Friday, February 27, 2015

What it means to be Graphical

Although "graphic novels" as such are purportedly a late-twentieth-century development, if we see them as a form in which literary texts are told, in large or significant ways, through images, then it seems that we've had them around for quite a long time, at least since our ability to print images alongside text. Many literary texts had illustrations, at least a frontispiece (an illustration printed opposite the title page), and quite a few had a number of in-text illustrations. Artists such as William Blake took this to the next level in the late 1700's; he illustrated all of his books, and indeed every word of his work was engraved on copper plates alongside or within his own illustrations. The William Blake Archive has all of his works, in all their many printings; the plates were hand-colored by Mrs. Blake, and so each copy is essentially unique. His "prophetic books" were the darkest and densest of his works; in the case of Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion, this summary from Wikpedia may be helpful

In the nineteenth century, it became common for an author's books to be illustrated; the novels of Charles Dickens were all illustrated with engraved plates; his partnership with the artist "Phiz" (Hablot Knight Brown) was the stuff of legend. Dickens's contemporary William Makepeace Thackeray was himself a capable artist, and illustrated his own novels. Around that same time, illustrated magazines such as Punch, and even newspapers such as the Illustrated London News, moved images from the back seat to the front of their publications.

By the twentieth century, it was less common for "serious" literary fiction to have illustrations, though some publishers, such as the Folio Society and the Limited Editions Club, specialized in commissioning illustrations special editions of literary works. In one infamous case, Henri Matisse was called upon to illustrated James Joyce's Ulysses -- it wasn't until he was nearly done that the publishers realized he'd mistakenly been illustrating Homer's Odyssey. And, although he was more exception that rule, the writer Lynd Ward, in addition to working as an illustrator, published a number of works of wordless illustration, some of which have recently been reprinted as Six Novels in Woodcuts.

So what of a graphical story in which the text and the illustrations are folded together, as with Blake? What of an illustrative story, where the novel is external to the whale's tale? Your thoughts here.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Graphic Romantics

The Romantic era of English literature -- roughly from 1798 through the 1840's -- was one of intense, passionate, imaginative literature. It was the era of Frankenstein, the era of Kubla Khan, the era of Byronic heroes who gave dark glances and roamed the wild in search of their lost souls. In America, too, writers such as Hawthorne and Poe expanded the realm of the fantastic, and the first detective fiction -- Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue" -- was written. It was an era of dark visions, fueled by opium and laudanum and absinthe, hounded by incurable maladies such as tuberculosis (known then as "consumption"), damp houses, and lonely moors. And, not unexpectedly, it was an era of great visual art, ranging from the self-engraved plates of William Blake to the nightmares of Fuseli, from the lone wanderers of Friedrich to the twisted prisons of Piranesi. And, just in case all that weren't enough, it was the era of Grimm's fairy tales and Hans Christian Andersen -- both very dark, and nothing at all like the Disney versions.

So it's little wonder that, for the artists of The Graphic Canon, it's proven to be a fruitful era for adaptation. One may well ask, though, what sort of approach best suits this material? Should it necessarily be dark and haunting, like S. Clay Wilson's illustrations of Grimm and Andersen? Or might it be whimsically grotesque, as with Hunt Emerson's version of Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner"? Dreamy realism along the lines of Alice Duke's "Kubla Khan?" If ever an era had a dominant mood, the Romantic period is it -- and yet, in The Graphic Canon, there seems to always be more than one way to slice a classic.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Graphic Poetry

So many of the adaptations we've read so far cut out much of the original language of their sources just in order to "tell" the story. Thankfully, you can't do that with a poem; in fact, with each line illustrated, an entire new dimension appears, one that expands rather than condenses the essence of the text. Time, which almost seems to rush by in the steady narrative frames we've seen so far, now almost stands still; indeed, in his adaptation of Shakespeare's Sonnet #18, Robert Berry and Josh Levitas often break a single line into three bubbles, as he does here. Berry also manages to give the poem a new, redoubled subject: the death of his own mother, and his memories of her. The "summer's day" gives the panels their dominant, golden color, and the passage of time moves forward and backward from memory to the present, where the poem is "set" in Levitas's own home studio.

Not everyone seems to be fully at home with the slower, more methodical pace of poetry; Yien Yip's version of Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" seems to almost rush by, cramming the poem itself into the corners of its slapdash, unengaging artwork. And yet some can be remarkably lush, as with Duke's adaptation of Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," whose vivid colors and elaborate detail match those of the original poem's opium-induced hallucinatory vision.  And, although it's more an illustration than a full graphical realization, Ventura's "Ozymandius" panel certainly dramatizes its subject forcefully.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Canon as Foundation

Every modern language seems to have its vital, foundational literary work: Italian has Dante's Divine Comedy, Spanish has Don Quixote, and English has Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. And yet, like other such works, the writings of Chaucer are often more often talked about than read; unlike Shakespeare's, his characters have not so often strutted upon the stage. In the UK, the BBC has done them both as a period puppet piece as well as a modernized version, and in 1972 the great Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini made a memorable film version -- but here in the US there have been no major film or television adaptations.

All of which makes Seymour Chwast's version -- from which we have "The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale" -- all the more remarkable. Chwast has also adapted Dante, and his version is one of two that we'll read, the other one being by Hunt Emerson; this is the first of several works we'll see in competing versions.

Chwast's style -- linear, loopy, childlike and yet oddly adult, is perhaps a good mirror of Chaucer's own. The great poet, after all, chose to write in his own humble English vernacular, rather than Latin or French (the established literary language of his day), and his characters are everyday people, just about as 'down to earth' as you can get. I don't think it works quite as well with Dante; he doesn't seem to quite be able to manage the darker, more epic tones in the Inferno. Emerson perhaps fares a little better, but neither comes close to Gary Panter's twisted series, Jimbo's Inferno, Jimbo in Purgatory, and Jimbo's Adventures in Paradise. I'd certainly recommend seeking these out if you're curious.

But in the meantime, with the adaptations we have: do these "foundational" works benefit in a different way from being "graphicalized"? Are they more accessible, more engaging, less off-putting? Or is there, perhaps a mismatch in your view? Your comments below.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Scripture as Canon

After all, one might say, sacred 'canons' were around long before literary ones. So why not add them to the list? The idea is at least as old as the typical "The Bible as Literature" course, which has been taught on many college campuses since the 1960's.

Still, reading the Bible -- or any other sacred text -- "as" literature is no easy task. The sacred mode of reading, in which every word is regarded as the word of God, and must be filtered through thousands of years of theological thought and debate, is far different from the 'literary' mode, in which meaning is debated anew, everyone's 'response' is (potentially) meaningful, and one can talk about things such as style, pacing, and characterization. It's not disrespectful to religion -- but religious right and wrong have to be set aside in order to discovery literary meaning and value.

This is easiest with those sacred texts that are narrative in form, as opposed to those which are more collections of hymns, prayers, or sacred sayings. The Bible has an ample supply of both; at the core of the Old Testament is the history of the Jewish kings of old, and the many prophets sent to get Israel back on the right track. Alongside these, there are others -- the Psalms of David are hymns, and the Song of Songs is an erotic love poem, one whose meaning has had to be re-directed over time to a 'higher' plane of understanding.

The history of illustrated Bibles is an interesting one: first, of course, the old prohibition on images, which is in the Second Commandment, had to be set aside; if the semi-literate could understand better from pictures, it was reasoned, why not use them to share and spread the religious message? It doesn't always work out so well -- R. Crumb's illustrated Book of Genesis was widely hated by evalgelical Christians in the U.S., even though its pictures and text are very strictly based on the King James text of the Bible.

In Russ Kick's version we have several different styles and approaches. In J.T. Waldman's adaptation of The Book of Esther, the original Hebrew text is there, and the style of drawing is woven in and out of the wide and narrow lines of its script; in Benjamin Frisch's Book of Daniel -- he chooses, aptly enough, the parable from Daniel about idol-worship and the Fiery Furnace -- the figures look like stained glass windows come to life. Finally, in Rick Geary's Book of Revelation, we have a fairly spare, figurative style that seems to me to hark back to the old Classics Illustrated.

Is one of these more suited to its subject than the others? Should the approach to illustrating such stories be reverential? Humorous? Both? And what does seeing them add to these stories?

Your comments below.