There is no way around it. Habibi is a strange graphic novel. Not strange as in surreal, or ugly, or weird, but strange as in stranger, different. It is beautifully drawn. The writing is poetic. But the story is… odd. It takes place in an indefinite time in a place where Islam and Christianity meet. It wrestles with myth, status, slavery, love and transcendence.There’s horrific sin and redeeming grace. There’s an exotic multi-generational saga. It also serves a tutorial on how arabic calligraphy works. See, strange like that. This big fat book is a true work of art.
When comics in newspapers (“funnies”) were first invented in the 1900s, a thousand crazy ideas were tried in every local newspaper in the country. Most of these local attempts at this new media were awful, but many of these earliest comic strips and later comic books were truly innovative, original, and bizarre.
There was nothing like them before – or since. Even the underground comix in the 1970s were not as strange and unusual as these now-forgotten visionaries. Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969 presents a sampling of overlooked fantastic and fantastical comics harvested from small town papers, yellowing zines, and short-lived strips. Like many other types of first-attempts, there is still much to be learned from these odd pioneers.
One of my favorite books for reference and inspiration remains the two-volume visual feast entitled African Ceremonies. But it is huge and expensive. Faces of Africa is smaller one-volume digest version by the same two photographers delivers much of the impact in a more affordable package.
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Without question, Hiroshige: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo is the bookiest book I own. It is a museum-quality artifact, which in a few more years will cease to be made, or at least made affordably. It is a work of art that reproduces the famous 100 Japanese woodblock prints that the artist Hiroshige created of Edo.
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Sacred Journey: The Ganges to the Himalayas is the trippiest travel photo book I have ever seen, and I’ve seen them all. David Howard took a spiritual trip to India and Nepal, hanging out with the naked sadhus and poor pilgrims at the holy sites along the way. He photographed his subjects and then photoshopped them into hallucinogenic collages. The images are hyper real, their sharpness too sharp, the scales of subjects mixed, with no distinction between background and foreground. They vibrate on the page, almost hurting your eyes. But your retina compels you to study the multi-dimensional pictures, and dive into the disorientation. Howard captures the feeling of being on a trip in India and Nepal better than anything else I’ve seen or read. These are postcards from the edge of coherence. It is a deeply personal journal, and for that reason one of my favorites, even though I am glad I was not on his bus.
The Atlas of Cities does not graph the usual geographic shapes of cities, but tries to diagram the many other dimensions within cities around the world. Taking example from many specific cities (such as Istanbul, or Cairo) it tries to dissect, almost like an x-ray, the many organs, tissues, cells, and anatomy of a typical city. In fact a better title for the book would have been Anatomical Atlas of Cities. It uses charts and graphs to show how cities remain healthy, or how they get sick. Since 50% of the humans alive today live in an urban neighborhood, this book will likely illuminate your world.
I never tire of the conceptual trick of applying the metaphor of a map onto something non-geographical. Read the rest
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If you can photograph the architecture of the original builders in the animal kingdom with the same professional clarity and precision used to photograph human architecture, you’ll see that the work of animals stands up to anything we’ve made in our cities. The mud skyscrapers engineered by termites, and the woven houses of birds, as well as the ceramic mansions of the underworld are utterly magnificent. Behold the spring source of art! Nests, shells, webs, hives, etc. could each have their own book, but only a few of each types are featured here. Each is captured in an impeccable, perfect image, an iconographic representation of an entire museum of examples you’ll be inspired to seek out.
by Ingo Arndt
Harry N. Abrams
2014, 160 pages, 8.6 x 10.1 x 0.8 inches
$20 Buy a copy on Amazon
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – A graphic novel of Philip K. Dick’s original story that inspired Blade Runner
This will take some ‘splaining. This is a series of 6 graphic novels based on the novel by Philip K. Dick that became the seminal movie Blade Runner. But the hit movie, weird as it was, was so different from Dick’s even weirder novel that it is usually said that his book “inspired” the movie. They are two different beings. There are far more currents and strange inventions in Dick’s story, and it is far more out of balance. But that offset between book and movie is nothing extraordinary. What’s extraordinary about these graphic novels is that they include *every word* of Dick’s book!
Graphic novels are usually cinematic and not literary. The only words are dialog, not descriptions. This weird graphic novel about a strange world has almost as many words as pictures. You are reading a novel and watching a movie at the same time. It is a great experience and I don’t know why there aren’t more novel-ish graphic novels like it. The story contains the original genius premise of a bounty hunter tracking down sociopathic robots nearly indistinguishable from humans, but there are other disturbing subtexts and sub stories. The art is great, too. The one downside: Regrettably, the graphic novel is divided into 6 slim booklets instead of bound into a single volume, forcing you to purchase all six for the full story.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep: Volume One, by Philip K. Dick (author), Tony Parker (illustrator) and Bill Sienkiewicz (illustrator)
Let us enter a world we had no idea existed, a curious scene that is fast disappearing, a culture significantly remote from our own experiences to truly be exotic, but one that is also mythical in appeal and grandly spectacular. Enter here, through this book, to visit the remaining Kings of Africa. They are splendid! Over-the-top! Surrounded by their full court and entourages of hundreds. But sometimes these kings are impoverished, the last faded descendants of a royal line living in a one-room apartment. Or they may be the isolated neglected chief of a once great tribe. Still they will wear their full regalia and stand with dignity. They are, after all, royalty. Each signifies a people, a distinct culture, with its own unique traditions. We owe these remarkable visions to one relentless and stubborn Frenchman who tracked the kings and queens and badgered them for decades until they agreed to be documented. This is a true sourcebook for otherness.
African Kings: Portraits of a Disappearing Era by Daniel Lane
Style and design, as in music and food, is idiosyncratic and personal. What inspires one person is merely a shrug for another. My preference is for a minimal style, but designer Marian Bantjes goes for the maximal – maximum decoration, and ornamentation. Ornate is not my style but I find her designs to be utterly inspiring and endlessly ingenious. I’ve spent days studying this large-format monograph of her work, exploring each and every flourish for hours because there is so much to explore. Her productivity is astonishing, the amount of work required for each item is mind-boggling, and the result of all this attention is spirit lifting. She is visually witty. Her flourishes and swirls have meaning. And she has grown her own distinctive style that few can imitate. Besides all this, she is a fantastic writer. This is one of the very few design books you can spend as much time reading as looking. Bantjes has the uncommon ability to be self-aware and critical of her own work, and seems eager to teach others by publishing her dead-ends and failures. I love it when artists “show their work” on the way to the final version. Bantjes discloses everything, and that honesty is the best teacher, and has won me as her fan. Her ceaseless inventiveness in calligraphy and design will delight anyone who inspects it closely.
Edward Tufte has made his career teaching us how to create compelling factual illustrations. He follows his own advice in his four exquisitely designed books which he has self-published over the past decade. Each book develops his ideas of minimal decoration and maximum understanding for charts and diagrams. All his books are good, but I think his second, Visual Explanations, is his best. It is a short course in conveying critical information in a visual form. Whether you start with text, data, or ideas, he lays out some sound principles in how to convey these facts in pictures. His own pages are great examples of how readers benefit by these principles. Printed with love, including pages with pasted in cutouts, this timeless book will never go out of date, and is likely to be passed on to future generations.
Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative, by Edward R. Tufte
You gotta be in the right mood to enter this dark small book. But it is unlike anything else you’ve seen. The author was a guard in the Soviet Union’s gulag prison system in the 1950s. Danzig Baldaev traveled across the gulag, documenting the horrors, perversions, and peculiarities of this vast subculture in meticulous pen and ink drawings. Unschooled as an artist, Baldaev has his own distinct style. He drew some incidents that he witnessed himself, but most of the drawings were based on the accounts by others he met. The events were gruesome, but often with an odd cultural twist — much violence was committed by imprisoned gangsters, who ran the prisons according to gang rules. Baldaev’s drawings with captions try to decipher these strange rules and customs. In effect, this is a contemporary ethnographic report on the underground culture that really ran the Soviet gulag. It is miles from where you live, and seems unbelievable that this alternative empire could have existed at the scale it did, but here are eyewitness reports, drawn in obsessive detail.
Drawings from the Gulag
by Danzig Baldaev (artist), Damon Murray (editor) and Stephen Sorrell (editor)
2010, 240 pages, 6.9 x 7.8 x 0.8 inches
This is the best atlas of human anatomy there is. Every other anatomy atlas I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen dozens) pales in comparison.
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I own about 250 photo books. Currently, Genesis is my favorite. It presents hundreds of stunning black and white photos of uninhabited or tribally inhabited regions of the planet made in the last decade by the Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado. The whole monster book acts like a time machine taking you back to the beginning of the planet, in some ancient era when humans lived with less materials, or even before humans, when the elements were in charge. The images radiate the primeval, the monumental, the eternal. Because it takes months of living in very primitive conditions for each picture, such a view of the few remaining truly tribal and wild areas will unlikely ever be seen again. This is another way this book shifts time. Gorgeously reproduced by Taschen, the book is a timeless wonder.
Disruptive Pattern Material: in plain words: camouflage. This massive tome features 5,000 images of all things camouflaged, from silly camouflage fashion (bikinis and handbags), to camouflage in contemporary ads, movies, and art, to natural camouflage among wild animals, to its historical uses in wars past, to the most recent scientific research in disruptive pattern materials. Throughout this masterpiece, thousands of different camouflage patterns are examined, displayed, and recorded. This is one of those books which opens up a world that is far larger, deeper, weirder, and more interesting than you would have ever imagined. Who knew WWII ships were painted in angular op-art “dazzle” patterns? Every page leads down another untraveled path. And there are 700 of these pages in this huge folio. Few other books on the subject exists; this one is, and will be, the definitive work of all matters related to camouflage. It speaks to artist, designers, inventors, biologists, historians, cultural theorists, and anyone who thinks visually.
Disruptive Pattern Material: An Encyclopedia of Camouflage, by Hardy Blechman
Take the infrastructure of any large city. Take New York City, for example. The dozens of systems NYC depends on to thrive – water works, trains, bridges, mail, cargo, electrical, data – are each as complex and fascinating as a meadow.
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