Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Illustrating Alice

'What is the use of a book', thought Alice, 'without pictures and conversation?' Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
Via an academically unverifiable Google search, I discovered British copyright expired on Carroll's classic in 1907, allowing any publisher to release a new edition. Perhaps this explains why it is such a commonly illustrated book (see, for example, the list of hundreds of illustrations: http://www.lewiscarroll.org/illus.html). Anyone who has taught in an undergraduate art or design degree will recognise it as a popular text to illustrate/reference (I can think of at least two projects in which I used Alice references in my own undergrad degree – they were both fairly awful). Carroll originally created 37 line drawings to accompany his first draft and added text emphasis (boldness, underlining, shaped text boxes, etc), which demonstrates his concern for the typo/graphic elements of his story. The setting of the poem 'A Mouse's Tail' is a good example of concrete poetry. The original illustrations he commissioned John Tenniel to produce were a blend of cartoon and caricature, apparently using real life politicians as inspiration for some of the characters. Marie-Laure Ryan, editor of Narrative Across Media: The Languages of Storytelling, describes Tenniel's illustrations as a successful case of "the verbal and visual [blending] in the mind of the reader-spectator into one powerful image, each version filling the gaps of the other." (139)

This tradition has been maintained by later illustrators; Barry Moser and Ralph Steadman use quite obvious likenesses to contemporary figures (Moser's March Hare looks an awful lot like Ringo Starr). Is this a case of illustration functioning beyond (but always in tandem with) the written text? Something I'm thinking about at the moment. Almost all children's books use illustration in this way, but we lose that with adult literature.

It's occurred to me that writing this (tenuously relevant) post is a less productive activity than finishing my semester progress report, but if I write the word 'taxonomy' again I'm going to scream. I'm finding the blog a good way to digress (alright, procrastinate) at the moment, though some of my posts are becoming less productive than my earlier epic rants. I think this is a good thing.


Anonymous said...

Interesting that 'Carroll' used his own sketches in the original version and played around with the typography himself.
The images certainly contribute to the mad flavour of the story. In fact i think they are inextricably part of it. Do you think this means that later illustrated versions lack something that's in the original?
And does it qualify the book as an early and original type of graphic novel, or just one that was experimental?
Thanks Zoe, hope the assessment report is going well.

Zoe said...

Hi Ben,
I responded to this ages ago but my computer is misbehaving and froze before I could post it, hence delayed response, sorry.
I actually think Carroll's illustrations should be considered a draft, or in design terms - a brief for the illustrator - rather than the 'original' illustrations. I think Tenniel's illustrations are the 'original', as they were the first to be fully produced and published with the text. I also think that the familiarity of those Tenniel illustrations means that all later illustrated versions are interpretations not only of Carroll's text, but Tenniel's images, so, no, later versions don't lack something from the original, they reinterpret and reference the original because they are only ever considered in comparison to the original.

This is not a graphic novel, or even an experimental novel. A 'graphic novel' is a very specific narrative form, characterised by 'sequential art'. To describe work like this as a 'graphic novel' is like describing a piece of creative non-fiction as a novel just because it has some of the linguistic characteristics of a novel (descriptive writing). It is a children's book, and there is a long history of illustration in children's literature. I think, just like I have looked at graphic novels for the innovative way they deal with word-images relations, I need to look at children's books to see how they integrate image with word. But I think it's important to distinguish these as different forms from the contemporary fiction I am looking at. If I keep trying to describe everything as an 'early precursor' I end up with a phenomenon that is no longer new or emerging, just a distant cousin of what we already know. I may decide this is in fact the case, but I hope not.

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