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.”

bear

 

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.”

fox

 

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Interludes

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.

Bambi

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.

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Interludes

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).

Tashen

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.

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Interludes

Interlude: Linus Magazine

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 Cover

UK
May 1970
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.

Linus-Spreads

Linus-Spreads2

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Interludes

Interlude: Lucas Varela’s Imaginary

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…”

Lucas1

Two of the many illustrations Lucas has done for Robert Shrimsley’s column

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.

Process1

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.

Process2
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.

Process3

Process4
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.

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Interludes

Interlude: From The Coalface (1970s-2010s)

From Varoom! Magazine, Winter 2011-12

Late August last year saw a firestorm of debate on the merits of the Radio Times of today vs the Radio Times of the Golden Age of British Magazine Design (ironic italics mine). Mike Dempsey, graphic design grandee, had posted a critique of the current RT on his always thought-provoking blog Graphic Journey, and the magazine community fervently responded.

MIke’s point could be summed up as “Modern Magazines are rubbish—where are David Driver and Michael Rand when you need them?.” The response from those still at the coalface seemed to be: “Try doing a great magazine cover now with a bunch of marketing men breathing down your neck, a load of Celeb PRs playing up and a design team of one mac and a dog.”

As someone who straddles both periods I always have a problem with the “It was great back then” approach. It often cherry-picks to deliver its argument—there was some fantastically bad magazine design in the sixties and seventies. It usually doesn’t take into account the massive changes in the industry—way more pages now, allied to way less staff, and with a newsstand that no-one in the sixties could have imagined. And finally it always seems to subtly belittle the great work being done now.

I bow to no-one in my admiration for both David Driver and Michael Rand (especially as they taught me most of what I know). They presided over a period of fantastic illustration, beautifully rich and inventive photography and clever graphic concepts. The bold updating of illustrative styles from Eric Ravilious to Paul Slater and Ralph Steadman found a way to take a readership used to illustration to new places. But the world was different then. It was a world with four TV channels. There was no such thing as rolling news.

Look at rock music, for example, and tell me it’s as easy to be inventive now as it was in 1966. There’s always a ‘perfect storm’ time when the talent meets the market and the market says: Yes! Give me more. Give me more of that different, difficult and interesting stuff! It’s a heady time when mass taste coincides with aesthetic intent. That doesn’t mean that everything that follows is always inferior, but the shock of the new is always a powerful thing.

Photojournalism looked powerful and moving on a magazine front cover in 1968, when TV news was more circumspect (although my guess is that the designers of Life and Picture Post probably thought they’d been there and done that!). So it looks from here like bravery. But you can’t keep doing that forever. And you look to different places for that level of inventiveness. And it’s currently to be found at the fringes of this fractured industry, and mostly not in the mass market.

And the award-winning spreads and covers are never the whole story. Even the great magazines had mundane features behind the cracking Peter Brookes or Don McCullin cover. The sixties magazines technically weren’t a patch on, say, the Fortune magazine of the forties or fifties. Hot metal was dying, the craft was being lost, and no-one was sure what was coming. (What came, before the mac, was the much unloved phototypesetting.) So there were no computers, and all your precious typography was in the hands of a man in the bowels of Fleet Street or on an industrial estate at Park Royal who really didn’t care about your lovely attempts at better line breaks and interesting drop caps. I once asked for a cut-out of a man smoking a pipe in the days of hot metal, and when I dared to venture a suggestion that the blockmaker’s attempt fell a little short, and that it would be good if the pipe was attached to the man’s mouth rather than floating in thin air, being curtly asked, “Who d’you think I am? Fucking Rembrandt?”

It is true that the large mainstream magazines of today are commercially tuned and focus group driven, but if you look around even a mid-sized branch of WH Smith’s you’ll come across the inheritors of what’s possible in magazine design. It’s an understandable impulse to make the comparison of a single title then and now, but I’m not sure that it’s the right prism to view this subject through. Let’s just celebrate that great past, be glad that those people got to do that work. But accept that the challenges and the context are different today and celebrate what’s great now…  tell me that Andrew Diplock at Wired or Finnie Finn at I:Global Intellegence or Marissa Bourke at Elle aren’t doing terrific work, too.

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