Bob Staake is known for his bright, vibrant, energetic illustrations which have graced the pages of The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and Sports Illustrated For Kids. His clients include Nickelodeon, American Express, Sony, The Ren and Stimpy Show and Random House. He’s also a regular contributor to MAD magazine and has illustrated dozens of books for children and adults. Basically, Bob’s a busy guy.
Recently, Bob released a mysterious book called The Orb Of Chatham, which The Washington post called “The ‘Blair Witch’ of graphic stories” and Tim Wood, of The Cape Cod Chronicle, described as “A strange noir mystery that is truly baffling, yet curiously entertaining”.
The Orb Of Chatham is about the enigma surrounding a large black ball that strikes fear and dread into the inhabitants of a New England Coastal town, illustrated in shades of grey; a real departure from Bob’s normal, colourful style.
PIXELSURGEON: First of all, how in the heck do you pronounce Staake?
BOB: “Stack”. But I’m sure that when you pronounce it authentically in Germany you’re supposed to spit out a little food.
Could you sketch in your background for us, where you grew up and how you came to be an illustrator?
I was born and raised in Los Angeles. Even as a kid, everyone around me seemed to understand that I’d become an artist. In those Super 8 movies my dad would shoot, you’d see all the other kids doing cartwheels and tumbling for the camera — then I’d pop into the frame showing off a coloring book page for the camera. My younger brother was a hemophiliac and always needed constant attention from my parents, so I learned at a very early age to entertain and fend for myself.
I was a voracious picture book reader, watched way too many Hanna-Barbera cartoons, couldn’t get enough of MAD magazine, and doodled constantly. In high school they ran out of art classes for me, so they had to send me to the local community college for life drawing, watercolor painting, etc. I received a full scholarship from USC, and majored in journalism and international relations.
I was freelancing professionally since the age of 17, so it never even occurred to me to take an art class after high school. In my senior year I checked out CalArts, but when I walked into a dorm I was hit in the face with a cloud of pot and the image of a half-naked co-ed running through the hallway. I knew then that an art school wouldn’t be ideal for me — though I think I could handle it now.
Who are your inspirations for your artwork?
I hate this sort of question because I’m always afraid I’ll leave someone out. A.M. Cassandre, Diane Arbus, J.P.Miller, Mary Blair, Jean Carlu, Grant Wood, Walker Evans, Raymond Scott, Steely Dan, Alvin Lustig, Paul Rand, Aurelius Battaglia, Paul Klee, UPA animation, Phillipe Starck, Charles and Ray Eames, Ettore Sottsass, Dr. Seuss, Tibor Gergeley, Richard Scarry, Edward Gorey, Paul Colin — the list just goes on and on.
I was asked to do a 21st Century version of The Little Golden Book picture dictionary originally illustrated by Scarry and later by Gergeley, and I just considered that a sweet honor. Inspiration and influence is always a full-circle thing, so it’s nice to be at a stage in my career when I see my name pop up on lists of those who influenced the work of some of my peers.
Looking at your latest trio of forthcoming releases, The Orb Of Chatham, The Red Lemon and Der Struwwelpeter, it’s quite an eclectic range of styles, subject matters and approaches. What’s the underlying unifying factor that makes them Bob Staake works?
Years ago when I wrote The Complete Book of Caricature, Ralph Steadman told me he was always amazed at how American illustrators would lock onto a style, get famous, then never deviate from it — and I could certainly appreciate the comment. At the end of the day, illustration is almost always subservient to something else (getting a person to read a newspaper article, buy this greeting card over that one, visually enhancing a book’s story, etc). When an illustrator understands that, he immediately recognizes that what works aesthetically for My Little Colors Book isn’t necessarily going to work for Der Struwwelpeter.
Being able to tweak, modify and alter your visual style is essentially in remaining faithful to each individual challenge you face as an illustrator. For example, I couldn’t have ever imagined illustrating The Orb of Chatham in anything buy grayscale, and that black and white imagery becomes a huge part of the subtext within the book. When you look at my work and my career, I suppose I’m unsual in that I’ve somehow managed to succeed by working with a wide variety of clients — from MAD magazine to The Washington Post, Cartoon Network to Random House, MTV/Nickelodeon to Hallmark Cards. If you understand the intrinsic branding and identity of those clients, they’re all at completely different ends of the aesthetic spectrum. I suppose the unifying factor of my work is that it’s always more than happy to function as a grunt in the trenches — understanding that its there to work symbiotically with something bigger than the art alone. I’ve always viewed myself as a “realist” when it comes to my art and don’t obsess over it. Having as many deadlines as I do in a given week, you have little time to take an ego point of view — and you just get the stuff done in a way that pleases me first, and then the client.
Personally MAD magazine was a huge influence on me when I was growing up: it felt quintessentially American to my European sensibilities which helped broaden my view of humour. Apologies for this triple-barrelled MAD related question: Do you feel your work is American, or has the internet removed such classifications? What did it feel like to work on such a classic publication (the illustrator equivalent of a comedian appearing on Saturday Night Live)? And finally, like SNL’s Belushi/Akroyd/Chase glory days, would you have preferred to have been illustrating for MAD during its heyday between the late 50s and early 70s?
MAD was a huge influence to me as well as a child. To be honest, as my aesthetic tastes matured over time, it was a influence that I chalked up to adolescent taste. As my worked developed and made a name for myself as an illustrator, I was surprised when MAD called and asked me if I wanted to become part of “the usual gang of idiots”. I think this was back in 1995 when the magazine had been bought by Time Warner and they were trying to develop a more “updated” version of the magazine. I, of course, was flattered to be asked by MAD to contribute, and while I don’t appear in the magazine with the frequency of a Mort Drucker, they all make me feel part of the family — and they’re all a delight to work with. Still, when I do something for MAD, I always let the more slapsticky side of my work creep out. When my friend Arnold Roth saw me in MAD, he said “Harvey (Kurtzman) would have gone crazy over your stuff, Bob”. That comment made me smile, though Arnold always tells me things that make me smile.
Your allusion to Belushi, Akyroyd and Chase is terrific, but to be completely honest, I don’t want to be and overt and constant member of ANY cast. Illustrators, like actors, are prone to the same typecasting, and the name “MAD” means a certain thing to many people, so there are instances where I don’t mention the magazine as part of my client list. However, the truth of the matter remains that the “new” MAD is funny as hell and evokes a more sophisticated sensibility that its 50s-70s predecesor.
What prompted you to re-examine Dr Heinrich Hoffman’s Struwwelpeter (“Shockheaded Peter”), the classic German children’s book from 150 years ago?
Like all kids raised in a family of German origin, it was a book we were always given. I have always explained the book as something Hitler could have written on mescaline, one in which kids drown, have their thumbs cut off and are set ablaze. I always had a dream of trying to illustrate it with my known picture book style — one that has been called both cute and edgy at the same time — but I knew that my usual publishers, from Random House to Viking, wouldn’t even consider touching it.
When I read the book as a kid, I remember thinking “this had GOT to be a joke, right?”, but I soon learned this was the German way of child-rearing; scare the crap out of your kids and let ’em know that if they don’t eat all their peas, some weird looking clown will burst out from behind a curtain and slice their nose off with an ax. I mentioned the idea to Monte Beauchamp (editor of BLAB) who was coming out with a line of children’s books for adults (published by Fantagraphics), and he said “then we want to publish it.” Monte and Kim Thompson and Gary Groth at Fantagraphics are just incredibly wonderful people, and I couldn’t have imagined a better publisher for the project. Here I am right now finishing up the final two spreads for a new Little Golden Book(‘I’m A Truck’), and then I go straight into Der Struwwelpeter. I suppose there are children’s book illustrators who would consider me crazy for doing a book like this, but unless you include trimming my privet with a four foot long gas-powered hedge trimmer, it’s as “living on the edge” as I get.
Which book or work has given you the most satisfaction in producing?
It’s always the book I’m working on at the moment. It typically takes nine months between the time you finish the final illustration and when it hits book stores, so by the time I see it in print, it always makes me shudder. I see so many mistakes, so many lame illustrations, so many poor visual decisions — even though the rest of the world thinks it looks just fine. For me, it just has to be this way — because it makes me want to do better on the next book. Every story I tell in a book must be told a different way — both textually and aesthetcially — so you just hunker down and find the best way to create a symbiosis between those words and pictures.
You have a curious distinction between “Normal Bob” (hand-drawn) and “Digital Bob” (computer generated) in your portfolio. Which do you prefer, which do your clients prefer and which is quicker to produce?
You have to understand that when I began working on the Mac in 1995, my goal was to simply take my successful humorous illustration/cartoon style and to digitize it. I have always refrained from penciling and would just attack the paper with pen. If I didn’t like a face, I’d redraw it, paste it on, and then photocopy the linework onto drawing paper so I could paint it with gouache, watercolor, etc. The digital leap was therefore easy — though I could now scan the lineart and then color it in Photoshop. (I STILL, by the way, create all my art — even The Orb of Chatham — on a single layer in Photoshop 3.0.)
It was only by experimenting with the technology that I sort of stumbled on this way of creating Photoshop illustrations that were nothing more than pulled shapes, created elements, typographic characters and colored forms. I showed some regular clients the 100% digital work and they loved it. That said, my hand-drawn illustration style was widely known, so I would have been foolish to simply drop it from my vocabulary in lieu of working in a solidly digital approach. I therefore starting giving clients the option of picking the approach best for them — Normal Bob or Digital Bob — because I love working either way. I suppose my digital approach is more prefered these days, but there are times when I look at a project with an art director and we both know I have to tackle the assignment with a pen instead of a computer mouse. I work extremely fast in either approach, a Normal Bob cover illustration for the Wall Street Journal taking me maybe three hours while a 110% digital version of the same idea might only take two hours.
The two styles – Normal and Digital – do look very different; presumably as a reaction to the different media. Are you not tempted to draw the styles closer together to create an “Über Bob” style?
I honestly see them as connected in an odd way — they’re each created by the same guy, but the different techniques allow me to fire up alternate sides of my brain and resolve design problems in different ways. I can honestly see a stage in my life where I lose complete interest in hand-drawn humorous illustration/cartooning, but I’m not there yet. I love to draw, but I also enjoy pushing arouind a cursor here and there. Nothing pisses me off more than old-school artists who somehow feel that creating art on a computer is somehow easy, or worse, isn’t legitimate. Anyone can drip a paintbrush into some india ink and slosh it across a piece of drawing paper. It takes a special talent to do the same thing with a mouse and a machine that can crash in a moment’s notice.
Your paintings are very abstract, like Joan Miró put through the Pixar blender. Tell us a little bit about your approach with the paint brush.
I hadn’t painted for years, and I only decided to paint again when I didn’t need to. I just didn’t want to paint from a point of view of having to sell a piece of art or having it accepted, so the fact that they sell is very nice.
That said, I rarely approach painting from a fine art perspective. Artist friends of mine can spend days stretching a canvas and gessoing it for another five — and I usually think it’s because they’re afraid to apply any paint. With me, I’ll paint on cardboard, plywood, even the seat of a wooden chair, and typically with nothing more than cheap acrylic paint or latex. Truth be told, I am in awe of any painter who has the balls to just know when to “pull back” and greatly reduce and minimize the forms he creates on a canvas. When I get to the point of having one or two simple forms represented in a piece of art, then I think I’ll get closer to becoming a better painter.
The Orb of Chatham seems like something you’d expect to see in the pages of Fortean Times; are you familiar with that publication, and if so were their tales of strange and bizarre happenings an influence on the book?
Have never heard of Fortean Times, but sounds like my kind of publication. The Orb of Chatham was a story inspired by an actual iron buoy I saw on Route 28 in Cape Cod. It was 5 feet tall and just covered in beautiful rust. I started playing around with the idea of how a monolithic element like a huge black orb might look when contrasted against the quintessential aesthetic of a small coastal village in New England, and the book sort of sprung from that.
The story in the book, however, is not the original one. I had come up with a completely different storyline, but decided it wasn’t right because the illustrations would have required depictions of humans — and I think The Orb of Chatham story is intriguing because of what it doesn’t show. People are most definitely in the story, but they are hidden. Once the book was published, I tracked down the owner of that buoy and bought it. The thing weighed 600 pounds, but somehow we managed to roll it into my backyard where it sits eerily next to our pond. When people ask me if The Orb of Chatham is “real”, I tell them to come over to my place and they can touch it.
The Orb of Chatham is presented as a mysterious presence, almost menacing. Why do you think such a simple object can create a sense of fear?
To me, the idea of a huge, heavy, black metal orb rolling through a small, isolated village on the elbow of Cape Cod is creepy as hell, if only because the simplicity of the concept invites, and elevates, the importance of a reader filling in the blanks with their own story details. The orb represents the unknown in its most simple terms, yet the form tantilizes and compels in an odd, almost primordial way. It’s a shape and size that attracts the mind in almost magnetic ways. That in and of itself is mysterious to me, so it’s what I’ve tried to communciate through the book.
A lot of work has clearly gone into the back-story of the Orb, with an extensive website; what made you want to expand the mystery into the realms of the web?
I’ve always been interested in creating a synergy between print and the web so that at the end of the day, you don’t know if the primary concept was the online mystery or the graphic novel. The web site was essential because it enabled me to expand on the story and fill in the gaps, provide texture and really make a reader think. Beyond that, a reader must solve a series of cryptographic clues to “unlock the orb” and they can only do so by having the book in their hands since important elements are slipped into the artwork, though the average person would not immediately perceive them.
Do you get emails from people thinking that The Orb of Chathamis describing real events?
Yes, all the time. Most people, however, are creeped out about the notion that the orb remain hidden somewhere in the waters that surround Chatham, Massachusetts and they ask me where specifically I think it might be.
Has anyone suggested truly strange and bizarre theories to explain the Orb?
Absolutely. We publish the best theories on the site. Theories range widely and include a myriad of weird elements; from the orb coming here from space, rolling across the floor of the Atlantic from Africa, being part of an Indian curse, transported here as an abducting spacecraft, even dismissing the events of 1935 as nothing more than an elaborate hoax created by the five who witnessed it. The fact that readers think about the possibilities is enough to make any author smile sheepishly.
How would you feel if the story grew beyond your book and website and began developing a life of its own, becoming an uncontrollable urban myth?
That seems to be happening already. One of the most interesting stories from my publisher came from a bookseller in Provincetown. They looked at the book, loved the concept, but they were reluctant to carry it in their store. The reason was intriguing: He felt that once people read the book, it would “put Chatham on the map” — and curiosity seekers would want to experience the town depicted in The Orb of Chatham — rather than in any other Cape Cod village. I love that story.