Thursday, 15 May 2008

Pistols! Treason! Murder! (gimmicks)

I recently met Jon Walker – a research fellow in history at Sydney University – whose unconventional biography Pistols! Treason! Murder! The rise and fall of a master spy was published in Feb 2007 by Melbourne University Press. The book is described as a biography of both person and place: Gerolamo Vano, one of the original spy masters, and 17th Century Venice as a city of espionage. Of particular interest to me is the inclusion of "playful comic strips, transcripts of imaginary conversations and a bar-crawl around contemporary Venice." (from the book's blurb, as listed on Jon's website) Several papers given about the book have referred it as "a multimedia assassination". [what's the difference between multimedia and multi-modal?] Jon worked in collaboration with illustrator Dan Hallet to produce these graphic elements. The original manuscript included just four illustrations (which didn't end up in the final version – Jon decided they were not up to scratch) and his editor at MUP requested more of these. Jon scripted what was to go in the illustrations, and Dan produced them, sometimes closely following the brief and sometimes pushing it. In conversation, Jon discussed that the text editing process was rigorous, but although the illustrations and graphic elements were endorsed by the editor, they weren't actually edited - allowing the author (and illustrator) greater freedom of expression with these elements. Were the visual devices not edited because the editor didn't know how, or because they were seen as less meaningful?

By email, Jon also explained that although MUP were supportive of the non-written elements and never questioned the value of using four different typefaces, other editors/agents were not so supportive: "By contrast, conversations I've had with other editors and agents about the possibility of overseas editions are almost always prefaced with remarks like, 'I wish you'd done it as a 'proper' history book. We'd have to get rid of all the pictures and the weird typefaces ...'."

Jon's book was nominated for the NSW Premier's History Award in 2007 and was described as 'our first true work of punk-history'. However, it has also at times received the same criticism as the fictional works I'm looking at - that the typo/graphic elements are 'gimmicks':
"The book is not helped by a motley collection of gimmicks such as comic strips and imagined conversations between invented 'historians. It's all rather confusing, but perhaps that's what Walker intended?" Paul Collins in the Herald.
Referring to the non-written material, most online sources seem to do as I have done above - regurgitate the blurb text that the book includes "playful comics strips ...", word for word. My defense is that I haven't actually read the book yet, as soon as I do I'll update the post. Perhaps it could be overlooked as time saving (lazy writing), or perhaps – again – reviewers are unsure how to tackle a description of the function of these elements?

In an interview with UK magazine Computer Arts Dan Hallett [click on Dan's name to see portfolio of illustrations from Pistols!] describes the intended function of his illustrations: "I want my work to tell a story or stimulate a thought. It is all about communication, even if the message is not always specific."

Jon questions the conventions of historical research and writing through his work. The abstract to a 2003 article published in Rethinking History:
This article attempts to do a number of things: Firstly, it describes the assassination of a priest called Giulio Cazzari in Venice in 1622, using the reports of a spy named Gerolamo Vano as a principal source. It confronts the distance between the experience of death and the representation of death, and explores possible connections between our understanding of death and our understanding of time. It uses formal experimentation and deliberate anachronism (inspired by Futurist literature and photography and the graphic novels of Alan Moore) to dramatise these themes. It does not, however, contain any detailed discussion of seventeenth-century espionage or diplomatic culture, or much in the way of context. This omission is itself part of an implicit argument about the nature of historical knowledge: i.e. that a meditation upon time and death is a natural and appropriate subject for a historian and that archival documents can be used as raw material for such a discussion. Historians should have the courage to ask questions that have no answers (in other words, metaphysical questions). Rethinking History, Volume 7, Number 2, June 2003 , pp. 139-167(29)
Jon's next book project is an illustrated novel. Watch this space.

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