November 24, 2010

Anatomy of a book design #4: Now you see it…


This is the fourth 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

Our Fellowship of the Snark is rounded off with the appearance of the Beaver and the Butcher, the only non-Europeans in the poem. The former is played here by a very fetching young Canadian, Castor canadensis, and the latter is portrayed by an Easter island moia. Carroll reminds us over and over of the impenetrable thickness of the Butcher’s minimal mental apparatus; I knew that only a megalithic cranium made of solid, crudely hewn rock would be up to the task.

Easter island moai

Easter island moai

Most illustrators of the Snark assume the Beaver to be a he. I say pshaw to all that for Carroll’s poem is ambiguous on the point. He used the masculine (possessive) pronoun only in the plural, when referring to both the Beaver and some one else. In his Annotated Snark, Martin Gardner concurred on this important grammatical point, which is reinforced in my mind by the fact that it’s more fun to draw girls anyway.

In an earlier stanzel, the Butcher had let slip the fact that he wasn’t averse to a bit of Beaver-butchery now and then and the congenitally shy, Canadian Beaver has avoided him ever since. The aversion of her eyes from the Butcher in this drawing is further motivated by the primitive belief that whatever cannot be seen by oneself, cannot itself see you. This charming simplicity of thought is the innocent basis of all epistemologies and it can be said, with some justice, that all of Western philosophy is but footnotes to the nursery-room game of peek-a-boo.

We are indulging in a game of existential hide-and-go-seek here; the Beaver dematerializes her stony-faced surrealist nemesis, the Butcher, by averting her eyes. Lewis Carroll disarmed his annihilating Boojum by composing the Snark backwards and thus placing the former into the perpetually receding, invisible future of the latter.

As for myself, I’m one of those literal-minded draughtsmen who cannot draw what he cannot see. I’ve always spurned Rule Number One of Illustration (if you cannot draw it, place a bush in front of it) for I am above such petty stratagems, plus, all those leaves–so many, so many, is there no end to them? To see a Boojum, ladies and gentlemen, is to be seen by a Boojum! And so I promise you that all the Boojums of this Snark shall always remain undrawn and thus unseeing Boojums. In short, nothing to see here folks, just move right along.