November 29, 2010

Anatomy of a book design #5: The wisdom of birds


This is the fifth 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

Making Lewis Carroll’s Snark into a graphic novel requires a certain honesty on the artist’s part. Artists usually try their best to make their heroes look, well, heroic. In this case though, the heroic leader of our Fellowship of the Snark, the Bellman, is a complete idiot. He navigates backwards, endangers everyone’s lives; he really does nothing except ring a large, annoying bell in everyone’s ear. There’s no other way to put it, he’s an imbecile, a moron, a dumb cluck.

Which is another reason why the Snark is quite suitable for some kids and teenagers, it’s an epic discourse upon their favorite subject: The Dumbness of Adults. Sure, the wordplay is a bit clever and there are some rather cunning logic games going on, but deep underneath it all, the Snark is quite shallow really.

Constantin Brancusi’s “Bird in Spaceâ€

Constantin Brancusi's Bird in Space

As we gallop through the poem, Carroll never misses a chance to remind us that the Bellman is a dope, over and over. Which is why, when I contemplated the above stanza, I knew that the author was being a bit sarcastic. Perhaps even snarky, in modern parlance?

In short, the Bellman’s so-called wisdom is really the wisdom of a birdbrain and anyone who’s ever looked deeply into the eyes of a chicken will nod knowingly at this statement.

And so, I made the Bellman into a veritable birdbrain. In this case his brain is a nicely pedigreed and rather fetching Surrealist bird by the sculptor Constantin Brancusi. I think it looks rather happy and shiny in its gilded birdcage.

The rest of the crew sunning themselves behind the Bellman are also a bit bird brained; anyone who lets the Bellman lead them around certainly qualifies. In this case they’re birds who’ve flown the coop out of a sculpture of Jean (or Hans) Arp and a painting by Juan Miro.

Jean Arp’s “Birds in an Aquariumâ€

Jean Arp's Birds in an Aquarium

Juan Miro’s “Hand Catching a Birdâ€

Juan Miro's Hand Catching a Bird

The theme of birds will crop up again and again in the Snark, birds of a Surrealist, Dadaist or Modernist feather, culminating in the mysterious, feathered personage who is nonchalantly roosting on the very cover of this book. More about this polydactylic, semi-evolved avian to come, stay tuned!