Illustrator Bob Staake on Dark Humor, New Yorker Covers, and Analog Art in a Digital World
Bob Staake is a prolific illustrator. He regularly produces New Yorker covers, children's books, a weekly Washington Post Style Invitational contest drawing, and humorous illustrations for a multitude of publications. This year, he created the poster for the Library of Congress' National Book Festival, and he'll be on hand on Saturday to discuss his new picture book and sign copies. He chatted with Arts Desk about how he makes his work (a combination of analog and digital techniques) and what he thinks about morbid cartoon humor.
WCP: How did you get started as an artist?
Bob Staake: I've just always been a freelance illustrator. That's going way back.
Were you one of the children who drew in the classroom instead of studying?
I guess so. I didn't go to art school. I went to USC and majored in international relations and print journalism. I haven't taken an art class since high school, so I'm self-taught. I was in Washington as a Robert F. Kennedy fellow at the Student Press Law Center. That's where I did my internship in college. So my background is not in illustration or art, although I always did that.
You wear a lot of different hats—you're a cartoonist, a humor illustrator, a children's book author. Do you have to switch your mindset for each of your different projects?
I don't like the term cartoonist at all, because I just don't think I am one at all. I think it's very unusual to have an illustrator who does everything from New Yorker covers to Mad Magazine, Hallmark cards to Cartoon Network animation design, the Washington Post to Random House's Little Golden Books. You can't get more disparate than that. I think I have been clever and savvy in always knowing where my work will ultimately be appearing and have always been more than happy to tweak my aesthetic based on whatever the venue was in ways that other illustrators either aren't equipped to do, or have no clue that they even should. I think that's been the key to my success.
Some of your covers for the New Yorker look like they're in a different style from your other work. Do you do that for art director Françoise Mouly, or are you looking for what you think would sell to them?
Well, no, illustration is always subservient. It's always subservient to something else. If you don't understand that, you'll never make it as an illustrator. When you're trying to make a certain statement, I know that I should be a little more somber in my approach, be more design-y, can be more cartoonish, can be goofy, can be elegant. I have to be able to go back and forth between all those emotions. The New Yorker cover I'm best known for is the Obama election cover with the Lincoln Memorial. I knew when I came up with that idea that I was going to have to make it a photorealistic-looking Lincoln Memorial. I don't do a lot of that stuff, but I just knew I had to do it that way. Doing it any other way would have fallen flat. It's all about getting across my message through an illustration. If that requires an outlandish style, or a more somber style, that's what I'm happy to do.
Certainly your Washington Post style is more outlandish than anything you do for the New Yorker. Did the New Yorker approach you, or did you approach the editorial team?
I had an illustrator friend who said he'd been working for 20 years to get a New Yorker cover, and had never had a cover. I thought, "Gee, as fast as I work and as prolific as I am, why haven't I submitted covers to the New Yorker?" I came up with this idea, and submitted it to them, and the first thing I submitted, they bought. When I sit down to do a New Yorker cover, I can take any issue and instead of one sketch, I'll come up with twelve different approaches. For every cover you see of mine, I could have another twelve covers. For that Obama election cover, I probably had about ten different ideas for potential covers. That's my training in print journalism. I was very, very deadline-oriented. I could get a phone call today from the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal at 3 o'clock saying "Do you have time get us something by 6 o'clock?" Most illustrators would go into a panic, but me, I like that pressure. I like to be able to create under pressure. My feeling was that if the New Yorker could look at me and understand that I'm the guy when they need something timely and quick, and many of my covers have been crunched in less than a day to get them finished.
You've been doing the Washington Post's Style Invitational contest illustrations for more than 20 years now. How did that start?
I've been working for the Post for over 25 years. As I remember, I think [Style editor] Gene Weingarten had started this new contest called the Style Invitational. They had a guy who was illustrating it for about the first five weeks. He went on vacation, and they asked me if I could fill in for him for two weeks. Gene liked my thinking; I don't just illustrate. For the contest, I come up with ideas and examples and contest ideas. We have to give examples for every contest, and I would come up with a list of five good examples...to illustrate. That's pretty uncommon with illustrators, so I think Gene was aware of that, so they basically fired the guy who was doing it and brought me in. I've been doing it for 21, 22 years, something like that.
That's every week of the year—so you've done 1,000 by this point?
I know about the contest by Tuesday. If I don't like the examples, I'll come up with some additional examples. Depending on what we go with, on Wednesday, I'll create a sketch, and I'll typically try to have the art to them by Thursday at noon.
Weingarten hasn't been the editor of that section for a long time, so you've worked for several editors. Has the process generally stayed the same?
Pretty much. Gene and I would really collaborate very closely on some of the contests. But you have to understand...In the beginning, I was FedExing the art to the Washington Post, then drawing the art really big and faxing it to the Post, and then emailing it to the Post...In the beginning I was probably even sending Zip or SyQuest drives with the art on it. It goes back that far, so things have really changed. It's much, much quicker. I've done it for so long.
What I try to do with my illustration is I view myself kind of like a carnival barker who says "Pay 25 cents and c'mon in here. Behind this tent is fat lady," you know? I've always thought that's my job. My image should be like that carnival barker. What happens when I get them to engage with the headline and the lede of the story, then I've done my job. I've brought them into it. If they drop the story at that point, it's not my fault. I've done my job. It's the fault of the writer. That's the way I've always viewed my work. What kind of an enigmatic, curious illustration can I show the reader that doesn't tell the entire story, but piques their interest and brings them in? That's what I try to do.
Do you find that approach works for children's books to a certain degree?
Children's books are different because as a writer and an illustrator, a picture book is a classic teeter-totter between the word and the art. You can't give away the entire story in the text because it makes the art superfluous, but vice versa, you can't tell the entire story in the art because then it makes the text redundant. You really have to have this very poetic play between the words and the pictures. They feed off each other and they kind of do this little ballet together. One doesn't lead for the entire dance. It goes back and forth. Ideally that's what you want to do. With picture books, I try to get in the mind of little Bobby Staake growing up in Redondo Beach, Calif., in the 1960s, and what sort of imagery would I want to see in a picture book. What piqued my interest as a kid? And that stuff hasn't changed. I create imagery that goes back to that little kid in me. What sort of imagery would appeal to me? That's what I try to do.
You're working both with pencils and digital these days?
Everything starts in the beginning with pencil and pen on paper. I draw on just cheap bond paper. I use everything from sponges to twigs...brush, pen, ink, pencil, conte crayon...whatever it takes. Then I scan elements. I draw with a mouse. That, too, is a real ballet, because it is a very, very analog approach, but it ultimately is a digital approach. I go back and forth. Right now, for the book that I'm doing for Disney Hyperion, I draw the characters on a piece of paper, and then cut them out with an exacto knife, I lay that cut-out silhouette on a piece of black paper, I scan it, I invert it, so I get a black silhouette and then I add color and effects digitally. So it's really is a mélange of traditional and digital work that I do.
Will this be your first year as a featured National Book Festival guest?
Yes, it will.
How did that come about?
It's like everything: Somebody calls up and asks if you want to do it. They asked me if I wanted to do the poster, and I love doing posters, so I said sure. It's a different poster. I'm a good poster designer and to be quite honest, a lot of the posters I saw were just not good posters. I think that's a problem when you get an illustrator who doesn't really understand graphics and is not a strong designer. What happens is they create this image that basically looks like a page out of a picture book. There's no graphic element to focus on. The purpose of a good poster is that you really want to bring that eyeball in, but from a distance. From a distance you want to be able to infer what the image is all about. When I saw the examples of what they had, I thought they really need a good strong poster, a good graphic poster. I saw it as a challenge.
The poster is pretty large. Is it about four times larger than your actual artwork?
Probably. On something like that, I work a little bit down. Maybe 200 percent. What you're given is a tagline or a theme, which [in this case] was "Stay Up With A Good Book." I riff off that idea of what that means. I thought the moon is a perfect character that evokes nighttime. I put him with an old-fashioned sleeping cap and reading a book, but it's a strong element. In all of my poster work, I like having a strong element and subordinate elements, and things going on in the background that are not that important, but just simply decorative. To me, a good poster has to have a strong centralized element.
The background text inside the stars is from Moby Dick?
There were some stars in the background and I thought, "Let me give some texture to that" and I just scanned a page from Moby Dick and just laid it on there.
Was that a joke about how Moby Dick will put you to sleep?
I like doing simple things like that for somebody who looks deeper. That's certainly the way my children's books work. The more you look at them and the more you have your eyes investigate what's going on, you notice things like that. I'm always hiding stuff in my children's books. I hide stuff in the Washington Post cartoons. In a poster like that, for that patient person who is just perusing it, you look closer and see, "Well, there's type here. Is that just gibberish? Is it actually something?" and so you discover that. It's a nice little a-ha moment for the reader who investigates even deeper.
Have you ever considered compiling your stand-alone Washington Post cartoons for a published collection?
No—there's been talk about that off and on over the years, but that just doesn't interest me. It's so reader-driven, with Washington Post readers who write and enter stuff, that I think you'd get into issues there. With me, I've just been the type of person where I don't like to look back. I have a hard time looking back at a drawing I did two weeks ago, much less 25 years ago. It makes me shudder. So I rarely grant usage for old stuff, unless it's something that's interesting...
...A good illustration has a shelf life of a week; certainly a New Yorker cover has a shelf life of a week. If you look at it today, you're looking at it completely out of context. That's the problem with a lot of illustration: It tends to have a very, very narrow appeal. It appeals to other illustrators because they're interested in that stuff, but I think that at the end of the day, it's not enough to warrant doing a collection. At least that's my feeling about it.
Do your New Yorker covers end up as finished pieces of artwork that they can sell for you?
Well, we sell prints like that Obama piece. That continues to this day; I get a royalty check every month for that. It's their top-selling cover of all time. The thing about that was the New Yorker store had wanted me to grant rights for prints prior to that, and I wasn't interested. I said, "There's not a long shelf life for this stuff." But when I came up with that Obama cover, I knew it was going to be a big seller, and I called up [New Yorker publisher] Conde Nast and said, "OK, now we can do that deal because this is really going to change things here," and it did. They refer to it as the O cover now. That print has generated millions of dollars. That singular image. So sometimes it works. If it's a really historical cover, I think it makes sense, but for so many of the one-off covers that I do, I get royalties on prints of them, but nothing comes even close to what the Obama cover does.
I'd like to ask about your sense of humor. Last year, you drew a "Build Your Own JFK Presidential Limo" as a paper toy. I was wondering about the impulse behind that. Personally, I thought it was funny, but do you frequently come up with material that's too dark for your customers?
No, no I don't. I don't take myself as seriously as other people think that I should. I do children's books, and I do Little Golden Books, and I do all sorts of kid-oriented stuff, but still I have absolutely no problem pushing the boundaries. I like to write, and I like writing funny stuff, and I like doing funny things. I've never been that type of person that is so completely myopic about how the public is going to view them that I can't possibly go ahead and do something irreverent because I might offend somebody. I've never been that person. A couple of years ago, I took Little Golden Books—and talk about biting the hand that feeds you, I do Little Golden Books and I tweaked their covers and titles. This stuff was very politically incorrect, but took off like crazy. I posted them on the Internet and there were tons of offers to do a book of this thing. I thought, "No, I don't want to do that. Internet is one thing, but I don't want to do this," although now there's talk from another major publisher that really wants to do it the right way. So it's possible that I will go ahead and do that.
I've got a book I'm doing right now called Bad Coloring Books which is just as politically incorrect. The question always becomes between my agent and me, "Well, am I going to lend my name to this thing?" The publisher wants my name on it. They don't want me using a pseudonym. You look at every situation and judge it on based on "Is it really that horrible a thing?" The JFK limousine? Frankly, I think that it's brilliant. I think it's wonderful. There was talk about me doing a whole series of pop-up do-it-yourself vehicles where I would have done everything from Jayne Mansfield's deathmobile to the JFK limousine to the car that Ernie Kovacks died in, and that would be fun, but there's other things that frankly I'd rather do than that.
I assume that the layout for the paper toys takes quite a while?
Yeah, but I've always been intrigued by paper engineering and making and building things and figuring out projects. If Little, Brown comes to me and asks me if I want to do a pop-up book, I jump on it because it's a chance for me to design all the mechanisms that make that book really pop out. I enjoy doing that sort of stuff. When I get a wild hair and decide I'm going to make a JFK limousine or something, I sit down and figure out the mechanics about it. It's easy and fun for me to do. For some people, it's very difficult. I've always been of the frame of mind, "If it's difficult to do, then why the hell do it?" If it's that hard to do, and if you're really sweating it, then don't do it. For me, creating art is always a fun experience. I don't consider it work whatsoever. If I considered it work, I wouldn't do it.
I assume you have a new book out for the Book Festival?
It's a book I did called My Pet Book which just came out last month. My elevator pitch for it is, "It's a story about a kid who loves reading books, and would rather have a pet book than a dog or cat, and what's not to love about that?" That was an interesting book in that I had sat down was doodling and I just drew this picture of a little kid walking a book on a leash. I don't know why that came to me, but I just thought that was a nice image. And then I thought, "Maybe call it My Pet Book and see if I can write a story around it." So I did and it becomes a book. When you see the book, the book that you hold in your hand is actually the pet book that you read in the story. I love doing things like that that have a lot of dimensions, a lot of surprise.
Is it autobiographical at all? Were you a great reader?
As a kid, I was a real looker. I've done books about looking, because that's how kids learn to read. A lot of times, parents make the mistake of thinking that reading is reading text or words, and that is reading, but another form of reading is to look. Every illustration, every image you see is just loaded with information. I do this thing when I give talks where I prove to people, whether it's kids or adults, where I say "I will just absolutely change the way that you think about art with just five simple lines." I tell them, "I'm going to prove to you that a single line has more information than you could ever imagine." I'll probably do this in Washington. I do it every every chance I can, because it just really changes the way people think. I take a big piece of white paper and I say, "Ok, everybody's been to the zoo, and this is the ground at the zoo," and I draw a horizontal line across. Then I say, "I'm going to draw five animals for you and you'll immediately know what they are, just by simply knowing that we're at the zoo and this is the ground. So what's this?" And I start at the bottom and go all the way to the top, and they say, "It's a giraffe." I say, "Exactly, it's a giraffe. So what's this?" and I draw a swirl, and they say, "An elephant." "Exactly. So if that's a giraffe and that's an elephant, what's this?" and I draw a line towards the bottom, and they say, "It's a crocodile." Exactly. Then I draw a snake and a bird, but what's fascinating is that everyone knows what I'm doing.
I tell them, "If we went out into the hallway now and brought in the fifth graders, and you're all first graders, they wouldn't have a clue what this drawing is." That proves to you that it is the line that is providing that basis for the person's imagination to look and understand context and use their personal history and infrastructure of knowledge to go ahead and flesh it out. It's fascinating to me how just that simple experiment will completely turn people's heads upside down—kids and adults. But that's important to me. What's important is that people see that and say "There's as much, if not more, information in that single line that's representative of a giraffe than there is in a textual description of one."
People these days are much more in tune with illustrations and images today than they were in the past.
I think that's the advent of the Internet. It's caused people to be a little bit more in tune and receptive to imagery in ways that hadn't been before. This week, I have to do an illustration of the Beatles for the Washington Post where I have to turn them into beagles. That's easy enough to do because I just go to Google and search for images of the Beatles, but in the old days, it would really require work. You'd have to go to the library, you'd have to get a book, you'd have to hope it had a good photo, if it didn't have a good photo, you'd have to find something else... Now we just have imagery at our fingertips and it's easy for anybody, whether they're aesthetically minded or not, to be able have access to that stuff. I think that's the big difference.
Bob Staake appears at the National Book Festival at 2:40 p.m. on August 30 at the Convention Center. Free.