In his introduction to the middle volume in the planned three-part The Graphic Canon (out this month from Seven Stories Press), the series’ editor, Russ Kick, writes, “Classic literature is more exciting, relevant, and subversive than it generally gets credit.” Agreed. If people really believed that great literature was irrelevant, books wouldn’t still be banned from schools and libraries. What Kick is really getting at is that literature has inspired countless other creative endeavors, from symphonies to visual art, and these anthologies of illustrated responses to great works prove it.
Anyone who has taken an undergrad literature survey class will recognize the format of The Graphic Canon from traditional anthologies like Norton’s. Both select excerpts of work that they consider to be important. But unlike the rolling-paper-thin stock of traditional anthologies, The Graphic Canon’s large matte pages pulse with full-bleed illustrations and color. The second volume—From “Kubla Khan” to the Bronte Sisters to The Picture of Dorian Gray—picks up where the first volume left off (From The Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons). It includes the likes of Tolstoy, Poe, Twain, Whitman, Dickinson, Flaubert, and about 35 other heavyweights.
The great majority of the work collected by Kick is true sequential art, breaking down paragraphs and lines of dialogue into illustrated panels. J. Ben Moss, on Kick’s request, did a verbatim adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the black-and-white drawings enhancing the mood of the bleak conflict that Huck must confront within himself upon parting ways with Jim. Andrzej Klimowski’s sooty renderings of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde choke the frames with the promised threats of the Gothic horrors that await readers. Taking a more conventional four-color comics approach to Frankenstein, Declan Shalvey keeps true to the period but makes it feel contemporary with splattering blood and penned in sound effects like “BLAMM!” and “KRAKK!”
Some of the more interesting entries stray from linear narrative and, at times, even words, distilling these classic texts to their DNA. Lisa Brown’s “Three Panel Review” of The Scarlet Letter condenses Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story to three drawings and three words: “adulteress,” “apostate,” “aftermath.”
The power of images to convey stories wordlessly is most notable in this collection by Sandy Jimenez, who uses 49 panels in lieu of the approximately 3,800 words in Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Bierce’s opening lines make it clear that a man is about to be hanged. Jimenez’s large opening illustration shows us the man in question, his stolid face indifferent to the noose being fitted around his neck by the hands of soldiers. As the story progresses, the details of a pocket watch lead to an ocher-tinted flashback scenes before returning us to the story’s real-time action. Just as Bierce toyed with readers’ expectations, Jimenez doesn’t give away the story’s ending until the final illustration.
Some of the inclusions don’t quite fit—not because artwork isn’t interesting, but because they fall more into the category of stand-alone illustrations; they relate to the text but don’t quite form a relationship where the two are co-dependent. Maxon Crumb’s take on Poe and S. Clay Wilson’s illustrated responses to Hans Christian Andersen are perfect examples of this. Both are intriguing (especially Crumb’s lean, angular figures), but if these works fit, then any illustration tucked into a title from the canon would be eligible as well. That seems to defeat the purpose of Kick’s ambitious undertaking.
Kick writes that the texts that serve as the basis for this collection “are powerful probings of universal questions, wrapped in beautiful writing and populated by amazing characters. . . . I was excited to see what would happened when some of the best current artists were given the entire literary canon to play with, interpret, build upon.” The majority of the work featured in Volume 2 of The Graphic Canon exceeds expectations for how it absorbs familiar texts and shapes new lives into them, reminding readers how words read in a book can color so much of life that exists far beyond the page.