New York Times: The Graphic Canon “Will Leave You Awe-Struck”

Euripides’ Medea, adapted by Tori McKenna

The New York Times’ Annie Weatherwax wrote a wonderful review of volumes 1 and 2 of The Graphic Canon for the Sunday Book Review last month, which we are pleased to reproduce in all its glory below:

There is a synergistic relationship between language and art that is rooted deep within our nature. Great literature leaves us not just with extraordinary stories; the language also leaves an image — a rich and expansive painting of the world written on the page. In “The Graphic Canon,” the world’s literature is reimagined as comics and visual art, and with it the editor, Russ Kick, has struck a chord.

We see not only with our eyes, but also, and often more powerfully, with our imaginations. How many of us have pictured Hester Prynne, the blazing scarlet letter A embroidered on her dress? In a portrait by Ali J in Volume 2 of “The Graphic Canon,” Hester Prynne appears as we might imagine her — a simple unadorned woman, the sadness in her eyes tempered by a defiant glint of blue and a slight smile at the corner of her mouth.

“We’re living in a golden age of the graphic novel, of comic art and of illustration in general,” Kick explains in his introduction. “Legions of talented artists — who employ every method, style and approach imaginable — are creating such a flood of amazing, gorgeous, entertaining and groundbreaking material that it’s pretty much impossible to keep up with it all. What if a bunch of these artists used as their source material the greatest literature ever written?”

Much of the literature Kick includes in these two volumes also appears in Harold Bloom’s “Western Canon,” but Kick expands the scope. “Coyote and the Pebbles,” a Native American folk tale; “Popol Vuh,” the creation story of the Maya; and “Apu Ollantay,” apparently the only surviving Incan play, appear in Volume 1. Stories from Asia and the Middle East, science writing, erotica, spiritual and children’s literature also get their due.

Coyote and the Pebbles, a Native American folk tale, adapted by Dayton Edmonds and Micah Farritor

“Coyote and the Pebbles,” adapted by Dayton Edmonds and Micah Farritor

Kick has assembled an impressive group of more than 100 artists to illustrate, adapt and visually interpret the text. The list of contributors includes the comic masters Robert Crumb, Will Eisner, Peter Kuper, Molly Crabapple and Roberta Gregory, as well as emerging artists like Yeji Yun, Tara Seibel, Edie Fake and Vicki Nerino.

Each artist offers a unique graphic treatment. Some are rich with visual detail and text; others are more sparsely drawn. Many have little or no text at all. Roughly half are in black and white, while the other half are drawn with a wide ranging palette of color and tone. The adaptations vary in length, but none are more than 30 pages. Some artists adapt selected chapters or individual scenes; others condense their graphic treatment to illustrate the entire literary work. Weighing almost 10 pounds, together these two volumes span 1,000 pages. The amount and density of content at first seem overwhelming, but Kick thoughtfully lays the work out for you.

Arranged chronologically, Volume 1 begins with “The Epic of Gilgamesh”; Volume 2 ends in the late 19th century with Oscar Wilde’s only novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” (“Volume 3: From ‘Heart of Darkness’ to Hemingway to ‘Infinite Jest’ ” will be published in the spring.) Kick’s preface to each piece introduces us to the artist and coaxes us along with enticing tidbits of unusual information about the original text. Every page sends you further down the rabbit hole, and before you know it, hours have passed.

Here you will discover that literature can be hilarious. A case in point is Lisa Brown’s adaptation of “Little Women.” In four deadpan comic drawings, she sums up Alcott’s characters as follows: “Jo: Smart,” “Meg: Sweet,” “Amy: Spoiled,” “Beth: Dead.”

Work that might normally put you to sleep will leave you awe-struck. Most powerful is the seven-page excerpt from William Blake’s “Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion.” With intricate hand lettering and elaborate gothic drawings, Blake illustrated this book-length poem himself. The rarely seen images included in “The Graphic Canon” are photographs from the only existing color copy of the book.

Volume 1 contains mythological and biblical stories tailor-made for visual treatment. The Book of Revelation, with its array of otherworldly creatures, is adapted by Rick Geary (for years a contributor to National Lampoon) with drawings that explode across the page. In Gareth Hinds’s rendering of the Polyphemus episode, excerpted from his 250-page adaptation of “The Odyssey,” the textured line drawings are awash with vibrant color, each panel a cornucopia of rich detail on which to feast. Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s “Symposium,” in which he explains the mystery of sexual attraction, is illustrated by Yeji Yun. With feverishly etched drawings, she renders his theory that, in the beginning, each human being had four arms, four legs, and two sets of genitalia until Zeus punished everyone by splitting them in half.

Peppered throughout these books is a fair amount of comic bawdiness. Noah Patrick Pfarr reimagines “The Flea” as pulp-fiction lesbian erotica with stylized black-and-white drawings, and Valerie Schrag draws the sex-starved men in “Lysistrata” with huge erections.

Aristophanes' Lysistrata, adapted by Valerie Schrag

Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, adapted by Valerie Schrag

Most fascinating are the adaptations of works that less obviously lend themselves to comic or visual treatment. The artist Ryan Dunlavey and the writer Fred Van Lente introduce us to the early feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft with energetic oomph in a one-pager from their “Action Philosophers!” comic series. Volume 2 includes an excerpt from John Porcellino’s graphic novel based on the writings of Henry David Thoreau. His Zenlike, understated renderings tread across the page as we might imagine Thoreau once did through Walden Woods. And Megan Kelso’s adaptation of George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” captures a breathtaking range of emotion with simple line drawings.

Russ Kick is best known for his “disinformation” guides that expose myths and lies by unearthing subversive facts and countercultural knowledge. His books include “50 Things You’re Not Supposed to Know” and “You Are Being Lied To” — volumes that challenge the reader to question assumptions. What he asks us to acknowledge with “The Graphic Canon” is this: “Gulliver’s Travels,” “Wuthering Heights,” “Leaves of Grass” — these works of literature do not reside just on the shelves of academia; they flourish in the eye of our imagination.

Thanks so much, Annie! For more of Ms. Weatherwax’s writing, art, and sculpture, visit her website here!

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