I’ve been having a bit of a Beatles week, listening my way through their records and revisiting their films. All of which provided the backdrop against which I read two recent picture books by the Superhairies – the creative team of artist Angus Mackinnon and writer James Thorp.
The Lobster, Weasel, Puffin, Unicorn, Baboon, Pig Lobster Race and Dog on Stilts are suffused not only with the graphic style of the psychedelic sixties, but also with the barmy Goons inspired humour that filled the Beatles movies. Not that you need to have your head in that decade to enjoy their work; these inventive, slightly unhinged picture books will appeal just as much to children of the 2010s.
Angus: I pick up lots of sixties and seventies printed ephemera from junk shops – underground press like Oz and International Times, or posters and fliers by Martin Sharpe and Barney Bubbles. I’m sure that the intense bursts of colours, surreal cut and paste collages and curvaceous art-nouveau shapes have all trickled into my drawings. I also love the hand made aesthetic that you find in designs from these times – you can see that coming through with the fonts which are all hand drawn.
tygertale: The Lobster Race contains panels that really draw you in and gets the reader involved in the race, like a sort of picture book Escher. How do you go about designing these eye bending scenes?
Angus: Great kids illustrations have a real physicality about them. When I was a kid I remember following Richard Scarry and Dr Seuss’ snaking paths and impossible ladders with my fingers. With Weasel Puffin I wanted to create that same sense of immersion. So while James set the tempo and drumbeat with his words and rhythms, I wanted to create landscapes that you felt like you could actually run around in.
Game designer Yoshiaki Koixumi is a big inspiration. The landscapes he designs for the Mario and Donkey Kong games are eye-poppingly beautiful, wildly inventive, and truly mind bending – often defying time, space and gravity all at the same time. I wanted to find a way of playing those kind of visual tricks in illustrated form.
The worlds in Weasel Puffin were conceived as the kind of levels you might find in a platform game. They are linear, going from A to B, but full of hazards and pitfalls; things to leap over, swing across, slide down, clamber up and down. Like Koixumi’s worlds they flip between two dimensional and three dimensional. They are puzzles for the eyes to navigate around.
tygertale: In Dog on Stilts readers have to turn the book around to follow the exploits of the dog. Was this something that came from the story, or are you interested in deliberately playing with the picture book form?
Angus: A bit of both. The book is a boring old square shape, a bit like Medium Dog himself. There’s nothing surprising on the surface of it. But as soon as Medium Dog bursts out of his shed on stilts, I wanted the book to disrupt its traditional format too.
There’s a rampage sequence, which was a bit of a nod to Muarice Sendak’s ‘rumpus’ scene in ‘Where The Wild Things Are’. The whole book flips around to allow for lots of vertical space to show off the height of Medium Dog’s stilts. It adds a bit of physicality to the reading experience, but it’s also a very practical use of space.
James: Our methods are evolving as we progress. Collaboration has always been a crucial factor though. Years ago we ‘d do these eight hour, straight-through-the-night writing sessions. The aim being to create a cartoon every four minutes.
We had two A3 sketch books, a big stop-watch and bag of crisps.
We’d take a sketch book each then start the timer.
Then we’d switch sketchbooks.
He’d draw his reaction to what I’d written. I’d write a caption to what he’d drawn.
When it comes to creating the books, let’s just say, all aspects of the story have to be agreed upon. Sometimes that means we both agree, other times it means we have to arm-wrestle, which is something Superhaires like to do, because in the end it means, we hope, the strongest idea wins.
tygertale: Who are the Superhairies?
James: Superhairies is the name of our collective. It includes all those whom we collaborate with to make the books and the musical versions of the books.
We are these big dumb stone-aged creatures that escaped from London Zoo. We live in your world now, and hence, see your world, and the ways of that world, with a fresh sense of inquiry.
Nothing is beyond question to the Superhairies. So in that way. We are akin to the children we are writing for.