Category Books

‘Baby’s In Black’ – An Interview with Author Arne Bellstorf

Baby's In Black by Arne Bellstorf

Baby’s in Black is a stunning graphic-novel written by the German author and graphic artist Arne Bellstorf. Set against the backdrop of The Beatles early gigs in Hamburg, it tells the tragic true-life story of the romance between the young photographer Astrid Kirchherr and the artist and musician Stuart Sutcliffe. Bellstorf’s book is based on a series of conversations he had with Kirchherr, and the story perfectly captures Kirchherr’s blossoming romance amid the exciting subculture of early 1960’s Hamburg.

It is a story which is told with beautiful restraint and tenderness, and it is easily one of the best graphic-novels that I’ve read in a very long time. I was fascinated to learn more about the book and so I asked Bellstorf a few questions.

Astrid and Stuart from Arne Bellstorf's Baby's in Black

What are some of the challenges in telling somebody else’s story – particularly one as sensitive as Astrid Kirchherr’s?

Well, it’s a very tragic story, of course, and I normally wouldn’t have wanted to tell a biographical story like that. But after having met Astrid, I recognized that we actually shared a lot and that my approach to tell the story would correspond with her attitude. I was interested in the time, the youth culture in Hamburg and what it was like being young in the early Sixties. Astrid went to the same art school as I did, and I could relate to her life in many ways, despite all the things that were different back then. We both tend to think in pictures, she’s a very visual person, and she basically liked the idea of telling her story in little black and white panels. It was a kind of mutual confidence, I guess. I mean, the character in the book may be still something I invented, and in the end it’s a fictional work. I could only try to capture something of the real Astrid. We talked about what was important to her, aesthetically, and what influenced her – French existentialism, Jean Cocteau, Oscar Wilde, Cool Jazz – and what happened when Rock’n’Roll merged with all these things.

We also spoke about the time she spent with Stuart, the two years until his tragic death, this short but intense relationship, but I wanted to focus on the beginning of it all: Their first encounter, the whole love at first sight thing, the magic physical attraction going on between them. They got engaged after only a month without speaking the same language, and Stuart actually began a new life when he left the Beatles and his family in Liverpool to stay with Astrid in Hamburg. The end of the story is a delicate matter, and we never spoke too much about the time after Stuart’s death. That’s what makes it such an existential tale, it’s absurd ending. You can’t really speak about something that doesn’t make sense. I had to find a way to depict that, and I’m glad that Astrid liked the solution I came up with.

Picture of houses in Hamburg from Arne Bellstorf's Baby's in Black

How difficult was it to research? Was it a challenge to recreate 1960’s Hamburg?

Not really. I mean, I wanted to do a book about the Sixties anyway. I live in Hamburg, near Reeperbahn, and most of the places are just right outside my door and I know the area quite well. As far as clothing is concerned, I got a lot of help from Astrid. I also bought a few books with old photographs at second hand bookshops and flea markets, and I got the impression that the Sixties are quite well documented – except for the filthy underground clubs, of course. As for the Kaiserkeller for example I could only rely on what Astrid had told me and the reports that I found in numerous Beatles books.

Panel from Arne Bellstorf's Baby's in Black

What inspires you?

When I was drawing I’d often listen to early sixties music, girl groups, R’n’B and all those North-American artists that inspired the Beatles. I find almost everything from the Sixties very inspiring, the music, the design, the movies – and I think that’s why I wanted to do this book, it’s the birthplace (and heyday) of pop culture, and you can’t understand youth culture in Europe without going back to the Fifties and Sixties – be it mass phenomenons or small subcultures. When you look at Astrid, the “exis” and their androgynous look, the black clothes, and their romantic, cool attitude, they seem closely related to movements like new romanticism and goth. So when it comes to inspiration, I like to look back at past decades, there’s so much to explore.

Panel from Arne Bellstorf's Baby's in Black

What are you working on at the moment?

I did a lot of commissions recently, working for magazines and newspapers. Then I’m still traveling with Baby’s In Black, the book’s been published in several countries since it’s release in Germany. I do have a few ideas for another book, but the next thing I’ll release is a small collection of one-page comics, hopefully coming out this summer.

Many thanks to Arne for taking the time to answer our questions. Details on where to buy your copy of Baby’s In Black can be found on his website here.

Jillian Tamaki illustrates Goblin Market, a selection of poems by Christina Rossetti

Jillian Tamaki illustrates Goblin Market, a selection of poems by Christina Rossetti

Jillian Tamaki illustrates Goblin Market, a selection of poems by Christina Rossetti

Jillian Tamaki illustrates Goblin Market, a selection of poems by Christina Rossetti

Jillian Tamaki illustrates Goblin Market, a selection of poems by Christina Rossetti

Over the weekend I was browsing through Jillian Tamaki’s work and came across these illustrations she did for Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market and Selected Poems. I’m not personally familiar with the story, but it sounds like something I’d love. Here’s an overview from Folio Society:

First published in 1862, ‘Goblin Market’ is an extended poem about two young sisters who hear goblin merchants hawking their wares. Lizzie urges caution (‘Their offers should not charm us,/Their evil gifts would harm us’) but Laura eats the forbidden fruit and falls into a frenzy, then a decline from which her sister must save her. Considered shocking in its day, it is one of the most beguiling ‘fairy tales’ in the language.

I love how Jillian is able to capture this feminine idea of magic. There’s this strong sense of femininity in her work but it’s not girly, and most of the time she does some really beautiful experimentation that takes her work to a whole new level. For example the second piece from the top is an illustration for the poem Passing and Glassing. It seems like a rather straightforward image but it’s rather abstract if you only pay attention to their dresses and ignore their hands and heads. Their dresses are inky swathes of color that have been intricately be-speckled.

You can grab yourself a copy of the book by clicking here.

Five Questions with Hugh Howey

Five Questions with Hugh Howey

Five Questions with Hugh Howey

Several weeks ago we posted about Wool, a short story by Hugh Howey. Since the posting – and hopefully due to some of you awesome guys and gals – Wool and its Omnibus edition, containing all five Wool stories, have elevated the formerly proclaimed “cult following” into a bonafide hit. One of Hugh’s favorite novels is Ender’s Game, a novel that, when I read at some tender age, changed my life as well. The intricacy of Ender’s Game is not in its brutal military critique and self-reflective xenophobia, but the turmoil of a boy at war with himself and his gifts. In it, a man/woman’s worst enemy is him/herself and their untapped potential.

In many (sometimes similar) ways, Wool turns on introspection rather than a deus ex machina or the Law of Conservation of Detail. Wool refuses to turn on minutiae. The writing is lean yet expansive. The world is huge in Wool yet it is restrained by its tendrils. Maybe this is a beauty in the renaissance of self publishing. Instead of publishers forcing a novel down your throat, brought together to fit the 40k / 80k / 100k word expectations, short stories and novellas can propagate in this new free market. Hugh Howey seems to have benefitted from this growing marketplace.

Readers worldwide are the real beneficiary. All of a sudden they can choose what stories are worth reading, sharing, or worshipping. The modern book critic can’t keep up with our demands. When Wool gained 200 new reviews in under two months and shot into Amazon top 200 in the Kindle store, I can’t say much more than it’s for the people and by the people.

So I asked Hugh five questions.

Alec: Were you born to write or was it a craft you learned? In that regard, what event made you decide to write for a living?

Hugh Howey: I’ve had some people close to me say that I was born to write. I suspect they mean that I’ve been making things up in my head for way too long, or that it’s healthier if I put my imaginary friends on paper rather than talking to them on the street. I remember writing letters to family members when I was younger and having them say that I should write for a living. But it was a true story of a yacht I was captaining that really sparked the urge. I posted this story on SciForums, a site for people to discuss trends in various fields, and the members went nuts. It was the first hint that I might be able to entertain people with my words.

As for when I decided to write for a living, I didn’t really have the luxury to choose when I would do that. I struggled for years, working second jobs, until I was finally making enough to dare go for it as a solitary profession.

A: When and why did you decide to publish independently?

H: I didn’t. Not at first. My debut novel was published by a small house called NorLights Press. When I saw what was involved with promoting and pushing a few books here and there, I decided to give it a try on my own. Nothing against NorLights, they were awesome, and I still consider one of the founders a dear friend. But so much of book promotion relies on the author, so I thought I would see if I could wear all the hats at once.

I’ve loved the experience. Learning to paginate books, to create cover art, to market and publish everything. It suits my workaholic nature. Plus, I get to set the price, give books away, and see all of my sales data. There are a ton of advantages to publishing independently. I’ve also made a lot more money that I probably could have with a traditional press.

A: Wool is more of a novella than a novel. Which form do you prefer and why?

H: I love them both, but I’m starting to lean toward novellas. 30,000 words feels about right to me. That’s a 120 page book, or thereabouts. With that length, I can get rid of the boring middle bits of a book that often keeps readers from finishing a story. I can manage numerous revisions, cut down on errors, and keep the plots nice and tight. And with e-readers, there’s no need to pad a book to justify print costs. I can charge anywhere from a buck to three for a story, and everyone makes out. I love it.

A: 20 years ago, people were predicting flying cars, hoverboards, and stun guns. What is sci fi in the post millenium? Does it even exist?

H: I think science fiction will show up in the post millenium less in the form of gadgets and more in the guise of philosophical leaps. Both have always existed in science fiction. There has been more ethical explorations in the genre than most readers appreciate. Aliens were just as often treated as equals or superiors as the enemy, often providing lessons about human rights. Women have been given stronger roles in some tellings of the future. Star Trek showed an interracial relationship that was far ahead of its time.

Now that we all have smart phones that are more advanced than Captain Kirk’s communicator, the areas of progress that I see will be more along these lines. And there will be steps toward grand issues like immortality that I believe will take people by surprise. It might not be in our lifetimes, but I think within the next 1,000 years, we will see the aging process solved, or perhaps the digitalization of our memories and thought processes. I wish I could live to see some of the great leaps forward that await us.

A: Do you enjoy reading your own work? Or are you of the mindset that “nothing is ever finished?”

H: Nothing is ever finished. I wish I had the time to go back and revise everything I’ve ever written, because it all becomes rubbish with the passing of time. On the other hand, I do find that I enjoy what I’m writing while I’m writing it. As I make my six or seven passes through a work, I start to think that it isn’t all that horrid. And by the last pass, I find myself impressed that this came out of my noggin. That’s the beauty of the writing and revising process: You end up with a product that’s smarter and better than you are. There’s no way you could produce it in a single sitting, but over a bunch of laborious weeks, you craft a bit of drivel you aren’t upset to call your own.

‘Wool’, a series of sci-fi zines by Hugh Howey

Since its inception, science fiction has been under attack. Considered mere “genre fiction” by your favorite antagonistic English professors, it can contain some of the finest phonies in literature. It’s tough to find a serious writing program out there that will let the students engage in “genre fiction” as it may distract from the fundamentals of storytelling, such as character development, metaphor and setting. But somehow there is acceptance of Shelley, Wells and Jules Verne (who are rarely taught) while Herbert and Heinlein are taboo. As Harry Potter and Twilight gently whisk fantasy into the mainstream, there appears to be some small chance (outside of the movies Star Wars/Trek and Phillip K. Dick) that the genre will be taken seriously. Maybe science fiction’s biggest enemy is science itself. On a day by day basis we learn about teleportation, phasers, and new planets, all science fiction staples that are now reality. So outside of the pulp world, where are the new science fiction writers who can bring the writing into mainstream acceptance?

Few people on this planet know who Hugh Howey is. His novels are mostly self published, available in a digital format. But something has caught on here and I got the bug as well. The Wool series has generated a fast-growing cult in the self-publishing and sci-fi communities. All of a sudden you are climbing the steps to a world where…

Each step was slightly bowed from generations of traffic, the edge rounded down like a pouting lip. in the center, there was almost no trace of the small diamonds that once gave the treads their grip. Their absence could only be inferred by the pattern to either side, the small pyramidal bumps rising from flat steel with their crisp edges and flecks of paint.

And soon you are in the silo that is Wool. One part Fallout and a dash of the Allegory of the Cave, the story is a cracker. Howey’s DIY attitude and aesthetic to writing goes to show you don’t need a publisher to build a following. Wool accelerates chapter by chapter and Hugh Howey’s emergence as a writer might be one of the best stories of 2012.

You can grab Wool for your Kindle here. If you don’t have a Kindle simply download the Kindle app to your cell phone and proceed to make your bus/subway/train trip that much better.

Re-Covered Books: The Wonderful Wizard of OZ – The runners-up

I’ve had quite a few readers ask if I’d give some commentary on the Re-Covered Book: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz entries submissions which I thought were good, but didn’t end up winning. I thought it would be nice to give some pointers on what I really liked about these entries and some thoughts on what I think they could have done better. Think of it as an online crit.

Re-Covered Books: The Wonderful Wizard of OZ - The runners-up

This design was an early front runner to win the competition. When I first saw his design I was shocked that he was able to cut out all of these elements from money and put it all together into a cover. The amount of time and effort it must have taken is pretty mind-blowing. Visually, I think this is the most complex entry.

The reason why I didn’t choose this entry though is because the story isn’t about money. There are allusions to money in the story (that her silver slippers was about the price of silver and that when you watch The Dark Side of Oz the song Money starts playing when she opens the door to Oz) but that’s not what the book is about.

I also have some issues with the blurriness of some of the objects. For a piece so detailed the bottom part of the image feels like it was stretched a bit too much. There’s also a weird drop shadow on some elements and the light is coming from below, which is kind of visually odd when the rest of the elements are totally flat.

Re-Covered Books: The Wonderful Wizard of OZ - The runners-up

Next up is this entry from April Scarduzio, which in my mind is the version you’d see being sold at Anthropology. I love the image, I love the hand-written text, and the colors are beautiful. I think the image of the woman, face hidden from view, is a really nice touch. I think this allows the reader to insert herself into the book. My problem comes in because of the outfit and wrist accessories which are too contemporary and don’t fit the book at all.

Now, I’m guessing she didn’t take this photo, and she didn’t have some huge budget to work with either, so I don’t fault her. I think you’d need a real photographer to pull something like this off correctly, but I think April’s concept is super strong.

Re-Covered Books: The Wonderful Wizard of OZ - The runners-up

Lastly is this cover from design duo Ben Wallis & Mike McVicar. What I loved about their piece was the amazing image. The idea of her life being turned upside down is a fantastic visual metaphor. The image is powerful and epic looking, it shows you that crazy things happen in this book. I also think the colors in the image are spot on and are really pretty.

Where I think this cover design goes wrong is the typography. All of the emphasis is placed on the word “Wonderful” rather than the “Wizard of Oz.” If the emphasis had been switched, I think the cover would have been a lot more effective.

I hope the folks I’ve critiqued here don’t take offense to any of the things I’ve outlined. These are simply my opinions, and opinions are like assholes, everyone’s got one. Hopefully some of you get some insight into the things I look for in a good piece of design and that this helps you some. I’ll try to continue doing these with each subsequent cover contest if you find them helpful or insightful.

Paul Bartlett, The winner of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Re-Covered Books contest

Paul Bartlett's Wizard Of Oz Entry

With each subsequent Re-Covered Books contest, I feel like the entries keep getting better and better. With The Wonderful Wizard of Oz contest, we had a batch of entries that felt really fresh and contemporary, which made for a tough decision on my part. After some consideration though, I decided that Paul Bartlett was the winner of the contest.

More than any other entries, I thought his cover captured the wonder of the book as well as the cultural idea we have about Wizard of Oz. When I opened his entry, I kind of gasped as I was amazed he was able to sync these images up so perfectly. It’s also important to note that the image of the cat eyes, paired with the young girls slightly opened mouth is a perfect combination. The effect is that she’s a wide-eyed young girl who’s experiencing a fantastic new world.

Paul Bartlett's Wizard Of Oz Entry

I’m also glad that he took the time to pay attention to the piece’s typography. A lot of the entries I received faltered because the type wasn’t considered or wasn’t quite up to snuff. Paul was really smart about making the text fit into the spaces between his images. I also like that he dropped in the serif, italic font for ‘the’ and of’, giving more space to the words that really mattered. The quote on the back from L. Frank Baum, which I can’t really read, is a nice touch, as is his signature.

Great work, Paul. I think you killed it.

Paul Bartlett's Wizard Of Oz Entry

Some of you asked for me to review some of the runner-up entries, so I’ll be posting about that tomorrow. There were a lot of really great entries that I think should certainly be noted.

Beautiful Illustrations from Jacqui Lee’s ‘The Story of Joseph-Armand Bombardier’

The Story of Joseph-Armand Bombardier by Jacqui Lee

The Story of Joseph-Armand Bombardier by Jacqui Lee

The Story of Joseph-Armand Bombardier by Jacqui Lee

These beautiful illustrations are taken from Canadian illustrator Jacqui Lee’s children’s book The Story of Joseph-Armand Bombardier. The book tells the story of the Canadian inventor Joseph-Armand Bombardier, a mostly self-taught inventor who is famous for pioneering the development of the snowmobile. Coming across Jacqui Lee’s book was the first time that I had heard of Bombardier and he sounds like a really fascinating character. For example, in 1922 – at the age of just fifteen – he built his first prototype snowmobile.

I also really love Jacqui Lee’s style of illustration and I particularly like the notion of a biographical book aimed at children. Her use of inks and watercolors are also really nice, which work really well with the feel of the book. Make sure to take a look at her online portfolio where you’ll find more work which is well worth checking out.

‘Overkill’, a new book of illustrations from Tomer Hanuka

'Overkill', a new book of illustrations from Tomer Hanuka

'Overkill', a new book of illustrations from Tomer Hanuka

I’m a bit behind on this one, but I noticed over the weekend that one of my favorite illustrators, Tomer Hanuka, has a book of his illustrations out now called Overkill, and it looks really great. The version above is the limited edition which is being released through Upper Playground, and it comes with the print above, which I’m mildly obsessed with. What I love about Tomer’s art is his color choices and the dynamic poses in which he places his characters. The strong red/green coloring of the image sets it off and really grabs your attention.

The Beautiful Illustrations of Violeta Lópiz

Violeta Lópiz

Violeta Lópiz

Violeta Lópiz

Violeta Lópiz is an illustrator who comes from the Spanish island of Ibiza. Her beautifully textured work is filled with personality and playfulness, and her illustrations have appeared in newspapers and children’s book.

Her most recent book (pictured above) is called Les Poings sur les îles. It is a collaboration with the French author Elise Fontenaille and it is filled with Violeta’s own unique style; combining rich colors and lush and delicate textures to create some pretty amazing looking illustrations. The way in which these images are constructed really give the work an organic feel and I can imagine that it’s a style that would really appeal to children. Check out more of Violeta’s work online here.

Christopher Porter wins the Romeo and Juliet Re-Covered Books contest

Christopher Porter's cover for Romeo and Juliet

Christopher Porter's cover for Romeo and Juliet

Christopher Porter's cover for Romeo and Juliet

After a slew of beautiful entries, I’ve chosen my winner for the Romeo and Juliet Re-Covered Books contest – Christopher Porter. Chris is a designer from Falmouth, Cornwall who wanted to create something contemporary:

I’ve tried to go with a direction that would appeal to younger generations, the Irvine Welsh generation, the sort of people who are more than likely to judge a book by it’s cover.

I think he’s done exactly that. I like his cover for a few reasons – typography, color palette and choice of image. As with a lot of entries, typography, or the lack there of, tends to be a major problem. Chris uses only two typefaces, both of which are appropriately used. The script used for William Shakespeare is so damn beautiful and gives his name such life, it’s a perfect application.

As for the imagery, I love this old photo he found of a dead couple. What I find most interesting is that they aren’t perfect of beautiful, they’re real people. They might not be the correct age, but I think that’s ok. I’m sure we’ve all felt that yearning for true love at many stages in our lives, and this reflects that in some ways. I also love the addition of “Love Is Toxic”, which makes me think of Britney Spears, and I’m guessing others would as well. Overall this one felt the strongest, especially because he created a whole package to show the full idea. Well done Christopher!

Check back in the new year for our next contest, and if you have any suggestions for books you’d like to see, please put them in the comments.

Bobby