Tips for (aspiring) cartoonists

By Tjeerd Royaards

After three episodes of Cartoonist 2 Cartoonist, where Emanuele Del Rosso and I analyze submitted cartoons and give (hopefully) constructive feedback, I think we can identify some general points that seem to apply to most, if not all, cartoons. If you are looking to improve your work, we do recommend you take a look at one or more of the episodes, but in this article we list some general tips and tricks that will help you make your cartoons better. To illustrate, we are using some of the cartoons we discussed in the episodes.

1) Make a good scan

This tip only applies if you are working on paper and scanning in your work as a digital image file, either as a finished cartoon, or to apply color digitally. The first thing to do, is to make a professional scan, so that you do not immediately see it's a scan of a drawing, like in the example below.

Jasmin Lin - China 1 copyCartoon by Jasmin Lin

As you can see in the image, the bottom right corner is darker than the top left corner; what you should be aiming for a a solid flat white background. You can achieve this by playing around with the contrast with just basic image editing software. And also be sure to crop the image to remove any black edges that mark the end of the scanned paper. Here you can see them at the top and at the left of the cartoon.

This is the same cartoon with a better contrast. It's not perfect yet (which has to do with the original scanning), but you can see the improvement:

Jasmin Lin - China 1 improved

If you do not have access to a good scanner, there are some decent free apps available that will turn your phone into a scanner. And if you don't want to blow your budget on a Photoshop subscription, there are also free programs to edit images.

Remember, the presentation of your work matters. If it looks sloppy, it will go into an editor's trash folder without a second glance. This also goes for digital cartoons, so make sure your cartoons look professional.

2) Think about your lettering

If you use text in your cartoon, there are a number of things to consider. One of the most important questions: do you go for lettering by hand, do you choose a digital font? Both are valid options, but the style of lettering you choose should fit with your style of cartoons. If you draw and color by hand on paper, your best option will probably to letter by hand as well. This cartoon, discussed in our most recent C2C episode, uses a digital font, but both me and Emanuele felt the style of the cartoon would benefit from hand-lettering:

Barry Wade - USACartoon by Barry Wade

Take a look at the shop names on the awnings for instance; if these would be done by hand, they would look more like a part of the image, instead of a layer that has been added on top.

Other cartoons might actually work better with a digital font. The cartoon below has a style that would work well with a (well-chosen font), that would improve the readability of the text in the speech bubble.

Mohd Alammeri - Oman 1Cartoon by Mohd Alammeri

If you choose to use a digital font, choose wisely. There are thousands upon thousands of fonts available, so it's worth taking your time to find something that really works with your style. And please, stay away from Comics Sans or Papyrus... Also make sure you use a font that free to use (in the public domain) or that you purchase the appropriate license.

It's also worth thinking about the amount of text you need and where you place it in the image. In general, you should only use text when it is absolutely necessary for understanding the cartoon, or for providing the punchline. And think about where you position the text; do you want people to read the text first and then look at the image, or do you want people to look at the image first? This also relates to the next tip, where we discuss the way people navigate your image.

3) Is your message clear?

This is probably the most important condition for any cartoon to be successful. Some things to consider:

-Think about the composition, not only aesthetically, but also as the means you have to guide viewer through your cartoon. A cartoons tells a story; think about how you want people to navigate your story. People in the West tend to navigate from left to right, same as reading. People from the Middle East do the exact opposite, so it might be worth considering your target audience when designing the cartoon narrative.

-Think about the elements you have in your image. Do you need them all? If not, scrap the ones that are not necessary, it will make your message clearer. The rule of thumb is that every element you draw needs to contribute to the story that you are telling.

-All the elements that are necessary need to be understandable as well. If your unsure, check with your friends, family or colleagues. Things might make perfect sense in your own head, but that is not a guarantee that the cartoons will be easily understood by everyone.

-Think about how people will journey through your cartoon. Where should they start looking? Where should they end? Make sure your composition and arrangement and size of elements encourages people to navigate the cartoon in this way.

We discussed the cartoon below by Vincente Corpus from Mexico based on these points:

3. Vincente Corpus - Mexico

In essence, this is a great cartoon. It shows how the pharmaceutical industry cashes in on the pandemic. But was it immediately clear to you? Ema and I think the scared Uncle Sam is actually the same person as the man behind the till in the bottom panel, but we're not sure.  Providing more visual clues (such as still having him ware the red-striped hat) would have been helpful. A different composition could have worked here, with a similar position of Uncle Sam in the top and bottom panel. Also, you have to make an effort to read the text on the costume of the salesman.

We hope some of these tips will help you in your own cartoons. And remember, if you would like the chance to have your work discussed in Cartoon 2 Cartoonist, send it to cartoons@cartoonmovement.com


Get feedback on your cartoons!

C2C site-blog template

On average, we get between 10 and 20 applications from aspiring cartoonists looking to join our network every week. The majority of them, we have to turn down, because they are not good enough (yet) to meet our publication standards.

Our policy is to reply to everyone; nothing is more frustrating than sending out applications and getting no response at all. However, the question we get most often in response to a rejection is if we can give some constructive feedback. We understand this, because good feedback is the best way to improve your style.

Unfortunately, giving full and constructive feedback to every applicant would probably be a day job. That’s why we have come up with a new concept. In Cartoonist 2 Cartoonist, CM editors Ema Del Rosso and Tjeerd Royaards will go on Instagram to give live feedback on selected cartoons. The feedback will be constructive and meant to help the cartoonist to develop their style further and make his or her work better.

If you would like feedback on your work, you can send in your cartoons to cartoons@cartoonmovement.com and you might get selected.

And keep an eye on our website and social media for the date of the first edition, which will be soon!


Book: my Covid in comics

Cover

My Covid in comics is an Italian publication that brings together 137 artists from 30 countries to tell the story of the pandemic in cartoons and comics. Although the text is in Italian, the cartoons tell a clear story. Many of the contributors are artists whose work you can also see here on Cartoon Movement. The book goes on sale on March 29, and can be purchased via this link. Any proceedings of the sale of the book are used for development initiatives in Tunisia and Iraq. Here below we share some of the pages of the book to give you a preview:

Page51
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Drawing Tablet Review: Yiynova MVP20U+RH

Review by Tjeerd Royaards

If you are an artist and you use a computer to help you create your work, you’ve probably heard of Wacom. Wacom is basically the industry standard when it comes to digital drawing tablets used by professional artists. The Cintiq line of Wacom offers a range of tablets that allow you to draw directly on the screen, creating your art completely on the computer.

Artists agree that Wacom makes great products. But they are also quite expensive. For a long time, Wacom has maintained a virtual monopoly on drawing tablets, but in recent years competitors have emerged, mainly from China. Last month, the European branch of Taiwanese company Yiynova contacted us to inform us of their products, with which they hope to compete with the Wacom Cintiq. I offered to test one of their units. For the purpose of full disclosure I should mention that I received the test unit at no cost. Research shows that products received for free do tend to be reviewed more positively, although I will of course try my best to be as objective as possible.

2Yiynova product ad of our test unit. (Click on the image for a larger version.)

The most important thing to note about Yiynova tablets (aside from the rather complex type names such as MVP20U+RH) is that they are considerably cheaper than their Wacom counterparts.

On the Yiynova website it’s on offer for €669. Amazon UK offers the tablet for £419. In the US, the tablet can be bought for $499.

[Update December 2: According to Yiynova Europe, the price difference between Europe and the US is due to VAT (21% in the Netherlands and comparable rates in other European countries), higher shipping costs and a warranty of 2 years instead of 1 year that US costumers get.]

For that money you get a screen size of 19.53 inch diagonal (49.6 cm). Closest comparison from Wacom is the 22HD Cintiq, with a slightly bigger screen size of 21,5 inch (54.6 cm), available in Europe (the Netherlands) for €1599 and the US for $1649. However, for this test the main comparison will be the Cintiq 13HD (screen size 13.3 inch/33.8 cm, price €699), for the simple reason that that’s the one I own and use.

The Yiynova tablet and the Cintiq I’m comparing it to are not stand-alone equipment. They function as an additional screen (you can draw on) and need to be hooked up to a laptop or PC to function. They are both compatible with  Mac and Windows. Stand-alone tablets do exist. Wacom offers the Companion and MobileStudio. I’ve also heard good things about the iPad Pro in combination with graphic software. However, I have no personal experience with either.

What you get

1The tablet screen + accessories just after unpacking.

The first thing I noticed when unpacking the Yiynova is the screen size. On the photo below you can see how it compares to the 13HD. It’s absolutely huge.

TabletsSize of the Wacom Cintiq 13HD (left) and Yiynova MVP20U+RH (right) compared.

The biggest difference between Yiynova and Wacom Cintiq is the screen surface. The screen surface the Yiynova is glass (like and iPad), while the surface of a Cintiq has a finish that approaches the feel of paper. I’ll get to that difference in more detail later on in this review. The aesthetics of the screen are great; in my opinion it actually looks better than tablets in the Cintiq line. Only potential letdown is that the screen glass is held in place in the plastic housing with small clips (two at the top, four at the bottom). The screen would look even better without these. That said, they are barely noticeable.

To hook the screen up, you need wires. The wiring loom is comparable to Wacom, which is to say: there is a lot of wire. It needs it’s own power supply and hooks up to your computer with a USB and display connection. The display/USB connection cannot be removed from the tablet, and I’ve read in other reviews that some people found the cord to be too short to connect to their PC. I had more than enough cord to hook it up to the laptop.

The stand of the screen is light and small, but feels sturdy. It’s very easy to tilt the screen in various positions. My preferred position is to have it as flat as it can go. The disadvantage of such a relatively small stand is that, if you draw in the extreme upper left or right corner of the screen (which I sometimes do), the screen will tip a little bit. A minor design flaw can be found with the on/off switch and screen setting buttons. These buttons are located on the backside of the tablet and are positioned at the bottom. Because the angle at which I use the tablet is almost flat, I can’t reach them easily to adjust the color, contrast or brightness in that position. It would have been better to locate these at the top of the screen so they could be reached regardless of the angle of the screen.

BackBack of the Yinova tablet showing the stand, the screen setting buttons and the pen holder with pen. (Click on the image for a larger version.)

The Wacom Cintiq features a number of buttons next to the screen; you can preset these to correspond with the functions you use often in for instance Photoshop, like zooming in/out, undo or switching between brushes.  The Yiynova does not have these buttons on the screen. Instead you get a remote with a number of buttons. This remote can be fixated anywhere on the screen with the help of six suction cups. I have never cared particularly for the buttons on the Wacom and prefer to use keyboard commands. I did try to use the remote with the Yiynova, but again found that I preferred the keyboard. I do like the idea behind the remote, but it does look and feel a bit cheap. Also, it tended to fall off fairly regularly.

Remote
Yiynova tablet with remote. It hooks up to a USB port on the side that is specifically for this prupose and cannot be used as a regular USB port.

You get a good amount of accessories with the Yiynova. Various cable extensions are included so you will be able to hook it up to a scart or Mac display port. Wacom does not provide any extension cords for hooking up to a Mac, you need to order these separately. Another accessory that’s not provided by Wacom but that is included with the Yiynova is a pair of artist gloves. These gloves ensure your hand glides smoothly over the screen and doesn’t stick. It’s also a convenient way to keep your screen clean while drawing. I didn’t use one with the 13HD (too cheap or lazy to buy them, I guess), but I must admit they are really helpful.

GlovesGloves.

The biggest letdown of the Yiynova is probably the pen. Both the pen itself and the nib feel cheap in comparison to the Cintiq pen and it doesn’t come with a nice case like the one Wacom provides. Also, because of the technology Yiynova uses, the pen requires an AAA battery (which was not included). The Wacom pen functions without any battery. I have yet to see how long the battery will last (more than a month at least).

PensPens of the Yiynova (left) and Wacom (right) compared. (Click on the image for a larger version.)

With Wacom you get a weighted pen stand. Yiynova provides you with a pen holder that clicks onto the back of the tablet. I’ve read other reviews that complained about the Yiynova pen clip; it’s too flimsy and liable to break. However, I really like it. I’ve never used the Wacom pen stand, as I’ve always felt it was just another item cluttering up my desk. In contrast, the pen clip allows you to store your pen conveniently attached to your tablet. It's a cheap solution, but it works for me.

Set-up

Set-up
My set-up.

I found setting up the screen and installing the appropriate driver easy. It can function both as an extended display (and additional screen) and as a mirrored display. I’ve been using it mostly as a mirrored display. Because of it’s screen size, I’ve even used it as my main monitor in it’s upright position.

I tended to use the Wacom 13HD as an extended display only and often got annoyed that pop-up screens in Photoshop (layer properties, image size etc.) popped up on my laptop screen instead of my tablet screen (I also use Photoshop without the tablet hooked up, and that caused Photoshop to revert to using the laptop screen as primary). So my workflow has been improved with the Yiynova. That might have more to do with my choice on the set-up than anything the Yiynova has to offer, although the fact that I can tilt the screen up and use it as a regular screen did influence the decision to go with mirrored displays.

I’ve had no driver glitches whatsoever during a month of use. In comparison, my experience with the Wacom is a bit worse. I did have some trouble setting that up (back in 2014) on an older Mac and had to run a driver from the Wacom Asia website because the one on offer from the European website would not work. The driver would also cut out sometimes (not very frequently, maybe once every two months) causing the pen to stop working. This was simply fixed by turning the tablet off and on, but still inconvenient.

My experience

I have used the Yiynova in combination with Photoshop CS5. I’m using this older version of Photoshop because this is the last version you could actually purchase, instead of being stuck with a monthly subscription as they offer now. The Yiynova is hooked up to an older MacBook Pro (from 2011) running OSX Yosemite (10.10.5).

In one month, I made 10 cartoons with the Yiynova, including one for CNN the day after the US election. Others have of course appeared on Cartoon Movement, and have been published by Courrier International, Politico Europe and Dutch news/opinion website Joop.

The screen resolution of the Yiynova is fine, but not great. It's definitely not retina quality and if you look closely, you can see the screen pixels. The resolution quality disappointed me when I first activated the tablet, but to my surprise it has not bothered me very much in using the tablet.

The screen colors are good, although the factory settings require some tweaking. Using the tablet as a mirror display allows me to easily compare the colors between two screens. The colors stay reasonably the same as you look at the tablet from different angles. Strangely, there seems to be more color variation when you look from side to side than there is from top to bottom.

My style does not rely heavily on pressure sensitivity. The brushes that I use to draw in Photoshop simulate fineliner pens and are set to give a consistent line width regardless of pressure. However, I do need pressure sensitivity for the sketching the roughs. For this I use brushes that simulate an HB and a 2B pencil. I also sometimes use pressure sensitive brushes to do soft shading. The technical specs of the Yiynova are great, and using it I could find no discernible difference between Yiynova or Wacom in terms of pressure sensitivity. Both deliver a good drawing experience.

I also could not find any difference in lag (the delay between the moment your nib touches the screen and the moment the pixels appear) between the two tablets. There is some lag both with the Yiyniova and with the Wacom, especially if you work on larger files, but once you get used to it, it’s barely noticeable. I could not say how much of the lag is caused by my outdated computer and CS5 and how much by the tablet software or hardware.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, perhaps the biggest difference between the tablets is the surface feel. It was also my biggest worry as I started using the Yiynova, Would it be too slippery, and would my pen just slide across making wobbly lines? I had this problem with the Wacom when I first started drawing completely digital in 2014. Wacom sells nibs that provide more friction to provide a more paper-like feeling. I considered buying these, but before I made my final decision I got used to the surface of the Wacom. Granted, the glass surface of the Yiynova is even more slippery, but it took me no time at all to get used to it. I do tend to rotate my canvas a lot as lines come out best if you draw them straight down. The glass surface also forces me at times to draw a line more quickly to prevent it from wobbling. But, for me, these are not really drawbacks, just specific things you need to get used to, as there always are when you use a new tool or material.

I was also worried of potential reflection working in a studio with fluorescent lights overhead, but this did not prove an issue. Probable because I like to draw with my eyes quite close to the screen, my head blocks out any annoying reflection.

ParallaxParallax effect.

An issue that is often talked about in reviews of drawing tablets is the parallax effect. This is the distance between the tip of the pen and the cursor doing the drawing. And to be honest, there is more distance with the Yiynova than there is with the Cintiq 13HD. You especially notice it if you hold your pen at an angle. At some angles, the line you draw appears in quite a different place than your pen is. This will be an issue for some and understandably so. I tend to use the pen as upright as possible (and rote the canvas more often to do so) and I’ve trained my eye to look at the cursor more than the pen.

I cannot yet determine how durable the Yiynova will be. I am not known for using products with extreme care. Tools are there to be used, in my opinion. As a result, my 13HD is fairly battered, with numerous scratches on the screen. In all fairness, this is probably mainly caused by me not changing out my nibs often enough. As they wear, the nibs get sharp edges and gouge the screen causing scratches. Glass should provide a more durable protection against scratches, but I did already notice two after one month of use. So we’ll see.

Conclusion

Making cartoons is not a good way to get rich and many of us have a tight budget for professional equipment. In that context, it’s great to see more choice in the field of drawing tablets. To be honest, when I was first looking at the website and ads of Yiynova, I was very doubtful if their products could even come close to Wacom (let’s just say Yiynova's website and promotional materials could benefit from a redesign). But contrary to expectations, I really like the Yiynova tablet. It offers a lot of value for its money. And although Wacom Cintiq products are undoubtedly superior, mostly in terms of parallax effect and screen feel, they are not as much superior as the considerable price difference would suggest. Given my budget, I would definitely be in the market for a Yiynova tablet. The luxury of have a bigger surface to draw on is absolutely worth the disadvantages, at least for the way I work.

Would I recommend the Yiynova to others? Yes, but… As I said, it is great value for money. But whether you like it or not will depend on the way you use it. The slippery surface and parallax effect do not bother me that much because I get used to them. I do think that my experience of drawing digitally for over two years helps considerably. I wonder how someone making the transition from paper to tablet for the first time would like the Yiynova. The Wacom offers an experience that is more akin to drawing on paper. So this is a choice every artist will have to make on their own. This review only attempts to list the pros and cons. It is also an inherently anecdotal review, as it’s based on the way I work with all my idiosyncrasies. That said, I do hope people considering to buy a tablet for drawing will find this helpful. If you have any thoughts or questions, please let me know in the comment section, or contact me by email (tjeerd@cartoonmovement.com) or Twitter (@Royaards).


Review: Documentary Comics

MickwitzDocumentary Comics - Graphic Truth-Telling in a Skeptical Age
Nina Mickwitz
Palgrave Macmillan US
XI, 187 pages

eBook - $69,99, Hardcover - $95
Available via Palgrave.com

Our slogan is there is more than one truth, because we believe that different people view the world in a different way. This means that subjectivity always plays a part in journalism. Subjectivity is a central theme in Documentary Comics, by Nina Mickwitz. Mickwitz sets out to answer the question if comics journalism can be seen as a genre of documentary. Documentaries have long been associated with audiovisual recordings of reality. And audiovisual recording have, in turn, been long associated with objectivity. Documentary Comics argues that all documentaries have in them elements of subjectivity. This subjectivity starts with the decision of what the subject of a documentary will be, but can be found in almost every aspect of the narrative that is told, or rather constructed, in a documentary.

If audiovisual documentaries have long been thought of as objective, hand-drawn comics have a long tradition of being thought of as subjective. One of the biggest challenges for comics journalism has been to establish itself as a form of serious journalism. In part, this has to do with the tendency of people to think of comics as subjective, and therefore not representative of reality. Mickwitz challenges this notion. In several case studies, she shows how documentaries deliberately use subjectivity to create and steer the narrative in a particular direction. She compares this to how comics use a particular drawing style, color (or lack thereof), the composition of panels on the page, and the representation of sound to construct a version of reality.

Seen through this particular lens, comics have the advantage that they are very transparent in the way they translate reality onto paper or screen. No one will ever argue that a comic is reality, while audiovisual recordings are still regarded by many to be 'real', in spite of many examples to the contrary. Mickwitz shows how both (audio)visual recordings and drawings are, in fact, construction of reality. Once we accept that notion, we can begin to see subjectivity as a tool instead of a hindrance, a tool that can be used to construct a certain perspective on reality. As long as documentaries are honest and straightforward about the perspective they set out to create, this form of subjectivity can coexist with all the demands we make of good journalism. And comics journalism cannot prevent but be clear about the fact that it creates a perspective on reality.

Nina Mickwitz proposes to compare comics journalism to documentaries to see if this framework can have added value for the analysis of comics journalism. What follows is an exploration of the nature of subjectivity, and a breakdown of what makes comics tick.

Documentarty Comics is a thorough and comprehensive book, but it is meant for the serious student of comics journalism. The book is very academic in the way it deals with the subject matter, and will most likely not appeal to people outside academia. The rather steep price ($95 for the harcover, $65 for the e-book) doesn't help either. The subject matter, however, is intriguing and the way Mickwitz approaches comics as documentaries is certainly novel. One thing I missed was having all the comics she discusses at hand. Some pages are reproduced in the book, but the (modest-sized) black and white prints only made me eager to have the real thing to see right away what Mickwitz meant when she refers to a particular type of coloring.

In conclusion: we are delighted to see a field emerging within academic research that is devoted to comics journalism. Documentary Comics is a solid publication that will certainly help further establish comics journalism as something that deserves to be taken seriously. And that's something we can only applaud.

Review by Tjeerd Royaards


Warning: Graphic Content

Political Cartoon, Comix and the Uncensored Artistic Mind

WarningcoverWarning: Graphic Content
Mr. Fish
409 pages, e-book, 2014
$8.26 on Amazon

The attack on the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo showed the world once again how powerful cartoons are, and how dangerous. Mainstream media have been wary to publish the controversial cartoons that ran in Charlie Hebdo, out of fear of reprisals.

There is perhaps no better time to write a review of Warning: Graphic Content, an e-book written by US cartoonist Mr. Fish (aka Dwayne Booth). Mr Fish is an artist that is familiar with controversy. Warning deals with the power of (controversial) cartoons. In his book, he describes cartoonists as as '...a pest tasked with the mosquito-like responsibility of disrupting complacency...'.

Some say the profession of political cartoonist is in decline; I am not sure I agree with that statement, but the profession is in a state of transition. Where this transition will take us, we don't  know yet. In 2010, US cartoonist Daryl Cagle wrote a piece giving tips to cartoonists how to better sell their work. Sadly, this article is no longer online, but an excerpt is available here. In short, Daryl advises cartoonists that the best way to please timid editors is to avoid controversy. He goes on to say that cartoons with celebrities are more popular than cartoons with politicians, and that obituary cartoons are certain to sell well.

If Daryl's perspective is at one end of the spectrum, Mr. Fish's book is on the other. Although certainly not optimistic about the current state of things, Warning explains why controversy and hard-hitting satire are essential components of the political cartoon.

Warning1                                                     Join or Die, 2008, Justine Lai

This isn't the first book that's written about the power of cartoons. In 2013, we reviewed Victor Navasky's The Art of Controversy, a review of controversial cartoons through the centuries. But the approach and scope of Warning are novel. Instead of using a chronological order, the author jumps back and forth through time. This approach is not only refreshing, it also allows the author more freedom to compare cartoons and artworks from different time periods. Mr Fish has also broadened the scope by broadening the definition of what he considers to be a political cartoon. His selection includes paintings, sculptures, poetry and even performance art.

Cartoons have, since their inception, been considered a form of 'low art' (if they were considered art at all), but in my opinion Mr. Fish is quite correct to put them on par with other art that makes a social statement. What the book succeeds in doing is to make us reflect on the nature of art, and the role of art in society. Mr. Fish focuses on the ability of art to upset the status quo, to mobilize people and to inspire change.

In a way, Warning is a guided tour through a museum full of unexpected surprises, its pages filled with art you had not seen before, and familiar art seen in a new light. Structured like a play with different acts, the book is interspersed with conversations with people such as Noam Chomsky and Art Spiegelman.

Warning2                                                        Wanted, 1917, Art Young

It's not an easy book. In addition to the complex subject matter, the tendency of the author to use sentences that are a paragraph long can leave you feel exhausted after reading a few pages. The way the book is structured is novel, but it does hinder the construction of a clear argument. Mr. Fish's main point is that good social art should inspire people to take action. He often refers to the underground comix scene of the 1960s and 1970s with a certain nostalgia, but I would like to have seen more on his perspective on where social art is headed and where it should be headed. Because the book lacks a structured argument and a conclusion it indeed feels like the thoughts of the uncensored mind jotted down on paper. But sometimes, a little (self-)censorship might not be such a bad thing.

The critique above notwithstanding, the book is a worthy effort and certainly worthy of reading by anyone with a keen interest in art and society. There are not that many books that focus on political cartoons, and even less that do this as eloquently as Warning. Plus, you'll find out why New Yorker cartoon suck.

Tjeerd Royaards

(Author's note: I've illustrated this review with some of the art that's featured in Warning. To find out why these are significant, I recommend you buy the book.)


Sketches of Iran

Sketches of IranSketches of Iran
Omid Memarian (Editor)
106 pages, $ 29.95

'If a picture is worth a thousand words, then how much would a picture AND a thousand words be worth?' This thought, or something along these lines, must have been the starting point of Sketches of Iran: A Glimpse from the Front Lines of Human Rights, published by The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

The book is a compilation of cartoons by seven Iranian artists, coupled to columns and commentary by Iranian writers, activists and family of activists in prison or dead. The book is partly funded by a Kickstarter campaign, which was used to print the first 1000 copies of the book, but also to ensure that the book ended up in the hands 'of policymakers, human rights advocates, UN officials, and others who can make a difference in the human rights situation in Iran and in the lives of these contributors and others like them.'

ChristiansI have never seen cartoons and text used in quite this way. Instead of one providing support and context to the other, the images and stories enhance each other simultaneously, being dominant and supportive at the same time. The equal weight that is given to both is reflected in the composition of the book, where one page is given to commentary and the full page opposite is reserved for the cartoon. Printed in full-color, the cartoons are all without words, and demonstrate the skill and power of cartoonists from Iran.

To me, the most powerful pages are those where the visuals are tied to the testimonies of the family members whose sons, daughters, wives or husbands that have fell in the grasp of the regime, sentenced to years in jail, or killed by police, military or other government thugs. These heart-wrenching stories bring the reality of activism for human rights very close to home. What do you tell a 3 year old boy whose mother has just been sentenced to 8 years in jail? And what justice is there for father whose son was murdered by the regime?

In these testimonies the words seem to bounce off the image, reverberating with it, resulting in a resounding impact to the reader. Most of the images are powerful, and often a frontal assault on the regime in Iran. They not only show that art and creativity thrive even in the face of oppression, but also that visuals are a strong means of protest.

There are some drawbacks to the book. Some of the commentaries by activists are not particularly well-written, and an inconsistency in style and lay-out of texts makes for a slightly sloppy look sometimes. And there might have been a few more 'real' editorial cartoons instead of portraits. But these minor flaws do not lessen the impact of the book. Not many books can say claim to reinvent the role of editorial cartoons, but Sketches of Iran aims to do exactly that.                                        

Setting the images on equal footing with text is a new concept, and a good one. Browsing through sketches of Iran, we are forced to re-examine our concept of visuals and text, and how they interact. They also succeed in accomplishing the main mission: to present an overview of human rights violations in Iran and to raise awareness. This is not a book to read in one go; instead, it is a book to pick up once in a while to read one or two commentaries and look at some the images. This way of reading actually help the stories and the images to stick.

To maximise the reach of the book, it's available in a bilingual English-Persian edition.

Featured cartoon by Nikahang Kowsar, on the prosecution of Christians in Iran.

Tjeerd Royaards