Jon Agee is in a honeymoon frame of mind.
Not only is the picture book artist and illustrator a newlywed—he and his wife, Audrey, were married last June—he's also just recently moved to San Francisco. As the Manhattan transplant settles in for a chat with PW in his light, airy Russian Hill apartment, he takes a smitten newcomer's pride in pointing out nearby landmarks, from Lombard Street, the city's renowned corkscrew thoroughfare, which deposits drivers practically on his doorstep, to the killer view from his dining room-turned-studio window.
"I have to close the curtain when I want to work," he says with a grin.
It's easy to see why. In the distance, Alcatraz floats on the cobalt waters of the bay, escorted by a fleet of crisp white sails that beckon in the January sunshine. Agee points out that, in New York City, he could see the Empire State Building from his studio in Union Square. "All those buildings full of all those people, working—I was inspired to work! Here, I see everybody in sailboats and think, 'What am I doing inside?' "
Tall and wiry, the dark-haired Agee is casually dressed in jeans and a sweater, and he quickly proves as witty in person as he is in print. Over the course of a morning punctuated by frequent laughter he talks candidly about the picture book genre in general and his own 20-year career in particular—a career that, among other things, has landed him three times on the New York Times list of 10 best picture books of the year (for The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau, The Return of Freddy LeGrand and Dmitri the Astronaut). It has also embraced the sublime silliness of half a dozen illustrated books of wordplay, and now finds him on the brink of publishing an alphabet book, Z Goes Home (Hyperion/di Capua, May).
"Z was kicking around for a good long time, at least 10 years," he says, rifling through the files beneath his drawing table and emerging with the dummy. "I didn't show it to anyone, partly because I was still working on it, and also because I thought, 'How many alphabet books are you going to do in your life? You're going to do one, so let's make sure that it's the one.' "
Eventually, he turned it over to his longtime editor, Michael di Capua, who liked it, but suggested some changes. "I thought, 'It's done, it's ready to go,' and he said, 'Well, I don't know,' " says Agee, perhaps summing up a working relationship that, from the sound of it, is both bracingly combative and highly productive. ("Michael can be a bit of a tyrant," Agee notes cheerfully, then adds that one downside to living on the West Coast is that he sorely misses their spirited brainstorming sessions.)
"We looked at the dummy together, and stuff just started pouring out of us," he continues. "We took it to a whole new level."
A perusal of the pages shows the "Z" from a "ZOO" sign encountering the other letters of the alphabet as it heads home at the end of the day, and includes what Dan Feigelson, Agee's friend and collaborator on two children's musicals, calls "that good old Jon Agee ending."
"My endings are somewhat unexpected," Agee concedes, paraphrasing T.S. Eliot: "I like a book to end with a bang, not a whimper."
He also feels strongly about the "page turner," as he puts it. "This is sometimes what distinguishes a good picture book from a bad one. It's often like stand-up comedy: the right-hand page is the set-up page, then you turn it and get the punch line."
While it doesn't work this way for all picture books, he's quick to point out, still, "there's something about needing to turn that page. For me, that's part of the joy. You have to feel that anticipation."
No matter how gifted the artist, he continues, in order for a book to succeed he or she must also possess "a sense of the design of the page sequences, what you could call the architecture of the book, which is so totally unique to picture books." As a case in point, he gives the nod to Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, "which is a classic example of this right to the very last page."
As he talks, it's clear that Agee—whose wide-ranging artistic inspirations include Sendak, William Steig (a close friend for whom he illustrated last year's Potch & Polly, FSG), André François, Max Beckmann, Tomi Ungerer, John Burningham and Saul Steinberg ("he brought the doodle to an art form")—has a deep respect for the artistic tradition out of which picture books have grown.
And that tradition includes comics, he contends. "Comics are just a couple of steps away from picture books," says Agee, pulling The Penguin Book of Comics from a shelf ("My grandma gave me $20 for my birthday when I was a kid; I bought a gumball machine and this book and have had it forever") and flipping quickly through it. "They're all about sequential stories."
Two classic cartoonists whose work he admires are cubist painter Lyonel Feininger and Rudolf Dirks. One of Dirks's original Katzenjammer Kids strips hangs in Agee's entry hall. When he looks at his own work, he says, the influence all these artists have had on him is apparent. "I may try different mediums, but I'm somewhat consistent graphically, in that you can always identify strong shapes and a strong black line."
An Artistic Training
Born in 1959, Agee grew up in Nyack, N.Y. "It was a sweet little town then," he recalls. "When I was growing up, there was a nice mix of middle class and ethnic—Russian and Haitian, mostly. Our high school soccer team kicked butt."
Agee's father was a math teacher, his mother a homemaker who had studied art at Syracuse University. "My mom is a wonderful artist, and she made it kind of irresistible for my sister and me," says Agee, who has a twin named Ann. "The dining room table was her studio space, and there were always art supplies around for us to get into."
No surprise, then, that he and Ann (a ceramic artist) both attended Cooper Union School of Art in Manhattan. It was there that Agee zeroed in on the path that would lead him to the world of books.
"There was a point in college where I was painting and I was also doing animated cartoons and writing comic strips. I found a lot of joy in creating a story line, and after a while the idea of doing a picture without any narrative or sequence—of just an individual image—dropped away."
The defining moment in this process, Agee recalls, was his senior exhibition. "I could have shown my paintings or my films, but I had these little sketchbooks—actually they were yellowed newsprint pads of waiter's slips I had bought at a second-hand place—filled with cartoons and narratives. All my friends were fascinated with them. So instead of exhibiting paintings, I ended up showing about 500 of these things push-pinned to the wall."
Looking back, says Agee, "they were the raw me." (In fact, he adds, a few years later one of them would turn into a book called Ellsworth.)
After graduation, Agee moved to Brooklyn, got a job at a parking garage and began making the rounds of publishers. "I was clueless," he says, shaking his head in mock chagrin. "I went out with this big portfolio of all these cartoons, thinking that someone would publish a collection of them. The hubris of youth!"
Clueless, perhaps, but clearly not without talent. One of the editors who saw his work was Frances Foster, who was at Pantheon at the time. Agee met with her, then went home and "drummed up this teeny little book called If Snow Falls. It was a story about Santa, and it was about two sentences long. I was so naïve that when she called me to say yes, she was going to publish it, I said, 'Can you have it out in time for Christmas?' This was in October. She said, 'Uh, I can't guarantee this Christmas, but how about in time for next?' "
The book appeared in the fall of 1982, and was followed in 1983 by Ellsworth, the tale of a dog who tries various vocations before finally deciding to just be a dog. "Frances was a great editor for me at the time," says Agee. "I was very impressionable, and she has a soft voice and is patient and sweet, but smart and no pushover."
Both If Snow Falls and Ellsworth used a saturated watercolor style that would evolve over the years (Agee works frequently in water-based pencils now), and they launched a career that would win him both critical acclaim and a steady enough income to be able to devote himself fulltime to creating books ("the key is sympathetic landlords in marginal neighborhoods," he deadpans).
Still, "it was tough going for the first four or five years," he says, particularly after his third book, Ludlow Laughs, which was published in 1985 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux after Foster passed on it, bombed. Ironically, he says, the book is still in print nearly 20 years later. It wound up as a Reading Rainbow selection (read by Phyllis Diller), and "it's going strong in paperback," he notes with satisfaction.
Agee's next book put him on the map. The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau (FSG, 1988), in which an artist's work comes to life with surprising results, was chosen as one of the New York Times' 10 best illustrated books of the year, and was optioned by Hollywood.
"Clousseau was like a one-liner—a duck walks out of a picture—so the challenge was how can I tell this joke over 32 pages in an artful way?" Agee says. As is the case with many of his ideas, he adds, the book grew out of a doodle in his sketchbook.
Unlike his close friend David Small, whose sketchbooks Agee describes as complete works of art in and of themselves, "mine are much more primitive—just simple doodles and notes. Eventually, an idea will come from it. I usually think of something completely implausible, and then ask myself, 'How can I stretch this without losing that old suspension of disbelief?' That's what's great about picture books, you can stretch things more than you can in any other kind of book."
For Milo's Hat Trick (Hyperion/di Capua, 2001), about a magician who teams up with a bear who can jump in and out of hats, that "something ridiculous" was a vision of a group of magicians walking into the woods in springtime to get fresh rabbits for their hat tricks. "I thought, 'What if one of the magicians arrived a little too late? What if all the rabbits were taken?' "
Those two questions, "What if?" and "What next?", says Agee, are all the fuel he needs to jumpstart the artistic process.
"The concept is really the key," he explains. "The book has to appeal to me conceptually, and in most of my books there's some kind of sophisticated twist, or concept, and sometimes a bit of a riddle. I'm reminded of what Sendak says, that these are books for children, but we're adults, and since we have to sit there and pay attention to the thing for the good part of a year, they have to appeal to our sophisticated sense of humor."
Nowhere is Agee's own sophisticated sense of humor more apparent, perhaps, than in his string of wordplay books, which have flirted with palindromes (Go Hang a Salami! I'm a Lasagna Hog! (FSG, 1991), So Many Dynamos! (FSG, 1994), Sit on a Potato Pan, Otis! (FSG, 1999) and Palindromania! FSG, 2002), oxymorons (Who Ordered the Jumbo Shrimp?; HarperCollins/di Capua, 1998) and anagrams (Elvis Lives; FSG, 2000).
Agee says he enjoys the challenge of creating visual images that bring sense to nonsensical phrases, as well as the opportunity to draw in black and white. Plus, he adds, "I'm a horrible punster, I have a corny sense of humor and I just like to play with words for the sake of it."
The idea for the initial book was also sparked by a doodle — a palindrome drawn by a friend in Agee's sketchbook in a restaurant — and the wordplay "became a little obsession," he recalls. "I was probably annoying to be with at that time. I couldn't read a newspaper without wanting to turn the words around to see if there were possibilities."
So does he have more palindrome projects up his sleeve? "I think Palindromania! book-ended the series for me," Agee says, shaking his head.
When asked to talk about the themes in his picture books, he laughs. "In the early years, I would read reviews to find out what the hell my books were about!" One review of Clousseau, for instance, called the book "a clever send-up of the art world." "I thought, whoa, I had no idea!," Agee says. "For me it was this conceptual riddle inspired by a doodle, yet what came from it may have been unconscious—I could certainly make fun of the art world if I wanted to."
Ditto with Milo's Hat Trick, he says, many of whose reviews talked about the book's themes of friendship and loyalty. "I see that in most of my books, actually, but I never think about it ahead of time, I never think, 'I'm going to write a book about friendship.' "
With Ellsworth, it wasn't a review but a messenger from Random House who delivered the news. "I was living in some fringe neighborhood in Brooklyn, and he brought me something from Pantheon and said, 'Hey, can I come up and see what you're working on?' "
Agee, who has a comedian's sense of timing, pauses for emphasis. "He was a delivery guy, not someone who strikes you as being particularly insightful. So he sees Ellsworth up on the wall, reads it, and says, 'Oh, I get it, it's all about learning to be yourself.' I remember being shocked, as I had no idea what the book was about. For me it was much more abstract, but for him it had this really life-affirming message. To think that I had to have this messenger tell me."
A Change in Direction
Agee grows reflective when talking about developments he has perceived in his chosen genre over the past couple of decades. "It's a strange little visual medium," he says. "They don't have shows of picture books at MoMA."
To some degree, he believes, "picture books have become an excuse for a lot of artists to show off their talents, an avenue for visual imagery from people who perhaps aren't able to get into galleries." While he applauds those who are challenging the picture book format and "keeping the visual aspect stimulating"—he deplores the fact that many books seem to have lost sight of the narrative sequence and underlying architecture about which he feels so strongly, as well as the current trend toward using computer-generated art ("suffice it to say it's not a direction I'm fond of").
His own work has taken a new direction, as marriage has changed his night-owl ways. "Before I met Audrey I was an all-nighter," he explains. "I'd burn the midnight oil, stay up working until three or four a.m." Now he works during the day, taking breaks to go for walks or tinker in the kitchen (he loves to cook). Time for reflection is important, he says. "An friend of mine calls it 'l'area de pensée—the room to think. He told me that Titian would work on a painting, then put it against the wall and not look at it for a year.
"I'm notoriously not prolific," he continues. "I never trust my first impression. It seems like my pictures go through endless evolutions before I finally arrive at the image that works best with the text, and with the sequence of events in the book."
Perhaps marriage has had an effect on that as well, as Agee already has another picture book on the launching pad. "This is kind of new for me to have a book to go into right after finishing one up," he says.
There are other ideas on the back burner as well. "I'd love to do a comic book, just sequential pictures with talk balloons," he says—noting that this would bring an interesting symmetry to his work, as years before he got published he was doing comic books.
In the meantime, if he ever needs inspiration, all he has to do is look out his window.