A is for Anarchist is one of many creative responses to COVID’s grip on everything in our collective lives. This collaborative book assesses the world through a countercultural lens. Wryly written by New York–based rapper billy woods and beguilingly lettered and illustrated by painter and comics artist m. musgrove, A is for Anarchist fiddles with the classic abecedarium with honesty, irreverence and a smidge of vitriol. Although intended as a kid’s book, it is for all; it takes both topical and fantastical ideas, like “E is for Energy” and “G is for Ghosts,” and turns them into incisive commentary on modern life and the state of the globe. Also, says Rizzoli, it has to be the only alphabet book with annotated footnotes and a reference to Nas.
I asked woods and musgrove to elaborate on their motivation and execution. (Incidentally, m. is for Myra.)
The venerable format of the alphabet book has often, over time, been employed by satirists and commentators for getting social and political message into the open. A is for Anarchist has a distinct POV. What was the motivation for making this message in this medium?
woods: I think my motivation was simply to create a book I might have found entertaining as a child, and one I could read to my daughter that wouldn’t bore me to tears. I would be remiss in not mentioning the fact that we created this book during the pandemic, and that was its own motivation. Suddenly, I was completely isolated, relatively unemployed, and very much needing creative outlets and projects.
How was this collaboration accomplished? Were the two of you working hand-in-glove, or did the words come first and next the interpretive pictures?
musgrove: We worked closely for the two years it took from idea to final art submission. We conceptualized letters and also imagery together, working in a shared doc. An obvious challenge in the creation of a children’s book is the simplification of these sometimes monstrously large ideas. So through the notations and artwork we were able to broaden the scope of these words, and expand the page themes further.
The design is very appropriate for the subject. Was there any discussion over the visual direction? And clashing of perspectives?
musgrove: Graphically, I wanted the pages to be strong, but simple; I messed around for a while sketching fonts exploring what felt right, but as you see, I ended up with this basic chisel-tip, chunky lettering I felt was bold enough to command but also casual, perhaps slightly untidy, as is my illustration style. Regarding a clash, I think we’d agree that I really do know best. I think we truly trust each other as collaborators, and I hope that accord is received as a sort of harmony between the language and the design here.
woods: I try to do my job and let other people do theirs. I also have a lot of faith in my collaborators, and hopefully that is reciprocated, so we can let each other do the things we do best, and we all win in the end.
Is generating change as easy as A, B, C?
woods: If we are talking about changes in human behavior and society, I think the answer is a resounding no. And by resounding, I mean in the same way that a cruise missile hitting a populated urban area is “resounding.”
How did your respective backgrounds enter into the voice and language of the book?
woods: For myself, I suppose it’s a bit self-evident. African diaspora, leftist upbringing, Cold War survivor, literary background and I make words rhyme here and there.
musgrove: I think the three generations of teachers that came before me pushed an instructive purpose into my work, particularly my father, who is a prolific poet and professor of English. The visual language is probably most shaped by Gorey, king of alphabets; Crumb, king of thighs; and Lynda Barry, queen of creative play in art.
Who do you hope for as your reader?
woods: I don’t think about that too much. Anyone who finds it and appreciates it, I suppose. It’s a book that I think can appeal to lots of different age groups and types of people. Also, I hope it’s a book that a child could grow with, and find new meanings and value in as they get older, because I feel like that is a very rewarding experience.
Is a follow-up planned?
woods: I am not sure. To be honest, I just go where Myra points.