In Year 10 art class, one project set by our teacher was to render a part of a bicycle using black biro. If you’ve ever done an exercise like that, you’ll know how many details comprise a bike.
When illustrating bicycles, then, it’s often a matter of simplifying the machine, lest the entire image become a technical drawing of a bicycle which unhelpfully foregrounds the bicycle itself.
How have artists depicted bicycles in illustration (or not)? Below are some examples spanning decades, including a number of different styles of bike.
Mystery boxing is a storytelling technique which has only been accepted by popular audiences since about the year 2000. Back in 2000, the technique didn’t yet have a name.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF MYSTERY BOXING
In 2007 J.J. Abrams gave a now-famous Ted Talk in which he spoke about stories as mystery boxes. The term is based on an actual, still-unopened mystery box of magic tricks his grandfather gave him as a boy. He didn’t want to open this box because the thought of what might be inside was more exciting than what was really inside.
The term ‘mystery boxing’ has since taken off as a way of talking about a certain kind of mystery in storytelling. Some people say it comes from the superhero comic tradition. (Others think it should stay there.)
Lost is the standout example. “Don’t worry about it [writers]. Just be profound.” Abrams says in his TED talk that sometimes “mystery is more important than knowledge.”
Mystery boxing was bound to take off once TV spoilers started to become a problem, at the turn of the millennium. Streaming services changed the way viewers watched shows, and in turn affected how writers created shows. Viewers were binge-watching entire shows over the course of a few nights, and were now able to spoil plots for their friends. Until the 21st century, everyone was watching live TV — the same show at the same time.
If a mystery is never really solved or explained in a story, the story can’t be spoiled, in a plot sense. In the age of mystery boxing, watercooler discussion around a popular TV show is going to be speculative rather than plot spoilery. However, mystery boxed shows create their own problems. If you tell someone to expect ‘a great twist’, they’ll watch the entire show with a certain expectation. Their experience will be altered. If you tell them about a twist which isn’t even there, this also alters the experience of immersion. In both cases, the friend is less likely to live in the moment of the story as it plays out.
Taking Abrams’ lead, other writers seem to have decided that, hey, actually, mystery boxing is a good idea. Audiences love it. Doesn’t matter if the show peters out; the fact is, we got them to watch X number of hours, and that’s good enough for Netflix rankings.
The cynic in me wonders if J.J. Abrams invented the concept of ‘mystery boxing’ to absolve himself of the fact he never really did flesh out the plot of Lost, despite successfully persuading a large audience of fans to invest many, many hours in that show. David Lynch is another creator who mystery boxes.
Because Lost is the tentpole example of mystery boxing, and because The Island of Lost is home to a mysterious entity, consisting of a black mass accompanied by mechanical-like sounds and electrical activity within, dubbed the “Smoke Monster” or just the “Monster” by the survivors, the term “Smoke Monster” is now sometimes used to refer more broadly to this kind of mystery opponent.
AN EXPANDED DEFINITION OF MYSTERY BOXING
Some writers simply forget to tie up the loose ends of their mysteries. Others start with good intentions and then completely lose the plot, writing themselves into a hole. That’s not what mystery boxing is. Mystery boxing is ostensibly deliberate. The writer is withholding information intentionally, for the purpose of getting the audience imagination to work overtime. As active participants in finishing the story, the audience literally creates part of the narrative themselves.
In his definition of mystery boxing, J.J. Abrams includes the age-old technique of leaving an item of interest partially ‘off the page’. Artists have been doing this for centuries. Abrams reminds us that the shark in Jaws is terrifying precisely because we never see the entire thing. (If we did, we’d laugh at the animatronics.)
I personally think Abrams was trying to incorporate this age-old technique into his theory of mystery boxing to make it more grand, and to excuse writers of pulling a trick which is really quite different. It’s one thing to ‘not show the shark’. It’s quite another thing to never explain how a ‘shark’ (Minotaur opponent) even works within the world of the story.
Abrams stretches the paradigm even further by talking about what the audience thinks they’re getting and what they’re really getting. He gives the example of E.T.
What audiences think they’re getting: A movie about an alien who meets a kid.
What audiences really get: A movie about divorce.
Here he is saying that the most successful stories are character based. This is something many people have observed. He doesn’t circle back to how this relates to the rest of his mystery boxing concept, but I deduce he means this: Audiences love the surprise of getting something in their ‘box’ (movie) that wasn’t in the epitext (the marketing material, or what their friends told them was in there).
Others have said similar things.
Characters that raise more questions than answers have a longer shelf life.Paul Schrader
Film director Paul Schrader goes on to explain what he means in an interview at Writers Guild of America West:
The trick of that is, you present the viewer with only one view of reality, and that is the reality of your main character. And you use narration to get under their skin, to manipulate them subconsciously. And you keep them along this path for, I would say, at least 45 minutes to an hour. Then the hook is firmly planted in and the character can start to veer off, they start to veer away. They start to do things that are not necessarily worthy of your empathy or identification, but now the hook is in, so you’re wondering how it will turn out. In the end, you find yourself identifying with a character for whom you feel no cause for identification.
So you’re almost like an unwitting, guilty accomplice?
Yeah, and what happens there, is a tiny fissure opens up in the viewer—either in their head or in their heart—and something has to escape, or something has to come in. The artist cannot really control all the specifics [of this reaction], but if the artist causes this fissure to exist, he knows something exciting is going to happen.
In the case of Jaws, friends were likely to recommend the film by telling you about the shark parts; they’re unlikely to have told you it’s also about a father finding his place in the world and wrestling with the expectations of masculinity.
This aspect of Abrams’ definition of ‘mystery box’ is not the part of the definition which seems to have taken off. Now, when I see people talk about ‘mystery boxing’ they’re talking about what happened with Lost: a massive mystery running the length of a TV series which the showrunners never tie up.
MYSTERY BOXING AND LYRICAL SHORT STORIES
Readers of lyrical short stories are good at contributing to a plot and filling in gaps themselves. They are good at extrapolation. Whereas genre TV has become famous for mystery boxing, ironically, it’s the literary short stories (not the genre ones) which are famous for requiring readers to finish off the plot.
Other readers have no time for lyrical short stories. Those readers are easy to spot because they’ll say things like, “It’s not finished!” or “Nothing happens!”
Commentators who study short stories have come up with a number of academic terms to describe stories in which the audience is expected to come up with part of the story themselves. The most useful and easy-to-understand terminology, in my opinion, comes from Charles May, who talks about ‘dramatic’ versus ‘aesthetic’ closure.
Dramatic closure tidies up the plot. (Another term we might use is hermeneutic closure.)
Aesthetic closure leaves the plot open, but still manages to leave the audience with the feeling of complete evacuation. (I may be talking about constipation, now, but I think that’s a good analogy.)
Here’s a tweet from someone who I suspect likes the challenge of finishing off his own stories:
And here is a response typically heard from audiences who prefer mysteries and plots tidied up:
PROBLEMS WITH MYSTERY BOXING
Some audiences are never going to enjoy mystery boxing. They prefer their stories tied up in all the different ways, and will feel their time has been wasted unless they are given a conclusion to every plot thread.
How do you like your ghosts? Supernatural fiction is arguably the hardest to get right. Ideally it should terrify, but what appals A might bore B and merely confuse C. The mechanics of apparition, however fanciful, must be internally consistent, and explanations kept simple. M.R. James excelled at giving his spectres agency and focus, but in some hands ambiguity is more effective. Read a Robert Aickman and half the time you have no idea what happened, if indeed anything did.Suzi Feay at The Spectator
We are now at a point in popular storytelling where mystery boxing is common. And critics have started to get sick of it. In relation to WandaVision (specifically, the whole existence of Westview), Alisha Grauso had this to say:
Mystery boxing has killed modern audiences’ collective ability to read narratives and understand where they’re going and where they’re not….mystery boxing has absolutely overrun genre storytelling like an invasive plant species & mystery for the sake of mystery too often obscures everything else now. It’s not good.Alisha Grauso, Features Editor at Screen Rant
Writers and commentators have been talking about foreshadowing for a long time already. So one word is ‘foreshadowing’, which is pretty commonly known.
Telegraphing happens when foreshadowing falls flat, because the audience can see exactly what’s coming (when they were only meant to get a hint).
Delayed decoding is an academic term to describe the experience of reading a literary work twice, and getting a different experience because you now see the relevance of details dropped into the text. (This is why lyrical short stories need to be read at least twice.)
Prolepsis is a ten dollar word for foreshadowing but actually ‘foreshadowing’ is a better word to use because prolepsis had a number of slightly different meanings. Apart from ‘a flashforward’ in rhetoric it also means ‘a figure of speech in which the speaker raises an objection and then immediately answers it’. (It’s also a type of fly, from the genus of robber flies, I don’t know why. They feed on clown beetles and dung beetles, fyi.)
The Evolution of the Mystery Box from Film Rejects, who argue that Westworld is similar to Lost in its use of mystery boxing, but learned from some of its mistakes. Other shows, such as The Good Place, have learned how to keep their twists organic.
Sometimes the word ‘puzzle box’ is used instead of ‘mystery box’: WandaVision’s Marvel Cinematic Universe roots undercut its puzzle-box ambitions from AV Club.
In The Office skit below, Michael Scott is attempting to imitate a Southern American accent for a game. He tries to sound Southern by saying “I do declare” at the end of each sentence.
As Michael Scott is using it, “I do declare” is an exclamatory embellishment rather than an illocutionary act. The character of Ryan Howard points out that Michael doesn’t need to say “I do declare” at the end of every sentence because any time he says something it means he’s declaring it. The words are comically redundant.
An illocutionary act is terminology from the field of linguistics (pragmatics) and describes words which perform some sort of act in themselves.
How do you perform the act of firing someone? By saying, “You’re fired!”
How do you marry a couple? By saying, “I pronounce you husband and husband” or “wife and wife”.
How do you promise something? By saying, “I promise.”
In these situations, to say is to do. In order to work with illocutionary force, words must be explicit, understood by all, and said in a relevant context. Saying “You’re fired!” has no illocutionary force if the person saying it is not the addressee’s employer or if it’s said as part of a game.
The writers of The Office invert the gag in a different skit, in which Michael Scott thinks ‘declaring’ bankruptcy is an illocutionary act when it is not. At least, not when you say it in the context of complaining at work about your personal finances.
Humour from The Office shows that we all have an intuitive understanding of an illocutionary act, even if we don’t know what that act is called in the field of pragmatics. Writers of The Office created comedy from Michael Scott’s misunderstanding of what we all know to be true about how language works in practice.
The term was introduced into linguistics by John Austin. In 1962 he published a book called How To Do Things With Words. A different John (John Searle) later built on Austin’s concept. For John Searle, ‘illocutionary act’ is synonymous with ‘speech act’. Frankly, ‘speech act’ is easier to remember.
But the concept is a necessary and useful one, not just in storytelling and in humour writing but in daily life. If we have the name to describe illocutionary acts when we hear them, we are in a stronger position to see hate speech for what it is. Hate speech can guise itself as smalltalk and humour among friends and acquaintances.
Hate speech is an illucutionary act because the act of saying something can incite hatred.
TERM FROM THE SAME FAMILY
PERLOCUTIONARY ACT: (of a speech act) producing an effect upon the listener, as in persuading, frightening, amusing, or causing the listener to act.
Austin distinguished the act performed in saying certain words (the ‘illocutionary’ act) from the later effects achieved by saying them, (the ‘perlocutionary’ act).
These categories are not entirely distinct from one another. A word like ‘promote’ can be both illocutionary and perlocutionary.
‘Promote ’is a verb that straddles both sides of Austin’s distinction. The word has a perlocutionary, causal sense, and an illocutionary, constitutive sense. When smoking promotes cancer, it causes it. When tobacco companies promote smoking, they advocate it. By advocating smoking, they also cause it, since their advocacy brings about aneffect, namely that people smoke. So hate speech ‘promotes’ hatred in both illocutionary and perlocutionary ways: it advocates and causes hatred.Beyond Belief: Pragmatics in Hate Speech and Pornography
It’s equally important to understand a perlocutionary speech act because some individuals will try to wriggle out of damaging speech by arguing that they are not ‘actually telling someone to shoot someone else’, yet their words are achieving ‘later effects’.
We love stories of excess. examples of excess and visual hyperbole can be seen all across children’s literature. Literally any item can be turned into a visual gag by creating a large number of it.
In the example below it is mittens.Continue reading “Excess, Hyperbole and Pestilence In Illustration”
Crafters sometimes talk about ‘collage sheets’ and we can use this term to describe a certain type of picture book illustration. Basically, I’m talking about a piece of art which looks a lot like a sticker sheet, or, if you’re a generation older than modern adhesive, like a sheet of paper dolls, yet to be cut out. Think also of a page in a stamp collector’s album.
Technically, a ‘collage’ is a piece of art made by sticking various different materials such as photographs and pieces of paper or fabric on to a backing. But when talking about illustration, a ‘collage’ work can give the appearance of having been made in this way, even when there’s no ‘sticking’ involved.
I first saw the following image described as a ‘collage sheet’. Clearly, someone has used a two different coloured pens to create this artwork. No glue. No sticking. There’s an expanded use of the word ‘collage’ to mean ‘a collection or combination of various things’. Let’s go with that.
Images like this go back as far as cave paintings, which we might also describe as ‘collage sheets’. It seems we’ve always like to create images with animals that are important to us. These sheets have very little visually discernible organisation unless the viewer is acquainted with the story it tells. There’s an emphasis on repeatable patterns. They are examples of simultaneous narrative art.
Kenneth Mahood’s New Yorker cover below is a more contemporary example, with drawn dogs (instead of chickens). This could almost be a sticker sheet.
Alice and Martin Provensen created picture books with this sheet collage look on a white background. Notice how ‘stage perspective’ rather than ‘cinematic perspective’ is possible with this style. The limited poses of folkart characters are a feature. (Front, back and sides.)
Collage gives a flatness to the image that draws attention to its constructedness.Playfulness in Lauren Child’s Picture Books
Japanese illustrator Gomi Tarō also appears to create collage sheets. The huge advantage of collage sheets, as in other types of collage:
Collage lends itself to playfulness by its nature, as it constructs a new image out of remnants of others. In doing so it mimics children’s imaginative play.Playfulness in Lauren Child’s Picture Books
When Gomi Tarō creates collage sheet illustrations, there remains a calm sense of order.
Although white helps colours to pop, the background can be any colour. In the case below, a ‘mouse colour’ is used to work well with the palette but not to compete with the vibrant pinks and greens.
Leo Leonni created work in a similar way to Eric Carle. The example below makes use of black instead of white as a background colour.
Leo Leonni lived from 1910 to 1999. His books include “The Alphabet Tree” and “A Color Of His Own”.
Dahlov Ipcar is another sheet collage illustrator who liked a background starting with black. She is best known for her vibrant collage-style paintings of jungle and farm animals. Like many animal artists such as Beatrix Potter, Ipcar’s love of animals is partly due to the summers she spent with her family in Maine. Ipcar’s parents were also famous artists: William and Marguerite Zorach. In 1923 the Zorach family bought a farm at Robinhood Cove in Georgetown, Maine. It was during a Maine summer that Dahlov met her future husband Adolph Ipcar.
Another artist to mention here is Brian Wildsmith. His white backgrounds make his collage-y illustrations seem more similar to Carle’s than to Ipcar’s.
JOANNE AND DAVID WILEY
Ivan Gantschev (1925 – 2014) was a Bulgarian-German illustrator and author of more than 70 children’s books. He created a lot of full bleed paintings but below is an excample reminiscent of the collage sheet/dye technique which, in the West, we tend to associate with Eric Carle.
Gantschev’s work is especially well-suited to the highly metaphorical genre of fairytale, because the positioning of the elements lends itself to the Surreal. The huge advantage to this style: the artist can wreak havoc with the laws of physics. There are no laws of physics.
Interestingly for this style of art, he has included shadows in the image below. Shadows stand out all the more when the viewer has no real insight into how they would come to be.
Takahashi Shu and Fujita Sakura were artists who married each other in Setagaya (Japan) and then moved to Italy for 41 years. The couple achieved international recognition for their art before eventually returning to Japan where they chose to make their home in Okayama Prefecture in the beach town of Sami.
Polish graphic artist Zbigniew Rychlicki (1922 – 1989) had a number of techniques, including a woodcut style, but here is an example of the ‘painted and textured shapes’ style of collage.
This is a style seen in contemporary illustrators such as Jon Klassen, who himself is said to be much emulated.
James Flora (1914-1998) was a prolific commercial illustrator from the 1940s to the 1970s and the author/illustrator of 17 popular children’s books.
But Jim Flora was probably best known for his distinctive and idiosyncratic album cover art for RCA Victor and Columbia Records during the 1940s and 1950s. In contrast to a children’s book illustrator such as Gomi Taro, using the collage sheet style he achieves for his album covers a sense of diabolical chaos and disorder. That’s a feature of this collage sheet style: It can be extremely ordered (lined up like a stamp album) or all over the place.
Many illustrators have been influenced by Jim Flora.
Antoni Boratyński was a Polish illustrator who trained during the 1950s and created many illustrations in the second half of the 20th century. He is well-known for illustrating The Never Ending Story by Michael Ende.
The background below has aged to yellow, but he was working on white.
This style of art isn’t limited to children’s illustration. Like graphic novels, when pitched at an older audience, there tends to be more on the page. But not always. Dahlov Ipcar’s dual audience popularity and her complicated collages are one example of a collage-style illustrator working with great complexity.
The illustrations below are interesting because they make unusual use of borders. Some of the illustrations expand through borders like diptych, but these are basically separate images colocated on the same page, collage sheet style.
Kristen Roupenian joins Deborah Treisman to read and discuss “Afternoon in Linen,” by Shirley Jackson, which appeared in a 1943 issue of the New Yorker magazine. I count this story as a perfect example of the dark carnivalesque, in the same way The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier is darkly carnivalesque. Unlike a picture book for young readers, in which a cat in a hat appears and everyone has fun for a while, these older characters of the dark carnivalesque subgenre have fun playing with each other in a bid for power and respect, however small the stage.
Below are my own thoughts building on notes taken from the converation between Roupenian and Treisman.Continue reading “Afternoon in Linen by Shirley Jackson”
The Poky Little Puppy is a classic Little Golden Book by Texas writer Janette Sebring Lowrey, illustrated by Gustav Tenngren. This story was one of the first 12 Little Golden Books, first published in 1942, a big year in general for the world. Parents were wanting something light and playful for themselves and for their children, no doubt. 40 years later, The Poky Little Puppy was one of my favourite books as a preschooler and when I told my mother this, she said it had been my Auntie Sue’s absolute favourite as well. Fast forward another 30 years and my own kid loved it.
What I’d like to know is this: Can we put into words what makes The Poky Little Puppy such a popular picture book, so enduring it spans at least three generations (so far)? I know we’re not the only family this applies to; The Poky Little Puppy is the tentpole Little Golden Book which helps to sell other (also popular) Little Golden Books:
The Poky Little Puppy itself is a descendent of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, whichin turn is a descendent of 3000 years of mythic adventures starring (mainly) boys embarking upon adventures then returning home changed. The Poky Little Puppy is the cosy equivalent, for preschoolers, with no real opposition. As we shall see, any potential scariness of this adventure has been stripped away.
Although I won’t get into the language aspects here, The Poky Little Puppy is, above everything, a beautiful thing to read aloud. You can’t not read it in a kind of sing-song voice pitched at preschoolers. The text also contain parts which are likely to become catch phrases, used outside the reading of this book:
- I smell something!
- roly-poly, pell-mell, tumble-bumble
- mother was greatly displeased