Designers Don’t Have Influences: Austin Howe

I had better start by owning up to not having read Designers Don’t Read by Howe – I had seen lots of press for it but never got round to picking up a copy. So I have come to his second book without reading the first, but Designers Don’t Have Influences (Amazon US|CA|UK|DE) is stand-alone and can be picked up without any prior knowledge of Howe or his writing.

Designers Don’t Have Influences is a collection of short essays on people that have influenced Howe throughout his successful career in advertising. Rather than write about people working directly in his field Howe writes about all sorts of people from various disciplines. He writes in the forward:

“My basic premise is that we can often learn more from people in other disciplines than we can from our own”

This really resonated with me. As a designer my own influences are often from beyond my profession and can be divorced from their context. Howe’s introduction had already got me excited about reading on.

“Disclaimer: this book is not an exhaustive compendium of every notable author or artist or inventor or entrepreneur. It’s really more of a random collection of individuals who have impacted me in some way – people I think most designers would probably appreciate knowing a little more about.”

There are no work samples in the book – Howe explains that Designers Don’t Have Influences follows in the “spirit and tradition of Norman Potter’s little gem, What is a designer: Things, Places, Messages” (a book I would also recommend, Potter is a great influence on me). Howe also explains that he wanted to dismiss the idea that designers don’t read – hence the title of his first book.

Each chapter in Designers Don’t Have Influences is a self contained essay. At the start of each chapter is the estimated time it will take to read it – I loved this element (one he uses in Designers Don’t Read), as I could pick up the book in my lunch time, waiting for a tube, sitting on Brighton beach, and flick to a chapter which I knew I would be able to read in the time I had. I felt I was carrying round a bunch of observations and ideas I could dip into rather than a book I would have to read from page one onwards. Each chapter has a little nugget of Howe thinking, seemingly designed to make you think a little, question a little and maybe re-evaluate your position and approach to your design work.

Some of the chapters are simply Howe’s observations of the experiences of working with others in and around his industry – the chapter on Bill Cahan gives a great insight into the processes of an innovative and successful design agency and those that run it. Many of Howe’s other subjects will be familiar to designers, the ubiquitous Ayn Rand gets a chapter, as do the Saatchis, Julian Schnabel, Josef Müller-Brockman and Damien Hirst, but it is the people I had never heard of that interested me the most – a great example is the chapter on François Allaire, a Canadian Hockey goalie coach. As a Yorkshireman who grew up with only a passing interest in football (my trips to Elland Road were on the whim of friends, I was never a committed football fan), there was no way I was going to have heard of a Canadian Hockey coach. Within this chapter Howe explains how Allaire re-invented goalie coaching from the ground up, and coached some of the most successful goalies in Hockey history. Howe writes about how Allaire can be an influence to someone working in the field of design:

“First of all he teaches us that it can be done, wherever and whenever it is actually attempted. That by questioning the conventions of how something has been done for years, we can find new ways of approaching it, simply by being aware, observant, ambitious.”

At the back of the book, once the essays are over, there’s a collection of doodle style portraits of the chapters subjects (along side a quote), credited to Aaron James. – my favourite is the starey scary disembodied Damien Hirst, but Maurice Saatchi’s portrait is worth a mention. I also liked the book design and typography credited to Fredrik Averin – a seemingly modernist design subverted with bold lines striking through the words, a treatment carried through from the cover to the chapters headings.

Maurice Saatchi

The best accolade I can give this book is that I already have bought his first book on the back of this one – and I will be keeping an eye on out for further publications and writing by Howe.

This review also features on The Designer’s Review of Books.


Jun’ichirō Tanizaki: In Praise of Shadows (谷崎 潤一郎: 陰翳礼讃)

In Praise of Shadows

I came across this slim book (which is more an extended essay) while looking into texts on aesthetics. I was particularly interested in books about the differences in perception. Not specifically from a design point of view but more general ideas on cultural differences in the perception of everyday objects, the spaces we occupy and how we interact with them.

I call this book an essay – I could easily call it a mild rant. A personal plea against homogeneity. In Praise of Shadows (Amazon UK US) concerns itself with the difference in attitudes regarding light, and how western influence has diluted the Japanese love of shadows.

Originally published in 1933 in Japanese, the English translation was published in 1977 and as the title hints at Jun’ichirō Tanizaki makes the claim that traditional Japanese objects such as lacquerware and the Japanese home itself have been made specifically for low light, or to be specific, the light produced as the day closes – for example the central living space in a traditional Japanese dwelling would always have a sand or neutral finish, all the best to subtly highlight an evenings fading light.

Why should this propensity to seek beauty in darkness be so strong only in Orientals? The West too has known a time when there was no electricity, gas, or petroleum, yest so far as I know the West has never been disposed to delight in shadows. Japanese ghosts have traditionally no feet; Western ghosts have feet, but are transparent. As even this trifle suggests, pitch darkness has always occupied our fantasies, while in the West even ghosts are clear as glass. This is true too of our household implements: we prefer colours compounded of darkness, they prefer the colours of sunlight. And of silverware and copperware: we love them for the burnish and patina, which they consider unclean, insanitary, and polish to a glittering brilliance. They paint their ceilings and walls in pale colours to drive out as many of the shadows as they can. We fill our gardens with dense plantings, they spread out a flat expanse of grass.

Tanizaki argues that the West is quite opposite to the Japanese: the West emphasize brightness and uniformity. Tanizaki believes that western culture associate brightness with cleanliness and hygiene. In modern western architecture light is a premium. Buildings are designed to be as bright as possible, no matter what the time of day. Shadows, dim corners, nooks and crannies are reduced. By contrast Japanese architecture regards light in a much more subtle fashion; light is seen as liquid and as having different properties depending on the time of day and season. Tanizaki believes that in Japanese culture shadows and low light are intrinsic to how their homes have evolved. Japanese homes filter and diffuse light through paper walls, letting it absorb onto neutral surfaces, reflecting the change in light throughout the day. This concept of varying light is not alien to western architects but Tanizaki’s bugbear is of western hegemony and to address this he needs to generalize.

An example of a Japanese interior he uses early in the book, and one that made me smile, is of the water closet. Tanizaki bemoans the loss of the traditional Japanese toilet – the western equivalent is made up of shiny metal faucets, highly reflective tiles or surfaces invariably white. The Japanese closet according to Tanizaki is a place of spiritual reflection:

“Every time I am shown to an old, dimly lit, and, I would add, impeccably clean toilet in a Nara or Kyoto temple, I am impressed with the singular virtues of Japanese architecture. The parlor may have its charms, but the Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose. It always stands apart from the main building, at the end of a corridor, in a grove fragrant with leaves and moss. No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden. The novelist Natsume Soseki counted his morning trips to the toilet a great pleasure, ‘a physiological delight’ he called it. And surely there could be no better place to savor this pleasure than a Japanese toilet where, surrounded by tranquil walls and finely grained wood, one looks out upon blue skies and green leaves.”

In Praise of Shadows jumps around from subject to subject with no apparent rhyme or reason – for such a slim book there is a fair amount of repetition, but this only adds to the character of the text, and the slightly chaotic feel seems to reflect the personal and singular attitude that Tanizaki takes with his subject matter.

The passage regarding skin colour was also quite revealing, discussing as it does the Japanese tradition of teeth blackening combined with green lipstick. Of course teeth blackening is not just a Japanese tradition and why this was seen as attractive or desirable in Japanese culture is never explained by Tanizaki. His explanation of why Japanese culture has such respect of the days changing light seems to be one of not surrendering to progress and the respect of tradition – I came away from this book thinking that Tanizaki had created a swansong to a disappearing culture – whether that is what he intended I can only presume, but the Japan he wistfully talks about probably does not now exist apart from in a few rural areas. I have never visited Japan, but I wonder what would Tanizaki think about my perception of the modern Japan, a perception gleaned from people I have met, movies, books, magazines, the internet and the TV: modern, technologically advanced, clean, bright – and neon.

So why would this book interest the designer? Maybe this book can serve as a reminder of how differently we view and use spaces and ‘things’ depending on our cultural background; that design decisions will always be fundamentally subjective no matter what the logic or rational that underpins them. Maybe it is a reminder to keep one eye on the passage of time and that ‘good’ design can be timeless.

This review also appears on The Designer’s Review of Books.


Neil Young’s Greendale: Joshua Dysart & Cliff Chiang

Greendale hardback cover

I have to start this review by admitting that I am not a massive Neil Young fan. I quite like his soundtrack for Dead Man which I occasionally stick on the stereo, but that is were my relationship with Neil Young starts and ends. I was vaguely aware of his 2003 eco-political concept album, Greendale, which he released in 2003. What I didn’t know is that the album also spawned a film, a book and the obligatory ‘interactive tour’… and now there is the Greendale graphic novel (Amazon UK), written by Joshua Dysart with art by Cliff Chiang.

It did occur to me that to properly review Greendale I should track down the album, listen to it on headphones while completing the interactive tour on my laptop with the live action film on mute on the telly in the background. All that seemed quite a task simply for preparation for reading a comic book so I decided not to give the album even a cursory listen. Instead I dived right into the comic book without any in-depth knowledge of Young’s project apart from an inkling that it would contain tree hugging and maybe a mild rant against George Bush. I expect the creators of this graphic novel wanted it to be consumed without the need for backstory and that it should work as a stand alone piece. So that is how I approached it.

The story concerns a teenage girl called Sun who lives in the small southern US town of Greendale. Sun is part of a linage of women who all have special powers over nature – the narrative tracks the awakening of these powers in Sun and also how her political beliefs mature over time – she defeats a kind of demon with her newly realized powers and ends up hitching to Alaska to protest about oil drilling and the war in Iraq. Along the way she finds out about her magical heritage and her ancestry. The demon Sun defeats bears a strong resemblance to Neil Young and after noticing this I ended up thinking that most of the male characters looked a bit like Neil Young, but that could be my mind playing tricks. The demon also reminded me a little of the preacher in Poltergeist 2, in the way he is initially seen by Sun from a distance walking through walls, and how the demon is only visible to certain people. In Suns dreams the demon becomes a giant goat-like creature and these dream passages are the most enjoyable as it seems like Chiang lets his imagination loose and the panels seem more free and full of energy.

The overall book design is well executed, my copy is a hardback with a rough matt finish without a dust jacket, which makes a nice change. The family tree pages have a retro ‘vintage’ feel to the layout and typography. I presume that these design decisions were to give the book an ageless quality and this concept seems to extend to the art – the colour is quite desaturated in that 1050′s style but Chiang’s art is very fresh and clean and for me didn’t quite carry over the vintage concept.

I always like to see the artists ‘hand’ in comic books, which might seem paradoxical, but there is a current style for comic art to look quite perfect – lines are beautifully rendered, colours have smooth gradients and there is the feel and influence of the computer to the work. I have always preferred to see the sketches behind the drawing, or a much more loose style of drawing in the style of Eddie Campbell, Ted McKeever or Vincent Paronnaud for example – but this is only my personal preference and there are some lovingly rendered panels in Greendale, particularly the dream sequences – you can see the artists hand at work in these panels which for me are the most successful.



While I was looking at the various incarnations of the Greendale project I was particularly taken with the album cover art for Greendale, a beautiful illustration in a very ‘folk’ style by American artist James Mazzeo. I have not gone completely off topic, the illustration appears in the inside cover of the comic book. Anyone interested in contemporary American folk art should check him out.

Greendale album artwork by James Mazzeo

Greendale the graphic novel seems to be intended for a teenage audience, and the ‘coming of age’ sub plot combined with the ecological pro-active message fits that audience perfectly. Buy this comic book if you are young enough to have never heard of Neil Young.

Thanks to for supplying a copy for review.

This review first appeared on


Winshluss: Pinocchio

Winshluss (Vincent Paronnaud) has taken the Pinocchio stories of Carlo Collodi and dragged it through the hundred or so years of popular culture that has passed since it was first written and given it a surreal dark twist. The results are quite an amazing comic book: Pinocchio by Winshluss (Amazon UK), an award winner, picking up book of the year at the French Angouleme festival.

Winshluss: Pinocchio

The book is published in French but mostly without text, the story told in descriptive panels in that classic Bandes Dessinées style intermixed with with full page and half page panels that also form part of the narrative. The only parts of the book with words are a few sections in black and white drawn in a loose sketchy style that nicely juxtaposes with the colour artwork that makes up the main body of the book. These black and white passages involve Jimmy the Cricket who has taken up home in Pinocchio’s head, and with my bad french I managed to just about understand what was going on, although you could easily understand the story with little or no french (like me).

The majority of the book is colour and wordless. Winshluss draws and paints in several mediums and there are several full page panels that I was amazed by. The coloring has that desaturated nostalgic feel that perfectly matches his drawing style.

Winshluss: Pinocchio

Winshluss: Pinocchio

The lame fox and blind cat from the original Carlo Collodi Pinocchio adventures become a smack-head and blind beggar, Monstro the great whale becomes a polluted toxic mutant fish destroying a Titanic style liner complete with white bearded captain and string ensemble who not only carry on playing when the ship goes down, but as they are being dissolved by the acidic bile in the stomach of the toxic fish.

Winshluss also makes several nods to Disney; Snow White and the seven dwarfs make an appearance, the dwarfs are a gruesome set of perverts and their involvement in Geppetto’s comeuppance is particularly twisted. There is even a film noir element, a hard boiled cop with a head like an Easter island statue who tracks down Geppetto and the seven perverted dwarfs. The book is certainly dark, but full of humor.

Pinocchio himself is a mute robot-boy, created by Geppetto to be a war machine who he initially tries to sell to the military. Pinocchio goes wandering after short circuiting while Jimmy the Cricket enters his robot brain. Pinocchio tumbles through this story, staying resolutely mute while the tale unfolds around him.

Winshluss: Pinocchio

Winshluss: Pinocchio

Vincent Paronnaud is also credited as co-writer and co-director with Marjane Satrapi on the film adaptation of her comic series Persépolis. What a talented chap.

You can see more artwork at a larger size here at


Blast Theory – Ulrike and Eamon Compliant

Blast Theory’s work is interesting stuff – I especially relate to the level of immersive interaction and the integration of technology. I came across Blast Theory as my good friend Dan is their administrator, and I participated in the piece Day Of The Figurines when it came to Brighton.

From the Blast Theory website:

Blast Theory is renowned internationally as one of the most adventurous artists’ groups using interactive media, creating groundbreaking new forms of performance and interactive art that mixes audiences across the internet, live performance and digital broadcasting.

Anyhow, I was invited along to the ‘premier’ of the documentation of their latest work Ulrike and Eamon Compliant at Blast Theory’s quite swanky studios just outside Brighton. Having not experienced Ulrike and Eamon Compliant firsthand I can’t comment on it, but the short film and supporting book documenting the work was enough to make me want to experience it for myself. The wine was nice too.

The book is beautifully designed by John Hunter, simple two column grid with a swiss flavour. I particularly like the cover, no messing about:

Blast Theory

Blast Theory

To read all about Ulrike and Eamon Compliant go here:

The DVD and book I am told should be on sale from the blast theory website soon – also check their website for information on upcoming projects.


Museum of Everything

Took a trip to Chalk Farm on Saturday to have a look at the Museum of Everything, a wide collection of outsider art from the last 60 years, and I can honestly say it is the best collection of anything I have ever seen and urge you to visit.

Yes you, prednisone medications we’ve not met but I’m sure we’d be friends, right?


The collection is housed in what used to be a recording studio and the location sits very well with the objects and images, small rooms linked by smaller corridors opening into a larger room, filled floor to ceiling with the most obsessive imagery I’ve ever seen. The collection is selected by artists, musicians and writers but don’t let that spoli it, you might like David Byrne.

Each curator has written a small text explaining their choices. Some of these are very annoying, some are better.

Nick Cave managed to get to the nub of it for me with the text ‘Louis Wain is my favourite painter ever’.

Fair enough eh?

There are some truly startling paintings, illustrations and installations on view here, the product of a persons obsessions and compulsions. This is not art made for the consideration by others, this is true art, made because the artist has no other choice but to get it out of their head. Highlights for me were the Aleksander P Lobanov collection and the Henry Darger panels, a twisted Norman Rockwell of adolescence and fear.

Get up there and see it, don’t think it’s going to be on for much longer.


David Mazzucchelli: Asterios Polyp

My previous experience of work by David Mazzucchelli is his re-working, re-interpretation, re-whatever you want to call it of the first story in Paul Auster’s trilogy City of Glass – a graphic novel which blew me away with its art work, mind bending story and ‘silent’ passages describing the vortex of the mind of a man going slowly mad. After getting round to reading the novel a couple of years later, I re-read David Mazzucchelli’s City of Glass again and was even more impressed. My round about-discovery of both seemed apt considering the subject matter.


So, I was in Dave’s Comics, Brighton, a Saturday afternoon, wanting a comic book fix. 2000 AD re-issues are just not doing it for me. I bought Asterios Polyp on the recommendation of the shopkeeper and on the brief flick through I gave it – and also, the nice hardback copy abated my ‘nice book’ addiction. It was only on getting home and giving it a proper inspection that I realised I was familiar with the author/artist. But I am crap with names. And facts.


Asterios Polyp, the protagonist, is a fifty-ish ‘paper’ architect – belligerent, arrogant, won lots of awards, recognised, but not one of his designs have ever been built. Already I liked Asterios, but saw the flaws, what I was supposed to think. His story is ‘a journey of discovery’, can’t put it in any other way – he is brought down, escapes, goes on a journey, discovers himself, meets interesting characters along the way and finds some sort of redemption. Sounds pretty average and run of the mill but this is anything but and so much more. Mazzucchelli manages to comment on relationships, compatibility, art theory, aesthetics all within his narrative and combines these themes with some very off the wall characters.


The artwork, so different to City of Glass, is itself subverted to become part of the narrative, different styles denoting mood, illustrating compatibility. The way he has combined his lettering, colour and page composition, all coming together in a way that communicates vast amounts on a single page, seems such a natural part of the evolution of comic books (sorry, Graphic Novels). Every character, however minor, had their own stylistically different lettering reminding me of Asterix books of my youth, the Goths with their blackletter style lettering, Egyptians talking in hieroglyphs. But Mazzucchelli uses this approach, spins and multiplies it to create a quite unique vision.

I bought a copy for my brother for his thirty eighth birthday. It was the last one in the shop. Must be good then.

Buy it here

Read an 2000 interview with David Mazzucchelli


The transformer: principles of making Isotype charts by Marie Neurath and Robin Kinross

The transformer: principles of making Isotype charts by Marie Neurath and Robin Kinross


Transforming (Tranformator) – “The process of analysing, selecting, ordering, and then making visual some information, data, ideas, implications…”

I have been waiting for the publication of The transformer... for a while now. I first became aware of the Isotype (System Of TYpographic Picture Education) work of Otto Neurath while working on data visualisation as the Head of Design at Lateral. At first I was excited about the visual style – I seemed to have come across the root style of information graphics. I soon realised that Isotype was far more than ‘style’ – it was and is a fundamental tool in presenting data with maximum efficiency – a method of visualisation that communicates multiple relationships and connections.

Isotype attempts to present as much information as possible in the most effective and simple way. The viewer should be able to ‘read’ Isotype charts in several ways and this is what makes Isotype so successful. Otto Neurath’s way of using repeated symbols donating a unit, rather than scaling symbols to donate magnitude is what sets his work apart, and what made his work the beginnings of graphic communication based on a solid, well thought out and logical system.



The transformer’s first half, and the main core of the book, is an essay written by Marie Neurath in the last year before her death in 1986. Marie Neurath was the ‘Principle Isotype Transformer’ of the Isotype institution and her essay gives an insightful first hand account of the development of Isotype and the working methods used by the Isotype institution, and how she carried on the work of Isotype after the death of Otto in 1945. The essay was intended as the start of a ‘Primer’ on Isotype that was never published, but it is credit to Robin Kinross that this essay and this book now exist.

The other sections of the book include an attempt to place Isotype within a greater context of graphic communication, and draws parallels with other practitioners of data visualisation – Harry Beck’s influential London Underground diagram gets a worthy mention, as does that champion of standardisation and modernist typographer, Jan Tschichold.

Like the other Hyphen books in the series The transformer… is a beautifully designed and put together book, with many colour illustrations, many of which I would have liked to have seen reproduced at a much larger scale. While reading Marie Neurath’s essay I had wished I had more information into her non professional life – Otto and Marie obviously had obstacles to manoeuvre, the war enforcing at least one move upon them as they fled the Nazis. The obituary reproduced at the end of the book made up for any lack of  insight into the personality of Marie Neurath.


I would have also liked to have had a little more information about Gerd Arntz, a collaborator of the Isotype institution, member of the progressive artists group’ (Gruppe progressiver Künstler Köln), socially inspired and politically committed artist and activist. In The transformer... he gets a credit for introducing die cut to the working process of the Isotype institution, and is mentioned as a key collaborator. You can read more about Gerd Arntz and view the extensive gallery of his Isotype symbols here –

Please also note the very considered use of the typeface Futura on the illustrations above.

*the images used in this post were the results of a google search, and not all of them appear in The transformer.

** This review also appears on the blog

Buy The transformer… here


Jost Hochuli: Detail in Typography

Or, to give it it’s full title: Detail In Typography, Letters, Letter spacing, words, word spacing, lines, line spacing, columns. (Amazon UK)


Detail in Typography… is one of the more recent publications by Hyphen Press, the imprint set up by Robin Kinross; typographer, author & critic. Published for the first time in English last year (2008), Detail in Typography… was first published in Germany Switzerland in 2005 and it’s translation to English has given this slim book a much deserved wider audience.

Detail in Typography… is not just a guide to making clear & legible text. Hochuli also discusses what makes an aesthetically pleasing layout, and why layouts can still appear dull even after all the ‘rules’ have been strictly adhered to.

Covering all the elements which make up a column of text the book is split into the following chapters: The reading process, The letter, The word, The line, Line spacing & the column and The qualities of type. This segregation gives Detail in Typography… a clear and defined structure, reflecting the principles of the subject matter perfectly. Jost Hochuli also stresses that Detail in Typography… should not be regarded as infallible. Hochuli counts on “intelligent designers finding appropriate solutions”.

In the words of the author in his introduction:

“While macrotypography -  the typographic layout – is concerned with the format of the printed matter, with the size and position of the columns of type and illustrations, with the organization of the hierarchy of headings, subheadings and captions, detail typography is concerned with the individual components – letters, letterspacing, words, wordspacing, lines and linespacing, columns of text. These are the components that graphic or typographic designers like to neglect, as they fall outside the area that is normally regarded as ‘creative’…

…There are many matters of detail typography which one can, in good conscience, resolve differently. The author would certainly not want this book to be regarded as an infallible catechism: rather, he counts on intelligent designers, who, in the spirit of this book, finds appropriate solutions to the problems that arise in a given context, even though not all potential problems are dealt with in this text”

Typography is happily no longer an esoteric art to the average designer and over the last few years there have been a plethora of typography books arriving on the market as the art of typography becomes increasingly accessible: we all now have the possibility of access to thousands of fonts, the expensive cumbersome metal type having made its way onto the desktop computer. With typography being such a huge subject Hochuli’s classification and definition of ‘micro typography’ (a term Hochuli first coined in 1987) makes Detail in Typography… another welcome addition to the range of useful and informative books on the subject of type.

For the established designer Detail in Typography… is a great refresher, a reminder of how concise composition can reside in the detail. For the student or the designer just starting out and wanting reference for typography I would say Detail in Typography is essential – understand and appreciate ‘micro typography’ and students of design will have a solid foundation for dealing with all things type and type related.

As with all Hyphen books Detail in Typography… is beautifully designed. The red and black colour scheme is striking and effective, the inside covers of solid red a nice touch. Hochuli always backs up his observations and comments with detailed illustrations and examples. Not only a useful text on type, a beautiful book too.


For anyone interested in further reading on typography I would recommend the following two books:

For a contextual look at the history of type I would recommend Modern Typography: an essay in critical history by Robin Kinross. Although currently out of print a re-print is expected soon . From the books back cover, a quote from Matthew Carter, Eye magazine;

“As a brief history of typography it is difficult to think how it could be better.”

I could not put it any better myself. The cover has also got an uncoated finish in bright yellow, although impractical and soon was covered by my newsprint fingerprints, looks amazing.

Before this post becomes a Hyphen press love-in I would also recommend The Elements of Typographic Style by Richard Bringhurst for a wider look on the practical application of type. Often quoted as the ‘bible of typography’. But not by me.


Jason Lutes: Jar Of Fools

If anyone has heard of Jason Lutes before this UK publication of Jar Of Fools it’s probably due to his work Berlin: City of Stones. Over the last 15 years Lutes has published a handful of graphic novels: Jar of Fools, Houdini the Handcuff King, and the Berlin series among them.

Jar of Fools follows an alcohol addled, broken-hearted magician as he comes to terms with the end of a relationship and the unexpected suicide of his escape-artist brother. His journey is framed by the increasing senility of his mentor and the attempts of a low life con-artist to persuade the magician to educate his young daughter in the ways of magic.

A sense of detachment, of being out of time saturates this book; the magician’s acknowledgment that he is no longer relevant and the literal underworld the characters inhabit support this feeling. The magician’s own traditional take on his vocation removes him from the modern world – his kind of magic is the magic of smoky clubs, starched collars and sleight of hand, an antiquated form of showmanship made redundant by CGI, Vegas and television. In the magician’s aging mentor’s own words, how can you top Copperfield making the Statue of Liberty disappear on peak-time TV?


Accordingy to Lutes’ Wikipedia page, a trip to France exposed him to ‘Bandes Dessinées‘ comic strips (Tintin and Asterix for example), which have greatly influenced his style (see his homage to Hergé on page 77 of Jar of Fools, and extra points if you spot the reference to Chris Ware). Having myself grown up with Asterix comics I can easily relate to these simply drawn characters and the rhythm of the uniform panels on the page. In some ways Lutes reminds me of Chester Brown, another European-influenced comic artist, insomuch as both keep a regular grid of panels on the page and use simply drawn characters, able to express a wide range of emotions through a few considered lines of ink.

Jar of Fools is neatly paced, and does not suffer from the transition from a series of issues in to a single volume. Lutes uses dream sequences and alcoholic hallucinations to show our protagonist’s state of mind, and successfully incorporates these sequences into his narrative, reinforcing the detachment from reality his characters all suffer from. With such doomed characters inhabiting Jar of Fools, a feel-good ending was never going to be on the cards, and although the characters all go through some sort of awakening the ending is downbeat but open-ended enough for the reader to form their own conclusions.


A graphic novel that I will revisit again, in Jar of Fools Lutes has created a work that is engaging and a joy to read, a refreshing change from the navel-gazing that constitutes much of contemporary American ‘grown up’ comics.

Many thanks to Faber & Faber for supplying a copy for review.

This review first appeared on

Buy a copy here.