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July 26 2012

Simon's Cat: from ballpoint doodle to Cartoon Museum star

Simon Torfield's animated invention has now been viewed more than 35m times on YouTube

When Simon Torfield looks surprised – and he finds most of the last five years, when a ballpoint doodle of his cat Hugh became a worldwide online phenomenon, pretty surprising – his round eyebrows shoot up over his round eyes, and he looks exactly like Simon's Cat.

That first animation, of a hungry cat resorting to increasingly ferocious means to rouse its owner, made when he was teaching himself to use some animation software, has now been viewed more than 35m times on YouTube. Double Trouble, the cat trying to outwit the much savvier kitten, was uploaded last October and has been viewed 12.5m times.

The YouTube films, added to monthly, are now wreathed in advertising, and the cat is also a soft toy and a newspaper strip. It is also about to star in a fourth undoubtedly best-selling book, and in an exhibition which opens this week at the Cartoon Museum in London.

Torfield is not rich – his eyebrows shoot up in surprise at the idea – but he now employs five people including two full-time animators, and the team at the studio in Islington, London, where he was once an employee. He is just back from speaking at a conference in Los Angeles after an invitation from the Disney studio – his first encounter with Tinseltown.

"I never got time to go into Disneyland," he said sadly, "but I did see it from the outside, and I saw some great wildlife. We went down to the beach and saw pelicans and falcons, wonderful birds that you wouldn't see here."

The voice is slightly familiar too. Simon's Cat just says "meow", in tones of mounting anguish while pointing urgently at its mouth until food is produced – he hears regularly from people who say the gesture has become their standard office signal for "lunchtime" – but the voice is Torfield's. He went through a whole library of cat noises, he said, but none of them sounded as if they were made by people who really listened to cats.

He still drives a battered Golf, and lives in a small terraced house in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, near the house he was brought up in and the schools he attended, where he struggled with dyslexia and people urging him to give up drawing and concentrate on preparing for a proper job.

Simon's Cat now shares the Cartoon Museum walls with much more sophisticated creatures, including David Low's TUC Carthorse – standing baffled in 1949 at a crossroads between signposts for Socialism and Private Enterprise – and Nick Park's harassed genius Gromit forever saving Wallace from the consequences of his inventions.

"I think the magic of Simon's Cat is just in its simplicity and the strength of its observation," curator Anita O'Brien said. "Anyone who has a cat, or knows a cat, will recognise these animals. They do things which cats can't do, but in a totally believable way, and a totally convincing world."

That world is almost entirely real. When Simon's Cat ventures out of doors, to be bested by hedgehogs, rabbits and obstreperous birds, it is not into Torfield's tiny back garden, but the long narrow garden of his childhood, every flower bed, hedge and pond intensely remembered.

He actually owns four cats, Jess, Maisie, Hugh and Teddy, and aspects of all of them appear in the cartoons. Simon's Sister's Dog, begging for scraps under the table, is indeed a dog called Oscar which belongs to Torfield's sister. The Rottweiler belongs to a man two doors down: when Torfield decided she was too good not to use, he knocked on the startled neighbour's door to ask permission.

Only one aspect of Simon's Cat is a complete and shocking lie. The real cat is jet black. "It had to be white to make the graphics work," Torfield explained, the eyebrows shooting up again.

• Animal Crackers is at the Cartoon Museum London until 21 October


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July 25 2012

Does the modern mythology of Batman inflict a sick universe on its fans?

Gotham's caped crusader inhabits a strange fictional world, one that has veered from Dark Knight to high camp and back again

"I feel sorry for people who can't appreciate a good laugh", says the Joker after firebombing a building where people are asleep. Moving on through the Gotham night, he kills a worker in a fast-food establishment, for fun. Next he murders a newspaper seller, before escaping in a hail of laughter.

"Ha, ha, ha ha …"

This comic strip story about the Batman villain the Joker comes not from some X-rated adult comic, but from a 1996 DC children's annual called Batman Adventures. At least, I think it's for kids. It's painted in lurid colours and drawn at wild expressionist angles. It seems a bit extreme for a children's comic.

Does the modern mythology of Batman inflict a sick universe on its fans?

After last week's murders in Colorado, apparently carried out by a man who painted his hair to look like the Joker, I was expecting to see lots of articles asking this question. Let me be clear: I am absolutely not accusing the Batman comics or films of provoking this crime. I am not saying the killer was influenced by the comics in any way apart from his appearance. I am just observing that Batman's fictional world is very strange.

Batman is a massive commercial franchise. In spite of the Colorado tragedy, the film The Dark Knight Rises is doing great box office business. Who wants to criticise popular culture and offend a million teenagers?

But when I were a lad, Batman was a very different proposition from today's dark fantasy. It meant a camp TV series with pop art jokes, like onscreen captions that said: "Sock!", "Pow!" and "Wham!" And it meant the worst ever playground joke: what does Batman's mum say when it's time for his tea?

So when did dinner-dinner-dinner-dinner BATMAN! change to Arkham Asylum and the brooding avenger? When did the Joker change from the ridiculous character in the old TV series to a random psychopath?

Fans might say that today's version of the Batworld is in fact faithful to the original comic strips from the 1940s. Batman started out dark as hell, rooted in 40s pulp detective fiction. It was in the 50s and 60s that the franchise got camp and silly, with the TV series corrupting the comics themselves.

Today's world of superhero comics is shaped by complex crossovers between self-referential postmodern graphic novels and the traditional heroes invented in early 20th-century America. Writers like Alan Moore have given graphic fiction enhanced imaginative power. In 1988, Moore wrote The Killing Joke, which tells how the Joker became the Joker and tried to convince Batman that life is "a black, awful joke". The following year, the first "modern" Batman film, directed by Tim Burton, was released.

The noir shadows of Gotham city may be more artful today than in the era of Sock! Pow! Wham!

But it seemed more innocent when Batman's mum was calling him to dinner.


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November 27 2011

Christmas gifts 2011: which books will be under your tree?

Our critics choose the books they intend to give this Christmas, and the ones they hope to receive

What do you think are the best books of 2011? Take part in our open thread discussion here

Diana Athill
Editor and writer

I am crazy about Craig Taylor's Londoners (Granta £25), a brilliant collection of "voices" in the manner of Studs Terkel. It's quite long, but I wanted it to go on and on, and I can't imagine any lucky recipient not enjoying it. One I'm sure I'll enjoy myself when I get my hands on it is Claire Tomalin's biography of the most glorious of all Londoners, Charles Dickens: A Life (Viking £30).

Richard Eyre
Theatre director

I'd give Christopher Hitchens's collected essays, Arguably (Atlantic £30), in the hope that in return I'd be given John Updike's collected essays, Higher Gossip (Knopf £25). Hitchens is said to be the best British essayist since Orwell; anyone who doubts this, considering him a mere provocateur, will be convinced by this collection. Updike was the best novelist of his generation and also a prolific critic and essayist. His posthumous book is a distillation of his non-fiction writing over nearly six decades.

Russell T Davies
TV dramatist

It's too late to make a Christmas present out of How to Be a Woman (Ebury Press £11.99) by Caitlin Moran, because as soon as I'd finished it, I bought five more copies. One each for my two sisters and three nieces. I think this is the most important book they might read in their lives. Underneath beautiful, aching and hilarious memories of family life, it's a true polemic, arguing that women still eat, shave and dress entirely for the benefit of men. As for me, I'll have A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In (Bloomsbury £12.99) by Magnus Mills. For the title alone!

Tim Adams
Observer writer

Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow (Allen Lane £25) – a terrific unpicking of human rationality and irrationality – could hardly have been published at a better moment. Kahnemann is the godfather of behavioural economics, and this distillation of a lifetime's thinking about why we make bad decisions – about everything from money to love – is full of brilliant anecdote and wisdom. It is Kahnemann's belief that anyone who thinks they know exactly what is going on hasn't understood the question; as such it's the perfect gift for opinionated family members everywhere.

It would be interesting to know what Christopher Hitchens would make of Kahneman's faith in doubt; one of the many pleasures of reading our greatest contrarian over the years has been his ability to give the impression that he knows exactly what he thinks about almost every subject under the sun. Hitchens's collected essays, Arguably, is the book I'd most like to receive, for its bravura certainties, in spite of everything.

Joe Dunthorne
Novelist

A recent issue of McSweeney's magazine included a severed head (opening that morning's post was like the final scene in the film Se7en), but the current edition, the 38th, focuses on what the magazine does best: great stories, both fiction and non-fiction. I would give it to anyone with a short, persistent commute.

For myself, I'd like House of Holes (Simon & Schuster £14.99) by Nicholson Baker. Although reviewers have been bewildered, I'm intrigued by Baker's transition from writing a (brilliant) low-key novel about a struggling poet to this one, which is, by all accounts, a cheerful porno odyssey. Not the sort of book to be seen buying for oneself, mind you.

Rachel Johnson
Editor and author

Whoever says women aren't funny should be tied to chairs and force-read Bossypants (Little Brown £16.99) by Tina Fey, a darkly hysterical monologue-memoir by the writer/actor about growing up with dark shin fur in the land where yellow hair is king, writing skits for Saturday Night Live, her aborted honeymoon cruise (the ship caught fire) and Kotex panty-pads.

Johnson's Life of London (Harper Collins £20), by Boris Johnson, is not only the book I want to receive, it's the only book I can guarantee I will be given, as the author gives only two things to his family as presents: condiments he's made himself and books he's written. I am looking forward to both as I have been assured by my brother that his book on London is every bit as good as his apple chutney.

Philip Hensher
Novelist

I'm giving everyone Robert Harris's The Fear Index (Hutchinson £18.99) for Christmas, because everyone's already read Alan Hollinghurst's superb The Stranger's Child, and The Fear Index is a total ripsnorting Demon Seed-type romp through the bowels of high finance and whirring computer-cogs. In the usual way of things, people kept sending me copies of things such as Samuel Beckett's wildly boring letters (Volume 2) when what I really wanted was Tessa Hadley's excellent The London Train (Jonathan Cape £12.99).

Joan Bakewell
Journalist and broadcaster

The past shapes our lives today, and both of my choices throw light on our own times. Sebastian Barry's On Canaan's Side (Faber £16.99) – the book I'll be giving – takes up the story of the Dunne family, which he has told in several previous novels. Together, these works cover the time of Ireland's troubles, from within the Unionist protestant community. The gorgeous prose adds to the pleasure.

I would like to receive Amanda Foreman's epic A World on Fire (Penguin £12.99), which deals with the British/American relationship throughout the American civil war. Growing up near Lancashire, I have always known that American exports of raw cotton fed the cotton mills of Britain. But I have never understood what happened when the civil war broke out. This lavishly praised book will explain this and many other things. And at 1,000 pages, it will last the year!

Michael Palin
Actor and broadcaster

Colin Thubron's To a Mountain in Tibet (Chatto & Windus £16.99) is an absolutely terrific book. Thubron has perfect pitch. He uses the minimum of words for the maximum effect. His descriptions are fresh and acute and he can convey atmosphere and emotion on the head of a pin. The journey to Mount Kailash is enthralling and he keeps the reader right beside him every inch of the way.

The book I'd like in my stocking is Adam Macqueen's Private Eye: The First 50 Years (Private Eye Productions £25). The Eye has given me more consistent pleasure, pain and provocation than any other publication in my lifetime.

Rachel Cooke
Observer writer

What you need at Christmas is a novel that thoroughly muffles the sound of tired and overemotional relatives. So, I will be giving all of my girlfriends State of Wonder (Bloomsbury £12.99) by Ann Patchett, a sort of feminist Heart of Darkness. It has the barmiest plot ever – plucky scientist enters Brazilian jungle in search of her lost colleague and the secret of everlasting female fertility – but, honestly, it grips like a vice.

The book I would most like to receive is William Nicholson: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings (Yale £95) by Patricia Reed, Wendy Baron and Merlin James. I can stare at a single Nicholson painting for long minutes at a time. He is just the best.

Fergus Henderson
Chef

Life is peculiar at the moment, but nothing could be as bad as Bernie Gunther's lot: prison camp to prison camp, interrogation after interrogation… Philip Kerr's battered hero in Field Gray: A Bernie Gunther Mystery (Quercus £17.99) is an ex-Berlin policeman who gets knocked around from Cuba to postwar Europe. When he finally gets his glass of German brandy I sighed a sigh of relief for the poor chap.

A very different kettle of fish – not much mention of the Gulag – is Sarah Winman's When God Was a Rabbit (Headline Review £12.99). I feel that at this point in life I'm ready to tackle a book about love, and Sarah Winman's charm will make her the perfect guide.

Chris Patten
Chairman of the BBC Trust

The most enjoyable new novel I have read this year is Snowdrops (Altantic £7.99) by AD Miller. It's a very well written page-turner that confirmed all my prejudices about Putin's Russia. I came to it after reading Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, my number one discovery of the year, which to be fair to Mr Putin, does at least show how much worse things were under Stalin.

I have asked for David Gilmour's The Pursuit of Italy (Allen Lane £25) for Christmas. It may help me to understand rather better this heavenly country, which has given the world great buildings, cities, music and food, as well as Mr Berlusconi.

Mary Warnock
Philosopher

The book I'm going to give, specifically to people nostalgic for their childhood in the late 1960s and 70s (of whom I know many), is Nelson (Blank Slate £18.99), edited by Rob Davis and Woodrow Phoenix. I am fascinated by the comic strip format (like the excellent comic book versions of Shakespeare), by the different styles of each participating artist in this collaboration between 54 British comic artists, and by the way the central character develops under one's eyes as each year in her life unfolds. It is perfect for anyone without a great deal of reading time at Christmas.

The book I'd most like to get is one that I have already reluctantly given away, Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin. I'm not a Dickens fan, but Tomalin is the best biographer there is.

Julie Myerson
Novelist

By far the most impressive novel I read this year was Jacqueline Yallop's Obedience (Atlantic £12.99). The prose is as intense, opaque yet elastic as its morally complex themes: guilt, sexuality and secrecy in a convent in wartime France. I'd give it to anyone who wants, as I do, to have their head and heart churned up by what they read.

The book I'd most like to be given is anything bought at one of the two independent bookshops in Southwold, Suffolk. Except both have now closed down. Which makes membership of Southwold Library – now ludicrously also under threat – the best free gift you could give anyone there this Christmas.

Philip French
Observer film critic

A worthy Booker laureate of this or any other year, our most versatile novelist Julian Barnes paid tribute in his acceptance speech to Suzanne Dean, cover designer of The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape £12.99). This makes it a perfect present in these last days of the book as singular object. The one I hope someone will send me is Brian Kellow's Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (Viking $27.95). I read her for more than 30 years and wrote an introduction to her final collection.

Daljit Nagra
Poet

Tahmima Anam's The Good Muslim (Canongate £16.99) is a perfect page-turner for the festive period. It is a powerfully gripping story about the birth of Bangladesh. Subtle plotting and vivid dramatisation of characters allow Anam to explore the formation of national identity. CB Editions is an exciting new poetry press which has published JO Morgan's second collection, Long Cuts (£7.99), this year. For me, this would be an ideal gift as I loved his first collection, Natural Mechanical, and reviews suggest this one is even better.

Tristram Hunt
Historian and Labour MP

Maya Jasanoff's Liberty's Exiles (HarperPress £30) is going to be in the Christmas stocking for a number of nearest and dearest. Jasanoff is an exceptional scholar of British history in all its global dimensions, and her evocative chronicle of the loyalist diaspora from the American war of independence allows us to rethink the cultural legacy of the Thirteen Colonies' rebellion. And, in turn, I would like an equally big book on US history by another transatlantic female historian – Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire. British involvement in the American civil war is still under-appreciated, and Foreman's work, on the 150th anniversary, looks like a useful corrective.

Wendy Cope
Poet

I always enjoy Caitlin Moran's columns, so I read her How to Be a Woman as soon as it came out. Although I didn't agree with every word, it is spot on about most things, and very entertaining. If I hadn't already given my copy to my partner's daughter, I would buy it for her. Another 2011 favourite is Edgelands (Jonathan Cape £12.99) by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, which I will be giving as a Christmas present. My Christmas wish-list includes Death Comes to Pemberley (Faber £18.99) by PD James and Blue Monday (Michael Joseph £12.99) by Nicci French.

Curtis Sittenfeld
Novelist

I thoroughly enjoyed The Oregon Experiment (Knopf $26.95) by Keith Scribner. Set in a college town in America's Pacific Northwest, it's a novel about – among other things – anarchists, adultery, new babies, hippies, and a woman with such a powerful sense of smell that it lets her discover secrets about other people. The book is just really smart and juicy. A novel I haven't yet read but have heard is wonderful is Love and Shame and Love (Little Brown $24.99) by Peter Orner. It's about a Chicagoan named Alexander Popper and his messy family – and I do always like family messiness!

Geoff Dyer
Novelist and essayist

The book I'd most like to receive this Christmas is Magnum Contact Sheets (Thames and Hudson £95), edited by Kristen Lubben: a collection of the pictures that were made either side of some of the famous images from the photojournalists' archive. The book is an exemplary bit of publishing in that it is stunningly beautiful – and huge, and expensive – but is full of the kind of material that might be considered the preserve of scholars or researchers. I'll be giving copies of Terry Castle's screamingly funny – and lethally sharp – collection of autobiographical essays, The Professor (Atlantic £20).

Marina Warner
Writer and academic

So much of what I read is in translation – from Alice Oswald's new reworking of the Iliad, Memorial, to Richard Hamilton's compendium of Marrakech stories, The Last Storytellers. Matthew Reynolds, in The Poetry of Translation: From Chaucer & Petrarch to Homer & Logue (Oxford £50), shows us what is at stake in these border crossings. Close looking is close reading's counterpart, and Deanna Petherbridge is one of its most impassioned advocates. If I don't find The Primacy of Drawing: Histories and Theories of Practice (Yale £55) under the tree, I'll buy it, gladly.

William Dalrymple
Historian and travel writer

I greatly enjoyed Sherard Cowper-Coles's brilliant account of how and why we are losing Britain's fourth war in Afghanistan. Cables from Kabul (HarperPress £25) is the most insightful record yet published of the diplomatic wrangling that has accompanied the slow military encirclement of western forces in the country. It is also the best account I have read of how post-colonial colonialism actually works.

A book I would love to be given is the fabulously illustrated catalogue accompanying the Masters of Indian Painting show at the Rietberg in Zurich this summer – unquestionably the most remarkable and ambitious exhibition of the Indian miniature tradition ever mounted. Masters of Indian Painting, 1100-1900 (Museum Rietberg £120) is a huge, two-volume affair, with essays by the three great historians of Indian art: BN Goswamy, Eberhard Fischer and Milo Cleveland Beach.

Mariella Frostrup
Observer writer and TV presenter

Robert Harris's fine new thriller, The Fear Index, is a must-have in every Christmas stocking. It's highly "readable" – the buzz word in literary circles this year – but more importantly, it manages to explain what a hedge fund actually is, using the example of lacy black lingerie. With our lives currently in turmoil thanks to the machinations of the financial markets, understanding how they work should be a priority, and Harris manages to combine such instruction with a fast-paced thriller.

I'd love to receive Marina Warner's epic study of the Arabian Nights, Stranger Magic (Chatto & Windus £28), a dissection of the myths in these enduring classics that promises to throw light on the countries from which the stories spring and the lives of women in them.

Hari Kunzru
Novelist

To London friends I'll be giving festive copies of Laura Oldfield Ford's Savage Messiah (Verso £19.99), the seminal fanzine (now released in book form), which reveals, in photos, text and beautiful drawings, the abject underside of the regenerated city. The book I'm hoping to find under the tree is Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee's Poor Economics (Perseus £17.99), which apparently overturns many received ideas about what it's like to be very poor.

Shami Chakrabarti
Director of Liberty

Sometimes the most serious messages are best expressed with humour, and this Christmas should be a time to try to smile. The book I'd love to receive is Private Eye: The First 50 Years by Adam Macqueen. But because I would love the next 50 years to be better for women, I would most like to give Caitlin Moran's How to Be a Woman. I've already bought a spare copy for a female friend. I will give it in celebration of Moran's wit and wisdom and in loving memory of my mother – an unsung feminist.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Writer

No better history books were published this year than David Gilmour's wonderful The Pursuit of Italy and The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (Allen Lane £30) by David Abulafia. Both tell riveting but melancholy stories. Gilmour shows that the "unification" of Italy 150 years ago has been a profound failure, while in the course of Abulafia's account his great sea ceases to be the centre of civilisation.

Bright Particular Stars (Atlantic £25) is the latest of David McKie's sesquipedal peregrinations. This "Gallery of Glorious British Eccentrics", some of whom are a good deal more eccentric than glorious, is unfailingly droll and will make a perfect stocking-filler.

Nicholas Hytner
Artistic director of the National Theatre

Anthea Bell's new translation of Stefan Zweig's Beware of Pity, published this year by Pushkin Press (£8.99), is the latest in a brilliant series of Zweig translations. A psychological thriller with an emotionally dense unreliable narrator, and a terrifyingly needy heroine, it is compulsively readable.

I hope I'm given Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life. Her biography of Dickens's mistress, Nelly Ternan, is a phenomenal feat of literary reclamation, but I fear that her new book will do nothing to refute my long-held belief that the novels ascribed to Dickens could not possibly have been written by the son of a naval pay-office clerk who left school at the age of 12, and are plainly the work of the Duke of Wellington.

Kirsty Wark
Broadcaster

If you want to make someone happy, lying on the sofa in front of the fire on Boxing Day, then you must give them Robert Harris's new thriller, The Fear Index. You might think you've had enough of the economic crisis – but this is the hugely entertaining version. Thinking of that same sofa, I'd like to receive Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child (Picador £20), which somehow eluded me this year. As an added extra, please may I have Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Veg Everyday! (Bloomsbury £25), which I know is a very good thing for us all. Go on Santa.

Andrew Rawnsley
Observer political editor

For anyone you know who likes to be provoked to both laughter and thought, I can't think of a better stocking filler than Craig Brown's One On One (Fourth Estate £16.99), 101 ingeniously linked encounters between the famous and the infamous. As a great admirer of Max Hastings's military histories, I would be pleased to unwrap All Hell Let Loose (HarperCollins £30), his latest, much-praised volume on the second world war, focusing on the experiences of those at the sharp end of the conflict.

Kate Kellaway
Observer writer

There is one book that has bowled me over – on a subject close to my heart. The Story of Swimming (Dewi Lewis £25), by Susie Parr, not only looks ravishing (filled with unusual mermaids, avid modern swimmers and stunning photographs by the author's husband, Martin Parr) but is also a fascinating, idiosyncratic, beautifully written history. Readers will want to do far more than dip in – I intend to give it to all my amphibious friends. Meanwhile, the book I can't wait to read is Matthew Hollis's said-to-be-outstanding Now All Roads Lead to France (Faber £20), about the last years of Edward Thomas.

Peter Carey
Novelist

I have twice given away David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House £21.99), and Christmas will not change my habits. The book is more readable and entertaining than I can indicate in 100 words. It is a meditation on debt, tribute, gifts, religion and the false history of money. Graeber is a scholarly researcher, an activist and a public intellectual. His field is the whole history of social and economic transactions. He has been an important figure at Zuccotti Park and Occupy Wall Street. Here, he uses his own klieg lights to illuminate the pea and thimble mechanisms that have delivered the current debt crisis. Would someone, please, give me a copy this Christmas. I promise to keep it for myself.

Elizabeth Day
Observer writer

One of the most thought-provoking novels I read this year was Amy Waldman's The Submission (William Heinemann £12.99), an elegantly plotted debut that charts the fallout after a New York jury chooses a Muslim architect to design a memorial to 9/11. Waldman uses this central focal point to unravel the tensions and contradictions at work in modern America.

The book I'd most like to unwrap underneath the Christmas tree (hint, hint) is Claire Tomalin's new biography, Charles Dickens: A Life. I've read every biography Tomalin has produced and am in awe not only of her impeccable research but also of her real feeling for her subjects and her exquisite writing.

AN Wilson
Writer and columnist

The book that I am hoping to find in my Christmas stocking is Fiona MacCarthy's The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination (Faber £25). I have enjoyed all Fiona MacCarthy's biographies (Eric Gill, William Morris, Byron...) and I cannot believe that this will disappoint.

The book I shall be giving is Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's compelling critical biography, Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist (Harvard £20). If you only read one book on Dickens during the bicentenary year of 2012, it should be this. Every page illuminates the books and the genius who produced them.

Bidisha
Writer and cultural commentator

So many contenders, but I would share the incredible creative power and intense imagination of Alice Hoffman, whose novel The Dovekeepers (Simon & Schuster £16.99) shows just how far and deep historical fiction can go. I would love to receive Sarah Hall's short story collection, The Beautiful Indifference (Faber £12.99), which I expect to be as gripping and cerebral as a previous novel of hers – one of my favourites – The Carhullan Army.

Salley Vickers
Novelist

The book I shall be giving for Christmas is Ronald Blythe's At the Yeoman's House (Enitharmon Press £15). The "house" is the mysteriously named "Bottengoms", once home of farmers and shepherds and rescued and restored by John Nash, for whom the author worked as a young man. The book is a quiet meditation on the nourishment to be found in the past. The book I most want to be given is Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. I'm a speedy thinker myself, so am hoping to be endorsed in that practice.

Robert McCrum
Associate editor of the Observer

Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire, an epic history of two nations divided by conflict, is an enthralling portrait of Britain and the US during the American civil war. It's a book that ought to be a natural Christmas present. Unfortunately, at 1,000 pages, the publishers have made it almost unreadable (ie impossible to hold in bed). This is a shame. To turn a brilliant narrative history into an infuriating doorstop is an insult to Foreman's work. Perhaps, for the gift market, Penguin should consider a two-volume paperback edition.

I've followed Christopher Reid's poetry for years, and was delighted when he won the Costa prize with A Scattering. Now Faber has issued his Selected Poems (£14.99). This is high on my list of books to read at Christmas.

Fintan O'Toole
Journalist and author

The book I'll be giving is Tim Robinson's Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom (Penguin £20). In an age of sundered specialisms, Robinson – mathematician, map-maker, naturalist, folklorist – is a marvel. This last volume of his wonderful trilogy on Connemara ranges through political history, music and topography, marking him as the supreme practitioner of geo-graphy, the writing of places. I'd like to receive Derek Mahon's New Collected Poems (Gallery £17.95). Mahon's combinations of savage indignation and ludic delight, of high formality and apparent ease, repay endless revisiting.

What do you think are the best books of 2011? Take part in our open thread discussion here


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November 20 2011

The art of anger: how underground comics are inspiring the Occupy movement

Posters and graphics for the Occupy movement draw their inspiration from vintage socialist art and present-day comic books

In pictures: Occupy poster art


The Occupy movement that started in New York and spread rapidly around the world has already succeeded. It doesn't matter if it goes on to become a long-term political force or disappears in a few weeks; it has put the old socialist issues of inequality, economic injustice and the deficiencies of capitalism back at the heart of public debate. This is a stunning achievement, when socialism was thought to be dead and buried, and the Occupy posters reproduced here typify a confidence and clarity that has changed the language of politics.

They are nostalgic in that they resemble the posters of Paris 1968, or Spain 1936. Expressionist graphics, decisive slogans and modernist wit pervade these images. Yet if the abstract design of a red tower calling on the 99% to Occupy London makes you think of Soviet revolutionary art, the really fascinating thing about the posters is not these echoes of the 20th century but their connection with today's comics or graphic novels.

Famously, the Guy Fawkes mask used by protesters comes from the graphic novel (and subsequent bad film) V for Vendetta, and this face makes its appearance on posters too. The strong black-and-white style used against coloured backgrounds by Occupy the Streets with its striding woman, Occupy Philly with its Liberty Bell, and Occupy Portland with its face of a young woman representing the 99%, all share the aesthetics of comic book artists such as Art Spiegelman and Charles Burns.

Such comics tend to portray a noirish and Kafkaesque version of the modern world. In Burns's graphic novel Black Hole, for example, a group of shallow teens are sucked into a nightmarish existential horror when their community is infected by a bizarre plague. It seems from these posters that the bleak, disturbing visions of comic books have shaped the radical culture of this generation. While mainstream culture was validating conservative economic and social values in the 1990s and early 21st century, the underground culture of graphic fiction was popularising a deeply alienated view of contemporary society. V for Vendetta, after all, celebrates the bombing of Big Ben and the Post Office tower. In these posters, those wild visual fantasies fuel a very real anger.


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November 11 2011

The architects who are taking up pulp fiction writing

Architects reach for their comic books, David Chipperfield sets his sights on Venice, and the people of St Leonards-on-Sea get very excited about a diving board

Is the recession causing escapist fantasies in architects? It seems so. This week sees the publication online of the first instalment of Looking for Spinoza: A Shooting Bad Guys Saga. This dark, retro-style comic book by Franco Falconetto is especially enjoyable for lovers of architecture, with its detailed and rather beautiful chiaroscuro studies of Italian baroque churches and piazzas appearing as stage sets for knife-fights and shoot-outs between heroes and villains.

I hear a rumour that Falconetto is none other than Francis Terry, of classical architects Quinlan & Francis Terry. Own up, Terry. "Yes, these are my drawings," he confesses. "Originally, I started them to amuse the children, but it fast became a way of amusing myself." Explain yourself, buster, I snarl. "Architects are natural comic-book writers," says Terry, singing like a canary. "It uses the same skills of imagining people in spaces in different scenarios."

Terry clearly has a second career ahead of him, as an author and illustrator of knowing pulp fiction. So, too, has Peter Murray, former editor of the RIBA Journal and co-founder of Blueprint magazine. Murray calls A Passion to Build, his online novel, "a racy tale of two architects, Harry Jamb and Frederick Shaw, who start out in practice together but, after an acrimonious 'divorce', compete furiously". The denouement is set in the distressed fictional city of Frampton-on-Tees, a coded reference to architect and historian Kenneth Frampton, where the architects slug it out "in the competition to design the buildings for the Olympic-style EuroGames". Plot and sub-plot race along "watched and reported on by the sexually voracious Rachael Dove, architectural correspondent of the Gazette". Blimey. The book will be online next week at Clip-kit.com.

Murray's tongue may well be firmly in his cheek, yet he is following in a literary tradition that portrays fictional architects as egotistical, over-ambitious and perhaps even insane monsters. Think of Howard Roark, hero of Ayn Rand's blockbuster novel The Fountainhead (more than 6.5m copies sold since first published in 1943). Roark, played by Gary Cooper in the gloriously OTT film of the book, dynamites one of his own buildings after second-rate talents are brought in to complete it without him.

Then there's Malestrazza, the villainous architect in Serge Brussolo's novel Les Emmurés, who concretes his victims into the walls of a very disturbing building. In 2009, it was made into a straight-to-DVD horror starring Mischa Barton, AKA Marissa from The OC.

Venice is an architectural opera. And a soap opera, too. There were fears that Silvio Berlusconi was about to push Paolo Baratta from his role as director of the Venice Biennale in favour of his business buddy Giulio Malgara. Britain's David Chipperfield, apparently, didn't want to curate the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale if Malgara was in charge. Now, with the playboy Italian PM out and Baratta likely to stay, Chipperfield will curate the show, the most glamorous in the international architecture calendar. To date, Chipperfield's work in Venice has been for a renovation and extension to the city's San Michele cemetery. Death in Venice, you might say. He will have to think of something more life-enhancing for next year. And prontissimo too.

Ole Scheeren, former partner of Rem Koolhaas at OMA and project architect of the cinematic CCTV building in Beijing, this week revealed his design for the 268-metre Angkasa Raya tower to be built alongside the Petronas twin towers in Kuala Lumpur, for Malaysian developers Sunrise Berhard. Images show a theatrical building Hollywood directors might well thrill to, with its air of Metropolis, Things to Come and The Fountainhead, in a tropical setting. The moody photograph of the architect that accompanies the press release is gloriously noir. Or possibly pulp fiction.

Finally, Quixotic Architecture has been commissioned by a group of local business people to design a new lido for St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex. With views to the cliffs of Beachy Head, the proposed Lido, currently in the planning stage, is to be clustered around and below a homage to the original diving platform designed by Sidney Little. Striking, sunny images of the project evoke a world of 1930s design and seaside bathing, all brought happily up to date – architectural escapism at its sunniest.


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June 07 2011

V&A Illustration awards 2011: the shortlists in pictures

The winners of this year's V&A illustration awards were announced last night. Take a look at some of the shortlisted work



May 25 2011

Steve Bell: 'You must discover the character behind the face'

Thirty years ago, political cartoonist Steve Bell drew his first If… strip; ever since, he's been a much-loved Guardian regular. He looks back on his career

In pictures: Steve Bell at the Cartoon Museum; Politicians including John Prescott, Edwina Currie and Nick Clegg on being drawn by Bell

Hitting 60 gives you plenty of food for thought. Having a retrospective exhibition at the same time gives further cause for astonishment. How did I ever manage to draw that small, without glasses or artificial aids? How did I manage without scanning and email? Well, everything went by train. How did I manage with four young children snapping at my heels? I used to work at night, when they were all tucked up. My oldest son, born the year I started working for the Guardian, is now 30 with ankle-biters of his own. He's grown – but have I?

There is no defined career path to becoming a cartoonist. I came to it almost in reverse. I have loved cartoons, drawing and having a laugh, but the notion of doing it for a living didn't take root until very late. I had studied art, but I found the idea of being an artist risible. (Monsieur L'Artiste was one of the first characters I ever drew at university.) So I started out as a teacher, but the stress was unbelievable. I knew things had gone too far when being off to have my wisdom teeth taken out felt like a relief. What I craved was a job where I could shut myself in a room and talk to myself, sometimes very loudly and in a variety of accents.

With my girlfriend Heather's encouragement, I handed in my notice and followed my friend from university, Kipper Williams, into the daunting world of freelance cartooning. I had no portfolio and no contacts, other than those Kipper gave me, and no plan, other than the fantasies engendered by my infinite sense of entitlement. It was the second best decision in my life. The best was to marry Heather, which I did that same year, in 1977.

While I was teaching, I had been drawing strip cartoons and illustrations, unpaid, for Birmingham Broadside, the city's answer to Time Out. I had introduced a character called Maxwell the Mutant: having been exposed to deadly radiation, in the grand old comic book tradition, Maxwell would mutate into someone unexpected every time he drank a pint of mild. Since 1977 was a Jubilee year, he naturally mutated into the Queen. His deadly adversary was Neville Worthyboss, a thinly veiled and rather inadequate caricature of the then Tory leader of Birmingham city council, Neville Bosworth. Despite my ambition and self-belief, I knew I needed to work on my caricatures. I never realised they would become a life's work.

Through dogged persistence (I still cherish my rejection letter from the Beano), I found work writing and drawing children's comics. My first professional effort in print, for IPC's Whoopee comic, was Dick Doobie the Back to Front Man; he sank without trace after a few months in 1978. But I was learning – and I had been paid.

At a leftwing publication called the Leveller, I introduced a strip about a really obnoxious supreme being, Lord God Almighty. But I wanted to draw comics about politics. I tried Time Out repeatedly, which in those days had a leftwing slant, but there was nothing going. Then I went to the magazine's offices for about the fifth time in 1979, immediately after the election of Margaret Thatcher, and saw the news editor, Duncan Campbell. He said they were looking for a comic strip to tackle the new Tory government. Would I like to submit a rough idea? I rushed home, grunted, strained and produced a pencilled rough of an allegorical strip where the animals were the people and the farm management were the government. They wanted one every fortnight; naturally, it became known as Maggie's Farm.

This was a huge break, but my Maggie needed work. I'm not someone who has an easy, natural talent for quick caricature, as Gerald Scarfe and Martin Rowson do. I take my time. It isn't simply a question of getting the likeness: you have to discover the character behind the face. My early Thatchers are no more than press photos rendered into line drawings, but then the woman herself was not yet a fully formed personality. The Iron Lady with Churchill's Trousers was an image that she consciously worked on, along with the darkening of her hair and the lowering and slowing of her voice. For a long time, though, I couldn't identify what it was about her that really got to me. What her government was doing was very, very nasty, but there was something else as well.

I came to realise, while drawing her over the first year of her government, that she was deranged, but in a very controlled way, and this was expressed in her eyeballs. Her utter self-belief, her total conviction of her own rightness, went way beyond arrogance. She was mad. Perhaps I subconsciously empathised with her for this. Even so, I hated her more than any other living being. Within a couple of years, she had managed to triple unemployment, slash services and lay waste to vast tracts of British industry.

When I saw Thatcher for the first time, in October 1980, at the Conservative conference in Brighton, I was horrified and intrigued. The crowd was terrifying; the whole occasion felt like a gathering of the undead. This was where she unveiled the deathless phrases: "You turn. If you want to. The Lady's. Not. For turning." The delivery was leaden. It was like a bad stand-up comedian addressing a particularly slow audience. Tory audiences are well turned-out, shiny and simple-minded, and in all the years I have been studying them, nothing whatever has changed.

The Guardian had informed me, in 1978, that they wouldn't be using my work in the foreseeable future. But in 1981, we had a newborn son and a mortgage in the offing. So in desperation I sent off more stuff. It paid off. In November 1981, the first If… strip appeared. Within six months, the ludicrous Falklands war had broken out, and since all imagery emanating from the Task Force sailing south was so rigidly controlled by the Ministry of Defence, the kind of surreal graphic speculation that only a cartoon strip can provide came into its own.

Nine years later, I was still hard at it when Thatcher fell from grace. It was great fun to draw a visual commentary on the fall as it happened. Her neck had thickened, her shoulders broadened, her quiff solidified. The eyeballs were wilder than ever: one hooded, one roaming free. Thanks to the wonders of fax, I was now able to draw a cartoon for publication the following day without having to go into the office (I had moved to Brighton). I produced my first big comment-page job on the day of Geoffrey Howe's devastating resignation speech, then another on the day Thatcher quit.

It was a horrendous amount of work, but it was addictive. With the arrival of John Major, and the outbreak of the Gulf war, I was sucked into doing two, three, then four large cartoons for the comment page a week, as well as the daily strip. I was so delighted at not to have to draw Thatcher any more that caricaturing Major came quickly and easily, as light relief. The logic was simple. He was one more useless Tory, only he was super-useless. He became Superuselessman, wearing not sleek red briefs over a bright blue body stocking, but Y-fronts over a grey suit. Major's slow death went on for far too long: by 1997, I was overjoyed to be drawing the blazing underpants sinking into the Thames, never to be seen again – except when they reappeared on Edwina Currie's head in 2002.

Tony Blair took longer to capture. It wasn't until stalking him at the Labour conference in Blackpool in 1994 that I noticed he had a little mad eye of his very own: politically and visually, he was channelling Thatcher. What Blair did was the appearance of conviction; what Gordon Brown did was the appearance of substance. Ten years of Blair gave way to the quick-quick-slow death of Brown. It was like drawing a crumbling cliff face, or the north end of a southbound cow.

At David Cameron's first conference as Tory leader, in Bournemouth in 2006, there was a sudden outbreak of pale blue skies, puffy clouds and trees waving in the breeze. The massed simpletons were still there, seething in the blue shadows, but they looked increasingly baffled. Then Cameron himself came on stage and burbled sweet nothings about the NHS. They didn't believe a word of it and Cameron didn't either, but he was channelling Blair. He had all the hand movements, the stiff, deliberate podium body language, and he could do sincerity almost as well as the master. But he's smoother and doesn't appear to possess any hair follicles. It turns out he is made of translucent pink rubber.

Saddest of all is Nick Clegg, a rather poor clone of Cameron, who in turn is a tribute act to Blair, who is himself channelling Thatcher. And who was she channelling? Her father, Alderman Roberts, the grocer of Grantham town? Winston Churchill? Adolf Hitler? Beelzebub? Who can say?

Am I getting cynical in my old age? I don't think so. I have a strong feeling that I was born cynical and that, somewhere within me, a dewy-eyed idealist has always been struggling to get out. I have been lurking under the podium, drawing politicians so closely for so long, that I have almost come to like them. I don't think they are any more venal and corrupt than we are. They talk bollocks because we talk bollocks – and because it's their job. Yet sometimes they say something that pushes a button and lights up the room. It is a rare skill and it doesn't happen often. Mostly, it is a slow slog through cliche and soundbite, followed by a slaughtering at the polls. What is worse is that many of them actually enjoy being done over satirically, since it shows that at least one person is paying them attention.

These men and women are professional idealists and I take my hat off to them. Then I kick them up the arse. Because it's not what they say or what they are, or even what they say they are, that gets my goat: it's the things they actually do to us in our name.

Bell Epoque: 30 Years of Steve Bell is at the Cartoon Museum, 35 Little Russell Street, London WC1, until 24 July


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March 08 2011

Seven artists in Delhi

The second in our series looking at Indian artists focuses on Sarnath Banerjee, a graphic novelist, artist and film-maker



January 16 2011

Wills'n'Kate: the comic book

A political satirist has turned the royal couple's romance into a cartoon, reports Oliver Good

'I think you could definitely go down the pub with William and Kate," says Rich Johnston, who has spent the last three months reading every article he could find about the couple's lives, as research for a comic book that will, he says, faithfully chart their relationship.

Johnston, bearded, with unkempt red hair and slightly wonky glasses, is the cartoonist for the controversial Westminster blogger Guido Fawkes, as well as being the founder of the comics website Bleeding Cool. He knows the idea will strike some as tawdry, but he describes Kate and William: A Very Public Love Story as a modern-day romance. "There is a kitschness to it. But I love doing things that sound ridiculously kitsch, then surprising the audience with something deeper."

Due out in April, to coincide with the royal wedding, this "dramatic retelling" will appear in two issues, one focusing on the prince, the other on his bride, although there will be a third edition that brings the stories together, each running from opposing ends of the book and meeting in the middle.

It might sound surprising that a man who spends much of his time abusing politicians would pen such a reverential tome. After all, one of his recent cartoons, titled How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Trident, depicted Nick Clegg riding a nuclear bomb, Stetson in hand, declaring: "Feel the power between my legs!"

His purpose, though, is simply to "expose comics to a new audience. Comics have a lot to offer as a medium, but often they are dismissed as something juvenile." His hope is that everyone from the elderly to Heat magazine readers will pick up a copy with their weekly shop. And then there's the obvious market in the US, where royal-related memorabilia is snapped up.

Does he tackle Diana's death? "It's a monumental event in the life of William, so you see him at the funeral. You also see Kate, watching the funeral in a news report and being affected by it. Kate's biggest problem is that the media begin hounding her, which is what happened to Diana, so there's that idea of mortality and dangerousness being introduced into her life." Although Johnston uses some artistic licence to touch on the couple's sex lives, he adds: "There are no scenes where you see them 'at it'."

Two of the UK's best-known comics artists, Mike Collins and Gary Erskine, were given the task of representing the stories visually. "Rich has written a witty, detailed and clever script," says Collins, who has drawn the likes of Spider-Man and Batman. "Diana's involvement is surprising and well handled."

William Windsor: A Very Public Prince, drawn by Erskine, is reminiscent of defunct Boy's Own-ish titles like Commando and Roy of the Rovers. "Their staples tended to be playing sports at school and running around with tanks, aeroplanes or through trenches. Funnily enough, those are very much part of William's life story."

Kate Middleton: A Very Private Princess, drawn by Collins, employs fictional diary entries and echoes the sort of comic strips found in 1970s schoolgirl magazines. "Jackie was an inevitable touchstone," says Collins. "Just like a songwriter would evoke a certain musical sequence, we're able to draw – literally – on that styling to create an appropriate mood."

The US publishing house Bluewater has just announced a rival to this comic, called The Royals: Prince William and Kate Middleton, also due in April. Is Johnston worried? "It's being printed in America, written by Americans and drawn by Americans. The way the British relate to the monarchy is different. We understand their flaws – they kind of become part of us. Monarchist or republican, you get it by osmosis. There is a loving mockery."


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