The Captain and the Glory: A Conversation Between Dave Eggers and Nathaniel Russell
Dave Eggers has always had an edge to his writing, whether taking on technology in The Circle or his snarky yet sweet approach to his own fine artwork. That he would combine the two in his newest book, The Captain and the Glory, a satire of American politics on the brink of disaster, seems apt. For the book, Eggers enlisted Juxtapoz's friend Nathaniel Russell for a series of illustrations to accompany the book, again creating an environment of both comedy and almost-childlike-cynicism.
"When I was asked if I was interested in contributing some drawings to a new work by Dave Eggers, I of course agreed immediately without knowing the topic or scope of the project," Russell told us. "It soon became clear that the subject matter, though satirical, had a darkness and heavier feeling than I think most would associate with my work. I worked closely with Mr. Eggers, sending drawings over until it felt right, taking direction and notes until the day it went to press. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to serve the work of the author and to have been able to focus on the mechanics and magic of drawing for this project."
To coincide with the book, Eggers and Russell sat down for an exclusive conversation about the character development, tone and approach to illustrating our demise. —Evan Pricco
Dave Eggers: Are there illustrated books for adults that you took as inspiration?
Nathaniel Russell: I looked back at the work of a couple my favorites from my student days: George Grosz and Ben Shahn.
Right! All this time I was trying to draw comparisons to Steinberg and Steadman, and I was off. Grosz and Shahn are more the predecessors here.
I feel like they dealt with unpleasant subject matter and the darker sides of humanity in an interesting and honest way. And they are both masters of their line, which is always a powerful and magical thing to pull off. Also, I have two kids and we are always reading books together and discovering illustrators and artists in the process. Some of the the things they did in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, with color separations and just a good line continues to inspire and impress me.
I remember asking you to really go for the surreal and the cruel. The comedy in the book is better left in the text, but you created this incredibly vivid and frighetning world of sharp angles and neckless men. Have you done anything like this before?
I've drawn pictures to other people's words before, but never a novel, and never to the extent where I was creating the look and feel of the characters and story. So, no, actually, this is my first one.
We talked about not showing the Captain’s face. What were you trying to convey with his depiction? There’s a thuggishness to his form…
I liked that you didn't want to see his face. I always saw him as a big round shape, from the first sketch. Most times I draw these first ideas without thinking and only try to organize my thoughts or explain myself much later. It's hard for me to articulate in the moment, but I guess i saw him as a big baby in a suit or a costume. It's all a put on, all for show, in way trying to obscure or deny the actual innocent dumb baby inside.
The thing about the Captain is that he is strangely sympathetic here and there, because we learn that he’s afraid of everything and feels deep within that no one really loves him. You gave him little tiny cowboy boots. Where did that come from?
Little feet are funny. They imply a bit of fragility or lightness. Like a doll or a toy. To show a person so bullying and full of bluster to have such tiny little shoes was a way to undercut that show of strength. This big beast is held up by a shakey support. Like seeing an orange on a toothpick or an elephant on stilts.
Who was your favorite character to draw?
Bloodbeard. I went through a few versions that got a little more refined each time. I liked that he had accessories and a real menace to him.
But he’s got a little lovability to him. All the characters do, in a way. Even the Voice in the Vent, who drives much of the hate-mongering, we see cowering at the bottom of a heating duct. You almost feel for this broken wretch who was never loved.
That’s how i was thinking about it. All these bullies and boobs are just sad fools in the end. It”s interesting that brought up the sympathy aspect because I struggled with that myself. I didn’t like The Captain but I felt sorry for him in a way. It reminded me that we’re all human. Even if we don’t care for each other, that is one thing we have in common, for better or worse.
You use shapes in such an interesting way — there’s a bulbousness that’s common to many of the people and forms. And the Snowmen have these triangular hats that you created — they weren’t really suggested in the text but I loved how you conjured each villain in a different way, each of them distinct with a distinct set of shapes and volumes.
I am a big fan of shapes. I think there are certain shapes that people are drawn to unconsciously and others that are repulsive. I think of drawing a lot like music: lines and shapes can be like notes that can be played in a million different ways and evoke an infinite amount of feeling and emotion, even if we don't notice. I think, like in music, one of the hardest things in drawing is knowing when to stop doing. I try hard to do only as much as I should.
That’s key here. We knew this would be printed on uncoated stock, in two colors, so there had to be a cleanness and a certain simplicity to the drawings — it forced you to be bold with line and expression to get the most out of each piece of art. Did you find the two-color constraint inspiring or, well, constraining?
I love it. I’ve done a lot of printmaking in my life and in that process one is always thinking about the economics of color: how to make the most with the least. if you can say something in two colors why use a third? And always remember to use the paper color as the free color. I find a lot of freedom within the boundaries and one can often come up with some really interesting solutions that would not have appeared with an endless color palette. I mentioned earlier the children's book illustrators who sometimes only used a color or two for an entire picture book, something I sometimes wouldn't realize until the end. The simple power of those books are a continuing inspiration for all of my work.
Right when we began, and you did the first few sketches of the Captain, and, I think, the Snowmen, I knew you were onto something. That you had it locked in. You know, I was a failed illustrator — I could never add anything significant to the text. I feel like I was usually diminishing the text, actually. But you added so much here, so much menace and nuance and power. I’m very grateful.
That’s really very sweet and generous of you, and I appreciate it. I feel like I’ve found many different outlets for the things I draw and make, I’m very fortunate in that. If I’m making a painting or a drawing for an art show the aim is really to please myself, but I find a lot of satisfaction and worth in serving another’s vision or project. I love assignments and boundaries. I try to be very conscious of what i can possibly offer without overstepping or becoming an egomaniac. If I pulled that off here I am just grateful for the opportunity and the challenge.
All illustrations by Nathaniel Russell. The Captain and the Glory is available now.