Illustration

Ten: Peter Brookes

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I was thrilled to see a profile that I wrote for John L Walters and Simon Esterson at eye magazine in print this week. Last year I visited Peter in his office at The Times and spent a fascinating couple of hours talking to him about his career in illustration and cartooning, below a wall covered in stunning examples of his art and craft. I was lucky enough to have met Peter as I started out in magazine design, at my first proper job, in the art department of Radio Times. By then, he had worked with its brilliant Art Director, David Driver, for a decade, and his approach to problems and his enjoyment of finding creative solutions rubbed off on the whole team. “Happy days!”, said Peter as we talked about that part of his career, and they were. As I left, I noticed a stack of previous cartoons, topped off with his brilliant Michael Gove/Boris Johnson “Et tu, Brute” from a few weeks before, memorably summing up Gove’s disastrous entry into the Tory leadership battle.

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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.”

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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 (mcsweeneys.net/articles/the-twisting-road) 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.”

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Illustration

Interlude: David Hughes

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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.

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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.

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Illustration

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.

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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.

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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].

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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.

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Illustration

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:

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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.

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Illustration

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.

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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.

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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.

GABRIEL GUMA
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…):

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