A comics reminisce, and the Daytripper

 

It gets more difficult for books to take me by surprise, as I get older. It may be down to the books I read, but I tend to find this in comics more than in prose (my generation never called them ‘graphic novels’, but this is what I’m talking about).

Manara's HP and Giuseppe Bergman
Giuseppe Bergman and the calm before the storm

My love of comics goes back to the dawn of my literacy – the combination of story and images speaks to me very strongly. During my thirteenth year a new magazine called βαβέλ (babel) hit the newsstands in Athens, translating into Greek a knowledgeable selection of mostly European comics. Monthly instalments of anarchic, fantastical, irreverent, and sometimes profound illustrated stories held a mirror up to two deeply messed up decades, full of crises, political fluctuations, and social unrest. Post-1968 European artists had little patience for the self-absorbed, blathering demigods of 2000AD or Marvel. Instead, I got Liberatore and Tamburini’s dystopian Ranxerox, anticipating the broken down cities of Blade Runner; Édika, Gottlieb, and Lauzier, showing up the absurdities of urban middle classness; the dark, black humour of Altan and Vuillemin (still going strong); and Reiser, subversive even thirty years after his death. I balanced these with Will Eisner‘s deeply human stories, Hugo Pratt‘s languorously adventurous Corto Maltese, and Manara’s extended Bergman stories: like Corto Maltese, a man caught in a turbulent stream of fate, but dealing with his predicament rather less gracefully. (By the way, has anybody noticed that Hayao Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso is really a porcine Corto Maltese?)

Abuli & Bernet's Torpedo
Abuli & Bernet’s Torpedo

The French and Italians dominated my early collection: Giardino, Battaglia, Varenne, Saudelli, Crepax, most of them alternating between adaptations of noir story lines and wonderfully indulgent fantasies. I suspect that my love of noir literature was seeded with Abuli & Bernet’s Torpedo, and Muñoz & Sampayo’s Alack Sinner. These partnerships of superb storytellers and image-makers (Spanish and Argentinian, respectively) have superlative peers today: Darwyn Cooke’s coldly amoral Parker, an exceptional translation of Richard Stark‘s character, is rivalled for impact by Jacques Tardi’s adaptation of Manchette’s West Coast Blues. I re-read both frequently: they are masterpieces of telling a story with the least expenditure of words: only situation, and action.

‘Your sorrow, my sorrow’

All of these stories have characters (men, mostly) in different stages of coming to terms with a world that exceeds them. In noir, the main character may have the odds stacked against him, but has perseverance, cunning, and strength to carry him forward. The most interesting stories introduce any range of character flaws, making the personalities more human. Unlike Stark’s ruthlessly efficient Parker, Andrea Pazienza‘s Zanardi is amoral in a self-destructive way, just as Moebius‘ John DiFool is a hunkering coward. By far my favourite ‘man-in-over-his-head’ character has been Pierre Christin & Enki Bilal‘s Alcide Nikopol: dislocated in time (through a bungled hibernation) and frame of reference (an Earth where ancient Egyptian gods play politics) he strives to adapt while still sucking in as much of this new world he finds himself in.

Alcide Nikopol and Horus the God
Alcide Nikopol and Horus the God

I knew Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá from De-Tales (and Bá from The Umbrella Academy). A few days ago I got a copy of Daytripper. I started reading, and it hit me like a sledgehammer.

The book is about Brás, a man with ambitions to be a writer, a good father, a worthy son, and a friend. Each chapter picks one part of his life, but weaves in the storyline the unpredictability of accidents, a series of plausible ‘what ifs’ which interrupt the storyline. This is a device every Greek understands well: the Three Moirai (or Three Fates), Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos spin, apportion and cut the thread of life. (Yes, that’s the origin of the phrase.) In the Daytripper the story picks up in the next chapter, the point of interruption unknown. This wonderful device, a cross between parallel universes and a linear world, is life laid bare: a microcosm of emotions and personal, immediate relationships, within a maelstrom of unpredictability. Most will pass with little effect, some will upturn everything.

Daytripper, three generations under a tree
Three generations under a tree

There is a lot to read in Brás’ desire for his life to exceed the limits of the immediate action and relationships. He strives to be a good friend, and father, but has deeper desires: he captures perfectly the frustration at the heart of the modern human condition, where a wider consciousness, contemplation, and ambition can place seemingly insurmountable obstructions. For most of the Daytripper, Brás embodies F Scott Fitzgerald’s famous aphorism: ‘This is what I think now: that the natural state of the sentient adult is a qualified unhappiness.’

The dialogue is economical, like reality distilled. With the excess of words removed, the force of the environment and the unspoken, imagined expressions become more powerful. And it underlines the unspoken moments, when what is not said is more powerful than paragraphs of text. This is right at the heart of the power of comics: the illustrator does not supplant the visual imagination of the reader, but fires it up and channels it in new directions. The experience of reading becomes imaginatively richer because of the presence of images.

The women in Brás’ life offer a fascinating insight into the mind of the troubled male. They are ever-present, but in the periphery; they represent the family, continuity, and the next generation, but do not share in his contemplation. Only towards the end do we see a shift: when the son has taken on the role of father himself, companionship and affection have proven a stronger constant. This is juxtaposed with the role of Jorge, Brás’ friend: stronger in intensity, alternatively present and missing, catalytic at times, but ultimately absent. The overarching feeling of solitude, the man and his thoughts alone, is accepted and embraced brilliantly at the end of a life full of people.

The Daytripper is the best example of visual poetry I have read in quite a while.

Daytripper
A man and his thoughts, with coffee, by the sea

Information Design and Typography

[I got asked yesterday by a student in another university “what Information Design (and especially Typography) means to you”, and dumped this out over breakfast; I post it “as is” to avoid going into the black hole of perpetual editing.]

 

Firstly, typography: this depends on the institutional viewpoint, and the language*. In the English-speaknig world it is a continuum. At one end it refers to the the design of texts at the paragraph level, covering type choice, line measurements, and similar micro-typographic choices. At the other end typography encompasses all choices relating to the construction of a document as a carrier of information that readers engage with because they want or need this information. The critical distinction lies in the engagement with the text: typography, in its wider definition, covers a range of macro choices at the level of the spread, the document as a sequential experience, and the production of a physical or on-screen object.

Information Design covers typographic design where the engagement of the readers with the text is critical and has specific objectives. Navigation (wayfinding, way-showing, route-mapping, and any of a number of similar terms), safety, instruction, and training are the most common applications. At the heart of Information Design is a user-based perspective, and the imperative to test design solutions. As design scenarios migrate to screen-based environments, especially mobile devices, the potential for customisation of information design to each user is increasingly important in its methodology.

My view is that “static” Information Design on fixed substrates (paper, vinyl sheets, plexiglass signs, and so on) is fundamentally different from Information Design on digital environments. In the first case, it strives to maximise the efficiency of the message and eliminate ambiguity for the largest section of the intended audience. In the second, it has the additional function of maximising the value of the information to the specific demands of the user. This is an additional motivation for the reader to engage with the document, and a much more interesting challenge for the designer. Customised paper documents (e.g. utility bills) have tried to bridge the gap between these two poles, with some success, although clearly they will rapidly give way to screen-based versions.

Of course, in all cases Information Design has to carry the identity of the publisher. This is in itself a separate design challenge, usually addressed by aggregating the effect of the designed objects rather than an individual document. For example, a sign system brands a building through the consistency of its appearance, just as much as by the range of the scenarios it enables.

 

  • In Spanish-speaking countries “tipografia” means “type design”. This, as you can imagine, leads to no end of confusions and clarifications.

The perfect tool

A vise grip

A few days ago a series of coincidences starting with an email about recent work brought me to MB’s drawing about her dad. I was reminded of feelings for my father, a naval engineer for half of his career. He enrolled at the naval academy at the inconceivable age of fourteen (the youngest cadet ever, if family myth is true) and spent the next twenty-five years in and out of the bowels of ships: from wooden torpedo boats to hand-me-down US Navy destroyers, all the way to enormous crude tankers in Japanese shipyards. As much as he could, he exposed me to this world of wonderful machines, making me the only boy in my school who had seen where a propeller shaft exits the hull from the inside of the ship, or heard the deafening clanging of a tanker engine at full ahead (sound so thickly enveloping you that felt like water flowing around you in the sea).

The engineering background brought a garage full of too many tools (no, wrong: you can never have too many tools) and a facility with making and fixing things. I inherited the enthusiasm and some of the skills. I can now appreciate that a confidence to tackle anything I can figure out by looking at how it works and thinking it through, is one of the most valuable things I got from him. (Which also explains my failings with electronics: I can’t look at them work, nor take them apart and lay them on the table.)

In all the years of my tinkering, from toy models to motorcycles and a much-suffering Citroen 2CV, one tool has been my favourite. I’ve got no idea what it’s name is in English,[1. I now know: vise-grips] but in Greek it’s called μποζονοβγάλτης – bozonovgáltis – essentially a tool to loosen nuts. It has an adjustable grip, from a few hairs’ wide to easily six centimetres wide, and once locked onto an object it will grip as strongly as if you had run a bolt through the thing. Its force of grip is such that you can loosen a locknut by gripping two opposing sides with less wear on the nut than a spanner will inflict.

Yet the reach of the handle will always be at the optimum for your hand, and a simple push on the small lever will release the tool. You can use the rear side to bash things loose – or even drive a nail in – and the lever action makes the cutter slice through the thickest cable or rod with little effort.

When we bought our house, it was the first tool I bought. Now, in my oldest son’s hands, I hope it will feed his and his brother’s desire to take things apart and put them back together again.