10 GOREY DETAILS

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The Strange Case of Edward Gorey by Alexander Theroux is a 166 page book filled with notes, comments and stories about the oddball illustrator. The book isn’t interested in mapping our a straight narrative – most biographies are, but Theroux is satisfied with filling his pages with piles of oddities. No need for “Edward Gorey was born in …” jumps right into the good stuff. Here are a few of my favorite tidbits, along with images taken from the Gorey household after his passing in 2000.

1 – He bought a satellite dish for his roof to get hundreds of channels on his television set. “I’m a gadabout. I love having The X-Files on tape and stuff. The Golden Girls may have fallen off a bit, but they’re still marvelous. I tend to think that television movies tend to be better than regular movies.”

2 – Gorey never married. “I have never been emotionally involved with anyone.”

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3 – “My favorite thriller of all time is The Lady Vanishes,” Gorey once pronounced with finality. He agreed with me that Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique was the most “terrifying movie of all time,”   and he insisted that every director plagiarized from it.

4 – He liked the way Humphrey Bogart said “Thursby” in The Big Sleep.

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5 – He was fond of Ian Fleming and the Bond books long before they became popular in the United States, and I believed joined in the peculiar if harmless habit Bond fanatics have in always sending cards to each other signed 007.

6 – He confessed to talking, during performances of Swan Lake, “little naps where the corps de ballet is thrashing through it and rushing about.” He once told me that he had seen 150 Nutcrackers, claiming that although he loathed that Christmas ballet, he had “just got in the habit.”

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7 – I Wanted to publish everything under a pseudonym from the very beginning,” Gorey told interviewer Robert Dahlin, “but everyone said, What for? And I couldn’t really explain why I wanted to. I still don’t know exactly, except that I think what you publish and what you are are two different things. I really don’t see that much connection.”

8 – Gorey’s stepmother from 1936 to 1952 was, curiously enough, Corinna Mura – the exotic looking guitar player cabaret-singer called Andrea who may be remembered for her vivid rendition of “La Marseillaise” in the classic movie, Casablanca in 1942.

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9 – I would have loved to have read one particular play that he wrote after college for the Poet’s Theater in 1952, part of an evening’s entertainment that quite prefigured his later work. It was called The Teddy Bear: a sinister play, and in it a stuffed Teddy bear strangles infants while their fat dopey parents gamble and play cards.

10 – The secret code to reach Gorey – one that he gave out to certain friends – was to call him, let it ring once, hang up, then call back. And he would almost always answer.

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RASL: COMICS REVIEW

RASL_Full_Crown_1.1“It would be so simple to split the world like an apple.”  – Nikola Tesla

Context: In 1991 Jeff Smith released the first issue of a black and white comic book serial called Bone. It was an impressive debut that found Smith, already fully formed, producing unique adventure comics in a notoriously terrible time in the medium’s history. Bone became one of the biggest success stories in comic book publishing, eventually reprinted in color by Disney and Scholastics. Four years after Bone’s 2004 finale, RASL is Jeff Smith’s follow up series.

Story: A scientist turned art thief (RASL) is thrown into an adventure story that involves him having to travel through different dimensions in order to steal priceless, original artwork. His crime spree stops short when he finds himself followed by an odd-looking salamander secret agent and a phantom mute girl. He is being hunted down because of a series of lost journals he has in his possession that once belonged to renegade scientist Nikola Tesla.

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Influences and background: Smith’s background is in animation, and he even owned his own small studio called Character Builders in 1993. He’s also cited an early university strip called “Thorn” and its tight daily deadline for 4 years as a good schooling for making comics. His influences are deeply rooted in older works including Carl Barks, Charles Schultz and more importantly, Walt Kelly’s Pogo.

Look and feel: Above everything else what really stands out and is a real joy to look at in a Jeff Smith book is the artwork, especially in the original black and white runs of his books (he often colors them afterwards in updated editions). Another surprising element from Smith is that he is one of the rare cartoonists still working in individual 32 page serial outputs.

RASL_Sal_Face_1_6RASL’s artwork pops with a real focused line holding a mix of gentle curves and geometric page layout designs. Clean, fast and crisp. His drawings are intelligent enough to avoid using the page as a poor man’s film camera all the while relishing in the medium’s ability to present an exaggerated, malleable, hyper reality.

His animation background becomes apparent in the pacing and overall rhythm of how he makes you travel the page … building up to moments, holding beats, distracting the eye and finally handing you the payoff.

He mostly works within a 6 tier panel grid as the foundation of his design, and then deviates from that when needed. This is traditional, conservative comics pages that rely on grounded storytelling instead of flashy layouts. Seems simple, but too few do it well, especially in adventure comics.

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Film noir & science fiction: The tone and mechanics behind RASL is drenched in film noir mannerisms, and to align itself with its ethos Smith presents the story to us through an unlikable (or at least at first, an unreliable) protagonist. A friend of mine recently boiled down the elements to a film noir story as being: A hotel room, a dame and a bottle. RASL has all three.

But any new work in that genre projects, whether you like it or not, a sense of self-consciousness. If done well, the result carries a sense of homage and nostalgia, and at its very worst it turns into parody. Smith is able to keep a tight focus on injecting the story with the right amount of respectable genre elements and at times even jumps into parody, which feels intentional.

So while the dialogue is sometimes a bit clunky, it all evens itself out nicely because of the drawings … that is to say his writing and cartooning are one and the same, he writes in images. And he’s one of the best doing that in adventure comics.

RASL_Sketch_Coffee_1In seeing some process work for RASL, one thing that stood out for me was his use of computer lettering. I think he is the only cartoonist I follow that does this.

Even tho the story was divided into fifteen single issues (often months apart) Smith didn’t hold back from anchoring the story arch with proper pacing and slowing things down between the action. It meant leaner issues if you read in in the singles (I read it back to back in the softcover editions) but more than anything, it’s this attention and dedication to slower moments that make it enjoyable and rewarding.

RASL_Full_Page_1Favorite page: Some of the best cartooning in the book is Smith recreating the mysterious, and possibly Tesla related Philadelphia experiment (this section does not fit in the mini history lessons mentioned in the critisism section). The sequence underlines the frightening results of dimension traveling, logistics of emerging in the wrong place, most notably in walls or structures. The page ends up that acting as an emotional reminder of what RASL is fighting to stop.

RASL_Hand_1Favorite panel: At a point where the dimensions are rubbing up against each other, strange things start to happen. Sums up RASL’s fun, surreal and adventurous tone.

Criticism: RASL’s narrative sets up a system that allows the story to jump from its main narrative to small history lessons taken from Nikola Tesla’s life. This often breaks a bit of the pacing. They didn’t bother me much other than the fact that the visual treatment of these sections are slightly different than the fiction portions; less cartoony, a bit stiffer and not as polished. I suspect this happened because of possible photo references, but it creates a subtle shift in the mood. And I’m not sure yet if this was intentional.

DVD RE-DESIGN: GUMMO

Really loving a film but really hating its DVD artwork is the motivation behind this series of unprompted DVD packaging redesigns, usually performed over the space of an average lunch break. Quick and fun. More nerding out here.

Gummo_1.1Gummo is full of fuzzy images, polaroid pictures, lost super 8 footage, staged 35mm dolly shots, crunchy audio, metal music and pop tunes.

It’s a bombastic first film from a 24 year old Harmony Korine that has tunnel vision focus – forget about conventional narrative structures, only keep the good parts you’ve filmed and put them together. It reminds me of John Zorn talking about his musical block structures (they both use a similar cue card system). Taking independent ideas and imposing that they fit as a whole. Stravinsky did the same – and the overall effect it has for me with Gummo is the feeling of a structure that allows for endless cinematic possibilities. Its best moments are when Korine indulges in mixing images with music. When I think of movie moments that have resonated with me, they are often telling a story with only those elements.

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A favorite scene of mine is the introduction of the main character, a boy Korine found in a Dunkin Donuts commercial. He has a new face – one I’ve never seen in cinema before. The camera swoops down and a perfectly placed metal song by Dragonaut crashes in to give the mood a sense of false empowerment. Two boys are driving their bikes around the neighborhood, their BMX’s crisscrossing as they methodically scan the area. On the prowl, looking for cats to kill with their BB guns. A perfect moment happens when the music and lyrics sync up with the smaller boy slightly turning at the camera and looking at the viewer.

Following in the footsteps of his mentor Werner Herzog, Korine also uses a mix of real actors and non actors. While he claims that 75% of the film was scripted, many scenes seem improvised. It’s as if he wants to set up situations with the non actors that will surprise him and capture genuine moments, on the spot. I’ve noticed that he will often introduce an element of tension in these exchanges, and that sometimes actors will look off screen, or at at the crew when pushed into corners they didn’t expect or don’t want to follow.

GummoA good example of this is when 2 brothers are filmed fighting. Even Kubrick, in a film like Barry Lyndon uses overly dramatic audio effects when designing the sound in fight scenes – in Gummo all is shot in one take, no sound manipulations.

Did it just happen, or were they instructed to start fighting? Was one brother told to start while the other was unaware – or does he seem to anticipate something when crossing his arms before it starts, to protect himself? The scene is one shot, no edits, real punches (one brother seems to look at the crew at one point to indicate that it’s possibly passed his level of comfort). “I’ve seen them fight each other way worse. I’ve known those brothers since I was a kid” – Korine. The result is of genuine tension, the camera getting closer when curious and moving back when afraid. 

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JACOB COVEY ON POPEYE BOOK DESIGN

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Martin: The overall global language constructed for the Popeye reprint Books seem pretty elaborate, what was the initial brief for the project?

Jacob Covey: The initial brief for the project was basically that my bosses love Popeye and they were keen to reprint the original strip in the best format possible.

Since the creator is long passed and the syndicate is more concerned with the creation as a “property” the only real client demand was pleasing my bosses. King Features was pretty remarkably hands-off. Maybe because Popeye hasn’t managed a great resurgence of popularity, they’re willing to just see what happens. I mean, nothing can be much worse than the (licensed) Reggae Popeye t-shirts I’ve seen.

Were you familiar with the original work before going in?

I wasn’t familiar. I had the common opinion that Popeye was just some repetitive cartoon about a guy who eats spinach and gets into fights over a skinny girl. After reading the first year of his appearance in comics Popeye became one of my all-time favorite characters. It’s really a genius strip. Brutal, hilarious, and totally lost in existential adventure.

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In the initial stages of brainstorming did the editors of Fantagraphics play a big role in helping mold the vision, or were you left on your own in planning things out? Do you have complete carte blanche on something like this, or do you (like many designers) crave and feed off creative restrictions?

That’s a smart question because I had carte blanche in a way but I sort of need restrictions in order to function. I find too much of celebrated contemporary design to be the work that’s most free of restrictions.

Even in school I’d open these magazines and find design-cum-Art that, for me, feels masturbatory [ugh, no pun intended] and meaningless to the content of the project. Meanwhile, the folks at Fantagraphics are totally removed from that world and design doesn’t mean a lot to them because their interest lies more in preserving work they see as important. Their vision is more archival than product-driven. So I end up looking for the restrictions. Asking for them.

In this case, the main priority was how to reprint all of the Sunday color pages and the daily black-and-white strips with the best presentation while also being within budget. So the editors broke apart the two formats within the book– basically creating a front section of 1c and a back section of 4c to save on costs. And then I had to find a way to give the book an overall feel that wouldn’t make this progression feel polarized, visually.

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As much as Popeye ends up intimidating others with his physicality, your book literally towers over its surrounding books on the shelf …it seems like one of the projects crucial decisions was the size, did the original newspaper context influence the size, why the need to go so big?

I’ve found that Kim Thompson (Fantagraphics’s co-owner) helps me a lot by giving me really intuitive direction then stepping back. Kim and Gary Groth (Fantagraphics’ founder) both knew they wanted a large format so the Sunday strips would be done justice. When I proposed the diecut smacked clean through the middle of the cover, that dictated the heft of the cover board and we had our final size.

And, as you pointed out, Popeye is about physicality and so this book is. That was important.

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Its size (multiple sections on a page) gives a unique view of something that was initially visually digested one strip at a time …do you think Segar made conscious design decisions when making the strips that would take under consideration what they would look like next to / on top of each other?

I’m not an expert but I very much doubt Segar imagined these strips being preserved in this way. Newspaper strips weren’t archived in those days (the ’20s and ’30s). Even in later decades as commercial packaging of comic strips became the norm, collected books were just picked-over versions of the strip and they never considered the ‘artistry’ of the storylines much less the format.

The strips were ephemera, meant to be digested and discarded in one sitting. Which is why half of each day’s strip is often taken up with reminding the viewer what happened the day before (except in Segar’s case he began to master making the strip stand on its own while also part of this arc).

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Your typographic decisions in the overall language is pretty eclectic and varied, serifs, sans serifs, slanted / italics different sizes … there are many different things happening but the overall rhythm is still one of refinement. Was there a need to modernize the application of type for the project, or was there a conscious decision to reference older typefaces in order to reflect and comment on its newspaper origins?

Hearing you say it, I realize that this same theme turns up often in my work. I think it’s rooted in an appreciation of the eccentricities born from the hands-on nature of past design but a desire not to make something that would have been done decades ago.

This book design is definitely meant to make the strip’s original context clear while expressing its relevance to a modern audience. While I would tone down something like Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, I want to emphasize the intensity and purity of Popeye using only colors mixed from 100% or exactly 50% of the press colors, CMYK.

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Was the main Popeye type header drawn especially for this project?

Trick question. It was inspired mostly by old Castle Films home movie titles but I did it in the computer, not by hand. In fairness to the creator, it’s a font called Samson. I have now destroyed the romance.

Along with its towering size, the punch out / die cut on the front cover visually sets the collection apart from many other books. Playing along with Popeye’s aggressive physical behavior, it seems so fitting to have the main typographic logo seen through a punched out cover …how did this come about?

Eric Reynolds is the third member of the Fantagraphics Royal Family and he was the first to see my comps and push for the diecut. I didn’t know if it was feasible to do– in fact I assumed it wasn’t feasible and presented the comp as a fake diecut, complete with a Photoshop drop shadow that I never would have followed through with using. Ultimately, that diecut is what most communicates the nature of Popeye and makes the series feel complete to me. He is aggressive and, poetically, his violent nature only reveals his core purity.

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One particular design decision that intrigues me is the act of cutting up the main image on the cover (which is repeated for Volume 2 and 3). It looks incredible, and (to me) oddly makes reference to films strips or movement, which is an odd link to a static medium …what are the reasons behind this cutting up? Was there a concern in distorting the original image, especially for the cover – does this end up saying anything about the attitude of these new reprints?

I put this down to an unconscious association with the cartoon, which has had a much more lasting cultural impact for good or bad. It seemed natural to break the image this way, even though it is completely contrary to the structure of a comic strip.

The entire concept was born from when I saw the image that ended up as the cover of Volume One, of Popeye in a boxing match swinging so blindly that he ends up K.O.ing himself as well as his opponent in a fight. It encapsulates everything that’s so charming about Popeye’s humanitarian-but-prideful nature. There is a self-destruction that happens when he lashes out at the source of his frustration.

And, of course, it’s just a fun look. It’s very pleasant to handle the book and that punched out cardboard feels like childhood adventure. I have a friend who keeps talking about the “mouthfeel” of food. These books probably even have that.

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The back of your book is beautifully dynamic – offering vertical and horizontal information and what HAS to be the most carefully considered bar code I’ve ever seen. It’s really raised the bar on how much care can be put in this subtle area of book design. Along with the small chapter dividing images it’s my favourite part of the design.

It means a lot to me to hear anyone noticing that back cover. Only you and Chris Ware have commented on it. I hope that means other people are responding to it. The way a viewer first experiences the book and how they later experience it is constantly on my mind. I want there to be little things to appreciate each time you pick up the book. There’s a lot more that design could be doing if we designers just had more time to focus on it.

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