Guy Fawkes Day and V for Vendetta

“Remember, remember the 5th of November…”

I was lucky enough to live in New Zealand for a few years as a kid, so I got to experience Guy Fawkes Day. We made effigies of Guy, then we burned them on a bonfire. There was a barbecue and fireworks. To my American ass, it seemed a mixture of the Fourth of July and Halloween—strange and marvelous.

It was a few years after my last Guy Fawkes experience that I read Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. V, an anarchist who wears a stylized Guy Fawkes mask, wages a vigilante war on a harsh authoritarian government. Along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, V was a first for me, something different from the comics I was reading at the time, stuff like Chris Claremont’s run on The Uncanny X-Men and other Marvel titles.

A film version of V for Vendetta was released in 2006; Alan Moore famously had his name removed from it. I enjoyed the film, although it certainly wasn’t as good or thought-provoking as Moore’s original story. And even though the film looked good, the passive experience of watching an action movie can’t measure up to David Lloyd’s original art work and that wonderful space between the panels of comics that engages the reader’s imagination.

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This afternoon [see editorial note below] I finished the first graphic novel of Alan Moore’s  run writing Swamp Thing, and I can’t wait until my library hold on the second graphic novel comes in. I had no idea Saga of the Swamp Thing would be as good as it was, nor as beautifully illustrated; it’s actually better than V for Vendetta or Moore’s other famed work, Watchmen (and none of these titles are even in the same league as Moore’s masterpiece, From Hell). Alan Moore and Steve Bissette’s run on the DC Comics series essentially led to DC’s creation of the edgier Vertigo imprint for their more “mature” titles, such as The Sandman. These titles helped to change the audiences of “comic books” and helped to make the graphic novel a new standard in the medium (no mean feat, considering the fanboyish culture of comic nerds, a culture that prizes rarity of print run over quality of storytelling).

One of the lessons in V for Vendetta is to illustrate what happens when we don’t allow for dissent, what happens when ideas are both prescribed and proscribed, and all dialogue is muted. Authoritarian governments consolidate their power from the silencing of ideas. A healthy society requires all sorts of opinions, even ones we don’t like. The smiling Americans in this photo aren’t burning effigies of would-be revolutionaries, they are burning something much more dangerous–books.

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[Editorial note: So, I ran a version of this post on Nov. 5, 2006---it's actually one of the first posts I ever did on the blog, which I began in Sept. 2006. Looking over it---which is to say editing it and making minor revisions (and grimacing frequently, but trying to keep those revisions minor, like moving commas)---I can see the growth and scope of the blog; especially I can see my own limited sense of what I wanted Biblioklept to be. The post also strikes me as excessively vague and preachy (especially that last paragraph, written after years of Bush Era Fatigue, which is kinda sorta still going on, I guess, Bush Era Fatigue, I mean, only I'd give it another name now). I wish I could remember more details of Guy Fawkes Day/Night, but I was young---9, 10, 11---and it seems vague. I still remember the history of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot, although that's probably more a result of paying attention in AP European History than anything else. This editorial note is way too long. I never finished Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing, but the second volume was good, as I recall].

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From Hell — Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell

From HellAlan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s epic revision of the Jack the Ripper murders, posits Sir William Gull, a physician to Queen Victoria, as the orchestrator of the Jack the Ripper murders that terrified Londoners at the end of the 19th century. The murders initially arise out of the need to cover up the knowledge of the existence of an illegitimate son begat by foolish Prince Albert, Victoria’s grandson. However, for Gull the murders represent much more–they are part of the continued forces of “masculine rationality” that will constrain “lunar female power.” Gull is a high-level Mason; during a stroke, he experiences a vision of the Masonic god Jahbulon, one which prompts him to his “great work”–namely, the murders that will reify masculine dominance.

One of the standout chapters in the book is Gull’s tour of London, with his hapless (and witless) sidekick Netley. In a trip that weds geography, religion, politics, and mythology, Gull riffs on a barbaric, hermetic history of London, revealing the gritty city as an ongoing site of conflict between paganism and orthodoxy, artistic lunacy and scientific rationality, female and male, left brain and right brain. The tour ends with a plan to commit the first murder. From there, the book picks up the story of Frederick Abberline, the Scotland Yard inspector charged with solving the murders. Of course, the murders are unsolvable, as the hierarchy of London–from the Queen down to the head of police–are well aware of who the (government-commissioned) murderer is. The police procedural aspects of the plot are fascinating and offer a balanced contrast with Gull’s mystical visions–visions that culminate in a climax of a sort of time-travel, in which Gull not only sees London at the end of the twentieth century, but also receives a guarantee that his murder plot has had its intended effect. From Hell takes many of its cues from the idea that history is shaped not by random events, but rather by tragic conspiracies that force people to willingly give up freedom to a “rational” authority. The book points repeatedly to the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway murders, which led directly to the world’s first modern police force. In our own time, if we’re open to conspiracy theories, we might find the same pattern in the 21st century responses to terrorism (Patriot Act, anyone?).

Although From Hell features moments of supernatural horror in Gull’s mysticism, it is the book’s grimy realism that is far more terrifying. London in the late 1880s is no place you want to be, especially if you are poor, especially if you are a woman. The city is its own character, a labyrinth larded with ancient secrets the inhabitants of which cannot hope to plumb. Despite the nineteenth century’s claims for enlightenment and rationality, this London is bizarrely cruel and deeply unfair. Campbell’s style evokes this London and its denizens with a surreal brilliance; his dark inks are by turns exacting and then erratic, concentrated and purposeful and then wild and severe. The art is somehow both rich and stark, like the coal-begrimed London it replicates. Although Moore has much to say, he allows Campbell’s art to forward the plot whenever possible. Moore is erudite and fascinating; even when one of his characters is lecturing us, it’s a lecture we want to hear. His ear for dialog and tone lends great sympathy to each of the characters, especially the unfortunate women who must turn to prostitution to earn their “doss” money. And while Abberline’s frustrations at having to solve a crime that no higher-ups want solve make him the hero of this story, Gull’s mystic madness makes him the narrative’s dominant figure. Rereading this time, I realized there is no character he reminds me of as much as Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I’m also reading Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent now, a book that dovetails neatly with From Hell, both in its time and setting, but also in its exploration of social unrest and duplicitous authority. Both novels feature detectives fighting a complacent system, and both novels feature a working class that threatens to erupt in socialist or anarchist rebellion.

From Hell is a fantastic starting place for anyone interested in Moore’s work, more self-contained than his comics that reimagine superhero myths, like Watchmen or Swamp Thing, and more satisfying and fully achieved than Promethea or V Is for Vendetta. Be forewarned that it is a graphic graphic novel, although I do not believe its violence is gratuitous or purposeless. Indeed, From Hell aspires to remark upon the futility and ugliness of cyclical violence, and it does so with wisdom and verve. Highly recommended.

[Ed. note: We ran a version of this review last year; we run it again in celebration of Halloween].

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 3 — Hergé

I’ve long been interested in Hergé’s Belgian comic series Tintin, which chronicles the adventures of Tintin, boy reporter, and his faithful dog Snowy. When a batch of hardback three-in-one editions showed up at my favorite used book store I picked up Vol. 3, which collects The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Shooting Star, and The Secret of the Unicorn. I read The Crab with the Golden Claws in one pleasant sitting that night and finished the other two adventures in similar fashion. Then I went back to the bookshop and picked up the other four three-in-one editions they had in stock.

It’s hard to divide the tales, which are all fun adventures in the high style of boy-adventuring, but I think Crab was my favorite of the three. It involves a drug smuggling ring and a trip to the Sahara desert. It also introduces Captain Haddock, an alcoholic lummox who tips into a verbose stream of insults whenever he’s in a rage (he merely stutters when in his cups). Haddock is Tintin’s unlikely (but totally likely) sidekick in the other tales in the volume, and he shows up in the other books I bought as well. The Shooting Star is a bit more sporadic in its plot–it begins with the end of the world (by asteroid!) and when that doesn’t pan out, moves into an ocean race to recover a meteorite. Unicorn also boasts a nautical theme; Tintin finds part of a treasure map in a model ship and fights against antique-collecting brothers to recover the booty (Keno Bros. beware). These adventure stories share more in common with Indiana Jones and Edgar Rice Burroughs than Marvel or DC comics; there’s a prevalent sense of danger, fun, and mystery that underscores the series.

Hergé’s clean, efficient style evokes beautiful and strange worlds. His economy of storytelling is simply brilliant; he knows how to connote his characters’ movements–including some sweaty action sequences–and he also knows how to move the plot forward without resorting to talking heads (although you will find the occasional expository-friendly radio broadcast pop up in a Tintin comic). It’s when Hergé drops a luscious market scene or a crowded basement-dungeon larded with antiquities that the art in Tintin shines. Hergé’s great talent is to evoke a startling sense of place for each setting in his comics, a fully-realized set that creates a sort of visual (and emotional) baseline for the reader. This allows for the cleaner, crisper panels to relay action without clutter. Hergé’s knack for storytelling cannot be underestimated either. He blends high adventure with slapstick and verbal comedy, much of it courtesy Tintin’s foils: the Thompsons, bungling detectives, precisely, who provide Tintin with many of his cases; Haddock; and Snowy, of course.

If you know a bit about Hergé’s Tintin series, you may know that its depiction of non-white and non-European characters has come under attack in recent years; Tintin in the Congo has been singled out in particular. I haven’t read Congo, but Crab’s representation of  Arabs (and Asians) is riddled with all kinds of wrong–at least when viewed from a PC postmodern post-colonialist post-whatever perspective. Hergé’s comics reveal at times a particularly suspect Western European ideology, one that privileges white male authority in the form of white male adventure. We can see the same colonialism and Orientalism at work decades later in the Indiana Jones movies (particularly Temple of Doom). This comparison is not meant to indict Indy (or Spielberg, rather) or excuse Tintin (and Hergé); instead, I’m merely pointing out that adventure tales that feature white heroes exploring–and dominating–the Other are hardly new; nor have they disappeared. The big mistake would be not to read Hergé’s work for fear of tripping over politically-correct mores. Banning a book is never a smart practice.

Far better is Charles Burns’s recent Tintin revisionism in X’ed Out: he moves his inverted hero Nitnit to a bizarro world version of the Saharan market, a place teeming with strangeness that is also largely indebted to William Burroughs’s Interzone. The inversion reverses Tintin’s a priori white male domination into an equally fantastic (but far more horrific) vision of confrontation with radical Otherness. Shit gets weird (as alien encounters should). Nitnit is not in control, not the master of this domain, which is plainly not his. Burns’s Tintin revision saliently calls attention to the ways that the best in art might be transformed and reinterpreted. It points toward the subconscious inheritance intrinsic to art.

But back to the book I am ostensibly reviewing. The Adventures of Tintin, Vol 3 seems to me as good a place as any to start with Tintin, and those interested should dig in. These three-in-one editions are smaller than the traditional oversized format, but you can compensate by holding the book closer to your face (ah, intimacy). Lovely stuff.

Charles Burns Talks to Vice; Discusses Subconscious Tintin Influences

At Vice, Sammy Markham (Crickets) interviews one of our heroes of Charles Burns. Read our review of Burns’s latest, X’ed Out. From the interview with Markham, Burns discusses subconscious influences–

There’s work that I grew up with and looked at and internalized. It is still in my subconscious, and I pay attention to that part of myself, and those images come through. For example, I looked at Tintin books when I was really, really young—before I could even read—and so there were elements of the stories that I didn’t understand the relevance of. In The Secret of the Unicorn there’s one scene where Tintin is down in this basement. He’s been kidnapped. He wakes up and there’s this intercom that’s stuck on the wall. And in my mind, I had no idea what an intercom was, but I could tell that there was a voice balloon coming from this little hole in the wall.

In a weird and felicitous coincidence, I happened to have read The Secret of the Unicorn just last week and then read a comic by Burns in the May or June 2010 issue of The Believer where he riffs on the very scene he’s described above, a comic I only understood after reading Unicorn. Here’s the comic–

The AV Club Interviews Lynda Barry

The AV Club’s Tasha Robinson interviews comix legend Lynda Barry. In the (rather lengthy) interview, Barry discusses teaching her craft–

It’s a really hard thing to teach students. The two things I always try to teach them is, one, you have to stay in motion. It doesn’t mean that you have to just write blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Write the alphabet. You have to stay in motion. And the other thing is, when you get stuck, don’t read over what you just wrote. Especially if you have a computer. Maybe by hand is not so bad, but with a computer, what happens is… My experience has always been that there is a point when the story just stops. Always. You know, it’s just like when you’re dancing. There’s a time when you’re fake-dancing, because the groove has stopped. Then you’re back in the groove. So if people understood that that’s a natural part of making something, and they knew what to do during that time… But what people will do if they’re writing on a computer is, when that time comes and it’s quiet for a minute, they panic and go back and start fixing stuff above it that was not even broken. You can’t start to fix something until you know what it’s for, you know? So I always try to get my students to just sustain the state of mind for a certain amount of time. Even though I use 24 panels for my students, they’ll have seven minutes to just sustain this open state of mind while they’re writing, keep their hand in motion. But it’s really tough to get them to believe me, to just to even give it a try. And then once they do, it’s really fun.

Biblioklept Interviews Mahendra Singh About Fitting Lewis Carroll into a Protosurrealist Straitjacket with Matching Dada Cufflinks

Mahendra Singh’s new book is a graphic-novelization of Lewis Carroll’s epic poem The Hunting of the Snark (read our review). Singh was kind enough to talk to us about his project over a series of emails. The Hunting of the Snark is available now in hardback from Melville House. You can read more about Singh’s work at his website.

Biblioklept: Where did your interest in Carroll originate?

Singh: I read the Alice books as a child and only read the Snark when I was a teenager. The Alice’s were fun, as was the Snark, but it also puzzled me at first. It was hard-core Nonsense and it took me a while to digest it, and half-way understand it. It was a great mental stretching exercise, still is. Kids need that sort of thing if they want their brains to grow up to be something besides consumer units.

Alice’s game of Nonsense is really a warm-up to the Snark’s. When Carroll got to the Snark, he’d had a bit of practice and was in top form. The Snark is really Alice 2.0, the more expensive professional upgrade to Nonsense Making.

When I was young, I had odd reading tastes. From 70s SF to Aristophanes to the Ramayana; I was a little piggy. What I usually liked was a complex, completely furnished fictional world, along with a nice musicality with words. What really turned me on was when that fictional world would be logically intertwined with the real world, past or present. In short, one world would be a sort of code for the other.

I think a lot of kids still like that, it’s really the basic premise of most storytelling, although nowadays it is often so deeply monetized and predigested that it’s hard to really enjoy or even benefit from.

In any case, everything Carroll wrote fit my tastes, but the Snark was extra-special, the difference being that this epic poem (the only genuine Victorian epic poem and I’ll defend that claim against all comers), this epic took the Alice premise of mismatching appearances and meaning and took it to its logical conclusion, which itself is another Nonsense paradox doubled upon itself — beware these Carrollian infinite regressions!

In the Snark, the story-telling code of Nonsense is perfected. Most of the elements are still drawn from the familiar, real world but they are so recombined that their appearances and meaning are impossible to decipher anymore. And yet the persistent, nagging feeling of a genuine logic behind it all still remains.

I think for most young people who are thinking things over, the above Snarkian description is a pretty accurate of their budding world view. And anyway, breaking world-codes was pure catnip for me, it’s the essence of reading, good reading anyway.

And I have to mention the poetry. I’ve always loved poetry and Carroll’s verse skills in the Snark are the perfect vehicle for what he’s doing. Their anapestic bounce, their goofy mouth feel (the mouthfeel of Old English poetry charms and chants) make a perfect vehicle for the code. It’s a bit of a music hall, Gilbert & Sullivan feel to what is technically a tragic verse epic.

I wouldn’t say I’m a full-bore Carrollian Obsessive, I’ve met plenty of them and they’re dangerous … quiet, nattily dressed librarians with bow ties and a deadpan penchant for puns and parody. Book editors concealing rural silos crammed full of  highly addictive Carrollian Nonsense. Carrollian Illuminatis cleverly disguised as entomologists hanging out at obscure Snarkian forestry associations.

I’m just a Carrollian Nutter, I’m harmless as long as I have access to drawing materials. And pictures of Snarks.

Biblioklept: You’ve described your work on Snark as “fitting Lewis Carroll into a protosurrealist straitjacket with matching Dada cufflinks.” Why do the techniques of surrealism and Dada lend themselves to Carroll?

Singh: Surrealism is one of those things that everyone can point at but few can define. It’s the idea of awakening the sleeper within us and letting them speak to us in their own dream language of pictures and words. Since dreams are a universal form of memory that draw upon every possible human experience, Surrealism is sort of the simultaneous dream-memory of everything.

Protosurrealism is what I call the comfy, cozy Carrollian straitjacket I’ve trapped my Snark in. Carroll was himself hailed as a protosurrealist by the founding fathers of this odd cult, Breton, Aragon, etc. His work, with its dreamlike logic and free associations entranced them and they regarded him as a unique trail-blazer in their explorations. And his verse, to me, is the epitome of the dream world; all poetry (Nonsense or otherwise) must surely be the natural, Adamic language of dreams!

The Surrealist Max Ernst was an enormous inspiration to me — his technique of using 19th-century engravings to illustrate dream stories is brilliant; the old-fashioned, realistic visual style gives them a jarring sense of authority. Realism is the optimal style of the determined dreamer! The urban dreamscapes and dream-eroded objects of Giorgio de Chirico and his brother, the unjustly neglected Alberto Savinio, were also part of my bag of tricks. And of course, references to Rene Magritte are scattered everywhere in this Snark. Magritte’s various techniques for undermining systems of linguistic and visual meaning are ideally suited to navigating the Carrollian Multiverse.

It’s hard to illustrate an idea and oddly enough, the Snark is really a poem of ideas, couched in the form of a tragic epic and then declaimed by a master comedian. One thing I wanted to avoid was doing literal drawings of the scenes in it; I wanted the Snark to constantly bring up a stream of associations, references, insinuations, all of them triggering more and faster allusions, what I call a gateway Surrealism that leaves readers hopelessly addicted and desperate for more! Don’t say no, kids!

I’ll add that protosurrealism is the 21st-century application of 19th-century answers to 20th-century problems. The application is this 21st century Snark, the answers are the Victorian rendering style I used and also Carroll’s entire invention of Victorian Nonsense, and the questions are the existential questions that 20th-century artists couched in the language of Surrealism.

Plus, let’s face it, Surrealism just looks cooler! Who wants a postmodernist or abstract expressionist Snark? And the smart kids love it, they’re still young enough to dare to question the sordid, official version of reality. Which is where Dada comes in — there’s a bit of it in my Snark and it’s there because Dada was the ultimate poke in Western Civ’s eye. If the idea of using a blank map isn’t pure Dada, what is it then?

It’s odd having to discuss this in words, proof positive that the Surrealist project remains unfinished. In a perfect Surrealist world, the meaning of my Snark would bleed out of the book and contaminate the reader’s world until they could not distinguish where the Snark began or reality left off. And that’s the essence of Carrollian Nonsense, fiddling with the logical doors of perception.

Biblioklept: Much of surrealist and Dadaist art seems to be an immediate response to mechanical reproduction. In Snark, you seem to at times be reconfiguring, recombining, recontextualizing otherwise familiar images. How do you work? How do you go about creating your art? Can you describe your process?

Singh: Mechanical reproduction can be a loaded phrase. Walter Benjamin gave it quite the kick in the pants, pointing out that it is a degradation of the cult object, a commodification, etc. But the problem is us, the public. A work of art has absolutely no meaning or value except what the viewer puts into it. This is a very important point. If art is degraded or degrades others, it is our choice.

Poor Benjamin, a smart guy but always wriggling back into a Marxist strait-jacket just as useless as medieval Scholasticism or modern neoconservatism. At least Carrollian Nonsense makes the kiddies giggle! He never grasped that all philosophy is individual psychology (and wish-fulfilment) in essence. That’s why the Banker in my Snark is Karl Marx — revenge was sweet! I also included Nietzsche as the Bonnet-maker and Heidegger as the Barrister to round things off. I can assure you, several philosophers were injured in the course of this production. A broken ontology can be quite painful.

Nothing has meaning or value unless we decide it does. For years, readers have puzzled over the meaning behind the Snark. It’s another Carrolian Zen koan : the meaning is the meaning. It’s always been staring us in the face, the meaning of the Snark is a verb, it is to search for meaning and when doing so, one automatically generates a meaniningful purpose just as naturally as a spider ejects its web. Inside this silky web is the comfort of whatever logic you feel up to (and that is the secret pleasure of Carrollian Nonsense) and outside the web is just chaos, a Boojum!

In my Snark I’ve mashed up artists including Hieronymous Bosch, Grünewald, Titian, Théodore Géricault, David, Ingres, even George Herriman and also many Surrealists such as Man Ray, Dali, Magritte, etc. There are musicians and authors, the Beatles and Gilbert and Sullivan, Edgar Allan Poe, the Comte de Lautremont, even Victorian parlor games and optical illusions. The idea was to create a web, a labyrinth of allusions in which to hunt the Snark. Some of the references will be familiar but some will not and the reader, if so inclined, can hunt them down on their own. It’s a hunt within a hunt, another Carrollian regression.

The educational aspect is important to me. I really do hope some of the kids who read this will get curious and start off on their own, pillaging a library, ransacking a museum, sneaking into the opera, whatever turns them on. The smart kids are hungry for culture. We must get them thinking, to get them to manufacture and own their own meanings before a mass-marketing goon does it for them.

The actual process of creating the imagery was simple, it’s basically me lying on a sofa, maybe a quick snooze and then free-associating while pondering the text. The cover image is a good example, it’s also the illustration for the whiskered Snarks who scratch and the feathered Snarks who bite. This made me think of Old Scratch, the devil, AKA Lucifer, who was once an angel with feathered wings who also showed a nasty tendency to bite the hand that feeds. I had a vague visual memory of seeing a photo of a surrealist devil; I rummaged through some books until I found it — Denise Bellon’s photo of the Québécois Surrealist, Jean Benoit, at a costume party.

The slippers are what caught my eye, it made me think of Old Scratch lounging at home in Pandemonium, his day off, not bothering to shave, hence the whiskers that scratch. I made the toes unequal on a lark, it just seemed right to have Satan misshapen but afterwards I came up with a cabalistic explanation which I won’t bore you with for now.

I then did a pencil drawing on tissue paper, constantly refining and adding or deleting, this was the slowest part of the entire Snark, the pencils. Afterwards I did the pen and ink drawing atop the tissue, on Denril, a synthetic vellum. This is an old technical illustrator’s work habit, which is how I started out actually, in the 80s.

This business of free associating while simultaneously referring to one’s internal visual memory is only possible if one has spent many years romping though books and museums. You cannot be a serious illustrator if you don’t read and look voraciously, all the time. And above all, don’t look at too much rubbish or you will start drawing rubbish. Art students reading this, take heed! You are what you see.

Recombining Surrealism and other –isms, along with the free associations triggered by Carroll’s Nonsense verse, creates a matrix which allows the reader to move seamlessly back and forth between the worlds of dreams, culture, memory and emotion. Those readers who catch the references will enjoy the historical and even non-verbal logic binding them, the rest is up to you.

You are really bringing the meaning with you, and when confronted by my Snark I hope it triggers a cascade of free associations, a mental phenomenon which is the precursor to dreaming, the royal road of Surrealism and Carrollian Nonsense.

Biblioklept: How does your work respond to the nine illustrations by Henry Holiday that originally accompanied Carroll’s text?

Singh: Holiday’s illustrations are odd things, I’ve never been very keen on them. He was a graceful artist usually, very talented and yet these drawings are a bit grotesque, ugly perhaps. They just don’t look so appealing to me. The technique is flawless though, a very classic British style of line work that lasted well into the 1940s.

Some Snarkologists believe that Holiday worked with Carroll to hide a secret meaning in the art. Angles and distances have been measured, objects analysed,  hidden shapes discovered and reconfigured. Who knows? It’s unlikely but in any case, you can’t avoid Holiday if you’re doing the Snark.

I used some of his symbols, the bare-breasted woman and her anchor representing Hope, a very british motif which suits the nautical nature of much of the quest. His picture of the Beaver doing its math problem inspired me to treat that entire Fit the Fifth as a long variation upon the Temptation of St. Anthony, especially the version by Bosch. Holiday really nailed that one. I have to confess that Flaubert’s version is a favorite book of mine and I tried to give this part of the Snark the same baroque, over the top feeling of deranged pagan vs. Christian imagery.

Holiday also crammed a considerable number of small details in the Beaver illustration. It’s quite a contrast to the style of the other big Carroll illustrator, Sir John Tenniel, who favored a cleaner look. Nowadays this technique is called “chicken fat” and I used a lot of chicken fat in my Snark, more than Holiday. Of course, with only 9 drawings, he had to keep to a slower visual tempo. That was another reason I did it as a graphic novel — I could vary the tempo quite a bit and really overwhelm the reader with chicken fat when the verses demanded it.

On the other hand, doing it as a graphic novel required creating a narrative visual thread through the whole thing, something which Holiday really didn’t need. In this case, my idea was to make it a theatrical presentation, each Fit a new set change until the end, when Carroll is revealed as the spectator in the empty hall. Carroll was fond of theatricals and the Snark does have a stagey feel to it anyway.

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

Singh: Yes, Aces High, a lavishly illustrated book about British fighter pilot aces of WWI. It once graced the shelves of the high school I once attended in a desultory manner (myself, not the book). I was, and still am, fascinated by all things aviation and I could not bear the sight of that wonderful book languishing there, unremarked, unappreciated. I still know the difference between a Sopwith Pup and a Sopwith Camel and I love a well-executed Immelman at the crack of dawn. It was wrong to do and I can only plead callow youth in my defence. Don’t do it, kids! It isn’t worth it! Gosh, I hope Mrs. Merrill isn’t reading this . .  .

The Hunting of the Snark — Lewis Carroll (with Surreal New Illustrations by Mahendra Singh)

I scrapped my first two drafts for a review of Melville House’s new edition of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. The problem was that I was struggling to figure out Carroll’s Nonsense poem (subtitled An Agony in Eight Fits) about a ten man crew who take to the sea, to, you know, hunt a Snark. The Bellman seems to lead them. There’s the Banker, Baker, and other guys whose names start with “b” — including enemies the Beaver and the Butcher (who wind up tight allies). The poem is both silly and dense, rippling with weird wordplay and allusions that are, for the most part, beyond me. It’s often hard to follow, and sometimes has the effect of making the reader (or at least this reader) feel like he’s skating on the surface of some deeper profundities — or, alternately, maybe it’s just Nonsense, to use Carroll’s term.

Anyway. I solve my dilemma by retreating to the real occasion for reviewing the book, namely Mahendra Singh’s marvelous and strange illustrations. Singh, a member of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America (and an editor of their journal, Knight Letter), describes his illustrated version as “fitting Lewis Carroll into a proto-Surrealist straitjacket with matching Dada cufflinks.” In both its imagery and heavy, dark lines, Singh’s project readily recalls one of my favorite books, Max Ernst’s proto-graphic novel, Une Semaine de Bonté, as well as Henry Holiday’s original illustrations for the book. Singh lards his illustrations with visual paradoxes, puzzles, and puns, as well as references to artists ranging from de Chirico and Magritte to Dali and Bosch. There are also nods to pop culture (including the Beatles).  And Freud, because, hey, why not. Observe–

Singh’s puzzles, like Lewis’s, do not immediately reveal their meaning, but of course this is part of the joy of the book. In his instructive afterword, Singh tells us that “each drawing should make some sort of sense of the verse it explains or at least, make Nonsense.”  His greater goal though seems to be to share his love of Carroll with his readers (“in particular the younger ones”), who he hopes will “further pursue on their own that immense cultural heritage which silently — and so faithfully — awaits them.” My three year old daughter enjoyed the book very much, and had the good sense (Nonsense?) not to get too flummoxed over what Snark means. This is probably a wise course to follow. As Singh observes in his afterword, “whenever Carroll was asked what the poem meant, he always replied that he did not know. “Of course, just because its creator didn’t know its meaning (or at least claimed not to) doesn’t mean that Snark doesn’t have meaning–it’s just the kind of ambiguous meaning that floats around on dream logic, and Singh’s surrealism, with its playful, amorphous shifts, is the right choice to illustrate the poem. I’m not sure if “illustrate” is the right verb here, though. Certainly these are illustrations, but Singh’s goal isn’t so much to literally render Lewis’s words in pictures as it is to echo their spirit. Singh’s art works in tandem with the poem, accompanying it through symbolic and metaphorical transfers, arriving at times to weird conjunctions and discordances, and, perhaps, generating new meanings. Recommended.

The Hunting of the Snark is new in hardback this month from Melville House. More at Singh’s blog.

The AV Club Interviews Charles Burns

The AV Club’s Sam Adams interviews Charles Burns about Tintin, Burroughs, why he’s not involved in making the Black Hole movie, 1977, why he had to change how he colored his art, and his new book, X’ed Out. There’s also this nugget (we’d been wondering)–

AVC: Is the completed three-volume work going to be called X’ed Out?

CB: They’re all going to be different stories. So for the next one, it says “Next: The Hive.” So the next book is called The Hive.

AVC: Is there a name for the trilogy?

CB: No, not in my mind.

From Hell — Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell

Earlier this week, I pulled out From Hell with the bold intention of re-reviewing it for this site. I love Halloween and I love Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s epic revision of the Jack the Ripper murders, so this seemed as good an occasion as any for a reread (especially considering the “review”  I wrote back in October of 2006 is so lazy that I won’t even link to it). Alas, I misjudged or misremembered the sheer density of From Hell–so, on Halloween day, I’m still only half way through, despite staying up way past my bed time, crouching under my sheets with a quavering flashlight, scanning Moore’s erudite words and Campbell’s scratchy inks (okay, that image is an exaggeration). I’ve read it at least thrice before, so I’ll review it anyway.

From Hell posits Sir William Gull, a physician to Queen Victoria, as the orchestrator of the Jack the Ripper murders that terrified Londoners at the end of the 19th century. Although the murders initially arise out of the need to cover up the knowledge of the existence of an illegitimate son begat by foolish Prince Albert, Victoria’s grandson. However, for Gull the murders represent much more–they are part of the continued forces of “masculine rationality” that will constrain “lunar female power.” Gull is a high-level Mason; during a stroke, he experiences a vision of the Masonic god Jahbulon, one which prompts him to his “great work”–namely, the murders that will reify masculine dominance.

One of the standout chapters in the book is Gull’s tour of London, with his hapless (and witless) sidekick Netley. In a trip that weds geography, religion, politics, and mythology, Gull riffs on a barbaric, hermetic history of London, revealing the gritty city as an ongoing site of conflict between paganism and orthodoxy, artistic lunacy and scientific rationality, female and male, left brain and right brain. The tour ends with a plan to commit the first murder. From there, the book picks up the story of Frederick Abberline, the Scotland Yard inspector charged with solving the murders. Of course, the murders are unsolvable, as the hierarchy of London–from the Queen down to the head of police–are well aware of who the (government-commissioned) murderer is. The police procedural aspects of the plot are fascinating and offer a balanced contrast with Gull’s mystical visions–visions that culminate in a climax of a sort of time-travel, in which Gull not only sees London at the end of the twentieth century, but also receives a guarantee that his murder plot has had its intended effect. From Hell takes many of its cues from the idea that history is shaped not by random events, but rather by tragic conspiracies that force people to willingly give up freedom to a “rational” authority. The book points repeatedly to the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway murders, which led directly to the world’s first modern police force. In our own time, if we’re open to conspiracy theories, we might find the same pattern in the 21st century responses to terrorism (Patriot Act, anyone?).

Although From Hell features moments of supernatural horror in Gull’s mysticism, it is the book’s grimy realism that is far more terrifying. London in the late 1880s is no place you want to be, especially if you are poor, especially if you are a woman. The city is its own character, a labyrinth larded with ancient secrets the inhabitants of which cannot hope to plumb. Despite the nineteenth century’s claims for enlightenment and rationality, this London is bizarrely cruel and deeply unfair. Campbell’s style evokes this London and its denizens with a surreal brilliance; his dark inks are by turns exacting and then erratic, concentrated and purposeful and then wild and severe. The art is somehow both rich and stark, like the coal-begrimed London it replicates. Although Moore has much to say, he allows Campbell’s art to forward the plot whenever possible. Moore is erudite and fascinating; even when one of his characters is lecturing us, it’s a lecture we want to hear. His ear for dialog and tone lends great sympathy to each of the characters, especially the unfortunate women who must turn to prostitution to earn their “doss” money. And while Abberline’s frustrations at having to solve a crime that no higher-ups want solve make him the hero of this story, Gull’s mystic madness makes him the narrative’s dominant figure. Rereading this time, I realized there is no character he reminds me of as much as Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I’m also reading Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent now, a book that dovetails neatly with From Hell, both in its time and setting, but also in its exploration of social unrest and duplicitous authority. Both novels feature detectives fighting a complacent system, and both novels feature a working class that threatens to erupt in socialist or anarchist rebellion.

From Hell is a fantastic starting place for anyone interested in Moore’s work, more self-contained than his comics that reimagine superhero myths, like Watchmen or Swamp Thing, and more satisfying and fully achieved than Promethea or V Is for Vendetta. Be forewarned that it is a graphic graphic novel, although I do not believe its violence is gratuitous or purposeless. Indeed, From Hell aspires to remark upon the futility and ugliness of cyclical violence, and it does so with wisdom and verve. Highly recommended.

Charles Burns Annotates a Page from X’ed Out

At New York Magazine, Charles Burns annotates a page from his excellent new graphic novel X’ed Out. See the slideshow here. A sample–

“I don’t know exactly where he came from,” Burns says with a laugh about the mysterious guide in Nitnit’s world. “He’s got diapers, a backpack that’s got punk buttons on it. You can’t tell whether he’s young or old, but he’s kind of a street urchin. I haven’t figured out what to call him.”

X’ed Out — Charles Burns

If you like Charles Burns, go ahead and pick up X’ed Out, the first (and very promising) entry in a new trilogy. Skip this review. You’ll probably be happier (and more unsettled) just experiencing all that vivid, glorious weirdness for yourself without any potential spoilers. If you need convincing, read on.

X’ed Out begins in a strange fever-dreamland that doesn’t immediately announce itself as such. Instead, we tentatively enter this weird world with Doug, the book’s protagonist, who, like Alice following the white rabbit, chases his (long dead) childhood cat through a crack in the wall. Doug traverses a cavernous, ruinous place, littered with murky detritus and swamped in a strange flood, to finally arrive in a bizarre desert town that approximates William Burroughs’s Interzone. Populated by mean lizards who dress like Mormon slackers and other grubby grotesques, the terrain readily recalls both Tatooine and Asian bazaars. Hapless Doug, still in pajamas, house coat, and slippers — and marked by an as-yet-unexplained head wound — soon finds himself under the guidance of a strange little diapered dwarf, who may or may not have his best interest in mind. The dreamworld unravels as Doug glances an old man — an “oldie,” as the dwarf says — who we will learn later is Doug’s father. An all of a sudden we’re back in the real world, back in waking life.

But no. That’s not right. Not “back” — we were never in the waking world to begin with. Significantly, X’ed Out begins in the Burroughsian dreamworld and then moves to a conscious, concrete reality. Burns’s dreamworld sequences explicitly reference Belgian cartoonist Hergé’s seminal Tintin comics (you can see how X’ed Out’s cover riffs on the Tintin adventure The Shooting Star here). Doug’s dream face is an expressive, stark mask, a naïve, cartoonish contrast to the bizarre nightmare to which it reacts.

 

from X'ed Out by Charles Burns

 

Doug — the waking world Doug, the “real” Doug, that is — pulls a similar mask over his more realistically drawn face later in the story when he does his “Burroughs thing” at a slummy art punk party. Alienated from the scenesters who don’t get his cut-up poetry performance, Doug takes up with Sarah, a girl from his photography class with a thing for razor blades and pig hearts. The same night they meet, he loses his girlfriend, and her crazy boyfriend goes to jail for assaulting a cop. They initiate their romance in Patti Smith records, lines of cocaine, and sick Polaroids. Ah, young love.

But all of that is in another kind of dreamworld, the past, a retreat for the “real,” contemporary Doug, who spends his few waking hours cringing in his bathrobe, poring over old photos, and eating the occasional Pop Tart. At night he eats pain pills and goes to Interzone-land, a place that seems as real and solid and valid as his past with Sarah, a past he has apparently lost. Doug bears a huge patch over half his head (significantly x-shaped in his Interzone version), and both this wound as well as the psychic trauma he’s obviously endured (and is enduring) remain unexplained throughout X’ed Out. However, Burns’s often-grisly images hint repeatedly at a past event filled with violence and loss. X’ed Out leaves us in the Interzone, with the dwarf making long-term plans for Tintinized Doug. There’s even talk of establishing residency and employment–it feels like Doug is here to stay (at least in his non-waking hours). X’ed Out ends maddeningly with a girl who visually recalls Sarah being borne by lizard men to a giant hive. The dwarf explains that she is their new queen–and like some insect queen, she is a breeder. Yuck. The ending is the biggest problem with X’ed Out, simply because it leaves one stranded, wanting more weirdness.

In Black Hole, Burns established himself as a master illustrator and a gifted storyteller, using severe black and white contrast to evoke that tale’s terrible pain and pathos. X’ed Out appropriately brings rich, complex color to Burns’s method, and the book’s oversized dimensions showcase the art beautifully. This is a gorgeous book, both attractive and repulsive (much like Freud’s concept of “the uncanny,” which is very much at work in Burns’s plot). Like I said at the top, fans of Burns’s comix likely already know they want to read X’ed Out; weirdos who love Burroughs and Ballard and other great ghastly fiction will also wish to take note. Highly recommended.

X’ed Out is available in hardback from Pantheon on October 19th, 2010.