Thursday, February 28, 2008

Those Were the Days: Illustrated Clintoniana

In these waning weeks of the 2008 Democratic primary season, many are discussing Hillary’s fade and what may have been the former president’s role in that process, especially his verbal spasms in South Carolina.

Ten years ago, I was at work on a weekly illustrated satire that ran in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on the Saturday Opinion page. The feature was called Metro Trap for the first 40 weeks or so, when we changed it to Sam the Dog, the name of the central character. It’s a marvel that they ran it, really. I have been thinking that I might republish some of these in this forum…

The feature was a mixture of local and national satire. There were surreal aspects to it, one of which was the figure of B.O. Lincoln (that is, Bust Of), Sam the Dog’s foster father. Early in the series, Sam runs away from home and takes a job in a gleaming money-laundering firm out in affluent West County. After Sam is framed for murder, he flees back downtown and seeks the counsel of Lincoln. Lincoln meets him in the derelict Opera House.

As is plain from these episodes, B.O. Lincoln morphed into my Bill Clinton vehicle.

Alas, I was not producing such a weekly featured during the Bush years, which would have been a gold mine, but I did my best with the late 90s.

Above, Lincoln and Sam meet up at the Opera House. Below, the ensuing conversation goes downhill.

And a Bust of Lincoln Reverie, below:

Images: D.B. Dowd, Sam the Dog Episode 51, “Slapstick,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 23, 1998; Episode 52, “The Disillusionment,” May 30, 1998; Episode 68, “Standup Guy,” September 17, 1998.

Weaver Colloquy

The back-and-forth on the merits and sources of Robert Weaver's work and reputation has been excellent in recent days. Soon I hope to have a chance to provide some context for those exchanges, both visually and historically. So stay tuned... And keep the comments coming!

Image: Robert Weaver, Electronic Police Dispatch System visual essay in New York magazine, circa 1970.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Blinky & Myron

The opening words from Visit Mohicanland, a story I have finished that goes with a series of prints (one of which appears above). I am working on a graphic novel treatment of the project.

There are two guys, named Blinky and Myron. Myron is the older, more serious, less happy one. Myron has a lot of gravity happening. He’s solid and thick. Blinky flits like a bird. He collects enthusiasms, one after another. Exotic diets. UFO coverups. Crackpot Egyptology. Everything that Blinky has learned about the world, beyond what he’s gained from his own senses, he’s gotten from cable TV, silly pamphlets, and talk radio. Said sources routinely make ridiculous claims that Blinky repeats uncritically. For example, that finely ground dandelion leaves, if you take them orally, will cure any disease in the world.

Myron broods; Blinky exults. Myron is turgid and jowly. Blinky is nimble and gaunt. Myron cites authorities, and Blinky is all caprice.

For the purposes of the story, they’re friends...

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Robert Weaver, Florida, 1962

I had the opportunity to work with Brian Rea, Chris Suellentrop and the New York Times Opinion staff on a Robert Weaver Spring Training project that's running in today's paper. There's an online version that includes 15 images, all courtesy of the Modern Graphic History Library at Washington University in St. Louis. Enjoy.

Play Ball!

Fans of the illustrator Robert Weaver (well known to followers of this blog) and baseball enthusiasts will want to pick up a copy of the New York Times tomorrow and check out the Opinion section. Get set for a treat...
Image: Robert Weaver, Spring Training Sketchbook, 1962.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Picture or Graph? A Conceptual Tussle

My recent post on informational images addressed the unambiguous world of pictures, as opposed to other forms of informational graphics. Occasionally these forms cross-breed and produce unhappy results. A case in point: this image, from a set of graphs designed to supplement a LIFE magazine feature on the economic outlook in 1953.

If you read the text, the graph has been created to compare economic performance data from the period 1929-1935 with data from 1950-51 and projections for 52-55. But the thing we're looking at takes us somewhere else. Indeed here's a case study of how pictorial logic can gum up an altogether different visual form.

The cityscape at the top of each visual field creates an implied space across which various characters (inluding Paper Sack Man, Milk Bottle Man, and Mr. Telephone Services) travel. Alas, this same visual field is asked to function as a Cartesian graph tracking time on the x axis and dollars on the y (but without numerical information of any kind). We are left with a weird perception that perhaps the black non-durable goods line occupies a position more distant from us than does the gray-green durable goods line. I'm so wrapped up in trying to interpret an image that ought not be an image that I can't get to the data, let alone an analysis of it. In short, three-dimensional inferences goof up the two-dimensional information.

Images: economic data graphs, LIFE Magazine, January 1953.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Meanwhile, in the Shop...

I'm working on graphic tales of another sort.

The Pleasures of Lucidity

Purposive images perform work in several basic categories, including (but not limited to) persuasion, entertainment, and information. The least studied of these is the lattermost. Informational images lack the rhetorical flair of the persuasive and the dazzle of entertainment. But at their best they make up for these shortcomings with lucidity and a special form of communicative aplomb, even grace.

Our Word and Image 2 students are at work on a new round of projects, one of which is a museum display problem, which requires content development and design, including the use of images. I am working with students on this project, and have been trying for a week to get some time clear to develop a post on this subject for their benefit. Mostly I want to offer some clear examples for reflection. What is an informational picture?

In general, I’d argue that an informational picture exploits the cognitive transparency of seeing, the quick resort to identification and interpretation which we all a practice a thousand times a day. That is, I identify the yellow school bus just ahead and gently brake; I see the silhouetted man on the bathroom door and go in. I am trained to select these details from my visual field and act upon them. An informational image uses this cognitive habit to a communicative end, by subtracting or minimizing competing stimuli and holding up the crucial information for review. This requires the use of recognizable forms, in (say) rendered or silhouetted guises, often (but not always) in tabular or hieratic arrangements.

The chromolithograph below, an informational image that presents a variety of chicken breeds, appears in German encyclopedia from 1895. Discreet numerals are placed next to the birds and keyed to a list below. Overlapping and other spatial conventions are used to place the birds in a “real space.” But the spatial context provides no useful information, other than to convey the idea that the chickens are domesticated (not news) and that some are bigger than others (more important).

By contrast, consider this hieratic arrangement of dog breeds, which appears in a volume of the LIFE Nature Library, Evolution. This army of canines (each displayed in profile, like most but not all of the abovementioned chickens) is arrayed in columns and rows to communicate sequence and descendancy. (Is this a word? If ascendancy is a word, why can’t descendancy join the club? I claim the coinage of said mot if nobody’s beaten me to it.) That is, the dogs are there to tell a story of development. Each one is an integer in a progressive equation.

This detail shows that the illustrated dogs are solidly realized as drawings, even as they appear in a tabular context. The contrast is satisfying and informative.

Another more formalized image appears below. This spread represents an attempt to capture a process through shape, mostly silhouetted with some internal articulation. Note that the brown copy below is unintelligible, and the red copy is an instruction to the educators working on the project. This is a case in which the designer was leading the content development—the client had to catch up. This is from one of several books produced for the Monsanto-funded MySci Project, about which I have written in passing, but not in detail. The MySci teacher guides project was led by Heather Corcoran, with whom I am co-teaching the museum project.

All of the preceding images make use of color to varying degrees. In this age of cheap color and visual promiscuity of all sorts, it’s useful to look at examples that use the most restricted means possible: black lines on a white ground, without so much as a crappy halftone to make things easier.

Last summer I shared my total delight in this, the Best Book Cover Ever, as well as the Best Book Spine Ever. Both distinguished awards went to the same publication, Animals Without Backbones, published in 1938 with a revised edition in 1948 by the zoologist Ralph Buchsbaum. At the time I got my water-damaged copy of this book in an estate sale, I was quite taken by the informational illustrations inside. I have since discovered that Professor Buchsbaum was assisted in the preparation of his tome on the squishy and the spiny by his sister, Elizabeth Buchsbaum. The Professor lavishes significant praise on the various photographers who supplied images of glistening undersea woo but mentions his sister only in abbreviated terms. But as it turns out, Elizabeth was a genius of elucidation.

She articulates extremely complicated internal and external form with ease and grace, using nothing but variable line weight and a little stippling to establish surfaces, volume, and structures. This image of planaria worm as well as the hydra at the top of this post are magnificent. The hydra, particularly, astonishes because she is able to provide internal structural information in quite a bit of detail, even as she communicates the fact the animal in question is a floppy squirmy thing. The cutaway sections move along the volume of the curving arms. The planaria image below is remarkable for the graduated context provided by the progressive accumulation of anatomical detail, as well as the combination of the planar contours and volumetric tube-like passages. It's extraordinarily clear and economical.

She was obviously a printmaker, as her command of positive and negative graphic form is sure. Some of these chapter heads at least started out as relief cuts. The image of the marsh worker with the progression of a parasite lifecycle is amazingly concise: we get speciation, sequence, narrative, plus physical and cultural context in one black and white image.

Her grasshopper is handsome, too.

I can sympathize with the challenge—among the 50-odd animals I produced for my part of the MySci project was a grasshopper, here in the original gouache-painted form.

Below is a terrific example of written communication and illustration explaining a complicated thing very effectively by working together. The textual arrangment is somewhat old-fashioned—we might expect to see this in a little more sequential strip-like format today, but the clarity is undeniable.

Elizabeth Buchsbaum was born in 1909, and may have gone by the name of Elizabeth Newhall. I would like to know more about her. If anybody has any more information, I would like to hear from you. I think she is a surprisingly distinguished articulator of form for these purposes, and I bet she had a diverse and intriguing career.

Images: Elizabeth Buchsbaum, informational illustration, Hydra cutaway and gross exterior anatomy, from Animals Without Backbones [AWB], University of Chicago Press, 1938 and 1948 revised edition; chromolithograph, Chickens, from Meyer’s Lexikon, Liepzig, 1895; Sheldon Cotler, art director, The Genealogy of the Dog, in Evolution, by Ruth Moore, from the LIFE Nature Library, published 1962, revised 1971; Heather Corcoran (lead designer), animal life cycle spread, MySci curriculum guide design comprehensive, Plum Studio under arrangement with the Visual Communications Research Studio [VCRS], Washington University in St. Louis, 2005; Elizabeth Buchsbaum, Planaria worm morphology and selected internal anatomy and lead illustrations for Chapters 13 and 24, AWB, 1938; D.B. Dowd, Grasshopper, species illustration for MySci project, Ulcer City under arrangement with VCRS, 2005; Elizabeth Buchsbaum and Ralph Buchsbaum, Sequential Vacuole Illustration with Narrative, AWB, 1938.

Friday, February 15, 2008

2-Color Dragons and Monarchs

The other day in a comment thread with Rob Dunlavey I acknowledged, happily, that I draw upon the tradition of spot color printing in my own work. As evidence, here are two figures from a set of medieval characters with which I have been experimenting. A slightly bored dragon and a dubious king. A droll group, as it is developing...

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

That Little Extra

Occasionally you see strikingly well-designed relief tiles on a humble warehouse and wonder, Wow, why did they invest such effort in something so straightforward? But you never wish they hadn’t. Extra care wears well. I’d put this 8th grade math book in the same category. It provides wonderfully well-fashioned page headers.

A little background: Iroquois Publishing (Syracuse, NY) produced educational texts for elementary through high school students on a range of basic subjects for approximately fifty years ending in 1960, when the company was purchased by Prentice-Hall. (TIME Magazine reported that “behind the rush to merge and diversify is the fact that sales of textbooks and encyclopedias have doubled since 1955... The aim [of such publishing mergers] is to get ready for the market looming in the '60s, during which total industry sales of textbooks seem likely to double…”) The beginnings of the boomer market! Now it’s all about retirement plans…

But when this book was designed, just after World War Two, the textbook price point called for a one-color solution throughout the book. These headers were designed to punctuate sections by using areas of black in order to contrast with the gray value of the typesetting below. These horizontal illustrations, which were probably produced by a staff designer, often have thematic content. “Checking your Progress” relies on a progression from the history of transportation to capture the idea of linear improvement. Clear, clever, and pleasurable. Who can fail to delight in this?

Reflect for a moment on what the equivalent visual prompt in a contemporary text would look like. If drawn, the image would likely be less formal: a faux-ingratiating “friendly” scrawl in an incompletely understood cartoon language would greet the viewer. The color would be all over the place—four hues? Five? And we’d probably be looking at heinous gradients, too, all because Photoshop makes complexity easy. And surely everyone knows that gratuitous complexity is an easy fix for a simple disaster.

This is a misleading joke, in certain respects. The stills above and below (from a UPA Gerald McBoingBoing short) betray a great deal of visual savvy in an attempt to communicate mind-boggling complexity--through the use of simple means. The production designer makes use of tight control of value and color and shape and line to create an apparently confusing image which is not, finally, confusing. Truly excessive complexity cannot be organized in a glance, even a long one. (Which is why all those dueling pie charts, cheese wheels, and fat arrows in powerpoint presentations make your ears bleed.)

In truth, the discipline imposed by restricted means makes people better. In the face of awkwardness or poorly resolved design, the only choice is to select another direction altogether, make significant changes to the first option, or dig in and refine and refine until the thing works.

The intersection of restricted technological means, economic limitation, and rigorous modern design thinking created a great deal of distinguished visual work in the middle third of the last century. For example:

To cite another among many

Not to mention

Finally, we are left to admire the anonymous wit and deft touch of the creator of these seemingly throwaway images. And we should all ponder the message of the header on page 507, which urges us forward earnestly, prudently:READ THINK WORK CHECK. This advice, if taken, comes in really handy when, for example, you are thinking about invading another country.

Imges: Illustrator uncredited, page headers and cover design, Patton and Young, Iroquois New Standard Arithmetics, Grade 8, Enlarged Edition...

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Future Foretold

Not so much posting in recent days, but I have a few things brewing, so check back in the next 48 hours or so. Adventures in illustrated math textbooks, plus a tour of informational images: jet engines, dog breeds, and more!

Image: Robert O. Reid, Cover illustration for Collier's, November 16, 1940.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Super Tuesday: Robert Weaver's Kennedy Suite

In April 1959 Esquire Magazine published an article analyzing the presidential prospects of Jack Kennedy, then one of many candidates jockeying for position in the upcoming primary season for the election of 1960. Titled “Kennedy’s Last Chance to be President,” the article featured a suite of illustrations by Robert Weaver, an emerging figure in the expressionist school of editorial illustration.

Weaver’s illustrations for the project were epochal, introducing a strikingly abstract language and set of interpretive artifices for a piece of nonfiction. Historical personages like LBJ and Nixon and Hubert Humphrey and Nelson Rockefeller were pressed into service to enact visual interpretations, but not as satirical cartoons. Curiously, these figures and their descendants operate in a paradoxical world of allegorical reportage.

There is much to say about Weaver’s work, but most immediately how can one miss the composite images, screens, exposed superstructures and reflective barriers that run through his illustration.

The device of the obliquely viewed printed poster appears frequently in other projects.

How new was this approach? The image below is an Al Parker illustration published in the Ladies Home Journal in March of that year, a month before Weaver’s visual essay ran in Esquire.

Parker’s image represents an early postwar aesthetic of polished fantasy for an audience aspiring to health, wealth and a stimulated sort of domestic tranquility. The work of these Westport illustrators reached its height around 1950 and then plummeted from relevance as color television achieved sufficient market penetration over the next ten to fifteen years to siphon off major advertising dollars.

Illustrated periodicals had produced a great deal of money in the preceding decades, for illustrators and publishers. As the money ran out of the market, the pressure dropped considerably. A new generation of illustrators and art directors came onto the scene and sketched a new set of creative concerns around 1960 and after. The new Manhattanite illustrators, led by Weaver, scorned the Connecticut old guard. Fiction illustration of the sort practiced by Parker appeared less often, and general interest magazine illustrated covers--which had largely given way to photographic ones in the mid-50s, disappeared altogether.

Weaver and his compatriots, including Jim McMullan, Tom Allen, and Robert Andrew Parker (no relation to Alfred Charles Parker) got less money to produce more content-driven work. (Alas, it usually works that way.) Much of that work was produced for Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and later New York magazine. In the case of the Kennedy piece, the aggressiveness of Weaver’s concept required a bit of editorial instruction in the margin:

In 1959, Robert Weaver’s identification with Jack Kennedy would have been strong indeed. Kennedy represented the idea of bracing change, and provoked a twitching sort of idealism in the face of old school habits—just as Weaver et. al., were overcoming an exhausted discipline in a radically new cultural moment. In his chosen field, Robert Weaver was Jack Kennedy, and the old guys were a bunch of genial but corrupt Eisenhowers.

Sound familiar?

The resurgence of the Kennedy myth, the memory of the editorial insurgency led by M. Weaver, and the dramatic but uncertain rise of Barack Obama all come together in an auspicious observance of Super Tuesday 2008.

To the polls, and then to the sofa, to monitor the returns...

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Hendrix at the Plate: More Artball

John Hendrix has submitted an Artball lineup with an excellent concept (of course) and logo. The New York Deadlines bring a strong lineup, with an especially dominant left side, and Norman Rockwell as a closer. Saul Steinberg makes an appearance almost as a throwaway reliever. I think as the season progressed he would work his way up. Can you imagine trying to hit a Steinberg slider? I have a quibble or two: Barry Blitt seems a little thin and scratchy to manage things behind the plate, and Coby Whitmore is overrated. But I really like Weaver at third, Wyeth in left and Cornwell in center, which anticipates a little my own lineup, an item I will be posting soon.

The true stunner is this: Bob Peak as the DH? What? When questioned, Hendrix allowed that he hates the American League. "Bob Peak is my protest pick."

Sigh. National League snobs...

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Fables and Rhymes, Pictured 2

Picking up where we left off yesterday.

Narrative construction relies a great deal on selection and exclusion.

A horse walks into a bar. Goes up to the bar to order a drink. Bartender says, “So why the long face?”

I love this joke (though I am in the minority). Note that all extra words are eliminated. The sequence of sentences is like a linguistic cruise missile, boring in on the punch line. The “long face” is implicit in our unspoken but shared knowledge of how a horse’s head looks. Thus it does not have to be spelled out. The quick unexpected leap is funny. But the connection is based on the single step jump from horse to long face. So the horse in the joke is not a Palomino, or a mustang, or a Lipizzaner. Any other word choice than the simple direct horse, the joke does not work.

Narrative picture-making works the same way.

Two indispensable examples for our purposes are Ezra Jack Keats’ classic children’s book The Snowy Day (1963), and Robert Lawson’s illustrations for The Story of Ferdinand (text by Munro Leaf; 1938). Both illustrators use restricted means to achieve narrative focus—shape (via collage) for Keats and pen and ink for Lawson.

Lawson’s landmark book illustrations first. The elimination of all extraneous visual material heightens our awareness of the clarity of his drawing. We see what we need to see, and no more.

The episode in which Ferdinand sits on a bumblebee ought to be required reading for anyone interested in making sequential pictures.

The gravity of the event is visited upon the bee, who contemplates his own squashing in the moments before plunging his stinger into Ferdinand’s behind, offscreen, in frame 2.

That plush, regal, lazy cloud! It so beautifully captures the languid moment just before Everything Changes. (In a radically different tonality, it’s analogous to that moment in Saving Private Ryan when the squad lingers on the street listening to the Edith Piaf song just before the Germans come and most of them die.) In the comic universe of Ferdinand, that cloud sets up the moment of sensation/realization which literally seems to descend from it. (It also works like a thought bubble of sorts via association.) And of course the bee sting sets in motion—literally—the action which eventually lands the docile Ferdinand in the bullring in Madrid. Below, we see the first moments of what Aristotle calls “the inciting action.”

Incite, indeed.

Ezra Jack Keats introduced an African American city kid, Peter, in The Snowy Day (and subsequent volumes), as well as an urban aesthetic to kids books. (I suspect that the Brooklynish brownstone sensibility of Sesame Street owes something to Keats. The show debuted in 1969, six years after the book appeared.)

Peter is introduced as he awakens to discover a fresh blanket of snow.

There are many wonderful visual and textual moments in the story, which is in fact a fabulous case study in said interplay, attributable to Keats’ striking talent and dual role as author and illustrator.

Here is a simple sequence that communicates much about the quietude, wonder and slapstickery of a child’s independent forays into the world.

Snowman walks into a bar


Images. Below find the complete list of works cited in the class session on this material. This list includes the images posted in the first part of this discussion, minus the Maxfield Parrishes. See prior post for Parrish citations.

Mother Goose: Popular Volland Edition. Rearranged and edited by Eulalie Osgood Grover and illustrated by Frederick Richardson. Chicago, Illinois: M.A. Donohue & Co. 1915.

Treasure Island. Written by Robert Louis Stevenson, illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. New York: Scribner’s and Sons. 1911. The first of 25 Scribner’s illustrated classics Wyeth would go on to illustrate, and the most influential.

When We Were Very Young. Written by A.A. Milne, illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard. UK edition, London: Methuen. 1924. Subsequently, New York: E.P. Dutton, Publishers. Many of the poems were first published in the British humor magazine Punch.

The Story of Babar. Written and illustrated by Jean de Brunhoff. French edition 1931, English edition (UK and US) 1933. The first of seven books about Babar and his neo-colonialist adventures in France and Africa.

Potted Peter. Written and illustrated by Wilhelm Busch. Bilderbogen (or illustrated pamphlet) published in German. Munich. 1864. (Busch also known for Max and Moritz [1865], a clear antecedent for German immigrant Rudolf Dirks’ 1897 comic strip The Katzenjammer Kids, which ran in the New York Journal.)

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. Written and illustrated by Hergé. Originally appeared in serialized form in Le Soir, 1942-43; issued as a compilation by Casterman in 1943.

Goodnight, Moon. Written by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. 1947. Goodnight, Moon was in the news recently, when astute readers recognized that the photograph of Clement Hurd on the back cover of the 60th anniversary edition had been digitally modified. Editors removed Hurd’s cigarette from the image, causing some controversy.

The Rainbow Dictionary. Written by Wendell W. Wright, assisted by Helene Laird, illustrated by Joseph Low. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company. 1947.

The Snowy Day. Written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats. New York: Viking. 1962. Caldecott winning book that introduced the character of Peter, an African-American city kid who appears in a string of books by Keats as he grows.

The Story of Ferdinand. Written by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson. New York: The Viking Press. 1936.

Mr. Lunch Borrows a Canoe. By J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh, illustrated by J. Otto Seibold. New York: Viking Juvenile. 1994.