The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

May 24, 2015
by Dan

Why Star Wars?

In the most recent installment of the Laser Age, the Dissolve’s fascinating history of science fiction films from the 1960s to the 1980s, Keith Phipps turns his attention to Superman, Star Trek, and Flash Gordon — three movies released in the immediate wake of Star Wars. It’s a great read if you are at all interested in this stuff,  but it’s also a perfect excuse to revisit Phipps’s earlier — but oh, so timely — essay, ‘Why Star Wars?’:

Why? Of all the science-fiction films released in the long wake of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet Of The Apes, why did Star Wars take hold in a way no film before it had? None of the many answers are entirely satisfying. But combining a few of them lets us make some sense of the question.

May 24, 2015
by Dan

Tim Parks on Where I’m Reading From

Where I'm Reading From (1)

At BOMB Magazine, writer Tim Park discusses his new book Where I’m Reading From, a collection of his essays from the NYRB Blog, with Scott Esposito (co-author of The End of Oulipo):

In a way, this book is an autobiography of someone brought up with a very particular relation to books, in a religious family, in an English literary tradition, who on becoming an adult, for private personal reasons, set himself literary goals that were gradually revealed as spurious. Also, it’s about a person from the literary center—English, London— who has spent more than thirty years in another country, Italy, that is out of the literary mainstream. And a writer who also, by chance, became a translator and went on to teach translation. My life has been a long process of awakening to the reality, the changing reality, of the contemporary book world, which is a million miles from the naïve vision I had when I started writing books at twenty-two. Since it is in the publishers’ interests, and indeed the University’s, to sustain a false picture of what the book world is like and what the contemporary experience of books amounts to, my articles were a response to this, and an attempt to get my own head straight about what I’m really doing and the environment I move in. One is seeking at last to be unblinkered about it all.

And, if you missed it, Park reviewed What We See When Read by designer Peter Mendelsund on the NYRB Blog earlier this month:

One of the pleasures of his book is his honesty and perplexity at the discovery that every account he offers of the process of visualization very quickly falls apart under pressure. We do not really “see” characters such as Anna Karenina or Captain Ahab, he concludes, or indeed the places described in novels, and insofar as we do perhaps see or glimpse them, what we are seeing is something we have imagined, not what the author saw. Even when there are illustrations, as in many nineteenth-century novels, they only impose their view of the characters very briefly. A couple of pages later they have become as fluid and vague as so much of visual memory. At one point Mendelsund posits the idea that perhaps we read in order not to be oppressed by the visual, in order not to see.

(Pictured above is the cover of the UK edition, published by Harvill Secker in December last year, of Where I’m Reading From designed by James Paul Jones. The US edition, which has a more utilitarian cover, was just published by New York Review of Books)

May 22, 2015
by Dan

Australian Book Design Awards Winners 2015

Congratulations to all the 2015 Australian Book Design Awards Winners!

caro was here design gayna murphy

Caro Was Here by Elizabeth Farrelly; design by Gayna Murphy

consumer-behaviour-in-action design regine abos

Consumer Behaviour in Action by Peter Ling, Steven d’Alessandro, Hume Winzar; design Regine Abos

A Fairy Tale by Jonas T. Bengtsson; design by Allison Colpoys

A Fairy Tale by Jonas T. Bengtsson; design by Allison Colpoys

fictional woman design tara moss and matt stanton

The Fictional Woman by Tara Moss; design Tara Moss & Matt Stanton

Movida Solera by Frank Comorra & Richard Cornish;  design by Daniel New

Movida Solera by Frank Comorra & Richard Cornish; design by Daniel New

What Came Before by Anna George; design by Laura Thomas

What Came Before by Anna George; design by Laura Thomas

You can find all the winning designs on the Australian Book Designers Association website.

May 17, 2015
by Dan

Finish Writing Your Novel…

finish writing tom gauld

Tom Gauld.

May 11, 2015
by Dan

25 Years of Drawn and Quarterly

This past weekend at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, Montreal publisher Drawn and Quarterly celebrated their 25th anniversary. D+Q cartoonist Pascal Girard (Petty Theft, Reunion, Bigfoot) drew a history of the publisher for the National Post:


While in a lengthy profile of the publisher by Mark Medley, the Globe and Mail revealed that founder Chris Oliveros is handing the company over to long-time collaborators Tom Devlin and Peggy Burns:

If Drawn and Quarterly is “like a big family,” as Chester Brown described the company to me earlier this week, then, in a sense, the family is losing its father.

A little more than a year ago, Oliveros pulled aside Burns and Devlin, his longest-serving co-workers, and told them he was thinking of stepping down, and that he wanted them to take over the company.

“It was a complete surprise,” says Devlin. “We kind of assumed he’d just do it forever.”

Burns says she burst into tears upon hearing the news.

“I’ve personally taken it as far as I can take it,” says Oliveros. “It would have been fine if I continued. It’s not like they were telling me to go or anything. I could have been around for the 30th anniversary, for the 35th, and the 40th, if I’m still alive, but I just feel, you know what, I don’t think I can accomplish – me, personally – I don’t think I can accomplish more.”

A new book celebrating the publisher, Drawn and Quarterly: Twenty-Five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novelswill be published later this month.


May 5, 2015
by Dan
1 Comment

Book Covers of Note May 2015

This month’s post is very heavy on illustrated and hand-lettered covers for some reason, but it’s all the prettier for it…

All This Has Nothing To Do With Me by Monica Sabolo; design by Justine Anweiler; illustration by Daphne van den Heuvel (Picador / April 2015)

At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón; design by Jonathan Pelham (Fourth Estate / May 2015)

B & Me by J. C. Hallman; design by Christopher Lin (Simon & Schuster / March 2015)

The Bees by Laline Paull; design by Sara Wood (Ecco / May 2015)

The jacket for the US hardcover of The Bees, designed by Steve Attardo, was a book cover of note in May 2014.

black snow cover design keith hayes
Black Snow by Paul Lynch; design by Keith Hayes (Little, Brown & Co. / May 2015)

Boo by Neil Smith; design by Isabel Urbina Peña (Vintage / May 2015)

Conviction by Kelly Loy Gilbert design by Maria Elias; illustration by Christopher Silas Neal (Disney-Hyperion / May 2015)

Eden West by Pete Hautman; design by Matt Roeser (Candlewick / April 2015)

Empire of the Senses by Alexis Landau; design by Janet Hansen (Pantheon / March 2015)

herzog design by Lynn Buckley
Herzog by Saul Bellow; design by Lynn Buckley (Penguin / May 2015)

How to Clone a Mammoth by Beth Shapiro; design by Jason Alejandro (Princeton University Press / April 2015)

KL by Nikolaus Wachsmann; design by Alex Merto (Farrar, Straus & Giroux / April 2015)

Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North; design by Spencer Kimble (Blue Rider Press / May 2015)

Lifted by the Great Nothing by Karim Dimechkie; design by Katya Mezhibovskaya; illustration by Christopher Silas Neal (Bloomsbury / May 2015)

Further proof, were it needed, that Christopher would do a great covers for Harper Lee.

Mislaid design by Allison Saltzman
Mislaid by Nell Zink; design by Allison Saltzman (Ecco / May 2015)

My Documents by Alejandro Zambra; design & illustration Sunra Thompson (McSweeney’s / April 2015)

Nightmares and Geezenstacks by Fredric Brown; design by M. S. Corley (Valancourt Books / April 2015)

Odysseus Abroad by Amit Chaudhuri; design by Oliver Munday (Knopf / April 2015)

ohey design by Alban Fischer
Ohey! by Darby Larson; design by Alban Fischer (CCM / May 2015)

Schlump by Hans Herbert Grim; design by Suzanne Dean; illustration by Clare Curtis (Vintage / May 2015)

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty; design by Peter Adlington (Canongate / April 2015)

The US edition, designed by David High, was a book cover of note in September 2014.

The Upright Thinkers by Leonard Mlodinow; cover art by Tom Gauld (Allen Lane / May 2015)

Visiting Hours by Amy Butcher; design by Spencer Kimble (Blue Rider Press / April 2015)

Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames; design by Jamie Keenan (Pushkin Press / May 2015)

May 2, 2015
by Dan
1 Comment



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.

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