The Daily Heller: Savage is as Savage Does

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Dan Savage, journalist and LGBTQ+ activist, has been writing his popular weekly sex advice column “Savage Love” for 30 years in Seattle’s The Stranger. He’s covered the gamut, waterfront, boulevard, over and underground of love and love with wit and wisdom. Joe Newton, a New York–based designer, illustrator and educator, has been a loyal follower and the column’s illustrator for two decades. His drawings are equal to the task. But the ephemeral nature of a weekly newspaper made him want more permanency for Savage’s advice and his illos. So a year before the pandemic, he pitched a book, and that is how Savage Love From A to Z (Sasquatch Books) was (squa)hatched. Acting as packager, too, Newton synthesized 30 years down to 26 letters (26 pearls of Savage-olosphy). I asked Newton about this bibelot of advice on relationships, mating and more.

How did this book come to be realized?
The “Savage Love” column is having its 30-year anniversary this Fall, and I’ve been illustrating it for 20. It seemed like the right moment for a book to capture our collaboration. I’ve always loved children’s book illustrations, and about a decade ago used the “A is for Apple” trope to illustrate a column about personal responsibility. Instead of “apple” it was “accountability,” with an image of a dog picking up it’s own poop and a big hand-drawn ‘A.’ That cracked me up, and I’ve revisited that concept off and on over the years.

A couple of years ago I pitched Dan the idea of an adult alphabet book with new essays on 26 key “Savage Love” concepts. He loved the idea, his agent shopped it around, and we chose Sasquatch, a longtime Seattle-based publisher who were already fans of Dan’s but knew and loved my illustrations as well.

The book is your design and illustration concept. What influenced the style?
My work life is primarily focused on design and teaching. But I like the opportunity to keep working on my illustration, and this gives me lots of room to experiment. Overall, the approach is strongly influenced by children’s books, classic comics and cartoons, and ultra-cute Japanese toys. The style shifts a little from week to week and year to year, but ends up feeling relatively cohesive. The content of the column is often pretty explicit, sexually. So I figure that’s covered. I like to counterpoint that explicit text with cuteness. It amplifies the sense of humor that’s often part of the advice Dan offers. And anthropomorphized animals can feel more universal than real people. It allows the focus to stay on the interactions rather than age, gender, race, sexuality, etc. Plus, there are lots of cheap sex puns available. Cats, dogs, roosters, beavers.

What’s the most pleasurable aspect of doing “Savage Love”?
Aside from the bad puns? I like that the column is different every week, and yet a lot of the same themes come up. It’s enjoyable trying to find a fresh solution for the same concept.