The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

May 2, 2015
by Dan



Thanks to David Gee (and others), who alerted me to the extraordinary Samplerman comics this week.

You can read an interview from earlier this year with Yvan Guillo, the French cartoonist and designer behind Samplerman, at It’s Nice That:

I’ve always downloaded tonnes of scans of American comics, from the golden age to the bronze age. I could scan the ones I have but I’ve done it only once or twice. I don’t really read the stories, but I love how they look: the cheap paper, the bright primary colours, the screen-tone, the drawings, the conventional representation of landscapes, the simplicity of the lines. I have to make a choice among this mountain of graphic elements. I pick what I like: face, hand, clothes, tree, car, text balloon etc. and start to (digitally) cut them out. At the same time I start to place the elements on one or several pages made of blank comic panels. Some elements are duplicated, rotated, arbitrarily cut in half, reduplicated and mirrored. It’s a mix of kaleidoscope and collage; I add, I move, I replace until I feel it’s done. At the end it has to remain visually surprising and dynamic.



April 30, 2015
by Dan
1 Comment

Too Many Books

At the NYRB Blog, Tim Parks wonders if there are just too many books:

Is there a relationship between the quantity of books available to us, the ease with which they can be written and published, and our reading experience?

At present, for example, it’s hard not to feel that we are in an era of massive overproduction. Just when we were already overwhelmed with paper books, often setting them aside after only a few pages in anxious search of something more satisfying, along came the Internet and the e-book so that, wonderfully, we now have access to hundreds of thousands of contemporary novels and poems from this very space into which I am writing.

Inevitably, this tends to diminish the seriousness with which I approach any particular book. Certainly the notion that these works could ever be arranged in any satisfactory order, or that any credible canon will ever emerge, is gone forever.

April 29, 2015
by Dan

Freunde von Freunden: Erik Spiekermann Interview

Freunde von Freunden visit the apartment and studio of designer and typographer Erik Spiekermann:

A look around his tidy, if eclectic, home offers an eye pleasing sampler of the designer’s interests. One of his home’s main attractions is his two-story bookshelf, mostly filled with titles pertinent to his profession and only accessible by the seated pulley system Spiekermann developed for one of his favorite leisure activities – browsing his massive library and getting lost in his passion for words and images. “It’s almost like a safety net having all my books here. I have a lot of cool stuff that other people don’t have, and I love browsing and discovering books I’ve had 50 years. I’d love to spend time just browsing through my bookshelves. Every time I go to look for something I find something else, you get totally stuck. There’s nothing better than getting stuck on a Sunday afternoon with books you’ve forgotten about.”


And on a related note, Madeleine Morley spends a day at Spiekermann’s print workshop, p98a for Port magazine:

The process of printing is repetitive, slow, and surgical, but also very peaceful and contemplative – like knitting or carpentry. We insert pieces of paper into the letterpress, rotate the handle, stack the print on a drying rack, re-ink the font, then start again. By this point, we begin to develop a consistent and robot-like rhythm, but we’re a clunky, less graceful team in comparison to  guild of typographers.

I ask [Alexander] Nagel why he prefers this method of design: “It has more… sinne,” he replies, using a German word that is difficult to translate. The term means ‘touch’ or ‘sense’. It refers to the haptic, but also means ‘significance’. This is something people say a lot about the printed page and its physical tangibility, but it’s something you don’t quite appreciate until you’re actually building one of these templates from metal, wood and paint.

April 29, 2015
by Dan

Ladislav Sutnar: Visual Design in Action — Facsimile Edition


I don’t post too many crowd-funded publishing projects here on the Casual Optimist — there are so many of them, and so few seem really significant — but I’m more than happy to support the Designers and Books

campaign to create a facsimile reprint of Visual Design in Action by modernist graphic designer Ladislav Sutnar. First published in 1961, and out of print for decades, it looks very worthy of a revival:

You can read more about the book and the campaign here.



April 28, 2015
by Dan

Superhero Comics and The Tyranny of Pew-Pew


Ta-Nehisi Coates, who writes so compellingly about culture and politics for The Atlantic, talks to Vulture about superheroes and his love of (Marvel) comics:

Comic books aren’t perfect, but listen: In the 1980s, Marvel had a black woman — not just a black woman, a woman who was born in Harlem, a woman who was African-American and whose mother was Kenyan — leading their most popular title. And then when she lost her powers, she was still kicking ass. Like she still had enough to whip Cyclops’s ass. That was something they were doing. I can’t really think of anywhere else I would’ve went at that time to see something like that. Just today I was reading that Hickman one. And this kid, Manifold, is like an Aboriginal. This is incredible! I mean this has to do with Hollywood: You don’t actually see that diversity reflected on-camera. [Comics] are not perfect, especially around gender and the women’s stuff, but you start comparing it to Hollywood, it’s not even a conversation. I mean consider it like this: There could’ve been [a Hollywood] adaptation, a true adaptation, of X-Men in which Storm was the protagonist in the way that we were reading it; that would’ve been a true rendering of what the comic book actually was. But that’s not possible, that’s not possible in Hollywood. It’s deeply sad.

Meanwhile, at the Village Voice, Alan Scherstuhl ponders The Tyranny of Pew-Pew, or how fun fantasy violence became inescapable:

Just a generation before it came to dominate our culture, comic and fantasy violence was disreputable, a little underground, scruffy and impolite. It didn’t yet have clearly established rules covering what was and wasn’t acceptable: Note how the ‘Fangoria’-lite bloodiness of the first two ‘Indiana Jones’ pictures contrasts with the gentlemen’s fisticuffs of the third one, a course correction made after the public scolded Lucas and Spielberg for having gone too far with the heart-ripping and kid-whipping. But the sadism of ‘Temple of Doom or the ‘Daredevil’ Netflix series differs from that of the Marvel films or ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ only in tone and degree: At root, they’re all still about how awesome it would be to run around and kick everyone’s ass.

April 28, 2015
by Dan

Australian Book Design Awards 2015 Shortlist

Australian Book Designers Association recently announced the shortlist for the Australian Book Design Awards 2015 and, as in previous years, there are some great covers to be seen.

I particularly like that they have an award for Young Designer of the Year. The designers shortlisted this year are Alissa Dinallo, Hazel Lam, and Imogen Stubbs:

The full list can be downloaded as a PDF from the ABDA blog. The winners will be announced Friday, May 22nd in Sydney.

April 23, 2015
by Dan

Chris Ware: Beyond the Cover


Juxtapoz contributing editor Kristin Farr talks to Chris Ware, the magazine’s May 2015 cover artist, for their Beyond the Cover site:

Beyond setting a very specific mood, tone or feeling of a time of day or era, color in my stuff sometimes acts as a separate, countervailing story, connecting elements and images in ways that I sometimes hadn’t even predicted when I was simply drawing the page, reflecting more the way we see the world than how we define it. At the same time, the page compositions are also an attempt to get a glimpse at the way we edit, remember, and clean up our own experiences into “stories”…

…Comics best approximate how I remember and think about the world and how I also think many other people do; I believe even Nabokov at some point expressed frustration at not being able to induce a non-verbal image-based sort of page-memory (but he still did it better than anyone, except Joyce). I find myself thinking about my stories at odd times during the day, almost as if they’re an alternate reality; I can’t liken the experience to anything other than the psychosis of false or self-induced memories. Then again, any memories are always going to have some falseness, all of which add up to a fairly unreliable sense of one’s life and experience.

April 22, 2015
by Dan

Paula Scher: Ephemeral or Indelible?


This is wonderful stuff:  designer Paula Scher discusses the different kinds of ink she has used throughout her career at Creative Mornings New York:

April 21, 2015
by Dan

Countryside Terror!


Tom Gauld.

(Not having seen The Guardian this past weekend, I can only assume that Tom’s cartoon is a reference to this).

April 20, 2015
by Dan

Salman Rushdie and Adult-YA Crossovers


The cover of the US edition of Salman Rushdie’s first adult novel in seven years. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (Random House, September 2015), was revealed on Buzzfeed last week.1 While the cover itself is perfectly fine, the most remarkable thing about it is how much it looks like a novel for young adults.

I was immediately reminded of the cover of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, designed by Rodrigo Corral (Penguin 2012)…


…and the lovely hand-lettered YA covers of Australian designer and illustrator Allison Colpoys:


After some further thought, however, I realised that it is even more reminiscent of the cover for the novel Waiting for Doggo by Mark B. Mills, designed by Yeti Lambregts (Headline, November 2014), which made me wonder if, perhaps, we are starting to see more adult covers that look like YA?

Since the success of Harry Potter, publishers have known that adults read ‘children’s books’ for pleasure, and they will often try to appeal these to older readers with more mature covers. On Twitter last week, American YA cover designer Erin Fitzsimmons (interviewed on the blog here), identified this as ‘crossover appeal.’ But crossover appeal can go both ways, and it seems that adult covers are being designed to reach the widest possible audience too.

This trend is more pronounced in the UK where bright and whimsical illustrated covers are common for commercial fiction. The vibrant cover of the UK edition of Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (and the accompanying backlist) — beautifully illustrated by Sroop Sunar and unveiled today — is a perfect example:


According to CMYK, the Vintage Books design blog, Sunar was inspired by printed ephemera found in India around the time of Independence, and the brightly coloured covers would work equally well for YA as for adult fiction:


US publishers have (I think) been slower to market adult fiction to younger readers in this way. Although hand-lettering has become very common on US covers for a while now, photographic images still dominate commercial fiction covers. Compare, for example, the UK cover of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, illustrated by Nathan Burton (left), with US edition designed by Abby Weintraub (on the right):

From my own experience, I can also think of at least one quirky illustrated cover — for an upcoming literary novel that the publisher has very high hopes for — that was killed at the last minute in favour of a more traditional photographic one. The original design could easily have been for a gothic Young Adult fantasy. The new cover, much less ambiguous, is clearly intended for adult book clubs.

Even so, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights and a few other recent covers suggest that US publishers are willing to experiment, and as audiences for YA and adult fiction become harder to differentiate, we will only see more covers that blur those lines.

April 16, 2015
by Dan

Françoise Mouly on Voice


Grace Bello interviews the always interesting Françoise Mouly, art director of The New Yorker and founder of Toon Books, for Guernica:

I know what I respond to is a voice. A voice is not just a stylistic thing, but it means someone who really has something to say. I think a lot of what I get from books—whether they be books of comics or books of literature—is a window into somebody’s mind and their way of thinking. I love it when it’s so specific. It’s a new way to look at the world. It’s as if I could get in and see it through their eyes. It also reaches a level of universality because, somehow, I can recognize some of my feelings in seeing somebody who is actually expressing their own inner reality. Even though Flaubert has not been in Madame Bovary’s skin, you do get a sense of what it’s like to be that person. It’s a kind of empathic response when you’re reading it.

April 15, 2015
by Dan

Today in Micro-Trends: Neon Signs


Inspired by the recent Blur album cover designed by Tony Hung (read more about it here) amongst other things, here are a selection of (relatively) recent books cover designs using lettering inspired by neon signs (pictured above: Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey, designed by the one and only Gray318 in 2008):

Brothers by Yu Hua; design by Jonathan Sainsbury (Random House / January 2009)

Event by Slavoj Žižek; design by Christopher King (Melville House / August 2014)

The Extreme Centre by Tariq Ali; design by Dan Mogford (Verso / March 2015)

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill; design by Leo Nickolls (Quercus / March 2015)

Glow by Ned Beauman; design by Oliver Munday (Knopf / January 2015)

hotel life design by simon pates
The Hotel Life by Javier Montes; design by Simon Pates (Hispabooks / October 2013)

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon; design by Darren Haggar and Tal Goretsky; illustration by Darshan Zenith / Cruiser Art (Penguin / August 2009)

Kissing in America by Margo Rabb; design by Erin Fitzsimmons; art by Thomas Burden (HarperCollins / May 2015 )

Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce; design by Emily Mahon; illustration by Rizon Parein (Doubleday / September 2014)

Make Something Up by Chuck Palahniuk; design by James Paul Jones (Jonathan Cape / May 2015)

Mammon’s Kingdom by David Marquand; cover art by Mr Whaite (Allen Lane / May 2014)

Milk Bar Life by Christina Tosi; design by Walter Green (Clarkson Potter / April 2015)

The Musical Brain by César Aira; design by Rodrigo Corral (New Directions / March 2015)

No Regrets Coyote; design by John Dufresne; design by Jennifer Heuer (W. W. Norton / July 2014)

Pluto by Glyn Maxwell; design by Jonathan Pelham (Picador / April 2013)

Yes Please by Amy Poehler; design by Mary Schuck (Dey Street Books / October 2014)

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