I’m quite aware that sticking an interview with myself on this website is a little self-serving but I believe it’s also constructive. I started the Illustrators Journal because I was interested in how other illustrators work, live and go about their lives. I wanted to connect with them, know them and do right by them. We artists work alone most of the time, and in some cases don’t sleep much or when necessary do “all-nighters”. So reading about each other’s lives is a good way to connect and to know that you’re not alone. So here goes…
How does your work take form?
I start with an idea then thumbnails sketches. The sketches are very crude but they serve as a guide.
Once I have an idea I either collect scrap, use stock or take pictures to support the poses and the look and feel I’m after. I build a rough look in photoshop then switch to Illustrator. I usually sketch over the rough art in Illustrator with a stylus. Then I started rendering using tools in Illustrator. The ability to use layers to separate elements makes it easier to resize or rebuild individual areas without disturbing the entire image.
You were an art director, so you ve worked with many illustrators. It seems like you might have a leg up on other illustrators knowing how they think. How does that affect your work as an illustrator?
It doesn’t. My time as an art director is over by choice. I love creating imagery that enhances whatever project I’m working on. I want the art director to guide me and give me feedback. Besides things have changed so rapidly in our industry my knowledge of what an art director does these days is very different than it was back 5-10 years ago.
Do you do experimental work completely different from your published work?
Always. In fact I think in many ways that confuses potential clients and/or reps. I know they like to see consistency in an illustrators work. If you show one piece that’s different from 12 others it places doubt in their minds, which I find odd. To me versatility is a gift. It’s what made me such an effective art director and kept me on a roll when I worked as a freelancer.
How long do you see yourself doing kid lit art? Do you have any ideas for books you intend to write and illustrate?
I do kidlit art all the time. If I don’t have a paid project I create my own. It gives me a chance to explore new techniques and styles. I have ideas for books and I’ve written a few but I’m not pushing that part of my creativity right now. I’m leaning towards creating large paintings that are more intuitive and not planned. When I start out I don’t want to have a plan of what I want to do. I want to see what forms then shape it as a sculptor would.
Anything new you’ve wanted to do for a while that you are excited about?
The Illustrator’s Journey and Podcast!
My publication partner, Gregg Masters and I have stepped up our efforts to make the Journal a destination publication. I am always searching for great stories, ideas and illustrators to interview. I’ve been very lucky and I’m very thankful that artists worldwide have taken time to speak with me and reveal a little about their life and artwork.
I have some other longer term projects like my semi-biographical graphic comic novel “The Kid From Beverly Hills” and a series of gallery paintings as yet untitled.
I also created a new publication called REAL CREATIVE. The format is essentially the same as The Illustrators Journal but it encompasses all creatives whether there’re Actors, Musicians or kitchen designers! I still go behind “the curtains” to get to know people.
Digital Illustration by Lon Levin
Do you do your work using traditional materials or do you do work digitally or both. How has working on the computer helped or hindered? Do you do any social media marketing?
I do use traditional materials, specifcally pencils and water oils. I sketch out on cold-press boards and paint into the drawings. Mostly, however I work digitally. It’s more liberating because the concerns an artist would have working traditionally are not a problem working digitally, specifically changes, or alterations. I can also experiment a lot quicker and easier. Additionally I can get real close to my art and fix details which traditionally would be very difficult to do.
Working on the computer has helped me quite a bit, especially timewise. I can do things a number of different ways to cut time which would be impossible traditionally. The only hinderance I perceive is there isn’t a physical piece of art. Somehow I think there are still clients that place a special value on art they can touch and feel. It seems more real to them.
I do tons of social media marketing. It allows me to reach out and communicate to many more people than I ever could call or meet in person
How long did it take you to establish yourself in the kid lit area? Was it hard for you or did it happen very easily?
I’m still establishing! This is tough question for me. I’ve illustrated 15 or so children’s books but none that have broken thru. Most of them are done in a style I no longer work in. I do like some of the work in “There’s A Kid Under My Bed” and wish I still had the art but a Canadian art collector bought them all. I’m working towards getting that one great project that’ll be a break through for me, the publisher and the writer.
How has your wife reacted to having an artist as a husband. Do you talk about your work together?
My wife is a saint. She puts up with my ADD behavior and my very active imagination. As long as I do my chores (washing dishes, making the beds and taking out the garbage) she’s happy.
Actually we talk about everything and though she’s not an artist she is very creative and has great ideas. She is also a brutally honest critic. I couldn’t do what I do without her.
I realized this fact for myself back in the early 80’s when I made the switch to being an art director, all the while creating art for my job and my own pleasure. This went on for 2 decades until I left my job as Senior Creative Director and art department head at Warner Bros Syndicated TV. I banked enough money to pursue my goal of being an illustrator. However it still is not an easy task. I continue to struggle with this daily. Along the way I bought, renovated and sold homes in Los Angeles which ultimately led to becoming a real estate agent…albeit a creative one which now supports my artistic endeavors and frees me up to explore art and illustration deeply.
What I’ve come to terms with is there are very few illustrators who can support themselves on art alone, and there’s nothing bad about that. In fact it may even help them become more rounded as a business person and more social.
If you want to be an illustrator then don’t expect riches. I’ve struggled with this aspect of being an artist my whole career and now I’m finally ok with that. The solution I adapted was to become a real estate agent for money and an artist for the love of it. During my career as a creative director in the entertainment business I bought, renovated and sold real estate. What I made in real estate eclipse my salary. When I left Warner Bros in 2006 I decided to illustrate children’s books. This is not a path to riches I assure you. Along the way I bought some run down homes, fixed them up. (mostly doing the work myself ) and sold them for profits. This allowed me to navigate my artistic endeavors the way I wanted to. It took quite a while to get to the point where I was satisfied with the direction I was headed but I stuck with it. I am still in the process. I can honestly say I love creating imagery and learning new ways of approaching my work every day. The most that I hope for is recognition among my peers and helping others succeed.
I recently became familiar with Kristi Valiant’s work and how valuable she is to Kidlit. So I thought I’d post her interview and some of her bio on TIJ website. Of course I will try to get her to talk with me for an article in the next issue of TIJ Ezine.
The whimsy and color of her illustrations and the movement of her characters are so appealing and fun you can sense the delight she gets when she goes about her work. I’m so happy to see another user of a computer to do her work. Forward thinking and steep in tradition here’s Kristi’s own bio.
In fourth grade, I got in trouble for drawing too much during class.
After graduating magna cum laude from Columbus College of Art and Design as an Illustration major, I worked in the graphics department at an educational publisher. Now I write and illustrate children’s books.
I wrote and illustrated PENGUIN CHA-CHA (Random House, 2013).
I’ve illustrated the following:
PRETTY MINNIE IN HOLLYWOOD (written by Danielle Steel, Doubleday)
PRETTY MINNIE IN PARIS (written by Danielle Steel, Doubleday)
THE GOODBYE CANCER GARDEN (Albert Whitman)
CORA COOKS PANCIT (Shen’s Books)
THE LITTLE WINGS Chapter Book Series (Random House)
DO YOU LOVE ME MORE? (Standard)
OLIVER’S FIRST CHRISTMAS (Accord)
DANCING DREAMS (Accord)
Some of my favorite things in life are my husband and daughters, dark chocolate, hot fudge pudding cake, collecting picture books, reading, swing dancing, musicals (especially Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers), monkeys, penguins, and my faith in Jesus.
I grew up in Wisconsin, studied in Ohio, moved to Texas, taught English for a summer in China, and now live in Indiana with my husband, daughters, and a room full of hippos and monkeys. I tend to draw a mouse, hippo, monkey, and penguin somewhere in each of my recent picture books.
I create my art in Photoshop using a Cintiq display and pressure-sensitive pen. I find that working digitally allows me to be creative and edit easily, without the hazard of spilling dirty painting water or drinking it by mistake.
“The most enriching rewards for creative endeavor are intrinsic; that is, the reward is in the pleasure the creator takes in doing the work itself, and in achieving the result, and not from the pay or the prize.” – Jane Piirto
Morning is here again and here’s some food for thought to start your day. If you’re creative and you enjoy doing whatever fuels the creativity do it. Don’t worry about how good you are or whether you’ll get rewarded for your work. That is not the point. It’s taken me a long time to realize I am driven to create. Though I’ve tried to suppress this urge and do things that are “more practical” in terms of making a living or creating wealth, I cannot hide from the fact I need to create. So I embrace the beast. I don’t try and tame it, rather I am riding it and enjoying the journey.
Professor Jane Piirto, in her book Creativity for 21st Century Skills covers the motivation to create.
She writes, “The main cause for creativity is that the creative person wants to be creative, in whatever domain he or she is working – whether it be woodworking in the basement, dancing, acting, drawing, singing, doing science, mathematics, inventing, being an entrepreneur, being an athlete, cooking, sewing, building, designing.
“People who are creative must have motivation. Creators intend to be creative, to make—something. People have to want to be creative. Creativity takes a long time and a certain amount of obsession.”
She thinks “Motivation is the only and main personality attribute that all creative people have and need.”
If you relate to this you are part of the tribe, so stop judging yourself so harshly and take comfort in the thought that millions of creative people all over the world are in the same boat. Piirto notes, “Creators must have the talent necessary to create in their area, and have had the environmental influence and support necessary.”
I’m sure most creatives feel this way. The way to get there is to day by day practice your craft and seek support from those who can relate to what you’re doing. IT DOES NO GOOD AND IT’S TOXIC FOR YOUR SOUL TO SEEK APPROVAL FROM THOSE WHO DON’T GET IT!
“What are the rewards for being creative? Fame is not usually one of them.” Piirto quotes musician Mat Callahan: “I have never found any correlation between money and the effectiveness of the creative process and its results. Do I produce a demand for my creative work… do I produce marketable commodities? Maybe. Do I apply my energies to my creative work, regardless? Certainly. Continuously. Why? Because of the satisfaction I derive from the process itself and the pleasure it brings to others.”
I leave you with that. The results of your mindset, your talent and your work will dictate the outcome. Focus on the work and being the best you can. Embrace the beast, take it for a long ride and enjoy the journey.
Illustration by Kinuko Y. Craft for an article in Playboy Magazine, December of 1981 or 1982 “Liberty and Justice”
There are very few times in life you get a chance to talk with a giant in your field of endeavor. The other night I got to do just that, I spoke with Kinuko Y. Craft, master illustrator and one of the few females to regularly get published in Playboy magazine during it’s heyday. Her work has also appeared in and on the cover of many magazines and in numerous picture books. Awards for her work are too numerous to name however it bears mentioning that she was voted in the NY Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in 2008. And this quote by famed writer Ray Bradbury sums it up “Kinuko Craft is a Renaissance woman. By this I mean not that she paints like the Renaissance painters, but that she is an artist for all seasons, for all kinds of subjects, and in all kinds of styles. If you will survey her works, you will find little duplication in form, color or texture. She fits herself to her subject with charming ease and yet leaves herself free to remain herself. There is an air about all of her illustrations of one who is a true connoisseur of art, wide-ranging through all the countries of the world. One cannot help but think how delightful it would be to walk into gallery of her kaleidoscopic talents.”
The other night I was walking my dogs to the park and my phone rang. I picked it up and this girlish voice with a slight accent starts talking, introducing herself as Kinuko Craft. I was dumbfounded. We started our conversation and she told me she’d be happy to give me an interview for the upcoming issue of the Illustrators Journal. We spoke for about 10 minutes while my dogs did their business occasionally staring at me wondering why I wasn’t paying attention to them. How could I explain the joy I was having connecting with one of the illustration goddesses I admired. After a few minutes I told Kinuko I’d love to call her back and that my dogs were getting restless so I should pay attention to them. She laughed and told me how much she loved her dog and she understood.
Later that night I called her back and we had a delightful conversation for an hour and a half. The contents of that talk will appear in the next Journal coming out in April, so please come back and visit us, because we’re gonna start rockin n’ rollin’ with all sorts of great interviews and articles.
Next up…Political cartoonist Mark Stamaty whose work has appeared in too many magazines and publications to count especially his cover art for the Village Voice. We are also expecting original work done for us by Millenial superstar artist Molly Crabtree!
When I saw this notice I was excited because I’m an Art Center Grad and to see where the school and it’s students are heading gives me a thrill and reminds me of all those late nights or all-nighters I spent trying to master being an illustrator.
So I’m reprinting this article and giving a boost however big to my fellow ACers in the hopes they achieve their goals!
“Self Portrait” by artist and illustrator Patrick Hruby. March 06, 2017
New Modernists of Illustration Featured in Land of Enchantment Exhibition Organized by ArtCenter College of Design
Patrick Hruby, Loris Lora, Ellen Surrey and Alexander Vidal Define the California Spirit for the 21stCentury
March 8, 2017 through August 19, 2017
A fresh crop of Modernists of Illustration defining the California spirit for the 21st Century are featured in Land of Enchantment, an exhibition organized by ArtCenter College of Design opening Wednesday, March 8, 2017 and continuing through August 19, 2017. The vibrant graphic work of four recent ArtCenter alumni; Patrick Hruby, Loris Lora, Ellen Surrey and Alexander Vidal, leaders of the New Modernists art movement, will be on exhibition in the Hutto-Patterson Exhibition Hall in the College’s Fine Art and Illustration building at 870 South Raymond Avenue, Pasadena, Calif., 91105.
An opening reception with the artists on Wednesday, March 8, 2017 from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m., is free and open to the public. Admission is always free to the Hutto-Patterson Exhibition Hall located just one mile south of downtown Pasadena, and a short walk from Metro’s Gold Line Fillmore station.
“Green Parrots” by illustrator Alexander Vidal.
Land of Enchantment features the innovative work of Patrick Hruby, Loris Lora, Ellen Surrey and Alexander Vidal. Paying homage to the legendary American Modernist, Alexander Girard, the works offer a dramatic departure from what is usually considered traditional illustration. The bold and playful work represents a new form of illustration in partnership with technology and its limitless possibilities.
Visitors will experience illustration as environment since the work adopts an unexpected scale and plays with mood and emotion on multiple surfaces such as products, interiors and as home décor. The premise for the exhibition is to show illustration in its new form, surface design, and celebrate the specialization recently launched at ArtCenter College of Design within the Illustration department chaired by Ann Field.
The work of freelance artist and illustrator Patrick Hruby has appeared in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. He is the author and illustrator of ABC is for Circus, a children’s board book published by Ammo Books in 2010. The book celebrates the colorful and festive world of the circus through each letter of the alphabet. Natural Wonders is a coloring book by Hruby that features forests, flora and fauna.
Los Angeles based freelance illustrator and 2014 graduate of ArtCenter College of Design, Loris Lora has had her work published in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal as well. In addition, her artwork has been featured in galleries across the globe. Her book, Eventually Everything Connects, published by Nobrow Press, was a project she started while a student at ArtCenter. The book highlights the relationships and connections of creatives during the California Modernism movement, an innovative and exciting period in design.
“Betty-Drapper” by illustrator and designer Ellen Surrey.
Ellen Surrey is a Los Angeles based illustrator and designer. She earned her degree from ArtCenter College of Design in 2014. Her primary sources of inspiration come from old Hollywood, mid-century design and vintage treasures. She finds beauty in the past and incorporates it into something contemporary. While most illustrators these days do their work in Photoshop, she likes to do most of her work traditionally. She primarily works in gouache, a medium she loves because of its flexibility and history in illustration. Her clients Include AMMO Books, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Google and The Wall Street Journal.
Before starting his career in illustration, Alexander Vidal studied cultural anthropology, and spent time living in Africa and Asia. Travel and exploration continue to drive his work. His clients have included adidas, The Wildlife Conservation Society, Smithsonian Magazine, and the California Academy of Sciences. So Many Feet, his children’s board book about animal adaptations, will be released by Abrams this May.
Land of Enchantment is made possible in part through the generosity of global design manufacturer Herman Miller.
WHAT: Land of Enchantment features the innovative and vibrant graphic work of
Patrick Hruby, Loris Lora, Ellen Surrey and Alexander Vidal.
ArtCenter College of Design, South Campus
Hutto-Patterson Exhibition Hall
870 South Raymond Avenue, Pasadena, Calif. 91105
Exhibition: March 8 through August 19, 2017
Opening Reception: Wednesday, March 8 at 5 p.m.
Admission to the Hutto-Patterson Exhibition Hall is always free and open to the public.
About the Hutto-Patterson Exhibition Hall In 2014, ArtCenter College of Design opened a new home for two of its dynamic visual arts programs—Fine Art and Illustration—at the College’s South Campus in Pasadena. Renovation of the former U.S. Postal Service property was made possible in part due to the generosity of the Hutto-Patterson Charitable Foundation, providing a dramatic atrium space (1,260 square feet) in the center of the building to showcase the work of ArtCenter students, alumni and visiting artists through a rotating series of exhibitions. The collaborative Hutto-Patterson Exhibition committee includes administrators, faculty and students. The committee’s goal is to help students understand the nature of being a practicing artist and professional curator, as well as apprehend a larger worldview by learning how a gallery generates dialogue with the broader public. Woven into the curriculum, exhibitions are accompanied by public lectures and special events. In keeping with ArtCenter’s efforts to increase access, affordability and appreciation of art and design in our communities, the exhibition hall is always free and open to the public.
About ArtCenter College of Design Founded in 1930 and located in Pasadena, California, ArtCenter College of Design is a global leader in art and design education. ArtCenter offers 11 undergraduate and seven graduate degrees in a wide variety of industrial design disciplines as well as visual and applied arts. In addition to its top-ranked academic programs, the College also serves members of the Greater Los Angeles region through a highly regarded series of year-round educational programs for all ages and levels of experience. Renowned for both its ties to industry and social impact initiatives, ArtCenter is the first design school to receive the United Nations’ Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) status. Throughout the College’s long and storied history, ArtCenter alumni have had a profound impact on popular culture, the way we live and important issues in our society.
A few years ago I was assigned to create around fifty spot illustrations for a series of educational booklets. As part of that assignment I was asked if I could illustration other ethnic types other than white. “Of course” was my response. Once I had past the sketch phase I was told the sketches of African-American and Hispanics I did were too ethnic looking and needed to be less so. I took that to mean more white. After several rounds of alterations my work was approved. However it illustrated to me a fundamental problem in our society. There are some companies and people who are afraid of the “other” and do not want to offend them. Most of these people I suspect have very little contact with ethnic groups other than their own. That’s unfortunate to me because the differences is what makes our world interesting. The more we interact wit the “others” the less we fear them and the better our society will be for it. NOW,…more than ever it is important to reach out and get to know each other. Only when we understand the needs, wants, experiences and hopes of other ethnic groups will we have a fully integrated society. Ok how how does this relate to Kidlit? Simple, it starts with kids. Max Benavides’s article says it better than I could so here it is…
The books they read and the books parents read to their kids need to reflect our society as a whole. Many Americans are familiar with well-known mainstream children’s books such as the Dr. Seuss series, Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are. But what about Americans who come from another culture, speak another language or are bilingual? What children’s books are there for them and their families?
This group, until recently, was especially missing from children’s literature, often referred to as kidlit in the publishing world. These are the families whose parents’ first language is Spanish and whose children are learning English in school. When you add in the fact that the majority of the 54 million Latinos in the U.S. are bilingual and yet very few children’s books are bilingual you have a tremendous gap in books that can speak to this community and its culture, particularly the parents. That means they don’t see themselves in the children’s books distributed at their schools, stocked in their local libraries or sold in bookstores. The effect of this invisibility and absence in children’s books is dramatic and negatively affects the self-esteem of these children.
Nationally, nearly 25 percent of all K-12 students are Latino and the percentage is only growing. In California, the most populous state in the country, Latinos comprise 53 percent of all students in K-12. Latino families like these—who live all across the country from the Southeast to the West Coast—are often bilingual with Spanish being the main home language for many.
And, guess what? Until now there have been very few children’s books for this huge population of children who want to see themselves and their families in children’s books.
Finally, one publisher is doing something about it. In the early 2000s, Katherine Del Monte founded Lectura Books and since then has been publishing bilingual books aimed at this large and increasingly expanding population. Her desire has been for parents and their kids to learn together how to love literature and to see themselves in the literature. These families are often marginalized in our society and their stories untold. To remedy this, she started Family Stories for Parent Involvement.
“We all want a literate society,” says Del Monte. “The question is how do we get there? How do we do we reach millions of families who speak Spanish at home and help them learn English, learn how to read, and to build vocabulary. Reading is the essential building block for literacy and if we don’t create bilingual books for these families, our society will lose the edge that literate and educated citizens bring to the country and its economy.”
Based on her research and personal experience, Del Monte decided to tell their stories in a combination of both English and Spanish. To date, she has published 25 bilingual books including Letters Forever, a moving story about a young girl in San Antonio who exchanges letters with her grandfather who lives in Veracruz, Mexico. She dreams of seeing him again one day and when she becomes 18 she visits him in Veracruz. It’s a story of love across the generations and the power of culture and music.
Another title published by Lectura Books is The Shark That Taught Me English. Written and illustrated for elementary students, it tells the story of a girl named Sophia who only speaks Spanish and how she learns English with the help of a shark image that her teacher uses in class. Once she begins to learn English, her self-confidence grows and by the end of the book she is teaching English to her father. Del Monte’s books have won many awards including the Moonbeam Award, the Independent Publishers Award, the International Latino Book Award and been listed on the Texas State Reading List.
“My goal is to show the stories that are overlooked by mainstream publishers,” explains Del Monte. “I want to publish bilingual books that connect families to their stories. Rather than allow this audience to be an afterthought at best, I want to showcase the brilliance and wisdom of their stories. No one in the U.S. is doing this today. You simply can’t ignore a quarter of all the children in our schools. You can’t ignore their parents simply because they don’t speak English, are immigrants and work in low-paying jobs. True diversity in book publishing will only come by publishing in English and Spanish for the 37 million people in our country who speak Spanish.”
This is not a new concern. In 2014, a hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooksbecame a social media phenomenon when two authors of color, Ellen Oh and Lamar Giles, tired of the lack of diversity in kidlit, launched the hashtag and a movement was born that brought awareness to the stunning lack of diversity in American children’s literature.
Flavorwire recently reported that, “In 2013, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in Wisconsin cataloged 3,200 children’s books, constituting a majority of all children’s books published that year. Of these, only 68 — about two percent — had black authors. A slightly larger number, 93, had black protagonists. The numbers are either comparable or worse for Asian Americans, Latinos, and American Indians, and show stagnant or regressive movement.” They also noted that a 2014 Publisher’s Weekly salary survey included questions about race and ethnicity and it found some dismal results: of the people working in publishing 89 percent are white and only three percent are Hispanic or Latino, 3 percent Asian and one percent African-American.
The bottom line: although the U.S. is growing more diverse every year, you would never know it from children’s books or from the publishing industry itself. For that reason, Lectura Books plays a key and necessary role by publishing books that are culturally relevant to children and families who are often ignored. The long-term outcome will be to produce literate young people who go on to college and contribute to our society and its economic vitality. That’s how you build a literate society.
As I explore my own version of a graphic novel comic or webisode I am more interested in what is transpiring in this genre. As I explore I will post more and more so that those of you who follow will become more aware of the explosion of new form novels and artwork around us all.
I shook off the shackle of my illustration style a few years ago. I had been doing children’s book illustrations and animations and after three dozen books, most of which I did not enjoy doing I started to fool around with this idea of depicting my story, my history in words and pictures. I’m not really a writer per se even though I have been published as a writer (“Treehouses” published by Globe Pequot Press in 2008) I wanted to accompany my art with words. The logical conclusion was some sort of comic, graphic novel, art mismash. After a few decades of time in the commercial art world as an art director, creative director, animator and illustrator I felt I’d earned the right to do whatever the hell I wanted to do. No rules except the ones I made for myself.
To support this notion I decided I needed to split my time between a “real” profession as my father would say and my artistic exploration. Now after a few years I work as a realtor to support my art. Hence, I am liberated from the grind of wondering how can I sell myself as an artist.
What has evolved is “The Kid From beverly Hills” which I’ve posted here and there and it has gotten favorables reviews by the few who have seen it. AS I evolve, it evolves. The journey is what makes it fun and exciting not the result. More from me later…
Here is a graphic novel list compiled by Sam Thielman of The Guardia
by Sam Thielman,
I am a man with an immoderate number – some might say a houseful – of comic books, which is probably why people ask me questions like: “Where on earth do I start with all this stuff?” and “Is that really a wedding ring?”
I sympathise – with the former query, anyway. The sheer variety in the “graphic novels” section of the bookstore or library contains everything from memoirs to mysteries. Plus, comics have their own grammar and syntax and often, comics fans are exhaustingly absorbed in their own favorite kind of literature, their references like an endless set of matryoshka dolls. A strand of conversation can lead from Doctor Fate to Watchmen to Detective Comics to Optic Nerve, all in a flash.To make matters worse, some of those comics are much more accessible than others. Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home are straightforward and easy to read, though they’re wildly different. Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library, on the other hand, is unapologetically challenging and often involves intricate systems of smaller and smaller pictures that don’t necessarily tell you where to start or stop reading.
Ware, like Dan Clowes, Charles Burns and Lynda Barry, is drawing on a very different tradition from superhero artists and writers. It’s a kind of storytelling that evolved out of the “underground” comics movement of the 1960s and 70s, when artists like Robert Crumb, Aline Kominsky, S Clay Wilson and others were trying to find ways to make dirty, weird, intensely personal work that had more in common with the iconoclastic fine art of the period than with pulp fiction – the prose genre that birthed the first superheroes. Independent comics used to be considered as disreputable as pornography (maybe more so), but now they’re rightly recognized as fertile ground for artists.
In fact, the two parts of the industry are increasingly coming together. Avatar, Image, Dark Horse, Dynamite and Boom all publish plenty of creator-owned, artist-driven books. In many cases, they’re by people who made names for themselves writing superhero comics and want to write with more freedom at a place where they own their work. The state of the industry makes for some strange bedfellows: Top Shelf publishes pensive ruminations on life and absurdity by Eddie Campbell and Jennifer Hayden, but they also publish Alan Moore’s action-packed pulp-fiction mash-up The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
For longtime comics fans like me, it’s a kick to see the form evolving in so many fascinating ways. Image in particular has landed right at the nexus of art comics and action comics and produces books driven by beautiful, often hilariously strange art (James Stokoe’s Orc Stain, Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey’s Injection) and old-fashioned high-concept sci-fi action, sometimes on the same page. The innovation is opening up the form to a whole new generation of readers.
Here are the 16 books I recommend to get you started, if you’re so inclined. They’re all in print, they’re all readily available from Powell’s or even a local independent bookstore, and you don’t have to do any preliminary reading to understand them. Happy reading. And looking. And good luck finding space for them all.
The Calculus Affair, by Hergé
All 23 Tintin albums follow the globetrotting boy reporter and his companions, chiefly his dog Snowy and his tipsy, short-tempered sailor friend Captain Haddock. But there’s along-running debate about which is best; the settings are vastly different, ranging from China to the Moon. My vote is for 1960’s The Calculus Affair, a thrilling and lighthearted story of cold war espionage and a secret weapon in the Balkans.
Hergé’s characters have exaggerated features, but they exist in a meticulously detailed world where there are no misplaced lines or scratchy pencil-work anywhere on the page. Joost Swarte, a cartoonist and illustrator who admires Hergé, coined the term “ligne-claire” (clear-line) to describe it. The phrase didn’t just stick, it came retroactively to describe the whole coterie of cartoonists who came after Hergé, called the Brussels school.
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
Roz Chast is probably best known to non-comics readers for her wry and wordy New Yorker covers, and her cartoons for same. You’ve probably seen them – they’re often lists of anxieties and phobias and distractions. In her half-prose, half-comics memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Chast pitilessly itemizes in excruciating and hilarious detail exactly the share of suffering allotted to her beloved parents as they rapidly enter the last years of their lives.
Chast’s sense of humor never deserts her even when her parents’ bodies fail them, and the resulting volume, which won a National Book award, is both an ingenious depiction of a part of life most people studiously avoid thinking about, and a slow-burn dissection of Chast’s own obsessions, and her love of distraction as a momentary respite from entropy.
Ice Haven, by Daniel Clowes
Daniel Clowes has been pretty open about his love for both Nabokov and for Charles Schulz’s Peanuts cartoons. In Ice Haven, he combines the two melancholy artists’ styles to beautiful effect.
Clowes’s formidable skill is anything but cold: the little book (only 88 pages) follows the interlocking lives of a few people in a small town and works out childhood fear, teenage ennui and grownup eccentricity. These themes play out across pages designed to look like comic strips from the local newspaper; it’s so subtle and sweet you might not even notice the kidnapping at first.
Top 10, by Alan Moore, Gene Ha and Zander Cannon
The premise of Top 10 is so fundamentally opposed to the way superhero comics work that most writers would have run from it screaming: what if everyone in town, from the hot dog guy to the mayor, was a superhero? Bursting with flashy costumes, terrific sight gags and all the strange settings you’d need to build a city for such a diverse populace, the book isn’t so much an introduction to superhero comics as it is a hilariously off-kilter sci-fi detective novel.
Top 10 is also some of the most purely fun comics storytelling available, thanks to a first-rate script by ingenious Northampton comics writer Alan Moore and art by Gene Ha and Zander Cannon. The three work together as seamlessly as a jazz trio: The story is a complex procedural involving multiple murders that follows our heroine, Robyn, as she joins the force and gets used to having a boss who’s a dog, a partner who’s a Viking and a workplace filled with drinking buddies who range from the figuratively hotheaded to the literally radioactive. Though he’s perhaps better-known for Watchmen and V for Vendetta, Moore’s unparalleled skill at making the reader look left when the plot is just about to go right might be at its very best here.
Killing and Dying, by Adrian Tomine
Adrian Tomine’s most recent collection follows six different sets of characters through six different styles of artwork so distinctive they appear to have been drawn by six different people. It’s a feat of virtuosity that could only have come from Tomine, who has been telling tender stories like these for over a decade; with its incredible stylistic diversity – always surprising, never jarring – it’s his finest hour so far.
In each story, Tomine seems to announce he’ll be telling one kind of story only to tell a completely different one in hints and suggestions. Like his friend Clowes, Tomine’s ambitions are primarily literary and comics are simply his chosen literary mode. Here, he makes a compelling case for comics as a medium for the same intricacies as contemporary fiction – and for the possibility that comics can do some things prose can’t.
Cages, by Dave McKean
Dave McKean’s sprawling, generous graphic novel about life, sex and jazz is a necessary jolt of pure, intelligent optimism among a lot of very dark work from his contemporaries. The artist is probably best known for the beautiful collage covers that became his trademark at DC Comics’ “mature readers” imprint, Vertigo, but he’s a formidable writer on his own, here drawing the parallel stories of a half-dozen people living in the same apartment building and falling in and out of love with art, life and each other.
The book is bigger than most – tall and wide, as well as almost 500 pages long – but it’s a surprisingly fast and engaging read, with McKean’s beautiful, scratchy two-color linework giving way at strategic points to breathtaking pages-long sequences of full-color collage and painting in which McKean illustrates a weird and charming cosmology of his own devising.
Hawkeye vol 1-4, by Matt Fraction and David Aja
It hasn’t been easy to find Marvel Comics stories that let the new reader in the front door, but Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye is arguably the best of the company’s recent crop of beginner-friendly comics. (Dan Slott and Mike Allred’s kid-friendly Silver Surfer is a close second.) Marvel’s books are carefully orchestrated across a universe that spans more than 50 years of material, but Hawkeye ignores most of that, to its great benefit.
The book follows the least reputable of the Avengers as he tries to keep sleazy Russian crimelords from stealing his apartment building out from under his working-class neighbors. The book’s vision of factions fighting for a piece of gentrifying Brooklyn is dead-on, and Fraction’s cast of offbeat characters could be culled from the co-op next door. Aja’s artwork is spare and clever and the pair hit a serious Lennon-McCartney groove near the end of the second arc, in a story told entirely from the perspective of a dog who listens in on scenes from previous issues with a deep understanding of human emotion but a very limited English vocabulary.
Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel
In Fun Home, Bechdel steadfastly refuses to sentimentalize the way her discovery of her own sexuality paralleled her discovery of her father’s secret life. The book is beautifully constructed, with her declared annoyance at her father’s fussy, baroque tastes informing her work’s own spare beauty. And for all her teenage self’s eye-rolling over her funeral home director dad’s love of artifice and adornment, Bechdel’s ability to draw her characters’ most revelatory tics and habits remains razor-keen, often painfully so, for the length of the book.
The love between a father and daughter is complex in the best possible version of the relationship, and Bechdel and her dad’s is particularly fraught, not least by the latter’s suicide. Because Fun Home is ultimately an exploration of devotion and longing, its frankness is that much rarer and more precious.
The Portable Frank, by Jim Woodring
All of Jim Woodring’s glorious Frank stories are so terribly inviting that it is difficult to pick just one. Woodring draws the wordless adventures of a bear-cat-chipmunk-type creature named Frank, whose travels take him around a surreal black-and-white world populated by adorable creatures and nightmare horrors, and nearly all those travels manage to end on an unexpectedly poignant, funny or terrifying moment. Woodring’s style is fanatically controlled – every panel looks like a woodcut – but his monsters are unspeakably inventive, like something Hieronymus Bosch would have made in pottery class.
The plots are as simple as the art is complex: Frank usually makes what seems like a reasonable decision from the his own perspective and a horribly, horribly wrong one by the standards of the broader world. (Come to think of it, that is probably the shortest possible biography of anyone alive, from a certain angle.) Fantagraphics’ collection of short Frank stories is a great sampler, like a glass of water from the Challenger Deep.
The Sandman: Endless Nights, by Neil Gaiman et al
For the better part of 20 years it was very difficult to pick a volume of The Sandman to introduce readers to its charms. Neil Gaiman doesn’t hit his stride until the second book in the 12-volume series, and the art doesn’t really take off until then, either. But who wants to begin in the middle?
The writer solved this problem by penning seven stand-alone short stories for the one-off volume Endless Nights. The result was as attractive a volume of comics as a superhero publisher (DC, in this case) has ever managed to produce. In it, readers meet the seven Endless, Gaiman’s pantheon of anthropomorphized abstractions including friendly, frank Death; moody Dream; alluring hermaphrodite Desire and his/her twin sister, Despair. Every story is illustrated by a different artist and each one is worth getting to know, particularly the great Italian artist Milo Manara and P Craig Russell, probably best known for his stylish comics adaptations of operas by Wagner and Mozart.
The fun with The Sandman – like Gaiman’s best novel American Gods, a calculated hodgepodge, if there is such a thing, of stories short and long – is often the way the author allows insight into his otherworldly central characters through the pinhole of a seemingly normal, knowable person’s perspective. Here, he’s mastered that technique. The adroit short pieces are one of the reasons the series remains so popular despite its far-flung sci-fi and fantasy conceits: it’s less a three-course meal than a box of candy you didn’t mean to eat in its entirety.
Co-Mix, by Art Spiegelman
For people needing a primer on grownup comics, the ur-text didn’t really exist until two years ago, and that’s because the evolution of high-art comic books from greasy underground innovation to literary supplement is largely the work of a single guy: Art Spiegelman.
Spiegelman is justly famous for his comics memoir Maus, about his father Vladek’s escape from Auschwitz and the relationship between Art and Vladek in the years when the book was being composed. But Spiegelman was also the editor of Raw, an anthology series that drew together the best and brightest of the underground comics world at a time when the market was sagging under the weight of too many people trying to ride the same gravy train.
As other publishers collapsed or radically shrank, Raw became the Paris Review of comics, every page risky, bizarre and invariably beautiful, with Spiegelman’s own work as the book’s anchor. Co-Mix is partly an exhibition catalogue of a Spiegelman career retrospective bearing the same name; it’s also a collection of excerpts from Raw and other ephemera, and a wholly necessary study of the form’s escape from the gutter and (in this case literally) into the museum.
Hark! A Vagrant, by Kate Beaton
Kate Beaton’s hyperliterate webcomic is on the cutting edge of any number of social realities. Her Sexy Batman strips are as clever a parody of tightly clad contemporary superheroics as anyone has written. But she’s also fascinated by the arcane, the old-fashioned and the obscure, particularly as they pertain to women through the ages. Never preachy or shrill, the strip’s meticulous consideration of history’s funniest footnotes run counter to her excellently messy artwork.
It’s often said, and correctly, how smart the comic’s writing is, but artistically Beaton has few equals and fewer competitors; she’s working in a style almost no one practices anymore, where what looks like a quick pencil rough is specific enough to convey a whole range of complex emotions. Beaton lists Ronald Searleamong her favorite artists, and it’s easy to see the great illustrator’s influence.
Seconds, by Bryan Lee O’Malley
Bryan Lee O’Malley is probably best-known for his series of manga-style action comics about a slacker living in a version of Toronto that plays by the same rules as a video game, Scott Pilgrim. In Seconds, he’s in the same place – well, Canada – but his twist is more fantastical than science-fictional.
Without giving too much away, O’Malley is an accomplished chronicler of post-adolescent longing. What if we’d taken this job instead of that job? What if we’d never broken up with that guy or that girl? His heroine, immature, compelling and unhappy, gets to find out – it’s like if It’s a Wonderful Life was a fantasy manga about restaurant workers. O’Malley is that rare artist who works in confessional and speculative modes simultaneously; his world may have fantastical quirks in it, but it also has quotidian heartbreak.
The Fixer, by Joe Sacco
Nobody is doing what Joe Sacco is doing; the writer-artist has visited some of the world’s worst war zones and not merely written movingly about them but carefully drawn them, as well. The effect is transporting – Sacco drags readers into war-torn Bosnia and gives them both a sense of place and a sense of urgency, and like the best journalists, he’s got an eye for the rich, contradictory, infuriating people who can make you care about something you ought to care about.
In the title story of this astonishing collection of short nonfiction, Sacco focuses on a bored ex-mercenary with nothing to do after the end of the long and horrifically bloody war. On the one hand, it’s about wartime abstractions like reparations and displacement; on the other, it’s the incredibly urgent tale of an edgy, frightening guy who’d rather be killing people and may yet get to.
Acme Novelty Library #20, by Chris Ware
Chris Ware is intimidating. The artist’s biggest works are pointedly impossible to read from the beginning – just trying to get past the dust jacket on Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth can take days. But the final “issue” so far of Ware’s long-running Acme Novelty Library is a little hardbound graphic novel that follows one man from birth to death and many strange points in between. In just the first few pages, Ware invents new narrative tools to describe learning to recognize your own name, discovering colors, and what it feels like when you see your father hit your mother.
Eventually, the book may simply end up a footnote in Ware’s ongoing graphic novel, Rusty Brown. But at the moment, it’s the purest distillation of his ingenious use of hard lines, flat colors and an engineer’s genius for describing complexity without reducing it.
All-Star Superman, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
You can leave most superheroes off a list of great comics at this point, but not Superman. The Man of Steel’s mark on American culture has been indelible, and it has also resisted updating – the last four Superman films have been disastrously lame.
But in All-Star, writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely strike exactly the tone that film-makers have missed: modern and clever without being snide or ironic, optimistic without naiveté, and, thanks especially to Quitely, utterly beautiful. The artist’s rendering of the Man of Steel is sneakily reverential – if the cover of the book looks like you’ve seen it somewhere before, that’s because it’s a fairly overt homage to images of Jesus at the last judgment. It’s also playful and fun, with a gorgeous sequence on the inverted-logic Bizarro World (the planet is square, of course) and the kind of lighthearted interplay with Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen that aren’t usually found outside much older books.