Dear Mr. Goldberg

Allow me to express my heartfelt congratulations on your two successful books.  Since I am an illustrator, and it falls within my professional interests, I must profess admiration for the covers of both your books.  The smiley face with the Hitler mustache is iconic and jarring.  Furthermore, the cover’s simple design intertwines nicely with the books academic leanings, but the smiley prevents it from appearing humorless.

The Roman Genn cover is equally provocative and conjures the aesthetic of opinion journalism.  R. Genn is a master of his craft and a fearless caricaturist (I noticed when I went to his site that he’s annoyed some soviet/anarchist hackers, which would be easy for anybody, but for R. Genn it must have been as effortless and natural as breathing).  At any rate, I have nothing but respect for the artistic decisions of Doubleday, RandomHouse, and Penguin.  Indeed, as everyone knows, art directors are second only to the angels.

I notice a few things.  One, Liberal Fascism is academic but softened with irreverence,  whereas the Tyranny of Cliches is irreverence hardened with academics.  Your latest book has as many pop-culture references as the sermon of a nondenominational evangelical youth pastor.  It becomes clear that your nerdy love of C-PAC and your nerdy love of Comic-con are both branches on the same tree.

I can’t imagine this would happen, but if your buddies at the American Enterprise Institute encourage you to write a somber conservative think-tanky book, or if you feel goaded into it by the pompous condescension of the world’s Joe Kleins, I think you ought to resist.  For your third book I think you need to go full nerd.  Don’t do something like this:

Let’s face it, there are a gazillion of these books, and they are read by a very narrow demographic.  Instead, do something like this:

AND… let me do the cover.  The title is a little slapdash, and I assume that you could get Vince Vaughn to give you another quote.  BUT, here’s the deal: Nothing makes a book jump off the shelves of the bookstore like a cover with flaming hands.  I know you know this.  My proposal is simple.  Resist the somber, serious third book.  Continue your blend of serious and silly and go full nerd.  Also … let me do the cover.  Email me when you’re ready.

Sincerely,

Zach Franzen

Sad Stories of the Death of Kings

Some months ago I read Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon.  In one scene there is a flood on a Hollywood set that leaves two women stranded atop the head of a giant idol.  It was such an odd image that it stuck in my head.  I’ve changed the idol to a conquerer’s head and placed it in the ocean.

It reminds me somewhat of this passage from Richard II:

“… let us sit upon the ground

And tell sad stories of the death of kings;

How some have been deposed; some slain in war,

Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;

Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;

All murder’d: for within the hollow crown

That rounds the mortal temples of a king

Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,

Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp, …”

 

Listen to Your Head

I intended to do something very stylized but ended up playing it safe.  Still, I like the piece, and I like the story on which it is based, “Loki and the Witch’s Heart.”

The two moral pillars of today are “follow your heart” and “thou shalt not judge.”  If you happen to think these are ridiculous precepts, you will have very little cultural support.  For the past 20 years “follow your heart” has been the golden rule of pop cultural ethics, and for many people it is a magic phrase that not only describes the theme of almost every romantic comedy, but more conveniently (when used self-righteously by a husband who sleeps with his secretary) it exempts one from moral scrutiny.  I think these two precepts reveal a blind spot of our era.  We notice this blindspot when we read older works that are not of our era.

This week for the first time, I read a Norse story (not of our era) that dwells very creatively on the destructive force of evil passions.  It is called “Loki and the Witch’s Heart.”

I’ll give you the highlights:

Gulveig is a witch that comes to Asgard.  She is wicked.  She smiles at things in Asgard, and, wherever she casts her smile, feelings of dread grow.  Furthermore, the witch’s presence starts to create treacherous feelings in Asgard.  Odin commands her death, which turns out to be a bit of a chore.  Then he commands that her body be burned and the flames be fanned by Hraesvelgur (a giant in the shape of an eagle whose wings cause wind to blow).  Loki comes back to Asgard from a trip and finds Gulveig has been killed and her body burned.  He goes to the place where her ashes lay and discovers that her heart was so evil the flames could not consume it.  Not to be outdone by flames, Loki then eats her heart.  Loki’s own heart is now treacherous, his passions are evil, and his sense of the beautiful is perverted.  We know this because in the stories that follow, he is attracted to ugly evil giantesses, and in time Loki marries a witch who then gives birth to creepy monster children.

The story is countercultural to us because it assumes that some pleasures are evil.  The witch’s smile, not her frown cause foreboding.  The story also suggests that evil passions aren’t purified by their intensity or authenticity.  It is popular to speak of evil as though it is a management problem.  People “act up” because their circumstances haven’t been properly arranged.  The assumption is that evil is external not internal.  This story ignores that idea.  Almost like Adam and Eve who ingest their disobedience and it becomes a part of them, Loki eats wickedness and it becomes him.

Loki’s treachery results in the exchange of truth for a lie, the exchange of beauty for ugliness, and the exchange of goodness for evil.  If Loki were to appear on daytime television it might go something like this:

Host: Today we have Loki, traitor to the gods, with us in the studio.

(round of applause).

Host: Let me start by asking a question that must be in the minds of our studio audience.  Why did you do it?  Why did you eat the witch’s heart and provoke a chain of events that will lead to the destruction of the world?

Loki: I had to follow my heart.

Host: You’re basically saying you did it because you wanted to, but when you use the phrase “follow your heart” it sounds noble.

Loki: I had to be true to myself.  I’m a mischief-maker.

Host: Had you ever considered not being a mischief–

Loki: You mean be fake?  Be inauthentic?

Host: I quite see what you mean.  Unless one does whatever they want, whenever they want, they’re fake and inauthentic.  That sounds right.  Still, you are married to a remarkably unattractive and evil woman, who bore you three vicious monster children that will play a pretty big part in the destruction of the world.  Are you satisfied with that situation?

Loki: You sound pretty judgmental to me.

Host: Aren’t all moral judgements judgmental?

Loki: I said you were judgmental first … so I get to make the moral judgements.

Host:  Well I can’t argue with that.  We’re going to a commercial break and when we comeback, our next guest, Hitler will teach us a lesson about believing in yourself and following your dreams.  Stay with us.

Sketch

Rummaged around my desk in order to find something for the blog.  Found this sketch.  Poured some photoshop sauce on it.  Voila! A heaping helping of “that’ll do.”

Personal Project


Every time I’m in the bookstore I look through children’s picture books.  I try to compare them with books I would have enjoyed as a kid.  The books that receive popular acclaim are clever and well designed and perhaps funnier than books used to be.  However, I feel like the books even ten years ago had more atmosphere than the ones that are popular today.  Is this the case?  My favorite book to leaf through as a kid was the beautifully illustrated adaptation of Pilgrim’s Progress, A Dangerous Journey.  At any rate, it may be ill-advised or an affront to the collective wisdom of children’s literature, but I wanted to do a picture book for my younger self, who is a great deal like my present self.  Here’s a sneak peak.

Cover Process: Fools Rush In

Here’s the process for the Fools Rush In cover.

The brief said the publisher needed “a high-brow political cartoon-style commissioned illustration of the author ‘taking aim at everyone’ (re: the subtitle).”

From a client/expectations management perspective, I’ve never really been satisfied with the way I handle the rough drawing stage.  If any illustrators out there have ideas how best to handle this stage, let me know.

Here’s the dilemma: Roughs that are too polished compete with the final, but roughs that are too rough make the client nervous.

Furthermore, when likenesses are involved, they attract analysis even at the early conceptual stages.  This is a problem when the discussions veer toward how the person might be made to look better instead of if the pose is working.

This time I decided to try the roughs with faces that are obviously incomplete.  I had zero problems.  The likeness didn’t even come up.  I tend to think this has more to do with the client’s general coolness and less to do with any strategizing on my part, but the job went so smoothly, that I think I might try this in the future.

Frequently, the client will choose the concept I’m least excited about, but in this case the author chose the bottom ‘duelist’ concept.  This is the one I most wanted to do.

Here’s the final drawing with the likeness:

I affixed the drawing to mdf with a couple layers of matte medium, and painted it.

The tree in the background is the result of looking at a lot of old Collier’s Weekly covers and Maxfield Parish paintings.

And here’s the final, tweaked a bit in photoshop.