A Poet of the Absurd
Guy Billout is the Buster Keaton of the illustration world: like the king of the deadpan gags of the silent era, Billout is a stunt man. His illustrations represent acrobatic feats of mental agility in which events challenge the law of physics and logic: inverted perspectives, gravity-defying structures, upside-down skies, rivers owing uphill, large objects sinking into shallow puddles. His illustrations are funny in the same way Keaton’s stunts are funny: his characters retain a sense of composure no matter what. Impending doom doesn’t unnerve them. However, under the dark humor, an odd sense of optimism prevails.
For Billout, people are clueless, and that’s the good news.
There is, for example, a man on the deck of a cruise ship who notices that the sea is where the sky should be. But never mind: what intrigues him is the fact that the seagulls are flying upside down.
In a classic scene, a man is greeted by his reflection in a pool. In other versions, blurry figures are confronted with their crisp mirror images starring at them on the surface of the water. In many instances, people are shown li ing the corner of a shadow or the edge of a wave, or jacking up the underside of a rampart, a monument or a cliff, in an attempt to peak at what’s on the other side of the material world.
Like Buster Keaton, who ran a real locomotive o a bridge in one of his most famous stunts (The General, 1926), Billout has a train-and-bridge fixation. In his universe, trains are getting o their tracks to spare snakes, cows and sleeping bears, while bridges leap over bottomless chasms or stretch their benevolent spans across daunting urban canyons.
A Globetrotting Role Model
Judy Garlan, art director The Atlantic Monthly for nearly two decades in the 1980s and 1990s, gave Billout total editorial freedom with a bi-monthly column that became an integral part of the magazine’s editorial voice. Thanks in part to this regular exposure, he was soon one of the most sought-a er illustrators in North America—published in all the top magazines and newspapers, including Esquire, Rolling Stone, Playboy, TIME, Newsweek, The New Republic,The Washington Post, The New York Times and The New Yorker. He also became one of the most copied illustrators. Lesser artists tried to imitate his style, but none could replicate his humor. “Guy is from another planet,” said Garlan. “After all these years of close collaboration, he is still a mystery to me.”
In fact, Billout’s visual roots are typically European. Growing up in Nevers, a quiet town in the center of France, he received a conventional education. In the 1950s, he studied advertising in the Ecole des Arts Appliqués of Beaune, in the Burgundy region. In the 1960s, he moved to Paris and worked as a designer in advertising. ere was nothing unusual about his ambition or his career path—nothing that suggested that one day he would expatriate himself and embrace a radically different culture.
Except for one thing: The Adventures of Tintin, a popular comic book series.
The brainchild of Hergé, a prolific illustrator from Belgium, Tintin was a globetrotting reporter. The intrepid cartoon hero (still an icon today among French schoolchildren) traveled tirelessly to exotic places —Brazil, Tibet, China, Egypt— his whereabouts documented in drawings of mesmerizing precision and anthropological exactitude. Hergé was so concerned with authenticity that he insisted on updating the look of cars, planes, and machines in subsequent editions of his comic strip.
“What impressed me most about Tintin was the realism of the landscapes, the naturalism of the situations, and the documentary quality of the information,” says Billout. Like Hergé, Billout cannot manufacture a sense of place unless he has intimate knowledge of it. He takes pictures on location and studies them carefully. “Concepts o en come as a result of my research and minute observations,” he says. “I never begin with an idea, quite the contrary. It all comes together in the end.”
Dream Sequences in Real Places
“Guy has a great respect for information, particularly the kind that involves technical details,” said Garlan. Once, she tried to convince him to change the angle of the Rock of Gibraltar to make the famous landmark more easily recognizable to an American audience. Billout agonized before reluctantly agreeing. Eventually he was vindicated when a Navy admiral wrote to the magazine to complain about the geographical inaccuracy.
For Billout’s fans, being able to pinpoint the exact location of a scene is part of the fun.
Some of his most beloved illustrations incorporate beautiful architectural renderings of places like Wall Street, the Empire State Building, Hudson River Park, the Washington Monument, Powell Street in San Francisco, the Great Wall of China, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the White Cliffs of Dover, just to name some favorites.
Take the illustration of the three tourists in West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C. They are engulfed in a utter of apparently friendly white doves, unaware that the baby stroller is empty and that one of the birds is flying away with the infant in its claws. Discerning viewers scrutinizing this strange drawing would identify the looming statues dominating the scene as The Arts of Peace by the distinguished sculptor James Earle Fraser. They might see a link between the sculptures of the winged horses and the implied peace message. But will they make the connection with the terrifying black birds in Hitchcock’s famous film?
Visual literacy makes Billout’s dark humor even more poignant and compelling. The highbrow readers of his Atlantic column regularly wrote letters requesting the editors con rm or refute some of their interpretations. Once a family got into a serious argument about the meaning of a particular Billout illustration and had to beg the magazine to arbitrate it in order to settle their quarrel.
The Appeal of Pure Existential Angst
The contrast between these very real places and the often- cryptic quality of his otherworldly images is part of the universal appeal of Billout’s work. The digital technology he now uses exclusively has made his pristine illustrations even more so. “I sometimes miss all the tiny imperfections that gave character to my aerographed drawings,” he remarks. “But their flawlessness was—and still is—deceptive. Under the cover of these exquisite-looking landscapes, I indulge my worst fears: fear of depth, fear of falling, fear of crashing, fear of missing the boat, fear of intimacy. Basically, I am afraid of everything. The beauty of the images I create makes this angst even more real to me—and to people who look at my illustrations.”
“His work is never celebratory,” warned Garlan. Once, for an anniversary issue, she suggested he draw a party on the beach, in front of the Atlantic Ocean—an obvious reference to the name of the magazine. Billout didn’t care much for the suggestion, but out of respect and friendship for Garlan, he tried to fulfill the assignment. “Everything he sent us was so forlorn,” she recalls. “Every single image gave me the impression that the party was over. The recurring theme was a lonely little man left on the beach with all the crumpled decorations and wet confetti.”
Never one to rush a job (procrastination is his trademark), Billout has nonetheless managed to author a dozen books, five of them chosen by The New York Times as one of that particular year’s Ten-Best Illustrated Children’s Books. Yet, this impressive list of editorial accomplishments doesn’t account for the bulk of his work—brochures, posters, annual reports and advertising projects. “I always call Guy when I have a difficult problem to solve,” says legendary creative director Bob Ciano. He gave Billout his first assignment for Redbook magazine in 1969. Other art directors became mentors as well, Alexander Liberman and Milton Glaser among them.
“There is a gentleness in Guy’s work,” says Ciano. “It’s very seductive. He puts over disturbing ideas about geological time, climate shifts, human responsibility and the nature of our illusions, without ever raising his voice, without the reader ever feeling challenged. Although the situations described in the scenes are often life-threatening, one never feels in danger.”
Indeed, like Buster Keaton, Guy Billout uses deadpan humor to convey the haunting complexity of human contradictions. His cool images are brimming with unresolved turmoil. Yet there is never any cynicism in the vision he proposes. More than an illustrator, he is a compassionate poet of the absurd.