November 10, 2010

Anatomy of a book design, #1: A concept emerges


This is the first installment of a series by artist Mahendra Singh on the process of adapting Lewis Carroll’s classic nonsense poem, The Hunting of a Snark, into a graphic presentation. Like most of Carroll’s work, this poem has seen various iterations since it was written in 1874 but this is the first time it has been adapted as a graphic telling. Melville House published Singh’s adaptation in November.

A panel from Singh's adaptation


Lewis Carroll had a life-long passion for the theater and the idea of making the reader into the spectator of a rather manic staging of his Snark will be the underlying conceit behind the entire visual presentation of this graphic novel version.

The hunters of the Snark are ten in number and are played here by a wide variety of celebrated artists, scientists and thinkers, all of them operating under one constraint: that they must have been alive in Lewis Carroll’s lifetime. Their mission is simple: catch a Snark without being themselves caught by an unpleasant subspecies of Snark, the dreaded Boojum. Their weapons are bits of paper, soap and eating utensils and their methods include navigating backwards with blank maps and an inability to count or communicate normally most of the time. It will all end in madness and annihilation, the very meat and drink of epic tragedy, which is just what the Snark is, only with a lot more laughs.

Charles Darwin

The epic begins with the Boots and the Bellman, both of whom appear on-stage doing a bit of music hall crosstalk and fancy footwork. The role of the Boots is played here by Charles Darwin, the man whom modern science regards as being definitively responsible for the unreality of god. Curiously enough, although Carroll was a deeply religious man, he corresponded with Darwin and once even offered to assist him in illustrating one of his scientific works.

Sir John Tenniel

Our Bellman is play-acting at being the White Knight from Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, a character whose appearance was a visual self-portrait of Sir John Tenniel, the beloved illustrator of that work and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Well-oiled Carrollians will applaud discreetly at this, knowing that the White Knight was also a fictional stand-in for Lewis Carroll himself, a notoriously private person who had a penchant for appearing in public in the role of a certain Christ Church don named Charles Lutwidge Dodgson.

Sir John Tenniel's White Knight from Through the Looking Glass

The Bellman’s announcement that this is just the place for a Snark is really a bit of wishful thinking and not the first which this avuncular, cozily insane personage will commit in our epic. Carroll may have modeled him upon an officer at his own Christ Church College, “Le Bellman”, whose job it was to ring a bell whenever some particularly inert don had finally popped off for good. Of such grim details are both great poetry and academic life made! A madman armed with a heavy, blunt metal-and-wooden object roams Carroll’s poem and Oxford alike, announcing the beginning of the verses and the ending of some poor academic’s life with equal aplomb.

Mathias Grunewald's Temptation of St. Anthony

Preternaturally sharp-eyed readers will notice that the Boot’s pose (when flopped) atop the painted backdrop of a tide is roughly based on that of St. Anthony in Mathias Grunewald’sTemptation of St. Anthony, a compelling visual depiction of the unreal visions created by the unreal nemesis of an unreal deity upon a real believer, a set of circumstances with which the religious-minded Darwin might have sympathized.

In any event, it’s a snappy enough precis of how the theater (and life) works and for an encore we shall now substitute nemesis, deity and believer with their Carrollian understudies of Boojum, Snark and Snark Hunter and then exit, stage left.