Who are you?
Hi, I’m John Holbo. I’m a professor of philosophy with a sideline as an illustrator/ cartoonist/ book designer. You can email me: johncholbo-at-gmail-dot-com.
What is this?
This site showcases my … what’s the word? Well, there isn’t one.
Most of this stuff is somewhat philosophical.
Example: with my wife, Belle Waring, as translator, I wrote and illustrated Reason and Persuasion: Three Dialogues By Plato (4th edition, 2016). Read a review here. I turned it into a Coursera MOOC. That is, an online course. You can take the course here. Learn about Plato!
This site has a page for that book. Download the chapters for free (as PDF’s), here (or there.) You can buy the paper on Amazon (or get the Kindle. You can find it wherever e-books are sold.) I designed it myself!
In 2010 I published Squid & Owl (buy it on Comixology!) It never had a ‘proper’ home online – not one I liked. But I think it looks nice now!
Is it comics? Eh. I love comics and grew up on Marvel Comics. But what I really like is … but English doesn’t have a word …
No, the Zarathustra stuff!
I guess you would say it's ... currently webcomics? ... although I want it to see print. That's the dream. It updates Tuesday and Thursdays. I'm working through Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, semi-Seussifying in in a double-parodic way.
The real Dr. Seuss is not involved?
OH No no no! (Well, I did read him.)
I was out for beer with colleagues: ‘Every Great Philosopher is a superannuated Seuss kid, minus the anapests.” (My colleagues have to put up with me.)
When I got home I realized I believed it!
Plato, Descartes, Kierkegaard? Where to start, proving my point?
It will come in just under 1000 pages, if I live. Most of the scripting is done. It’s the drawing that takes time. (I have a day job.)
I started back in … 2014? I posted early versions online (so you may have seen some of this) but it wasn’t ready. I couldn’t figure out how to showcase it. I couldn’t keep up production while maintaining the quality. I put it away for a couple years. Then took it out again. Drew more. I’m ready now. I’ve got enough done to serialize it for a year or so. Enough to complete at least one major story arc. See if it finds its audience.
Again, I’d like to see it into nice print. I designed it for that. I want to publish it together with a philosophy companion volume, like Reason and Persuasion—philosophy, but with illustrations—about ... Nietzsche and comedy. And Seuss and philosophy. And Seuss and Nietzsche. Children's literature and philosophy. Words and pictures.
I want to explain why the Nietzsche-Seuss joke makes double-parody sense. (We philosophers believe you should kill the thing you love, especially if what you love is jokes.)
But everything starts as webcomics … or whatever you call it. English doesn’t have a word for it …
What word doesn't English have for it?
The closest to a term for it is ‘artist’s book’. But people mis-hear ‘art book’. Even those who get it can’t decide about the apostrophe. (In 1994 MOMA put on an exhibition, “A Century of Artists Books”. Riva Castleman wrote the book. In 1996 Johanna Drucker published The Century of Artists’ Books.) The French is ‘livre de artiste’.
Livres de artiste are libriform artworks: Picasso, Bonnard, Miro, Ernst, others! More of a high-end or boutique publishing tradition on the continent than in the Anglophone world. But the English have William Blake—and William Morris. But now we are talking book design. You see how our subject slips.
I aspire to be a ‘book artist’ in my small way. And a 'designer'. But I also just find it comfortable—it suits me—to mix words and pictures in a way my philosophical colleagues don’t; and that isn’t quite ‘comics’.
I love Edward Gorey chapbooks, Frans Masereel's wordless woodcut 'novels'; Victorian-era books all chock-a-block with engraved spot illustrations; children’s books.
One of my strongest childhood memories is dull regret upon realizing there could be more illustrations for Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books - but aren't.
I love picture book design, book cover design, the history of the book, illuminated medieval manuscripts, the history of caricature and cartooning, old magazines, printed ephemera. I love Daumier and Doré. I love narrative pictorial art, in and out of the 'fine art' line.
Also, nonsense—hence nonsense verse. Ideally, illustrated. (A love of nonsense comes naturally to most people, thankfully; certainly anyone who loves children’s books and philosophy.)
Did You Always Know
You Were Going To Grow Up To
Do Plato-as-cartoons or
Mom tells me when I was four she asked, ‘why are you so silly?' I thought about it seriously and answered: “I was borned by Dr. Seuss.” But I didn’t get started illustrating seriously until I got a job as a professor. I was delivering intro Plato lectures to large classes. I was disgusted my slides looked so dull. Well, one thing led to another—eventually to Reason and Persuasion. It’s not just that it’s ‘fun’—though a little fun never hurt.
Plato's a secret comedian, you see, or at least a puppeteer. His ideas suit the cartoon treatment. Oh, it's not like you can't get him any other way, but I felt I could do something new that had worth. (There are a lot of Plato books, including a lot of good ones. It's tough not just to repeat other smart people.) So now I've moved on! To Nietzsche! While staying true to youthful, Seussian roots.
A term like 'livre de artiste' sounds high fallutin', where 'book design' or 'graphic design' might do. Heck, pretty much everything around us is a mix of words and pictures these days. Can you imagine asking someone: 'but why did you put a picture on your webpage, instead of just words?' Mixing is the norm. What needs explaining should be purism not hybridity.
Also, my whole adult life I've been reading 'finally, comics are grown up!' thumbsuckers. Which is fine! It's great so many artistically ambitious comics get made, so I can keep reading 'em. But I'm more of a 'finally, children's picture books are all grown up' kind of a guy. Gorey. Seuss. Sendak. Silverstein. Lewis Carroll. The Moomin books. I imprinted on stuff that gives you that intense words+illustrations, often in silly verse, thing. I aspire to write children's picture + poetry books for grown-ups. Possibly about philosophy.
It ... feels right.
If you’d like to read my scholarly thoughts about related matters, here's an old paper on "Caricature and Comics". Here's another on "Redefining Comics". In a way, those papers say the way I see things. The first notes that 'caricature' tends to be regarded as a 'minor' visual art genre. I argue it make more sense to make it a super-category. The second does the same for comics. It would make more sense to treat words+pictures as the formal and functional norm; then away from that you get weird extremes - like Lynd Ward's wordless woodcut novels; or the stuff Austen and Dickens and Dostoyevsky and Nabokov write. You know: pictureless comics!
What about Nietzsche and Seuss?
Why those two?
I’m writing a little book to explain it - like I said! It makes total sense.
How can I help?
Mostly by reading my stuff you save me from sad solipsism of authorship. Beyond keeping soul and sanity together, there's keeping body and soul together ...
Robert Louis Stevenson has a funny little ‘proem’, from The Graver and the Pen.
Unlike the common run of men,
I wield a double power to please,
And use the GRAVER and the PEN
With equal aptitude and ease—
What’s a graver?
An engraving tool.
That makes sense. Go on.
—I move with that illustrious crew,
The ambidextrous Kings of Art;
And every mortal thing I do
Brings ringing money in the mart.
On Beyond Zarathustra is a labor of love, but I have promised the wife I won’t lose money. Hosting costs; it's polite to tip. (Stevenson himself is putting on a brave, commercial face, at this point in his career.)
I don’t want to start a Patreon. I don’t want to slather the site with ads. I’ve got an Amazon Associates account. If you would like to see me keep this up, use this link to buy any old thing through Amazon. I’ll get a small commission. (Just click through; shop. That's it!)
I also just opened a little shop to sell silly stuff. If you like it, buy it.
Why Aren't There Any
Pictures On This Page?
You see! It's unnatural! That said, I wanted to prove I can go a page without. I can quit any time I want. I just don't want.