“I can tell stories in a single panel. That’s important for a cover. In one drawing, it should be clear what the story is inside.” Joost Swarte is used to making the most out of small spaces. In fact, the Dutch cartoonist, designer and architect has spent most of his professional career working within certain borders – whether that be for buildings, on designs for stained glass windows or inside the panels of comic books. Most notably, added to this is a significant body of work for The New Yorker that now forms the basis of his very own publication, New York Boek. Chronicling over twenty years’s worth of drawings for the weekly magazine, the book contains over 450 documents, from previously unseen sketches all the way through to finished covers and spot illustrations.
“You can play with how a viewer looks at an image, and make something important by making it bigger or closer to the camera. But details in the background are also essential in the story.” The result is a remarkable ability to simultaneously communicate the bigger picture while remaining mindful of the minutest of details. “As a comic artist you should never feel framed within the format of comics,” he explains. “If I’m telling my story in one image I can mix the different elements that normally go from left to right or top to bottom in a comic page, so that there is something in front of you, in the background, and even further. It’s not a formula. You can play with this in a million ways. That makes it fun. It’s a democratic way of working!” The design of New York Boek follows suit. The journey from draft to final drawing is laid bare, with finished examples running at the bottom of pages and scans of work in progress arranged above. Both are given similarly equal weighting, neither sketch nor finished specimen overpowering the page.
When I meet with Joost, it’s at the annual AGI conference in Paris, where he has just finished speaking on the theme of ‘borders’ – a more than apt subject given the cartoonist’s multifaceted practice. “The New Yorker is the best magazine you could work for,” he tells me. “You have to really analyse the articles they give you, and take care that you’ve got the essence of it in your drawing. The thinking process means the articles stay vivid in my head.” Joost began working for the magazine in 1996, at a time when, as he describes it, The New Yorker needed more ‘buzz’. Hoping to appeal to more of an international audience, fellow cartoonist Art Spiegelman and his wife, the French artist Françoise Mouly were invited to work on images for the cover. In their search for other artists to sit alongside preexisting New Yorker stalwarts, Spiegelman called on Joost to contribute.
“It’s through drawing that your head starts working”
For Joost, drawing has always been a way to transform and communicate his own personal curiosities about the world. And he cites a love and admiration for children’s encyclopaedias and dictionaries for their ability to do the same. “It’s through drawing that your head starts working.” Upon receiving a new article Joost typically reads it at least twice. First, to get an impression of it as a whole and then again to search for potential phrases or visual links. Words often precede the visuals, “I’ll write down some of the most important words needed to translate the idea before doodling. This was at a time before I used email, so I had a fax machine and I’d write my notes by hand with a little drawing.” Sketching predominantly on tracing paper, illustrations start life on a white sheet of paper, with a pencil and a single line before being swiftly scanned to the art director and editor for notes and later, approval. Looking through the pages of sketches in the book, some ideas appear fully formed, as though immaculately conceived – even as drafts, while others are combinations of several thoughts.
Joost is no stranger to sifting through and curating hefty archives, having previously designed an exhibition of Tintin creator Hergé’s work in 1976 at Rotterdam’s Foundation of the Arts. It was here that he deftly coined the ‘ligne-claire’ (or, ‘clear line’) term used to describe the Belgian cartoonist’s style, from which Joost’s own unmistakably borrows. Background and foreground elements are treated with the same level of importance; the same pen both draws them into existence and eradicates visual hierarchy. Macro elements become significantly proportional to micro ones. Nothing is blurry or unfocussed; faded or forced into the background – these are ideas in full-definition. Initially trained in industrial design, it’s a style that lends itself well to Joost’s evident interest in architecture. Countless drawings depicting interior locations and scenes in amongst vast cityscapes; the angular compositions often playing testament to a love of detail. At times resembling architectural elevations or cross-sections of 3D models, they carry a structural competency every bit as logical as the thought process behind them.
“As a comic artist, your characters are full of what you know deep inside. You don’t say those things out loud, but if you can bring that into a character, a lot of people will be able to recognise something that’s inside them too”
But to think of a comic book page as a building is not such an abstract thought. In New York Boek, sketches exist as scaffolding for proposed structures, later worlds, waiting to be populated with people – characters that Joost describes as “not the smartest sort in the universe.” Although he has yet to appear in The New Yorker, Jopo de Pojo – perhaps one of Joost’s most well-known characters – is exemplary of this. I tell him how my reading of Pojo was somewhat nonchalant, to which he replies: “Yes, that’s how I feel myself sometimes”. And he laughs. "As a comic artist, your characters are full of what you know deep inside. You don’t say those things out loud, but if you can bring that into a character, a lot of people will be able to recognise something that’s inside them too.” In this way, characters act as familiar containers for human emotion. From his Tintin trousers to his Disney-inspired head, Jopo is a sum of preexisting cartoon parts – as though having walked through a wardrobe of famous comic characters. And yet, despite being composed of non personal elements, he remains recognisable. “That’s the way it is in life,” Joost explains, “We carry the genes of many people before us. We think we are very individual personalities but in fact we have a lot of influences in us.”
There’s a certain aloofness with Joost himself that runs just ahead of expert insight. If prompted about his own working method he’ll say, “I don’t know exactly how it happens,” before following with the most thoughtful observations regarding his process. It’s a relationship that’s also at play in the work itself. The people and scenarios he depicts are both funny and fragile; dancing between indifference and insight, each drawing contains a recognisable element of truth thinly wrapped inside a comic exterior. In one cover, (a summer issue from 2014) a kissing couple teeters precariously over skyscrapers made of books. “Love is fragile,” he explains. “That’s why they’re standing on a pile of books. You don’t know how long it’s going to last.” The thought is hardly an original one – a universal truth, certainly, but originality is not the main focus for Joost, whose primary concern is simply telling the story well.
Part of this means giving the viewer enough to visually interpret and reflect on a subject – a lesson he learned from decades of drawing comic strips. “The reader follows you. In movies, the length of time is dictated by the cutting of the film, while in comics, people already have an idea of the direction of the page. They can read it in three seconds or in a minute, that’s up to the reader.” For Joost, allowing a little cartoon complexity is fine, as long as you are always mindful of your audience. “It’s the same as when I do an architectural job, when I realise that somebody has to live in the building.” As such, whether in a building, for an exhibition or within the contours of a magazine, in Joost’s work, the relationship between the viewer and artist is one that it is always a collaboration. Even in the final images, a sense of process is still at work.
New York Boek is published in France by Dargaud and in Holland by Scratch. AGI Open is an annual conference for students and professionals organised by Alliance Graphique Internationale. The 2017 edition took place in Paris from 18–20th September 2017.