There’s something seductive about an impossible project … and what would seem more impossible at first glance than The Graphic Canon?
In our age, the very notion of what constitutes “the canon” has been deconstructed and reassembled over and over. The idea of an anthology that encapsulates all of classic literature in visual form seems dubious at best.
So it’s unsurprising that the task falls to someone like Russ Kick, a former editor of books with titles like You Are Being Lied To and Everything You Know is Wrong, who seems to have gone from undermining one establishment to giving another one a makeover. The Graphic Canon (subtitled The World’s Greatest Literature as Comics and Visuals) still has one more volume to go, but it already stands as not only Kick’s most ambitious project to date but one of the most ambitious in the history of the graphic medium.
The title is a bit modest, actually. In selecting titles for adaptation, Kick often goes above and beyond the traditional Western body of literature. He includes some works usually left alone even in university classrooms. We saw this in the first volume, which started with Gilgamesh and ended in 18th-century France and included curios like Apu Ollantay, the only surviving work of native Incan drama.
That’s a hard act to follow. For much of Volume 2: From Kubla Khan to the Bronte Sisters to The Picture of Dorian Gray, we’re stuck with the Victorians and their contemporaries, beginning with a photo-realistic take on Coleridge and skipping through the 19th-century. The famous and familiar abound: See Heathcliff running over the moors! Behold Dr. Jekyll turning into Mr. Hyde! Witness the Ancient Mariner and Count Vronsky rubbing shoulders with Darwin and Rimbaud.
A few lesser-known works get attention, such as Fitz Hugh-Ludlow’s The Hasheesh Eater, a Mary Shelley B-side and a selection of the infamously macabre nursery rhymes of Der Struwwelpeter. For the most part, though, the thrill this time comes less in the discovery of new things than the anticipation for how such staples as Pride and Prejudice will be represented. True, it may be a bit of a comedown after the first book’s Popol Vuh and Hagoromo. But this also means more focus, with remarkably different views of the same era. We go from the hallucinations of the Romantics to the slave narratives of the American South, from Flaubert to Venus in Furs. Whittling down entries for this one must have been painful; Kick could easily fill three more volumes with adaptations from some of these prolific authors alone.
As with Book One, descriptions of all the different sights to be seen here could leave one asthmatic. Dave Morice gives us Whitman as a cosmic superhero, complete with cape and a giant ‘W’ on his chest. Shawn Cheng draws a hilariously jaunty version of a Brothers Grimm tale, reminiscent of Adventure Time. Dame Darcy provides delirious inky interpretations of Dickinson and Carroll, with wide-eyed characters scrunched next to swooping cursive letters. Oregon-based illustrator Pmurphy envisions Wordsworth as a bearded astronaut having psychedelic visions on a moon the color of an Easter egg. Elizabeth Watasin presents a hauntingly beautiful Jane Eyre in watercolors with cool blue hallways and roaring red flames.
Some of the best adaptations here (particularly John Coulthart’s atmospheric Dorian Gray) draw luscious inspiration from the styles of the period. Others, like John Porcellino’s minimalistic take on Walden or Mahendra Singh’s Ernst-ian Hunting of the Snark, find new stylistic avenues into the original while staying true to their spirit.
In a book full of such pleasures, two transcend.
One is a true find, a reproduction of a rare poetic manuscript by William Blake and (so far) the only entry in this series illustrated by its original author. The words, written in a blood-red ink that evokes the handwriting Daniel saw on the wall, may be as difficult to read as to understand, but the visuals surrounding them—demon-driven chariots and star-spangled titans—dazzle and repel in equal measure. In an album full of re-imaginings and new versions, it’s nice that we get one original vision as heady as anything produced by the legends of the comix underground.
The other revelation comes from Matt Kish, who has created a unique image for every page of Moby Dick (all of which can be seen on his blog). Intense and surreal, these visions are a triumph, keeping a strong tether to the original prose while launching into electrifying worlds of their own. We see strange, geometric angels in Modernist helmets clutching shamanic staffs. Beasts of riotous colors layered on top of instruction manuals on radio alignment. Ahab as a blazing Cyclopean monster with voltaic skin. A blue-skinned Queequeg pursued by all manner of toothsome creatures done in purple, orange and green. Kish’s imagination proves as fertile and ravenous as Melville’s and succeeds in Kick’s project of revitalization. Indeed, he makes one of the most studied and discussed stories of modern fiction seem downright alien.
Kish’s inclusion points to another of The Graphic Canon’s themes: the unification not just of different kinds of literature but different artistic styles, time periods and media.
As we flip pages we see many unlikely pairings: Frederick Douglass rendered in 1960s-style protest poster art; Thus Spake Zarathustra as a webcomic; Jane Austen’s Bennett family done in clear-line Grecian figures. The artists on display here hail from a staggering diversity of backgrounds, including erotic comics, mainstream houses, Disney and self-published blogs. Some writers speak of finding “the universal through the specific.” And the weaving of such very different specifics here creates a new idea of a canon as a way of finding common threads, rather than privileging one country’s library over another’s.
In rallying such a diverse artistic crew, Kick makes a strong case for cultural cross-pollination and re-purposing, perhaps a bold move in a world of SOPA and digital rights paranoia. (It’s fitting, in a way, that the Victorian era saw a flowering of copyright law.) It will be fascinating to see how Kick and his contributors approach this issue once they reach the litigation-happy 20th century … or whether they avoid it entirely.
Of course, not every chocolate in the box can be sweet. The adaptation of Les Miserables looks pretty but goes on for far too long, its blurry ink sketches and gaudy backgrounds a distraction from the text rather than an illumination. Also overlong: the “Alice Gallery,” a selection of Wonderlandia by various artists that ranges from the inspired (Molly Kiely’s black Alice deserves her own book) to the vaguely embarrassing.
The weakest spots of this volume, though, come in three sections devoted to stories by The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson and Poe, with illustrations by S. Clay Wilson and Maxon Crumb (brother of Robert). Rather than elevate or enhance the prose of the original, these passages present it unadorned against an ugly brown-green background, with only one or two drawings per piece. The result becomes less graphic novel than lackluster picture book. Seen alongside other fabulous work on display here, these cannot help but seem lacking, despite the game efforts of the artists. And even in an anthology of this size, one can find more than a few questionable omissions (no Thackeray? No Balzac? No Baudelaire?).
Despite any bumps and pockmarks, The Graphic Canon continues to be an enrapturing experience. It has already sparked a sensation, and anyone who’s read the first two volumes most likely can’t wait for the third, currently set to come out this March.
If all this effort renews interest in the classics, then more power to it. Still, The Graphic Canon, Volume 2 has plenty to offer those without lit degrees: a vibrant, feverish dance through some of the best parts of our artistic history … with an open invitation to join.
Andy Hughes has an MA in literature and a very weary bookshelf. He is a writer for various publications, including Topless Robot and The Escapist.