The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

May 4, 2017
by Dan

The Rise of the Global Novel

At the New Republic, Siddhartha Deb, author of The Beautiful and the Damned, reviews The Global Novel: Writing the World in the 21st Century by Adam Kirsch:

Foreign writers might still be considered strange or different, and they might not be covered at all. But even the notoriously elitist, insular establishment of book reviewers in New York did not see their novels as completely out of place in a world rapidly being shaped by globalization. In an era of cheap air travel, digital communications, consumerism, worldwide urbanization, and the dominance of English—all overseen by the United States as the world’s single remaining imperial power—readers, editors, and critics found it easy to welcome works by Haruki Murakami or Orhan Pamuk and the snapshots of foreign life they reveal.

In fact, the literary critic Adam Kirsch argues in his new book, The Global Novel, these circumstances have given rise to an entirely new literary category. No longer located tightly within national boundaries, and often written by authors who move between cultures, the global novel takes fiction’s usual remit—the examination of human nature—and places it in new cosmopolitan settings. The scope and structures of these books may vary: “A global novel can be one that sees humanity on the level of the species,” Kirsch proposes, “so that its problems and prospects can only be dealt with on the scale of the whole planet; or it can start from the scale of a single neighborhood, showing how even the most constrained of lives are affected by worldwide movements.” Yet such narratives are unified in their concern for “contemporary global problems, including immigration, terrorism, environmental degradation, and sexual exploitation”…

…In the midst of xenophobic populism—the age of Brexit and Donald Trump—Kirsch counters that the global novel bears out Goethe’s belief that “poetry is the universal possession of mankind.” And the fact that readers have come to appreciate it shows, for him, the currency of liberal values “like tolerance of difference, mutual understanding, and free exchange of ideas.”

May 3, 2017
by Dan

Put Your Faith in Comics

At The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino profiles G. Willow Wilson, the writer behind Ms. Marvel, a superhero who is (in her current incarnation) a teenage Muslim from Jersey City:

The première of “Ms. Marvel” sold more copies digitally than it did in print—a company first. Marvel doesn’t release digital-sales numbers, but piecemeal statistics have shown female characters performing especially well in digital formats. Traditionally, comic books are purchased in single, floppy issues at dedicated brick-and-mortar shops, but these can be intimidating spaces for novices: when I walked into Forbidden Planet in Manhattan, I found myself wishing for the ability to act like I belonged. Some readers may simply opt to buy collected issues in paperbacks at regular bookstores or, increasingly, to download e-books. There are now, Wilson suggested, two audiences for comic books, and many people in the industry “are loath to recognize that these two audiences might want two very different things out of the same series. They don’t shop in the same places, they don’t socially overlap, and their tastes might not overlap.”

The relationship between this divided landscape and the most recent Presidential election is not lost on her. At the coffee shop, as a barista cleared our plates, we talked about how the stakes of every identity-politics debate feel heightened since November—and also about new alliances that seem to be forming in the election’s wake. Wilson spoke with some astonishment about the fact that she could include a gay secondary character in “Ms. Marvel”—the blond, popular Zoe—and still have mothers and daughters show up to her readings in hijabs. “It’s funny. Those right-wing bloggers who said my work was part of some socialist-Muslim-homosexual attack on American values, they really created the thing they feared. There wasn’t a socialist-Muslim-homosexual alliance before, but there sure as fuck is one now, and I love it.”

I don’t read a lot of comics from Marvel (or DC for that matter) these days, but Ms. Marvel is truly a joy. 

April 27, 2017
by Dan

The Prophet of Dystopia

art direction by Christopher Moisan; illustration by Patrik Svensson

I am terribly late to this, but Rachel Mead, author of My Life in Middlemarch, profiled Margaret Atwood for The New Yorker earlier this month. Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale has just been released as a TV series starring Elizabeth Moss:  

Despite the novel’s current air of timeliness, the contours of the dystopian future that Atwood imagined in the eighties do not map closely onto the present moment—although recent news images of asylum seekers fleeing across the U.S. border into Canada have a chilling resonance with the opening moments of the television series, which shows Moss, not yet enlisted as a Handmaid, attempting to escape from the U.S. to its northern neighbor, where democracy prevails. Still, the U.S. in 2017 does not show immediate signs of becoming Gilead, Atwood’s imagined theocratic American republic. President Trump is not an adherent of traditional family values; he is a serial divorcer. He is not known to be a man of religious faith; his Sundays are spent on the golf course.

What does feel familiar in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is the blunt misogyny of the society that Atwood portrays, and which Trump’s vocal repudiation of “political correctness” has loosed into common parlance today. Trump’s vilification of Hillary Clinton, Atwood believes, is more explicable when seen through the lens of the Puritan witch-hunts. “You can find Web sites that say Hillary was actually a Satanist with demonic powers,” she said. “It is so seventeenth-century that you can hardly believe it. It’s right out of the subconscious—just lying there, waiting to be applied to people.” The legacy of witch-hunting, and the sense of shame that it engendered, Atwood suggests, is an enduring American blight. “Only one of the judges ever apologized for the witch trials, and only one of the accusers ever apologized,” she said. Whenever tyranny is exercised, Atwood warns, it is wise to ask, “Cui bono?” Who profits by it? Even when those who survived the accusations levelled against them were later exonerated, only meagre reparations were made. “One of the keys to America is that your neighbor may be a Communist, a serial killer, or in league with satanic forces,” Atwood said. “You really don’t trust your fellow-citizens very much.”


April 13, 2017
by Dan


Tom Gauld for The Guardian.

April 13, 2017
by Dan

Australian Book Design Awards 2017 Shortlist

The Australian Book Design Association just announced their Shortlist (PDF) for the 65th Australian Book Design Awards. Happily (if somewhat implausibly), I was asked to be the international judge this year (you can read about the other, imminently more qualified judges, here).

As a sample of what you can expect from the shortlist, here are the covers in the Nonfiction category: 


Design by Mary Callahan

Design W. H. Chong

Design by Allison Colpoys

Design Jenny Grigg

The winners of the awards will be announced on Friday 26 May at the Awards Party in Sydney. Tickets go on sale Thursday 20 April.


April 12, 2017
by Dan

Book Covers of Note April 2017

This edition of ‘book covers of note’ is brought to you entirely by Gray318 who designed the covers of all the books published this month. OK, that’s an exaggeration, but Jon did design FOUR of the covers on my list — all different, all brilliant. How no one has published a monograph of his work yet is beyond me. Anyway… This month’s post also includes covers by David Pearson, Erik Carter, Scott Richardson, Kimberly Glyder, Katie Tooke, Rachel Vale and more… 

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou; design by Gray318 (Serpent’s Tail / April 2017)

England Your England by George Orwell; design by David Pearson (Penguin Modern Classics / March 2017)

The Fortunate Brother by Donna Morrissey; design by Pete Adlington (Canongate / April 2017)

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag; design by Luke Bird (Faber & Faber / April 2017)

And, just FYI, after 6 years at Faber & Faber, Luke has decided to set up his own studio should you wish to hire him (and on the basis of this cover alone, why wouldn’t you?).

The Good People by Hannah Kent; design by Rachel Vale (Picador / February 2017)

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; art direction by Christopher Moisan; illustration by Patrik Svensson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / April 2017)

This is just the latest in a number of striking covers for The Handmaid’s Tale  rare bookseller and author Rebecca Romney recently compiled a list

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas; design by Jenna Stempel; illustration Debra Cartwright (Balzer + Bray / February 2017)

The cover of the UK edition of The Hate U Give, published by Walker this month, was designed by Maria Soler.

It’s interesting that both designs have acrostic titles. I wonder if this was in the brief?  

Home and Away by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Fredrik Ekelund; design by Alex Merto (Farrar, Straus & Giroux / January 2017)

The cover of the British edition, published by Harvill Secker in November 2016, was designed by Matt Broughton. 

Let Go My Hand by Edward Docx; design by Katie Tooke (Picador / April 2017)

Literature Class by Julio Cortázar; design by Rodrigo Corral and Zak Tebbal (New Directions / March 2017)

Locus Solus by Raymond Roussel; design by Erik Carter (New Directions /March 2017)

The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge; design by Will Staehle (Penguin / March 2017)

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell; design by C. S. Richardson (Penguin Canada / March 2017)

In the US, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt have also published a new edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four. The cover — which owes a wee debt to Peter Mendelsund’s eye motif covers for the Schocken editions of Kafka (in my very humble opinion) — was designed by Mark Robinson.

You can see a few other recent covers for Nineteen Eighty Four here

Out of Line by Barbara Lynch; design by Delcan & Company; photography by George Baier IV (Atria / April 2017)

The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies; design by Zoe Norvell (Biblioasis / April 2017)

Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski; design by Mark Swan (Orenda / March 2017)

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell; design by Sunra Thompson (McSweeney’s / March 2017)

The jacket has a really nice metallic finish in real life. The bright green cover under the jacket is also really nice. 

Sound System by Dave Randall; design by Jamie Keenan (Pluto Press / April 2017)

Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar; design by Allison Warner (Little Brown & Co. / March 2017)

Sympathy by Olivia Sudjic; design by Gray318 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / April 2017)

To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell; design by Gray318; robot/photograph by Marco Fernandes (Granta / April 2017)

The Teeth of the Comb & Other Stories by Osama Alomar; design by Erik Carter (New Directions / April 2017)

Us&Them by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani; design by Anne Jordan and Mitch Goldstein (Stanford University Press / April 2017)

Voices from the Jungle: Stories from the Calais Refugee Camp; design by Gray318 (Pluto Press / April 2017)

Wait Til You See Me Dance by Deb Olin Unferth; design by Kimberly Glyder (Graywolf / March 2017)

White Tears by Hari Kunzru; design by Peter Mendelsund (Knopf / March 2017)

The cover of the UK edition, published this month by Hamish Hamilton, was designed by Richard Bravery.

April 8, 2017
by Dan

Elena Ferrante Covers Designed by Angelo Bottino

The covers of the Anglo-American editions of Elena Ferrante’s novels published by Europa Editions have been… well, controversial to say the least (read an interview with the art director about their “kitsch” quality here). The Australian editions of Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, published by Text Publishing, have much more stylish, cinematic covers designed by W. H. Chong (you can read about his process here). But these illustrated covers designed by Angelo Bottino for Brazilian publisher Intrínseca for Um Amor Incômodo (Troubling Love) and A Filha Perdida (The Lost Daughter) are really rather lovely. I would love to see a complete set of Ferrante’s novels with covers designed by Bottino.  

UPDATE: The cover illustrations for the Intrínseca editions of The Lost Daughter and Troubling Love are by Andy Bridge and Marian Trotter respectively. Thanks to Angelo Bottino for letting me know! 



April 4, 2017
by Dan

The Last London

The London Review of Books has a brilliant, sprawling, melancholy essay by author and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair titled ‘The Last London’. It’s difficult to know what to quote from the essay as it touches on so many interesting, diverse things, but this passage about London in science fiction is perhaps most appropriate for here: 

In 1909 [Ford Madox] Ford published an essay titled ‘The Future in London’, a provocative vision of a planned last city, a London circumscribed by the sixty-mile sweep of a compass point set in Threadneedle Street. He anticipated the urban planner Sir Patrick Abercrombie in reading London as a series of orbital hoops, ring roads and parkland. Brought to life on the edge of the river, this port settlement has always been a magnet for outsiders. It was constructed that way, developed to draw in the scattered tribes, the hut dwellers, to establish the importance of a river crossing. A satellite of Colchester, it was 100 AD before Londinium became a significant entity. And then it was lost, abolished, pulled apart, before it grew again.

Ford Madox Ford’s Edwardian pipedream is ahead of its time. He sees that Oxford and Cambridge and the south coast are all part of the London microclimate. He sees the river coming into its own as an avenue for transport. He envisages escalators and moving pavements, and a population enriched and civilised by incomers. He presents himself as so much the English gentleman that he is doomed to spend most of his career in chaotic exile, in France and the US. Ford is self-condemned, like Wyndham Lewis. His London is as fantastic now as the Magnetic City, protected by river and man-made canals, in Lewis’s The Human Age trilogy: ‘The blank-gated prodigious city was isolated by its riverine moat.’

The compulsion to imagine and describe a final city runs from Richard Jefferies, with his After London; or, Wild England (1885), through Ford and Lewis, to the drowned worlds of J.G. Ballard and Will Self, the dystopian multiverses of Michael Moorcock and China Miéville. Fredric Jameson, considering postmodernism, talks about the ‘hysterical sublime’: a sort of Gothic rapture in contemplation of lastness, the voluntary abdication of power to superior aliens. This was heady stuff for my own compulsive beating of the bounds, an exploration of neural paths and autopilot drifts through the City into Whitechapel and Mile End. One of these haunted dérives brought me to the window of a bookshop in Brushfield Street, alongside Spitalfields Market. The shop, of course, is gone now and the proprietor dead. I zoomed in on an item with a striking riverside skyline on the dust-jacket: Last Men in London by W. Olaf Stapledon, published in 1932. Here was a more intimate coda to the better-known Last and First Men (1930). I had to carry the book home.

March 31, 2017
by Dan

Talking Coffee

I related to Twisted Doodles comics about talking coffee a little too much… 

March 20, 2017
by Dan

Will You Help Us Destroy the Evil Galactic Empire?

Tom Gauld for The Guardian.

(I’m working on my sardonically witty literary novel as we speak.)

March 16, 2017
by Dan

Design Canada Documentary

Greg Durrell of Canadian design firm Hulse&Durrell, and Jessica Edwards and Gary Hustwit of Film First are putting together a documentary about Canadian graphic design:

The project is currently on Kickstarter. There are a couple of weeks to go and they are still a few thousand dollars shy of their goal. Please help out if you can. 

March 15, 2017
by Dan

Will Eisner Centenary

On the centenary of his birth, The Society of Illustrators in New York is celebrating the life of cartoonist Will Eisner with an exhibition of his work, including original artwork from his graphic novels A Contract with God (1978) and Life on Another Planet (1983), and over 40 pages of originals from The Spirit (1940–1952) newspaper section.

At the Village Voice R.C. Baker looks back at Eisner’s career:

Humanity leavened with contradiction, pathos, and humor describes the cast of characters Eisner (1917–2005) created in his trailblazing career, most notably in the adventures of a heavy-fisted, lighthearted crime-buster, the Spirit.

The Spirit has been called the Citizen Kane of comics, and it would be accurate to say that Eisner and Orson Welles — the actor/writer/director who brought Charles Foster Kane to life in that 1941 masterpiece — sprouted from the same loam of pulp magazines and cliff-hanging radio serials. Welles then apprenticed in classical theater, while Eisner studied narratives almost as psychologically complex (and more innately American): reams of newspaper strips and Sunday funnies. Both auteurs expanded their mediums in ways we still reckon with today.

Similarly, at Forbes, Rob Salkowitz looks at Eisner’s enduring legacy:

In 1941, comics were not considered high art; they were barely considered art at all. But to a 23 year-old cartoonist named Will Eisner who was just about to debut a new feature called “The Spirit,” comics possessed limitless storytelling potential. “Eventually and inevitably, [comics] will be a legitimate medium for the best of writers and artists,” said the young creator.

Over the next 75 years, Eisner was proved right, due in large part to his own output through the course of a remarkable career that saw him invent significant chunks of the comics’ storytelling vocabulary, pioneer the use of comics for education and training, establish a critical method for teaching and analyzing visual storytelling and virtually invent the long-form comics format known as the graphic novel. A large part of the $1 billion annual publishing enterprise and the multi-billion dollar entertainment, events, media and licensing industries that derive from it, are attributable directly to Eisner’s efforts and innovations.

The Guardian has republished a version of Neil Gaiman’s essay on Eisner from his collection of odds and ends The View from the Cheap Seats1:

Will’s life is, in miniature, a history of American comics. He was one of the very first people to run a studio making commercial comic books, but while his contemporaries dreamed of getting out of that ghetto and into more lucrative and respectable places – advertising, perhaps, or illustration, or even fine art – Will had no desire to escape. He was trying to create an artform.

In seven pages – normally less than 60 panels – he could build a short story worthy of O Henry; funny or tragic, sentimental or hardbitten, or simply odd. The work was uniquely comics, existing in the place where the words and the pictures come together, commenting on each other, reinforcing each other. Eisner’s stories were influenced by film, by theatre, by radio, but were ultimately their own medium, created by a man who thought that comics was an artform, and who was proved right.

And Print has reposted Michael Dooley essay, originally for written AIGA, on Eisner’s best known work, The Spirit:  

The field was already becoming glutted with simplistic adolescent power fantasies, but The Spirit had the texture of real life. He was decidedly not a costumed super-hero but simply a plainclothes sleuth who was prone to frequent noir-like pummelings from two-bit goons. He also displayed an ironic, smart aleck-y sense of humor, highly unique for this genre.

The strip, at seven or eight pages, reimagined itself every time. One week the format might be a fairy tale, another week a seven-page poem. Sometimes the Spirit would be shoved off to the sidelines or shunted altogether if Eisner felt so inclined. A Gerhard Shnobble episode – Eisner’s personal favorite – is a philosophical contemplation of man’s place in the universe disguised as a cops-and-criminals yarn. The Spirit was the first major milestone in his lifetime goal to explore and elevate comics as a mature literary form.

I first came across Will Eisner and The Spirit in The Penguin Book of Comics by George Perry and Alan Aldridge (previously mentioned here). It was a tease — little more than a page of artwork and a couple of short paragraphs on Eisner’s genius. I didn’t actually read a complete strip until years later when I came across a series of reprints from Kitchen Sink Press in a comics shop in London. I could only afford to buy one issue — which collected 3 or 4 stories I think — but it was enough to get me hooked.

Critics tend to focus on the later strips where the Spirit is often peripheral to the stories. These are surely more inventive than Eisner’s early comics. But I miss the Spirit when he is not central to story. He is like Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe — forever getting knocked on the head, and forever waking up in the arms of women who look like Ava Gardner or Lauren Bacall. It doesn’t sound like much, but Eisner imbued even these simple stories with a charm and sophistication that makes them a pleasure to read. 

Will Eisner: The Centennial Celebration 1917–2017 is at The Society of Illustrators, March 1–June 3 2017.

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