Thanks again to Hurricane Nancy for such trippy and beautiful art! I have respectfully, with her permission, added color. I hope you enjoy this latest installment! Let’s all relax, however we like, and contemplate this piece.
If wise animals, non-human animals, were left to dividing up the planet, we could all breathe a big sigh of relief. But humans, often mistaken as the wisest of all animals, have the last say and wreak havoc. You know what wreaking havoc is all about, right? It’s a strange term but it’s pretty clear as to what it describes, despite the arcane wording. Animals, the ones that get to regularly roam free naked and uninhibited, are the ones we must listen to. If we humans can do that, perhaps we’ll have really gained some wisdom to see us through our next slouching towards redemption.
Sarah Firth is one of my favorite creatives. She is a Melbourne based artist who studied visual arts at the Australian National University. In the last decade or so she has earned numerous awards, commissions, residencies and a fellowship. Firth is a creative entrepreneur running a creative services and consultation business offering graphic recording, illustration, animation, film and creative workshops. Her first graphic novel, Eventually Everything Connects, has a publisher, JOAN (Nakkiah Lui with Allen & Unwin), and will launch within a year. More details on that as we get closer to that date. In her new book, Firth explores, as she states, “personal narratives woven together with philosophy, psychology, theory, and criticism. It’s a humorous and idiosyncratic exploration of multiplicity, fragmentation and intertextual play that fits into the autotheory genre.” In this interview, Firth shares a little bit about that upcoming book, the world of graphic recording, and thoughts on the whole creative process, particularly the creation of comics. For one thing, we discuss the amazing Comic Art Workshop residency program. We also discuss the awesome Graphic Storytellers at Work research project. Firth says, “It’s really worth downloading and reading their report. If you want a printed poster contact Gabriel Clarke.”
Sarah Firth, the artist, the person.
So, now I’ve set up for you a little bit about who Sarah Firth is but let me go further in sharing with you about this remarkable talent. I find Firth to be a vibrant artist, unafraid to be silly and to experiment with various media. She mentions in our interview that she began as a sculptor and I’m not surprised. If you take a look at her videos, you get a strong tactile vibe. Firth uses her hands a lot: to mold shapes, to present, to sew, to draw, to perform. And I’m not surprised that such a lively and curious artist gravitated to graphic recording. That is a special discipline that, on the face of it, is essentially documenting some meeting, whether a conference or a workshop, and distilling the essentials from it in concise words and picture. Of course, it’s more than that–as if that wasn’t enough!
Graphic recording can be a vehicle for deep exploration. You can’t just be an artist to do it professionally. And you really can’t just be a writer either. You need both skill sets along with a strong analytical mind, and even sheer guts, to do this at an exceptional level! That said, anyone can do some form of sketchnoting and Firth offers up a free mini-course to help you discover the world of graphic recording.
Graphic recording is just like any other skill, you can do it at your own pace to meet your own needs. You’ll discover that, if you can take notes of any kind and even if you think you can’t, sketchnoting is useful at work and to help you problem-solve just about anything.
Sarah Firth books.
You get good at graphic recording over time as you develop your own style, your own way of problem-solving. I’ve reached a certain level with my own graphic recording and I know I’ll keep getting better at it. Everyone keeps getting better as long as they’re curious.
THINK ON THE PAGE by Sarah Firth
Finally, I’m not surprised that, after years of doing graphic recording, of getting down into the weeds of processing raw information, that Firth has found her way to creating a graphic novel, one that, in a sense, attempts to make sense of it all. Autotheory, as I understand, is using the self in order to understand the world. That’s a lot of what graphic novels are about and I know Sarah Firth is a natural at synthesizing data and explaining the world around her in whatever medium she chooses to use.
I hope you enjoy this video podcast. And, if you get chance, I’d really appreciate a like and even a comment on my YouTube channel. It’s totally free and it helps to keep this whole enterprise moving along. I will continue to provide more of this kind of content, as I juggle various other projects and assignments in the background. I reached a point some time ago where I can only post the content that engages me the most. As always, your support means a lot and is actually part of this whole process, whether you know it or not. It’s so true. Eventually, everything connects!
Think on the Page. Sarah Firth. 2021. purchase here.
Sarah Firth is a very busy and quite popular artist and all-around visual storyteller. Based out of Melbourne, Australia, Firth is a Eisner Award-winning cartoonist, comic artist and writer, speaker and internationally renowned graphic recorder. This book is a collection of various observations which all add up to a heady stream of consciousness, an expansive working out of this or that issue or problem, plainly said or with a touch of mystery. Just one human, being human, being real. She’s made an art out of removing any filter and letting all the bits and pieces of life tumble out in messy, funny, and profound ways.
The theme of this book is about embracing the process of problem-solving, not overthinking it, going with your first impulses, and drilling down to something authentic. It’s part improvisation, part meditation. It’s what happens when you think on the page! This is about comics, art, illustration, and especially that curious beast, live illustration or graphic recording, where the creative is engaged with the subject in the moment and proceeds to not only document but to synthesize, digest, and filter down to the essential. The results can be pretty awesome.
Here’s an insight I’m happy to share again and again: there is an art to sketchnoting. What Firth does with her graphic recording is an art. The industry mantra is to say that any form of quick concise drawing is not art because the thinking is that this message appeals to a general audience. So, sure, the tools and techniques involved here are generally in the service of commercial and educational interests. But what it all amounts to depends upon who is using these tools. If you need remarkable results, something that truly resonates, then you hire a professional like Sarah Firth.
More wisdom I can pass down to you: sketchnoting and comics do indeed mix. Now, the general misconception is that the world of graphic recording and comics have nothing to do with each other. Again, this is an industry mantra thinking that, to even suggest otherwise, is going to confuse people. Ah, and again I state that it all depends upon who is making use of the virtually limitless possibilities available to any artist/commercial artisan. Yes, anyone can doodle (and gain so much from it) and some folks cultivate a special skill set that includes doodles and beyond! Okay, as you can tell, I’m passionate about comics and the wider world it is connected to. That is what is so wonderful about Sarah Firth’s work. This is someone who said, hell yes, here’s a massive playground of creative fun and I’m diving in and making the most of it! As you can see from these examples, Firth is a master at taking choice bits of images and text that result in compelling content that invites discussion and contemplation.
Let’s focus in on one of Firth’s longer comics in her book, this story is entitled, “On Loving a Difficult Creature.” It’s an 11-page story told with a sharp and vivid energy. The little guy who stars in it is named, Ferretie. This is a very specific tale from Firth’s youth when she inherited a ferret from a previous relationship. It all sort of just happened. Firth never intended to find herself with such a challenging pet. Ferrets might seem cute but they pack a wallop of a bite and can take down a rabbit within seconds. It became an ongoing thing for Firth to explain to newcomers to the house that, when Ferretie began to gnaw on your finger, he was only playing, actually holding back quite considerably. What is so impressive to me is how clean, crisp and clear the whole narrative is. That’s not to say it can’t be messy, unclear and ambiguous because that approach can definitely work as you are figuring something out. Firth is capable of whatever vision she wants to share. My point is that there is much to celebrate for well-executed clarity of purpose. What drives this story is providing a portrait of Ferretie and Firth. The ferret proves to be an intelligent, loving and noble little soul. Firth, despite feeling misgivings, does very well by her furry friend and learns many valuable life lessons on responsibility, empathy and compassion. Ferretie lives on in Firth’s own noble and genuine work. Firth is the real deal with her memorable and engaging comics.
The Art of Living: Reflections on Mindfulness and the Overexamined Life. Grant Snider. Abrams. New York. 2022. 144pp. $18.99
Grant Snider creates comics that are often poetic and always engaging on some level. Going back to 2009, it has been Snider’s goal to create at least one full-page comic strip since he began posting to his site, Incidental Comics. Scroll around and you’ll see how his style has progressed. A perfect example of what he does now can be found by simply going to the latest post. The one below is the current post as of this writing and a new comic…
These quirky heart-felt comic strips have attracted a legion of devoted followers (over 100k followers to his Instagram) and have led to book collections. There is one book on creativity, The Shape of Ideas. And another book on literary matters, I Will Judge You By Your Bookshelf. And now we have the new one, The Art of Living, due out on April 5, 2022, published by Abrams. Each of these books are pithy, witty and a joy to read.
I think it’s just beautiful to see how Snider has totally blossomed into the artist that he is today. Without a doubt, Snider has moved up to a level of excellence that can draw comparisons to any number of the all-time great cartoonists, including Charles Schulz. I take that statement seriously as I know that I risk stirring up all kinds of controversy and head-spinning wrath from a small but fierce faction of die-hard Schulz loyalists who won’t accept any comparisons to their god. It’s the same sort of sell-appointed expert thinking that is nutty and useless but I digress. Actually, this is relevant to mention given that, while a student, Snider won the Charles M. Schulz Award for college cartoonists. It came with a $10,000 prize and a trip to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. So there!
What I’m trying to say is that Grant’s work has been around, it is appreciated and loved, has been featured in the New York Times, the New Yorker, as well as The Best American Comics anthology series. It’s bona fide good stuff! There will always be snobs and elitists that one can never convince but we’re way past that here. That’s what I’m saying. And I feel very confident is saying that because the universal appeal to what Snider is doing rings very true to me. A fine example is the above two pages: a meditation on light. With relatively simple forms, muted flat colors, and clean crisp lines, the reader is transported to a zen daydream.
Considering the evolution of Snider’s work, from silly gags to a specific vision, I see an artist at work, someone steadily chipping away to what matters most; I also see a cartoonist mining for the very best work and pushing the limits of what is possible within the framework of the comic strip. Snider takes the comics medium very seriously and it shows. The ambition travels well on its way to the reader who gets to enjoy a smooth and pleasing experience. In essence, what Snider is doing is meeting all the aspirations of the best in comics in being compelling good fun, artful, and popular. Yes, popular. One can argue that it’s not enough for a work of comics to be a delightful work of distinguished art and yet remain completely obscure. Well, it can be enjoyed by a certain rarified audience, that’s true. But these same guardians of taste really don’t have a leg to stand on if they try to dismiss the popular works in contemporary comics. Again, a mild digression but worth stating, for sure!
In the end, it is the marvel of creation that Snider can enjoy over and over again–and his readers get it. I can tell you from my own comics-making that magic is definitely possible during the creative process, just as legitimate as in other art forms. What Snider does is go to the deep end of the pool and work his magic. Snider is a true storyteller; his art often, if not always, has a literary quality to it. What Snider ends up giving the reader is work that one can truly come back to and enjoy for multiple views/readings. Through the process, you end up with stuff that reverberates, is iconic, or is simply just the thing you need at that moment.
Peter Morey and Rebecca K. Jones are two very inventive cartoonists. I chatted with the couple via Zoom. I’m in Seattle and they are at their home in London. It was great to chat with two creatives who so neatly compliment each other’s work. It’s a fair observation given that they manage to do so well with similar subject matter that each tackles in a unique way. Both Peter and Rebecca explore social commentary and the human condition (Endswell, Boomerang). Both Peter and Rebecca let loose with wild and whimsical tales involving animals (Animal Spirits, Cat Disco). And, it’s clear to me that they enjoy what they do. I first stumbled upon their work on a visit to Orbital Comics back in 2019.
ENDSWELL by Peter Morey
I recently reviewed Peter Morey’s Animal Spirits and Endswell so you can definitely get a good sense of what he’s doing from that. I will say here that what propels the narrative of Endswell is a freewheeling play with the eccentric dynamics of a specific family. That requires storytelling freedom thus the fact it’s called a “loosely-based autobiographical work.” Thinking about Peter’s work, and then comparing it with Rebecca’s work, led me to ask them to chat a bit about British humor in general, how it runs the gamut from droll and dry to crazy and absurd. Part of the answer is that this tradition is just baked right into what they perceive as funny. They embrace the strange and so do I. Anyway, far be it from me to put anyone on the spot. I basically see all good work in comics as feeding off some touch of strange.
BOOMERANG by Rebecca K. Jones
I’ll segue over to Rebecca’s work and a moment which speaks so well to this quirky understated quality I’m talking about. It’s a moment in Boomerang (the first part to a longer work-in-progress) when the characters are enjoying a little fair at a local park filled with various random performers and the like. One such person is there lecturing about his peregrine falcon. And just as he begins his talk, the bird seems to take that as a cue to fly away, perhaps never to return again! It’s a splendid poetic pause referring back the main character’s own dilemma.
There are times when an illustration is most apt. Summer Movies: 30 Sun-Drenched Classics, by John Malahy and Turner Classic Movies, published by Running Press, inspired me to highlight some of my own favorites from this fun and informative book! Among a number of factoid-filled books, this one really stands out for some very specific reasons. This is not just a listing of popular titles. You will actually learn a lot here–about fan favorites and less familiar classics. I’m very impressed with the genuine attention to detail as the author invites the reader to try out some lost gems, like 1928’s Lonesome about a couple of star-crossed lovers who have a dream date at Coney Island and then, by the hard luck of fate, get lost from each and frantically try to reconnect.
John Cei Douglas is a freelance illustrator based in London who got on my radar with his new book, All the Places in Between, which I recently reviewed. We exchanged some email and arranged to do a conversation. To prepare for it, I read a good bit of the comics that Douglas has done since completing his MA in Illustration from Camberwell College of Arts in 2013–including his Masters thesis, Show Me the Map to Your Heart.
All the Places in Between
One striking thing about the comics and illustration of John Cei Douglas is how fluid and effortless he makes it all look. There’s a certain calm and thoughtful quality to his work that is very appealing. There’s also plenty of action and frenetic energy to be found. It’s all part of a distinctive quirky universe.
The distinctive and quirky universe of John Cei Douglas
Another striking fact to keep in mind is that, even once you reach a point of success in a career in illustration, you can never take anything for granted. That is a point that Douglas can’t stress enough. He is in it for the long term and, from what I see, he’s found a niche from where he can continue to grow and prosper.
English Summer. illustration by John Cei Douglas.
I hope you enjoy this conversation where Douglas provides insights into his creative process. For the creation of his new book, All the Places in Between, Douglas relished in giving himself space to explore where the story was going. There was no set blueprint he was working from and I think readers will appreciate those unexpected twists and turns. As I stated in my review, this is a story as much about evoking a certain feeling as it is anything else–definitely a journey worth taking.
Visit John Cei Douglas at his site here. All the Places in Between is published by Liminal 11.
Christopher Sperandio in his office at Rice University.
Christopher Sperandio got on my radar many years ago with Modern Masters, a comic book about art that I picked up in an art museum. Subsequently, I recall stumbling upon another title, in a similar vein, put together by Sperandio and his artistic partner Simon Grennan, together known as the Kartoon Kings. This was many years before you really saw an inclusion of much of any comics in a museum setting. Well, that has changed in many ways. I wonder how much the casual observer, the infrequent museum-goer, notices. Whatever the case, the comics medium maintains its presence, stays on the public’s radar as something to take seriously. Sperandio, among other things, makes wonderful contributions that add to the comics art form, like his new book, Greenie Josephinie.
MODERN MASTERS, DC Comics, 2002.
Sperandio has come a long way from Modern Masters to Greenie Joesphinie. And that is basically the framework I put to use for our conversation. Below are some notes on Sperandio’s career. I sincerely hope you enjoy this interview. I do these in depth talks as much for myself as for my audience and, in the end, it is my goal that the results help instruct and inspire, and document a bit about the ever-expanding comics and art scene. For me, the processing and discussing of these topics is like manna from heaven. I hope this exploration resonates with you as well.
Greenie Josephinie by Christopher Sperandio
In addition to putting himself through graduate school working as a truck driver, Christopher Sperandio, half of the artist team of Grennan & Sperandio, has produced 22 comics books as artworks for museums in the US and Europe. Bridging the High/Low divide, these works include Modern Masters, a cross-over comic for the Museum of Modern Art and published by DC Comics. Other works include Life in Prison and the Invisible City, published by Fantagraphics Books. He has been written about extensively in newspaper and magazines, as well as in books on the subject of art.
Protest Art as Instagram Meme.
He has produced new collaborative and artworks in conjunction with museums and art centers in the US, Germany, Northern Ireland, Denmark, England, Scotland, Wales, Spain, and France. Commissioning institutions include MoMA/PS1, the Public Art Fund, Creative Time, London’s Institute of Contemporary Art and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Two of the landmark art exhibitions that he participated in are listed among the fifty most influential exhibitions of contemporary art in the book, SHOWTIME. Sperandio was also the Creator and Executive Producer of ARTSTAR, an internationally syndicated documentary television series about emerging contemporary artists filmed in New York, Chicago and Miami.
Sperandio is an Associate Professor of Drawing and Painting at Rice University in Houston TX, where he founded the Comic Art Teaching and Study Workshop. CATS is a classroom, academic research resource and exhibition space dedicated to the study of Comics. Sperandio also turned a diesel bus into an off-the-grid mobile living space, but that makes him sound… idiosyncratic. For more information, please visit: cats.rice.edu
Just click the link above for the interview. And for more information and to purchase Pinko Joe, Greenie Josephinie, or other compelling titles, be sure to visit Argle Bargle Books.
Mise-en-Scène or Depth of Field technique in CITIZEN KANE
Like any visual medium, as in painting and cinema, there are particular ways of seeing that are useful, even essential, when studying the mechanics of comics. Mise-en-Scène or Depth of Field is a fascinating aspect to comics that occurs more often than you might think. Sometimes it’s done more formally and explicitly and sometimes not so much. But, when done right, it can be very striking and truly enhance the comics experience. First, consider the picture plane, an impression of space, like the imaginary wall separating the audience and overlooking the space on the stage. Then think of foreground, middle ground, and background. We are considering everything. The term, Mise-en-Scène, in French, literally means “put into the scene” but I like to also emphasize it refers to making the most of the three planes depicted in a scene.
From work-in-progress by Henry Chamberlain
You are looking at a scene, in a painting, or a film, or in comics, from the close range, mid-range, and way in the back range. What you might place in these three planes can significantly move your narrative forward. A reliable trope would be to set up your scene to include past, present, and future: cast the middle as present tense for the main character, with the past set in the back; and the future set up front. That’s what I ended up doing with the above image after noodling around for a while. But it can be anything you like, anything that makes for an interesting composition.
You can call this process, “The Three Plane Method.” That comes to mind. Or you can use the term used in theater and cinema, Mise-en-Scène. In film and photography, think of this as playing with Depth of Field. In the end, you’re exploring what this technique can do for you as you compose a frame or a scene. If you want some truly riveting examples, take a closer look at how images are stacked upon each other in layered scenes in Citizen Cane to create mesmerizing montages. Some are stable landscape type moments and others are dazzling scenes which have the camera rolling for one long dizzying shot like the one that begins outside during a gloomy snow storm and snakes its way into a cozy cabin.
from The Leaning Girl from the The Obscure Cities series by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters.
The best comics tend to be, at least for me, thoughtfully composed. While comics has its own language and techniques unique to its medium, it does manage to borrow from other mediums–and make it its own. That said, it was interesting to go about finding a decent example in comics of true Mise-en-Scène. I think my initial impulse is proven because it wasn’t easy to just stumble upon something. Paul Pope? Nada. Blutch? Nada again. David Mazzucchelli? Frank Quitely? No and no again. You can’t ignore the fact that comics is a sequential art. In general, comics is mostly invested in a steady flow of a concise combination of words and pictures. Those visionary auteur cartoonists will, on occasion, create panels or whole pages with bravura artwork but these are usually some attempt at detailed exteriors or interiors to establish time and place. Not necessarily work making the most of all three planes. The long and the short of it is that a lot of comics involves people speaking to each other or going from one place to another and not much else. Many exceptions exist and hurray for them. I finally found the above excellent example to share with you from The Leaning Girl from The Obscure Cities series by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters.
There are a lot of kids in my neighborhood. And some are more outspoken. The other day, one said it all. The little tike had just learned to ride his bike. And, with glee, he announced to his parents: “SO LONG, SUCKERS!” The parents thought that was hilarious. But was it, really? Where did he pick that up and why did he think it was okay to say that? I guess some things are just meant not to overanalyze. However, you adopt that kind of thinking and it’s a slippery slope. You can connect it all the way up to Republicans who choose to abandon reason and integrity and follow the wrong leader off a cliff. Anyway, there’s some background that led to my drawing this cartoon.