Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Appearance during Free Comic Book Day at Kinokuniya, Sydney

This Saturday, 1 May, is the official release date for Five Wounds, and in the afternoon I shall be appearing as part of the Zine / Craft fair in the Sydney branch of Kinokuniya book shop, directly above Town Hall train station. See here for more details.

I'll be there to sign copies from about 1-4 p.m. I'll be the one not dressed as a Star Wars character.

There will also be a Dalek in attendance (no relation).

There will be a discount on the cover price of Five Wounds for anyone buying on Saturday.

Zoe's Thesis

The designer of Five Wounds, Zoë Sadokierski, recently finished a Ph.D. on VISUAL WRITING: A critique of graphic devices in hybrid novels, from a Visual Communication Design perspective, i.e. how to read books with pictures in them, for those of you not fluent in Ph.D. speak. The thesis is now available for download via Zoë's blog.

El Globo, Issue 1

Dan Hallett has just released Issue 1 of his comic, El Globo. I'm not sure how useful this information will prove to Australian readers (especially since the comic is in Spanish), but I thought it was worthy of commemoration.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: Review from History Australia

The following is another archive review of Pistols! Treason! Murder!, by Marnie Hughes-Warrington, from History Australia 5.1 (2008):


According to Iain McCalman, Jonathan Walker’s Pistols! Treason! Murder! is the ‘first true work of “punk history”’. If what is meant by ‘punk history’ is carefully stage-managed historiographical defiance, McCalman’s description is apt. At first sight, the focal point of Pistols! Treason! Murder! is Gerolamo Vano, a self-fashioned Venetian ‘general of spies’ whose life unravelled into a noose in 1622. A closer look at the text and its accompanying website, though, reveals that the work is as much about Walker’s ways of composition and historiography as it is about the shaping and pathology of self in seventeenth-century Venice.

Walker’s acknowledged sources of historiographical inspiration include Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning, microhistories ranging from Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre to McCalman’s The Seven Ordeals of Count Cagliostro and Walter Benjamin’s unfinished posthumous work, The Arcades Project. Chief among these sources perhaps is The Arcades Project, for Pistols! Treason! Murder! has the form of an apparently random series of quotations, observations, notes and interviews. Between chapters 16 to 20, for instance, we pass from excerpts from the chief source of information about Vano – file 636 in the Venetian archives – to an analysis of the meaning of ‘honour’ in seventeenth-century Venice, to the purported transcript of a conversation between Walker and two other historians in an Irish pub, to Walker’s testing of Vano’s geography from a report dated 10 April 1622 and eight possible readings of it, to a comparison of the material fabric of Venice with the chief archival sources.

The ‘arcades’ flavour of the book is reinforced by the related website, which offers browsers information on the historiographical and popular cultural sources for Walker’s writing – including songs by Johnny Cash and The Afghan Whigs vivid colour pictures of the textures of Venice and most usefully, ‘deleted scenes’. The ‘deleted scenes’ include the papers Walker published on the project prior to the book, and excluded chapters on the spy as flaneur and intellectual history. These segments of the website, in combination with the marvellous central image by Hallett of the project as a tree of knowledge – and even temptation, given the representation of the link to file 636 as an apple – and the flip book sequence in chapter 28 of the book show that Walker’s project is as much a homage to and revisitation of visual as well as print culture.

Readers more accustomed to the conventional arrangement of biographical material according to a chronological or thematic scheme may find the book and accompanying website jarring. That, Walker would probably insist, is a good thing, for Vano’s activities cannot be rendered coherent. Archival gaps will not allow it, but moreover, as Walker claims:

Each story in Vano’s reports contains or opens up the possibility of another
that undoes or reverses it. Each collapses as a direct consequence of attempts
to shore it up. No possible scenario accounts for everything. As I read the reports,
I ‘crashed’ repeatedly: irretrievable error; the system has shut down. I
could not leave Vano alone, but he offered no answers to any questions that a
respectable historian might want to ask. Instead he demanded a more daring
and radical response, in which obsession itself becomes a strategy (p. 7).

This quote is important, for it highlights the differences between Pistols! Treason! Murder! and The Arcades Project. Many commentators have noted that Benjamin’s Project can be arranged and rearranged, and read and re-read in any number of different ways. Almost entirely absent from Benjamin’s Project are the motifs that individuals use to connect and therefore render their experiences meaningful. In Pistols! Treason! Murder!, there are at least three meaning-makers: Vano, Walker and the illustrator Dan Hallett. The Vano of Pistols! Treason! Murder! is engrossing and somewhat akin to the character of Tony Wilson in 24-Hour Party People, ascribing, erasing and re-ascribing meaning to peoples’ actions in order to place himself in a past that delivers respect and financial reward. In his world, a cough might signal betrayal and the promise of recognition and reward. Or it might simply be a cough. We can never be sure. The patterns of Vano’s rhetoric are intriguing, but ultimately only hinted at in the text. As Richard Evans noted in Kneipengespräche im Kaiserreich, the rhetorical form of intelligence reports is an important part of their meaning, not an obstacle to a ‘real’ individual. A closer look at Vano’s language, and the comparative analysis of other informants might suggest a more conventional individual than we can currently see.

Arguably, Walker is sketched in more depth than Vano: literally in graphic-novel illustrations provided by Dan Hallett and figuratively in his self reflections on his ‘obsession’ with Vano. Early on, for instance, he eschews Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties in favour of the multiple typefaces pioneered in works like Richard Price’s Alabi’s World. In so doing, he affirms a world in which boundaries between fact and fiction and primary and secondary sources matter. Moreover, the historiographical metaphors that he employs – the historian as pathologist and psychic – are now quite conventional and in the latter case, rest upon the problematic reading of historical understanding as an epistemological rather than conceptual activity. Has he, like the protagonist of the Radiohead song, 2+2=5 (the title for chapter 23 of Pistols! Treason! Murder!) succumbed to historiographical ‘doublethink’?

Even if the answer to that question is yes, Pistols! Treason! Murder! is still a stimulating and provocative read. It is punk history, but probably more in the tuneful style of The Jam than the manufactured chaos of The Sex Pistols.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Inspirations: John Lennon

Half of what I say is meaningless,
But I say it just to reach you, Julia.

This quotation from Julia on The White Album was on my initial list of suggested epigraphs for Five Wounds. There are several reasons why I wanted to use it (and indeed I only rejected it because securing permission to quote it would have been prohibitively expensive). Here are some of those reasons:

I grew up in Liverpool, and I have the same birthday as John Lennon.

My mother was born in the same year as Lennon (1940) and she also died in the same year as Lennon (1980).

My father was in the merchant navy, like Lennon’s father.

I was raised by my aunt, just as Lennon lived with his Aunt Mimi.

My mother grew up in a Liverpool orphanage, as does the protagonist of Strawberry Fields Forever (which is the name of an orphanage, although not, I think, the one where my mother lived).

I leave it to future readers to infer the possible connections between these facts and the characters and events in Five Wounds, but you might find some clues here.


Monday, April 19, 2010

Inspirations: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1963)

'Heck,' said Jim.

'No such place as Heck. But hell's right here under 'A' for Alighieri'.

'Allegory's beyond me', said Jim.

'How stupid of me,' Dad laughed. 'I mean Dante. Look at this. Pictures by Mister Dore, showing all the aspects. Hell never looked better. Here's souls sunk to their gills in slime. There's someone upside down, wrong side out'.

'Boy howdy!' Jim eyed the pages two different ways and thumbed on. 'Got any dinosaur pictures?'

UPDATE: Hello to visitors from raybradburyboard.com. I first read Something Wicked This Way Comes when I was 13 or so - about the same age as its protagonists Will and Jim - and my paperback is a very yellow copy of the tie-in edition from the (rather disappointing) film version of 1983, although I had already read a library copy several months before buying it, appropriately enough, given that Will's father is a librarian, and the town library is the setting for a crucial scene. It is one of only two books from my teen years that I read through a second time immediately upon finishing it (the other one will be the subject of a subsequent post). I remember being particularly delighted by the one sentence chapter 'Nothing much happened all the rest of that night' (which I quote from memory, so I may have got it wrong). Fahrenheit 451 also made a big impression on me, and, although I have never been a big short story fan, I read several volumes of Ray's short fiction on the basis of my enjoyment of the novels.

In addition, the quotation above may be the first place I ever came across the name 'Dante'.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Appearance at this year's Sydney Writers' Festival

This year I shall be appearing at the Sydney Writers' Festival on a panel with visiting writer / artist Josh Neufeld (who was the subject of an article in this weekend's Herald). The panel is on 'Graphic Novels vs Illustrated Texts', and the chair is Zoe Sadokierski, who designed my novel, Five Wounds.

The event takes place on Sunday May 23, 1-2 p.m., at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where there is a Zine fair taking place at the same time, so there should be a well-informed audience. Entrance is free.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Five Wounds: The Black Dog and The Bagatto

Dan Hallett has now posted discussions of several other illustrations created for Five Wounds, which feature The Black Dog and The Bagatto.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Video Introduction to Five Wounds

There are four distinct kinds of image included in Five Wounds: heraldic shields, illustrations proper, visual annotations, and finally a separate set of plates. The last are printed on a different paper stock as an insert. In the videos below, I introduce each of these four categories of image in turn by browsing through a copy of the book.

1. Heraldry

2. Illustrations

3. Annotations

4. Plates

UPDATE: A more detailed discussion of the videos is now available on my website.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Five Wounds: Collaboration

Synaesthetic Projection

Above: a sample illustration from Five Wounds, created by Dan Hallett

According to most accepted definitions of the word, ‘illustrations’ have no value or meaning in and of themselves. They acquire meaning only in relation to whatever it is that they accompany. Furthermore, illustrations are somehow both more direct and more naïve than language. They cannot be paraphrased, but nor can they dissemble. They do not require interpretation, and they do not or cannot contain a subtext. In working on Five Wounds, Dan and I started from quite different premises: that the combination of words and images itself forms part of the argument, and that the latter can and should invite or require decipherment. They can therefore sustain alternate readings. Moreover, their relationship to the text does not need to be either fixed or obvious.

For each illustration in Five Wounds, I provided a script, which varied from 20 words in length to 500 words, and was more or less prescriptive accordingly. However, I made a point of not enquiring too closely into what precisely Dan did with this script until I saw the finished illustration. That way I would not be hampered by preconceived notions of what was or was not possible; and Dan would be free to work out the best way to respond without excessive interference from me.

This approach was inspired by the relationship between The Beatles and their producer George Martin. John Lennon would say something like, ‘I want a sound like a choir of Tibetan monks singing on a mountaintop’. George Martin would reply, ‘Er, okay’, and – unable to comply – would try to work around the problem. The outcome would be something outlandish and beautiful that no-one had ever tried before – even if it sounded nothing like a choir of Tibetan monks singing on a mountaintop.

After the illustrations had been completed and inserted into the layouts, I rewrote selected portions of the text and adjusted the running heads in light of what Dan had created. This final stage was essential, because collaboration is a two-way process. It’s not just about Dan’s response to my work: it’s also about my response to his.

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.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Five Wounds: An Anti-Historical Novel

'The Art of Grief' is not the only text quoted in Five Wounds. Part of the novel’s violence consists in its deliberate misrepresentation of historical source material. I began writing it while researching for my doctoral thesis in the Venetian state archive. In the daytime, I faithfully transcribed documents. After dark, I wrote the opening chapters of Five Wounds under a bare light bulb in a rented room on the Lido, while listening to morbid folk songs on a cheap cassette recorder. Everything that had to be repressed in my interminable investigation of ‘Honour and the Culture of Male Venetian Nobles, c. 1500-1650’ bubbled to the surface in Five Wounds.

In the daytime, I tried to produce an original and profound but nonetheless humble contribution to knowledge, in which the relevant authorities were cited respectfully, and the sources itemized rigorously. It was assembled piecemeal and agonizingly slowly, as all theses are, with endless rearrangements, additions and revisions.

At night, I wrote straight through, without hesitating, and more or less without revision. The results were vulgarly derivative, as all fairy tales should be. The only rule I tried to observe was to quote voraciously and indiscriminately – a phrase here and a line there from dozens of different sources – and that the new context should alter the original meaning in some way.

Five Wounds was therefore conceived of as a deliberate insult to the notion of scholarly integrity in much the same way that a dream is an insult to the idea of conventional narrative structure. Its many historical references and quotations from abstruse treatises are systematically unreliable. Each is misleading or garbled in some way and the historical setting has been knowingly contaminated; not only by fantasy, but also by deliberate anachronism.

To put it another way, Five Wounds is set in several different historical periods simultaneously, none of which are represented accurately. Five Wounds is not, therefore, a historical novel. Rather, it is an anti-historical novel. It is the book that my Ph.D. thesis was dreaming when it was asleep.

UPDATE: I have added some further discussion on this theme.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Five Wounds: Synopsis

My novel, Five Wounds, will be published in Australia by Allen & Unwin in early May. Here is a brief synopsis (adapted from this part of my website):

In a cruel and arbitrary world, where disturbing lapses in logic are commonplace, five orphans must face their traumatic origins.

Gabriella is a crippled angel, haunted by her inability to interpret prophecies. Cur is the rabid leader of a sect of dogs, desperate to escape his inheritance. Cuckoo is a gambler with a wax face determined to find a fixed identity before his luck runs out. Magpie is a thief in search of the perfect photographic subject, but terrified of going blind. Crow is a leper trying to distil the essence of death as an antidote to dying.

Each of them is deformed; each has a special ability; each is connected to all of the others. And each gets exactly what they deserve. Or do they?

Five Wounds is inspired by European folk tales, the history of Venice, the Bible, and Uncanny X-Men. The text is accompanied throughout by original illustrations, in the style of Goya’s etchings, which were created by Dan Hallett, who also worked on my first book, Pistols! Treason! Murder!.

In the next few blog entries, I shall provide brief discussions of some of the novel's distinctive features (as requested by my editors / publisher).

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Five Wounds: Dan Hallett

My main collaborator on Five Wounds was Dan Hallett, who created all the illustrations. On his blog, Dan will be discussing his experience of working on the book. Dan's first post on this subject describes the creation of an illustration depicting the unfortunate Jean, a minor character sacrificed to the ambitions of one of the five protagonists: Crow, the alchemist.