Super Spy (review: 3.5/5)

Super Spy
I picked up Super Spy at the Decatur Book Festival last month. I was talking with the guys at the Top Shelf Comics booth, asking them to steer me away from ennui and towards something a bit more exciting. This was their pick of the pile, on the genre fiction side of the spectrum. Matt Kindt‘s book is a spy novel.

It story starts off really well, and then settled down to a comfortable “good.” The different chapters jump around in time, changing focus among a cast of characters whose stories intertwine. The pace of the storytelling is very quick. People you get to know in 4 or 5 panels are dispatched a page or two later. I don’t think I spoil much by saying it happens a lot. Lots of dispatching. Or that’s how it seemed when I was reading.

The art gave me pause for a second, but grew on me. It’s not super-realistic or refined, but more slashy and dramatic, lots of contrast and rough edges and changes in perspective. It’s a muted palette throughout. The design of the book is pretty cool. Each chapter is a dossier and the space behind the panels is colored to look like a worn folder. In one scene, a death in the panels is underscored with blood spatter in the gutters:

excerpt from Matt Kindt's book, Super Spy

Nice detail there. The whole thing is worth a look. Here are some sample pages from Super Spy.

Things I’ve Learned from Women Who’ve Dumped Me (review: 2/5)

things i've learned from women who've dumped me
I wanted this to be better. It starts off well, introduced by Nick Hornby. With a few exceptions, most of the other 40-something essays in the book didn’t do much for me.

Rodney Rothman‘s piece—“I Still Like Jessica”—is probably my favorite. It’s a transcript of an interview with an old sweetheart (hear the interview and see an animated version of “I Still Like Jessica”!). Perhaps I liked it because it’s the most real and clumsy, and makes the fewest overt, Sedarian attempts at being funny, and is therefore actually funny. (Disclaimer: my struggles with humorous writing are well-documented.)

I really liked one of David Rees’ lessons about life and love in “Get Dumped Before It Matters”:

1. The fact that you mope around your “home office,” sighing and scratching the five o’clock shadow spilling down your neck, while you “work on your screenplay in your mind,” wearing sweatpants on a Wednesday afternoon, does not mean you are a tortured creative genius. It means you are a LOSER. If you’re old enough to drive, you may no longer wear pants with drawstrings—even if they are your “dressy sweatpants.” Look respectable for your woman, even while she’s at work. It will comfort her to know you are wearing a belt.

Dan Vebber‘s “Sex Is the Most Stressful Thing in the History of the Universe” is good, as is Andy Richter’s “Girls Don’t Make Passes at Boys with Fat Asses.” The context isn’t that relevant, but I can relate to Richter here:

There were moments in my childhood where a preternatural maturity rose up in me, where the Future Me would seem to pop through to the surface and say, “Hold on, wait a minute, what’s going on here is fucked up.”

Tom Shillue ponders the benefits of the ambiguous relationship in “Eggs Must Be Broken…”

Happy Fake Marriage -> Callous Behavior -> Half Apology -> D?©tente

And Paul Simms‘ “I’m Easy” is a funny and all-too-familiar look at crushing at first sight. And how it elevates and and destroys your hopes and dreams over and over again.

Marcellus Hall‘s “The Sorrows of Young Walter, or The Lessons of a Cyclical Heart” is also good:

the sorrows of young walter by marcellus hall

I’ve picked the best parts of the book for you. Skip the rest.

The Back of the Napkin (review: 3.5/5)

The Back of the Napkin
Dan Roam does a pretty good job with this one: The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures. One of Roam’s main arguments (sometimes belabored) is that we were all comfortable drawing when we were in kindergarten. Somehow we got frigid. We play visually dumb. We don’t need to.

Visual thinking is neglected, but luckily we’re hard-wired for it. When we see things, we instinctively begin to sort out the essentials and answer a few questions. We can’t help it:

  • who/what?
  • how much/many?
  • when?
  • where?
  • how?
  • why?

Visual thinking borrows from that natural process a bit more intentionally. It starts with looking (collecting & screening data), seeing (selecting & grouping), then imagining (reconfiguring, manipulating, analogizing), and finally showing (cleaning up, putting it all together). And, hey, what do you know… according to Roam’s model, the ways we see things and the questions we need to answer match up directly with the tools we have to show things:

  • who/what? = portraits
  • how much/many? = charts
  • when? = timelines
  • where? = maps
  • how? = flowcharts
  • why? = multi-variable plots

That’s one of the basic insights that’s really nice to be reminded of. We have specific tools to answer specific questions. Roam also has the SQVID, a framework that helps you figure out how to present the information in the most appropriate way for the intended audience, tracing your way through 5 choices:

Simple vs. elaborate
Quality vs. quantity
Vision vs. execution
Individual attributes vs. comparison
Delta (change) vs. status quo

And when you cross-reference the SQVID with the model, you get a codex that guides you to whatever pictures you need to make for the problems you need to solve. The acronyms and frameworks sound a bit confusing outside of the book, but Roam ties it together pretty nicely with lots of visuals throughout. And it’s actually kind of… practical. That doesn’t mean that the products of visual thinking are guaranteed to be easy or simple, no more than writing or talking about the ideas would be:

One of the most important virtues of visual thinking is its ability to clarify things so that the complex can be better understood, but that does not mean that all good visual thinking is about simplification. The real goal of visual thinking is to make the complex understandable by making it visible—not by making it simple.

An obvious weakness for the book: it’s really hard to learn something like this from a book. You can learn about it. But it’s one of those things that you have to DO, and more examples are always helpful. The long case study that takes up the last 40% of the book lets you see the different frameworks in action, but it’s also kind of boring to read about the same fictional software company and its fictional competitors and fictional customers for 100 pages. I imagine this was a tough part of the book to write as well.

I’d still recommend it. Heaven knows it’s refreshingly different from most of the other books in the business section, and there’s some real meat in there.

Austin Kleon found the Gerd Arntz Web Archive, dedicated to the work of the German designer:

Otto Neurath had developed a method to communicate complex information on society, economy and politics in simple images. For his ‘Vienna method of visual statistics’, he needed a designer who could make elementary signs, pictograms that could summarize a subject at a glance.

Arntz’s clear-cut style suited Neurath’s goals perfectly, and so he invited the young artist to come to Vienna in 1928, and work on further developing his method, later known as ISOTYPE, International System Of TYpographic Picture Education. During his career, Arntz designed around 4000 different pictograms and abstracted illustrations for this system.

“Holy crap!” indeed.

Gemma Bovery (review: 4/5)

Posy Simmonds originally wrote Gemma Bovery as a 100+ episode serial in The Guardian. The story is told with a cool mix of comics panels, splash illustrations, big chunks of text. It all mixes in together.
excerpt from Gemma Bovery

The narrator is a baker living in Normandy, who becomes obsessed with Gemma’s adultery as it happens and as it’s later revealed in her diaries. The story pokes a lot of fun at the stereotypes of the English and the French, and the absurdities of middle-class escapism. It’s dark, but not cynical. A lot of fun even though the impending doom is spelled out in the first page (and in its inspiration, Madame Bovary). There are some more samples on the publisher’s website.

Here’s a funny bit from an interview with Simmonds in the Comics Journal:

I would ask lots of French people, “Tell me the eight or 10 best things about France and then the things you like best about England.” They’d enthuse about le vin [wine], le fromage [cheese], le paysage [landscape], the fashion, the food, the roads, the culture, etc. in France… and when they got to England they would go, “Err, whiskey,” and they’d think very hard and go, “Harrods,” or they’d go, “London taxis,” and someone said, “Scaffolding, your scaffolding’s very good.”

Der Weg der Menschen (review: 3/5)

Frans Masereel’s book first appeared in 1964 under the title “Route des Hommes.” The 60 woodcuts in this book came forty years after the others I reviewed. From what I can piece together from the French and German sources that I can’t read, I think maybe it was connected with of some kind of exhibition or retrospective. Who knows.
The style is much more loose and slashing, not quite as tidy as the earlier works. Taking on a larger, broader story, the panels also become more thematic. There’s a lot more abstract icons embedded in the pictures. Panels are less explicitly connected to the ones on the previous pages. Characters don’t really carry over from scene to scene, but the ideas accrete and overlap over a series of page turns.

[update: images removed for copyright complaint from Verwertungsgesellschaft Bild-Kunst. so it goes.]

Here’s the opening, with its huddled masses:
Later we get to the expressionist bits.
Sturm und drang. I love this one.
Masereel’s omnipresent, beckoning sun.
A rare pastoral scene.
The space age.

I’m out of Masereel books now, so this is the end of the Masereel Appreciation Festival. Previous installments included a tidbit from L’Idee, Masereel in Film, and selections from Die Stadt and Die Sonne.

Frans Masereel in Film

As I continue the Frans Masereel Appreciation Week Festival, here’s an animated film adaptation of L’Idee. Berthold Bartosch had Frans Masereel’s help on the film for some of the two years he spent working on it. The end result is almost a half-hour long, and though it starts a bit slowly, there are some legitimately cool effects considering the crude tools available in 1930.
A couple other bonus points: the movie was scored by Arthur Honegger (who’s best known for Pacific 231), and the soundtrack features an ondes martenot—possibly the first-ever use of an electronic instrument in film.

According to that first link, Bright Lights After Dark, Masereel’s work in Die Stadt (my brief review of Die Stadt) was also a big influence on Walter Ruttmann‘s hour-long silent film Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Gro?üstadt. More about Die Sinfonie at Wikipedia and shorter clips available on YouTube.

Die Stadt (review: 3.5/5)

Another set of woodcuts from Frans Masereel (last Friday I took a look at Die Sonne). Die Stadt was first published in 1925. The impressions of war-torn Europe cover the range of everyday life: the birth of a child, a man with a prostitute, parents with their children, medical students at the morgue, street scenes both peaceful and violent. They are almost all dense with the detail and distractions that cities offer. You can see the full set of images from Die Stadt at Graphic Witness. These are some of the woodcuts that I particularly enjoyed…
[update: images removed due to copyright complaint from from Verwertungsgesellschaft Bild-Kunst. no more free publicity—good luck finding it]

If you look at this image in the original size, you can see the faces of the men walking about. With just a few cuts here and there, he managed to make them unique with mustaches, beards, long noses, weak chins. Most of them are in profile, which probably helps.

I like the perspective in this one, monstrous city receding but growing taller.

Different architecture for each walk-up. Sunlight filtering through the trees.

This one is probably my favorite overall. A slight curve in the edges gives this incredible softness to her skin and clothing. Really amazing.

Die Sonne (review: 4/5)

A man chases the sun through city, sky, and sea in this wordless story by Frans Masereel. Here’s my favorite sequence from Die Sonne:
[update: images removed due to copyright complaint from Verwertungsgesellschaft Bild-Kunst. no more free publicity—you’ll have to trust me that it’s worth your time]

Take a look at some other woodcuts from Die Sonne. This is the first of four Masereel books that I recently picked up at the Emory library. I’m sure I’ll enjoy the others over the next week or two.

Clyde Fans: Book One (review: 5/5)

Clyde Fans: Book One, by the cartoonist Seth, is split into two halves. Each half tracks the memories and relationship between two brothers, both of whom worked for the family business, the Clyde Fans Company.
In the first section, set in 1997, we see the older Abraham walks from room to room in the old Clyde Fans storefront. Abraham keeps a constant monologue. As the only speaker in the first section, and perhaps the only family member remaining, he’s both narrator and the only repository of family history. Abraham reminisces as he wanders throughout the old building telling old jokes or digging up old stories—as you might daydream through your own past, stopping every now and then to pick up a memory and turn it in the light before you move on to another. Although he controls the story, he leaves the building only briefly.

Like Abraham’s nostalgia, Simon’s memory has him trapped, too. The second section rolls back 40 years to follow an anxious Simon, finally given a chance as a company salesman. His narrative, following him as he hoofs it from place to place with display sample in tow, always circles back to his memories: the high expectations of his brother, brush-offs from failed sales calls. The combination of his recurring flashbacks, his obsessive recall of failure, and his own expectations cripple him.

Beyond Seth’s good writing is the attention to detail that helps you trust his writing in the first place. It’s the subtle attention that wins you over. Take a look at this image from the first page. You can see the stars high up in the sky, and as in real life, the lights from the street make it hard to see stars closer to the horizon. There’s that band of darkness that shifts into a field of stars:

night city scene from Clyde Fans: Book One

And further into the first part of the book, there’s a stream of water from a faucet. Seth illustrates that sweet spot of water flow. At a certain water pressure, the flow is slow enough to not be forceful and straight, but fast enough that it escapes from the thin trickle. Seth draws that exact moment that makes the cool spiraling, helical column:

bathroom scene from Clyde Fans: Book One

And the faucet handles even have shadows playing on the tub. Seth drafts some great architecture throughout the book. There are the cityscapes and building snapshots to make the setting, of course. But like the faucet shadows, in the interior scenes you can find all sorts of little details that make the time and place come alive, like molding at the joins of floor and ceiling, or wainscoting, or the floor tiles that aren’t standard squares, but octagons with little diamonds between them. And shadows, always wonderful soft shadows falling and bending together.

The worthy detail makes it happen. When you can trust the writer as an observer, you can trust them as a storyteller that much more. You don’t have to draw or write every detail—Seth leaves out a lot—but a few well-chosen particulars make the rest of the story that much more compelling.