The Dark Heart of a Graphic Novel

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Peter Kuper has adapted a number classic literary works into graphic novels. Among them are “The Metamorphosis” and “The Jungle.” His other books include travelogues, a collection of visual puzzles and a journal of his three decades living in New York. He was the the fifth illustrator to fill the shoes of MAD magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy” feature, created by the Cuban satirist Antonio Prohias, and has done innumerable editorial illustrations. He has practically pioneered the graphic-novelization of literary classics, his most recent being Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” I recently asked him which of the lot has been your favorite or at least the most challenging?

Heart of darkness

Favorite would be my previous book “Kafkaesque” since it was a series of 14 Kafka short story adaptations so there was a lot of variety and different tones for each story.

“Heart of Darkness” was the most challenging, since I was wrestling with an 1899 novella that had many controversial aspects. Though it is in the canon of literature, it has also been criticized for its racism and I felt I wanted to bring it into the 21st Century yet not whitewash it. I knew that whatever I did would be scrutinized so I wanted to get as many scholarly opinions on my decisions as possible. I got tremendous feedback from professors from Princeton and Columbia, Brown University English professor, Paul B. Armstrong, who edits the critical edition of “Heart of Darkness” and Maya Jasanoff who teaches at Harvard and wrote a definitive biography of Joseph Conrad. She also ended up writing the foreword to my adaptation which was a tremendous honor. I also had guidance from my sister-in-law who works at the Whitney Museum. The Whitney is always under a microscope for questions of political correctness and her suggestions were invaluable.

Heart of darkness

Why did you select “Heart of Darkness”? What draws you to the story?

Actually, the publisher W.W. Norton asked me if I would adapt it as part of a two book deal with “Kafkaesque”. Admittedly a dark follow up on the heels of Kafka, but my adaptation muscles were like Popeye’s so it was less daunting. Many aspects of “Heart of Darkness” touch on things I’m intimately familiar with. I’ve had the good fortune to do a ton of traveling in my lifetime. My wife and I spent eight months backpacking through Africa and South East Asia, so I’ve had a lot of experience being a stranger in an unfamiliar land. I could really put myself in Marlow’s (the protagonist) shoes. To really get in the proper frame of mind, my wife and I moved to Mexico for four months (Oaxaca, where we had previously lived for two years) as I did the heavy lifting on mapping out the adaptation. Smells, sounds and temperature were very helpful to get in the mood–a one-month flu and scabies were also part of that trip, which was REALLY putting me in a “Heart of Darkness” frame of mind!

Heart of darkness

What would you say you’ve added to the narrative through adaptation?

As a reader I found aspects of the book to be confounding and occasionally confusing. I made some choices regarding the emotional qualities of the book that as a reader I felt were unnecessarily derailed at some key points. Through the drawings I could choose what emotional reaction characters had in response to what was taking place. I also felt like I could flip the perspective without altering the story. The African characters in the book are generally back grounded. By simply showing their perspective on events and foregrounding them I could extend it beyond strictly white man’s view without changing a word of the original text. The scholar and author Chinua Achebe criticized this point and wanted to address his argument.

I doubt that “Heart of Darkness” was ever a Classics Illustrated, but were you inspired by those wonderful vintage comic books?

As much as I remember about the Bible probably came from the Classics Illustrated version drawn by Jack Kirby. Most of those comics were horribly stodgy and most of the drawing was mediocre, but I read a bundle of them and stuck in my craw.

frame of mind!

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →