Lit Comix: The Graphic Canon, Volumes 1 and 2

How can I possibly capture the wealth of goodness inside two thick new volumes of classic lit comix, The Graphic Canon, Vol. 1: From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons and The Graphic Canon, Vol. 2: From “Kubla Khan” to the Bronte Sisters to The Picture of Dorian Gray? There is a lot of depth here. These collections must be seen.

The three-volume anthology is the work of Russ Kick, one of the editors of the alternative-minded Disinformation website, and Kick’s curious sensibility leads to a blissfully broad vision of multicultural literary classicism, from Coyote and the Pebbles: A Native American Folktale by Dayton Edmonds and Micah Farritor to the Mahabharata illustrated by Matt Wiegle to the Arabian Nights, adapted by Andrice Arp to Hagoromo: A Japanese Noh play, adapted by Isabel Greenberg. (And those selections are all from the first volume; I’ve barely begun to enjoy the second, and a final third is heading our way.)

The great works of western literature are here too, of course: The Odyssey by way of Gareth Hinds, a transgressive Hansel and Gretel by S. Clay Wilson, George Eliot’s Middlemarch via Megan Kelso. I can’t possibly write about all the pieces that deserve attention in one blog post, but I would like to show a few panels.

I’ll follow this blog post with at least a couple more to feature the wide variety of comic and graphic art included in these collections. First, here are three black-and-white pieces that all deal with grand moments of spiritual crisis.

Hunt Emerson’s Inferno is a successful experiment in juxtaposition, cutting through the steel-wool severity of Dante’s poem with a traditionally humorous cartoon treatment: funny faces, excitable characters, staccato dialogue. Many different visualizations of Dante’s Inferno have been published, and they often aim to make a gigantic impression. Emerson’s approach is less pretentious and grandiose, and therefore surprisingly effective.

(Interestingly, another unpretentious treatment of Inferno by Seymour Chwast is also included in this book, but I really don’t get the point of Chwast’s very loose and casual cartoon version.)

Rebecca Dart’s interpretation of John Milton’s Paradise Lost is beguilingly subtle (especially compared to many of the louder pieces in this book) but finds power in significant details. She draws the pre-apple Adam and Eve as formless shapes merging fluidly with the spacy forms that surround them; it’s only after they bite Satan’s apple that they begin to morph into human form.

Julian Peters delivers a controlled vision of Arthur Rimbaud’s The Drunken Boat, a haunting journey into a moral morass of bad behavior. By capturing images from the poem in a straight panel treatment, Peters manages to illuminate Rimbaud’s work without competing with it for attention. This is what most of the best artists in these volumes do.

I do have one complaint with these wonderful books: the physical packaging is stiff and dense, transmitting a feeling of heaviness that detracts from the light touch of the work inside. Cramming so much complex and detailed visualization into the tight space of a paperback or hardcover book cannot be an easy task, but there must be a way to make the tomes feel less weighty and formidable. I lent one volume to a family member who told me she loved the book but “I had to keep fighting with it”. I knew exactly what she meant.

The cover of the first volume is also strangely dull in comparison to the exciting works within. The second’s cover artwork is also monochromatic — why?! — but a bit better. I hope Seven Stories Press will continue to try new formats for these books (for instance, they could break the three brick-thick volumes into many lighter ones, and sell them together as a boxed set). I also hope they are working on great software-driven versions for tablet platforms and e-readers that will find ways to bring out the joyful qualities of the individual pieces.

But this is a minor problem, and these volumes are a major achievement. The publisher will have plenty of time to get it right, because Russ Kick’s collections will surely be around for the ages. I’m looking forward to volume three.

4 Responses

  1. This is delightful news -and
    This is delightful news -and left me wishing to know more about how Russ Kick produced these collections, such as what his choices and limitations were, etc.

  2. Articles like this slap me on
    Articles like this slap me on the back of my head to get back into graphic novels. I haven’t picked one up in 15 years. I know I’m missing out and just need to make the time.

  3. Hi Howard,
    Hi Howard,

    Check this one out:
    This was for me the most interesting one I’d heard of since Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco’s ‘Days of Destruction,Days of Revolt’ (not they’re at all similar).

    “Nao Brown is a hafu (half-Japanese person) living in London, though she considers herself to be British thanks to her mother. She’s an artist and designer with a closely-held secret: she suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder/pure obsession. The way this condition manifests is different for each individual, but for Nao it comes in the form of intrusive, homicidal thoughts. OCD is closely linked with depression and feelings of worthlessness; in Nao’s case, she tries to combat these feelings with her mantra of “Mum thinks I’m good,” as well as reminding herself of the other people who don’t think she is a horrible monster capable of murdering children. Dillon manifests these thoughts in jarring sequences where Nao actually appears to do something horrible (stab a pregnant woman, push someone in front of the train, smash someone’s head into a wall), only to quickly shift back to reality. At the same time, there’s a fantasy sequence involving a character created by Nao named Pictor, who must try to rescue his squabbling family after being turned half into a tree by a being called the Nothing. Dillon has described these sequences as a cross between Moebius and Miyazaki, and that’s fairly apt. The intensity and vibrancy of detail of Moebius is there, along with the dark storytelling tendencies of Miyazaki.”

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