December 2, 2010

Anatomy of a book design #6: A sense of direction

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This is the sixth 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

A panel from Singh's adaptation

The infamous Blank Map of the Bellman is proof positive that there was no Bellwoman forcing the Bellman to stop and ask for directions. It’s also a classic example of Carroll’s subversive sense of fun in the entire Snark.

The original illustrator of the poem, Henry Holiday, simply drew a blank map for this scene, a zen-like decision which really complicated my life when I set about drawing this panel.

Outsmarting Holiday would not be easy, but I had two advantages working for me in my quest to draw that celebrated blankness. First, this was going to be the world’s first, genuinely full-scale Surrealist Snark. Second, I am a shameless borrower of things which don’t belong to me.

Both the Snark and Surrealism involve a lot horsing around with the exact meanings of words and pictures, with interchanging them, combining them, sometimes even making their entire meaning softly and silently vanish away.

Henry Holiday’s Map of the Bellman

Henry Holiday’s Map of the Bellman

The Belgian Surrealist, Rene Magritte, was obsessed with this sort of game and his painting, The Lovers, makes a perfect comment upon the Bellman’s Map. So, I just took it. Shameless on my part, yes, but there’s even more of that to come.

The map’s legend, you are here, is literally true but what’s really shameless is my insistence that French is the language of the lost and confused when everyone knows that it’s really English. This is easily verified. Stand on a street corner in any big francophone city and ask a stranger: where am I? If necessary, pull at shirtsleeves and wave your arms, speak very slowly while carefully pronouncing every word at the utmost decibel level. I think you’ll quickly see what I mean.

Words, words, words! If only they had the decency to cover themselves up, like the Bellman & Company. They have no loyalty, they can’t be bothered to mean anything anymore, they’re shameless!


Rene Magritte’s “The Loversâ€

Rene Magritte's "The Lovers"

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