Nashville Scene: The Graphic Canon Interview Extended Cut

Detail from John Donne’s “The Flea,” adapted by Noah Patrick Pfarr

This great Nashville Scene interview by Joe Nolan nudges Russ to reveal the back stories to some of the works in the first volume of The Graphic Canon

The Graphic Canon Interview: Extended Cut

Posted by Joe Nolan

Editor Russ Kick got the idea for The Graphic Canontrilogy when he was standing in the graphic-novel section of a Tucson, Ariz., bookstore. Picking up a comic adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, he was suddenly struck by the idea of developing a literary anthology that paired great stories with great visual storytellers.

Pulling texts together into a coherent whole is second nature to a veteran editor like Kick. He’s best known for guides like Everything You Know Is Wrong and You Are Being Lied To, which he put out through the countercultural publisher Disinformation. These and other books established Kick as a synthesizer of disparate, fringe authors and ideas. And judging from the reviews he’s garnering for The Graphic Canon, Volume 1: From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons, it looks like this combining of contemporary comics art and the world’s best literature is also proving a winner. School Library Journal has called the trilogy “startlingly brilliant,” and Publisher’s Weekly has dubbed it “the graphic publishing literary event of the year.”

The 500-page first volume was released on May 22, and subsequent installments will hit the shelves in September and October. In all, the trilogy covers world literature from The Epic of Gilgameshthrough David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest. A few of the works are reprinted excerpts from sometimes obscure sources, but the majority are new interpretations by consistently creative talents — names like R. Crumb, Will Eisner, Molly Crabapple, Sharon Rudahl and Gareth Hinds are enough to make any comics fan break a sweat.

Kick recently sat down with the Scene to discuss art, literature, the history of literary comics and The Graphic Canon’s Nashville connections.

When you see the word “canon” on the cover, that could mean a lot of things. But then the book opens with Gilgamesh. Tell me about why the book opens with that and why it’s important. 

The idea was always to go chronological with the works — even when it was one volume. And now that it’s three, it’s the same thing — it starts in the beginning, and Volume 3 ends in the late ’90s.Gilgamesh is the longest surviving work of long-form literature. You’ll hear it called the longest surviving work of literature, but that’s not quite true. There are short poems from Babylonia that predate it. There’s been written stuff from ancient Egypt that predates it, like spells and rituals, but, as far as a sustained narrative, an actual story, Gilgamesh is the oldest thing we have. It’s from about 1,000 B.C. in Babylonia, give or take a few centuries.

The thing that’s interesting to me is that when you open with Gilgamesh — instead of Beowulf, for instance — it’s immediately clear that you mean to take on the entirety of world literature, not just Western works.
Exactly. That was part of the plan, too. It was never going to be maybe Europe, Britain and America. It was always going to be world literature. If you add up everything in all three volumes, it leans toward Western literature, but I definitely made an effort to bring in Asian, Middle Eastern literature and indigenous works too.

Let’s talk a little bit of some of the more unexpected entries. For instance, you’ve included Native American stories in the first volume. 
Yeah, well there is a Native American folktale there. It’s a trickster’s story called “Coyote and the Pebbles.” That one’s important because Native Americans — especially in the North American context — didn’t really have written languages to speak of, you know, until the European invasion. In South America they had some pictographic written stuff going on, but in North America there was essentially nothing going on written-wise. But, I wanted some of that in there, because as far as I’m concerned, it’s still literature. All of the oldest literature started out being just told. I mean, The Iliadand The Odyssey were just recited for ages before they were written down. In the canon we includePopol Vuh — the ancient holy book of the Maya. That’s a classic of world literature, and it’s important because the Mayan culture was all but destroyed by the Spanish, but this work of literature managed to survive and get translated into Spanish. And from there it went out to the wider world. It’s an amazing work with a wild creation story.

Tell me about the piece that looks like some kind of psychedelic Inca play. 
That’s a third indigenous piece. Apu Ollantay is an Incan play. It turns out the Incas were really big into doing plays and theater. After the Spanish invasion, their culture got decimated, but this one particular play was written down in a kind of Romanized written language that the Spanish gave them. This one particular play got written down, and it came to the attention of a friar or something — one of the Spanish bigwigs in the area. He decided, “Let’s preserve this. Let’s translate it into Spanish.” And so from what I understand, it’s the only Native American play from Pre-Columbian times to survive — the only one in either North or South America. It’s strange that it gets ignored in the history of theater and whatnot, but I just thought, “This has to be in here.”

Tell me about the artist for that piece. 
One of the artists I approached was Caroline Picard. I had kind of a wish list. Many of the artists responded with work that they wanted to do, but it was like, “If you’re interested, but you don’t know what to do, maybe one of these will grab you?” So she liked the idea of doing Apu Ollantay. I don’t know anybody else who could’ve done it. There are no panels as such. Each page is just a continuous, sinuous piece. Each page is a self-contained work of art, and yet it is telling a story.

You’ve also included pieces from the Tao Te Ching, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Bible. You included a lot of religious writings. How did you pick the pieces you chose? 
I think some religious books belong in the overall literary canon — certainly the Bible does. But people can overlook that because of all the cultural issues, and all the people who take it literally, and all the people who react against that. But, the Old Testament is ancient Israelite literature, and there’s some amazing stuff in there. There are some amazing stories with shocking things and beautiful things, and by placing it in The Graphic Canon, I’m trying to say, “Don’t forget, this is literature too.”

Why did you pick the Book of Esther as opposed to the more familiar stories of Moses or Noah? 
Well it turns out that the artist had done a full-length adaptation of the Book of Esther. He had this stand-alone book that was the entire Book of Esther as a graphic novel. It’s an amazing book from an artistic standpoint. For one thing, he’s got the entire Hebrew text weaving in and out through all of the artwork. It was an amazing, gorgeous book, but it didn’t get much attention in the graphic novel world because it was put out by a small Jewish publisher. It didn’t come out from one of your standard comic publishers, and it got completely ignored.

So what you have in the book is a section from the original? 
Yeah. I was such a fan of the book, and I was so happy that it fit so well with what I was trying to do with The Graphic Canon. We included the first part of the story.

What about the Book of Revelation?
That’s another amazing book of literature. If you stop trying to interpret it or decide if it’s supposed to be taken literally, if you just look at it strictly from a visual perspective, it’s mind-blowing. I’d approached Rick Geary, who is a pretty well-known comics artist. He’s done a lot of Victorian-era work, and I approached him about being in the canon and showed him the wish list. I was thinking he’d pick something from the 1800s, Dickens or Poe or something, but he wanted to do the Book of Revelation. I was hoping someone would do it because it’s just crying out for a graphic adaptation. I mean, you’ve got the the lamb with seven eyes, the Four Horsemen, the Whore of Babylon. I mean, come on.

What other work has Geary done?
He’s done a ton of work for Mad and National Lampoon. He’s also done a lot of work in graphic novels. Some of them are literature adaptations and some are like nonfiction graphic novels of true crime from the Victorian era. He’s an interesting guy.

So you’re working with established pros in the field, but how did you get guys like Will Eisner and R. Crumb involved with the project? Here you’re talking about the king of the underground and the king of graphic storytelling as we know it. 
Well the first connection to R. Crumb came from the last anthology I did for Disinformation. They suggested that I include one of Crumb’s works. [Crumb’s “The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick” appeared in You Are Still Being Lied To in 2009.] It turned out someone there knew his agent. She let us include this piece then, and when it became time for The Graphic Canon, I was already aware that he’d done several literary adaptations.

Rather recently, even the Book of Genesis. 
Yeah, the entire book. He’s also done a number of smaller adaptations that haven’t gotten much play. As far as I know, they’ve never been reprinted. So I asked if I could reprint them, and told her we didn’t have a huge budget, and she was all right with that. She gave us a great deal on it. He’s also in Volume 3 with an adaptation of Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre.

What’s the title of Crumb’s piece in this volume? 
It’s [James] Boswell’s London Journal.

What about Will Eisner? 
Well he had done adaptations of Don Quixote and Moby Dick, and I think they were completed toward the end of his life. I really wanted to include an excerpt from Don Quixote, and I managed to track down the people who are in charge of Eisner’s estate, and again, they were really cool — we got five or six pages at a great rate.

There have been other literary adaptations in comics, and even Marvel has recently released a line of them. Let’s talk a bit about the tradition of literary adaptations in comics. 
As far as I know, it started with the Classics Illustrated line of comics. That was a little bit before our time. That’s real baby boomer stuff. My dad had almost the entire run of them. As far as I know, Classic Comics [which later became Classics Illustrated] started in 1941, and I don’t know of anything earlier than that. When you talk about the idea of The Graphic Canon with anybody over the age of 50, that’s automatically what comes up, and I’m like “Well, not exactly.” Frankly, the artwork in those is competent, but nothing to write home about, and I don’t think the artists were encouraged to put a personal stamp on it. It’s kind of like, “Look. Just hit the highlights of the book and just draw it in a straightforward way.” It wasn’t bad, but it was just OK.

What’s the difference between that and what you’re doing? 
I really encouraged the artists to put their own stamp, their own style in there. That’s what I wanted. I didn’t want the stories simply transcribed into pictures. I couldn’t wait to see how they would interpret the greatest literature of all time. I gave them free rein.

You’re including all of these amazing works of literature, but, at the end of the day, it’s a graphic book — a book that you look at. One of the things that really caught my eye is that there are several works in the book that tell their stories without using any words at all. They’re purely visual. Who did Beowulf for Volume 1? 
His name is Gareth Hines, and he is probably the only artist working full time in the classic literature niche. That’s all he does. He’s done full-length adaptations of Beowulf and The Odyssey — which is excerpted in here too. It’s kind of hard to tell because he works in completely different styles.

Beowulf is amazing to me because anybody who’s been to high school has read that story, and there aren’t not a lot of surprises — you’ve got a monster and a hero. But I was really blown away by how new and visceral his approach made the story. There’s also a piece by Plato that has no text in it. It’s also laid out with no panels. It just sort of floats on these horizontal spaces that kind of call to mind unrolled scrolls. 
Yeah, it’s one that’s three spreads. You know, the artist told me that each one of those is a huge physical work. I should have asked her the dimensions because I have been kind of curious, but she told me that in real life these are huge. It’s an amazing take on part of Plato’s Symposium. I mean, you do need a little context for that one. I think if you don’t know — it looks great, regardless — but you probably wouldn’t know what’s really going on.

Right. Without a little more information about it. Who is the artist?
Yeji Yun.

Is she Asian?

I saw it before I had seen the title page and your intro for it, and when I was first looking at it — at the horizontal layout and some of the characters and stuff — the whole thing felt like she was doing some kind of Chinese scroll. I thought I was looking at something that would have been a story from that place and that time, but it turned out it was Plato, and I was like, “Ah, that’s good, too.”
Yeah, some of them do look Asian, but there’s also the scroll.

True, and that’s not just strictly an Asian thing, either. I mean, Plato had scrolls.
Good point. But it does remind you of the older Chinese and Japanese scrolls.

Right. Yeah, it’s really nice. Another one that has words in it is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18. The thing I love about this is that it actually has the lines in it. We’re pretty familiar with that sonnet. And there are two artists, Robert Berry and Josh Levitas.
Yeah, Josh did the coloring. That sonnet usually is considered a romantic love poem. You know the famous opening line, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day …” You just look at it as a love poem. And yeah, I didn’t know what Robert had in mind, he just said that he had thought of an interesting approach for it. And well, I guess the final thing arrived, and it’s about his mother.

It’s essentially about a guy looking back on his mother after she has died, and looking back on memories of him with her when he was a boy. Is that correct? That’s what I picked up from it.
Yeah, and that’s him, that’s Robert. The guy at the end there is a self-portrait.

And the cool thing about that is that when the comic ends, he’s sitting down drawing the comic that you’re reading.
Yeah, it’s so meta. It all ties together. His mom is the one who introduced him to Shakespeare. There’s the shot of her reading Shakespeare, and in another one of the panels, it’s him reading Shakespeare. There are so many levels of stuff going on in that one piece, it’s incredible. And, you know, the sonnet itself is really about the fact that whoever he’s addressing, his loved one, is going to die — “But hey, I’m writing a sonnet about you that will be read for ages, and you’ll live on through this sonnet.” And so he did that with the comic, with his mom. This is a tribute to her. She’s going to have a form of immortality through this comic, so it’s a really interestingly complex one.

That little poem has really in many ways become sort of a cliché. He completely sabotages all of those ideas, and by the time you catch up with him, it’s really moving. 
Yes. It’s one that Reader’s Digest, the book editor there, gave a little write-up in the May issue. Which, I never thought Reader’s Digest would do. She actually mentioned that piece, Sonnet 18, and I think she basically said the same thing, you know: “The sonnet itself has become overwhelming.” But yeah, the adaptation just brings all the light back and all the depth back into it.

One of the things I thought was really interesting was the poem “The Flea” by John Donne. Basically, the speaker of the poem is trying to seduce a girl, and he’s pointing out that they’ve both been bitten by the same flea, and therefore they’ve become one already, so what’s the harm in just going ahead and having sex also? I like the way that in this version, it’s updated to a modern time, and it’s two women, and it’s turned into this playful dialogue between them.
Yeah, and again that’s another one where I had no idea what he was cooking up. Noah Patrick Pfarr. I had no idea that’s what he was cooking up, and then I got it, and it’s so well done, the crisp style. But the thing that gets you, is yeah, it’s two women, and that poem’s always been read as a man to a woman. But you go back and read it and there’s nothing that says it has to be a guy. It could be a woman, you know? And it’s like, wow, it’s a new way of looking at it.

Yeah, and again, in its own weird way it’s another love poem. It’s almost like a legal negotiation to some degree, but it’s a love poem in its own way. But like you say, there’s a way to see it again — and not only for the artist to see it in a new way, but for them to be able to visually show it in a new way without having to change any of it. Suddenly, there’s this whole new point of view.
Yeah, I was really happy with that one.

What about the story from The Arabian Nights, “The Woman With Two Coyntes?” Does that actually mean the woman with two vaginas?
Yeah, it’s Middle English or Old English. Exactly. When Sir Richard [Burton] was going into the 16-volume uncensored translation of The Arabian Nights, he included that one, and that’s the word he chose, that’s how he chose to put it, because in The Arabian Nights, a lot of them are very sexual, like any collection of folktales. That was on my wish list.

Just something from The Arabian Nights or that particular story?
That specific one.

It’s interesting, because the way that’s rendered, even though it has that profane title, I wasn’t even sure what I was reading, because it is in Old English. And not only that, but the way it’s all drawn, it’s almost Ralph Steadman-esque — there’s a lot of splattering. Again, it’s one of those things where it’s not terribly racy for a child to see that, because it’s hard to tell what the hell is going on anyway.
Yes, it’s not like “The Flea,” where when you look it, you’ll see what’s going on there. There’s such an overload with “The Woman With Two Coyntes.” You don’t really see what’s going on. You have to get into it, and then you’re like, “Oh my God, this is completely wild,” because it’s insane. It’s one of the craziest things that’s ever been written.

What about the adaptation of Lysistrata? 
That one you can’t really ignore, because there are so few ancient Greek plays that have survived, and they’re all classics, they’re the foundation of Western literature. But Lysistrata gets toned down because Aristophanes used the ancient Greek words — like the ancient Greek word for dildo is in there. And even to this day you will find translations of it that use the word “object,” and it’s like, no, that’s not an accurate translation. He said dildo. That was what he wrote, and then the men are visibly walking around onstage with hard-ons. I mean, it’s part of the play, it’s the hilarious part of the play, these actors walking around with codpieces — of course — that are poking out under their kiltish uniforms, and that’s part of the fun.

So the artist, Valerie Schrag is actually a classics major at, I forget, some prestigious university, and one of her senior projects was an original translation of Lysistrata. She translated it herself from the ancient Greek, and she did it, purposely not watering it down because that’s how he wrote it and meant it to be. She told me she’s been wanting to be a comics artist, too, and she’s been wanting to do an adaptation of it but never had the reason, wasn’t sure, etc., so this just gave her the perfect opportunity, and she adapted the whole play. It had to be trimmed down a little to fit in the number of pages, but you get essentially an entire play.

The full monty. 
Exactly. She did not hold back.

Let’s talk for a second about your connections to Nashville. 
Let’s see. My family moved to Cookeville when I was 13, so my dad could teach in the business college at [Tennessee Tech University]. I lived in Cookeville pretty much for the next 20 years, although I did live in Nashville for two years during that. I moved to Tucson for five years, then came back to Tennessee, and eventually found my way back to Nashville. As we’ve discussed, I’m not really sure if I’ll be staying, but I do feel comfortable here and have a number of friends here, so I imagine I’ll always circle back at some point, when and if I leave.

You’ve included work by two Nashville artists in The Graphic Canon. 
Yeah Maxx Kelly and Huxley King.

Tell me about their contributions. 
Maxx drew A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Huxley did the lettering for it. Huxley was on board in the early stages of the project, and she was like, “I have this friend you have to meet.” At that time Maxx had work up on a MySpace page. I was like, “Yeah! This is amazing!” Her favorite motifs are drawing fairies and other fantasy stuff, so she did a scene from the play where the king and queen of the fairies are having a spat. She draws a carriage being pulled by two giant, floating sea horses, and at the end, when the queen’s son appears, he’s like this golden-skinned Hindu-style figure. I was not expecting that.

This is one of the most text-heavy pieces in the book. Speak to the importance of lettering in a graphic story like this.
Lettering is something you don’t really think about when it’s done well. It just becomes a part of the overall look. Occasionally you’ll see it badly done and you realize, “This is a key part.” Huxley is fantastic at hand-lettering, which is a separate art form all its own.

Huxley also has her own drawings in the project, right? 
Yeah. Her Pride and Prejudice will appear in Volume 2.