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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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 – http://www.gerdarntz.org/home.

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 http://www.designersreviewofbooks.com/

Buy The transformer… here

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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)


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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.


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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.

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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?

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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.

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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 bookgeeks.co.uk.

Buy a copy here.

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