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Rejection Week: Bottom banana plays second fiddle

In 2009, DC Comics hit me with a surprise. Wednesday Comics was a serialized newsprint comics broadsheet that hit stands once a week for 12 weeks. I blogged giddily about the joy I took consuming it, and even had my son take a picture of me reading it, just to demonstrate its scope:

I want to apologize right now to DC for wearing a Captain America shirt for this shoot.

Wednesday Comics was a real gamble on the part of DC. It resurrected serialized storytelling from the era when newspapers had comics of substance, and it did it with an investment in A-list talent. The whole project is so daring, I decide I want in. And I want to do it daring style. I learn that the whole shebang is the brainchild of DC art director Mark Chiarello, and I know just what I want to pitch him. In my mind, Wednesday Comics is so awesome, it will surely spawn a sequel, and I think that sequel should star Detective Chimp.

Um, that would be D-list comics celebrity Detective Chimp. He’s, you know, a chimp. And he solves mysteries. Because he’s, like, a detective. It’s all very comics-logic, and if you’re not on board with that description, then, brother, I’m not sure you’re at the right blog.

You’ll notice that the original Wednesday Comics unfurls into a broadsheet equivalent to eight pages of content. I reason that I can win Chiarello over if I combine my story pitch with a mock-up of an actual issue of Wednesday Comics. Do I know that there will be a sequel to this project? No. Am I choosing a marketable character? No. Am I approaching the right guy to launch my future career as a comics writer? Considering he’s an art director, probably not.

But if you can’t believe in something stupid, ill-conceived, star-crossed and wholly unlikely, what can you believe in?

So I did it. Exactly what I said up there above, I did that. I made the mock-up. I filled it with chimp jokes. I fashioned a mock comic strip using stick figures … including a stick figure chimp … wearing a deer stalker. I consulted with the staff at Blick’s for the ideal paper and pens to execute my vision. I practiced the ideal fold, and brainstormed ways to fill it with the right content.

And this is what came out:

See how the front and back covers perfectly mimic the real thing? I'm banking here on the "just so crazy it might work" school of logic.

Just like an issue of Wednesday Comics, there's an ad inside the first fold. My ad happens to be for the Detective Chimp Agency, rather than a Kia Soul or Robot Chicken as in the source material.

Unfurled now in all its glory, you can see the giant cover letter on the left, and the giant meta-comic on the right in which Det. Chimp and his assistant, Batson, solve the mystery of who should write his comic advenures. J. Drew Scott of course! (You get that Batson-is-Watson joke, right? That's Billy Batson, the shazam-shouting Captain Marvel who's assisting Chimp. Oh, man this thing works on SO many levels.) Note the use of an original word-math puzzle in the lower center, which I created to tease how I thought Wednesday Comics could go even further into its newspaper roots. Add pencil puzzles!

Once you build a mock broadsheet comic of those proportions, you can’t just mail it. You’ve got to keep the sizzle sizzlin’ on your comix fajita. After repeat visits to my local Paper Source, where the staff soon began to think I was just nuts, I pieced together the knowledge I needed to fashion a crude portfolio to house my creation:

Yes, they had just the right brand of monkey-themed bookcloth.

The mock-up tucked neatly into the custom protective corners (cut from banana-colored envelopes. On the right I pasted a quick salutation and an offer to meet with Mr. Chiarello at the upcoming Chicago Comic-Con.

Well, once I had gone this far, it seemed cruel just to shove this into a UPS sleeve and sling it into a busy editor’s in-box. No, I knew I wanted my submission to be seen on his desk — not just on his desk, but from the very minute it entered the DC offices in NYC. All hail the Internet, which connected me to a Manhattan gift shop that specialized in custom baskets. The proprietress seemed amused by my tale and I could tell I got her invested in my quixotic quest; she had become a Sancho Panza of simian seduction, as she and began to envision a basket loaded with bananas and monkey-themed nonsense. Here’s the photo she sent me just before delivering the payload to the DC headquarters:

Nuts, right? I mean, totally bonkers that I took this stupid little idea this far, and turned it into a Carmen Miranda halftime show. You can feel the scrappy, I’m-gonna-make-it-after-all, against-the-odds vibe here, right?

But as you know, it’s Rejection Week, and I haven’t retired early to the Caymans with my fat wages garnered as a hot comix provocateur. This story must get the Old Yeller treatment.

I did hear from Chiarello, at least, and he was very gracious. He thanked me for the basket, swearing that I didn’t have to try so hard next time. (Read: Please stop scaring us with your crazy.) He assured me that if there were going to be a Wednesday Comics 2, it would probably still be using A-list talent (and that he even had some names in mind for a Detective Chimp concept he had already been noodling). He did agreed to meet me at the Comic-Con, which is probably the best outcome I should have hoped for. We have stayed in touch from time to time, so who can say: Perhaps this rejection is the very long, drawn-out, needlessly fruit-infused beginning of an acceptance one day.

And when that day comes, we’ll all have plenty of Vitamin A and potassium.

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Rejection Week Day One
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Rejection Week Day Four
(Rejection Week Day Five)

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Rejection Week: Life outside the group

In 2009, I saw an ad for a Groupon editor. At the time, working at Groupon seemed like a risky prospect; I had already worked at start-ups and been laid off by every one of ’em. Still, it seemed like a rare opportunity, and I applied.

But I didn’t just send in my resume and cover letter. That’s the kind of prosaic, back-water tactic championed by the remnants of Generation X. (As I later learned, it is probably also the tactic that still works).

Nevertheless, I decided to tackle this thing by going full-on Millenial. Show them that I knew how to roll in this new anything-goes economy. So I submitted a sort of post-modern cover letter. I did a screen grab of a Groupon ad, and made myself the product.

Considering that I never heard back from this – not even an appreciative, “Very amusing, but no thanks” – I’m wondering if I should have positioned myself as a product worth more than $40.

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(Rejection Week Day Four)
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Rejection Week: Trains to (literally) nowhere

Next up in my week of failure: My non-starter career as a map designer.

So, I like me some board games. A big welcome one in my house is Ticket to Ride, which is fun for people who are not big-time gamers (like most of the people I know, am related to, and live with).

TtR, as the cool kids call it, is a “route building” game, where players collect matching sets of cards to claim lengths of train track, thus connecting cities on a U.S. map and earning points. It’s a popular and influential game in the industry; it’s easy to play, with just enough decision making that it’s one of the pillars of the modern gaming era for the way it widened the appeal of board games to more and more casual players. It has spawned variants with European and Switzerland maps, so clearly it has a broad reach. My family likes this one, and I was content to play it and nothing more.

First edition map courtesy BoardGameGeek.com

And then its publisher, a company called Days of Wonder, announced an open contest to create a map. The winner would get his custom map included in a planned map set, as well as a cool 10 grand in his pocket. Even without the money, I’m pretty sure this was going to be a hotly contested contest, because gamers are people with big ideas, and there’s not a one of us who doesn’t think he can draw up an awesome map for a game like this.

And so I did. I took it seriously. I daydreamed, I doodled, I output, I playtested. As I told my wife: “I don’t have a reasonable expectation of winning; but I have a reasonable expectation of being considered.” I entered the contest in April of this year … and I never heard so much as a toot-toot again. If my entry ever achieved the status of considered, it’s cold comfort now.

But you guys, it was gonna be so cool! First I considered the setting: What’s the kind of unique and exotic place one would want to see if you wanted a new Ticket to Ride experience? Historical settings came to mind, like the Old West or maybe the famous roads of ancient Rome. Then I hit upon an idea that I thought was gold (and which I now have assumed everyone else had, too): set the map in a fictional place!

As fun as it would be to imagine Frodo hopping the 3:10 to Mordor in Middle Earth, there remains the little problem of copyright. Which means sticking to fictional works in the public domain. Which covers many (but not all) books before 1923. What realm in those old books is rich enough to support a map of train-linked  locations? Maybe the Oz books by Frank L. Baum … but then I reasoned, why choose just one location? Why not link all of the famous cities of literature in a mythical mishmash? That sounded like fun.

So I developed Ticket to Ride: Library. Entire genres of books would be divided into “countries” separated by mountains and rivers that required tunnels or ferries to link. To support the library theme, I brainstormed for a wide representation of the kinds of sections you’d find in a library, from obvious fictional realms to historical. For this last one, it felt a bit daft to link imaginary lands with real ones, but I settled on historical locations that exuded a bookish quality, from lost cities we can explore only in books (Pompeii and Roanoke Colony) to places best identified with legends and tales (Nottingham and Man in the Iron Mask‘s Chateau d’If).

I spent a full day in the library consulting the Dictionary of Imaginary Places. A great read even when you’re not designing a game.

A fat list of cities in hand, I sat down with some pencils and sketched something out. I used the same distribution of track colors and lengths as the original U.S. map, just to ensure I was starting from a place of balance. Here’s what I came up with.

So I put it to the computer. Using my hack-y Adobe Illustrator skills, I began to plot out this mix-and-match world. I quickly discovered that starting with a gridless sheet of paper was the biggest fiction of all, as I had given myself absolutely no quality control over fitting these pieces and parts together. Many things had to change on the fly, all while maintaining a playable balance of route lengths and colors.

When I was ready, I had Kinko’s output this map on 30 x 20 poster paper. Now we were working with a map at 100% of size, and it was time to playtest.

Handmade destination cards, with bitty maps so you can find what you need to connect. There's somethng diabolical about linking Mr. Toad and Dr. Moreau.

After dutiful testing, I recognized there were some rough patches. Some areas of the maps had too many long routes, and there weren’t enough short routes or “work arounds” for blockades by other players. I went back and played with it some more. Here’s where I ended before finally determining this map was not going to get called up to the big leagues:

Note how you need to build tunnels to places like Atlantis and King Solomon's Mines; meanwhile the differences between some genres are so steep (Juvenile and History, for instance), they are divided by mountains that must be tunneled through. Tunnel rules are borrowed from the Ticket to Ride: Europe.

By now, I renamed the game Ticket to Ride: Athenaeum, because I wanted to make it feel a bit more like a game, a little more playful. Athenaeum connotes an entire temple of learning (yet doesn’t sound quite so dry as that). I envisioned a game supplement that would act as a primer for the place-name origins, some of which are kind of obscure. (Did you know the “Cold Lairs,” are where the monkeys took the kidnapped Mowgli in The Jungle Book? What a sad-sounding place for such a primo Louis Prima tune.)

Here’s how I described it in the official entry (click to make readable):

I even suggested this game could licensed to a bookseller like Powell’s or B&N. “Consider the possibilities,” I wrote, “of TtR: Tattered Cover, or even TtR: Audible!”

According to contest rules, my entry had to fly forth without the actual map. If I could sell it on the entry form, they’d ask to see the rest. So to ensure it got opened and regarded, I gave it a snazzy jacket to grab the intern’s attention as he plodded through the buckets of mail:

Note the "Read or Die" tattoo design from the novelty book "The Illustrated Librarian: 12 Temporary Tattoos for Librarians and Booklovers" from Accoutrements.

The gaming masses may never be able to play my version, but at least I have my own little home grown kit I can make my children play any time I want. “All aboard, kids! Daddy’s got to make use of his investment of the time and money that went into his failed game design!”

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Rejection Week Day One
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Rejection Week: World traveler stinks it up

In 2001, I joined my wife on an adventurous business trip to Germany and Austria. It was adventurous less for our adventure and more for who joined us: our 1-year-old son. He was an active dude, who quickly got to know everyone on the plane as he ran up and down the aisles greeting people. Of course, whether ascending or descending, the plane is almost always at a pitch, and while running downhill, Oldest Boy would really get to motoring, up to and past the point of falling.

Just a couple of good looking guys, out for a cruise in Kitzbuhl. "How you doin', ladies?"

It was exhausting, and all three of us slept for 14 hours once we bedded down in our Garmisch-Partenkirchen inn at the day’s end.

In any event, when we returned, I felt I had a singular look inside the travails of traveling with kids. It was no cakewalk, but it could be done, and I had insider information. I knew people who knew people at the Chicago Sun Times, so I wrote up my first big travelogue and hoped to make a sale. I must have botched the initial impression, because even though I thought this was pretty good, I was politely declined.

There went my career as a travel writer. Perhaps I would have been miserable … though I’m looking for a downside to travel writing and I just can’t find one.

Diaper Rush

When traveling with baby, don’t forget the simplest rules of planning

By Andrew Scott

Of all the triumphant sights in Germany—Hitler’s Alpine aerie, Ludwig’s mad castle, the basilica of the beer-brewing Benedictines in Ettal—none was sweeter than my wife pressing a package of diapers to the window of a Munich gas station.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw it…a stinky, stinky sigh of relief, since my 1-year-old son’s current (and last remaining) diaper had filled the car with more than the air of desperation, if you know what I mean. This station was truly our last hope for finding a fresh nappy in, apparently, all of Germany.

It was a simple mistake. Between the diaper bag supply and the suitcase stash, we miscounted our inventory, just before my boy’s pants went atomic. No diapers? No problem—if you have the ubiquitous American retail system at your service. But shopping in Germany is a weisswurst of a different color.

We were just checking into our hotel in Munich when we made our unpleasant discovery. Where, we asked the front desk clerk, is the nearest grocery store? She provided the directions, but pointed out a small detail as we turn away:

“But today is Saturday.”

Turns out this wasn’t such a small detail after all. All stores—and that meant all stores—closed at 5:00 on Saturdays. We had missed last call by an hour. Worse still, those same stores remained closed on Sundays. And, of course, the kicker: Monday was Pfingstmontag, or Pentecost Monday, a national holiday. In America, of course, it’s inconceivable to imagine a thing that cannot be bought at any hour of any day, especially something as essential as a disposable poop catcher for your infant. But here in Germany, we were looking another 60 hours of diaperlessness. What was next: Ringing doorbells?

But then another clerk offered this crazy idea: “Well, there is that filling station that has a store. It might be open.”

Really? Gas station convenience stores are a novelty in Bavaria? With a son who was growing increasingly vocal about the situation in his drawers, we drove 15 frantic minutes to an unassuming little box of a gas station. When my wife held that package of “Fixies” brand disposables against the window, it felt like opening day of Oktoberfest.

On the whole, our first real trip with baby was an amazing success, despite the litany of crises, averted catastrophes and near misses. Because we had planned obsessively for this before we left, we never hit total misery even when the wheels came off our wagon. Here is a short list of ideas—both practical and philosophical—that we gleaned for other parents making their first-time long distance leap:

* Be patient. Travel is never going be the same way for you now. Admit it. Move on.

* Expect that not you will enjoy everything the way you want. On more than one walking tour of a gold-gilded palace, I hung back from our tour groups to minimize the distraction of a fussy baby. Granted, this was a small mercy on some of the stuffier palatial tours—but I accepted this eventuality before I even bought my ticket.

* The umbrella stroller is magic. An umbrella stroller whisks baby from car to terminal to gate, a walk of approximately 20,000 leagues in most airports. Then, right before boarding it collapses into a neat tube that most flight attendants are happy to store special for you. (We managed to get some seats backing up to bulkheads, so the stroller could be tucked right behind us.) Don’t spend more than $50 on one of these; the more geegaws they have, the clunkier they are. We went bare bones and were never sad.

* Back carriers are essential—but not benign. Umbrella strollers are suited for shorter distances over smoother terrain, which does nothing for a day in Salzburg’s Old Town district or the rocky paths above the Eagle’s Nest. Instead, we relied on the back carrier. Sure, it was bulkier than soft pouches or slings, but the extra structure, when properly adjusted, provided superior support for long days on foot. My back ached at the end every day, but less than any other option, I’m convinced. Plus, it elevated my son above my head, giving him a better view (and keeping his grabby hands away from counters and tables). When it came time to eat, our carrier could stand upright next to the table, a helpful feature for the many, many times restaurants came up empty on boosters and high chairs. Speaking of which…

* Go fearlessly. Few Germans seemed to take their kinder out to eat at restaurants. (Yet, strangely, dogs were welcome everywhere.) We took our baby anyway, and discovered that even though we sometimes felt conspicuous and out of place, we were just as often received with warmth by servers and locals who admired our bravery and our son’s spirit. Having our son along made new cultural connections possible.

* Take few toys—but make ’em good. We didn’t want to haul a daycare’s worth of toys across Europe. To keep our son occupied in the car, we selected one manageable chunk of plastic that had a bunch of manipulation points—clicking, whirring, popping up, snapping down, tinny music and a poorly digitized voice chip. Even if the incessant tinkling and tootling from the back seat bordered on a violation of the Geneva Convention, it kept him occupied on sometimes lengthy drives.

* Count those diapers. At least once a day. And as a last line of defense, keep one spare tucked in an outer pocket of a suitcase. You just never know.

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Rejection Week: A goodbye to my greeting cards

Welcome to Rejection Week, an examination of just a few things I have created that have been rejected, denied, passed over and outright dissed. My list of misses is much longer than my list of hits, and sometimes I think there’s more value in reflecting on what didn’t work rather than what did.

Also, there’s a completely self-serving aspect, too: Many of the things I’ve created I really liked, and if no one will ever see them, then they die little deaths on my shelf. So yes, I will only be sharing things that I am at least a little proud of.

We open with a series of greeting cards I made in 2009 as part of Hallmark’s regular open contests for amateurs. Though I didn’t necessarily expect Hallmark to use my art, I worked as hard as I could to make some of these look pretty. I believe my style could only be lumped generously in what is called “naive art,” which is a pretentious way of saying “doodler.” As I recall, I did the first two for a basic birthday challenge, and then another series as a sort of “what can you do” sampler aimed directly at Shoebox.

In each case, I got a confirmation e-mail that my submissions had been received. And that was all.

What I learned

I learned that coming up with pithy, bawdy, zippy jokes for a greeting card is not the same as cracking jokes in the back of an office meeting or civics classroom. I was unemployed when attempting these, and I think it would have been easier if I had been surrounded at the time by my usual cadre of funny co-workers. Just being around smarties and smart alecks raises the game of creative types. I’m especially susceptible; retorts and repartee are an elixir for inspiration. (Which seems self-evident on the Shoebox blog; that sounds like a supportively goofy office for generating regular ha-ha.) I could have used that boost when staring at the drawing board for these.

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Rejection Week Day Two
Rejection Week Day Three
Rejection Week Day Four
Rejection Week Day Five

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