A page from Bill Sienkiewicz’s Stray Toasters #1 (Marvel/Epic, 1988)
A page from Bill Sienkiewicz’s Stray Toasters #1 (Marvel/Epic, 1988)
Eddie Campbell’s book Alec: How to Be an Artist (Eddie Campbell Comics, 2001) covers the “rise and fall of the graphic” over the course of a few decades. Alec combines memoir with art history and art criticism, all told through scratchy inks and spidery lettering (and plenty of pastiche–Campbell literally pastes the work of other comic artists of the last century throughout the book, along with “serious” artwork ). While Campbell’s autobiographical stand-in “Alec MacGarry” is obviously central to the story, other figures loom here, including Bill Sienkiewicz (“Billy the Sink”), Art Spiegelman, Stephen Bissette, Dave Sim, Eastman and Laird—and especially Campbell’s From Hell partner, Alan Moore.
How to Be an Artist offers a fascinating and personal look at the time before (and immediately after) comic books reached a tipping point into (gasp!) serious artistic respectability. Witty, warm, and occasionally cruel, Campbell’s book explores the intersection of commerce and art in a very particular place and a very particular time.
The book was especially revelatory for me, I suppose: I transitioned from super hero comics to, like comix in the early nineties, a transition helped by works championed in How to Be an Artist, like Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Sandman books and Dave Sim’s Cerebus. Indeed, the backpages of Cerebus in the late eighties and early nineties operated like a long messy ranty meditation on the theme of “How to be an (independent, successful, self-publishing) artist”—and it was also in the backpages of an issue of Cerebus that I first saw Campbell’s work (the prologue of From Hell was published in Cerebus #124).
How to Be an Artist’s final chapter sees Campbell offer up a canon of “graphic novels” from 1977 to 2001 (I’ve typed out the full list at the bottom of this post). Campbell (or, properly, Campbell’s persona Alec) begins the chapter by dwelling on the problematic term “graphic novel”:
After resolving to use the term, despite whatever problems might be attached to it, Campbell goes on to point out that, after the success of works like Watchmen and Maus, a glut of so-called “graphic novels” flooded the market place. He then goes about naming the best, those works that represent a “worthwhile phase in the human cultural continuum”:
The list is organized semi-chronologically; Campbell groups works in a series together, as with Will Eisner’s Dropsie Ave books. Here’s the first page of the canon, to give you an idea of its form and layout (note that the list, like the entire book, is written in the future tense):
I’ve never read When the Wind Blows.
I’ve also never read, to my shame, the unfinished project Big Numbers (by Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz). Campbell details the drama surrounding why the project was never finished in How to Be an Artist. I’ll have to track it down.
Campbell includes a trio of Love & Rockets novels. Poison River is the first one I read. I was a junior in high school; I checked it out from the public library. Somehow my mother saw it, flicked through it, and was mortified.
Campbell seems to split the difference on Dave Sim’s Cerebus, including critical favorite Jaka’s Story along with the later novel Going Home (which sees Sim trying to reign in the project and steer it toward a conclusion). (Nobody asked me but I would’ve included Church & State and Church & State II).
Joe Sacco’s comix-journalism is excellent, and Campbell includes both Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde. These “graphic novels” (they aren’t really graphic novels, except that they are) expanded what was possible not just in comics, but also in journalism.
From Hell isn’t the only one of his own works that Campbell includes on his list—he also includes another Alec novel, The King of Canute Crowd. I love the gesture—an artist fully assured of the qualities in his best work. For the record, if pressed to name “the best graphic novel” I would probably immediately say, “Oh, it’s From Hell of course” (and then hem and haw and hedge, bringing up Chris Ware’s Building Stories, the first half of Sim’s Cerebus project, David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp, Love & Rockets, etc.).
Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan shows up on the list, of course. I’m sure Building Stories would be on here too—along with dozens of others—if the list were updated. Indeed, Campbell’s canon (my term, not his), ends with this disclaimer:
Here’s the full list:
A Contract with God, Will Eisner, 1977
A Life Force, Will Eisner, 1985
The Dreamer, Will Eisner, 1986/1991
Dropsie Avenue, Will Eisner, 1995
Tantrum, Jules Feiffer, 1979
When the Wind Blows, Raymond Briggs, 1982
Maus, Art Spiegleman, 1991
V for Vendetta, Alan Moore and David Lloyd, 1988
Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, 1988
Big Numbers, Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz, 1990
The Death of Speedy, Jaime Hernandez, 1989
Blood of Palomar, Gilbert Hernandez, 1989
Poison River, Gilbert Hernandez, 1994
Jaka’s Story, Dave Sim and Gerhard, 1990
Going Home, Dave Sim and Gerhard, 1999
Alec: The King Canute Crowd, 1990
The New Adventures of Hitler, Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell, 1990
The Cowboy Wally Show, Kyle Baker, 1987
Why I Hate Saturn, Kyle Baker, 1990
Violent Cases, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, 1987
Signal to Noise, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, 1992
Mr. Punch, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, 1995
Casanova’s Last Stand, Hunt Emerson, 1993
Tale of One Bad Rat, Bryan Talbot, 1995
City of Glass, Paul Auster/David Mazzucchelli, 1994
The Playboy/I Never Liked You, Chester Brown, 1991/1994
Stuck Rubber Baby, Howard Cruse, 1995
Palestine, Joe Sacco, 1996
Safe Area Gorazde, Joe Sacco, 2000
Ghost World, Daniel Clowes, 1997/2000
It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken, Seth, 1997
Ethel and Ernest, Raymond Briggs, 1998
Gemma Bovery, Posy Simmonds, 1999
Cages, Dave McKean, 1998
Uncle Sam, Steve Darnall and Alex Ross, 1998
From Hell, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, 1999
Hicksville, Dylan Horrocks, 1998
The Jew of New York, Ben Katchor, 1998
Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, Chris Ware, 2001
Goodbye, Chunky Rice, Craig Thompson, 1999
Dear Julia, Brian Biggs, 2000
Berlin, Jason Lutes, 2001
Awaiting the Collapse collects some of the finest and most surreal comix from Paul Kirchner, from the 1970s up through this decade. The book is big and bold and gorgeous. Here’s the back cover:
Awaiting the Collapse is new in hardback from Tanibis Editions, the same good people who brought us hardback editions of The Bus (which I reviewed here), and The Bus 2 (which I reviewed here). A large portion of Collapse features Kirchner’s surreal western Dope Rider strips, which have been hard to find on the internet. It also collects the covers that Kirchner did for Screw magazine, as well as dozens of other one-offs and vignettes, comix in different modes, moods, and manners.
The collection ends with a nice long essay (including numerous photographs, strips, and illustrations) by Kirchner called “Sex, Drugs & Public Transportation: My Strange Trip Through Comics.” I haven’t gotten to it yet because I’m trying to restrain myself from gobbling the collection up all at once.
Here’s Tanibis’s blurb:
This third collaboration between French publishing house Tanibis and comic book artist Paul Kirchner is a collection of the artist’s works, most of them initially published in counter-culture magazines in the 1970s and the 1980s and some dating from his return to comics in the 2010s.
Roughly a third of the stories star Dope Rider, the pot-smoking skeleton whose psychedelic adventures take him through colorful vistas equally reminiscent of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western films and of the surrealistic paintings of René Magritte and Salvador Dalí. These stories were originally drawn for the marijuana-themed magazine High Times but were also for Kirchner an excuse to create his very own brand of visual poetry.
An other third of the book is a miscellaneous collection of comics whose stories range from the loony (the sextraterrestrial invasion of Earth in “They Came from Uranus”) to the satirical (“Critical mass of cool”) and the outright subversive (if you ever wondered what games toys play at night, read “Dolls at Midnight”).
This book also features a broad selection of the covers Kirchner made for the pornographic tabloid Screw in the 1970s.
Awaiting the Collapse finally contains a previously unpublished essay by Paul Kirchner about his career and his influences, which helps put in perspective the works published in this book.
I promise I’ll have a review of Awaiting the Collapse up soon; for now, let me just underline my enthusiasm—it’s weird and wonderful and gorgeous stuff.
Diaspora Boy, new from O/R Books, collects Eli Valley’s comix from the past decade.
Here’s O/R’s blurb:
Eli Valley’s comic strips are intricate fever dreams employing noir, horror, slapstick and science fiction to expose the outlandish hypocrisies at play in the American/Israeli relationship. Sometimes banned, often controversial and always hilarious, Valley’s work has helped to energize a generation exasperated by American complicity in an Israeli occupation now entering its fiftieth year.
This, the first full-scale anthology of Valley’s art, provides an essential retrospective of America and Israel at a turning point. With meticulously detailed line work and a richly satirical palette peppered with perseverating turtles, xenophobic Jedi knights, sputtering superheroes, mutating golems and zombie billionaires, Valley’s comics unmask the hypocrisy and horror behind the headlines. This collection supplements the satires with historical background and contexts, insights into the creative process, selected reactions to the works, and behind-the-scenes tales of tensions over what was permissible for publication.
Brutally riotous and irreverent, the comics in this volume are a vital contribution to a centuries-old tradition of graphic protest and polemics.
Diaspora Boy, subtitled Comics on Crisis in America and Israel, is enormous (if a slim 144 pages). Valley’s comix are reproduced on full pages; his thick inks and worried lines are never cramped here—and neither are his words. Here’s a shot of the book with a Penguin novel as a comparison point:
The anthology makes great use of its oversized format. On the left-hand pages, Valley introduces each comic (all chronologically-ordered, by the way) with a short essay that offers context, personal reflections, and even analysis or interpretation. The comics are then reproduced on the right-hand pages. You can see this below, in Valley’s mash-up of Kafka’s The Trial with the Knesset vs. J Street hearings:
The cultural, political—and personal—contexts that Valley provides are perhaps essential for many readers, like me, who may know a bit about comix and Kafka, but are perhaps lost when it comes to a discussion of a “hearing into the heart and soul of Diaspora Jewry” (as Valley puts it).
Valley is constantly riffing on American popular culture, mining comic books, films, television and music for his bitter mash-ups, as in “Choose Your Own Apocalypse” below, a comic that turns the Iran debate into a grotesque and ironic Choose Your Adventure tale:
Like many comix artists, Valley’s target audience is nebulous—or rather maybe it’s just himself. He appropriates American culture’s broad shared mythic signifiers to satirize the incredibly specific details of an American Jew’s relationship to Israel—namely, his relationship. The first comic in the collection, 2007’s “What if Batman and Robin Worked in the American Jewish Community?” satirically captures Valley’s teenage anxieties about his relationship to Jewish identity:
In his thorough (and completely necessary) introduction to Diaspora Boy, Valley recounts at some length a complicated relationship with his parents, both Ba’alei Teshurva (he points out that this Hebrew expression “literally means ‘Masters of Return,'” but continues then characterizes it as “a fancy way of of saying ‘Born Again Jews'”). Valley writes that his father interrogated him daily as to whether or not his new friends and acquaintances in his public high school were Jewish or not, and it’s hard not to read these personal anxieties into Valley’s comix (even if I know it’s not good criticism to extrapolate that Valley is “Johnny” in the Batman riff above). Valley’s mother later left the orthodoxy and the marriage, becoming “secular.” Valley positions them, perhaps, as two poles of “reverence and rebellion” which inform his work.
The “reverence” might be hard to spot. In their press page for Diaspora Boy, after three quotes praising Valley’s comix, O/R includes some scathing gems: from former New Republic publisher Marty Peretz: “Your work is disgusting. And also stupid”; Abraham Foxman, former National Director of the Anti-Defamation League: “Bigoted, unfunny”; neocon hack Bret Stephens: “Grotesque…Wretched.” It’s plain to see how conservatives like these might be offended by Valley’s comix. Indeed, it’s not just the message, but the form that they might object to—Valley’s style is sharp but rough, its subtlety relying almost wholly on an extremely ironic viewpoint.
If it’s easy to see how conservatives might resent Valley’s satire, it’s also possible to see how moderates or liberals might misunderstand these comix too. Cartooning has always been a form with an inherently broad appeal. Editorial cartoons are meant to telegraph their ideas quickly and coherently, message and medium intertwined. Valley’s cartoons are harder to suss out. The layering of meaning is intense, magnified. Comic book heroes become displaced into ironic inversions of themselves, consumed by self-hatred. Literary tropes are twisted into a complex entanglement of Jewish-American cultural relations. Biblical stories are transposed into hallucinatory modern horror stories. And in turn contemporary figures—political, economic, cultural, etc.—are subsumed into the same mythic tropes that superheros operate within. It can all be a bit perplexing, and readers who only glance over the surface will miss the real message.
Thus, Valley’s introduction to the volume and his prefaces to each comic become essential context to understanding how to read these comix. The need for political context is especially strong when a cartoon has lost some of its currency due, simply, to the passing of time (they were editorials, after all). However, even when Valley is satirizing a particular news story or political moment that we might have forgotten, a viewpoint comes through, coherent and biting but sincere under all the ironic mechanisms in play. I’ll give Valley the last word here, letting him characterize his own project:
The comics in this collection take pride in Diaspora. Not just in a general sense but in a specific strain of Diaspora experience: the secular, post-Enlightenment, universalist Judaism informed by centuries of Jewish narrative tradition as well as by the experience of living in and amongst other communities. Among other things, it transformed memories of inequality into a lasting cultural norm of solidarity with the oppressed. Theses comics celebrate, relish, and dialogue with that history, a strain of Diaspora that finds far more inspiration in early and mid-twentieth-century social justice movements than in anything wrought in the contemporary Middle East. That is Jewish Pride: pride in the Jewish tradition practiced, experienced, and cherished by the vast majority of American Jews today. And for me, it’s personal. If I’d been brought up solely in the strain of secularism and social justice, I probably wouldn’t have come to filter political passions through an emphatically Jewish lens.
Cerebus #166, January, 1993 by Dave Sim and Gerhard; published by Aardvark-Vanaheim. This issue is Chapter 16 of the Mothers & Daughters storyline, Sim’s imagining of a tyrannical matriarchal state (sort of like The Handmaid’s Tale in reverse, sort of). This issue is one of my favorite chapters in the novel, a riff on Sim’s earlier “Mind Games” issues, wherein Cerebus’s dream-state shapes events in the real world. Mothers & Daughters is pretty much the last good Cerebus novel, before Sim took things completely off the rails in Reads.
Roman Muradov’s newest graphic novella, Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art (Uncivilized Books, 2016), is the brief, shadowy, surreal tale of an illustrator who’s robbed of his artwork by a rival.
There’s more of course.
In a sense though, the plot is best summarized in the first line of Jacob Bladders:
Maybe that’s too oblique for a summary (or not really a summary at all, if we’re being honest).
But it’s a fucking excellent opening line, right?
Like I said, “There’s more” and if the more—the plot—doesn’t necessarily cohere for you on a first or second reading, don’t worry. You do have worth, reader, and Muradov’s book believes that you’re equipped to tangle with some murky noir and smudgy edges. (It also trusts your sense of irony).
The opening line is part of a bold, newspaperish-looking introduction that pairs with a map. This map offers a concretish anchor to the seemingly-abstractish events of Jacob Bladders.
The map isn’t just a plot anchor though, but also a symbolic anchor, visually echoing William Blake’s Jacob’s Ladder (1805). Blake’s illustration of the story from Genesis 28:10-19 is directly referenced in the “Notes” that append the text of Jacob Bladders. There’s also a (meta)fictional “About the Author” section after the end notes (“Muradov died in October of 1949”), as well as twin character webs printed on the endpapers.
Along with the intro and map, these sections offer a set of metatextual reading rules for Jacob Bladders. The map helps anchor the murky timeline; the character webs help anchor the relationships between Muradov’s figures (lots of doppelgänger here, folks); the end notes help anchor Muradov’s satire.
These framing anchors are ironic though—when Muradov tips his hand, we sense that the reveal is actually another distraction, another displacement, another metaphor. (Sample end note: “METAPHOR: A now defunct rhetorical device relying on substitution of a real-life entity with any animal”).
It’s tempting to read perhaps too much into Jacob Bladder’s metatextual self-reflexivity. Here is writing about writing, art about art: an illustrated story about illustrating stories. And of course it’s impossible not to ferret out pseudoautobiographical morsels from the novella. Roman Muradov is, after all, a working illustrator, beholden to publishers, editors, art-directors, and deadlines. (Again from the end notes: “DEADLINE: A fictional date given to an illustrator to encourage timely delivery of the assignment. Usually set 1-2 days before the real (also known as ‘hard’) deadline”). If you’ve read The New Yorker or The New York Times lately, you’ve likely seen Muradov’s illustrations.
So what to make of the section of Jacob Bladders above? Here, a nefarious publisher commands a hapless illustrator to illustrate a “career ladders” story without using an illustration of a career ladder (From the end notes: “CAREER LADDER: An illustration of a steep ladder, scaled by an accountant in pursuit of a promotion or a raise. The Society of Illustrators currently houses America’s largest collection of career ladders, including works by M.C. Escher, Balthus, and Marcel Duchamp”).
Draw a fucking metaphor indeed. (I love how the illustrator turns into a Cubist cricket here).
Again, it’s hard not to find semi-autobiographical elements in Jacob Bladders’s publishing satire. Muradov couches these elements in surreal transpositions. The first two panels of the story announce the setting: New York / 1947—but just a few panels later, the novella pulls this move:
Here’s our illustrator-hero Jacob Bladders asking his secretary (secretary!) for “any tweets”; he seems disappointed to have gotten “just a retweet.” In Muradov’s transposition, Twitter becomes “Tweeter,” a “city-wide messaging system, established in 1867” and favored by writers like E.B. White and Dorothy Parker.
I do. Which makes it, again, kinda hard for me not to root out those autobiographical touches. (He sometimes tweets on the illustration biz, y’see).
But I’m dwelling too much on these biographical elements I fear, simply because, it’s much, much harder to write compellingly about the art of it all, of how Muradov communicates his metatextual pseudoautobiographical story. (Did I get enough postmoderny adjectives in there? Did I mention that I think this novella exemplary of post-postmodernism? No? These descriptions don’t matter. Look, the book is fucking good).
Muradov’s art is better appreciated by, like, looking at it instead of trying to describe it (this is an obvious thing to write). Look at this spread (click on it for biggeration):
The contours, the edges, the borders. The blacks, the whites, the notes in between. This eight-panel sequence gives us insides and outsides, borders and content, expression and impression. Watching, paranoia, a framed consciousness.
And yet our reading rules—again, from the end notes: “SPOTILLO: Spot illustration. Most commonly a borderless ink drawing set against white background”; followed by “CONSTRAINT: An arbitrary restriction imposed on a work of art in order to give it an illusion of depth”.
Arbitrary? Maybe. No. Who cares? Look at the command of form and content here, the mix and contrast and contradistinctions of styles: Cubism, expressionism, impressionism, abstraction: Klee, Miro, Balthus, Schjerfbeck: Robert Wiene and Fritz Lang. Etc. (Chiaroscuro is a word I should use somewhere in this review).
But also cartooning, also comix here—Muradov’s jutting anarchic tangles, often recoiling from the panel proper, recall George Herriman’s seminal anarcho-strip Krazy Kat. (Whether or not Muradov intends such allusions is not the point at all. Rather, what we see here is a continuity of the form’s best energies). Like Herriman’s strip, Muradov’s tale moves under the power of its own dream logic (more of a glide here than Herriman’s manic skipping).
That dream logic follows the lead (lede?!) of that famous Romantic printmaker and illustrator William Blake, whose name is the last “spoken” word of the narrative (although not the last line in this illustrated text). Blake is the illustrator of visions and dreams—visions of Jacob’s Ladder, Jacob Bladders. Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art culminates in the Romantic/ironic apotheosis of its hero. The final panels are simultaneously bleak and rich, sad and funny, expressive and impressive. Muradov ironizes the creative process, but he also points to it as an imaginative renewal. “Imagination is the real,” William Blake advised us, and Muradov, whether he’d admit it or not, makes imagination real here. Highly recommended.
From Hell, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s epic revision of the Jack the Ripper story, posits Sir William Gull, a physician to Queen Victoria, as the orchestrator of the Ripper murders that terrified Londoners at the end of the 19th century. The murders initially arise as a means to cover up an illegitimate son begat by foolish Prince Albert, Victoria’s grandson. However, for Gull the murders represent much more. The murders 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. Gull goes backwards (William Blake sees him in a vision and turns that vision into Ghost of Flea) and Gull goes forwards: he sees London at the end of the twentieth century, and 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.
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.
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.
The kind people at Nobrow sent along three gorgeous Hilda graphic novels by Luke Pearson ten days ago, and we’ve (my family, I mean) read each of them repeatedly since then—we’ve read them independently and to each other (my daughter started her own Hilda comic). I’ll have a proper essay-review thing up down the line, but for now, the short review: These are excellent, gorgeous books—funny, richly-detailed, sweet, and just a little scary (when they need to be).
“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.
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.
[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].
From Hell, Alan 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].
From Daniel Clowes’s graphic novel Wilson, available from Drawn & Quarterly.
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.
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’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.
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.
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 . . .
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 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.