Creative Freelance Illustartors, Designers, Artists, Writers

'Introducing Media Studies' by Borin Van Loon

I'm holding in my hand a modestly-sized volume and gazing at it in a bewildered sort of way. It has a large eye on a monitor screen on the cover and it's entitled Introducing Media Studies and it's my new book. My rather dazed condition is due to the small thrill, still present after over twenty years in the business, of looking through the pages to see how my work looks in situ, tempered by the unhappy memory of its completion and delivery.

This is the tenth "Beginners" style documentary comic-book on which I've worked (the eighth to be published by Cambridge based imprint Icon Books recently relaunched as the "Introducing..." series) and I really should have known better. When my old friend and editor, Richard Appignanesi, phoned with news of this new project it all sounded great. The author was the same with whom I had worked on the two previous titles, Cultural Studies and Mathematics; he would deliver the manuscript/disk in March, 1999 and delivery of the finished artwork was scheduled for January 5, 2000 (a uniquely inconvenient deadline as we shall see).

I relished taking on the media. We're all submerged in this stuff. It's easy to become blasé and not realise what they're doing to us. The Medium is the Massage. Hidden Persuaders. My author wanted us to work together a bit more than usual. So, instead of his delivery of a finished text for me to illustrate and design from page 3 to page 176 (via the good offices of series editor and copy editor at Icon) as is usual, I started to generate images with only a vague idea of the content of the book. These I fed to the author to stimulate his writerly juices. This could have been a mistake.

In the interim I developed my website and added some 'proposed images' for the Media Studies book. In a way I was publishing it before the publisher; a concept which appealed to me in a perverse kind of way.

Several months down the line I was still waiting for the text and beginning to sweat about the approaching deadline. Conundrum: how can you continue to make illustrations with the risk that they won't fit. To give an insight into the creation of these books: the illustrator designs and illustrates each page or spread to finished artwork/digital file with a virtually free hand. Bliss. At its best this form draws power from text, illustration and the ways in which they interact (speech and thought balloons, textual manipulation and integration on the page). But 173 pages in three months is too damn much, even when you've got a few readymades in hand (which turn out not to fit into the final text, cos the author was so blown away by your drawings, that he restructured the text!). So nothing can be wasted, everything is used and there is little time available for corrections and certainly little room for rewrites (but, being an author myself, I know the tricks they can play once they see the finished text and artwork).

Having managed to achieve a long-held ambition with this series: to create a book illustrated purely by collage – in fact I pulled it off with the two titles, Sociology and Mathematics – I'd hoped to do this one purely in dip-pen and brush illustration. Some hope.

To compound matters the text was apparently judged by my editors to have a number of corrections / problems (I didn't find out how many til later) during the process of my illustrating the first hundred pages or so from raw copy. Planning out your time and aiming for target numbers of pages by a particular date tends to go out of the window in this situation. Basically, it's full-tilt and hope for the best. The only encouraging thing was the growing pile of artwork boards next to my lightbox.

Yes, I still do paste-ups by hand, because (a) I enjoy the hands-on process and (b) it seems to suit this particular series and my approach to it. Perhaps it recalls the Dada and Surrealist pamphlets and magazines from the thirties and forties: there's definitely a flavour of the didactic and 'political' in my approach. Some could call it a craft-skill. I encourage myself that not everybody is stuck in front of a monitor screen all their lives. Hello to all those lino-cutters, wood-engravers, oil-painters and collagists out there. As Darrel Rees pointed out in his recent article on the future of illustration (AoI Newsletter 3/00), most 'conventional' illustration can be scanned in and become 'digital' quite easily. We don't all need to create work on-screen. Apart from that, I haven't found a space in my busy schedule to buy and learn PageMaker software yet; but this may come! I certainly use the computer for all the things it's good at: formatting text, capturing/distorting images, graphic effects etc. But I put it all together by hand.

Denouement: the perceptive among you will notice that my deadline fell just after Christmas and New Year. Leaving aside the telephone call from my author to discuss the book at lunchtime on Boxing Day (well, he is a Muslim and doesn't celebrate Christmas) when I had seven at table waiting for desert, the crunch came when the copy editor came to spend the day on January 5, 2000 for the customary final check-through. It soon became clear from his initial checks that there had been, in the words of Robert Plant, a communication breakdown and I hadn't incorporated a shed-load of rewrites and corrections. Without boring you with the technical reasons, there then followed one of the most stressful eleven hours of my life (and there have been a few) as we rushed from studio to dining-room with paper and boards and mark-ups flying everywhere. Fingers flew across the keyboard, the printer constantly hummed to life, spraymount filled the air, fingers bled and sweat ran in rivulets. The children returned from school and were banished from our part of the house, something they respected, rather surprisingly.

As I say, at this stage nothing should surprise me about the illustration game in general or these books in particular. But life still manages to jump up and bit your bum. As I leaf through my copy containing my usual eclectic mix of collage, comic-strip and illustration I'm quite proud of the oblique references to Mr Swindley and Ena Sharples in the Snug of The Rovers Return, Marilyn Monroe's face unravelling from a whirlwind in flicker-book form (another ambition achieved!), stupid Carling Black Label and L'oriel adverts, horror comix, Leonardo, Magritte (he's in every book and, in a way, in everything I do), Murdoch, the Web, distortions of the female form, Bollywood and Charles Addams. If ever I was asked by the Newsletter Editor for my "Best Job", this would have to rank pretty high in tandem for the award for "Worst Job".

--Borin Van Loon

In the intervening weeks since delivery of the book, I've been trying to draw breath and catch up with all the things I put on hold since the autumn. Suddenly, unbidden, this drawing came out of my pen. I wonder what it's all about?

Introducing Media Studies published March, 2000 by Icon Books. Borin's website contains more books and images: