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I really should have written this book review yesterday. Let’s be honest, I finished Grant Snider’s The Shape of Ideas: An Illustrated Exploration of Creativity weeks ago. I was just waiting for inspiration to strike, a creative way to write about a book dedicated to the perceived futility and inner turmoil of creativity. That was awful. Can I start over?
When he first introduced his website, Incidental Comics, in 2009, Snider set himself the goal of making at least one full-page comic strip per week. Because he works as an orthodontist by day, “I turned myself into a morning person,” the Wichita, Kansas artist told the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Jeffrey Kindley. “Now I get up at 5:30 most weekdays, make coffee, and spend an hour or two at the drawing table before I leave for work. My early morning hours are free from distraction: there aren’t any emails to answer, I don’t have young kids asking me for food or demanding that I read them a book.” (Even without children, I can relate; it is now 6:20 am as I type this parenthetical.)
The Shape of Ideas is Snider’s first book, a lighthearted visual examination of the labor behind the creative process. Snider describes his work as “self-help for myself.” It’s a breakdown of the composite parts of “genius”: 1% inspiration, 29% perspiration, 5% improvisation, 8% aspiration, 7% contemplation, 15% exploration, 13% daily frustration, 11% imitation, 10.9% desperation, and 0.1% pure elation, according to his opening panel.
“I hope this book will provide some insight into the creative process,” Snider writes in his introductory letter to the reader. “I hope you can relate to the joys and pitfalls of creativity. Most of all, I hope this book encourages you in your own search for ideas.”
What follows are one- and two-page comics categorized into each of the ten components of genius. In the “Inspiration” section, every last one of the nine muses fails to inspire (“Clio, Muse of History, never learned my name. Polyhymnia, Muse of Hymns, set my room aflame.”), and in the “Perspiration” section, the artist-as-cartoon sets out to catch butterflies representative of good and bad ideas, never knowing which one will end up in his net.
Snider often uses these kinds of metaphors, and while many of his comics are traditionally sequential, the most original consist of a single panel with snippets of story throughout that can be read in almost any order and still make sense. For example, in the “Exploration” section, a walk in the park yields a variety of characters and activities. As cartoon Snider weaves his way along the path, so does the reader’s gaze.
Reading through the book’s many individual comics, there are several details that return again and again, like taking an alligator for a walk and references to Milton Glaser’s famous Bob Dylan poster. In the “Imitation” section in particular, Snider includes cheeky nods to people like Louise Bourgeois, Jackson Pollock, and Frank Lloyd Wright. “I’m always looking for a source of new words and pictures,” Snider told Kindley. “My comics about modern art are fun because I can take images I’m fascinated by and interact with them. I’ve done this with Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings, René Magritte’s portraits, Giorgio de Chirico’s cityscapes. My character can walk around and explore someone else’s visual world.”
Snider is the American Midwest’s answer to British cartoonist Tom Gauld. They have similar visual styles and both poke fun at the worlds of art and literature. But where Gauld appears jaded and world-weary, Snider exhibits an almost twee earnestness — calling the creative process “genius,” for example.
Flipping through The Shape of Ideas, I couldn’t help but imagine Snider slumped over his desk at 7 am on a weekday before work, racking his brain over how best to visually describe an idea that’s “too insignificant,” or in which panel to place “my student loan debt” in his biggest fears — he settled on second, after “dead birds.” In his ten categories of genius, it seems Snider forgot just one — procrastination. But I suppose that one’s always implied, right?
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