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 of 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: 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.



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…):



Seven: The Nicest, Smartest Man — Nick Dewar

If you want to be an illustrator, I can’t think of a better piece of writing to read than this:

I don’t really know how to write about Nick. Nick was great. As a craftsman, as a thinker, as a person to work with. Hugh and I had breakfast with him and his lovely wife, Sri, once, in a Salt Beef bar in Canary Wharf, where we talked of Cheese (“We brought back about 17 pounds of cheese. The sniffer dogs at LAX were very intrigued”), Bob Dylan, Fife and California. When he got home to New York state he sent me 3 CDs of the strangest music I’ve ever heard, lost gems from the past, patiently collected over the years, all themed—songs about Travel, songs about Space and the last, and finest—the appositely named Awful. When he won the Gold Award in the AOI Annual for a piece he’d done for us on Identity Theft, the AOI asked for a biography and picture. Nick: “I have fedexed three photos over to you. In the interests of appearances, you may want to stress how important it is to get the photo back because it is the only remaining photo of me as a child after the terrible ancestral fire where everything was destroyed. All the best, nick”

This is what Nick posted.

And this is how it looked in the Annual.

It’s truly sad he’s not here.


Six: A tribute to Esquire Magazine in general and Arnold Roth in particular

From a short talk, given at Making Magazines, St Brides, summer 2012

“I’m wearing the preppiest clothes I could find in my wardrobe, to sort of get in the mood… I’m guessing Simon didn’t do the same with Twen…*

My fascination with American culture began in the sixties and seventies and was driven by music and film, but in the eighties it was driven by magazines: magazine writing, magazine design, magazine photography and magazine illustration. And the magazine I loved above all others was Esquire. I was aware of it because I’d arrived at Radio Times, hired by David Driver, in the period following Robert Priest and Derek Ungless, who had gone to Canada to do Weekend magazine, a newspaper supplement.

At RT, with David, they had pushed the technology of the day to do infographics with Nigel Holmes and Peter Brookes, hired the best photographers working, and continued the magazines’ amazing history of illustration, mixing the old stable, such as Robin Jacques, with the raw talent then emerging in London, like Sue Coe and Robert Mason.

In the early seventies Esquire’s covers were still strong and clean, but inside it was like an academic journal… the occasional great spread didn’t disguise the fact that every feature was laid out in exactly the same template, and by the late seventies the magazine had lost its way. It was a pale shadow of the great George Lois eras. It changed owners, had gone fortnightly and the once-great covers were replaced by a mish-mash of styles and imagery.

Our eyes looked West to see what they were up to over there. Roger Black: “Remember that in the seventies few newspapers and many magazines still did not have art directors. I would say that (in the eighties) Walter Barnard shaped Time as much as the Editor. The same with Robert Priest at Esquire.” New York at that time also boasted Mary Shananhan at GQ, and Derek Ungless at Rolling Stone.

Eighties Esquire was confident: it had such a sure sense of its history and its place in American Letters. It celebrated its heritage, and wasn’t scared it would feel old-fashioned as a result. It never lost Esky, the embodiment of Esquire man, at this point drawn by Arnold Roth. As John Updike wrote, “All cartoonists are geniuses, but Arnold Roth is especially so.” The logo was sensitively adapted and modernised. It still had an amazing stable of writers and it developed a sense of the big story—every so often it would do a huge overarching theme issue, running to hundreds of pages. It had attitude and a really strong editorial voice, that particularly American mix of high seriousness and quirky playfulness. Only the New Yorker seemed comparable in its ability to embody the past whilst not compromising the present.

The key design element was layering. Priest and April Silver, who worked with him (and succeeded him) pushed more and more information and structure onto each page. None of the editorial designer’s toolbox was left unused. I loved the way that Esquire used Century Oldstyle and Franklin Gothic. In every weight, in every style. There are amazing levels of information and organization in each spread. As Fred Woodward said: “In the early 80s, Robert Priest’s work for Esquire, around ’81, ’82 was very influential. It owed a certain debt to Rolling Stone but took it somewhere else. The magazine published very personal photography and illustration, a lot of it from Europe, that was unusual and ended up being influential.”

About five years ago I noticed that my colleague at American Reader’s Digest, Hannu Laakso, seemed to be making it his mission to track down and use what may be politely referred to as “veteran” illustrators. He’d commissioned Ronald Searle a few times, and had started using the great Ed Sorel on a regular basis. I called him and asked him if he was going to use Arnold Roth—if indeed Arnold Roth was still working. “Yes. Of course,” he said in a tone that made me  feel I’d asked a stupid question. So I called Arnold. Nearly 80, with a treasurable phone and email manner, he said he’d get to my job as soon as he’d done Fortune’s End Of Year Cover. “I’ve just gotta go and draw bankers jumping offa tall buildings.” He said this with undisguised glee.

I got my Arnold Roth. Even better was the letter accompanying it.”

*If you know anything about Twen, you’ll realise this would have involved Simon Esterson standing naked.


Five: Gary Baseman

In the eighties I was asked to design the poster for the London to Brighton Bike Ride.

Gary’s first rough, faxed over

I had recently seen and loved Gary Baseman’s work and thought he’d be fantastic for this, just great energy and fabulous characters…

The clients, however, felt differently, and the poster never went beyond this rough stage.

Read a fascinating interview with the rather frighteningly talented Mr B here:

Gary’s second, brilliant rough (complete with my Liquid Paper masking Gary’s hand-drawn lettering)


Card from Gary announcing exhibition. Cool.