The Graphic Canon: The World’s Great Literature as Comics and Visuals: Vol. 2
Edited by Russ Kick
500 pages
8.5 x 11
some color
Seven Stories Press

The purpose of this series, which is already up to its third volume, is to show persuasively how great works of literature can be adapted into comics form or visual interpretations. Russ Kick allows that Tom Pomplun’s Graphic Classics “has published over twenty volumes of consistently high-quality comic adaptations of literature with each 144-page book devoted to a single writer or genre ... but up to now,” Kick continues in his Introduction to this book, “no one has brought together a huge variety in one place.” That’s what he set himself to do. And judging, as he does, from the success of the first volume, he achieved his purpose: “Not only did I set out to find the best artists I could, I wanted a blistering diversity of styles and approaches.” And Volume 2 repeats that success.

The literary works embraced by this tome span the 19th century in the order in which they were initially published — from Samuel Coleridge’s “Kubla Kahn” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” through Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice and Lord Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty,” John Keats’ “O Solitude,” fairy tales by the brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” the Brontes’ Jane Eyre andWuthering Heights, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” — even Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species—to name a few of the 51 works adapted.

Although Russian and American literature are represented, the book more thoroughly treats of British literature. Each undertaking is prefaced by a short text from Kick, who acknowledges the work’s place in literary history and introduces us to the artist.

Most of the longer prose pieces have only small portions adapted. In Huckleberry Finn, for instance, J. Ben Moss presents only Huck’s crisis of conscience in Chapter 16 wherein he decides not to betray Nigger Jim to runaway-slave hunters. And for Moby Dick, Matt Kish offers highly expressionistic interpretations of an assortment of individual paragraphs, quoted directly from the novel, making no attempt to present a narrative.

Huxley King’s adaptation of a chapter of Pride and Prejudice is done in an extremely decorative manner, evoking, perhaps, the highly mannered life style of the Bennets, but the pictures add nothing to the verbal content except decoration.

Tim Fish’s interpretation of the first half of Wuthering Heights, however, is much more successful. Narrative breakdowns pace the action for dramatic effect, and the pictures often add story elements and atmospherics not present in the words of the speech balloons and captions.

In adapting “Owl Creek Bridge,” Bierce’s short story famed for a crucial shift in narrator perspective, Sandy Jimenez does a superb job without words, his final picture as much of a jolt as Bierce’s prose gave the reader in the original.

 Kick’s offerings often do not translate prose into verbal-visual storytelling; the pictures merely illustrate, they do not help tell the stories. And most of the works are represented only in excerpted bits. But the series is a wonderfully ambitious project, and the books are elegantly produced. (Publishers Weekly just named Volume 3, which covers the 20th century, of the series one of the best books of the summer.) In sum, the book is a mixed bag of successes and failures in adapting prose literature to the verbal-visual medium of comics. But the successes are often stunning. And wandering through these pages, assessing the results as we go, is an invigorating experience in comics appreciation in and of itself.


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