Warren Lehrer

Graphic Designer / United States / EarSay Inc.

Warren Lehrer’s Book List

I suppose it’s better to be addicted to books than a lot of other objects of desire and consumption. Still, when the walls of your home and your office are lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled to capacity—two books deep on a shelf—it can be a sign of problems lurking. Among other hazards of being a polyamorous bibliophile—choosing favorites is nearly impossible.

For this list, I decided to focus on works of visual literature: books (mostly fiction, some non-fiction, a few hybrids) whose visual composition is an integral part of the writing. The authors of these books employ a wide range of visual, typographic, and structural strategies. They seek to discover the shape of thought, give form to metaphors, reflect different kinds of relationships, syntax, rhythms of speech, qualities of character, and ways of reading. Most of these titles also incorporate images as a part of the storytelling. In some, the text becomes image, and images are part of the text. One book on this list uses only images to tell the story. Many of these authors take advantage of the physical properties of the book as a medium. Some put it all together themselves; others collaborate with designers and artists.

Stéphane Mallarmé’s vision (from over a century ago) of a radically new kind of book never really took hold beyond the “lunatic fringes” of the literary, art, or book-reading worlds. Although, now that the second wave of the digital revolution threatens the book (as we have known it), and writers have all kinds of writing machines at their disposal, a greater number of odd-looking novels and works of visual literature are finding their way into the hands of readers. It may not be a revolution, but in light of these interesting times for “vis lit,” here is my list of a few landmark or notable (modern and contemporary) works, and some comments. I also include three scholarly books that chronicle the field.

3 books
Steve Tomasula
Stephen Farrell

If the term “graphic novel” wasn’t already taken, and very clearly defined, this could be a good example of what such a thing might look and read like. Steve Tomasula and Stephen Farrell’s 2003 novel situates the geometric protagonists of Edwin Abbott’s 1884 novel Flatland in a 21st-century post-biological world. Father Square is considering whether to have a vasectomy, while mother Circle and daughter Oval want another child/sibling. The family story double-helixes down vertical staff lines, punctuated by genetic sequences, pedigree charts, and historical arguments for eugenics, cloning perfect babies, and denying “defective persons the right to reproduce. Farrell’s elastic and meticulously articulated design—which also references the language of comic books, big data, and a new-music score—could be accused of overpowering Tomasula’s writing. But no doubt, this is an interesting and ambitious example of an author and designer collaborating as co-equals on a fascinating read. Tomasula and Farrell’s next collaboration, TOC: A New Media Novel, is an interactive DVD that lives at the intersection of book, film, and game.

Joe Sacco

Despite my evangelizing of visual literature, I have to admit that I’m not a huge reader of graphic novels. Generally, I find the boxes too confining, and the relationship between the images and the text too predictable. But the graphic novel (and the comic strip) has been pried opened in recent decades, both in content and form by some phenomenal artists and storytellers—most notably, Art Spiegelman, Julie Doucet, Harvey Pekar, Alison Bechdel, R. Crumb, Marjane Satrapi, Chris Ware, and Emmanuel Guibert—and their work has brought me in. The “comic book” author/artist I follow the most is war reporter/cartoonist Joe Sacco. He travels to conflict zones throughout the world and reports on the people he meets and conditions he finds, placing himself in the scene as the perpetual self-effacing but curious outsider looking for character and truth. In The Fixer, Safe Area Gorazde, and War’s End, he’s in Bosnia. In Palestine and Footnotes In Gaza, he’s in the occupied territories. In Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, he teams up with “recovering war reporter” Chris Hedges to report on areas in America left destitute by profit, progress, and technological advancement (ending in the promise and wackiness of Occupiers in Zuccotti Park). Sacco’s books are not polemical—they are works of on-the-ground, bottom-up journalism. Published in 1996, Palestine is powerfully drawn and written, deeply moving, funny, and heartbreaking. Structurally, Sacco really breaks open the comic book form in the way he shifts point of view, scale, and sequencing of frames, and plays with text as part of his compositions.

Marjane Satrapi

Following in the tradition of Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel/memoir Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (1 and 2) is a coming-of-age story of a girl and her family whose lives are forever affected (but not stopped) by tyrannical, geopolitical events playing out in Iran. Both Spiegeleman’s and Satrapi’s two-volume nonfiction masterworks read like novels. Each transcends comic caricatures by portraying intimate, complex relationships and personal stories against a backdrop of upheaval, war, and living in exile. Those are important, moving, must-reads books. But I really love Satrapi’s follow-up book, Embroideries. It depicts a multi-generational gathering of Iranian women sitting around a table, drinking tea and talking candidly about their lives as women, sex, relationships with men, arranged marriages, faking virginity; sharing all kinds of advice and stories, funny and sad. In Embroideries, Satrapi dispenses with traditional story structure as well as panel frames, allowing the reader to eavesdrop on a layered, “real-time” conversation, and roam more freely within the many embroidered approaches to the page.

comments powered by Disqus