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.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Graphic Nonfiction

This week, we venture into new territory: the idea that nonfiction, particularly two famous treatises on natural science and psychology, could potentially be adapted as graphical narratives.

The first is Darwin's On the Origin of Species, adapted by Keller and Fuller. Here, we're on somewhat more familiar ground; indeed, natural history is the one genre of nonfiction which has almost always been heavily illustrated to begin with. Whether by Darwin himself, or other noted naturalists such as Charles Maplestone, John Muir, or Charles Dixon -- or by relative unknowns like John Smith, the field-sketchbook has been an essential part of studying nature in all its forms. Indeed, without illustrations, the value of almost any text of this kind would be greatly reduced.

At the other end of the spectrum, Tara Seibel's version of Freud's 1889 classic On the Interpretation of Dreams brings a visual element to a text that, in many ways, would seem to defeat any endeavor to transpose it into graphical form, unless it be that of a series of talk bubbles coming out of Freud's head! Seibel manages, though, to augment as well as simply illustrate Freud's arguments, bringing a new sort of vision to his iconic work.

Taken together, these two adaptations widen the range of the 'graphic' well beyond the novel -- but do they work? And how do they contrast with the balance of the books, almost all the other contents of which are based on fiction or poetry?

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Illustrating Moby-Dick

It's a candidate for the "Great American Novel" -- and perhaps for the "great American illustrated novel" as well.  Since its first publication in 1851, there have been, quite literally, hundreds of illustrated editions of Melville's magnum opus, ranging from those with a single frontispiece to Matt Kish's version, which features one illustration per page of the original novel (of the which the 12 in The Graphic Canon is but a tiny selection). The best-known illustrations are doubtless those by Rockwell Kent, an artist who himself travelled to the ends of the earth to sketch its landscapes and creatures, but there have been many others: Barry Moser, C.M. Butzer, Mike Huddleston, and Garrick Palmer, as well as numerous comic-book and graphic novel versions. It's also been translated into dozens of other languages, and illustrated in many, including Russian, Japanese, Chinese, and Spanish. Throughout all this, though, Kent's illustrations are still the most iconic, and it's almost impossible to imagine any other illustrations which wouldn't, in some way, reference.