Monday, 22 September 2008

Oscar Zarate on picture power

Oscar Zarate, master Introducing illustrator, tells the this site about the relationship between words and pictures

Here are the opening lines of Alice in Wonderland: "Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading but it had no pictures or conversations in it, 'and what is the use of a book', thought Alice, 'without pictures or conversations?' Quite so, Alice, welcome to the wonderful world of the Introducing series, every one packed with pictures and conversations.

When adults read Alice in Wonderland to children they probably smile indulgently at Alice's little foible, complacent in the adult knowledge that the need for pictures in books other than those designed for coffee tables is something we grow out of, something intrinsically lodged in childhood. Books with pictures are children's books or their vulgar younger cousins - comics.

Perhaps there are Introducing readers who don't realise they are implicitly agreeing with Alice as they immerse themselves in Quantum or Freud. Perhaps they objectify their unwitting complicity by telling themselves these are illustrated texts, so that's OK. That's not what artist Oscar Zarate thinks. He says neither picture nor text comes first. It's a symbiotic process, neither has precedence over the other, although one has a sneaking suspicion Zarate has more time for images than words. "The writer always has to come back to the subject. The writer can't make fiction but the artist can.".

Before starting work on an Introducing guide, Zarate has meetings with the writer and editor, and ideas emerge. "After the meetings I go home," says Zarate, "and try to make sense of all these voices, attempting to devise a visual texture for the particular subject, something which is unique to his title and which creates a visual way of understanding the complexity of the text. It's like a piece of music, the pictures counterpointing the text. It's the intense concentration of all these elements, all these voices in one page, that attracts me."

Most importantly, Zarate does not see himself as an illustrator of texts. "I want to make a visual statement. I'm not an illustrator of texts. I don't feel I'm illustrating a text or book, for me it is dead if it's just the application of a craft onto a text." It's a funny thing that somehow an artist seems to carry less intellectual weight than a writer. For example, on collaborative work - even Introducing - the writer's name comes first. "I'm not complaining," says Zarate, "but for me this is puzzling!"

Zarate enjoys the collaboration of artist and writer. He is not in competition with the writer. "We talk, we walk, we drink coffee," he says with an expansive gesture, "and sure - sometimes we argue! But in the end the subject is paramount, our joint aim to make complex ideas more accessible, to make them lucid in an original way."

But let's be clear about the business of illustration - these guides are not, says Zarate emphatically, illustrated books. The text is nothing without the images. In an illustrated book, the text survives without images. An Introducing guide without images is like a skeleton without muscles, sinews, blood. The process is not one by which the artist is delive red a manuscript which must then have pictures drawn to match. Zarate reads extensively so that with any of the titles he has done - from Quantum Theory to the Mind & Brain - he has a wide ranging understanding of the subject in hand and has begun to create many of the images before he sees the text.

Zarate immerses himself in the subjects as much as the writers do. Occasionally a subject remains difficult for him, "Quantum," says Zarate, "was difficult. It's a non-territory - it's not tangible."

In his native Argentina, Zarate had been a highly paid graphic artist working in advertising. He left Argentina in 1971, curious to see if Europe was all it was cracked up to be, and like so many from the South American countries of the time, needing to get away from the grip of the military, He travelled through Spain and Portugal, but was haunted by memories of Argentina, of the surveillance, the fear that stalked the regime's opponents. With Franco in power in Spain and Salazar in Portugal, those countries smacked, at the time, too much of home. He made his way to London via Paris, intending to pass through, but found it surprising and comforting. "I wasn't being watched and there was kind of civil behaviour you never get in Latin countries. You could cross the road at the green light and stop at the red. I found also an absence of wasted energy. In Latin countries you feel a lot is happening but you break it down and it's not a lot, it's very little of anything - it's hysterical - but nice!" he smiles. You get his drift. Zarate learned English, met people, made connections, found work, fell in love and had a child. He has been here ever since.

In London he began to pursue his real love - comics. "I always loved comics, and as a kid they shaped my life. The Argentinian comics weren't under the domination of the US imagery - they weren't all superheroes. They were made from a liberal, humanist and even left-wing perspective, they communicated fantastic things."

The Introducing guides are tailor-made for an artist like Oscar Zarate because in them he finds the interdependent fusion of image and language. He did his first many years ago, Lenin for Beginners. Asked which one he most enjoyed working on and he says Freud was a subject after his own heart. It fascinated him. Not only had he himself been in analysis, but the realms of the unconscious appealed to his intellect and imagination.

His visual references are wide and eclectic. In Freud he retold the story of little Hans and his horse phobia with simple black-on-white comic frames. Hans fears horses, Hans fears his father, Hans has transferred his fear of his father onto horses, his fear is that his father will castrate him because he desires his mother. The father has a horse's head, the child stares through a keyhole at the image of an adult man's penis - not only is the story graphically told through the images, but it's entertaining, sinister and resonant. In Hawking, Zarate explains gravitational mass versus inertial mass with an image of a small frock-coated Newtonian figure heaving at the rear end of a vast Sumo wrestler, thus combining all aspects of the word "comic", and playing visual time and perception tricks that words are too clumsy to convey. In Machiavelli he gives us the image that portrays Machiavelli's use of the term virtu - qualities desirable for a man, which include a certain ruthlessness. He evokes this with the image of the young Marlon Brando embracing a faceless female as Orson Welles looks out of the shadows saying, "The word does not describe a 'good' or 'virtuous' person in the usual sense", a pleasing combination of image and words embodying layers of irony, significance and humour.

We sneer at comics, but what are films but motion with words? The motion is nothing without the sound, the sound nothing without the motion - motion pictures. "Comics are like films", says Zarate. "The story is told through the visual motions." Contemplating adults who think books with pictures are a bit of a cop-out, he says, "they think comics are rubbish but they probably watch a lot of TV."

Perhaps the graphic book - an extended version of the comic form - is looked down on because of the prevalence of the dominant images. Zarate says: "Most of the comics come from the USA and feature superheroes. The UK industry is dying out. So 99 per cent of the comics are Iron Man, Batman, Superman. They take away space for other kinds of comic expression, but you can't get away from Hollywood - it determines how we see things. I don't find the values interesting - and the images are damaging because they are completely conservative and they are not about life, they are conformist, not inquisitive. Hollywood's parameters of good and bad should be destroyed, then a lot of people would be able to breathe and experiment because, as it is, Hollywood re-enforces the status-quo."

Zarate's most recent subjects have been the Mind & Brain and the controversial psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, something of a heroine to him and certainly not out of the Hollywood superhero mould. Apart, from Introducing, Zarate produces graphic stories, amongst them "It's Dark in London", short stories edited by him, and novels, one of his most successful being the extremely vivid and colourful "A Small Killing", published by Victor Gollancz, the first in a series of adult graphic novels, and the winner of the Will Eisner prize for the best graphic novel of 1994. And wouldn't you know it - the writer's name and biographical notes come first.

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