Graphic classics

"The Graphic Canon, Vol. 2: From Kublai Khan to the Bronte Sisters to The Picture of Dorian Gray."
"The Graphic Canon, Vol. 2: From Kublai Khan to the Bronte Sisters to The Picture of Dorian Gray." (From the book jacket)

The literary canon - with some additions - is reinterpreted in massive, comic-book form, by more than 130 artists.

Posted: August 06, 2012

Shakespearean classics as comic books? Dante reduced to some sleazy strip out of the Sunday funnies?

The Great Books - all those texts teachers told us to revere as holy, inviolate - increasingly are showing up on the graphic-novel shelves.

For some, it's a potential nightmare: Homer's Iliad sitting next to Homer Simpson; Shakespeare's Tempest next to Peanuts.

Yet artists and teachers alike are embracing recent graphic novelizations of a dozen great books, from the Bard of Avon's greatest tragedies to novels and short stories by Franz Kafka.

The process moves apace with The Graphic Canon, a three-volume, 1,500-page compendium of the literary canon published by Seven Stories Press. Edited by Russ Kick, the collection includes excerpts from 187 poems, novels, and plays rendered into graphic form by more than 130 artists, including Robert Crumb, Will Eisner, Rick Geary, Gris Grimly, Megan Kelso, and Dame Darcy.

Given the wide range of talent, each with a distinctive style, the volumes burst with an exuberant range of visual styles from classic line drawings to psychedelic prints to computer-generated faux-3D posters.

The first book, The Graphic Canon, Vol. 1: From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons, was released in the spring and contains works up through the 18th century. The Graphic Canon, Vol. 2: From Kublai Khan to the Bronte Sisters to The Picture of Dorian Gray, featuring works from the 18th and 19th centuries, is due Oct. 2. And The Graphic Canon, Vol. 3: From Heart of Darkness to Hemingway to Infinite Jest brings us up to the 21st century. It's due March 5.

Kick, 43, said he was impressed by the growing body of the classics in graphic form and wanted to give readers a taste of what's out there. "I was thinking of the Norton anthologies," he said from his home in Tucson, Ariz., "those huge, huge, bricklike anthologies that go through the ages."

He later decided to include not only existing comics but also fresh adaptations. "About a quarter of the anthology is reprinted material, the rest was specially commissioned by me," he said.

How to decide what is canonical? It's a question that has had scholars, critics, and even some politicians at each other's throats since the 1987 publication of conservative critic Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind.

Kick opted to stay out of the debate and use his gut instinct. "For me, there's a list everyone agrees on of really core texts that would have left a glaring hole had they been missing: The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Canterbury Tales, Paradise Lost," he said.

Kick had one imperative: to open up the decidedly Eurocentric canon. "There were works on the edges of the canon I decided to bring in," said Kick, "including the Incan play Apu Ollantay, the only play from pre-Columbian Native Americans to survive."

Other extracanonical pieces he chose include American Indian folk tales, the Arabian Nights, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Japanese Tale of Genji, and the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata - which is as canonical as it gets across South Asia.

Philadelphia artist Matt Wiegle took up the challenge to work on the Mahabharata, which is considered one of the longest literary works ever written. Luckily for Wiegle, the text is divided into countless tales, poems, narratives.

He chose a short tale, "The House of Lac." Said Wiegle: "Of course, I ended up simplifying some of the material."

Even then, he needed four full pages to get across a tale that comprises only five paragraphs in the original text.

Wiegle, 33, who lives in the Northeast with wife, fellow graphic artist Sally Madden, further explored his interests in Asian-influenced spirituality by adapting parts of Lebanese American poet Kahlil Gibran's collection of parables The Madman for The Graphic Canon, Vol. 3.

Madden, 27, also contributed to the final volume with a selection from Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov's celebrated linguistic pièce de résistance.

Despite its Asian forays, the bulk of TheGraphic Canon is dedicated to the Western classics lauded by Bloom.

Aren't these better appreciated as books? Isn't the language the whole point?

For Temple University English professor Lawrence Venuti, comic-book adaptations don't reduce the original work.

"I celebrate this project," he said, "because I would look at each graphic version as an interpretation of the canonical text."

Venuti, an expert in translation theory, said literary traditions aren't static. Classic books aren't meant to sit around and gather dust, he said, but are reinterpreted each time they are read, translated, or adapted into plays, movies, or comic books. "I tend to look at culture as something that isn't ensconced in the past on a pedestal," he said, "but something that is living, that moves through and informs our present values."

Amy Jordan of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at theUniversity of Pennsylvania said that even though we live in a primarily visual, as opposed to literary, culture, graphic adaptations have the power to lead students back to the original classics.

"I don't think the canon has been left behind," she said, "when there are so many representations of it through other avenues in pop culture," including films, TV shows, video games, and comics.

Artist Gareth Hinds, 41, whose full-volume adaptations of the monumental classics Beowulf, The Odyssey, and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels are included in Kick's anthology, said he has often been invited to present his work in the classroom.

"If you hand the kids the original book, they are intimidated, so basically a lot of teachers I've worked with bring the comic first," he said. "Once they have an idea of what it's about, they realize, 'Oh, there's a lot of cool stuff in there.' "

Philadelphia cartoonist Robert Berry celebrates the process of learning in his Graphic Canon Vol. 1 contribution, Shakespeare's "Sonnet XVIII." Berry's autobiographical drawings pay homage to his mother, Carol Berry, who died in 2001. "I learned to read Shakespeare from her," he said. "That was the gift my mother gave me."

Comic-book versions of novels need not be simplifications, said Berry, 50, who is at work with fellow Philadelphia cartoonist Josh Levitas on a full-length, electronic, comic-book adaptation of James Joyce's modernist masterpiece Ulysses, called Ulysses "Seen," which will feature hyperlinks and pop-up windows to scholarly notes.

The work, which they estimate will take them 10 years to complete, is excerpted in The Graphic Canon, Vol. 3.

While Berry is using cutting-edge media to transform a modern work, Peter Kuper adapted Jonathan Swift's 1729 pamphlet A Modest Proposal, which he believes holds a contemporary message. A savage satire about the economic inequality plaguing early modern Ireland, it proposes to wipe out poverty by asking the poor to sell their babies to chefs who'll prepare the meat as a delicacy for the superrich.

"Shockingly, it's as current today as when it was written," said Kuper, who is best known for his critically acclaimed, book-length graphic adaptations of Franz Kafka's work. (Excerpts are included in The Graphic Canon Vol. 3.)

"Swift talks about serious problems in this wonderful, tongue-in-cheek way, yet managed to be very cutting," said Kuper, who modernized the language to make the piece more accessible.

"We live in a current society where greed is at an all-time high, and in a barely indirect way, children are being 'eaten,' " said Kuper.

That, some scholars say, is the very reason to read and reinterpret the classics, which are celebrated because they continue to resonate as powerfully today as when they were written.

For information on

"The Graphic Canon,"

visit http://theGraphicCanon.

Contact Tirdad Derakhshani

at 215-854-2736 or

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