From Obama to Madonna: 50 Famous Lives, Illustrated

James Gulliver Hancock’s book features historic figures, with accompanying biographical trivia, in wry cartoons.

Australian illustrator James Gulliver Hancock’s fantastical drawings of famous figures double as cultural literacy cheatsheets for facts both intimate and mundane: Che Guevara became wheezy when he was angry, Edith Piaf made wreaths as a child, Harry Houdini liked to eat Chop Suey, Marilyn Monroe really liked hot dogs, and Martin Luther King loved Star Trek. In his almanac-style book, Artists, Writers, Thinkers, Dreamers: Portraits of 50 Famous Folks & All Their Weird Stuff, Hancock humanizes everyone from Leonardo Da Vinci to Coco Chanel.


“When I first started living in New York I was amazed by the amount of people and personalities I was surrounded with,” Hancock tells Co.Design. “So I started making these little make-believe maps of the people I saw, inventing what they did, what they ate, their favorite food. It was kind of an attempt to make all these people recognizable and friendly.” After making these original drawings, he talked with Chronicle Books about turning this idea into an illustrated almanac featuring fun facts about more famous people.

Hancock has always been fascinated by people’s relationships to objects. “It’s beautiful that we are like little planets pulling detritus into orbit around us,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “I love visiting a new friend’s house and discovering that he collects antique squeezeboxes, or that the bracelet she wears is made from her great aunt’s hair.” In this book, we see famous people’s stories told through their stuff, and it’s a surprisingly effective way of making you feel closer to them.

Were there any particularly surprising facts Hancock came across? “There are so many!” he says. “I feel like I’d do really well on Jeopardy now.” For favorites, he points to Amelia Earhart’s love of cheesecake, Buzz Aldrin’s sister’s invention of his nickname (from Brother to Buzzer to Buzz), and Leonardo da Vinci’s love of naps.

For 10 illustrated lives, from Barack Obama’s to Madonna’s, click the slide show above. Or buy the book here for $15.


About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.