (not wanting to have this matter disputed) will agree to refund the purchase price upon return of the merchandise.