Joe Newton has been doing illustrations for the column “Savage Love” by Dan Savage. In the early days of the column, it “was a lot more irreverent, and therefore packed with more humorous quips, catty asides and snarky jabs. As he’s matured as an advice columnist, he’s become a lot more serious about giving good advice. The easiest columns to illustrate are the ones where he provides a good punchline,” says Newton. “The hardest ones deal with subtle emotional or psychological content.”
I like these spots a lot. You’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve been illustrating this column for over 15 years now. My first assignment came from Hank Trotter, who was the art director at the Stranger (a Seattle newsweekly, and the birthplace of the column). I later went on to art director the paper myself, and for a portion of that time, Dan Savage was the editor of the publication (which he helped found).
It’s been a unique challenge to keep illustrating the same column for so long. While each letter may represent a new person seeking advice, as time passes consistent themes have emerged: guilt, honesty, personal responsibility and accountability, willingness to give and take (aka: “good, giving, game”).
What has been your biggest challenge? Because themes repeat, a big challenge has been how to represent the same theme again and again without using the same solution.
To keep things interesting, I’ve changed the illustration style any number of times, and use the rapid weekly form as a venue for experimentation. Vector, pen and ink, and photo-collage have all entered in the mix. Keep in mind too that these are typically reproduced no more than 2 inches wide on newsprint. So they need to be simple.
More than anything, I’ve started to feel that the column is less about sex, and more about relationships and communication.
How does the column function? Is it simply advice? What’s your method for conceptualizing? Typically there are three letters per week. The lead letter is often the most interesting, but is followed by two more letters revolving around the same central theme. The illustration, therefore, is often meant to reflect the theme, rather than a specific scene within one of the letters.
In recent years the column has been delivered to me with a headline, and the illustration often is designed to correspond to the headline.
Another repeat feature relates to Savage’s many public appearances. The columns documenting these events are all based on Q&As from the events, and consequently are made up of up to a dozen rapid-fire replies: quick, “dirty,” and often unrelated to each other.
I’ve seen Savage on Bill Maher. He doesn’t mince words. The column is sometimes rather explicit, and known to be raw and honest. It has a broad reputation, and is typically a destination within the weekly papers it is syndicated in (around 50, last I checked). This explicit reputation led me to feel the illustration did not need to be literal or explicit. Instead, the illustrations are intended to be playful, and perhaps a bit of a visual puzzle, adding a unique filter to the text.
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