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Idiots’Books

By Norah Franklin

In 2006, Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr quit their 9-5 jobs in Baltimore and moved into a barn in Chestertown, Maryland, to focus on more creative ventures. Eager to collaborate and looking to bring some structure to their days, the couple began working on a “mostly monthly book project” called Idiots’Books. The books, made up of Swanson’s words and Behr’s illustrations, are funded through a subscription service. Readers pay up front in order to receive eight volumes a year in the mail.

Idiots’Books are difficult to categorize. At first glance, they look like children’s books. A closer reading, however, reveals surreal narratives that are grounded in careful social commentary or allegory, and grotesque and dreamlike illustrations that expand upon and complete this vision. In the haunting Man Joe Rises, for example, a crudely drawn figure “rises from the muck” and contends with both the good and the ugly in his new-found consciousness and world. Finally, looking down on a landscape filled with fast-food restaurants and gas stations, the man plunges back down to the earth. He is carrying a bazooka when he rises from the muck a second time. Swanson and Behr describe the books as “satirical illustrated books for adults” or “illustrated literature.” Because their work exists between genres, they have been able to promote Idiots’Books at bookshops, galleries and even comic book conventions.

Swanson and Behr collaborate in order to push each other further in their art. “We aim to produce work in which there is almost no redundancy between the words and the images,” says Swanson. “Invariably, the books that result from [our] collaboration are something that neither of us could have come up with on our own. There is something electric in that space between our minds when we’re discussing ideas for a new book.” In January, the couple taught a course on collaborative bookmaking at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. They were thrilled to be able to watch the students benefit from working in artistic partnerships.

Collaboration was also a major theme at Idiots’Fest 2008, a festival of literature and music in honour of the Idiots’Books subscriber-ship that took place in Chestertown this February. Over the course of the two-day festival, Swanson and Behr presented several readings of their stories while their friends improvised musical accompaniment.

Other artists attempted this as well, including Brian Slattery, who performed an interpretive death metal reading from Little House on the Prairie while Aidan Shepard, son of author and Idiots’Fest participant Jim Shepard, accompanied him on drums. For Swanson, it was the highlight of the weekend: “I might have died happy right then and there.”

For individual books, subscriptions, or more information about Idiots’Books, visit idiotsbooks.com.

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