Nonfiction Illustrated 2016 1

A version of this post (and the next one, numbered 2) was published in 2010. This has been almost completely rewritten. I am incorporating some of the prior material in a discussion for students, anticipating January 2016. For the 2010 version, go to the old blogspot archive of Graphic Tales–signed, The Management, October 27, 2015.

I am on sabbatical. I have lots of bubbling pots, and will have things to say about them before long. In the meantime, this writing has been prepared for the students who will be enrolling in my spring senior capstone course. Below, a description. 

Senior Illustration Capstone: Nonfiction Illustrated for Page and ScreenThis course will combine nonfiction writing and image-making in a project designed for printed or digital formats. Each student will identify personally compelling subject matter, craft a coherent story, write a text, and create appropriate images–though not necessarily in that order. Formats may include books, zines and comics, or screen-based experiences like animatics, films and interactive games. Content may include science and history; biography and memoir; journalistic reportage in contemporary settings; or educational/ informational material (e.g., explaining photosynthesis, a guide to field hockey, famous moustaches). The content must be factually grounded, but subject matter is open. Editorial “takes” and visual styles will vary widely. Viable project texts will range from 100 to 1500 words. Course learning will encompass all aspects of the project design and execution.

The biggest problem out of the gate is likely to be a constricted sense of possibility. OMG non-fiction! Super-boring! Well, no. From This American Life to New Yorker true-crime writing, and from to factual reporting on the New Horizons Pluto mission to Fifteen Awesome Bugs (okay, I made that one up) we are living in a golden age of non-fiction.

So: I am holding my hands around an imaginary basketball. That is the size of the chill pill I want you to take. 

Now. To provide a sense of what’s possible in the course, I have created a set of categories. You will select a category and proceed, or design some potential projects and put them in categories. The process of getting to a project will be consultative, but I would encourage you to think broadly at first. In another post I will offer a few more thoughts on project definition. 

1. Social & Cultural History
2. Curated Collections
3. Perspectival Reportage
4. Education & Information
5. Biography & Memoir

Over the course of several posts, I will provide some examples from each category, in part to help you see how elastic and capacious they really are. 

We begin. 

Category One: Social History

Such works take experience in a particular time and place as their subject: the visual and social texture of daily life, the defining features of a culture or place, or a dramatic event grounded in culture. Sometimes these works are composed in the present, other times from a position looking back in time. In the latter case, they require significant research, which can often be accomplished in museums. There are ample resources in St. Louis to do such research--the Museum of Transportation in West County, the costume collection at the St. Louis Historical Society, the History Museum in Forest Park.

Reproduced here are three works in a Social History sample set: Pascal Blanchet's White Rapids, Miroslav Sasek’s This is London, and Rea Irvin’s illustrations for Snoot if You Must. I picked up the latter at an estate sale. These are just examples to give you a sense of what's possible. 

White Rapids, by Pascal Blanchet. Drawn & Quarterly, Montreal. 2007. [English translation of Rapide blanc, published in French by Les Éditions de la Pasteque, Montreal. 2006.] 

Blanchet blends the sensibilities of a film director and a cartoon-inflected designer in this account of the rise and fall of a company town built next to a remote hydro- electric dam by Quebec’s power company in the 1930’s. The town thrives until the operation of the dam is automated forty years later. The point of view is plainly nostalgic. A good example of a factually-based work marked by a spirit of invention. An additional note: despite my fondness for this work, which is substantial, I do not vouch for the typographic promiscuity which characterizes the presentation of the body copy. (For the record.)

Snoot If You Must. By Lucius Beebe, illustrated by Rea Irvin. Published by D. Appleton- Century Company, New York. 1943.

The book contains a series of republished magazine features about metropolitan life. The length of the text would preclude its use for present purposes, but I have included the work in your references because of the accompanying cartoon drawings.

These are observed social follies and character types. Rea Irvin was the first art director at the New Yorker and created the masthead type, the Eustace Tilley character, and the magazine’s visual essence.

This comedy-of-manners approach could profitably be brought to a contemporary setting. Note that this example suggests that cartoon drawing styles are perfectly appropriate for this project.

This is London. Written and illustated by Miroslav Sasek. Originally published by Simon & Shuster in 1959. Republication by Universe Books, 2004. 

One of a set of such books, including This is ParisThis is New York, and This is San Francisco. Note how whimsical yet informative the text and images are. Sasek clearly spent a great deal of time developing his representative content. Sasek’s figures have been widely influential in the “modern cartoon” figurative style revived by contemporary illustrators in recent years.




Pascal Blanchet, White Rapids, 2007. 

Blanchet, White Rapids

Miroslav Sasek, View of Picadilly Square. From This is London. 1959. 

Rea Irvin, "The coffee was hot, both ways." From Snoot if You Must, 1943.

Sasek, title page, This is London. 

Title page, Snoot if You Must.

Irvin, Snoot. 1943. 

Irvin, Snoot. 1943. 

Irvin, detail, Snoot

Sasek, cover illustration, This is London

Sakek, interior spread, London

Sasek, Interior spread. Man with fish-carrying hat.

Blanchet, White Rapids