In any number of ways, for the writer, or the illustrator, or those who are really entrepreneurial and do both, children’s books are a lot like children. They are not children, in a similar way pets are not real children, but they have similarities. They require great exercises in patience, energy, perseverance, and faith, with the artist/writer on many an occasion retiring to a stressful, sleepless night filled with doubts, second guessing, replays of apparent wrong decisions and how things could have been handled better, and of course, apprehension for the outcome. What is this book going to turn out like? It’s really quite incredible how much of your conscious and unconsious life is consumed by a book. Even when you’re not working on the book, you’re thinking about it. Other projects get put off, set to the side; assignments, even fun ones, get turned down because of the commitment and the deadlines. With unnerving rapidity that year away deadline, which looked so comfortably distant, is right in front of you. Practically, viewed from a short term financial standpoint, children’s books are not very cost effective when all the time invested in research, sketching and re-sketching, and finally the finished art get added together and divided per page.
Speaking as the illustrator here and not as an author, the hopes and expectations one imagines for the artwork, may, uncannily like kids, head in directions not anticipated when confronted with the reality at the drawing board. All the prepping and research seems to have been turned on its head and what you are looking at half way through the project is not what you thought you’d see. Now what? This is not necessarily a negative provided you can get a grip on yourself, accept the possibility of a change in plans, and make the adjustments to successfully adapt. As the project unfolds we eventually arrive at working in a way that seems comfortable and right. There’s even a strong temptation to redo the first batch of finishes because they don’t match the quality- or vision- of the later ones. And sometimes that actually happens because you want to be proud of how that kid- er- book turns out.
So far, most of what I’ve pointed out sounds fairly dis-incentivizing. Someone reading this would rightfully ask, why take up such a challenge and spend a considerable amount of time behaving like a determined but sleep-deprived parent for a half year or so, much to the concern of your spouse? Well, one reason is faith that all the hard work will be worth it. And, as is so often the case with kids, it is. Ultimately, if you don’t love what you are doing you’re in a lot of trouble. And no matter how frustrating the going gets, you don't give up on the images and what you're putting together.
“Hot Dog! Eleanor Roosevelt Throws a Picnic” is the seventh book I’ve illustrated for the wonderful folks at Sleeping Bear Press. My first collaboration, in 2004, with Elissa Grodin, titled “D is for Democracy” was the beginning of a truly unique relationship with editors and art directors at Sleeping Bear. We like each other. More important, the folks at Sleeping Bear ‘get it’. They have great trust in the illustrators they match with writers, provide minimal but smart editorial feedback, and consequently the attitude from their offices is always upbeat and positive. Whatever pressure I feel is self generated, a desire to match their enthusiasm with the best imagery that I can create.
The great irony about “Hot Dog!” is that we had signed the contracts and such a good six months before we found out that there was a movie being produced about the very same event. It was a charming flick, “Hyde Park on the Hudson” that starred Bill Murray as a very convincing Franklin D. Roosevelt. I had mixed reactions at first to the announcement of the movie hitting the theaters a good year before Hot Dog!'s publication but as time went on saw it not as a spoiler but as a complement to the book. No matter, I deliberately avoided seeing the movie until I was well into the project and feeling secure about the direction. It became a reference source for clothing colors and scenery in a few of the images. The actual picnic itself plays a small role in the flick.
Reference. I can’t think of any children’s book I’ve done for Sleeping Bear that didn’t involve some investment of time in reference hunting. More often than not, the research felt like 50% of the entire project. If the content is historical the need to get things right initially, before artistic license is allowed to enter, is crucial. Whether it is American history, the military, Greek mythology or the Roman Empire, having as solid a foundation in picture reference is a must. We can gripe about Google for any number of good reasons but the access to picture reference is inestimable. What would take many trips to libraries or picture reference outlets can be done from your studio. One of the side benefits to reference hunting on Google is the access to all sorts of tangential information in a matter of moments. A leads to B leads to G. It turns into a side obsession; to learn as much as possible related to the subject and the people involved so as to bring something extra to the images. Even when the illustrations are approached in a lighter, more humorous, caricature-like format, the information gathered from the research alows me to bring some insight into the characters of the subjects.
Google was great but extremely limited in visual reference pertaining to the barbeque, an event that was not really open to press photographers. Plan B. A goodly amount of time was spent at the Roosevelt Museum/Estate at Hyde Park, which has an extraordinary research library. How could it not? It’s also a beautiful set of estates to visit. You feel the history as you walk around. The staff was very helpful, if a bit business like, but as I looked around the library room it was apparent how many people were sitting at tables doing research. A lot. I was just one of many who journeyed in and out on a daily basis. It was here that, after explaining my mission to the staff, I was brought a number of folders from which a small grouping of photos from the barbeque emerged. The pictures seemed casual, not really professionally photographed. But they were there, and there was just enough to get an approximation for what I needed to portray, including the Native Americans who were invited to perform for the guests. As was the case I also searched for reference of as many angles of FDR and Eleanor from that period so as not to be locked to a few set facial shots. The King and Queen of England were also reasonably well represented. FDR’s customized auto was there as well which I had the opportunity to photograph. The treasure trove of photos of Eleanor created some fascinating observations. It’s very easy to think of her as an awkward ugly duckling sort of woman. But a number of pictures, especially from her youth portray a certain distinctive charm to the features. Her Uncle was Teddy (pronounced Teedy as I have come to learn from Edmund Morris’s bio).
The reference hunting actually never stopped. It went on till the very end. Some of my original sketches took drastic turns as I found photos that countered what I had envisioned. I also suspected the movie would make it difficult to just adlib details.
My original thoughts were to portray the event in a very loose, light manner, but once the actual transition to finishes happened they become more solid, atmospheric, whimsical balanced with some seriousness. It was somewhat disconcerting. At certain points I was not entirely sure which direction the images were heading, or if they even needed to stay strictly consistent in attitude. That’s not a comfortable question to ask. One assumes from a children’s book standard that consistency is very important. And, as mentioned earlier, as the book progressed and I got more comfortable with the characters I insisted on redoing some of my earlier pieces out of dissatisfaction with the original portrayals. In the end I was pretty satisfied with the finished entity. As is the case with a book of over 20 illustrations, some felt more successful than others. But the overall look was very pleasing. This is probably the first book that I’ve done for them that really felt like a kid’s book. All the others have been A-B-C’s, wonderful instructionals but following a certain design format specific to Sleeping Bear. This one not so. It has a more relaxed feel and the type complements the illustrations rather than acting as the counterpoint.
Many thanks to Felicia Macheske, who art directed, and Barbara McNally who edited, two women I've had great fun working with on previous books. Thanks to author Leslie Kimmelman, who couldn't have been nicer or more helpful providing me with historical data to add clarification to certain scenes when I was stuck.
A selection of illustrations that worked for me, some sketches, and sketches that got tossed.
Perfect example of reference adding that extra something to an image. FDR had very specific items on his desk. I couldn't include them all but didn't make anything up either.
Finding color reference for the clothes for a specific person from an era of black and white photography made for special challenges.
An interesting dilemma. When the gang saw my sketch there was concern about the serving staff being all African American. I had to point out that indeed that was the tradition up till JFK's time, a fact that I was unaware of till researching for the book. Still there was some worry and I lightened the tone of one of the servers.
Rumors of war. Trouble from overseas in the form of Hitler's speeches. By this point it was readily apparent that this was not going to be a purely light and humorous book, even for kids. An early sketch that we dropped in favor of focusing instead on Eleanor listening to the radio. In an interim sketch I had Hitler coming out of the radio in a mist, but it was eventually decided to drop his image entirely and just focus on Eleanor's reaction listening to the radio.
Fala is never really mentioned in the book, but I decided on including him as a sort of recurring image throughout the book. It was a hit with everyone.
A two page spread that was to illustrate the national reaction on finding out the Roosevelt's were serving hot dogs to the King and Queen. Early sketch. Still had it in mind that it would be more cartoony.
We dropped the image and instead decided to go with another sketch of mailmen delivering the loads of outraged mail.
The scene of FDR driving the Royal couple around the Hyde Park estate was portrayed very humorously in the movie. There was no Fala in that scene either.
A discarded sketch of the picnic entertainment itself. The visual information was so scarce that I thought I'd fake it some and take the vantage point from the back porch onto the yard.
However on a return visit to the Hyde Park research center I found other images from that day that gave me enough information to piece together a scene from the grass looking up at the back porch. The Royal guests were seated there.
Again, trying to find that balance between seriousness and whimsical in the same book.
A perfect example of not faking it. I liked this sketch and the vantage point, except that FDR would not be in the middle of the crowd. He would have been standing next to his car holding onto his assistant waving from the parking area toward the tracks.
It occurred to me that as the Royal couple were heading north to Canada the train would need to be facing in a specific direction as well. I settled for the passenger car. Enough reference was located to pretty much identify the kind of train cars they traveled in. The station is still there, obviously the parking area has changed. No real reference of the send off but enough bits and pieces of information to imagine the scene. I chose therefore not to focus on the train station building itself but just hint.
The first Royal bite. Apparently George enjoyed it greatly.
Original finish of the very uncomfortable Queen dealing with such a phallic object. She did choose to slice it, but only after she asked FDR how to eat it and he replied, "Very simple. Push it into your mouth and keep pushing till it is all gone."
Near the end of my work I found even more reference on the Queen from this period and had to admit I was not happy with my earlier portrayals. I insisted on doing this one over. Still and all, not a lot to go with especially where specific facial expressions are important. Even so, I was much happier with this version and Barbara and Felicia understood why a redo was important in my eyes.
When you work with people long enough you can screw around with them. I sent this under the premise as a serious choice for cover illustration. Must have been around the time the Kurtzman show was at the Society of Illustrators. We were tossing around who exactly should be portrayed on the cover. The Royals, kids, Royals and kids? FDR and all?
Keeping Busy-Part 5- ROLLING STONE When It's not Taibbi and Other Choice Assignments
One would assume from my last post, especially if one didn’t read it carefully, that I only have done illustrations for Matt Taibbi features in ROLLING STONE. That is not the case and RS has the good fortune of featuring the impressive investigative work of journalists like Tim Dickinson, Elizabeth Drew, and Janet Reitman. Very few if any of the subjects they approach are clear black and white story lines even if the headlines state otherwise. The great challenge that surfaces consistently is trying to distill very complicated, multi-layered pieces, populated by players often working at cross purposes to each other, into images that make sense, hopefully have some element of humor, and have a unifying theme. There are times when creating a very simple hammer to head image is unavoidable because illustrating all the grey areas in the story would wind up nullifying any cohesive solution. Also, topics that involve a lot of paperwork or political maneuvering, such as laws and subtle usurpation of laws, or money finagling, don’t by themselves make for dynamic images since most of the activity is under the radar of physicality. Handshakes and private conversations rather than clubs and hostile face-offs. The fear is in creating an image that feels too much like stereotypical editorial cartooning that includes everything but the labels identifying the characters and topics.
Okay, okay, I know this is supposed to be a posting about non-Taibbi articles but this actually is a Taibbi piece on how Wall Street loots pension funds. It was not included in the previous posting and it was an oversight so it's being folded into this thread.
Looting. Sounds intriguing, right? But the article itself was neck deep in paperwork and legal details- brain numbing legal details that involved zero physical activity. There was, however, commentary on how the tightening of belts ultimately affects the employees of the state- you know, police, firemen, teachers- and not the banking institutions managing, or mismanaging, the pensions and I jumped on that theme rather than torture through a tangled, uninteresting symbolic image.
Two red background images! A record of sorts. Another piece- on the GOP's gradual deconstruction of abortion rights via legislative maneuverings. Article by Janet Reitman. The activities were all very benign looking and low keyed- no foaming at the mouth rants and protests- just a lot of back room deals and alliances.
The GOP War on the Poor. Elizabeth Drew. It's these damn kids faults if they're hungry. I went for the physicality of the image, remembering those great Little Rascals shorts where the bad guy was always trying to shake the kids off their legs while sending Petie to the pound or grandma into the streets.
Early sketch. Not enough poor kids.
More poor kids in, little rich kid out, and two elephants. As much as I liked the image of the kid hanging off the tray it was felt that that it made the image unnecessarily complicated.
Tim Dickinson on how the U.S. is a major exporter of dirty fuels to the developing world even as we tout our green standards here. Quiet deals. Played the pusher/addict angle.
My original sketch was more aggressive (apparently a bit too aggressive for RS) but I felt more darkly satirical with a developing world snorting both coal and oil slicks while the pusher collects his payment. Traditionally, a successful pusher doesn't partake of the product.
Early attempt at a drug deal image. Even as I sent the sketch I warned that the use of third and developing world figures would sidetrack the point of the image into a firefight on stereotyping. I find people, especially in this internet environment, look to be easily offended regardless.
And now for something completely different. A take off on the iconic WWII poster illustrating a feature by Tim Dickinson on the benefits of raising the minimum wage.
Again, lots of facts and numbers but no dynamics. I finally did an end run around the nuts and bolts of the story and went for a simple well known visual with a subtle, or not so subtle, adjustment or two. The woman has been updated to a more Walmart-ish type employee and she's holding dollars even as her cap states the company policy of cents.
Art direction for the RS pieces- Mark Maltais and Joe Hutchinson.
Helps to have a fit spouse do emergency modeling.
A piece done for Patrick J.B. Flynn for The Baffler. The article was a not very complimentary assessment of writer Tom Clancy that focused on how his writing eventually became totally overshadowed by the commercialization of his brand.
Front page piece for the NEW YORK OBSERVER on Bill diBlasio and his re-imaginings of the housing issues in NYC. DiBlasio is very little fun to draw. The last New York City who was any fun drawing was Giuliani.
A cover piece for THE NATION. "T
In the Belly of the Warehouse Beast. The Holiday Crush.
Robert Best, art direction. Was so thinking Looney Tunes and that factory theme music when working on this.
For American History Magazine. A feature about a 'scandal' surrounding a winter party during the Revolutionary War with George Washington and a distressed general's wife. Not what you think. Peyton McMann, art direction.
Last, but definitely not least, is a set of illustrations for THE AMERICAN PROSPECT, art directed by the ever amenable and smart, Mary Parsons. The cover story- titled, "The Most Radical Party Ever- At Least Since the Pro-Slavery Democrats" ,it explores the constitutional and well as political impact of apocalyptic obstructionism currently keeping government in a lockdown. The article begins by discussing the columnist and pundit, George F. Will and his ability to both castigate Obama and the Tea Party, referencing James Madison in arguing that "in politics,all progress is incremental" while at the same time defending as untidy, bruising and utterly democratic, the Tea Party's attempt to shut down the government. Will draws comparison between the fight to overturn The Affordable Care Act and fighting to free slaves. It seemed like a fine idea to portray Will, generally a fussy, uptight kind of fellow to the fire breathing John Brown from the famous painting. Throw in a hospital bed, doctor and nurse, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Obama, a jackass, and the old Soviet flag on one side and Barry Goldwater, Jesus Christ himself, and a Tea Party elephant and you should have a fine image.
James Madison as a frustrated conductor with a quartet playing the music the way each individual wants to interpret the score.
One of the great obstructionists from old, John Calhoun, a spiritual mentor of sorts to current day passions, and Obama.
I love the Delacroix painting of Liberty leading the masses because it is such an endless source of visual satire. Here Ted Cruz, the Tea Party firebrand rallies a very reluctant main stream GOP to wreck things.
Near the 12th hour Mary asked for a spot drawing of a Tea Party elephant for the cover, echoing an article from a previous issue where I portrayed a Texas Republican as an angry Davy Crockett character (with skunk pelt cap- thank you 3 Stooges). I needed to get the right anger and pose and updated the firearm, using my own 12 gauge as a prop.
Little did I know when emailing the finished illustration for ROLLING STONE’s National Affair section on the Squidopoly of raw materials by investment banks that it would be the last image I’d be creating for a Matt Taibbi article. It was announced on February 20th that Matt was leaving RS for another assignment at a new organization called First Look Media. I’m grateful at least that he didn’t announce on the 19th because I’d forever have to associate my birthday with that bummer news. It’s a bummer for me because in illustrating his investigative pieces since at least 2007 I’ve had the consistent pleasure of reading the raw copy with his own version of gonzo metaphors for the crooks, fakes, and liars in politics and business, and then deal with the challenge of matching the quality of his writing with images. The bar set by his writing was always high and the possibility of falling short in the illustration department was a reliably underlying concern. RS has a solid batting line-up of great journalists, but Matt brought a special sense of Henckel knife sharp humor to his pieces, not afraid to drop an F-bomb for the appropriate effect or trash talk and call out a repugnant member of the ruling class.
That trash talking reminded me of solid jock locker room humor and there was a reason for that. Carrying our association over from the politics in RS, I was assigned to illustrate his column for MEN’S JOURNAL, also published by Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner. It was there that I realized his passionate sports creds- as a basketball star for the Mongolian team in his mid-20’s, as well as his fanatical devotion to the Boston Red Sox among many other obsessions. Apparently, sports is his way of winding down from the politics/finance beat. I’ve worked for only three writers who could be positively gut busting hilarious when writing about sports- Rick Reilly in the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED days, a long and happy association with the one and only David Feherty who could actually make golf, and anything else, funny, and Matt when he was writing for MEN’S JOURNAL. My wife, Terri, can attest how often I would attempt and fail miserably reading to her at night rough copy I’d receive from the art director for a Matt column, unable to catch my breath, laughing like an idiot. In a weird way he is even more brutally funny when writing about sports. If he is an expert at deflating the egos of pols and bankers, he’s even more merciless with his sallies on athlete celebs.
It’s been a matter of no small satisfaction the frequency it has occurred in conversations that when people ask me what I do and, after the blank response when I mention illustration, they immediately have an a-ha moment when I mention the National Affairs columns for RS- “Oh, the pigs in suits!” "Of course, I know your work- you draw for the Taibbi columns." Seated one time at a lunch next to a perfectly amiable gentleman, I spent a little time explaining my work and who my clients were as he listened with apparent great interest. When I asked him what he did he responded, eyes half squinting, “I work for the Vampire Squid.” I stammered, “Oh, you must hate my guts then.” He responded no. He actually enjoyed the columns and didn’t dispute the accuracy of Matt’s disclosures, just that the writing was 'spiced' for the target audience. Now that I think of it, for what it’s worth, I’ve never met a Wall Street representative who took issue with the facts as presented in Matt’s investigations. The critiques have always been about the ‘tone’ of Matt’s writing. The pairing of Matt’s writing and my images has received quite a few thumbs ups from colleagues and readers in general. I like to think that this combination has added to RS’s great tradition of mixing illustration with great writing. Nothing matches Hunter Thompson and Ralph Steadman, nothing ever will, but it’s still nice to be linked, in a small way, to the spirit of that incomparable combo. I do regret never having had the chance to accompany Matt on the campaign trail a la Fear and Loathing, but it’s a small regret when compared to having been given the opportunity to illustrate his investigative articles.
I have only met Matt face to face once, maybe twice, and on both occasions when one of us was entering 1290 Avenue of the Americas, where Wenner Media is located, and the other leaving. Considering the combativeness of his journalistic prose, one could assume he’d be an angry guy ready to throw a punch, either verbal or physical, at a moment's notice. Quite the contrary, Matt has been utterly personable, low keyed, generous in his compliments and…..happy. Every once in a while I would get an email from him slapping me on the back for an image that had him rolling. That sort of acknowledgemnt makes for a very good feeling.
Tonight I'll be going over to a gathering place for farewell drinks from the RS staff for Matt. I was honored when Joe Hutchinson, Mark Maltais, and Will Dana asked me to create an illustration for a mock RS cover which he will be presented with.
Putting this post together has also inspired me to return to some of Hunter Thompson's writing. I picked up a reissue of "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72" the other night with Matt's introduction as well as "Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone" a fantastic compilation of Hunter's work for the mag. Matt is very clear and honest when analysing the connection made between him and HST, describing Hunter's reports as more novelistic and his as more hard core investigative journalism. No matter- he's been an extraordinary writer of great style all his own and it's been a pleasure to have been so connected to his work for Rolling Stone.
Best wishes to Mr. Taibbi.
The Vampire Squid Strikes Again. The last Taibbi feature just recently on the magazine stands.
To my memory, the earliest employment of the pig morphing into banker. Owes more to Georg Grosz than anything else.
Our Counterfeit Economy. "What really happened to Bear and Lehman is that an economic drought temporarily left the hyenas
without any more middle-class victims — and so they started eating each other, using the exact same
schemes they had been using for years to fleece the rest of the country. And in the forensic footprint left
by those kills, we can see for the first time exactly how the scam worked — and how completely even
the government regulators who are supposed to protect us have given up trying to stop it."
Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sacks.
Bank of America- Too Crooked to Fail.
One of my drawings that brought a real howl of laughter from Matt. Hugh McColl Jr. and Ed Crutchfield, respective leaders of Bank of America and Wachovia. "Obsessed with each other, these two men transformed their personal competition into one of the most ridiculous and elaborate penis-measuring contests in the history of American business – even engaging in the garish Freudian spectacle of vying to see who would have the tallest skyscraper in Charlotte."
Hank Paulson. Secretary of the U.S. Treasury overseeing the great collapse of 2008, protecting his own.
"Is Obama for Real?" I put Matt in this piece because more than anything it was his rumination on whether Obama was the real thing or just another disappointment in the making.
Taibbi's observations on the Hillary-Obama debates.
Never known for his religious beliefs John McCain's attempt to court the religious right and his conversion seemed forced as the campaign got desperate in 2008.
Michele Bachmann. Without comment, part 2.
Karl Rove was once seen as the puppet master. An evil Gepetto of sorts.
Profiles in Cowardice. It became known to me that Pelosi was not a fan of my work.
The Athlete's Arrest Manual- Men's Journal. What a romp trying to match the writing.
Barry Bonds. Men's Journal.
The NFL draft. Men's Journal.
Crybabies. Men's Journal.
This piece was about making leveling the money pool in acquiring players for most other teams other than the few richest.
The Second Coming of Larry Bird will not happen.
Don't Hate. Another opportunity to use Matt in a piece about his own sports partisanship.
A portrait that ran in RS for one of the banking collapse features.
Yet another for another feature in RS.
Finally, as it should end, Matt wrestling with the vampire squid. Don't Google images for the vampire squid. It looks nothing like my illustration and nothing like we imagine squids. But this incarnation fit perfectly with the iconic Greek image of Laocoon, replacing the snakes for tentacles.
With Will Dana, RS editor in chief.
When I saw the faux cover presented to Matt I couldn't help but think how great it would be to see more illustration on the covers of RS. Mix the format up a bit more; bring back a great tradition.