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.

Interlude: UNSEEN

From Varoom, February 2012

What other profession has within its job description such a huge element of rejection? Even actors, famous in the rejection stakes, don’t have to actually write the plays they audition to perform in. Most people go to work to do a job. But what if the job is literally defined by what is in your own head? Illustrators are generally commissioned—they may produce pieces on spec, or personal work as a shopfront, but it’s a whole different ball game for the cartoonist. They must ‘churn’ ideas, work them up and send them out to a world where they will be placed in piles, summarily judged, occasionally accepted, mostly rejected and returned to sender.

So do some of the best jokes get away? Here’s one of my favourite cartoons from the last year, by Will Dawbarn, a fresh and talented cartoonist. He can really draw, and is funny. The second should be a given with a cartoonist, the first isn’t. If you’re funny and can’t draw, you’re a cartoonist. If you can draw but you’re not funny, you’re not.

It was taken from a batch sent in over a year ago but never run. Why? Because editors have the final say, and because a sense of humour is a hard thing to predict or pin down. I bought this before our current editor was here (she wouldn’t have picked it), it’s black and white (all our single gag cartoons run in colour and colouring this would only detract from its precise beauty) and, necessarily, it needs to run quite large for the quality of the drawing to work (we’re really pushed for space!).

Three strikes.


Most cartoonists I know have a day job. There’s just no way (especially since Punch hit the buffers) that most working cartoonists can make a living by drawing alone. Will is an exception. He draws a couple of great strips in The Dandy, and contributes regularly to Private Eye amongst others.

Q&A with Will

BRIEF  There’s no brief, just the knowledge that a handful of magazines publish humourous cartoons sent in by freelancers. They can be on any subject, and can be drawn in any style. Mostly you get them sent back, with rejection slips of varying degrees of politeness. It’s an oversupplied marketplace.

IDEA  Death is a much loved figure of cartoonists. I’ve used him on many previous occasions—he’s often good for a laugh. The idea occurred to me when I was looking at a Tree of Life poster on my child’s wall.

MATERIALS  Brush and Indian Ink on A3 paper.

RESEARCH  Visually, all I needed was the poster. I drastically simplified it in the process. I must have been listening to or reading something about the mass extinction we’re currently presiding over, but with this type of work the ‘research’ is a retrospective tag. That hour you spent looking at the paper whilst snoozing in front of the fire might later turn out to have been a vital research period.

PROCESS  Sometimes a drawing might take a good few goes to get right, even a very simple one. With this image, it all worked out first time, despite its relative complexity. I normally use the computer to add a little shade, but this was a rare cartoon that didn’t need anything adding or tweaking on the computer.

RESISTANCES  When I first had the idea, I thought yeah, but hang on, I’m not drawing a complete Tree of Life. All very well for a definite commission you know you’re being paid for, but way too big a job for the speculative magazine cartoon market! Sometimes I do put in a lot of work on the drawing of these things, but it’s always a gamble because most cartoons drawn for this market will, inevitably, be rejected. The answer is probably to submit roughs instead of finishes, but I’m not sure how that would go down with some editors.

INSIGHT  I had the idea of using a brush (my usual drawing implement is a dip pen) to do a simple representation of each species, and realised it could actually be done quite quickly. I skipped the pencilling stage and just drew with the brush. Ultimately, I’d like to do every cartoon this way, so it has the spontaneity of the first line.

DISTRACTIONS The thing about this type of cartooning is that distractions are all grist to the ideas mill. Bring ’em on!

NUMBERS  I started counting the number of species I drew in this cartoon several times to answer this question, but each time I quickly got lost because they’re not organised in rows or columns. Sorry.

Q&A by John O’Reilly


Four: The Process of Cartoons

From Varoom, Autumn 2011

I’m not an expert, but I’ve been a lover of cartoons for years; Ray Lowry’s matchless work for the NME, Gahan Wilson and Charles Addams’ worlds of strangeness in the New Yorker, deranged Honeysetts in Private Eye, the art in Roland Topor’s fluid line. Casting an eye around I found the modern cartoon where you’d expect (the cover of the New Yorker) and where you wouldn’t (the V&A). I found them in a friend’s sketchbook and in the national press. As I looked around at the cartoons that I liked most at the moment I was struck by the fact that, whatever else, cartoons are still, even in the digital age, all about the drawing. All about the scratch of the pen, the feel of the line, the sketch in service of the words, or the sketching making words superfluous…

John Cuneo, Illustrator, New Yorker Cover, June 27 2011

So, Drum Roll! Top Of The Heap! The New Yorker cover! Is this the Holy Grail job? Maybe not any more – maybe it isn’t seen as cutting edge enough (also it’s blurrily on the border of art versus illustration) but… it is the most visible cartoon job in the world. and I like a drawer with a worldview, and John Cuneo has one, like all of the greats.

John Cuneo Q&A:

BRIEF  I will occasionally send Francoise Mouly, NY’s art director, rough sketches for potential cover ideas, the vast majority of which are summarily dismissed.

MATERIALS  Ink and watercolor on paper.

RESEARCH  I combed through a couple of dog magazines for breeds that might lend themselves to a bit of anthropomorphising, and worked backwards, to the dog owners, from there. Also found a little downtown (NY) street reference.

PROCESS  Was asked to work up a colour comp first, and then a final. And then another version, one with more of a “summer” wardrobe and feel to it. Each effort getting progressively tighter of course, and incrementally less funny.

DISTRACTIONS  After the art gets accepted and publication is pending, one selfishly hopes for an uneventful news week—so that a cover-worthy current event doesn’t rear up and usurp your little dog gag.

NUMBERS  5. The number of Irish Water Spaniel owners who sent me pictures of their pets.


Steve Way, Cartoonist & Cartoon Editor, Personal Notebooks

You might call Steve Way’s visual journal The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Cartoonist. Follow our hero, Steve, as he maps out his daily rounds – of cartooning/ living/organising builders/cooking food/attending glittering fashion shows – and commutes between London and Moscow in an attempt to spend time with his partner Fiona, Art Director of Vogue Russia. In the tradition of Art Spiegelman, an everyday relationship is explored in extraordinary detail and Steve gets to use up Moscow’s supply of Indian ink.

Steve Way Q&A:

BRIEF  Self-imposed, but girlfriend said it first – “You are a lot funnier in real life than you are in your cartoons”. Also real life is a lot more interesting, with her working in Moscow, than another UK joke about the recession. The fact that the gag is drawn on a heavy Stalinesque table in an ex-Soviet 1958 apartment (on my visits) is the wry bit. The diary structure, sticking to what happened on that day only, hopefully keeps the whiny graphic novel tone at bay.

MATERIALS   Dip pens bleed too much, pencil’s too faint and doesn’t look permanent, so initially black felt tips (Edding 55, Mitsubishi Uniballs, anything 0.5.) However, the line was a bit continuous and not good at showing the foul winter Moscow throws at you. So now it’s fine black biros you can hatch with, that give a slightly broken line when you draw fast, plus clog romantically when they are about to run out. It looks like ‘real’ drawing.

RESEARCH  Remembering. Busy days are the worst – cue hunting for scraps of paper I’ve written one- word tags of the day’s events on. All drawings are from memory, the exception being the covers of books/mags read. I try to get the type sort-of-right by having them in front of me.

PROCESS  Always behind, so there are bursts of catch up, often 3-week clumps. It takes about 3/4 hour per page. There are no roughs, I just start. Some days I draw badly and improve, others the reverse. In fact a really good passage of drawing slows you down, as the page opposite has to have the same care. My spelling is always a random process. The record for pages in a day is 15. A scary amount of drawing.

DISTRACTIONS  Very occasionally people commission me when I’m so in the mood to do the diary, tut. It is its own distraction, you can’t even draw or catch up when travelling, particularly on planes. People get interested in it and want to talk, or in the recent case of Callum (aged 4) want you to “do sharks.”

NUMBERS   One page, One day, one A5 Paperchase—pink, so I can find it—diary. Ruled lines on each cream page, all ignored. Sadly a lot less British Midland air miles to Moscow than you’d think, so still not able to draw the First Class lounge. You can’t cheat.


Tom Gauld, Illustrator/Cartoonist/Artist/Merchandiser/PR/Author

The modern world of the image demands that he straddles all of these nomenclatures. His recent Guardian cartoons are also, I would suggest, poetry.

Tom Gauld Q&A:

BRIEF  Every week I make a cartoon for the letters page of the Saturday Guardian Review. The image has to relate to one of the letters on the page, but I try and make something which works without reading the letter. This week The Guardian sent me a letter about a book reviewed the previous week. Two phrases interested me: “awash with spies immediately before the Norfolk Zeppelin raid of January 1915” and “nocturnal goings on in the saltmarshes around Hunstanton.”

MATERIALS   Uniball pen and correction fluid on paper, then Photoshop.


PROCESS   I begin all my projects doodling in my sketchbook. These are the doodles for Nocturnal Goings On In The Saltmarshes (Mr Victorian Novel was for the following week’s cartoon). Once I have an idea, I will draw a pencil-version, which I scan into Photoshop and fiddle with. When I’m happy, I print it out and make the final ink drawing by tracing on a lightbox. This gets scanned back in, tidied up and coloured. I’m very lucky that Roger Browning, the art director on this, trusts me enough that I don’t have to do a rough. I just make a cartoon and they print it, which I find very liberating. Though they did once ask me remove the word “Wanker”.

DISTRACTIONS  Turnaround is quite tight: I get the letter on Tuesday afternoon and hand in the final art on Wednesday morning, so I’m quite focused.

NUMBERS  This was my 254th weekly cartoon for The Guardian Review. To see the completed Nocturnals cartoon go to


Q&As by John O’Reilly


Three: Geof Kern

Two meetings
Meeting One: I met America’s leading rock n roll memorabilia dealer, Jeff Gold, at a hotel on Jermyn Street in 2009, with a copy of a book autographed by Big Bill Broonzy. I was clearing out my dad’s stuff and I knew Jeff was coming to London on a buying expedition. I was looking at his website and noticed that he had art directed Days Of Open Hand by Suzanne Vega. I’m pretty sure that this was one of Geof’s pieces that I’d seen that inspired me to ask him to do the covers for a Mozart partwork that I had been hired to design for the Sunday Times Magazine. Jeff was charming, confirmed that he had indeed art directed Geof, had even won won a Grammy for it, and bought the Broonzy book for exactly the amount I needed to buy a Theramin.

I’d first seen Geof’s work on the covers of Beach Culture and, I think, Wet, out of Los Angeles, a time when really interesting magazine were emerging from of the surfing scene in California. These were among the first magazines designed by the always-interesting David Carson.

I tracked down Geof’s phone number in Dallas, Texas—don’t remember how—and hired him transatlantically (not so easy in those days of fax machines and unreliable airmail). To convince Michael Rand I roughed out a cover (quite badly) using bits and pieces from all over the place, some from Geof’s work itself. Thrillingly, Geof agreed to do the job (I’m pretty sure that I never sent him my rough, though) and here’s some of the correspondence and notes.

The interesting thing looking back is that each fax has a slightly desperate note of “I’ll be at Frozen Tundra 739 456 from 2 until 4” pace the Tony Roberts character in Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam. How simple it seems now…

“This fax is for:  M A R T I N C O L Y E R
from Geof Kern, Dallas


Well I am writing to you on Tuesday afternoon and I guess
it is now Wednesday morning as you read this (ever get tired
of this kind of fascination?)

I hope you like these ideas because it took me until the last
minute to work on them, and because of that, we are starting
the production now.

Assuming then, that their basic content is acceptable, I have
a few more questions:

On the illustration for music are there specific operas or
other works you would like me to write on the “name wheel?”

Same question for any specific works written in the illustration
for “Festival.”

And on the illustration for “The Man,” do I have to necessarily
depict Salzburg — or is Vienna OK?

Under the current conditions and the nature of these ideas, I
feel it would be best if I did this series in black and white.

Please call if you have a chance today


Of course, black and white covers were not what anyone was expecting, but Geof had started. I had no issue—always loved a cool monochrome—but having seen the stupid rough everyone senior to me expected it would cleave to that template. Michael even said he preferred the rough. No! Lesson learned—never show anyone a comp that boxes you into a corner. I hit upon the idea of selling it as a sophisticated duotone, and dug out some printer specs for green, purple and blue duotones. I was helped in forcing it through by our approaching print deadlines, and in the end everyone was pretty happy with the whole thing. I really enjoyed my short time at The Sunday Times Magazine—such a lot of talented people there. Hannah Charlton was the Editor on this part work.

Meeting Two: At the British Society of Magazine Editors Awards recently I ran into Tony Chambers, a designer I’d always admired, who was at the Sunday Times Magazine in the late 80s at the time I was doing some projects for them. Out of the blue, Tony started talking about the Mozart partwork, saying “I loved those Geof Kern covers. I kept those!” I professed disbelief. Tony insisted. We went for a drink with the lovely Wallpaper* crew. Tony reiterated that he had the copies, and that they were displayed at home on a bookshelf. I ordered a White Russian (a mistake, which everyone unaccountably compounded by saying That’s a good idea! It wasn’t) whilst still expressing doubts that Tony a) had them, and b) knew where to find them.

Hungover, the next morning this arrived in my inbox:

“I didn’t lie.
First picture is exactly as found this morning. Second is styled up – showing all four covers. I have three copies of each! They look even better than I remembered. Good back page too.”

Epigones—with Tony Chambers of Wallpaper*

Geof is amazing: his work continued to get weirder and even more wonderful. More at his website:


Interlude: Aimee, Gail and The Illustrators

From Varoom Magazine, Issue 11, Winter 2009

Video promos and downloads have diminished the value of sleeve art in the eyes of music companies, and illustration doesn’t fit their brand-building approach to bands. But there are still some true believers in the power of sleeve art. Let’s go backstage with Aimee Mann and Gail Marowitz, purveyors of finely crafted record sleeves.

When Alex Steinweiss went to his boss at Columbia Records in 1940 and said that albums should have illustrated covers that reflected their musical content he started a revolution in record cover design. Sonatas, Big Bands, Crooners – each release in each genre had its own personalised cover, and sales went through the roof. All of the major labels immediately followed suit, and the golden era of record cover illustration commenced, with Steinweiss joined by greats like Jim Flora and Bob Jones.

Two things brought it to an end: improvements in printing technology, which allowed photography to finally shine, and the Cult of Personality, built up around popular singers, which was better fostered by glamorous studio portraits.

The use of Illustration became patchier, and often sprung from a scene with its own driving aesthetic: Heavy Metal, where the lyrical bias has strong elements of both fantasy and horror; Psychedelia, which gave us Rick Griffin and Stanley Mouse; Disco, which channelled Warhol and commercial art; and Prog Rock, whose king was Roger Dean. But often this work didn’t illustrate much beyond an atmosphere, or a kind of basic stylistic look associated with the genre.

That’s not to say that there aren’t many great illustrated album sleeves, but they are mostly one-offs that have little connection to the artist beyond that single project; they are not part of a sustained artistic endeavour. For every Radiohead, where there is a consistent use of one (fine) artist, there are many one-time-only-then-discarded classics (Andy Warhol and the Stones’ Sticky Fingers, say).

The longest creative relationships tended to happen in the artistically-driven glory days of the 70s, when Neon Park worked with Little Feat, or Cal Schenkel with Frank Zappa, but nowadays the mainstream tends to avoid illustration, as it doesn’t often fit in to a brand-building approach.

In 2000 singer-songwriter Aimee Mann was having another fight with her record label. She was refusing to put her face on her next album’s cover. She had been through the pop mill with her successful first group, ’Til Tuesday, and hated being asked to conform to their ideas of how her personal and literate songs should be presented to the public. She became so frustrated that she ended up buying back the album, determined to release it herself.

Around this time she had met designer Gail Marowitz, vice president of creative at Columbia Records, who became a close friend and collaborator. “Gail’s a huge music fan and she really gets it, she’s intuitive, talented and super hard-working, and by then I had had so many ridiculous battles with record labels…”

Marowitz had not only been an admirer of her music, but related to it. “She seemed so intelligent. I knew there was such darkness there and it just fascinated me as a person. At some level we have similar issues and feelings and I felt I was able to put the right pictures to her music.” As much as Marowitz is a designer, it is a very specific slice of design. “I am a designer for music. If all of a sudden you said to me, Gail, there is no more music, you’re going to have to design for a pharmaceutical company, I wouldn’t do it, I wouldn’t know how to do it.”

When I suggest that that doesn’t sound like a designer talking, Marowitz replies: “No, my life revolves around music, pictures and words. So if you talk to me about design you will hear it coming from a very specific place which is not I went to Yale, studied with Paul Rand and I want to do corporate logos – all of which I happen to have done! My precious moments are where Aimee will call me and say ‘I’m putting the phone down, I’m going to play you a new song…’ just her and her acoustic guitar while I’m listening on the phone.”

The album that Mann had just delivered to Geffen was Batchelor No. 2 (or, the last remains of the dodo). “There was an enormous and exhausting fight about her being on the cover,” Marowitz recalls, “This goes on and on – She’s a pretty girl and it’s like, ‘well the record’s not about that.’ If fans want to see what she looks like, go to her website… It became so frustrating.” She remembers Mann saying “I can’t do this, I’m going to take every penny I have and buy that record back from them and we’ll put it out ourselves.”

Marowitz got inspired. “Now we can get some work done – and not just on the art side, because as much as I care about the art, I really care about the people’s careers and I think their music just deserves to be properly put out there. So I felt like, great, we’re on our way!”

Mann, for her part, has always taken an interest in design: “I love graphic design. My father was in advertising, and my favourite books when I was growing up were those old Grafis annuals.” For a songwriter who is lyrically concerned with the nuances of relationships – with the wide canvas of the struggles and pitfalls of modern life – to have all of this processed by the record industry to a smiling 8”x10” on the cover of a CD seems reductive at best. If a publisher buys a novel from an attractive young writer they still don’t put her on the front cover, because the book isn’t about her, the book is a narrative.

Marowitz laughs when I say this to her. “And that, Martin, is why publishing is much more highbrow. They do understand that. The difference between the product and the person.”

So owning her music, and by extension, the way it is sold, became key for Mann. And started a journey for her and Marowitz into the heart of Illustration: “At one point I just sat with her and thanked her for this ride that we’ve been on, that’s been so very rewarding for me, and she said, ‘Well Gail, all we have left is our integrity… we’re not selling records!’ There’s only enough sales to cover the cost of making it, and then she goes out on tour – reluctantly, as you get into your forties and you’re on the freaking bus and it’s not so glamorous, it’s not like you’re Aerosmith, flying around in jets…”

If Mann had remained on a major label, these projects couldn’t have been done? “Never. I can’t imagine that… to do a homoerotic painting of boxers on an album cover?” And it’s not only that record labels have fairly fixed ideas about fit imagery for covers. There’s also the matter of taste. Mann remembers times when Marowitz was working on projects at major labels. “She’d say, ‘Aimee, I’m gonna send you two jpegs of the cover, and you tell me which one the label went with. The great one or the hopelessly bad one!’”

So against this backdrop, Mann decided to commission her own covers. There are three things she has that create a perfect storm for brilliant album packages, according to Marowitz. “One. She has great taste. Two. She has integrity. Three, she will put her money where her mouth is – which to me, after working 20 years for 5 different record labels, makes the equation so much easier. When you don’t have a label complaining about cost, about manufacturing, about where the sticker goes – if there’s no place for the sticker and I’m like ‘Oh, I should design a cover around a fucking sticker?’”

It’s why, with many of her projects connected to record labels, Marowitz feels that “they tie your hands behind your back, put a blindfold on, don’t give you any music, and tell you to do your job. With Aimee the hard part is reigning in the ideas. An established artist with great taste saying ‘Hey, I’d love to use Gary Taxali,’ and it’s going to cost quite a bit of money and it’s worth it to her… obviously, imagine my relief. I’m a designer that is going to get Gary Taxali art!”

At this point it’s Marowitz’s job to sort out the form that the package will take, and then cost it— the die cuts, the special inks, the typography (“of course, that’s my bread and butter, what I love”). With 95% of the CD cover work that she does the packaging options come down to a jewel box or a digipak.

Of course, not many artists could sustain such an in-depth illustrative approach to their work, mostly because their songs are just not that interesting. And, appropriately for someone whose work in the field of pop music is the equal of many acclaimed novelists, the first illustrated CD started with a graphic novelist – Lost in Space on Mann’s own Superego Records was a collaboration with graphic novelist Seth: “Seth I knew because I started getting into graphic novels – Ghost World by Daniel Clowes was the first graphic novel I ever read. A comedian friend of mine, Patton Oswalt, had given it to me, and I thought it was the greatest thing I had ever seen.”

She loved it enough to be inspired to write a song called Ghost World on her Batchelor No.2 album. The graphics for that record had used vernacular Victorian engravings, a step towards illustration as a means of complementing the songs. “I sort of thought about Daniel Clowes for the package,” says Mann. “I actually talked to him and I think he was busy. As I continued to work on the music I had discovered Seth and I started thinking that Seth would be an even better match because there’s such a tone of melancholy that goes through his work plus he uses that very old-school fifties single-panel style. And he was just phenomenal.”

It was a project that played to a comic book artist’s strengths. The CD package became a short graphic novel. The gorgeous almost-monochrome drawings caught exactly the tone of the music, where 50s sci-fi sound effects led into songs of failure, paranoia, and hope. Marowitz remembers that, “Seth almost art directed me. He understands the process, he was brilliant to work with, and I learnt stuff. What is quite funny about Seth is that he kind of exists in a time warp. I don’t know if you know him, but he wears clothes from the 30’s and 40’s, and when I talked to him about Aimee’s project he’d never heard of her – he told me ‘I only listen to music on a Victrola’, like Robert Crumb… and he would send me, I swear to God, inked mechanicals with registration marks that I had to scan and construct on the computer.

It was such a funny process, and I’m old enough to remember… if Aimee had had a younger designer, I’m sure they would have looked at these things and said, ‘What do I do with these?’ But that was the way Seth worked.” I wondered if Mann had worried that Seth wouldn’t ‘get’ what she was doing. “He hadn’t heard of my music, I think that I just thought he was the right fit. For instance, I thought his cover was perfect—those wires! A weird sort of imagery subtext that’s in the music and also in the lyrics and it was perfect. Initially I had other ideas of what the cover would be like, but I’m really glad that I didn’t suggest that, and in retrospect I wish I’d been a little more hands off with Gary and Owen. But Seth came in with so much and did so much work. He had ideas for the end papers etc. ‘let him do what he wants.’ When people are so talented, it’s, like ‘why not let ’em run with it.’”

Her next record had a clearer ‘concept’—“Forgotten Arm I wrote as a sort of soundtrack to an imaginary movie,” the story of an ex-boxer who meets a teacher at the Virginia State Fair, their road trip, descent into drugs and doomed romance. “I had started boxing, and the whole ‘boxing-as-metaphor’ was looming large in my imagination.”

Coincidentally, she happened upon an Owen Smith exhibition of boxing paintings at a Los Angeles gallery. “The initial image I had seen of his was a picture of one guy slumped in the corner on the stool, it’s got this feeling of despair and when I first saw that I was like, ‘that should be the cover.’ I knew that I wanted the format of a book, and I wanted each chapter to have an illustration with quotes. I hadn’t thought about the pulp aspect— that’s where Gail came in with a framework for this artwork.”

Marowitz actually bought a batch of 40 vintage pulp novels at an auction, and scanned the pages for use as background textures, as well as taking inspiration from the type and copy lines for the package. Mann had explained the boxing scenario to Owen and he did the illustrations to fit in the ‘chapters’, a simpler project than Lost In Space.

Marowitz made Mann rewrite the lyrics into prose to carry through the conceit. The title referred to a boxing move, where the boxer leads his opponent’s focus away from the potential blow that will take him out, the ‘forgotten arm’. Mann decided that although the painting she had seen was perfect for the cover, it wasn’t right to use an existing image. It should be, like the other illustrations, created just for this project.

Now she thinks that the image she asked Owen to create was probably a little too complicated, and a little too literal. Notwithstanding that, the package won the ‘Best Recording Package’ Grammy for 2006.

From the classic muted oils and beautiful pencil work of Owen, @#%&*! Smilers, the next album, leapt into the high-key universe of illustrator Gary Taxali. “Smilers has cartoon elements, it’s very graphic, it’s a little collage-y, and it’s funny ’cos I’d seen his stuff at the same gallery as the Owen show,” says Mann. Gary’s layers and quirks fit perfectly with Mann’s tales of eccentric Californian personalities living far from the bright lights of success or fame.

“I felt like Gary’s work fit in with the sound of the record and the kind of language I used. It was brighter, more orangey,” she laughs. “It’s impossible to describe. He does a lot of Gocco, and he printed silk screen on top of older paper which to me makes sense, having in the music a kind of organic acoustic sound in the rhythm section, but on top you’ve got Moog and clavinet…’

Taxali even asked Mann to do some doodles. “I sent him a few drawings, which was great and exciting. I think that there was probably a little more back and forth between him and Gail.” From Marowitz’s perspective, Smilers was certainly very time-intensive, “because Gary – you know he’s a brilliant illustrator, but it’s impossible to keep talent like that down to a square – his artwork would come in in these odd shapes. Fortunately he gave me some room to pull things apart and re-construct, but it was a long process, the typography is all hand done, those letters were placed individually! Crazy… But he was kind enough that when we needed him to do something, he would do it. We had an unhappy monkey, we had a spinning monkey and we needed a smiling monkey and I was like ‘Gary, could you draw us a smiling monkey’ and sure enough, a day later…”

“Gary really listened to the songs – you can tell because the illustrations are so appropriate,” says Marowitz. Mann adds “There was an illustration for one song where we were like… ‘I don’t think he understood the song’ and then we called him and explained that the song was about a seance and then the new illustration was so perfect.”

They were nominated for the Grammy again, and it isn’t surprising. It’s a beautifully put together package, with die cut tabs, vivid imagery and wonderful typography. It led me to ask where the project goes next. “I think probably where we’re headed is to do an even more elaborate package, with a much smaller run, and once that’s gone, just have digital download.” Like Radiohead? “Oh them. Do you mean the people who stole our last Grammy?”

Whatever comes next, Mann and Marowitz have ­a passionate love for striking work, and a commitment to the crafts of graphics and illustration. At the end of our conversation, I ask Aimee for a favourite album cover, and this is what she says…

“I will tell you that one of my favourite artists when I was growing up was Elton John. It was the first album I ever bought, and I bought it purely for the cover – it was so great. Every time I’d have these arguments with record companies, and they’d say ‘the cover’s not important’, I’d remember that the first fucking record I ever bought, my friend, was because of the cover. Madman Across the Water. I was 12 and I thought it was the greatest thing ever – that gatefold sleeve. I didn’t move past that at all. I’m still there.”

Gail Marowitz currently works as creative director for a record label (Roadrunner Records) whose stock in trade is heavy metal, a genre that has always been visually based in illustration as opposed to photography.

Nick de Ville’s Album was extremely helpful in the writing of this article.

This is the illustrators’ perspective on Aimee Mann’s ambitious sleeve projects.

How did the process work?
Gail contacted my agents about doing the cd book as a graphic novel but that was simply too much work for me – comics are so time-consuming and laborious that I nixed this idea and suggested we take another approach. I simply couldn’t afford to take that much time away from my own work.

After that initial decision I was given a huge amount of leeway to figure out what I wanted to do. Of course, the first thing I needed was a CD of the music. Once I had that in my hands I was ready to sit down and figure out where to possibly take the design.

Were you aware of Aimee’s music before being called?
I am Mr. Old Fashioned. I had stopped listening to contemporary music sometime in the 1980’s when I started exploring old jazz. When I was initially contacted I did not recognize Aimee’s name (I would not have recognized almost anyone’s name in the current Music industry). However, friends alerted me to the fact that Aimee had been around in the 80’s with ’Til Tuesday and then I recalled her work.

Before I listened to the CD I wondered if I could possibly like it – I had been so out of touch with contemporary music. It seemed doubtful, but then I was pleasantly surprised to really be absorbed by it. It was a beautiful album – deep, emotional, profound. In fact, long after the work was finished I continued to listen to Lost in Space and of course, I still play it often. I think it’s a great album – easily my favourite of all of her music I have heard. I feel lucky that that was the one I worked on.

How did this project differ from other commercial projects that you have done?
I was given enough freedom that I stopped thinking of the job as just a commercial project and actually took it to heart as a piece of my ‘real’ work. The project was not completed with the cold approach of a ‘hired hand.’ The collaboration was a dream. Aimee gave me her songs and her lyrics and then I put together a small mock-up booklet. I flew down to NYC and we met and talked about it.

She did nothing but encourage and support every decision. She never interfered or pushed her particular vision on me. In fact, I had a couple of comics sketched out to use in the book and I showed them to her. I was the main character in them but I said, “Don’t worry, I will rework these ideas with a female character” and Aimee just told me not to worry about it – to leave them as they were.

That surprised me actually. It was very generous of her to allow ‘me’ (as an artistic presence in the work) to share space in her actual album. I didn’t prepare a back up plan – I always work this way – go with what you most believe in first… but I was always prepared to work something out if it didn’t excite anyone.

How did you like the finished result?
I was entirely happy except for my own limitations. I see all kinds of things that I would like to correct in the work… but these are errors of my own. Poor drawings or bad decisions. In the fancier version (the book format) I wanted a totally metallic blue to be used on the cover image and Gail talked me out of this. I think I should have held my ground. I’m not so crazy about the cover on that one. It has some bad decision connected to it. My decisions.

I would almost like to do the whole thing over now. I’ve learned a lot since I did that project and I could certainly do a better job now. But, you can’t revisit old work. It’s too late. Maybe Aimee and I will work together again sometime and I can apply what I have learned to new work. I still love the music on that album though. That hasn’t changed.

SETH is the pen name of Gregory Gallant (born September 16,1962). He is the cartoonist behind the long-running comic book series Palookaville, a new hardcover version of which will appear later this year. His books include Wimbledon Green, George Sprott, Clyde Fans and It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken. He is the designer for The Complete Peanuts, The John Stanley Library, The Portable Dorothy Parker and The Collected Doug Wright. His cardboard city of Dominion is currently touring Canada.

How did the commission work?
I first got a call from Gail who said she was working with Aimee on another album. She said Aimee knew my work from the L.A. gallery La Luz de Jesus owned by Billy Shire. I had some boxing images hanging there. Gail asked if I would be interested in working on the project and then we soon had a conference call with Aimee.

She explained that the songs were a narrative involving an ex-boxer and his girlfriend (Aimee is interested in boxing). I was pretty excited. I was aware of Aimee’s music. I remember her from the ’Til Tuesday days and followed her solo career.

How did this project differ from other commercial projects you’ve have done?
I haven’t done much work related to the music business. I’ve done illustrations for Rolling Stone over the years – oh and Meatloaf once invited me to his recording studio to discuss a record album cover job (interesting meeting… he never liked my concept sketches). This project was very comfortable because it felt like I was illustrating a novel.

I’ve heard nightmare stories about working with musicians and bands. There was no ego here. Gail is a legendary designer and Aimee is very artistic and understands picture-making. They hired me because I was appropriate for the concept, and let me do my thing. I was given a demo tape and the lyrics. The album has a loose ‘plot’ and we interpreted them as film noir stills or pulp novel illustrations.

How did you chose the look of the characters?
The guy was easy… noir ex-boxer-tough. The woman I thought should be basically a strong person but with some vulnerability, like the good girl in a noir film, not the femme fatale. She should have qualities of Aimee but not be her.

The beautiful monochrome drawings – were they always intended? With just colour on Chapter Seven?
The intention was always a color cover and monochrome interior, like an old pulp magazine with fading color cover and black and white drawn interior illustrations on yellowed ‘pulp’ pages. The other color painting inside was added later.

How did it feel to be asked to add to someone’s singular vision, becoming the face of Aimee’s project?
Aimee and Gail were very smart to use an illustrated cover (I’m not just saying that because I’m an illustrator) When I went to the record store it jumped out of the clutter because people rairly use illustration anymore. The cover stood out and completed an idea: Story, Songwriting, Performance, Book, Cover.

OWEN SMITH’S illustrations have appeared in Time, Esquire, Rolling Stone, the New York Times Magazine, GQ, Entertainment Weekly, and numerous times on the cover of The New Yorker. Influenced by WPA artists of the 1930s and muralist Diego Rivera, Smith holds a BA from the Arts Center College in Pasadena. His first picture book, Ray Hicks’s The Jack Tales, was published in 2000.

How did the project work?
This project was different because I worked directly with the musician—there was no middle-man calling the shots. The three of us discussed everything, down to titling the album, and communicated with each other from the very beginning what we had in mind. The great thing is that we all shared the same ideas on the look and feel of the entire package. Gail’s use of typography was so complimentary to my work, it was hard to see any seams between her graphic design and my illustration. She is a brilliant graphic designer.

I think this is the future of the music industry when it comes to album illustration and design. It is going to entail the musician working directly with the graphic artist. But the best thing about this package was that Aimee spared no expense in the final production. In the limited edition package we actually used steel bolts to bind the book together.

Exquisite design and exquisite printing is something that no record company does anymore. This is a wonderful antidote to illegal downloading of music, giving the fans a wonderful product that you can never get with a free MP3. I think the fact that we were nominated for 2009 Grammy for Best Package is no surprise!

Were you asked to work literally, or asked to bring your take?
When we started the songs weren’t all complete. Some of them weren’t mixed yet and one had its lyrics and title changed. Aimee talked a little bit about some of the songs and meanings behind them and sent them all to me. So I sat with them for a good while and listened to them over and over before I started doing sketches.

It was encouraging because everything I drew, Aimee and Gail liked. It was really inspiring to work with Aimee because the music and lyrics are so smart with so much visual potential that it was really easy to come up with ideas. Yes, I was asked to bring my take. That’s the only way I work.

There’s a great mixture of finished and sketchbooky images on the CD. How did that come about?
In three of the pictures, and I’m not going to say which ones, I asked Aimee to draw some sketches, and I included them in the final illustrations. So you can say that with Gail’s typography, Aimee’s drawings and my illustrations, I really had a cohesive collaboration with them.

How did you like the finished result?
It was one of the best projects of my career. The weekend the record was released, Aimee and I supported it with a show of the original artwork and a limited edition print. We did the signing of the CD’s release in an LA gallery. It was then I really got to appreciate the finished product by seeing people’s reaction for the first time. Aimee and I plan to continue working together, and that includes a potential book project.

GARY TAXALI is an award-winning illustrator, fine artist and toy designer. He has worked for many clients including Time, Rolling Stone, Esquire, GQ and Newsweek. Aside from his gallery shows and illustration work, Taxali also devotes a portion ofhis time teaching and lecturing at various arts organizations and schools. His first children’s book, This Is Silly was published by Scholastic in Summer 2010. He lives and works in Toronto.


Two: Elwood H. Smith

Often commissioning is about waiting around long enough to use people whose work you love. And, in this case, subverting a job you’ve been given, with a much better end result. At Blueprint I wanted to review a book telling the story of George Herriman’s astonishing cartoon strip, Krazy Kat. Having bored myself rigid trying to sum up what was great about the adventures of Krazy, Ignatz, Kolin and Officer Pupp (!), I was struck by a thought: the best person to review this book would be a cartoonist who had been influenced by Herriman. So I called up the legendary Elwood H. Smith, whose great drawings were gracing the pages of Time and Fortune and asked him to write it. He, quite reasonably, said: Why would I write it? I’ll draw it, and he did, beautifully. As he says, “You are Crazy if you don’t immediately buy this book, and Krazy if you do!”

Elwood’s still out there, doing great work. Visit him at

Coming Soon (if I can find the damned magazine!): Matt Groening, Life In Hell and Fedex vs The Lure Of Surfing on Venice Beach.

And working with Geof Kern, Dallas’s answer to Dali.


One: Mats Gustafson

Reminded – by a photo of Mats Gustafson’s studio on Steven Bonner’s blog – of the time we commissioned Mats, I searched through an old suitcase and pulled out the job. The reason I remember it so vividly was for Mats presentation of his finished piece. We had recently redesigned the Observer Magazine (John Tennant was the Art Director and Shem Law and I were his deputies. The team also included Marcel Ashby and Jim Brewster). We had used a lovely Mats’ drawing in one of our dummy feature spreads to show the editor the kind of work that we were looking to commission (I can’t remember which editor—we had four in two years if I remember rightly, and redesigned the magazine three times in that period…). Dig the pasted-down dummy copy, cow-gummed onto a printed card grid. Nice run round!

So a few months later, when Gore Vidal would not be photographed, we thought it was a perfect opportunity to use Mats. As he was passing through from Sweden to New York he said he would deliver the artwork to our offices. So one day Mats turns up and proceeds to lay about fifty illustrations on our floor, explaining that he works by getting to know his subject’s face by painting quickly, over and over again, until he feels he’s getting closer to capturing something about them that seems vital and dynamic.

I quickly took a Polaroid of the studio before we started sifting through with Mats to fine down the choice. The finished spread is here. Note that between commissioning Mats and printing the illustration another redesign (not as good) had happened.

I wish I had managed to work with Mats again—his work is still as beautiful and mercurial as ever. See it at