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.

Charles Burns Interviewed

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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.

Even More Images from Codex Seraphinianus

More images from Luigi Serafini’s surreal cryptoencyclopedia, Codex Seraphinianus. Learn more by reading Justin Taylor’s essay from the May 2007 issue of The Believer.


Asterios Polyp — David Mazzucchelli

asterios-750008

Let’s get a few things straight from the get-go: David Mazzuchelli’s graphic novel Asterios Polyp is a masterpiece, an unequivocal advancement of its medium, and an unqualified joy to read. It’s also not only one of the best books we’ve read this year, but also this decade. While such breathless enthusiasm might seem suspect, even a cursory look over Asterios Polyp will reveal that Mazzucchelli has produced a fully-realized work, one that fundamentally reimagines what a graphic novel is, and how it might be read.

Asterios Polyp is a boorish, solipsistic “paper architect” and tenured professor (none of his designs have ever actually been built) whose life goes to shambles after his sensitive wife Hana leaves him. The novel opens with a lightning strike that literally destroys everything that Asterios owns. He grabs three key items–his father’s old lighter, a magnetically-powered watch he bought as a child, and a Swiss Army knife he found on the beach–and hits the road, heading into the great, normal Midwest, where he takes a job as an auto mechanic (in a lovely scene, Asterios the autodidact, after accepting his new job, heads to the library to learn auto repair in an hour). Asterios’s kindly boss Stiff and his hippie wife Ursula take in the poor soul/arrogant prick. As the plot unfolds, Mazzucchelli contrasts Asterios’s past, full of faculty cocktail parties, affairs with grad students, and highbrow conversations, with his incremental rebirth into a more concrete world. “Be not simply good; be good for something,” said Henry David Thoreau–a lesson that Asterios slowly learns as he finally applies his skill and genius to real-world applications, like building a tree house for the couple’s son and creating a solar-powered Cadillac. Asterios’s emergence as a fully-realized human being contrasts sharply with hist past. Although he clearly loved his wife Hana, he was unable to appreciate her as anything other than a prop in relation to himself–how she complimented him, added to him, reflected on him. The flashback scenes with Hana are keenly realistic and loaded with genuine pathos. They are the heart of the novel.

Asterios’s twin brother Ignazio narrates the novel, only there’s a catch–Ignazio died at birth. This trope of twinning underscores Asterios Polyp‘s philosophical thrust. Asterios, in an attempt to understand (and thus control, at least figuratively) the universe, attempts to systematize it in his own intellectual yet limited projections. For Asterios, the world is all duality–life and death, in and out, form and content, exterior and interior, plastic and linear, black and white. Although he’s willing to make pragmatic concessions to shades of gray–Mazzucchelli is far-too savvy to have his lead as a flat, unrealistic allegorical figure–Asterios’s unrelenting idealism nonetheless repeatedly foils any chance for real happiness. Mazzucchelli’s discussions of philosophy, art history, and human relationships are never heavy-handed and always thought-provoking. Beyond this, his cartooning synthesizes words and art to a new level, one in which form and content are seamless, contiguous, and purposeful.

What, exactly, do we mean by this? To put it plain, there are few graphic novels that reinvent the possibilities of the medium. A handful of examples spring to mind: Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Dave Sim’s Cerebus, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Like Asterios Polyp, these books envision the graphic novel as more than just “pictures + words.” Mazzucchelli utilizes every tool at his disposal. It’s not just his obvious talent as a cartoonist whose inks recall the best work of Will Eisner. It’s not just his fantastic scripting and dialogue (undoubtedly the most neglected facet of the comics medium). It’s also his sense of space, the rhythm of his panels, the perfection of not just each page but the cohesion of all the pages. It’s also the beautiful palette of Asterios Polyp, its codified world of pastels, purples and yellow, blues and pinks, and its spare oranges and reds. It’s also the lettering, where Mazzucchelli achieves something that I haven’t seen done properly since Dave Sim: he gives each character a unique, personal tone, simply through the shape of their words.

Of course, none of Mazzucchelli’s craft and technique would matter if his story wasn’t so compelling. There’s poignancy and pathos in the tale of Asterios Polyp, and we find ourselves rooting for him as he earns his redemption. And none of Asterios’s journey feels forced, a rarity these days it seems. Instead, there’s unexpected beauty here, especially as the novel unwinds–or perhaps, winds up–to its rewarding end. For the record, we’d absolutely love to discuss the last few pages of this book with anyone who’s read it–have you read it? Why haven’t you read it yet? Without spoilers, let’s just say that the conclusion is both fitting and bewildering, satisfying and yet maddening, a perfect cohesion of the book’s thematic exploration of dualities (and the pitfalls of choosing to codify the world into a series of those dualities). Mazzucchelli’s been around forever (you probably remember him, like me, from his early work with Frank Miller on Daredevil and the groundbreaking “Year One” arc of Batman). Amazingly, this is his first solo graphic novel. Hopefully he won’t keep us waiting so long for the next one. Do yourself a favor and get this book now. Very highly recommended.

Asterios Polyp is now available from Pantheon Graphic Novels.

Will Eisner’s Adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick

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Will Eisner’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick was one of his last works, completed in 2001 just four years before his death. While no comic book adaptation can match Ishmael’s expansive voice, Eisner’s work here does capture the spirit of adventure and the wish for communion that underpins Melville’s tome. We think it would make a great introduction for younger readers to Melville’s massive book, and will surely interest older readers apprehensive of Moby-Dick. Great stuff.

Eisner Moby-DickMore here.

The Unspeakable Mr. Hart and Ah Pook Is Here– William Burroughs/Malcolm McNeill

In 1970, William Burroughs was living in London. While there, he collaborated with young English artist Malcolm McNeill on a comic series for a magazine called Cyclops. The series was called The Unspeakable Mr. Hart, and remains uncollected/reprinted to date. Too bad, because it looks like really cool stuff. We got these images via The Virtual Library’s Beats collection, where there’s a really cool interview with McNeill (he discusses Burroughs habit of “going to movies to admire hard-ons and talking about them all afternoon,” which is kinda hilarious):

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After Cylcops went kaput, Burroughs and McNeill continued the story in a project called Ah Pook Is Here, (a reference to the Mayan death god). Ah Pook Is Here, unfinished, was collected in the early eighties in Ah Pook Is Here and Other Texts which unfortunately is out of print. And very expensive. (Feel free to send it to me, anyone).

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Fortunately, we can at least get a peek at some of McNeil’s hellish art at burroughsmcneillart.com. A few Boschian samples

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Again, we want this book. Please send us this book. In the meantime, filmmaker Philip Hunt made this 1994 6 minute animated short of Ah Pook Is Here:

Roughing It

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The American cover isn’t bad…

Simon Mason’s The Rough Guide to Classic Novels covers “a selection of 229 novels . . . from 36 countries, published between 1604 and 2002.” Roughly pocket-sized (if you have big pockets), Classic Novels provides short, simple summaries of each of the books, outlining the plot as well as contextualizing the relative importance of the novel. Mason also recommends the best English translations and discusses film adaptations (quite even-handedly), where applicable. He also includes a “Where to Go Next” bullet for each novel. Sometimes these suggestions work: liked Brave New World? Then check out Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. Other times, they’re a bit nonsensical–does anyone really go to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man after they’ve made it through Ulysses?

...but we prefer the British cover
…but we prefer the British cover

But this criticism is mere quibbling; Mason does a great job with an almost impossible task–after all what books would you cover in such a limited space (and you’d have to include Ulysses, and you’d have to give it pride of place over the Portrait, right?). Simon admits in his preface that inevitably “the selection is a personal one, and not likely to be the same as anyone else’s.” Of course he includes the “classics” that will jump to anyone’s mind–Jane Eyre, War and Peace, Moby-Dick, etc., but he also includes works by Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, and Haruki Murakami, along with dozens and dozens of books I’ve never heard of, but now feel that I simply must read. And in exposing a potential reader to a book they’ve never heard of, Classic Novels is a success.

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If Danny Fingeroth’s The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels is less successful than Mason’s Classic Novels, that shortcoming is in his attempt to sanctify a canon in a medium that is still often misunderstood as a genre. While most of us will readily agree that Don Quixote and The Catcher in the Rye are classics, the canonical works of the comic book medium still need some sorting out, and many fans of graphic novels will find Fingeroth’s language a bit too-definitive. After a great first chapter that asks “What Is a Graphic Novel?,” a brief history of the comic book story-telling medium, and his own comic, “For Art’s Sake,” (a fun but forgettable overview of the graphic story-telling arts from an artist’s perspective), Fingeroth initiates the bulk of the book, “The Canon: The Sixty Best Graphic Novels.” As if his language weren’t definitive enough, he kicks the section off with “Ten Graphic Novels Everyone Should Read.” And while Fingeroth’s “Canon” and top-ten list are full of obvious choices that should certainly be there–Spiegelman‘s Maus, Satrapi’s Persepolis, Charles Burns’s Black Hole, Clowes‘s Ghost World–there are also gaping holes on one hand and complete over-representation on the other, as well as some real head-scratchers thrown in to boot. Why, for instance, does Fingeroth include Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again over its vastly superior and more influential predecessor, The Dark Knight Returns? Why is Sin City canonized at all? Although Alan Moore’s From Hell is canonized, why is his controversial recent novel Lost Girls included over work like Watchmen, V for Vendetta, or Saga of Swamp Thing–all books that had a tremendous impact on comic book storytelling? Why does Dave Sim’s massive contribution Cerebus get glossed over in a single sentence, while Kyle Baker’s trifling missive Why I Hate Saturn is given pride of place on the top ten list? Fingeroth could’ve saved himself a lot of nitpicking by simply changing his language a bit to at least admit that his choices are subjective. Far more satisfying is the next chapter, “The Icons,” covering some of the most influential persons in comic history, including Robert Crumb, Chris Ware, Joe Sacco, and the Hernandez Brothers. I would’ve liked to have seen this chapter expanded quite a bit (perhaps at the expense of the superfluous chapter on manga); if The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels is to be a starting place for new readers interested in this medium, “The Icons” best represents that starting place. Those interested in discovering graphic novels they haven’t heard of will also be pleased with the many full-page art reproductions throughout the book, probably its best feature. Despite its flaws, however, there is something admirable about Fingeroth’s attempt to create a canon out of a medium that has for far too long been marginalized.

The Rough Guide to Classic Novels and The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels are now available from Rough Guides,

After the jump: Fingeroth’s top ten list vs. Biblioklept’s top ten list–

Continue reading “Roughing It”

Bourbon Island 1730 — Olivier Appollodorus and Lewis Trondheim

Bourbon Island 1730, part funny animal graphic novel, part historical literature, recounts the story of Raphael Pommeroy who travels from France to Bourbon Island with his ornithology professor in search of a living dodo. On the journey to the French colony, Raphael becomes entranced by pirate tales, and when he arrives to Bourbon Island, he immediately tries to join up with some ex-pirates–unsuccessfully, of course. The French government has offered an amnesty to all pirates, and many have become successful plantation owners. However, their new wealth comes at the expense of the large population of slaves brought to Bourbon Island from Madagascar and Mozambique. The most interesting subplot of Bourbon Island 1730 involves a network of maroons, runaway slaves who have colonized their own villages at the top of the island’s treacherous terrain. When the notorious pirate Captain Buzzard is captured, some of the maroons plan to set him free and lead a revolt against the French colonials. In the meantime, the colonial authorities, including the scheming governor and the greedy priest, are trying to get Buzzard to reveal where he’s hidden a large cache of treasure.

Lewis Trondheim’s art strikes a nice balance between vivid detail and the classic funny animal style, and the book’s measured pacing delivers the story at a nice clip. Appollodorus and Trondheim never rush, taking the time to convey the cultural complexity of Bourbon Island–quite a feat, really, when you consider how much is going on here: the end of a pirate age, the horrors of slavery, and the problematics of colonization. Appollodorus and Trondheim envision Bourbon Island as a strange nexus of slavery and freedom, piracy and central authority, of the meeting of the cultures of Africa, India, and Europe. Leading man Raphael is a hopeless romantic who pines wistfully for the absolute freedom he sees as the life of a pirate and the natural right of all men. And yet, as the book makes clear, idealism can rarely stand up to the corrosive complexity of the real world.

Allain Mallet's 1719 Map of Bourbon Island
Allain Mallet's 1719 Map of Bourbon Island

With twelve pages of endnotes, Bourbon Island 1730 is just the kind of well-researched historical fiction that would fit neatly into any post-colonial studies course. There’s only one major fault with the book: it ends too quickly. Appollodorus and Trondheim have too many fascinating subplots that they don’t bother to resolve. While we have no problem with ambiguous conclusions, Bourbon feels simply rushed at the end, as it sprints to a virtual non-conclusion. We would’ve been much happier with a cliff-hanger and a promise of a part two. Nonetheless, anyone interested in colonialism and post-colonial studies should check out this book.

Bourbon Island 1730 is available October 28th, 2008 from First Second.

High Society–Dave Sim

If you’re at all interested in reading any of Dave Sim’s epic 300-issue comic book Cerebus, a book chronicling the life–and death–of a misanthropic mystical barbarian aardvark, High Society is the best (and possibly only) starting point. High Society tells the story of Cerebus’s political adventures in Iest, the largest cosmopolitan city-state of Estarcion. Guided (or perhaps manipulated) by Machiavellian Astoria, Cerebus undertakes a strange, comic odyssey of political ascendancy, culminating in an election for Prime Minister (against Groucho Marx stand-in Lord Julius’s goat, of all things). Sim has a deft ear for political satire and the volume holds up particularly well to a rereading against the backdrop of the current American electoral process. While High Society conveys a certain cynical contempt for the cronyism, deal-making, and the general nasty malfeasance that underwrites politics, there’s also a reconciling of democracy, liberty, and art here that you could never find from a CNN analyst or a Fox News hack. By this point, the crude art and flubbed pacing that hampered the first few years of Cerebus are nowhere to be found. High Society is tightly-plotted, full of smart gags expressed in Sim’s keen lines, without an over-reliance on bubbles overstuffed with exposition.

The book is funny without ever being light, and rereading it again, I was surprised at how moved–and exhilarated–I was by the conclusion. Although the parody of Marvel’s forgotten Batman ripoff Moon Knight doesn’t hold up very well, and the “sideways” issues at the end are an annoying (but interesting) experiment, High Society continues to deliver both laughs and insight about the political process over twenty years after its single-volume publication. Very good stuff, and highly recommended (read it along with/against the 2008 election).

(Strange aside that I couldn’t work into the piece–remember Ken Jennings? That guy who won Jeopardy! like, a year straight? According to his blog he’s a huge Cerebus fan).

Cerebus — Dave Sim

Quick disclaimer:

What follows is a review of the first Cerebus graphic novel, not a review of the series as a whole. I initially contemplated such a feat, but handling Dave Sim’s (and Gerhard’s) 300-issue-long magnum opus in one post would result in either a really, really long post or a really, really inadequate handling of such fine (and troubled) material. Instead, I’ll review the series chronologically, covering one volume a month.

I suppose, also, that a quick primer or introduction may be necessary, so here goes–

Cerebus is a 300 issue black and white comic book, conceived, written, and drawn by Dave Sim (with stunning background art by Gerhard in issues 66-300). Sim published the book himself via his Aardvark-Vanaheim imprint. The book follows the adventures (and non-adventures) of Cerebus the Aardvark, a surly barbarian who, as one of only three existing aardvarks in Estarcion, has a sort of catalytic power to influence major world events. It’s satire, it’s drama, it’s action, it’s art. The series contemplates politics, religion, literature, economics, and just about everything else under the sun. Only this is really not an adequate summary at all, so I’ll stop here, and get to the actual review. You can google “Cerebus” and “Dave Sim,” of course, and read all about Sim’s rise and fall (it gets spectacularly crazy, folks!); or, you can just wait until we get to the Reads book to learn all about Dave Sim, misogynist. But I’ve digressed before I’ve even begun. (The Cerebus Wikipedia page is pretty good; and this 2004 AV Club interview is also insightful).

Let’s start the review with yet another non-start: another disclaimer:

If you’re at all interested in Cerebus, Cerebus, the first graphic novel in the series, collecting issues
1-25, is not the place to start. If you really are interested in Sim’s work, start with the next collection, High Society. It’s much funnier, tighter, and Sim comes into his own as a draftsman by these issues (although there’s no denying that the art only gets better and better as the story progresses). Sim claims that he knew more or less from the beginning that Cerebus would have a scope of 300 issues (taking 27 years to complete), but the first 15 or so issues don’t really reveal anything that promising. Very early Cerebus is a silly funny animal Conan-Red Sophia parody. However, with issue 20, “Mind Games”–a comic Sim composed in interlocking images that when reconstituted created a new image (all right, that’s not a great description)–the book starts to get really interesting. By this point, Sim has already introduced my favorite character, Lord Julius, the anarchic Groucho Marx parody who wreaks havoc throughout the series; Sim further stirs things up by injecting the matriarchialist Cirinists into the chaos. The emerging Cirinists’ political/martial power becomes the conflict that will dominate the first half of the Cerebus series, and the larger issue of female power can rightly be named the Sim’s thematic obsession throughout the entire comic’s run. Before these themes come into their own, issues 1-17 or so of the book are stock fantasy tropes poked at with a stoner’s sense of humor. Like I said before, Cerebus–volume 1 of Cerebus–will be most enjoyed by those who’ve already had a taste of the good stuff–High Society and Church & State. Good stuff. More to come.

Comic Book Writers on The Simpsons

Even a die-hard Simpsons fan such as myself–I’ve been watching the show for over half of my life on a near-daily basis–cannot deny that the show has been in a slump for the past couple (some might say dozen) years. And so far, the 2007 season has been pretty awful–even the highly anticipated “Treehouse of Horror” episode failed to elicit a single laugh. So I was unduly excited by the first segment of last night’s episode, which featured three of our favorite comic book writers: Art Spiegelman, Daniel Clowes, and Alan Moore. Jack Black guest-starred as the owner of Coolsville, a new comic book shop where the elite underground trio gathers for a book signing (much to the ire of Comic Book Guy, of course). Somehow (and of course, if you watch The Simpsons, you know exactly how), this plot lasts exactly until the commercial break: in part two Marge opens a gym, and in part three Homer gets plastic surgery. Sigh. Luckily, Youtube allows us to preserve and isolate the most pleasing fragment of last night’s episode and watch it again and again obsessively.

Check out the super trio here (and take note of the prominent display of one of our favorite graphic novels ever, From Hell):

Hieroglyphick Bibles and other Marvelous Oddities

I’ve really been enjoying going through the Library of Congress American Treasures Collection. I came across this Hieroglyphick Bible (1788) the other day and thought it was pretty cool.

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Of course, I’m a big fan of the graphic novel (as well as the Old Testament) so this was right up my alley. More evidence supporting Scott McCloud‘s argument that the comics form is one of the oldest forms on earth (of course he goes way further back than the eighteenth century, contending that Egyptian hieroglyphs fall into his definition of comics art). Either way, check out LOC’s collection–fun for book nerds and history geeks alike.