Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Jacob Covey's Eye Poping Design Punches

Question: 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.

In the initial stages of brainstorming did the editors o
f 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.

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' 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.

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).

Do you think the rhythm of the work works better this way?

To be honest, I don't think any bound format could ever be as pleasant as reading each day's Segar strip in the paper. There's a lot to savor in those panels. I've tried to make myself read one strip a day from the book and I don't have the discipline.

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.

So, in short, I guess I'm saying that Popeye should be seen as the natural descendent of the Gutenberg Bible.

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 P
opeye’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.

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 n
ew 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 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.

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 favorite 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. I pursue that idea a bit with the content of my Beasts! books as well.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Brian Chippendale: Ninjas & Hilroy Scribbles

I’ve been wrestling with a recent visual trend, some of it appearing in my favorite comics anthology (Kramers Ergot) some local design work (Sid Lee) and gallery shows (Team Macho) that is best summed up by a friend who mentioned that “In the end, they are exposing work that reminds me of the stuff we used to do in high school on the covers of our Hilroy Notebooks”.

While a lack of technical mastery (ugliness) in and of itself isn’t a bad thing (an image can be powerful and hold deep evocative emotion without having to be “technically” masterful) it seems that there is a current momentum in comics that has cartoonists / illustrators revisiting childhood / teenage themes, tendencies and imagery. Filled with eighties television iconography, superhero comic book scribbles, Dungeons and Dragon puzzles, Atari and Nintendo ephemera ... why is there such a strong need to dip into nostalgia?

It seems that this impulse could have been a result and eventual backlash against the current mass acceptance of comics … a call to arms against pretentious independent / “alternative” cartooning work taking itself too seriously. A realization and need to inject a bit of the low-brow backpocket tendencies into the medium’s starving veins. While I like some of the work that could fit into this category, and understand the sporadic need for a jolt of fun once in a while, I can’t help but be puzzled with most of it and think that the (ironic or genuine) novelty of revisiting superficial childhood / high school references won’t be able to stand on its own for very long. Is this Hilroyian aesthetics a strong relevant stance against the snobbery and homogenization of comics into the fine artworld …or is it just a passing hipster trend that will leave us with a mass overload of retro superficial fluff?

After recently picking up Brian Chippendale’s massive (11 x 17) book called Ninja (published by PictureBox) I found it to be a good encapsulation of both what attracts me and puzzles me about these odd Hilroyian tendencies.

Much of it explodes with such a fever of colors and masterful layout design that it’s hard ignore its seductive aesthetic of quantity. The project is divided into strips he did when he was a kid about a ninja, filler one shot pages that seem like unconscious doodles one would do while talking on the phone and a fully realized (nonlinear) narrative that goes in and out of some of the most energized formal layout work I’ve seen in a long time ...

The childhood ninja stories and one pagers (below) are what puzzles me about the whole affair. The early ninja strips (17 pages worth) seem to make sense to be included as the origin of the book but don’t hold much beyond this novelty.

The one page pieces display the same gonzo blowout deconstruction of comics language that the full strips explore, but I can’t help but feel that their lack of conventional narrative end up making me flip through them pretty quickly, seeing their function as sub-quality textures and divisions between the “proper” work.

Dan Nadel (publisher): Can you summarize Ninja?

Chippendale: Not really.

A big pile of unrealized potential! Space unrealized! hahaha

Ok…lets see. Lots of characters in a city that is expanding population-wise. It started out with drawings I did when I was 11 or so about a ninja.—Ninja comics. Then 18 years later I continued it. Four years later here we are. I sort of have an underlying story with this Ninja character but that is maybe 20 of the 80 pages of comics. It is about tangents, because that is what life is about. It is about diagonal thinking. Character creation. Some adventures. Some standard comic book fare. It is a failed standard adventure comic. Half-visionary and half-reactionary. It’s about waking up and thinking about something different then you went to sleep thinking about. It touches on the idea of multiple cities existing in the same spot at once‚it’s loosely a Dune rip off, though not as overtly as like all of Jodorowsky’s stuff. It’s a pile of superficial ideas that accumulate a certain depth through density. Deep layers of superficiality.

The fully realized strips can’t but visually dazzle the reader by offering a multitude of different psychological landscapes and overcharge that ends up morphing and creating its own inner comics language. The chaos of the previous one page pieces is restricted and refined, offering context and relief to the otherwise (unreadable) anarchy.

As mentioned above by Chippendale the focus here doesn’t seem to be towards plot or character behavior. Instead, Ninja reaches forward in a fever dream of lines and markmaking that attempt, through the shear transcendence of QUANTITY to inject the medium with a jolt of excitement ... before *it’s all too late*.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Sammy Harkham's Wedding Night

Sammy Harkham’s Wedding Night (meticulously screenprinted by Jordan Crane) might seem, at first glance, to be an exercise in ghoulish violence - but the piece quickly flourishes with enticing sparks once its surface is scraped.

Living in it, from my point of view, are ideas and symbolic imagery that address the underlying rapture and violence inherent in a ritual that proceeds to kill the individual and embrace the unity of the new bond. Mythology expert Joseph Campbell puts it as “In marriage you are not sacrificing yourself to the other person, you are sacrificing yourself to the relationship”.

The alchemical reference of (virginal) blood, urine (semen?), and sweat recalls ritualistic elements of Magik, Aleister Crowley and old Voodoo folk tales that certainly carry with them a heavy feeling of anxiety, but also seem to celebrate and recognize the need for a proper physical jolt to mark the ritual with an effective psychological shift.

One of the things that stands out to me about Wedding Night is having assembled certain visual references that are found in your other work … the anchor tattoo (from Poor Sailor) bandaged foot (Typewriter) how the general position of the two figures is reminiscent of how the Golem has his hand over the young boy’s face before he kills him (Crickets) creating a sort of “marriage” of elements from other projects. From what I understand, this image was taken from a painting you had done for an exhibition?

Harkham: It was a drawing that grew organically for a show at the Yerba Buena Art Museum with the theme of Werewolves. I started the drawing with the werewolf and nothing else. I had the hand out stretched in a typical monster lurch and was unsure where he was or doing. As I kept drawing I drew a female face under the hand and it started to make sense, it clicked … especially when the tongue part emerged.

As I worked on the drawing over the next couple days each element was clearly defined in my mind … I am not a fine artist, and rarely do stand alone pieces of art, but this was one of those rare drawings that went beyond being a nice drawing, and had a lot of content - at least to me. The anchor tattoo, the rings, the blood, the knife, the placement of her fingers, etc. None of these elements are just there to look good.

It was drawn pretty soon after I got married, and it touches on a lot of things about love and lust and commitment I was just discovering (the anchor tattoo is as clear symbol of her commitment to the endurance of love that I could think of) The whole idea that’s interesting about men turning into animals is the idea of the inner self, the true-self emerging outward … I could go on and be more specific, but I rather viewers took from it what they will without my concrete interpretations.

It’s an uncomfortable piece because of its personal nature to me, and I am aware that it can be read in a sexist, violent way, but to me it is romantic and hopeful above all else.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Grinderman's Gouging Guitar

"In the original sessions, the word "Grinderman" came up because of the John Lee Hooker song of that name. I was singing that song, riffing on that idea. Around that time we got this extraordinary loop from Warren [Ellis], and I played around with singing the title over that loop [which became the album's title track]. For some reason no one had called themselves Grinderman, except some act in Vegas. I think it's Mr. And Mrs. Grinder or something like that, and to them we give our apologies. But the name seemed to sum everything up. And it turns out John Lee Hooker's song came from the Memphis Slim song "Grinderman Blues", so having that kind of history behind it made the name feel right." - Nick Cave

While most of Grinderman’s tracks plunge into frantic fuzzed out guitar growls, the title piece finds a restrained center that allows for Caves stylistic vocals to act as the main melodic vehicle. Using the established key elements of the album’s visual world (light box, green lights, silver rain and Monkey), John Hillcoat (The Proposition) chooses to slow everything down, a decision that ends up heightening the song’s sadness and condensed determination.

Two thirds of the way in - its bulky two chord drone mightily collides with a “guitar solo” that consists of feedback bursts, carefully bleeding with all the right curves. Cave’s guitar solo aligns itself with the emotional passion of old blues players by refreshingly setting aside pompous ideas of “proficient musicianship” and thrives forward in a needed primal ferocity that has reshaped the way he interacts with process and performance …

Jim Sclvunos (drummer): He's never played guitar before. I think he might have played acoustic on one obscure Bad Seeds b-side, but I don't think I've ever even heard that song. He was visiting New York and I took him to a guitar shop in midtown Manhattan which was guitar heaven and he spotted an old Strat on the wall, and he said 'I want that one.' This was a month before the Grinderman sessions started, and he was buying a guitar to teach himself to play so he could try writing some songs, rather than playing on the piano like he usually does. He was so shy about getting the guitar that he didn't dare play in the shop. When the guy asked him if he wanted to plug it in, he was like 'No, no, just wrap it up.' He was quite the novice. I think he was imaging that we were going to get another guitar player, but the band were unanimously adamant that he was playing the guitar. We saw right away that he started singing the songs and approaching the song writing in a different way, and it was another thing that was going to distinguish Grinderman from the Bad Seeds, which was the point.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Power, Corruption and Peter Saville

A recently acquired copy of New Order’s 1983’s Power Corruption and Lies on vinyl got me really excited about Peter Saville. Listening to some interviews made it apparent to me that not only were some of his design ideas relevant in the early to mid eighties, they might prove to shine a light on the needs of design today.

We've seen a flourish and explosion of “throw it all into the mix” pluralist design that’s been floating around for the last few years that I find extremely stimulating, but found myself surprisingly seduced when Saville made the comment that:

I find Postmodern pluralism confusing, some aspects of pluralist culture kind of troubles me. Philosophically I like it, but systematically I’m a bit narrow at times. So, I’m quite a purist about things and I quit like bringing 2 different things together, but I’m not so comfortable in bringing 4 or 6 – to a point where we’re not sure what anything is anymore”.

There are some examples of irreverent juxtapositions in my work, my favorite cover is Power Corruption and Lies, but … it’s only stereo, not multi-channel. I find multi-channel fascinating, but I can feel a bit insecure with it sometimes”.

The cover, which is best seen on the twelve by twelve inch vinyl, has an old Henri-Fantin Latour painting, not a inch of type (band name or name of the record!) and a mysterious color code bar on the upper right corner.

Flipping it reveals (…die cuts and all) a frigid reproduction of a floppy disk image with another cryptic color assembly that is the key to the whole typographic affair.

Start from top green (A) down the 26 segments and you have the alphabet (sometimes one letter is a double color … and apparently the inside colors don’t matter). This helps decode the inner sleeves colors and ultimately spells out the name of the band and it’s release.

The design seems like a great example of being able to bring the right elements together. There is a maturity and calm refinement in how the design is able to project confidence that becomes less about how design can *visually dazzle us*, but one of smart juxtaposition and effective thinking. The Postmodern tendencies are still living in the choices of reference (as did most of his early Factory output) but the select few prove to be tremendously effective. Saville describes it as "romantic idealism juxtaposed against the modern, the technical, and the cool since one part is just incredibly florid and nostalgic whereas the other is completely cool and hard-edged. Working in a kind of curatorial way, bringing together old and new."

It seems that, in the scope of his output, Saville is able to occupy a world where Modernist foundations are referenced and respected while being able to push a few extra buttons that re-contextualizes the work in the here and now.