• Posted on July 29, 2015
Comic Art of Lynn Johnston

The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston

Few Canadian icons are as beloved as Lynn Johnston. Most everyone has read her Pulitzer Prize nominated comic strip For Better or For Worse, finding their own lives reflected in the everyday activities of the Patterson family. Unlike most comic strips, however, the characters aged and faced real-world issues that other popular forms of entertainment ignored. People, and I include myself here, were (and still are) emotionally invested in the characters and its creator Lynn Johnston. Now we have For Better or For Worse: The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston, and with it, a much richer portrait of the artist and woman behind the comic strip.

Published to coincide with an international touring exhibition of Lynn Johnston’s work (organized by the Art Gallery of Sudbury), For Better or For Worse: The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston is a retrospective of her best-loved strips, but beyond that, we are treated to her artistic development as a cartoonist and comic writer, or as Lynn puts it, “Fifty years of drawings, doodles, sketches, and scrawls”.

Lynn Johnston FarleyIt was an education that began almost at birth. Lynn’s aunt and mother were artists, and comic books and the ‘funny pages’ were not only encouraged they were preferred reading material.

Johnston’s father was a mild-mannered student of comedy, especially the slapstick shenanigans of the silent comedy era.

“We didn’t watch these films like an ordinary audience; we studied them. He would run scenes back and forth to show us how gags were set up, how everything was choreographed exactly to look spontaneous or to look like an accident. He wanted to see how comedy was created. If there was a formula to ‘funny’, he wanted to find out what that was.”

Nothing in the Ridgeway household was taboo, other than the expression of serious emotion and MAD Magazine, which her mother thought was crude. (Lynn read it anyway.) And still, growing up Ridgway had its challenges. Though generally supportive of her daughter’s early artistic explorations, her mother withheld praise and affection, and in combination with episodes of physical abuse, instilled a deep sense of insecurity and a combative, authority-averse impulsivity. An eccentric household steeped in the opposing forces of a passivity and dominance was the incubator of a great, if troubled artist, but as Lynn states, “If you can’t say it right out, joke about it.”

Of her early life and career, so much of it reads like the evolution of a woman destined to become a comedic artist: class clown, obsessive doodler, observant, irreverent, socially aware, outsider, genetically inclined to laugh at life. All of it poured into the comic strip that would make her famous, For Better or For Worse, which debuted in September, 1979.

Art Gallery of Sudbury 2

When For Better or For Worse first appeared in the newspapers, I read it not just as someone invested in the life of the Patterson family, but as an artist, enthralled (and more than a little jealous) of the beauty and fluidity of her line. The nuances and quirks of body language revealed at least as much (and usually much more) about the character’s emotional state as did the dialogue, deepening the humour and adding a layer of relatability unusual for a cartoon family.

The complex narratives captured in a few panels and a swish of her pen seemed effortless, but it’s a style that evolved over years of personal and professional illustration, samples of which are happily included in this book (and in the exhibition). As a Canadian, I was particularly pleased to see homegrown locations and place names show up in For Better or For Worse, which is a bold move for a Canadian comic strip with international aspirations.

On a personal note, I had the great pleasure of meeting Lynn Johnston on multiple occasions as a employee of a large, independent bookstore in Edmonton. She was always gracious and funny, easy to talk to, with large, beautiful blue eyes. She gave me a great piece of artistic advice which I adhere to – keep your originals. I sent her a personal thank you letter after one of her visits, and she replied – in her unmistakable handwriting. For several years we exchanged Christmas cards. Above my drafting table hangs a framed, personalized autograph with all the Patterson family. It is no word of a lie to say that Lynn Johnston is one of my artistic heroes, but with For Better or For Worse: The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston, she has become something better – a brilliant, messy, complex, and entirely original human being.

The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston

The first woman and the first Canadian to win the National Cartoonist Society’s Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year, retired from creating new cartoons for the strip in 2010, but For Better or For Worse continues on in syndication, revisiting the early days of the strip for a new generation. In 1992, Lynn Johnston was made a Member of the Order of Canada, our country’s highest civilian honour

For Better or For Worse: The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston by Lynn Johnston and Katherine Hadway, published by Goose Lane Editions and the Art Gallery of Sudbury, 2015

  • Posted on April 30, 2015
Outstanding in the Rain cover3

Outstanding In The Rain

Originality in children’s picture book illustration is a rarity, so when it comes around, it knocks your socks off, or sandals, depending on the weather. Outstanding in the Rain, Frank Viva’s newest book and the fifth in four years by this Toronto-based designer and illustrator, already feels like a classic, with the visual pop of a beloved mid-century picture book, re-imagined and re-energized for modern tastes. It is zingy and a little loopy, and I guarantee there is nothing else like it on the shelves, unless you include Viva’s previous books, and even then, Outstanding in the Rain is still entirely its own wonderful thing.

Outstanding in the Rain slide

I think the word that best describes Outstanding in the Rain, and all of Viva’s work, is inventive. And then – pick your adverb: playfully, beautifully, delightfully, knee-slappingly, humourously, ridiculously…ETC. The inventiveness, in this particular case, is not in the story but in how the story is told. A boy and his family spend the day at an amusement park (Coney Island) celebrating his birthday, going on rides, eating junk food, playing on the beach, and getting caught in the rain. A typical carnival narrative, which is secondary to the wordplay evoked by the clever use of momentum-building die-cuts: ICE CREAM becomes OH NO I SCREAM on the next page (as a result of a toppled cone), followed by THOSE SANDWICHES THERE to ON THE SAND WHICH IS THERE, and so on. As each page is turned, the die-cut frames an image from the previous page, transforming it into an entirely new thing. To quote the book jacket, Outstanding in the Rain, itself a play on words, is ‘A Whole Story With Holes’.

Outstanding in the Rain scream

It is also a whole story with a whole lotta beautiful art. With relatively few words in the book, and an equally minimalistic (but definitely not subdued) palette, the story still feels big and boisterous. It is a cartoon without being cartoonish. Perhaps it is the highly stylized shapes – loosely human and loosely architectural – where nothing is detailed but a lot is going on and everything is recognizable (if not comically exaggerated). Or the graphic sensibility that underpins the design, even as it simultaneously plays with it. One thing is obvious: Frank Viva is a master of colour. His books vibrate. This is particularly true with Outstanding in the Rain, which has (I swear) an audible hum as the blocks of turquoise, umber and orange spark and bump up against each other on the page. For children and adults, the book demands multiple reads to take in all the narrative and visual mischief. Outstanding in the Rain is, in short, a carnival, and twice as much fun.

Outstanding in the Rain roller coaster

I have a theory. Outstanding in the Rain is either number three of a trilogy or part of an ongoing series. In Along a Long Road, the cyclist passes an ice cream truck (and, I should add, an amusement park). In A Long Way Away, there is an ice cream truck, perhaps the same truck, on a road. In Outstanding in the Rain, an ice cream shop is front and centre. Either it is intentional and this book is connected to the others by the appearance of ice cream in one form or another, or Frank is subconsciously controlled by frozen desserts. If it’s the former, bravo, if it’s the latter – Mr Viva…I can relate.

Outstanding in the Rain authorFrank Viva is an award-winning illustrator, designer, and presumed ice-cream lover. His brilliant work frequently graces the covers of The New Yorker, and other magazines. According to his website, Frank also likes bikes and public transit, and is the founder and managing director of Viva & Co.

Outstanding in the Rain by Frank Viva. Published by Tundra Books, 2015

Other reviews (click on links):

Young Frank Architect by Frank Viva (Museum of Modern Art, 2013)

A Long Way Away by Frank Viva (HarperCollins, 2013)

Along a Long Road by Frank Viva (HarperCollins, 2011)

Here’s a wonderful article from the New Yorker about the creation of Outstanding in the Rain

  • Posted on December 10, 2014
Any Questions Marie-Louise Gay

Any Questions?

Yes. I have one. How do you do it? When I opened Marie-Louise Gay’s newly published Any Questions? for the first time, it was like being handed a bouquet of freshly plucked wildflowers. As I progressed through the book, the room filled with light. I felt uplifted. This is what happens, what always happens, when I read her books. Any Questions? is her most adventurous picture book to date, and certainly her most beautiful. Gay centres the story around her own real-life experience as an author – in particular the many hundreds of questions she is asked (by children) about her books and especially, her creative process:

“How did you learn to draw?”

Where does a story start?

Do you put a cat in every book?

Any Questions purple beast

The inquiring minds are represented by Gay’s typical menagerie of whimsically drawn children (no one is better at this), cats, rabbits, and  ever-present snails; this time, however, they are not so much characters in the story as the inspiration. Their questions balloon out from the page in one continuous (and utterly charming) conversation, each illustration richly infused with Gay’s luminous watercolour palette. As questions are answered (on the page and in an appendix), Gay invites further participation from her acolytes as she creates a brand new picture book, The Shy Young Giant, itself a thing of sweet wonder in a wonder-filled story. Visually and narratively, there is a lot of bang for your buck in Any Questions. At it’s core, however, is a profound message about valuing curiosity and imagination.

Any Questions Shy Giant spread

There is a mini-trend this year in children’s books in which the writer directly engages with the characters, and sometimes even the reader, thus breaking the picture book equivalent of the fourth wall. Specifically, The Battle Bunny Book (Jon Scieszka, Mac Barnett) and A Perfectly Messed-Up Story (Patrick McDonnell) bear the marks of having been ‘interfered with’ in the form of scribbles and jam stains courtesy of the ‘reader’. Like these two publications, Marie-Louise Gay plays with the typical format of a picture book, presenting it as an interactive enterprise (albeit with fictional characters), and in doing so, giving us a glimpse into her own creative process. As one might imagine, it’s starts with a blank page, and a question. A lot of questions.

Any Questions yellow

And yet, with the publication of each new book, Gay is becoming more and more playful with her answers. There is a fluidity to her illustrations that is almost dream-like, as if each scene, characters and all, comes tumbling straight from her imagination to the awaiting page – issues resolved, compositions exquisitely realized. As with Gay’s recent books, in Any Questions?, some illustrations are watercolour only, while others take a more multi-media approach, incorporating found paper and bits of text. One senses that Marie-Louise Gay’s internal conversation with an in-progress illustration is loose and chatty. She is open to wherever the story wants to go, and the result, as expressed so beautifully in Any Questions?, is pure joy.

Any Questions coverMarie-Louise Gay is a world-renowned author and illustrator of more than 60 children’s books. She has won many prestigious honours, including two Governor General’s awards and the Marilynn Baillie Picture Book Award. She has also been nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award and the Hans Christian Andersen Award, both of which she will surely win one day. Educated at the Institut des arts graphiques in Montreal where she studied graphic design, Gay moved on to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts School where she majored in animation, followed by illustration studies at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. Marie-Louise Gay currently lives and works in Montreal when she’s not out and about answering questions.

ANY QUESTIONS? by Marie-Louise Gay. Published by Groundwood Books, 2014

Previously reviewed (click on the link):

Roslyn Rutabaga and the Biggest Hole on Earth

Caramba and Henry

  • Posted on November 30, 2013
On a Snowy Night cover

On a Snowy Night

I walk in the river valley and ravines of my city. It is my daily exercise, but more than that, it is my meditation. In the solitude and loveliness of nature, my cup runneth over. I’ve seen many miraculous things, but none that touched my heart more than an unlikely creature spotted one morning, nuzzling yellowed grass in the dead landscape of November. A small brown rabbit had taken up residence on a hill near the city’s centre. Large, sturdy-footed hares are ubiquitous in Edmonton, but this fellow was clearly domestic. Lost or abandoned, he had found a home beneath a set of stairs in full view of trail walkers like myself and the ever vigilant predatory wildlife who make their home in the river valley. I observed Brown Rabbit (pictured on the right) on numerous occasions, but after the first snow, I was surprised to find him Brown Rabbit by Donna McKinnonin his usual spot, nibbling a branch. After that, I began filling my pockets with vegetables and making strategic drops near the staircase. On good days, he would come out and feast on the bounty. Some days, usually cold days, he was nowhere to be found. I worried about Brown Rabbit, and I was not alone. Remnants of other ‘care packages’ were visible in the area, but calls to various wildlife rescue organizations proved fruitless. On the remote chance that he could be lured into a cage, no one was really interested in another abandoned domestic rabbit. “Best not to move him.” I was told.

On a blue-sky December afternoon near Christmas, I sat on the steps in the park and watched Brown Rabbit emerge from beneath the stairs, nearer to me than he’d ever previously dared. Perched on the steps just above the rabbit, the sun fiercely bright and cold on my face, I listened as he nibbled on vegetable tops and straws of timothy hay. In that moment it felt like I’d entered a state of grace with this little life. On some level, Brown Rabbit understood that I meant no harm. An animal’s trust is a gift. Once earned, it must be safeguarded.

On a Snowy Night abandonedOn a Snowy Night by Jean Little, with illustrations by Brian Deines, is the story of a broken trust. It is also a story of compassion, and unexpected friendships. When a young boy named Brandon is given a rabbit for his fifth birthday, he names her Rosa and proclaims her ‘perfect.’ For awhile, the boy is attentive, but as is often the case with children and pets, interest wanes, and Brandon begins to neglect Rosa, even forgetting to feed her. Excited by the freshly fallen snow on Christmas Eve, Brandon brings Rosa outside and inadvertently leaves her there when he runs inside to answer a call. Rosa tries to find her way back, but gets lost. The chickadees warm Rosa with their down feathers and a squirrel finds Brandon’s lost mitten (apparently this kid is easily distracted), and gently nudges the still shivering rabbit onto its woolen surface. A raccoon pops the nose off a snowman and offers Rosa the carrot. “I thought wild animals ate each other?” says Rosa. “Not on this night,” replies a hawk, who leads the rabbit back to her home, where an anxious Brandon is reunited with his lost bunny. Interestingly, Jean Little ends the story ambiguously. While Rosa is happy to be back home, she is a realist (if rabbits can be realists.) On a snowy night, on Christmas Eve, kindness and friendship may be found in unlikely places.

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  • Posted on November 12, 2013
Caribou Song cover copy

Caribou Song

The dual language Caribou Song by award-winning author and playwright Tomson Highway was first published in 2001 with illustrations by Brian Deines. The story is in print again, with stunning new illustrations by John Rombough, a Chipewyan Dene artist living in the Northwest Territories. Also new is the inclusion of a colloquial (Ateek Oonagamoon) dialect of Cree, replacing the original high Cree (Atihko Nikamon) translation.

Caribou Song dancingSet in Manitoba ‘too far north for most trees’, Caribou Song is the story of two brothers, Joe and Cody, who follow the year-long caribou migration with their parents. They live a traditional, nomadic life of dog sleds, bannock, and rather unexpectedly, accordion music. To engage the caribou and draw them out of the forest into the open, Joe plays the accordion, called kitoochigan in Cree, while his brother Cody dances ‘with his arms up like antlers.’ Music, as they say, soothes the savage ungulate.

One day in late spring, the caribou heed the boys’ musical call in an exhilarating and dangerous way. ‘Faster than lightening’, ten thousand caribou fill the meadow. As a sea of antlers roars by, Cody takes Joe by the hand and ‘swims’ to a big rock, where they hear the spirit voice of the caribou rising above the din of the herd. The boys lift their arms in exultation, embracing the spirit. Fearing the worst, the parents are relieved to see Joe and Cody laughing on the rock as the herd dissipates.

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  • Posted on October 15, 2013
Young Frank Architect cover detail

Young Frank Architect

“Youth is a quality, not a matter of circumstances.”  Frank Lloyd Wright

So begins Frank Viva’s new book, Young Frank Architect, and this reassuring adage plays out in the inspiring story of passion and artistic vision as embodied by a young boy, his grandfather, and a host of famous architects and designers. Young Frank Architect is also an homage to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, a place I have not yet visited but whose breadth of genius has long been a draw. With the publication of Young Frank Architect, a trip to MoMA is in order, and though contained within the pages of a picture book, the famous museum is no less an adventure.

Young Frank Architect book buildingYoung Frank is a creative soul with a very broad idea of what it means to be an architect. Old Frank, his grandfather, is an actual architect whose views have, perhaps, narrowed over the years. The boy aspires to be like his grandfather in more ways than one, even adopting his straw hat and comically round glasses. The grandfather watches his grandson build twisty skyscrapers out of piles of books and a chair of toilet paper rolls, and attempts to educate the boy on the rules of his profession. “I don’t think architects make chairs. And you really can’t sit in this one, can you?” says Frank, which of course, deflates the young boy’s exuberance. Bewildered by his grandson’s unorthodox architectural creations, Old Frank takes the boy to the Museum of Modern Art “…to see the work of some REAL architects.’

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  • Posted on September 14, 2013
Northwest Passage cover

A Land So Wide and Savage

On a hill more than thirty years ago, I first heard the unmistakeable voice of Stan Rogers. It was the Edmonton Folk Music Festival in 1982. As the hot August sun beat down my haltered back, the bearded balladeer’s muscular baritone percussed through the grounds like a drumbeat, tossing flimsy-voiced folksingers in its wake, demanding that we pay attention to the stories of our country, that we be upstanding for the narrative of Canada. And so I stood.

Northwest Passage Stan RogersCanadians love to talk about what it means to be Canadian. That we have yet to reach a consensus is proof that we are a diverse people. Diverse, and indecisive. Still, there is common ground: a national predilection for caffeinated beverages in the name of a deceased hockey player, doughnuts from said deceased hockey player, hockey, snow, and, for a lot of us, the music of Stan Rogers.

I knew him through my music-loving sister, who wept the day he died in 1983 at the age of 33. “Who will sing about us?”, she said. Indeed. Folksingers abound, but few tell stories that enrich a nation’s perception of itself, and even fewer take on the lead-lined pages of a failed northern expedition and turn it into a song that endures. Northwest Passage by Governor General award nominee Matt James is not only a celebration of the Stan Roger’s most famous song, it is also a glimpse into an historical event that still resonates into the 21st century.

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  • Posted on July 01, 2013
Canadian Flag-Mulidzas-Curtis Wilson

Canada Day

Great illustration does not have a nationality. It can be found anywhere, and this blog is an appreciation of, and a  testimony to, the pervasiveness of excellence. Illustrative genius may not be deep, but it is wide. Arguably, countries have a visual ‘flavour’, a stylistic predilection that shows up on the pages of picture books, but this can be difficult to identify without a thorough knowledge of its artists and writers, and anyway, who cares? Great art is great art. Nevertheless, as a Canadian, my heart thumps a little faster when I write about a homegrown picture book, and I have only scratched the surface of my country’s artistic depth.

Perpetually engaged in defining itself, Canada is a country rich in cultural influences. Personally, I’m OK with a definition that includes William Shatner and Tim Horton’s and excludes any comparison whatsoever tothatplacesouthofthe49thparallel, but others strive for something a little more, oh, I don’t know, comprehensive. What I do know is that a good place to start is with the artists, and apropos to this blog, the illustrators.

Picturing Canada coverTo that end, and in celebration of CANADA DAY on July 1, otherwise known as our 146th birthday, I would like to commend and thank Mulidzas Curtis Wilson for the beautiful Haida-inspired Canadian flag which adorns this post, and, in no particular order, send out this love letter to the Canadian authors and illustrators reviewed in 32 Pages.

Standing high above all is THE BOOK: Picturing Canada: A History of Canadian Children’s Illustrated Books and Publishing , or everything you’ve always wanted to know about picture books in Canada, but we’re too reserved/passive/insecure to ask, eh? It’s very, very good. You can tell by the moose and the beaver on the cover.

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  • Posted on May 18, 2013
Viva A Long Way Away cover

A Long Way Away

Thinking a lot about space these days. Not physical space~celestial space. The stuff above my head. My inspiration is Chris Hadfield, the Canadian commander of the International Space Station recently returned to Earth after six months in space. More about that in my next post. For now, I would like to direct your attention to the creatures who populate the space up there, way up there. I speak of aliens, of course, or one alien in particular, who, like Cmd Hadfield, has a taste for adventure.

In Frank Viva’s new book, A Long Way Away, we find an affable, jellyfish-like alien setting off on a journey, but it is up to the reader to decide if he is headed toward earth, or departing from it. Read one way, the alien is descending from space to earth in a tube-like yellow tunnel. Read the other, he is ascending through the same tunnel. This two-in-one story was created, like Viva’s previous book Along a Long Road, as a single, continuous 26 ft piece of art. In addition to myself and other picture book aficionados, it’s easy to imagine the young audience for A Long Way Away being completely enthralled by the format and possibility of this clever and beautiful book. With simple blocks of text and fantastically quirky, almost retro imagery, the narrative is wide open to interpretation, and yet what links this book to Along a Long Road is the pleasure of the journey.

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  • Posted on May 05, 2013
The Dark basement

Darkness Visible

Geez, it seems like I just finished writing about Jon Klassen’s This is Not My Hat and another book has appeared on the shelves. The guy is a machine, and I mean this in the nicest way possible. Just because he is prolific doesn’t mean his work is less than magnificent each time out. On the contrary, Klassen continues to show us unique facets of his creativity, which is boundless, if not a little warped. With The Dark, Klassen teams with fellow quirkmeister of children’s literature, Lemony Snicket for a singular unfortunate event, rather than a series. The monochromatic story is set in an old house, with a claw-foot tub and a lot of creaky wooden doors. Young pajama-wearing Laszlo is afraid of the dark, which is an actual thing in residence alongside Laszlo and his family. The dark hides in closets, behind shower curtains, or ‘pressed up against some old, damp boxes’, but mostly spends its time in the basement.

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