Illustration, Interludes

Interlude: Ali Fitzgerald

From Varoom! Winter 2016

Let me introduce you to your new favourite cartoonist: her name is Ali Fitzgerald and she moved to Europe after grad school in Austin, Texas and is now perched high above the Berlin wall in a bungalow, where she draws her regular cartoon column for McSweeney’s, “Hungover Bear and Friends.” It came as a result of winning their annual Column Contest, and is about, well, a hungover bear and his friends (Entitled Fox, Catty Curator et al) confronting the strangeness and quirk of the modern world. As the website puts it, “he’s not an anti-hero, he’s just a bear in a sweater trying to make it all work.”



Moving from the home of outlaw country musicians and the South By Southwest festival to the art cauldron of Berlin was not carefully thought through. In fact, as she says, “I basically left Texas with the complete absence of a plan or any German skills.” She also moved from large-scale wall paintings and dioramas to a much smaller canvas: “I was burnt out and disillusioned with the “high art” world and wanted to engage in a more direct way of telling stories. I had to really teach myself how to work on a small-scale – working in a large, gestural way comes much more naturally. But when I moved to Berlin I knew I wanted to learn how to work smaller, and how to communicate ideas visually. So I made a lot of weird/dark comics and drawings that I will probably never show anyone except my therapist.”

For Ali, Berlin actually isn’t so alien. “I think I’m more ‘European’ in temperament (reserved, kind of dark, fatalistic), so Berlin has always felt less foreign in some ways – and despite its rocketing hipness, it’s still essentially a city of outcasts.” Which is, of course, part of the stock-in-trade of cartoonist – an outsider’s eye on the absurd way the human race works. There’s something of Charles Burns in her style, and of Roz Chast in her language, but “Hungover Bear” has a tone and timbre all of its own.

You can see the series so far on Timothy McSweeney’s Internet Tendancy ( and laugh/wince in recognition, at the caustic Ant Rand – “Never forget that the finest nectar comes from egoism, industry and the invisible hand of the Free Market” or be told that “Self-Righteous Hawk thinks that you don’t fully understand the situation in Gaza.”




Nine: Jane Bown

U2 1Seeing the lovely documentary on Jane – Looking for Light – I was reminded of working with her. I was at the Observer Magazine and we were planning to do a piece on U2. To their credit, they asked if Jane could go to Dublin and photograph them. We were only too happy to send her, armed with her usual equipment: a camera in an old shopping bag. I had worked with Jane a fair bit at that time and I think I was the first person to ask her to try shooting in colour, for a series on estimable women in The Listener (in the interests of full disclosure it wasn’t my idea, but Russell Twisk’s, my editor). Anyway, when Jane returned to the Obs office, she gave us a choice of shots. I much preferred the individual portraits – taken in the pub at the end of the shoot – to the rather flat “Group on the Dock” ones. Jane, however, didn’t, and it took some time to be forgiven…


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 Michèle 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 we found that it had a title, 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.