Saturday, February 28, 2015

Finnegans Wake!

Due to extreme stupidity on my part, the site was down for the last week or so, while I was on holiday. But normal service has been restored! Tell your friends!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Some more thoughts on reading Finnegans Wake

How do you read Finnegans Wake? This has to be the single most troubling question of the whole book. In my last post I talked about the idea of “experiencing”it without necessarily understanding it, which is certainly an important aspect of Joyce’s composition, but it’s hardly a satisfying response to the question. After all, you’d have to be crazy to uncomprehendingly slog through a book of over 600 pages on the vague promise of some intangible psychic reward. So how do we read it? Or to aim a little lower, how do we define the appropriate attitude of a reader to this book in a way that I can summarise in a short blog post?

In his essay on Joyce’s as-yet-unfinished Work in Progress, Samuel Beckett suggested a different word for the process: “apprehending,” by which he meant reading not for the meaning of the words themselves but for the associations produced by their sounds:
It is not to be read – or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something; it is that something itself... When the sense is sleep, the words go to sleep. (See the end of ‘Anna Livia’) When the sense is dancing, the words dance.
I recommend you read whole thing, where he gives a great example of drunk language producing the idea of drunkenness.

But there’s still something missing. There’s a certain passivity to Beckett’s description, less so than in my description of “experiencing,” but still much more than anyone who’s made a serious attempt to read the book would recognise. Trying to follow the flow of sounds feels less like following the current of a river, and more like tumbling down a waterfall. You have to slow down, and make your descent slowly at your own pace or you’ll be drowned.

In his excellent book on Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s Book of the Dark, John Bishop describes reading it in very different terms from Beckett: not as a poem, but “as a rebus, a crossword puzzle,” a dense series of interconnected riddles to be solved through a combination of research and free association. “Everything manifest on the printed page of the Wake points to a second, concealed text.” (To which I would only add that one concealed text might be a conservative estimate.)

So which is it: do we experience, apprehend, or decipher? Well, obviously, it’s all three, isn’t it? (And probably more that I haven’t even thought of.) As Bishop exhaustively argues, Finnegans Wake is a “nightynovel,” addressed not to our conscious waking minds, but to the unconscious mind that wakes when we’re asleep. At the same time, it’s a myth, addressed not to the rational minds of sophisticated tea-drinking newspaper readers, but to the primitive consciousness of prehistoric humans. (Joyce, following Giambattista Vico, believed the two to be equal: that before the invention of reason, our waking minds were ruled by the same emotional drives that direct our dreams.)

Reading Finnegans Wake means learning to read – and more importantly to think – in a new way, in a way that’s both alien and deeply human. It isn’t, like a cryptic crossword, a hollow intellectual exercise, but an arduous and rewarding exercise in empathy, which challenges us to understand at the same time an important but nigh-incomprehensible aspect of our own mental life, and a vast and forgotten portion of our intellectual history as human beings.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Why understand when you can reenact?

In Joyce’s day, the Catholic mass that he attended as a child – and occasionally as an adult, for aesthetic appreciation – was given in Latin. You can read part of the rite of the Eucharist at the beginning of Ulysses: “Introibo ad altare Dei,” says Buck Mulligan, as he pretends to bless his shaving soap. In theory, everyone who had done their catechism should have learnt the parts of the mass and their meanings. But, in practice, I wonder how many congregants really understood what was going on, and how many simply memorised when to stand and when to kneel?

When we read a book – or a newspaper, or a post-it note, for that matter – there’s one question that always occurs first in our minds. “What does it mean?” Depending on the complexity of what we’re reading, we might not even have time to form the question in our minds before it’s answered. When we read Finnegans Wake, we might grow tired of the sound of our own voices saying it. But in the history of human thought and writing and speaking and singing, there is a vast and rarely thought-about tradition of ritual storytelling, in which understanding is the last thing on anyone’s mind.

The myth of Osiris was a story about a god with a name and a family, who experiences certain events, dies and comes back to life. So far, so much like Harry Potter. But we know the story of Osiris because it was written down not as an entertainment, but as a model, or a series of stage directions. As the god of the dead, Osiris was the archetype of all dead people, and his story was written by the ancient Egyptians again and again and again, not as his story, but as that of each individual corpse, who, simply by virtue of being dead, partook of his name and identity. In the Book of the Dead written for a scribe named Ani, he is referrred to as “The Osiris Ani”, and the story of Osiris’ journey to the Underworld is Ani’s story.

Countless ancient myths operated in this way, but the best known today must be that same rite of the Eucharist from the Christian mass. The priest recites the story of Jesus’ Last Supper while reenacting Jesus’ actions: blessing the bread and the wine and giving it to his apostles, “that you may enjoy everlasting life.” The priest becomes Jesus and his congregation the apostles. The purpose of the story is not to be understood, but to facilitate the blessing, an essentially magical operation that the priest conducts by channelling Jesus.

This approach to reading was certainly on Joyce’s mind during the writing of Finnegans Wake, and can go some way to accounting for its difficulty: that it’s meant primarily not to be understood, but to be experienced. I don’t know if that’s a helpful way to look at it, but I encourage you to give it a try, and to think about what “magical” operation you might be conducting when you channel the life and dreams of Here Comes Everybody.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Page 34: a pair of dainty maidservants

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Page 33: annoying welsh fusiliers

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Page 38: our cad's bit of strife

Page 37: ere the hour of the twattering of bards

Friday, January 9, 2015

A cry for help

I’ve been working on this project for a while, at home by myself, when I should be doing work that pays or playing with my son... and I’ve been thinking for some time now about the possibility of turning this project into some kind of graduate project, but I’ve held back from applying anywhere due to a debilitating combination of inertia and fear.

But that ends now! So I’m asking for help.

I know I get a lot of visitors from many college campuses; I don’t know why, possibly my work has been mentioned in an influential psychiatric textbook. Are you, yes YOU, an academic? Do you have any advice you’d like to give me? Have you ever used my work in an academic context that you’d like to tell me about? I want to hear it! Please email me at stephen (at)! And thanks.

Page 35: a cad with a pipe

Ah, it’s like revisiting old friends, discovering they’re hideous, and completely redrawing them.

Is that a good analogy?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Page 36: a nice how-do-you-do

I’m revisiting some old ones right now, in preparation for a talk I’m giving in February. More to come!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Page 160: down to the thither bank

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Page 152½: his father’s sword

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Page 107: who in hallhagal wrote the durn thing anyhow?

Friday, October 31, 2014

Page 162: a singult tear

This is the last page of The Mookse and The Gripes, but not the last page I have to do.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Page 161: an only elmtree and but a stone

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Page 187: petty constable sistersen

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Page 159: oh, how it was duusk!

I’m going to finally get to the end of the Mookse and the Gripes. Three more pages!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Page 109: one more unlookedfor conclusion leaped at

Prints for sale, 10% off!

I’m finally phasing out my Society6 store and opening a new grown-up shop through Storenvy. Society6 has served me pretty well, but this way I’ll have a lot more control over what I sell (and see more of the profit from it, too!). Also, for the rest of the year you can get 10% off anything you buy there with the code 10OFF. That’s


So far I’ve put up all the Dubliners illustrations and a selection from Wake in Progress, but if there’s anything you’d like to have that you don’t see there, just contact me! The same goes for larger print sizes: Storenvy doesn’t offer size selection with variable pricing right now (though their official tweeter assured me that they will do eventually) so if you want a larger size of anything, just contact me! I’m planning to start offering postcards and other stationery soon as well. Again, if there’s another kind of product that you’d like to see here, just contact me! 

 You can even just say hi.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Page 186: the only foolscap available

Friday, October 17, 2014

Page 185: his wit's waste

I’m not sure... but let’s press on.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Page 179: Blue Book of Eccles

I’m a little rusty, but drawing like this is like a holiday after Dubliners.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Wake in Progress on Bomb

I was honoured to have some of my Finnegans Wake and Dubliners illustrations featured on Bomb Magazine's blog today. Many thanks to editor Orit Gat!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Dubliners has been funded!

UPDATE: As of writing, the project has raised €11,110, 111% of its goal, and there are six hours left. There’s still time to order a copy!

De Selby Press has passed their funding goal for the illustrated Dubliners! Thanks to everyone who’s got involved, whether by ordering or book, sharing the link online, telling their friends, or simply sending encouragement, it’s all meant a lot to us.

To celebrate, here’s a recap of all the illustrations I’ve shared so far, in order. And don’t forget, if you haven’t ordered a copy yet, there’s still plenty of time to get one along with a lot of enticing Dubliners-related swag at the fundraiser page.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Dubliners 15: The Dead

As I write this, with five days left, the Dubliners fundraising campaign is at 89%! Thanks again to everyone that’s contributed and everyone that’s been sharing it. I really appreciate everything you’ve done to keep this campaign going. I know we can make it, but we need you to keep sharing it just a little bit more! With that customary plea out of the way, here’s one of the three illustrations that I’ve done for “The Dead”.

Since this is by far the most well-known and well-loved story in the book, I felt quite a lot of pressure to do something good here, and particularly to combine the graphic, conceptual style I’m comfortable in with an actual sense of the party.  Although this is a the very internal moment that Gabriel Conroy is having has he looks out the window, it’s important for the viewer to see that there is life going on around him. This image is a good example of how I used the black in this series, allowing them to blend together in a style that I “borrowed” from Félix Vallotton, one of the great turn-of-the-century illustrators that I looked at while I was designing this series.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Dubliners 10: Clay

Here comes another Dubliner, but first I want to remind you to look at the new rewards on de Selby’s crowdfunding page. We’ve just got to get another 19% in the next seven days, so please share this with your Joyce-loving friends!

Similarly to many of Joyce’s stories, “Clay” sits in an uncomfortable position somewhere between mockery and compassion, in this case for a somewhat simple-minded old spinster, perhaps modelled on the protagonist of Flaubert’s short story, “A Simple Heart”. With her ironic name and her caricatured description (when she laughed, “the tip of her nose nearly met the tip of her chin” – think of that next time someone labels these stories “realistic”), Maria is a living parody, but one that evokes genuine emotion in the reader, especially by the end of the story. I wanted to imitate that by presenting her in a pastiche of an Orthodox icon, but while playing it straight enough that she retains her dignity.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Dubliners 5: After the Race

Before I introduce another Dubliners illustration, I have an urgent message. With nine days left, de Selby Press’ funding campaign has reached 76%. Thank you so much to everyone who’s supported it and promoted it so far! But De Selby still needs another €2,400 in the next nine days, or they won’t be able to publish this book. So if you want to see this edition printed, please tell your friends. Tell people who aren’t your friends. If you know anyone you think might be interested in a beautifully printed new copy of Dubliners full of nice pictures, please don’t keep it to yourself. Thank you!

This story, set during an actual Dublin car race – the 1903 Gordon Bennett Cup – was another one where the concept came pretty early. Everyone’s seen those old racing posters with the cars flying towards the viewer (like that one on the right). In my early sketches, I imagined literally illustrating the metaphor in the quotation, like the future bursting through this backward Dublin neighbourhood.

Drawing the car proved a bit of a nightmare. At first I was determined to draw the car that’s actually featured in the story, but I couldn’t figure out for the life of me what sort of car it could be. It can’t be a racing car, because there are five people sitting in it. Add to that the fact that even the sports cars of 1903 looked a bit like bathtubs on wheels, so the heavily laden land yacht I ended up with rather spoiled the dynamism of the composition. Instead, I replaced it with a car based on the winner of the 1903 race, the Mercedes Simplex.

One more reminder: the Dubliners fundraising campaign can be found here. Thanks again!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Dubliners 6: Two Gallants

With two weeks to go, de Selby Press’ Dubliners fundraiser is now at 68%! To celebrate passing the two thirds mark, here’s a pair of gallants.

“Two Gallants” presents one of the clearest examples of Joyce creating portraits of satirical types. I knew from the beginning what I wanted for this story: the devious Corley and his toady friend Lenehan presented like a vaudeville double act. As I worked on it, I realised that I could take the comparison even further, to reference the costumes of Commedia dell’Arte characters Harlequin and Pierrot, which I think the medieval-minded Joyce would have appreciated.

Don’t forget, you can help fund the printing of the illustrated Dubliners by preordering a copy right here!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Wake in Progress at Urban Light Studios

Thanks to everyone at Urban Light for hosting my work during the Phinneywood Art Walk last night, and thanks to all of you who came. I for one had a great time, met lots of interesting people, and stayed up way past my bedtime. The Instagram below is the only photo I know of to prove that the event took place. You might make out in the back there that, as well as the Wake, we also previewed some of the Dubliners illustrations. If you weren’t able to make it, then I hope you’ll come to the BIG art walk on August 8th, because I’ll still be there.

Dubliners 8: A Little Cloud

Continuing the Dubliners series for the funding campaign (which is just short of 60%!), here’s my illustration for the eighth story, “A Little Cloud”.

This could be the straightest illustration in the series. In the story, Little Chandler idolises his friend Gallaher. I struggled with the best way to make Gallaher appear suitably heroic before focussing on the classical profile. In some of my early sketches, I tried to give him a Napoleonic/Wellingtonian air by putting his right hand in his waistcoat. But without the accompanying medals and tights he just looked like he was looking for his wallet.

There’s still plenty of time to preorder a first-edition illustrated Dubliners right here.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Dubliners 12: Ivy Day in the Committee Room

Our Dubliners campaign is now at 44%. Thanks again to everyone who’s made an order so far! I’m continuing the series of illustrations today with “Ivy Day in the Committee Room”.

When de Selby first approached me to illustrate Dubliners, it took me a little while to work out the style (as I mentioned previously), but I knew right away the conceptual approach I wanted to take. I’m always reading in critical studies about Dubliners that it was Joyce’s demonstration that he could master realism before becoming experimental, or that he mastered the Edwardian style before becoming modernist, or something like that. I wanted to take a completely different tack. If you look closely at these stories, almost all of the themes of Joyce’s later work – the medievalism, the religious symbolism, the use of allegory – are already there. They’re not the opposite of Ulysses, but the seed.

That’s especially true in this story, in which a group of electioneering politicians shelter from the cold on the anniversary of the death of Charles Stewart Parnell. Apart from all those plain words that cats and dogs can read, this story, with all its mixing of the secular and the sacred, would be completely at home in a chapter of Finnegans Wake. So I designed this illustration to bring out the religious significance that Joyce attributes to Parnell in all his fiction.

Don’t forget we’re still raising funds for the book! You can preorder a first-edition copy right here.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Dubliners 4: Eveline

Thanks to everyone who’s supported the Dubliners campaign so far. After a week, we’re already at 37%! Just to shake things up, I’m jumping ahead now to the fourth story, “Eveline.”

“Eveline” tells the story of a young woman who’s preparing to elope to “Buenos Ayres” with a sailor. But when the moment comes to board the ship, she’s gripped with such terror that she can’t even move. As with “The Sisters,” I didn’t have any trouble choosing a line to illustrate. The final sentence so perfectly encapsulates the tragedy of Eveline’s paralysis. But I couldn’t work out how best to communicate the feeling of motion. Whenever I read the final paragraph, I could see Eveline’s blank stare drifting further and further away as the ship left the harbour; but until animated gif technology comes to paperbacks, I knew I’d have to come up with something else. I did a few sketches of it as a six-panel comic, which worked quite well. But it was vetoed by my art direction consultant (or “wife”, to use her legal title) because it stuck out from the others. So instead, I made the text do the work. I think this really shows how handy text can be in an illustration, because there’s nothing like it for directing your eye.

There’s still plenty of time to order a numbered first-edition at the funding campaign here. Tell your friends!

Friday, July 4, 2014

Dubliners 1: The Sisters

As promised (although slightly later than I planned), here’s the first of my illustrations for Joyce’s Dubliners, to be published by de Selby Press (crowdfunding the first edition here!). Let’s begin at the beginning with “The Sisters”.

Being the first story in the book, “The Sisters” has caused me a certain amount of stress. Joyce had very specific ideas about the beginnings of books, and the key themes of Dubliners are all buried in the narrative on the very first page. On the other hand, at least it saved me having to decide what line to choose: the first one.

Since it was also the first page I tried to draw (I’m very linear like that: I can’t even skip articles in a magazine), this was where I first tackled the style issue. I had a vague idea that I wanted to approximate the “scrupulous meanness” that Joyce characterised as the style of the text. Linda, the editor, was keen for me to integrate lines from the stories like I do for Finnegans Wake, which meant that I had to have big planes of black or white. After looking at a lot of avant-garde and commercial illustration from the turn of the century (do you know you can download all of Ver Sacrum, the Vienna Secession journal? Do it, it’s great), I eventually came up with this, essentially two styles put together, with three-dimensional cartoon people inhabiting a more rigid, stylised environment.

As the old saying goes, nothing ruins an illustration of a sad story about death like explaining it. So let’s just say that, as with Finnegans Wake, I focussed more on translating the idea than on drawing a particular place. In other words, that view may not exist, but I felt I had a good reason for putting it there. Now that I think of it, after all that Wake, this was probably the perfect line for me to start with, since it seems to include a pun.

If you like what you see, click here to preorder a numbered first-edition copy!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

How James Joyce taught me to draw

Portrait of Leopold Bloom by Mr. Joyce
When I started this project at the end of 2009, I had drawn almost nothing at all since being thrown out of my art A-level 10 years previously (it’s a long story). You can really tell in the early pages that I would do anything to avoid having to make a mark of my own on paper. That fear of actually drawing anything played a large part in defining the style of the first chapter, as you can see from the collage and tracing and big cut-out-looking shapes.

But I didn’t want to keep doing that. I can’t say I’m proud of every illustration on this site, but I am proud of how hard I pushed myself. Over the course of chapter one I tried lots of different things. When I got to chapter two, I decided I’d draw the whole thing in a kind of vintage cartoon style that was well beyond my abilities at the time. Generally, I’d just start to feel like I was getting confident in one style by the time I reached the end of the chapter, and then I had to choose another one. Some of my experiments worked and some of them didn’t, but even if some of them make me cringe now, I gained something from all of them. Or, even if I didn’t gain anything, I’m pretty sure they did me make me any worse.

It’s probably a bad sign if you can’t see any flaws in your own work. I can often perhaps be a little too critical (my wife says I get “a touch of the English”). But I’m really pleased with how these illustrations for Dubliners have turned out, and I can’t wait to share them all with you. To coincide with the crowdfunding campaign for the first edition, I’m going to start posting them here every couple of days. I hope you like them.
The tracing period
Getting comfortable...
...and getting deeply uncomfortable
Just get back on that horse!
And it “only” took five years...