Spring 2007

The Illustrated Con-man

Cry For Help: 36 Scam Emails from Africa

Illlustrated by Henning Wagenbreth.
Gingko Press, USD 16.95, £7.75

Along with the ubiquitous offers of herbal 'Viagra', pump and dump stock tips, and bogus PayPal requests, the scam email from Africa has become one of the clichés of the criminal world that now haunts the internet.

Unlike the first three offenders, however, the lengthy composition and content of the typical scam mail from Africa puts it into a different class and, arguably, worthy of deeper cultural examination. In its quirky and colourful way Cry for Help does exactly that. It takes 36 potent examples, reproduces the text of each in full (complete with sender's email address) and accompanies it with an illustration as chaotic as the content.

Behind this work is the East German born and Frans Masereel-influenced illustrator Henning Wagenbreth, who is also professor of visual communication at the Universität der Künste, Berlin. Diverse and prolific, his previous work includes Mond und Morgenstern, a title he illustrated for the German children's book publisher Peter Hammer, and the official posters for the 2005 Berlin Jazz Festival. He has also collaborated with the independent publisher Armin Abmeier on two books.

Here, the combination of woodblock, linocut and primitive typography are used to good effect and the illustrations capture the erratic, criminal and crazy world depicted in the scam emails. The emphasis is on humour, and each illustration pulls out a peculiar detail from a story to make its point, using colour and typography with varying degrees of success. The matt paper stock and printing quality are both of a high enough standard to make the book a tactile pleasure and to bring the colour to life.

But that is probably about as far as it goes. While appreciating the craft behind Wagenbreth's work, the audacity and unintentional humour of the original emails, one is left questioning the point of this book other than as an effective showcase of the illustrator's art. Wagenbreth's style is an acquired taste, and is not as compelling here as in some of his previous work. The illustration is the star of the book, however, as the appeal of reading the text of the emails quickly fades. Once you've read one African scam email, you've read them all.

For those who are not already fans of Wagenbreth there is little in this book beyond a quick read of some of the emails and a flick through the illustrations. And I imagine that the charm and humorous intent of this book would also be lost on anyone that actually fell victim to such scams.

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