Local “Monster” Puts The Color Into “Doonesbury”

DAVID SEPULVEDA PHOTO Design Monsters’ George Corsillo, a self-described “font freak,” has earned a book jacket design credit for “YUGE!” (30 Years of Doonesbury on Trump), a timely new anthology by nationally syndicated Doonesbury cartoon creator and Pulitzer Prize winner Garry Trudeau.

Corsillo and his wife Susan McCaslin are partners at Design Monsters, a graphic design studio located in New Haven’s Westville neighborhood. Corsillo has been colorizing Trudeau’s long-running Doonesbury Sunday strip since 2001. He has enjoyed a collaborative relationship with Trudeau beginning in 1986, resulting in the design of numerous books, posters, toys, and collectibles for a variety of charitable causes, most notably local literacy education programs created with the sponsoring Starbucks Corporation.

G.B. Trudeau “I do the hair and people first” explained Corsillo, describing the process of completing the Sunday Doonesbury strip after Trudeau has drawn the panels, and after the inker, Todd Pound, has completed the line work. Corsillo receives a computer file with the black and white line drawings that he transforms with color, breathing life into the characters and backgrounds with gradients, tonalities, patterns, and posterization effects — just some of the Photoshop software tools that have revolutionized cartooning and the graphics industry in general.

Throughout his career, even before the advent of graphics programs like Photoshop, Corsillo seems to have had a bead on the evolving graphic design zeitgeist. With a foundation in Bauhaus-driven, modernist design concepts, Corsillo’s design acumen was forged during a four-year apprenticeship with preeminent 20th-century book jacket designer and illustrator Paul Bacon, building on his education at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute in the early ‘70s.

“He taught me everything I needed to know,” said Corsillo. Bacon is known for his iconic “Big Book Look” and thousands of book jacket covers that included Catch-22, Jaws, Ragtime, and We Bombed in New Haven.

By virtue of his own cutting-edge design work, and having the good fortune of being in the right places at the right times, Corsillo created a niche in the history of modern American book cover and album jacket design. Some of his graphic works included jackets for Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Bret Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero, and the album jacket for New Wave band Bugs Tomorrow.

In By Its Cover, a book Corsillo said he came across by happenstance, authors Ned Drew and Paul Sternberger explained Corsillo’s contribution to book design.

“George Corsillo’s 1979 cover for NANA (Delacorta) hints at another characteristic of postmodernism of the 1980’s — pastiches of discordant styles and images that create a purposeful disjuncture. The collage of hovering, unresolved photographic elements, combined with a hodgepodge of type faces, has an aesthetic of rawness that suggests roots in both punk graphics and the postmodern theory that would help shape the understanding of graphic design in the 1980’s.”

The book, said Corsillo, “broke my heart in a wonderful way” when he discovered the section on his mentor and the passage acknowledging his own place in the continuum of American postmodern graphic design.

After leaving New York in 1977, Corsillo headed for Los Angeles where he quickly found employment with Gribbitt! Design Studio. “We would drive down Sunset Strip looking at the giant billboards thinking it would be great to do those. Within six months, I was designing giant billboards,” recalled Corsillo.

Working for Gribbitt!, Corsillo served the design needs of numerous major record labels and their artists. Among his clients were Jefferson Starship, The Village People, Motown artists, and Soul Train’s Don Cornelius. His jacket design for the Grease movie soundtrack album became ubiquitous, representing Corsillo’s work as solo art director.

The growing L.A. punk music and art scene, of which Corsillo was a big fan, began to affect his design sensibilities and marked his immersion in the nascent New Wave design movement he helped create. Ripped paper, stamping, the use of Dymo tape, stenciling, and other “rough” techniques became integral to the more-is-more look of late 20th-century graphic design, according to Corsillo.

In the early ‘80s, Gribbitt! opened a satellite office in New York. With their growing family in mind, Corsillo and McCaslin took the opportunity to return there, where his New Wave design bona fides were much in demand.

“When I moved to L.A. I was the New York kid, though I was raised in Connecticut, and when I moved back to New York, I was the kid from L.A., even though I had only been there for five years,” said Corsillo.

Back in New York, Corsillo became a freelance designer working with major record companies, designing for John Mellencamp, Luther Vandross, Yoko Ono, and Pat Benatar. But increasingly, his focus turned to working for major publishing companies designing book jackets.

“I was really a record jacket designer who became a book jacket designer,” said Corsillo.

One of the nation’s oldest publishers, Henry Holt and Company, was a client of Corsillo’s and also worked with Garry Trudeau. It was at the publisher’s offices that Corsillo first met the satirical cartoonist.

“Garry was walking by and the art director introduced us,” Corsillo said. “At the time, I was doing a cover for a Doonesbury anthology. A month later Garry called me to do a Doonesbury desk diary. He wanted me to work directly for him and from then on, we worked together. I became his design studio and Garry was the art director — he’s an incredible art director.”

Since the beginning of their collaboration in the mid-‘80s, Corsillo has designed numerous Doonesbury anthologies, posters, and artifacts. Talking about YUGE!, Corsillo grinned broadly when explaining the prescience and genius of Trudeau’s laser focus on Donald Trump follies since 1987: “The thing that’s shocking is that you look at the very first strip, and it’s like it was written yesterday; the same kind of language, the self-importance, the narcissism. I find Garry’s unique ability to skewer the jerks, to talk about life & death world events, or to get important political facts (truths) out into the world, and to do it all with a pay-off joke in panel nine each and every time, frankly amazing. That’s why I’m so proud to work with him.”

DAVID SEPULVEDA PHOTO In his preface to YUGE!, written in April of this year, Trudeau laid out the rules of satire that governed his lampooning of the business tycoon since his flirtation with a presidential bid as early as 1987:

“The Target, having set himself up, doesn’t get a say over the incoming, besides, Trump had already become the gold standard for big, honking hubris, and to ignore him would have been comedy malpractice.” 

Now living in Westville where Corsillo and McCaslin moved from Fairfield County seven years ago, the couple have become community builders, central to Westville’s creative life and spirit.

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posted by: westville man on July 21, 2016  3:30pm

George and Susan are top notch – very professional, down to earth and Extremely patient with their customers. They have been and continue to be a wonderful addition to Westville. We are lucky to have them.

posted by: Semi Semi-Dikoko on July 21, 2016  4:04pm

You know you are blessed, when you can walk into the house of a man of George stature, (with his great wife Susan), drink their wine, eat their food and then, (free-loading at its very best), have an enlightened conversation with them! Where else, if not in New Haven Westville!

Thank you, George and Susan, for being part of our village! Thank you, villager David Sepulveda, for a tour de force of a great article!

posted by: allangreenier on July 21, 2016  6:31pm

I mean really just look at the lead photo here. How can you not love this guy.? What’s that you say, he’s funny to boot? The coolest cat in Westville!

posted by: billy fischer on July 26, 2016  1:28pm

ah david!
grateful as always for your wonderful written words about the special people that inhabit our great city and community
i always have such a good time reading about the journey people travel to end up where they are
george is such a blessing for westville and beyond!