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Sunday, November 6, 2022

Paul Madonna's You Know Exactly What You Have to Do, the Third Collection of All Over Coffee, reviewed by Cord Scott

Reviewed by Cord Scott

Paul Madonna. You Know Exactly What You Have to Do, the Third Collection of All Over Coffee. Portland, OR:  West Margin Press, 2022. 176 pp. US $34.99. ISBN:  978-1-5131-3481-9.

 Comic strips are often considered a downgrading of the artistic field. However, there is much to be admired and appreciated by comic strips, especially when they push the conceptual boundaries into something more evocative of different media. Paul Madonna’s strip “All Over Coffee,” which ran in the San Francisco Chronicle from 2004-2015 was one of those strips. As Madonna noted, the series was to be a comic strip without the comic, a way to incorporate illustration with words. In this realm, he most certainly succeeded, and this book was a compilation of the last five years during which the strip ran.

As with any compilation, there is a considerable discussion as to how the comic strip came about, what sources of inspiration were used, and what was kept versus discarded, and why it was in either category. Book one was from the earlier years in the series from just before he started the series through 2006. This was followed by volume two which looked at the years 2006-2010. Having read this volume entices the reader to look further into Madonna’s work. At the same time, he is quick to note that of all 726 pieces created for the newspaper, not all illustrations were chosen, nor were they placed in chronological order. The images in this volume are worked in thematically.

One of the first things that this reviewer noticed was the quality and detail of work. The images were drawn in a manner that was indicative of formal art as opposed to “traditional” simplistic (or simplistic looking) images and characters. These illustrations could easily be seen in an art gallery. This is not surprising as Madonna himself noted he was a Carnegie Mellon graduate in Fine Arts, as well as the first art intern at MAD magazine (177). The work is deep in texture and is often simple in its presentation in black and shading. When color is added, the piece takes on a whole new concept, which is an aspect of his visual presentation.

The first significant chapter is titled “Be Willing to Fuck up” and features a raw illustration without any sort of refinement or correction.  In this section, Madonna used the text to tell the accompanying story to match--generally--the images provided. As he noted, the images are also to convey a spirit rather than setting up some sort of punchline. The illustration concerning his friend and the Scooby Doo analogy, accompanied with a skull on display in a living room, was interesting. He also went into some explanations of how those seeking work in the cartooning industry are often compromised by the conditions. He hits on a theme that seems to permeate education in its current state:  the self-driven person, be it an artist or in an on-line classroom. Not everyone is cut out for such disciplined work, and it can often destroy one’s productivity. It was in this section that Madonna drew some wonderful rides that evoke childhood. One ride, however, was quite frightening in its presentation, but it represents the idea of the ride that goes nowhere.

The text that often accompanies the illustration is just as powerful. Be it the ever so bold “Being trapped on a deserted island was not our problem. Our problem was that one day a ship came by and we got on it.” It is a positional point that can be looked at like his art:  missing the details may seem good at first but can be bad later on. This theme is one that he comes back to later in the book. Two other themes from his work in this section:  “The thing that scares me about sanity is that you only have to lose it for a moment for your whole life to go wrong.” The other was “The past is history, the future is fiction.” As a historian, this phrase was interesting, and, in some regards, apt to the way of all fields:  based on perception.

The second chapter is entitled “The Writing on the Wall,” which delves into Madonna’s process of creating his work. These sorts of aspects can be enlightening as they show how people process their ideas. For him, the idea looks chaotic at first but there is a method to the madness. In all, the notes are snippets of information that serve for work in the short- or long-term. It is also in this section where he explains the title of the book. The reference relates to his starting another career, writing novels. It is important to see that often his process takes inspiration from different areas, and then spreads to different media. In this regard, Madonna’s approach is indicative of another recently released book on comics and their impact across media:  Anatomy of Comics by Damien Macdonald (see review July 10, 2022). Finally, one piece from this section speaks to the overall concept of art and comics, “From your mouth to their misrepresentation.” With any sort of artistic endeavor, people will take away their own concepts and ideas. It is even more pronounced with the letters in red.

Madonna also noted how his process has evolved over the years. This compilation covers the years when “All Over Coffee” was a once-a-week comic. At the same time, he also noted how he was looking at old stuff while trying to create new stuff--looking backwards and forwards as he noted. This was at the time he was compiling his old work for the first volume of the series. It allowed him to see the themes in his work, which, in turn, had him expand his ideas of illustration from cityscapes to other illustrations with longer, simplified texts. Some of the stories were humorous in their execution. The story of reverse shoplifting to get an independent book onto a shelf was absurd, yet believable (68). The setup of the musician being included in a movie only to find out his music was a punchline for its horrible sound (69). The multi-panel story of the aunt with needlework only to discover a larger secret of her life as a burglar was unexpected.

The visual depth and themes are stunning in their approach. He works in the issue of stylized coffins, or the use of the red oversized robot walking Godzilla-style down a San Francisco street, which was stunning. At this time, Madonna noted that he started to collaborate with others for the series. Some writers would provide text, while he would provide the illustrations. In the end, he worked with 15 writers and three artists to expand his work. This also allowed him to bring in specific arcs, such as the Castro Theatre series (122-125). In this section, he has one of his most profound comments, taken from a post-it note he used:  use what you have (132).

Looking back on his series, Madonna noted how much he had produced:  1,000 drawings in over 200 notebooks. While many of the illustrations in the book are finished; some are still rough. Madonna started thinking about ending of the series in 2009 (153). The texts from these later issues are humorous and thought provoking, examples being the “emergency drawcast system,” the “old times are good times because they are gone,” and finally, “what does someone do after having a dream come true?”

Madonna was adamant that he wanted to make his series timeless, so he avoided politics or current events. The only time that he deviated from this principle was when he told of being evicted in real life and becoming a story for the news on the San Francisco housing crisis. These stories were eventually compiled into the “eviction series.” This series was wrapped up soon after so that Madonna could move on to other projects, such as his novels. The first example of this realm was “On to the Next Dream,” released two years after the series ended. The title came from a strip he had illustrated (161).

The other area where Madonna worked was for the murals produced around the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas. The murals featured aspects of the skylines and were produced in such a way that there was both illustration up close and at distance. By this, one could see the mural from a distance, but as one looked up close, lines were in fact text lines. This allowed the readers to be immersed in the image. The text pattern was simple yet effective for his mural at the San Francisco International Airport. The text “You are here” was superimposed on houses and created a stunning interaction for the viewer. Madonna noted that the San Francisco mural was painted to give a type of luminescence to the work. The story that started the chapter on murals was important as well. One of the murals was slated for Starbucks West Portal shop. Madonna noted his fear of “selling out” to a corporation, as they also wanted a mural for one of their shops--when a barista at his regular haunt, Four Barrell Coffee, told him that the idea of selling out was a type of hold-over for the generation that came of age in the 1990s. For many now, the idea is to see the work out for public consumption.

The book is clearly centered on the San Francisco area. Madonna noted that his first residence was on Bayview Hill, which is ironically where he ended up after the eviction. So, to have a series center itself on the very city in which the new form and reconstruction of comic strips, books, and even graphic novels occurred. The idea that Madonna should concentrate so much of his work on landscapes, when Robert Crumb noted how much he hated drawing such things, was a fitting circle of the work. The book makes the reviewer want to read the first two volumes to see the series in its entirety. Paul Madonna is to be commended and his work is certainly worthy of praise.

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