Somehow I continue to get drawn to existential narratives, both in film and in print… Must be a sign of impending middle age? Regardless of where this curious preference comes from, it’s been fully embraced as long as it keeps suggesting or inspiring interesting imagery.
Here is a reimagining of the book cover design and illustration for one of Albert Camus’ timeless classics.
“[…] Most important is always to have a play back and forth, back and forth. Between the big and the little, the light and the dark, the smiling and the sad, the serious and the comic.“—BEN SHAHN
Had been wanting to design a book cover for Roland Topor‘s classic novel The Tenant for a long time, and finally buckled down to tackle it. A macabre, darkly funny tale of paranoia and existential angst, it was popularized here in the US by Roman Polanski’s 1976 film adaptation.
It has been a while since I’ve written something here, so please bare with me—my words might come out a little bit ruffled and/or rusty.
Having said this, hopefully it won’t be true of the new set of drawings I’ve been working on.
These were not commissioned, but actually started life last summer in my sketchbook as small experiments with visual puns and playful graphic shapes. The ideas that came out also reflected my current preoccupation with direct, bold visual storytelling through accessible metaphors—all peppered with tongue-in-cheek humor.
Humor is an element in my work that I’ve mostly tried to downplay or even suppress for several years, likely for fear of coming across as “not serious enough” as an artist or visual communicator. Of course this was probably never an issue for many of my heroes, Tomi Ungerer, Saul Steinberg, and Quino among them—all artists that proved that graphic humor can be infused with poetry and wit, while still tackling “serious” subjects; such as the tumults of daily life and their often inevitable existential challenges.
So, deciding to let the tone of the new ideas evolve naturally—and after telling my inner critic to go peruse some vintage cartoon books—the vehicle for the humor (and target of my admittedly twisted imagination) soon appeared trough the ballpoint haze…
Like any other New Yorker, I find myself staring at subway posters while I wait for my commuting train. Without getting preachy and seeming hypocritical, I often get baffled by modern advertising and its vacuous promises of ever-lasting bliss with products that often can barely fulfill their own intended function. Most crucially, there’s the underlying suggestion that the more we acquire or consume, the happier we could (or should) be, which of course rarely is (if ever) true.
Most of us are aware of this. And yet these glossy, pitch-perfect ads that seem to be concocted in a parallel but seemingly faultless world keep luring us into dispensing with our hard-earned cash, in exchange for some ever-elusive nugget of happiness that we’re apparently (inexplicably!) deprived of.
It’s a trap we can’t help but fall into, whether we’re aware of it or not. It poses an interesting conundrum, as well as certain questions of identity and self-contentment. Fitting fodder for the pseudo-ads and aforementioned visual puns that started emerging from my sketchbook—some of them reproduced here in their rawest form.
On a more technical note, I wanted to experiment with two-tone graphics—usually letting the second color highlight the emotional or conceptual aspects of each piece, while playing with the visual balance of the colors (and I certainly think of black as a color) on the page.
Another interesting but enticing challenge was to find ways to add visual variety and expression with that limited palette, and that’s where mark-making and texturing became essential ingredients in each drawing.
Making these images also reminded me of an important lesson that’s surely old hat to many seasoned creatives: let your work breathe and grow without trying to control its direction too much. The more you play and listen to your intuition, the more the outcome will surprise you.
As of this writing, I’m not sure whether there will be more pieces added to this series, but—as a whole—I consider them a breakthrough of sorts. They allowed my “funny bone” to resurface, and hinted at other directions to pursue.
Halloween aftermath/welcome to November: For the past two weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with long-time friend Jesse Paris Smith and her fantastic New York-via-Michigan band Belle Ghoul. They specialize in spectral, lush, sugary pop, having recently released an EP of their own compositions through Elefant Records, as well as a smattering of singles, self-released tracks, and covers.
Jesse asked me to come up with artwork to accompany and promote their online-only/free-downloadable take on the Zombies classic Care of Cell 44—she said they were looking for a visual that was “sweet but spooky”. In case you’re not familiar with this little gem of 1960s British pop, Care of Cell 44 is written as a tender letter from a narrator who’s anxious to see his lover, after she’s completed an extended jail sentence for an unspecified crime.
These are some of the cover designs I worked on recently for a series of science fiction novels by Irish author Ian McDonald. These novels have just being released today, in e-book form, from Open Road Integrated Media (for whom I also did other cover designs, blogged here a few weeks ago).
Most of these books appeared originally in printed form sometime between the late ’80s and early ’90s. Going by the detailed briefs the art director sent me, I got the sense that these are imaginative, unsettling novels with layered narratives that deal with political and moral issues; as much as they are time-warped fables populated by improbable, somewhat tormented characters.
A few months ago, I was contacted by Open Road Integrated Media—a New York-based digital publisher and multimedia content company—to design and illustrate some covers for e-books by two well-established fantasy and science fiction authors.
Four of these books, which were originally published in printed form in the 1980s, were written by Jane Yolen; a prolific wordsmith with scores of eclectic narratives and multiple accolades to her credit, including the Nebula and World Fantasy awards, as well as the Caldecott Medal.
It was a refreshing challenge to work on these covers, since I knew very little about science fiction and fantasy before this assignment came along. Being an avid comics reader while I was growing up, I became familiar with the work of some esteemed illustrators of the sword & sorcery genre like Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo, and I even had some exposure to the spaceships and Martians of Frank Kelly Freas (who I knew through his terrific covers and ad parodies for some 1960s issues of MAD Magazine that my dad had). However, these fleeting acquaintances came only through the casual overlapping of these artists with the world of word bubbles and leaping superheroes.