Interlude: David Hughes


David Hughes
The Pillbox

Jonathan Cape
Written for Varoom! The Illustration Report, Autumn 2015

The biography on David Hughes’ website has this to say: “My father was a plumber, a painter and a decorator for fifty five years. Turner was a painter. My mother used to ask… ‘Why can’t you draw something nice? Why don’t you get a proper job?’ During the 2nd World War she stitched goggles in Turner’s house…”

Not drawing something nice is at the heart of Hughes’ new book, The Pillbox, as is the Second World War. It presents a chilly version of an English seaside holiday, wrapped around a depraved murder mystery from 1945, involving American troops stationed nearby.

It begins with a typical scene: a boy and his dog on a beach on England’s East Coast, before veering away into more uncharted waters. A wooly mammoth appears to the boy, before it suddenly turns tail, saying “I forgot… this is not a children’s picture book.” And with that, we know we are on a journey that will a) get somewhat darker, and b) probably not end well.


Jack’s excited retelling of his extraordinary vision meets only parental indifference. The next year, at the same spot, he finds a Second World War pillbox, a concrete gun emplacement for shooting at enemy invaders. But the invaders in this story are two of the American soldiers, one good, one bad. Jack’s meeting with Bill – a boy who seems to come from another time – sets in train a story of terrible fascination that reaches back to Bill’s childhood in the 1940’s.

In pages filled with raw, uneven drawings, Hughes works within the framework of a graphic novel while ignoring its niceties – there’s no smoothing-out or polishing here. Hughes makes in-jokes about his technical limitations, but it just adds to the feeling that it’s a deliberate decision not to overwork the drawings and lose spontaneity. The characters’ features are inconsistent, but the one-take feeling gives it enormous energy. In fact, there’s something musical in the way that Hughes works, using rhythmic building blocks of repeated panels, interspersed with spreads of wild improvisation, where one image leaps out to accentuate the meaning of a scene.-Blogpillbox.jpgHis ability to freeze moments in time gives the images an uncomfortable power, reminiscent of Ralph Steadman or Roland Topor, but The Pillbox ends up being a thing unto itself, a unique and disturbing tale, brilliantly realized. Just listen to his (mammoth) warning that it’s not a children’s book.


Steven Guarnaccia’s Fatherland

Written for the Summer 2015 issue of Varoom! magazine. The theme of this issue was Play.

My normal beat at Varoom! is cartoons and comic strips, but sometimes you come across projects that, while being informed by comic drawing, are a step aside or beyond. On leaving Fatherland, Steven Guarnaccia’s exhibition of possessions re-purposed into an amazing portrait of both father & son, I knew that I had to write about it. Actually, the first thing I had to do was email Steven – who I’d recently worked with – and tell him just how fantastic it was.


This vivid picto-biography, using his father’s possessions (saws, pipes, shirts, dice) turned on their heads by colour, wit and wordplay – in order to portray facets the character of the man – is brilliantly realized. Giant paper ties hang from floor to ceiling, and plaid shirts are painted on blocks of wood in a space created by white cardboard cartons. Of course, the acts of the son – whether by filtering or emphasis – give the show another dimension. At certain ages he’s in awe, at others puzzled or in opposition, and so it becomes a story of both men, playful in approach, but with the sharp edge of honesty.


Amusing and moving in turn, Fatherland has a coherence and satisfaction that exhibitions often lack. It may be that if you’re a certain age and have had your own issues or struggles with your father that it resonates in a particular way, but actually it’s hard to think that anyone could fail to enjoy or take something from it. And moving and amusing is an unbeatable combination – if you have the skill to pull it off. Which Steven does.

[See below for a Q&A with Steven].

guarnaccia_fatherland-21 guarnaccia_fatherland-40 guarnaccia-3 guarnaccia-8 guarnaccia-18 guarnaccia-27 guarnaccia-36 guarnaccia

The Varoom! Q&A with Steven Guarnaccia

Brief: Brief to self – write a children’s book during sabbatical from Parsons. Instead, I drew saws and pipes and shoes incessantly, until I gave up on the book and decided to give in to the saws, etc and build a world of objects that all deal in some way with my pretty broken relationship with my father.

Materials: The aforementioned saws, pipes and shoes, plus scraps of wood, acrylic paint, canes, shirts, various boxes, a mannequin leg and a duckpin bowling pin.

Research: More than 10 years of therapy, endless poring over the family photo albums and scrapbooks (I’m the keeper of the archives), delving into sign painters’ manuals, and the Oxford English Dictionary always at my side.

Process: Haunting flea markets and yard sales on two continents and drawing in my sketchbooks for two years, then one year of cutting and painting and hammering and gluing.

Resistances: The difficulty of finding a voice to depict a relationship that alternated between silence and roaring, fear of exposing that relationship to the world, and finding a way to represent it fairly honestly and unsentimentally through objects, rather than through my usual humorous drawings.

Insight: I really like making three- dimensional objects!

Distractions: Haunting flea markets, buying way more saws than I’ll ever be able to do anything with.

Numbers: 16 pipes, 14 saws, one bowling pin, one artificial leg.

Play: I often felt like I was playing some surrealist’s game of pin the tail on the fur-lined teacup, combining objects in ways that were illogical but emotionally resonant.


Interlude: Now you see it…

So we were driving home last Sunday, and a couple of workmen were at the entrance to the tiny street that leads into ours. We waved at them, gesturing that we’d park our car in the major street, and wouldn’t make them move their wood and tarpaulin structure. It was similar to those put up by water or gas workers when they’re doing repairs. We didn’t think much about it until I glanced down from one of our windows that overlooks the street. And saw this:

Bambi1 someone finishing off the artwork that they’d sprayed onto the wall. Much excitement followed, especially as it was extremely close to Banksy’s style… a stencil of Bruce Lee, Je Suis Charlie written on his vest, some stars falling from the sky onto his yellow umbrella. There were two guys in Hi-Viz jackets, who did most of the tarpaulin construction, and someone in the middle with silver hair in a Toshiro Mifune kind of top-knot. We didn’t want to disturb them so we took some discreet photos and went down to have a look after they had magicked their temporary hut away.

Bambi2Then it turned out to also have a title of sorts: People Power, and was signed, Bambi, who turns out to be well-known in her own right as a Street Artist.


Great, we thought. That dull wall has been transformed with something quirky and interesting… until we arrived back at 11.30 that night from the cinema and someone had painted over it, leaving very little trace of our six-hour art gallery.


Interlude: Cartoonist’s Obssessions… with Simon Meyrick-Jones (and Steve Way)

From Varoom!, Spring 2014

I don’t know if the cartoonist’s love of certain situations could be called obsessive, but the countless numbers of jokes that have essentially the same drawing points in that direction. Pirates, desert islands, office desks and men hanging from chains in prison cells have been staples of cartooning since the Punch of the turn of the century or the New Yorker of the 20s. Those situations lend themselves to endlessly updated punchlines, but maybe there’s also a desire to do the perfect Pirate joke. Or, at least, this year’s perfect Pirate joke, probably involving Twitter or Miley Cyrus. Simon Meyrick-Jones, along with collaborator (or should that be co-conspirator?) Steve Way took the slightly less well-worn subject of Witchfinding out of the 17th Century and into the 21st. Their obsessive take on an obsessed character led to them creating an entire book. I asked Simon to illuminate the journey:

! Cover

Materials: My everyday cartooning is done with a Pentel Stylo, which allows a left-handed person to utilise the variations in line that an ordinary pen gives to right-handed people. For the Witchfinder I used a variety of Rotring Art Pens and some children’s Back to School fountain pens from Tesco on cheap cartridge paper, in order to get a rough scratchy look.

Research: For years I’ve torn out and kept any images of 17th-century woodcuts. They just make me smile.

Process: I was collaborating with Steve Way on this. We’d decided on chapter headings and then both came up with ideas for each one which I’d then draw up in a woodcut style. I like collaborating with people; I think the results are usually funnier. Think of the endless jokes in the Airplane films, written by a team of writers, compared to the painfully thin Austin Powers films, written by just one person.

Resistances: The main problem was trying to explain to people what we were doing. Only a few people understood that Witchfinding was just the hook on which we were hanging explorations of sexism, bigotry, hypocrisy and religious myopia. The other problem was trying not to draw too quickly. Although it was really only a rough, it was important to keep the slow, stiff quality of the original woodcuts. Whereas in modern cartooning a certain looseness is what we’re looking for.

Insights: I’m almost ashamed to admit this, but after a while it dawned on me that 17-century woodcuts were the precursors of today’s cartoons; simply drawn figures with speech balloons and created for the mass market. They weren’t Fine Art, they were Graphic Art. Took me almost thirty years to realise that…

Distractions: Considering that it was really just a rough, it took ages to do, so after enough time, the alcoholic glow of our village pub proved too seductive. Though I’m not unhappy with that as I think that it’s important to spend time in the outside world not just inside one’s own thoughts. It’s the outside world that provides the ideas.

Numbers: I seem to know a disturbingly large amount of people who have the number 13 tattooed on them…

Obsession: Yes, it did become obsessive. Steve and I thought we’d get away with a few sample pages and a synopsis. Due to the incomprehension with which we met, we started to do a couple of pages for each chapter – and since that didn’t seem to help, we ended up doing the whole damned thing and having it made into a little book just to show people exactly what we meant, unfortunately with no success; though I was, and still am, convinced that it was a worthwhile and funny idea.



Interlude: Jazz. New York in the Roaring Twenties

Jazz. New York in the Roaring Twenties
Robert Nippoldt, Hans-Jürgen Schaal
Hardcover with CD, 8.5 x 13.4 in., 144 pages, £ 34.99

Review from Eye Magazine, Autumn 2013taschenjazz3

Handsome may be the word to describe this book, conceived by German illustrator Robert Nippoldt, a lavish telling of the story of Jazz in New York. Texts about the movers and shakers of the Jazz world at that time – Henderson, Hawkins, Ellington, Whiteman et al – are added to pieces on recording techniques and important locations, to summon up the glories of the Uptown world of Jazz in Manhattan in the era of Gatsby. Perhaps that explains its translation into English now, as it originally appeared in 2007 in Germany. These texts are set against Nippoldt’s slightly crude hatched felt pen-like drawings, all done in black, brown and beige (to quote a Duke Ellington Suite).

Of course, the problem with handsome is that handsome is a lot about the facade. There are dynamic spreads that are seductive as you glance through, but on examination appear a little flimsy. This book, created art-first with a luxurious flatplan giving the drawings primacy over the space, somehow doesn’t quite justify its size – even with the layers of fact boxes detailing recording careers and instruments played. These cute little touches – the use of musicians’ signatures, instrument symbols and small drawings of the main players dropped into the text where their name appears – are nice, but the attention to detail falters when it comes to the type, with a truly nasty italic choice.

For every lovely touch (audience shadows on the front of Armstrong’s stage, reminiscent of The Watchmen), there’s a rather rotoscoped Joe Venuti. For every vivid Manhattan nightscape, there’s a clunkily drawn cornet, not working hard enough for the space it occupies. There are some cool graphic ideas. There’s a nice map of Manhattan showing the locations of the Hot Nitespots, and a brace of spreads with the waveforms of the 20 songs from the attached CD, along with a timing graph (only “Rhapsody In Blue”, commissioned by Paul Whiteman from George Gershwin, is over 3 minutes 20 seconds, and continues by itself onto the second spread).


But, looming over all drawings of old musicians, is the great Robert Crumb. Looking back at Crumb you understand what’s missing here – it’s that lunatic passion that inhabits Crumb’s line, that puts fire in the eyes of his portraits. In Nippoldt’s hands they’re  pleasant enough photo-derived graphic representations, but they’re not really alive. And the same goes for the text, a good enough introduction to the subject (albeit not impressive to the jazz scholars that I ran it past), but somewhere between the vivacity of a true comic-book tale and a proper work of scholarship. In the end I didn’t quite know who it was intended for or where it will find its audience. Certainly anyone with more than a passing interest in Jazz would enjoy being reminded of these composers and singers and players, but whether they’d indulge the pages of blown-up record surfaces or annotated drawings of old gramophones, I’m not sure. According to the note at the back, “[Nippoldt’s] screwball book projects put the fear of God into him and his publishers”. I can see why.


Eight: Masereel, Cliff Harper, Gabriel Guma, Clubs, Tattoos

From Varoom! 22, Summer 2013. Theme: Experimentation

I first heard of Frans Masereel through Clifford Harper, who I worked with a lot at one point. Cliff’s painstaking style was based on the look of woodcuts, although his were done with pen and ink (a technique, he once told me, that probably took him longer to do than actually cutting wood). Cliff admired Masereel’s wordless books, and was interested in the pictorial narrative, so when I got involved in designing a card in the Eighties for a Soho Members Club (I know – how Millennial is that!) we hit upon the idea of the story of a night out.

Freds Logo

I think it was Adam Kidron (one of the club’s backers) who suggested that the card be brass, so the black and white woodcut-style line became etched into it. Cliff brilliantly executed the notion, getting an extraordinary level of detail into drawings that would end up on a 90mm x 50mm card. I’m really happy to be back in touch with Cliff and working with him again.

Freds Card

I remembered all of this when I saw Gabriel Guma’s lovely (almost) wordless take on Franz Kafka’s “A Fratricide”. An enigmatic tale that suits the comic-book’s sequential form, stylistically it harks back a little to Walter Trier’s great illustrations for “Emil & The Detectives” and Lilliput magazine. Says Gabriel: “It was one of those projects that I kept pushing into the back-burner due to lack of time (and a secret fear that I would fall embarrassingly short of doing it justice). During three weeks this past February, I finally gave in to temptation”. I asked him to tell me the story behind this story, but this time in words.

Illustrator, Argentina/USA

Materials: A tired old brush nearing retirement, a crow quill pen, Higgins waterproof black ink. Small dabs of white acrylic paint came in handy only to omit unnecessary details and to make myself look less sloppy than I actually am. The finished pages were drawn on Bristol board.

Research: A Fratricide was written in or around 1917, and while Kafka is vague about its actual setting, I thought it safe to assume it takes place either in Prague or thereabouts. A lot of time was spent online looking for reference photographs of architectural details and people in period clothing. My wife owns several books about silent films, so some of those were browsed for reference images as well.

Process: I read the story repeatedly until I was able to visualize it in its entirety. I tried different “looks” for the lead characters as my interpretation of the text took shape. I then made very small but detailed thumbnails of each comic page on sheets of computer printing paper.

(Lately I’ve been preferring the disposable quality of loose scraps rather than a sketchbook. If I want to throw out a drawing I’m not happy with, it feels a lot less precious than tearing a sketchbook page). I edited my thumbnails as panel compositions improved and awkward transitions in the pacing were smoothed out. I would ink a page as soon as I’d finish drawing it in pencil, concentrating on mark-making and texture. Mostly, I stuck to my thumbnails, but occasionally some minor revisions were worked out right before (or even after) the inking stage.

Comics adaptation of "A Fratricide", a short story by Franz Kafka.

Resistances: Kafka’s text runs slightly over two pages, but in that short space a dense atmosphere is built and he fleshes out detailed characterisations that need room to breathe in comics form. That’s how the four pages I thought were needed to tell the story visually soon doubled in length. To highlight A Fratricide’s foreboding mood of doom, I initially worked with three colours: black, pale yellow, and gray-blue. After producing a test page with this approach, I decided it diluted the stark quality I was aiming for, so I withered it down to just black and white.

Insight: A Fratricide reads like a very precise report on some rather odd events. It seemed that for this reason it would lend itself well to a mostly wordless visual narrative. When dealing with the graphic grammar of comics, panel structure and page design were key in this adaptation. I’m also a fan of many different kinds of imagery—conceptual illustration, 1950s cartoons, art deco-era posters, Cubism, German expressionist woodcuts—so I wanted to find ways of introducing those interests to my approach to comics. This could have been pushed much further, but the most important thing was to remain faithful to Kafka’s work while using some of these graphic devices in favour of the story.

Distractions: The Internet can uncover wonderful and inspiring finds while hunting for image reference and period photographs, but it can also lead you down a time-wasting black hole. The allure of online book shopping and the websites of my favourite illustrators also proved hard to resist!

Comics adaptation of "A Fratricide", a short story by Franz Kafka.

Numbers: Somehow, “Nine” kept creeping into the project to remind me it wanted to be included. Kafka establishes the events as having started at 9 pm. Also, during the thumbnail stage I realised that having more than nine panels per page (or three rows of panels, with three panels per row) would compromise the balance and readability of each page design.

Experiment: It’s a tie between these three: a picture of a man strangling his own shadow on a newspaper headline as an “opening title”, a panel sequence of a “deadly” pocket watch in a woman’s hand morphing into a bell alarm on a wall, and a cloud with a labyrinth on it. None of these images are part of Kafka’s text; they are my own attempts at objectifying the ambiguities in A Fratricide while adding yet another layer for the reader to peel off. Omitting most of the actual text seemed sensible, since it would be redundant to draw images that simply mimic Kafka’s words with little room for interpretation or allusion.

Gabriel works in Brooklyn, New York, Cliff in Camberwell, London. Hire them! Now!

PS: While searching for information on Masereel, I came across this (I can’t remember where…):