This month, the summer reading issue of The Walrus boasts an eye-catching cover by the Dutch cartoonist Joost Swarte. His crisp style and high-concept approach help to razor his illustrations into our consciousness before we even know what we’re seeing. Feel like you’ve come across his work before? Odds are either you have, in the pages of The New Yorker, or you’re actually thinking of Hergé, the creator of Tintin. Both of those traditions—old-timey children’s comics, sophisticated yuks—play important roles in Swarte’s practice. Whether in his architecture or his illustration, his comics or his stained glass, the artist applies early 20th century styles to our modern world, resulting in an ironic distance that allows him to poke our self-satisfied notions of progress in the ribs—repeatedly, if never especially hard.
Swarte’s drawings communicate so clearly because they’re executed in so concise and direct a fashion. Clarity of line engenders clarity of thought: each line set to paper acts as one element among equals, like a term in a balanced equation, or a word in a sentence that comes quickly but elegantly to the point. Black contour lines of unvarying width define and delimit every aspect of the image, leveling out the different planes of the composition, while pools of solid colour direct attention here or there. Many of the artistic ancestors Swarte has claimed for himself worked in a similar style, but none so conspicuously as Hergé. In 1977, on the occasion of a Dutch exhibition of the Tintin artist’s work, Swarte dubbed the style the ‘klare lijne’ or clear line, having already turned the technique to his own uses. Most often the protégé takes the master’s style on a detour through surrealism and into satire, all while simplifying the already ascetic approach into pure geometry for his blueprint-like cityscapes.
Swarte has some mild fun, on the Walrus cover, with the nutty rush out of the city that clogs our highways every summer. But the assignment also offers Swarte the opportunity to clear-line the hell out of some cars and books, a couple preoccupations that crop up all over his work. Rooted in the concrete objects of the everyday, but willing to springboard into realms of conjecture and fantasy, Swarte is at once a cartoonist of things and of ideas. His illustrations are littered with well-designed objects, with clothes, furniture, instruments, all manner of assorted doohickeys, and—second only to his grand sturdy buildings—car after car after car. Those sleek, mechanical lines imply function as much as they do structure, and must appeal to Swarte’s orientation to detail. “I remember, when I was in high school, I collected publications for hot rod cars, and there were always designs in them by Big Daddy Roth. And I loved it,” Swarte has said. “But later on, I changed to designing cars by myself. Because I had fun inventing something.”
Such design in his drawings isn’t present only for its own very pretty sake, though. It’s also there as an inquiry into how we work through specific problems, or how we encounter and think our way through space, whether in the city or on the comics page. In short, Swarte’s designs concern how we navigate our way in the world. He likes to watch his characters think and work—or fail to think or work—and so will sometimes return to the book as an ideal object of contemplation, one which we labour to understand, and one that somehow takes on a life of its own. In Swarte’s illustrations, books can help us solve problems—those kids in the car on this month’s cover use their reading material to escape from the tedium of snarled traffic—but they can also pose problems. Reading, for Swarte, is a process so involved as to become both comfort and danger at the same time—why else would we find it so rewarding?
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Despite a long-promised compendium of his comics being perpetually in the works, and despite having published regularly since 1970, Swarte has very little material available in print in English—his story in Little Lit might be it, actually. Swarte’s interests lately lie elsewhere, in the realm of actual paying work, though his sensibility translates well to any medium. So recent years have seen him work not in any kind of book format, but instead in architecture—a residence in Haarlem, as well as a theatre, pictured below—and in museum design, at the Musée Hergé (click ‘votre visite,’ then ‘architecture,’ then ‘le scenographe’), and in stained glass—any of which must be way cooler to mention at parties than comic books, anyway.