Sunday, May 3, 2015

To Graph(ic) or not to Graph(ic)

So here we are, at the end of all things -- well, not really, but we are at the end of the semester. I've been asking everyone what they've thought about the idea of an English 100 course using all graphic adaptations -- first, as to the idea itself: what does it add? Is there a downside? And, while it may make understanding some kinds of literature easier to understand, doe that mean it's easier, or more fun to write about? Lastly, what about The Graphic Canon? Do you think that its adaptations offered consistent interest, and value for the price? One other option I'd considered was using a series of graphic novels rather than the three-volume anthology; the titles would probably have included things like Culbard and Edington's A Study in Scarlet, Bernie Wrightson's Frankenstein, Art Spiegelman's MAUS I & II, and some free-standing graphic novels such as Alan Moore and David Lloyd's V for Vendetta, Lynda Barry's One Hundred Demons, and Derf Backderf's My Friend Dahmer. Would any of you have preferred a course of this kind, with fewer but more substantial graphical texts? I'd value your thoughts, and a response here will count for the class.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Gregor Brown and Cthulu Seuss

What happens when a graphic adapter chooses to emulate -- nay, to inhabit -- the precise style of another artist? One may well ask, what kind of element is style, either in writing or in art, or music? Does using someone else's necessarily compromise one's work? In music, as we've recently seen, there are quite a few "blurred lines," between the style of one artist and that of another -- is imitation a compliment? or a copyright violation? Bear in mind that, technically speaking, copyright protects only the work itself, not its subject, its style, or even its title (titles are specifically excluded from copyright protection). It gets even trickier, of course, when the artist being imitated is dead.

In that light, what do we make of Franz Kafka meeting Charlie Brown in "Good ol' Gregor Brown," or of seeing H.P. Lovecraft's "Call of Cthulu" drawn as though illustrated by Dr. Seuss? Do we feel betrayed? Amused? Confused? And, as iconic artists whose work is so central to many of our childhoods, how might the late Charles Schultz or Ted Geisel feel if they had lived to see these works? And how do either of them compare with the numerous new graphical interpretations of the classics that, whatever their merits or lack thereof, did not lean so heavily on the style of another?

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Graphical Ulysseses

James Joyce's Ulysses is widely hailed as the great modernist novel, one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, or of all time. And there's no question that, in its own day, it was a revolutionary text: an epic (or mock-epic) tale, doubling Dubliners with Greek mythology, all of which takes place in the course of a single day.

First published in France in 1922, it was soon declared to be obscene in both Britain and the United States; copies had to be smuggled in (one innovative British couple hid theirs in a box of "sanitary napkins"!). A famous court case in 1933 lifted the ban in the states, after which Random House brought out its first edition, seen here in the hands of Marilyn Monroe.

It wasn't easy reading. The "stream of consciousness" style dumped the internal thoughts of the characters onto the page in a sort of real-time sequence, connected as much by personal association as by plot. Guidebooks on how to read Ulysses sprang up, with Stuart Gilbert's being the first and best-known. And, more recently, disputes over textual variations -- the original edition was set by printers in Dijon who spoke no English, and subsequent editions did an imperfect job of implementing Joyce's corrections -- has led to duelling versions. I myself recommend the first edition of 1922, which, as its copyright is now expired, can be had in an affordable paperback from Dover Books.

In The Graphic Canon, we have two Ulysseses --the first by Robert Berry and Josh Levitas, the secind by David Lasky. Berry and Levitas offer a lush, colorful version, filled with the melodious phrases of the original novel; in contrast, Lasky offers a black-and-white and nearly wordless one; what few words there are are paraphrased. Barry and Levitas are adapting the full novel as an iPad app, under the title Ulysses Seen, and so far, theirs follows the text quite closely, though it acknowledges in its very title that seeing is quite different from reading. Lasky's stab at Joyce's novel appears to be just that; he's best known for his graphic history of the Carter Family, regarded as among the founders of modern Country music.

It could be argued that a big, wordy, and (purportedly) difficult classic could use a lighter, more visual treatment -- or else that, without its language, Ulysses isn't, well ... Ulysses. Which side are you on?

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Modernist Canon: Eliot and Joyce

Literary Modernism, a movement that can be traced to the years immediately before a World War I, provides many of the next few texts for adaptation in The Graphic Canon. This week, we have two key works of this kind, one a poem composed of seeming prose, the other a piece of prose that verges on poetry. The legacy of American-midwesterner-turned-high-church-Brit Thomas Stearns Eliot is in one sense a limited one -- very few have taken up his style of dry, chanted lines, blank except for the occasional whimsical rhyme -- and yet at the same time, his influence has been enormous. This paradoxical situation was aptly summaries by a friend of mine some years ago in this bit of comic verse:

Mr. Eliot, beloved of Pound
Is riding his crafty go-cart 'round
While many a gifted latter-day poet
Is eating his dust -- they sure can't sow it.

This paradox is underwritten by Eliot's own, internal conflict; he famously described poetry not as the expression of emotion, but the escape from it. Perhaps as a result, there's a strange mixtures of tones in his best poems, combining a kind of unemotional dryness with a rich, sometimes biting wit. Both are on ample display in his early masterpiece, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," here adapted by Anthony Ventura.

Ventura chooses not to illustrate each line, but instead provides a series of scenes -- we see the statue of David, imagined as perhaps the work by Michelangelo that the women in the poem are discussing; followed a version of Prufrock as a sunglassed, balding Mad Men-era businessman, complete with dangling cigarette. A lone woman, with bouffant hair and oversize Jackie-O sunglasses, reposes with a cup of tea on a bench seat, beside a skull which plaintively declares "That is not what I meant at all"! All are illustrated

The Irish writer James Joyce, during his career, sought to establish himself as the great voice of Modernism, and something more, its representative -- a goal in which he largely succeeded. He was once heard to boast that his writings would give scholars something to think of for the next three hundred years, and what for others would be a boast was for Joyce an understatement.

Although he did not originate the technique of "stream of consciousness," his "eiphanies" -- which began with Dubliners in 1914 -- recast the notion, and with Ulysses (1922) he had his greatest triumph. The story adapted here, "Araby," is from Dubliners, and offers a characteristic example of Joyce's technique of 'epiphany' -- in which a small, crystalline moment of realization, often framed by disappointment and loss, briefly illuminates 'dear old dirty Dublin' and brings its ordinary people into a suddenly lyrical light.

The artist Annie Mok employs style that evokes both realism -- in its streets, stones, and buildings -- and an expressive, manga-influenced rendering of human faces. The palate is a blue one, suggesting perhaps the cool and damp of turn-of-the-century Dublin, as well as the old cyanotype photographs that could be bought at photo booths in the form of ready-made postcards.

In his final work, Finnegans Wake, Joyce coins the word "fadograph" for such images -- those which, like old snapshots, fade with time, as does human memory; the word fádo is also Irish Gaelic for long ago," and the word that starts many a folk and fairy tale from the Irish tradition.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Gender and the Graphic Canon

We've seen the kinds of issues that the race of an author or a graphical adapter can raise -- but what about gender? Women writers have labored, for much of literary history, under the burden of being taken less 'seriously' -- with all that it implies, including having a harder time making a living, getting published, and entering the 'canon.' Women graphic novelists, today, face similar barriers; the perception -- and the reality -- that comics and graphical works tend to be dominated by male readers, and male artists -- has shadowed their work as well.

So this week we have several women writers -- Emily Dickinson, H.D., and Kate Chopin -- adapted by Dame Darcy, Bishakh Som, and Rebecca Migdal. Darcy is perhaps the most prolific of the three; her comic series Meatcake has been published by Fantagraphics since 1992; set in the warped land of Faeiry (her spelling), it's a world she describes as "for folks with their heads in the 1800s and their crotches in the 2000s." Som, for his part, is one of the most eclectic artists in any of our volumes; born in Ethiopia in 1968, he says he was raised on a diet of Tintin and Indian folklore; he wryly says that nearly everything he learned about his parents' native India, he learned from comics. He's also a Harvard-trained architect -- and much much more -- check out this extensive profile at The Rumpus, which features a retrospective of his work. Rebecca Migdal is perhaps the least familiar of the three; her most widely known graphic work has been in Seth Tobocman's ongoing World War 3 series, but she's also worked in a wide array of media, including film, puppeteering, and performance.

So, in terms of gender at least, Darcy and Migdal are a match for their subjects. Still, it seems that elements of style and approach loom larger than those of identity here; Darcy's flowery get gothic faeryworld seems appropriate for Dickinson's poem; Migdal's sepia toned snapshots evoke the turn of the century with both artistry and realism, and Som's whimsical yet meticulous imagery seems to fit H.D.'s (H.D., an avant-garde writer closely associated with the Imagist movement, worked in genres that cross over the conventional lines between poem, play, and prose.

All the same, there's no way to anticipate how readers today might respond -- so what's your take? Are these artists and texts well-paired? Does gender even enter into it? And which of these spoke most strongly to you, and how?

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Graphic(al) Children's Books

Children, of course, are the one group of readers for whom we always assume that a graphical story would be appropriate; from board books to early readers to YA fiction, there's no shortage of illustrations, and indeed a special award, the Caldecott Medal, is given year for the finest illustrations to a children's book.

And yet, bringing the sensibility of a graphic novelist to to the endeavor inevitably produces some strange new possibilities: re-illustrating Struwwelpeter, an already-disturbing lesson book filled with severed tumbs and gun-toting rabbits, with even-more-distrubing seriagraphs; depicting the Wonderful Wizard of Oz with 3D dioramas that re-purpose dolls and household items, and an Alice gallery by artists that run the gamut from underground comic legend Kim Deitch to psychedelic collagist John Coulthart -- not to mention a shadow-puppet Jabberwocky that's quite a contrast with the silly-symphony version of Disney's 1951 Alice.

Oz, and Alice's looking-glass worlds, were already among the most richly illustrated of all children's books. The original artist for L. Frank Baum's masterpiece was W.W. Denslow, whose singular style so perfectly suited the Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion; he and Baum had a falling out when Denslow spun off the figures as newspaper comics. The second "Royal Illustrator of Oz," John R. Neill, worked on all of Baum's 13 further Oz books, as well as those of his successor Ruth Plumly Thompson; after her retirement he wrote and illustrated two of his own. Alice was definitively brought to life by Sir John Tenniel, a regular illustrator for the British humor magazine Punch. But this hasn't stopped other illustrators from having at it, from Ralph Steadman to Moomintroller Tove Jansson to Lisbeth Zwerger and even Salvador Dali.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Color of The Canon

As in other areas of artistic and literary endeavor, African-American illustrators and graphic novelists have labored under a variety of different burdens -- the question of having to "represent," the market's perception that strips and graphic works about black folks would only be read by black folks (and therefore be less commercially viable), along with the expectation that the themes and subjects of their output ought necessarily to deal with the history of African-American struggle rather than other kinds of subjects.

Some artists, as a result, have taken up a strategy of resistance, among them Milton Knight, adapter of Hurston's "Poker!" here, who calls himself America's Last Untamed Cartoonist. He names as influences decades of cartoonists and animators, among them Will EisnerBob Clampett, the Fleischer Studios (Popeye and Betty Boop), and even Chinese woodblock art. As an African-American illustrating a 1931 African-American text with a jazz-age style, he seems a perfect choice.

Seth Tobocman, adapter of Frederick Douglass's "Message from Mount Misery," which refers to the name of the plantation where Douglass was sent to be tortured (and which is now owned, ironically enough, by Donald Rumsfeld), is white. Still, his radical politics -- among his books are You Don't Have to Fuck People Over to Survive and Disaster and Resistance -- resonate with those of Douglass, who once compared those who wanted progress without struggle to "Men who want crops without plowing the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its mighty waters."

So how do each of these adaptations play out, not only with the contents of their respective texts, but with the way they've adapted them to contemporary readers? Your thoughts below.