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Illustrating a graphic history: Mendoza the Jew

By Liz Clarke


The illustration of a graphic history begins with the author’s script. There are two aspects to turning that script into artwork. It’s both a story, calling for decisions to be made about the best way to present the narrative visually, and a history, rooted in fact and raising questions about what the places and people (and their furniture and transportation and utensils) would actually have looked like.

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A sketch of Esther Mendoza, wife of Daniel Mendoza. Courtesy of Liz Clarke. Used with permission.

It’s unlikely that we’ll find perfect answers to all of these questions, particularly in a pre-photography age like the late 18th┬ácentury, when Daniel Mendoza was at the height of his boxing career. Some subjects offer a wealth of images. Some, like a number of the places Mendoza frequented in London, still exist today. I was able to work from current photographs of locations including Mendoza’s house in Paradise Row, the cemetery where he is buried, and the exterior of the White Hart Inn. We had several images of Mendoza himself to refer to, thanks to his celebrity status. We knew what he looked like at different points in his life, how tall he was and how much he weighed. We knew about his fighting style from newspaper reports, artwork, and from his own instructional writing.

However, other subjects may not have been recorded in an image or even in a written description at the time. If records were made, they may not have survived. This means we have to cast the net wider. There are many sources of general information available that allow a lateral approach — records of people and places with shared characteristics, surviving artefacts and garments, artwork and documents from the time. There was nothing definite to work from in the case of Mendoza’s wife Esther, but we could ask what a woman like Mendoza’s wife would have looked like. How would a woman similar in age, class, and religion to Esther have dressed and worn her hair? We could then blend fact and imagination to arrive at a concept sketch of Esther, which allowed us to agree on how we would depict her.

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A page from Mendoza the Jew, showing the process from the sketch stage to the final piece. Courtesy of Liz Clarke. Used with permission.

Once we have enough information, each page is planned in detail. I’ll decide on the composition of the whole page, and of the contents of each panel on the page. There are choices to make about viewpoint (for example, if the scene is going to be presented from a low angle, looking up at it, or a high angle, looking down on it, which creates two very different effects), how to draw attention to the pivotal point in the scene, the characters’ body language and expressions, if they aren’t already defined by the script, and how to convey the themes of the book. This layout sketch is the most important stage in the illustration of a page.

Once the author has approved the sketch, I draw it in ink as line art and prepare this to be coloured digitally. Colour and the nature and direction of the light can also contribute to the storytelling. For example, the desaturated colours at the beginning of an exchange between Mendoza and Humphries, when Mendoza is not at his best, gradually become brighter and warmer by the end of the scene, as their verbal sparring restores Mendoza’s fighting spirit. The text comprising the narrative and dialogue is added to the art, and text boxes and speech bubbles are fitted to it. For Mendoza the Jew, we decided to use three different fonts. Two fonts with some resemblance to typefaces from the time period represented quotes from Mendoza’s autobiography and from a newspaper report of Mendoza’s match against Humphries in Doncaster, distinguishing the author’s words from Mendoza’s, and those of the reporter.

As an artist, illustrating a graphic history, as opposed to a work of fiction, has some unique rewards as well as challenges. There’s an awareness that these were real individuals and events, and it always feels like a privilege to be telling their stories.

Liz Clarke is an illustrator based in Cape Town, South Africa. Her artwork has appeared in magazines, games and books, including Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History by Trevor R. Getz and Mendoza the Jew, Boxing, Manliness, and Nationalism: A Graphic History by Ronald Schechter.

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