“Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living; it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope.” – Seuss
Theodor Seuss Geisel (known for his pseudonym “Dr. Seuss”) is a writer, poet and illustrator of children’s picture books. Like many, I knew a few stories from when I was younger and fell in love his colourful, droopy characters. Geisel published 44 books in his lifetime (1904-1991). Examples include: The Cat in the Hat, Horton Hears a Who and Green Eggs and Ham, which are outlandish and intended to entertain and encourage creativity. During the summer, I wanted to research an illustrator who I would enjoy coming back to and coming across the unusual genius that is Dr. Seuss, captured my interest. I decided to explore some of the books I could remember from my childhood and a few others from his library.
Typical characteristics of Geisel’s illustrations include having humanoid animals with odd round faces and bellies, skin like fabric or covered in fur, with hands that sway or flick outward in expression. The illustrations are famous for their imaginative worlds, characters and funny rhymes: “I draw a kangaroo and it comes out a Grinch”(Theodor Geisel, http://www.drseussart.com/saying.html), Geisel was enthusiastic about these unique characters. During the course of this project, I adopted his illustration style and I ended up having more fun than I thought.
A few pages of my sketchbook work inspired by Dr. Seuss.
The biggest thing that stands out in Geisel’s illustrations are a splash of bright pastel colours with an inked black outline and exaggerated shading and motion lines. Not only are the works dreamlike and otherworldly, they are simply beautiful. Most backgrounds were drawn with little detail/ negative space to create distance and to help make the text easy to read for children. The bold colours and black line art makes the characters stand out against a base of neutral colour and thanks to technology advances over the years, more colours and sharper detail became progressively possible in later books (such as The Lorax). I believe the style works well for children’s books as it is bold and stands out well, and Geisel believed that: “pen-and-ink outlines filled in with flat colour, with no modulation or subtlety…that’s the way kids see things.”(http://www.anapsid.org/aboutmk/seuss.html) The surreal style that’s well known in his illustrations is effective for cartoons; however he experimented with different mediums and movements in his extensive and impressive private collection (including oil paintings and unorthodox taxidermy, to create “new animals”).
Geisel originally created political newspaper comics and World War 2 propaganda. His style in children’s books is an evolution of these early works. He began his career to support his family with weekly political cartoons for PM magazine around the start of WW2(400 comics created in 2 years). In 1943, he had began making training and propaganda posters and animations for the U.S Army as he was too old to serve on the front lines. The images have that recognisable “Dr. Seuss” style, but instead with war imagery. Geisel successfully targeted the viewer, usually as a (male) figure interacting with the scenario; this is effective because it gives a sense that the scenario in the image is happening to you personally. Geisel stressed about making votes and buying bonds as he believed everyone had a role in the war and the works he created were always in a cheerful atmosphere with humourous characters, no matter how bleak the message.
Geisel’s career transformed towards children’s literacy/illustrations after being inspired by tackling the literacy problem in the USA during the early 50’s, and created The Cat in the Hat as a response, which promoted the pseudonym “Dr. Seuss”. The book features the mascot character, “The Cat in the Hat”, a loveable 6ft cat who wreaks havoc in a house when two children are left alone inside on a rainy day. With much to the reader’s surprise, he comes back to clean the house. This was the start of Geisel’s career as a children’s author/illustrator and soon after many other memorable books were published.
Back when Geisel was in college, he and his friends were kicked out from the college’s humour magazine for throwing a party. Geisel however decided to continue making cartoons and instead used his mother’s maiden name as an alias: Seuss.
Seen as a loveable and friendly cartoonist, most overlook the fact that most of Geisel’s children’s books everyone knows and loves contains strong moral and political messages.
The subliminal messaging in his illustrations is a good way of easing naïve and innocent children into the adult world: putting everyday problems (usually at the current time, such as The Lorax was published at the start of the 70’s environmental movement) into a simple form that children can understand and also makes light of an otherwise dark situation with playful, creative drawings and nonsense words. For example, The Butter Battle Book which was written at the time of the Cold War, helps explain the concept of nuclear war to children. Geisel’s bizarre and creative weapon design makes humour out of an otherwise darker meaning, just as he had done while making war-time comics. The story is disturbingly accurate; you see two generals on a wall between two countries, and ends ambiguously (the cold war hadn’t ended at the time it was published).
I feel that Geisel successfully expressed freedom in his work for over 60 years and expressed his passion with using his own characters in his illustrations, in an explosion of colour with humorous rhyme and inspiring stories. His artwork is rich with surrealist mayhem and hidden messages to spark imagination for all ages.
Minear Richard H. (1999) Dr. Seuss goes to war: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel. United States: The New Press