The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

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.

March 9, 2017
by Dan

Book Covers of Note March 2017

Holy smokes! There are a lot of good covers this month! Feast your eyes on March’s book covers of note:

Amiable with Big Teeth by Claude McKay; cover art by Sean Qualls (Penguin / March 2017)

The Book of Greek and Roman Folktales, Legends & Myths edited and translated by William Hansen; design by Amanda Weiss (Princeton University Press / March 2017)

The Bridge Ladies by Betsy Lerner; design by Justine Anweiler (Pan Macmillan / March 2017)

A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab; design by Will Staehle (Tor Books / February 2017)

This completes a distinctive set of covers for V.E. Schwab’s ‘Shades of Magic’ trilogy by Will Staehle: 

Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach; design by Jaya Miceli (Random House / February 2017)

Dick Cheney Shot Me in the Face by Timothy O’Leary; design by David A. Gee (Unsolicited Press / February 2017)

Done Dirt Cheap by Sarah Nicole Lemon; design Alyssa Nassner; illustration Amanda Lanzone (Amulet Books / March 2017)

The Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera; cover art by Dana Svobodova (Simon & Schuster / February 2017)

Eyes Wide Open by Isaac Lidsky; design by Zoe Norvell (Tarcher / March 2017)

And now two covers for Exit West by Mohsin Hamid — first the cover for the UK edition designed by Richard Bravery (Hamish Hamilton / March 2017):

And the cover of the US edition designed by Rachel Willey (Riverhead / March 2017):

The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler; design by Allison Saltzman (Ecco / March 2017)

Jerzy by Jerome Charyn; design by Alban Fischer (Bellevue Literary Press / March 2017)

Little Nothing by Marisa Silver; design by James Paul Jones (Oneworld / March 2017)

Rachel Willey’s cover design for the US edition of Little Nothing published by Blue Rider Press was part of my September 2016 round-up.

The Name of the Game is Kidnapping by Keigo Higashino; design by Janet Hansen (Vertical / February 2017)

Narcissism for Beginners by Martin McDonagh; design by Tree Abraham (Cornerstone / March 2017)

Next Year for Sure by Zoey Leigh Peterson; design by Jaya Miceli; cover art by Jarek Puczel (Scribner / March 2017)

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul; design by C.S. Richardson (Doubleday Canada / March 2017)

One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel; design Thomas Colligan (Scribner / March 2017)

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen; design by Joan Wong (Wendy Lamb Books / February 2017)

Our Short History by Lauren Grodstein; design by Olga Grlic (Algonquin / March 2017)

Standard Hollywood Depravity by Adam Christopher; design by Will Staehle (Tor Books / March 2017)

Swimmer Among the Stars by Kanishk Tharoor; design by Tyler Comrie (Farrar, Straus and Giroux / March 2017)

I believe the cover of the UK edition, published next month by Pan Macmillan, was designed by Justine Anweiler:

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See; design by Lauren-Peters-Collaer (Scribner / March 2017)

The Zoo of the New edited by Nick Laird & Don Paterson; design by Richard Green (Particular Books / March 2017)

March 4, 2017
by Dan
1 Comment

40 Years of 2000AD

The Guardian looks back on 40 years of British weekly SF comic 2000AD:

Forty years ago on 26 February, something extraordinary happened to British comics. Newsagents’ shelves were suddenly stuffed with a brand new title, its masthead garish red and yellow, with an enticing plastic “Space Spinner” taped to the front. “In orbit every Saturday,” the front proclaimed, “for a low price: 8p Earth Money.” 2000AD had landed.

It’s not, strictly, correct to say the world had seen nothing like 2000AD before. A few months earlier, in October 1976, a title put out by the same publishers, IPC, had died an ignominious death. Action was stuffed to the gills with anti-authoritarianism, ultraviolence and gore. Hugely popular with kids, especially boys, it proved too unpalatable for the nation’s moral guardians. Questions were asked in the House, tabloids fulminated against its bloody violence.

The final issue of Action was pulped before it made it to the newsagents. But its successor was already in the works, from the writer/editor who had created Action: Pat Mills.

In Action, Mills had freely taken inspiration from 1970s popular culture, riffing on Muhammad Ali, Jaws and football hooligans. The new wave of science-fiction blockbusters – Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind – gave him a brainwave.

“I felt, in a way, that science fiction could escape the heavy flak we had got with Action,” says Mills, who now lives in Spain. “With Action, the message was loud and clear because most of it was set in what was the present time. With 2000AD, we could do the same sort of thing but if anyone complained we could say, ‘Look, it’s just some robots in the future.’”

For better or worse, 2000AD was pretty formative for me growing up, although probably less for its best known character Judge Dredd, than for things like Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill’s bonkers Nemesis the Warlock, Halo Jones and Dr. and Quinch (also bonkers) scripted by Alan Moore, and artist Simon Bisley’s (bonkers) Heavy-Metalesque run on Pat Mill’s Celtic barbarian fantasy Sláine, which were all dark, violent, complicated and, needless to say, extraordinary for a weekly ‘kids’ comic. I don’t know how many of those stories hold up now. At the time they felt subversive, even a little illicit. But then they do say the Golden Age of science fiction is 12.   

I’m not quite old enough to remember Action, 2000AD‘s direct predecessor, but The Guardian also published a piece last year on its 40th anniversary: 

One remarkable thing about Action was that it was tacitly aimed at working-class children.

“The only time we saw working-class characters they were sidekicks, like Digby in Dan Dare, or they were figures of fun,” [Pat] Mills says. “Even Alf Tupper, the Tough of the Track, was presented as this odd character who trained for his races in his pit boots and ate fish and chips as soon as he crossed the finishing line.

“Kids got what we were trying to do immediately. There was this whole culture of punk, of James Herbert books such as The Rats, of Richard Allen’s Skinhead novels … It was all edgy and different, and Action was definitely a part of that.”

Despite that, says Mills, the team putting together Action always had “a definite moral compass”. He says: “We weren’t saying, ‘Go and pick a fight on the terraces’, but we were showing that sort of thing happened, as kids already knew.”

March 3, 2017
by Dan
1 Comment


Modern Toss

(This is a little too close to the bone)

March 3, 2017
by Dan

ABCD Award Winners 2017

The winners of the annual Academy of British Cover Design (ABCD) Awards were announced at a glittering ceremony London in last night. The dashing Danny Arter has a posted a full report on the proceedings at The Bookseller. You can see all the winning covers below… 

Young Adult

The Memory Book by Lara Avery; design by Sinem Erkas (Quercus / January 2017)


Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente; design & illustration by Nathan Burton (Corsair / August 2016)


The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman; design by Jack Smyth (Little, Brown / April 2016)

Series Design

Vintage Virginia Woolf; design by Suzanne Dean; illustration by Aino-Maija Metsola (Vintage / October 2016)


The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier; design Jamie Keenan (Virago / October 2016)


The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne & illustrated by Oliver Jeffers; design by Dominica Clements; illustration by Oliver Jeffers (Doubleday / October 2016)

Women’s Fiction

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler; design by Kris Potter (Hogarth / June 2016)

Literary Fiction

The Start of Something by Stuart Dybek; design Suzanne Dean; cover art by Marion de Man (Jonathan Cape / November 2016) 


Maestra by L.S. Hilton; design by Blacksheep (Zaffre Publishing / March 2016)

Mass Market

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman; design by Jack Smyth (Little, Brown / May 2016)

All of this year’s shortlisted covers can be found on the ABCD website. Last year’s winning covers can be seen here; the 2015 winners here

February 28, 2017
by Dan

Back to Futura

Vox takes a lighthearted look at the history of Futura, “the font that escaped the Nazis and landed on the moon”: 

February 27, 2017
by Dan

The Rise of Roxane Gay

At Brooklyn magazineMolly McArdle profiles Roxane Gay, author of An Untamed State, Bad Feminist and, most recently, Difficult Women

“What more could I say that I haven’t already said?” Gay asks in an conversation about publishing and diversity we had via email last year. Though the industry-wide dialogue has in many ways gotten stuck (as a lot of things that benefit white people do)—mired by a lack of willingness to do the work, commit the resources—Gay’s own efforts changed the terms of the discussion.

“She’s given us a wonderful model,” Saeed Jones says over the phone. “She could just be a great writer, that would be more than enough, but she’s gone beyond that,” he explains. “She’s showing us how to navigate difficult online spaces. She’s editing and championing people.”

He knows from experience. In 2012 Gay edited Jones’s essay “How Men Fight for Their Lives” for The Rumpus, which became the germ (and the title) for the memoir he’s now working on. “When people read that essay and feel surprised or moved by the candor or the vulnerability, it’s because Roxane made me feel safe,” Jones explains. She went on to invite him to contribute to a special issue of Guernicaa piece that became part of his award-winning debut collection of poetry, Prelude to Bruise. They’ve since shared the stage several times, most recently in front of a sold out audience at the 92nd Street Y this February. “Roxane is the kind of editor who says, ‘You are doing something important. Keep doing it.’ For writers particularly interested in examining gender, the body, power, race, identity—that is an essential and all too rare experience. There are not too many people out there you can trust. With Roxane,” he says, “people feel like themselves.”

February 23, 2017
by Dan

Alan Aldridge 1943-2017

British artist and designer Alan Aldridge died last week aged 73. In the words of designer Mike Dempsey, Aldridge “was a major influence on the British design and illustration scene in the 1960’s.” Although he is perhaps best known for his work for The Beatles, The Who and Elton John (not to mention his infamous poster for Andy Warhol’s film Chelsea Girls) it began, Dempsey notes, “with his controversial post as fiction art director of Penguin Books in 1965 where he challenged the status quo, upsetting many on the way.”

The Guardian obituary explains how Aldridge got his start in design:  

Sheer chutzpah won him his first job at a design agency, where he passed off his girlfriend’s portfolio of work as his own and was hired for £3 a week. “I blag beautifully,” as he put it. When he turned up to work the following Monday and was told to wear a suit, he went to Bethnal Green baths and stole one.

He drew portraits in his spare time, and as news of his abilities spread, he was recruited as a trainee by Germano Facetti, the art director at Penguin Books. Aldridge worked his way up to designing book covers, then was offered a job as a junior visualiser at the Sunday Times. The paper had the UK’s first colour supplement, offering new opportunities in design and photography that Aldridge was keen to exploit.

His most memorable contribution was his transformation of a Mini into a four-wheeled work of art, handpainted by Aldridge in a hectic 24-hour session. It was the magazine’s cover image in October 1965, with the title Automania. Meanwhile he had still been creating covers for Penguin, and was lured away from the Sunday Times to become Penguin’s fiction art director. Aldridge set about creating a radical, freewheeling new look for Penguin’s catalogue.

Aldridge talked more about this unorthodox beginning in this video:

My introduction to Aldridge was the revised 1971 edition of The Penguin Book of Comics, the book he conceived with George Perry (the cover of the first edition, originally published in 1967, is pictured above). I found it on the shelf in my grandparents house and pored over the pages of reproduced art. The book was my first introduction to American comics, and the idea that comics could be taken (somewhat) seriously. I found Aldridge’s illustrations, which also appear throughout the book, confusing and fascinating in equal measure. I know they reminded me of Heinz Edelmann’s art for Yellow Submarine — I think for a while I assumed they were by the same person — but you can read about Aldridge’s own work with The Beatles in this 2005 article from Eye Magazine

Aldridge refused to call himself an artist, illustrator, or designer. Instead he was a self-styled ‘graphic entertainer’, a precursor of today’s designer-entrepreneur, who had created a moderately successful product called ‘Put-Ons’, tattoo skin transfers. He was also always pitching projects that could turn a profit. He even convinced Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan’s manager, to produce a book of Dylan lyrics. But when Sgt. Pepper’s was released in 1967, Aldridge had an idea that promised surefire success.

‘I noticed the initials of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ spelled LSD and decided that it would be fun to explore visually the hidden meaning in the Pepper’s lyrics. I called Paul (who I’d never met, but had his home phone number) and said I’d like to interview him [about this], and much to my amazement he not only said yes, he said let’s do it now and come right away to his house in St John’s Wood. You don’t argue with an edict like that.’ The interview and accompanying illustrations appeared in 1967 in The Observer under the headline: ‘A Good Guru’s Guide to the Beatles Sinister Songbook.’ Bags of fan mail rapidly followed. ‘It didn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that I was on to something. So I pitched a dummy of the book, The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics, which had three or four spreads of illustrated lyrics, to Peter Brown (Beatle manager Brian Epstein’s partner for many years) at Apple. The book would have all the lyrics from ‘Love Me Do’ to ‘A Day In The Life’ illustrated by famous artists; I think I even mentioned getting Picasso, Dali and Magritte! Peter showed the layouts to John and Paul and got the boys’ okay.’

Having Lennon and McCartney’s sanction, however, did not mean Aldridge instantly nailed the book. He still had to present the project to Dick James, owner of Northern Songs, which published and co-owned the Lennon / McCartney lyrics. ‘Dick liked what he saw, then curve-balled me,’ Aldridge winces. ‘An American publisher had come to him with a similar deal, and had offered a lot of money, but since I had the boys’ okay he’d give me two weeks to get a publishing deal that gave him an advance of £20,000, a huge sum in 1968.’ For a week, Aldridge phoned every publishing house in London and New York, explaining the urgency. He was, however, turned down by everyone. ‘Not because of the large advance, but because they all thought the Beatle phenomena wouldn’t last another year.’

The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes: The Art of Alan Aldridge, a catalogue of Aldridge’s work, is available from Abrams.

February 22, 2017
by Dan

Dick Bruna 1927-2017

Dutch illustrator and designer Dick Bruna died last week, aged 89. Much of the coverage has focused on Miffy, the picture book rabbit he created in the 1950’s, but as The Guardian obituary notes, he was also well known as a book cover designer:

Bruna was born in Utrecht, the son of Johanna Erdbrink and Albert Bruna, and the intention was that he should join the family publishing firm, AW Bruna & Zoon. But Bruna, having been sent to Paris and London to learn about publishing and bookselling, including a brief spell working for WH Smith, opted instead to train as a graphic designer. He had been a keen artist throughout his childhood, especially during the second world war years, when his family lived in the Dutch countryside and he did not go to school, educating himself instead by studying the art of Rembrandt and Van Gogh.

He studied briefly at art school in Amsterdam for six months before leaving to join the family firm in 1951. There he worked as a designer and illustrator, creating more than 100 posters and 2,000 book jackets, including, most famously and distinctively, the covers for Georges Simenon’s Maigret titles in the 1960s, with a black pipe superimposed on a variety of backgrounds.

And as obituary in New York Times makes clear, the flat minimalism of Miffy and his design work is very much part of a graphic tradition in Dutch art and design:  

Mr. Bruna never became the fine artist he had originally wanted to be, but his work has nevertheless been recognized as part of the Dutch canon of art and design.

“Bruna very much continues a Dutch tradition which we call the ‘klare lijn’ — you could translate it as the clear line, or you could just call it simplicity,” said Taco Dibbits, director of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which in 2015 organized an exhibition devoted to a half-century of Mr. Bruna’s art and graphic designs. “You see that’s he’s part of a tradition going from Pieter Saenredam through Vermeer to Mondrian.”

During his time in Paris, Mr. Bruna was influenced by the bold lines and two-dimensionality of Henri Matisse and Fernand Léger, Mr. Dibbits said. He also used primary colors and clear lines favored by members of the Dutch de Stijl movement, a pared-down, abstract aesthetic heralded by artists like Mondrian and the designer Gerrit Rietveld.

“He eliminates anything that’s not essential from the face of this little rabbit until it’s really reduced to the absolute minimum,” Mr. Dibbits said. “And he does the same for the text of his children’s books. He uses a language that’s not simple or stupid, but he reduces to the bare essentials.”

You can find an incredible collection of Bruna’s book covers (over 3,000 of them!) here (via Present & Correct). I’m particularly fond of his De Schaduw covers for Havank:

February 16, 2017
by Dan

Bookstores Embrace Protest

At the New York Times, Julie Bosman looks at how American bookstores have become hubs of resistance: 

Political organizing is perhaps a natural extension of what bookstores have done for centuries: foster discussion, provide access to history and literature, host writers and intellectuals.

“All bookstores are mission-driven to some degree — their mission is to inspire and inform, and educate if possible,” said Elaine Katzenberger, publisher and executive director of City Lights in San Francisco, a store with a long history of left-wing activism.

“When Trump was elected, everyone was just walking around saying: ‘What do I do. What do we do?’” she added. “One of the places you might find some answers is in books, in histories, in current events, even poetry.”

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