December 17, 2010

Anatomy of a book design: On teachers and bankers


This is the eighth installment of a series by artist Mahendra Singh on the process of adapting Lewis Carroll’s classic nonsense poem, The Hunting of a Snarkinto 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

I’ve taken the liberty of transporting this 4th Fit of the Snark, The Hunting, into a circus ring equipped with circus wagons, circus folk and even an audience of mannequins taking a breather from the Giorgio de Chirico paintings in which they usually hang out in.

Lewis Carroll's self-portrait, "Me when I am lecturing"

The alert reader will observe that the Baker, played here by Lewis Carroll himself, is engaged in a classic bit of Victorian slapstick involving a beard and a fork and the dust accumulated in his coat after decades of teaching Christ Church undergraduates. The profession of teaching mathematics to the listless progeny of the upper classes for so many years had an unsettling effect upon Carroll. Although he appeared clean-shaven in all his portraits, it seems that while in the classroom he became oddly hirsute and even manic-looking. At least, that’s the impression one gets from this hastily scribbled self-portrait of Carroll behind the lectern. Academics reading this will grunt knowingly, I’m sure.

Karl Marx, the Banker

They might also get a giggle out of seeing the Banker being played here by Karl Marx. The Banker was in charge of the crew’s money in the Snark and even more appropriately, both Marx and Carroll perfected their respective systems of comic Nonsense at the same time and place, Victorian England. I could think of no one better suited to playing this vital, financial role in my Snark than Marx.

Crossing a check is the British custom of drawing lines across a check which indicate that it must deposited directly into the bank account of the person it’s been made out to. This is commonly done as a precaution to any financial deception on the bearer’s part and is indicative of the level of paranoia bedeviling our Snark hunters at this stage of the poem.

And sure enough, our Marxist Banker is not crossing the check as the Admirable Carroll has requested, he’s actually writing himself into a Belgian blank check, a blank check supplied to him courtesy of the semiotic prankster of Surrealism, René Magritte!

Rather appropriate, when one thinks it over, since Marxism was a sort of blank check, historically speaking. Snark Hunters of the world, unite!

René Magritte's "The Blank Check"