A piece I wrote for the fine folks of Eye, on the wonderfully gifted Jonny Hannah.
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:
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.
Then 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.
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:
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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…):
Written for the My Favo(u)rite Magazine Project, organised by Jeremy Leslie and Andrew Losowsky to raise funds to help Bob Newman, US art director and magazine lover, after he had a seizure and collapsed. The brief was: “Choose your favourite single magazine issue, and tell us about it. Any magazine, from any country, from any era.”
Linus Magazine. Bought in Moroni’s, home of magazines, on Old Compton Street, Soho, in May 1970, when I was still buying boy’s comics full of war and derring-do. I loved Peanuts – who didn’t? It had Snoopy on the cover, so it was an obvious purchase. But inside, a world unknown. Put together by Ralph Steadman and Frank Dickens, it ranged across the globe to find extraordinary things, all done in the name of comics. It was racy, it was smart, it was funny. It placed Dickens’ none-more-British detective strip bang up against Guido Crepax’s Nazis and nubiles from Milan. It had Fellini’s sketches! It had The Upside-Down World of Gustave Verbeek, where you read the strip then turned it over for the conclusion of the story, and the drawings miraculously made sense that way too… Coming across Roland Topor probably affected my entire career in magazines. As soon as I saw Brad Holland and Peter Till’s work, I recognised the visual brilliance that I’d so admired in Topor. This was extraordinary stuff, and I never found another issue, but, like the Velvet Underground, its work was done.
From Varoom! 20, Spring 2013
Glance at Lucas Varela’s Blog/Website ESTUPEFACTO and you are assailed. Assailed by a vivid mosaic, beautifully coloured and teeming with—as he himself puts it—an “imaginary of monsters, worms, vomits and semi-naked women.” Kudos, then, to the Financial Times Weekend Magazine’s design team (headed up by Mark Leeds when they redesigned in 2010) for looking beyond the comic book patina to the brilliant narrative strength below when they chose him to illustrate a regular column by Robert Shrimsley—The National Conversation. There is something particularly satisfying as an Art Director to pair two people—one visual, one verbal—and create a partnership that lasts. In the 1990s, Simon Esterson and I put together Jonathan Meades and Paul Slater for the Times Saturday Review and set in train a double act that lasted for twenty years.
In the Shrimsley/Varela case, the Weekend art team were aided by Lucas’ agent. Mark Leeds: “Helen from Dutch Uncle alerted me to him—I’m always very happy to give talent a chance. I thought his illustrations had wit and a sense of narrative so I felt confident he would be able to articulate the column.” So far, Lucas has illustrated over 100 of the columns, a fact that was celebrated on the FT website last December.
Helen Cowley, Dutch Uncle: “On a trip to London, Lucas came to our studio, shared his comic work, and not long after we started to work together on some commissions. Mark Leeds, a friend of mine, approached us about a new column in the FT. I knew Lucas was keen to get his work seen more in the UK and it seemed like a perfect fit. He’s a great artist and draughtsman and has an amazing imagination and wit.”
Hailing from the Buenos Aires, Argentina and now in artistic residence at La Maison des Auteurs in Angouleme, France, doing a graphic novel, Lucas enjoys his regular gig: “I’m in contact with Paul Transley and Shannon Gibson from the design department and the writings of the journalist Robert Shrimsley are brilliant and funny. I try to accompany them with humor and ironic illustrations. I just always hope they can print it a little bigger…”
For Varoom, Lucas pulled out a portrait that he had done for XXI magazine and let us into the thought process behind it. The theme for this issue was Rules, hence the last question.
Materials Pentel Brush pen, Pentel Fountain pen and other cheap pens on A3 paper.
Research As it is the portrait of a public figure (in this case the boxer Dewey Bozella), I searched for photographic references on the Internet. I didn’t move so much my ass—I just googled it. But I also read about his life, and I saw a documentary about him that really moved me.
Process The magazine XXI asked me to do a portrait reflecting the life of courage of this man who has spent 25 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Every time they asked him to declare himself guilty to shorten his sentence he refused. A lawyer discovered evidence that proved his innocence, so he was freed at the age of 50 years. He fought only one boxing match as a professional, as he had reached the permitted age limit, and then he retired—it’s a very touching story and I was very enthusiastic to illustrate it. I began with a lot of roughs, searching for the correct position and mood. I did a serious portrait with a halo of light like a religious icon. But the art director felt it too solemn for the cover and asked me to do it with a little smile. The inclusion of the beret also helps to correct the mood.
Resistances Well, I am a comic artist, so it was a challenge to do a portrait with realistic results. I had to resist the use of my usual imaginary of monsters, worms, vomits and semi-naked women but in the end I’m pleased with it.
Insight I did all the process and final illustration in a trip I made to a very little town in the south of France called Lauris. We had this trip arranged to visit my girlfriend’s father and I was afraid I was not going to be able to do the illustration without the accommodations of my studio. So I took my pens, paper and the computer and the only thing I purchased was a portable LED light table. This proved to be very useful. At the end I worked comfortably with my portable equipment in this very nice town surrounded by fields of olive trees.
Distractions Not so much, because my internet connection was limited and I only used it for the research. The only real distraction was a very strong wind called the Mistral that attacked
the town and brought down some trees.
Numbers The illustration was made for XXI and it was the 21st issue, so it was important not only for the numbers but for the manifesto they publish with it, in defense of independent journalism. I was glad to be part of it.
Favourite Rule I drink mate (a strange South American beverage) when I work. I have a lot of accidents with the liquid and the original pages.