The Surreal Joys Of The Beautiful Book Of Exquisite Corpses

There was just one problem when I asked artists to contribute to The Beautiful Book of Exquisite Corpses, the new adult-creativity book that I edited: some of them had no idea what an Exquisite Corpse was. I soon discovered that a lot of them knew it, but had never heard the name: it was just "that game I play with my family where we fold up a piece of paper and draw a picture on sections of it, not knowing what the other people drew until we unfold the paper and see the results of our collaboration."

On the other end of the spectrum, some of the contributors got competitive about showing off their Exquisite Corpse expertise. Actor Stephen Fry had played André Breton--the French surrealist artist who concocted the Exquisite Corpse game back in 1925--in the movie Surrealismo, and so he was eager to try out one of Breton's inventions in real life. The musician Moby, however, not only knew the history of surrealism in detail, but could quote the French sentence produced by the first Exquisite Corpse word exercise that gave the game its name: "Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau," or "The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine."

As that sentence indicates, Exquisite Corpses come in many flavors, both visual and verbal. For The Beautiful Book of Exquisite Corpses, we mostly went with drawn pictures, although there's also some storytelling games. There's 110 contributors in the book, each of whom got to have their way with one perforated piece of paper: you can rip that page out of that book and jump into a long-distance collaboration with Grace Slick or Chuck Klosterman.

I wanted The Beautiful Book of Exquisite Corpses to be a book full of joy and unexpected possibilities. But before I started work on it I didn't realize how every day that a new piece of art arrived on my porch or in my email, I would be getting the jolt of consciousness-altering surprises. In surreal times, it turns out, surrealism itself can be the best solution.

I wanted to involve as many types of artists as possible in the book: cartoonists, tattoo artists, animators, graphic designers, doodlers. (Not to mention rock stars and novelists with secret visual skills.) Costume designers render their visions on paper before they become actual garments, so I figured Paul Tazewell (who won the Tony for Hamilton) would come up with something genius.

I grew up on Mark Alan Stamaty's comic strips in The Village Voice (especially MacDoodle St. and Washingtoon), where his panels were crammed full of details where a duck might turn into a horse and an Elvis Presley impersonator would ride that duck-horse into the sunset. I knew he'd be perfect for the book: he's a one-man perpetual Exquisite Corpse machine.

The canonical three-panel Exquisite Corpse takes the form of a body, with one person drawing a head in the top panel, another person drawing a torso in the middle panel, and a third person drawing the legs and feet in the bottom panel. Dylan Horrocks (of Hicksville fame) had the epiphany that the torso could be Fay Wray's.

In a similar vein, this floating penguin by Ali Spagnola is adorable, but I love it for formal reasons: the connection to the top panel is a balloon string, while the connection to the bottom panel is a background cloud.

Greg Pak is an old pal and the writer of many excellent comic books (like Planet Hulk and Mech Cadet Yu). Last year, he mentioned a mildly awkward interaction he gets at comics conventions: people who say "I love your art!" His professional purview is words, not pictures, but he assumed they dug the end result. I reasoned that the people wanted him to show off his visual chops.

The Beautiful Book of Exquisite Corpses has contributors living in countries ranging from Italy to New Zealand, but Sheila Alvarado (the Peruvian cocreator of City of Clowns) was the only artist I didn't share a language with. Google Translate was essential in our correspondence--and now that the book is published, I miss getting dispatches from Lima.

The Beautiful Book of Exquisite Corpses is available from Penguin Books.

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