The National Post Praises GC3’s Innovative Literary Depictions

The Graphic Canon gives power to the comic panel

Robert Fulford | December 31, 2013 7:00 AM ET

Laura Plansker depicts Orwell’s Animal Farm<br />
with photos of decadent pigs The Graphic Canon.

In the voice of a young woman, D.H. Lawrence wrote The Mowers, a tender poetic account of a rural love affair that changes the lives of two people, as love affairs will sometimes do.

That beautiful poem tells a sad story concisely in a tone not typical of Lawrence. It often appears in anthologies and now, a century after its first publication (in the November 1913 edition of Smart Set), it’s cropped up once again, in a format Lawrence could never have imagined: The Graphic Canon, Vol. 3: From Heart of Darkness to Hemingway to Infinite Jest (Seven Stories Press), edited by Russ Kick, an anthology of literature interpreted by artists who work in the comics tradition.

Three decades ago, the idea of adapting literary classics in the form of comics for discerning readers would have seemed outrageous. In the 1940s and 1950s, Classic Comics published simplified versions of books such as Moby Dick and Oliver Twist, but those were 10-cent editions for children.

Today, graphic storytelling has matured into an art form that confidently handles anything from life in North Korea to the Book of Genesis. John Updike, who had once thought he might be a cartoonist, said in 1969: “I see no intrinsic reason why a doubly talented artist might not arise and create a comic strip novel masterpiece.”

That happened in 1986 with the appearance of Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. Spiegelman unfolded a radical new sensibility and opened fresh possibilities for fiction. The Graphic Canon is one result, an engrossing book that’s crammed with happy surprises. The editor planned a graphic parallel to the big Norton literary anthologies and ended up with three paperback volumes, each about 500 pages long. The first began with Gilgamesh and ran through Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes, etc. The second took us through Tolstoy, Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Mark Twain, etc.

In the third, scores of comic artists illuminate, intensify, parody or otherwise deal with modern novels, stories and plays. There’s even one song (Abel Meeropol’s Strange Fruit, made famous by Billie Holiday) and one newspaper article (Hemingway’s 1922 Toronto Star piece about living well in Paris with his first wife on $1,000 a year).

The visual work calls on the whole range of graphic styles, from pencil drawing to photomontage. It’s sometimes terrifying, sometimes satirical, often sexy. It demonstrates an admirable sense of dedication, nowhere more than in Bishakh Som’s sensitive handling of Lawrence’s The Mower.

The narrator, speaking in her Nottinghamshire dialect, is a very young girl who discovers she’s pregnant and seems to be most upset because this means her (also adolescent) boyfriend must grow up, whether he wants to or not. She says, “Lad, tha’s gotten a chilt in me/An’ a man and a father tha’ll ha’e to be/My slim young lad, and I’m sorry for thee.”

Bishakh Som wraps the story in an intimate monochrome that captures both the dangers and the pleasures of youthful eroticism. His own background symbolizes the geographic and cultural range of the 21st-century comics world. He’s the son of a UN executive, an Ethiopian-born Bengali who trained as an architect at Harvard and then switched to graphic art. In Brooklyn he helped found Hi-horse, a comics collective. The imaginative tenderness he brings to the Lawrence poem will make anyone want to read the poem at its original length.

In another of the book’s highlights, Annie Mok draws a James Joyce story, Araby, with impressive sympathy. The hero, a shy adolescent, finds the world threatening and scornful. He falls in love with an older girl, decides to buy her a present and ends up more scorned and embarrassed than ever. I think I like Mok’s version as much as the original. She makes adult Dublin a frightening place and doesn’t neglect Joyce’s most heart-rending line: “I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”

‘I see no intrinsic reason why a doubly talented artist might not arise and create a comic strip novel masterpiece’

Sometimes the artists simply deliver illustration-like images. Gustavo Rinaldi, a Brazilian, captures Becket’s Waiting for Godot in just one panel, an eloquently woebegone Vladimir and Estragon in a shattered landscape. Anthony Ventura, a graduate of Sheridan College, currently a freelance artist in Toronto, re-imagines poems by Wallace Stevens, W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot. He handles The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in literal mode, showing Prufrock’s trouser legs rolled up, just as Eliot’s poem says might happen.

A few artists incorporate classics into the cartoon world. R. Sikoryak re-imagines Kafka’s The Metamorphosis as an instalment of Peanuts, in which a boy named Gregor Brown (apparently Charlie’s cousin) turns into an insect overnight and has to endure the crabby, bossy Grete, a duplicate of the crabby, bossy Lucy, who considers Gregor  a stupid bug. Lady Chatterley’s Lover becomes a cartoon by Lisa Brown: The lady succumbs to the appeal of the gamekeeper, but in bed he’s so anxious to recite Lawrence-style social analysis that she wishes passionately he would just shut up.

Anaïs Nin’s famously erotic journals are illustrated by Mardou, a one-name artist, in a 10-page strip, Anaïs in Paris. Mardou emphasizes a line that sums up Nin’s disillusioning life as a lover of Henry Miller: “I expected Dostoevskian scenes and found a gentle German who could not bear to let the dishes go unwashed.”

Laura Plansker, an artist who specializes in photo-diorama, depicts Orwell’s Animal Farm with photos of decadent pigs pleasuring themselves while Boxer, the honest horse who believes in revolution, works himself to death. Graham Rawle applies the same technique to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. He builds an ingenious version of the Emerald City out of household products and restores to Dorothy the silver slippers L. Frank Baum gave her in the book (the filmmakers made them ruby red to show off the splendour of Technicolor).

Purists insist that adaptations can spoil the effect of the original, but adaptations have been part of our cultural lives for many years; we take it for granted that Jane Austen or Shakespeare can be reworked, often in ways that excite and please us. The originals of their stories remain available, for all who want them. It’s likely that the future readership of serious writing will include many whose curiosity was first stirred by the pleasure of The Graphic Canon.