November 15, 2010

The anatomy of a book design, #2: “This is not my box”


This is the second 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

The Admirable Mister Carroll would have his little surprises for The Hunting of the Snark certainly seems nothing but that. Of course, aside from certain unfortunate mishaps such as sudden insanity or total annihilation, most of Carroll’s Snarkian surprises tend towards the cheerily nonsensical and comfortably numb variety.

This is because he was a master craftsman and knew full well that a bit of well-oiled authorial surprise keeps the groundlings happy enough to stick through the heavy going of the more boring intellectual bits, such as plot or meaning.

Like revenge or cheap plonk, surprise is best served cold, and so we’ll stick to Carroll’s master plan and introduce his hero, the Baker, just as Carroll’s verses do, as a mysterious stranger with even more mysterious baggage.

Chinese xie


Alexandra Kitchins

Alexandra Kitchins

Do not be alarmed by the curious fact that this drawing depicts the Baker’s 42 boxes (Carroll’s age when he began the Snark) as being labeled with the Chinese ideogram for “candlestub” known as xie. Remain calm while I remind you that his alias of candlestub will be revealed in the very next stanzel (stanza+panel). And do not panic if you happen to know that the boxes and the girl with the fan are taken directly from one of Carroll’s own photographs, a portrait of his young friend Alexandra Xie Kitchins posing as an off-duty Chinese tea merchant.

Douglas Adams

Douglas Adams

Stay zen, as the French say, even if the gentleman at the easel should prove to be the late and sorely missed British author Douglas Adams, whose Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy proved conclusively that the Answer to the Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything In It is 42. And above all, take no notice of the curious coincidence of that painting of a box which he is working at. It is labeled with a variation upon Rene Magritte’s famous anti-dictum, “this is not my box” and is itself a play upon the Belgian’s seminal work, The Human Condition I.

The Human Condition I by Magritte

The Human Condition I by Magritte

Nothing in this drawing can harm you, simply move around it cautiously whilst noting the utter absence of the seven coats and six boots mentioned in the verses. They are unworthy of inclusion in the drawing, owing to the fact that since the clothes make the man, the commutative principle of haute couture allows the man to make the clothes. No doubt, if left alone, nature will have its way and his coats and boots would multiply and eventually replenish his wardrobe (the commutative spirit of Victorian men’s fashion was biblically fecund) and he will find himself the proud possessor of a portmanteau packed with 42 coots and boats.

Surprise and anticipation, the twin bogeymen of Nonsense poets and Hollywood scriptwriters alike!