Monday, April 12, 2010

Five Wounds: An Illuminated Novel

UPDATE: For more on the topic under discussion here, see this part of my site.

Why ‘an illuminated novel’ rather than simply ‘an illustrated novel’? Because in Five Wounds the text, the design and the illustrations are not separate elements, created by isolated individuals who never communicate with one another. Every layout has been conceived of as an integrated whole and executed collaboratively. In choosing the phrase, ‘an illuminated novel’, I had in mind the ‘illuminated books’ of William Blake, but there are also more recent precedents, which include novels with typo/graphic elements by Rief Larsen, Jonathan Safran Foer, Steven Hall and Mark Z. Danielewski.

Comics provide an easy way to understand how this works in practice. In a comic book, the gap between panels is a space that invites the reader to participate imaginatively in the story. It is the reader who must animate successive frozen images to create movement, and who must at the same time flick backwards and forwards between text and images to complete the meaning of each. The relationship between text and image in Five Wounds is similarly open, so that part of the meaning resides in the space between the various elements.

Five Wounds Sample Layout (left)

Five Wounds Sample Layout (right)
Above: A sample page layout, left and right views

For example, each layout in the novel contains a unique phrase in the running head at the top of the left page. In the layout reproduced above, the running head is 'Worship: To kiss, as a dog licking his master's hand' (a quotation from Strong's Biblical Concordance). Collectively, the running heads form a commentary on the action described in the body text, and individually they serve as title cards for Dan’s illustrations. In this instance, the illustration flips around the terms suggested by the running head (i.e. the man adopts the pose of a dog, while the dog assumes the role of the master).

Cur and the black dog

Each layout also contains a unique miniaturised heraldic shield at upper right, the colour-coded contents of which indicate which of the major characters appear on any given double page spread. Here the miniature shield includes red and purple, since two designated characters appear on these pages: Cur, who is also pictured in the illustration (his colour in the shield is red) and Mr X (purple).

The general principle is to avoid redundancy. The illustrations should not merely repeat information that has already been provided by the text. Rather they isolate themes and ideas that remain implicit in the text, as is the case in the example above, where the event depicted by the illustration never actually occurs in the novel. Illustrations may also synthesise references to distinct written scenes or draw attention to possible analogies between scenes.

As the artist R. B. Kitaj put it, Some books have pictures and some pictures have books.

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