Not all the work here is by cartoonists, per se, but most of it is and everyone here is part of the larger world of the graphic arts. We still live, may always live, in a world that, for the most part, thinks of cartoonists as only one thing. However, “The Graphic Canon,” edited by Russ Kick, and published by Seven Stories Press, gives you a taste of what is possible. You are certainly in capable hands with Russ Kick, bestselling author of “You a Are Being Lied To” and “Everything You Know Is Wrong.”
This is a remarkable project that takes on the world of literature on a grand scale with Volume 3 dedicated to the 20th Century. Ah, the 20th Century, it was a time dominated by the most heroic and romantic of rebels. You are sure to find your favorite rabble rouser in this colossal book, heroic in its own right. It weighs in at 564 pages, literally a phone book worth of literary artistic expression, so the odds are in your favor.
Like a classroom full of gifted children, each artist here has taken their chosen work of literature, immersed themselves in it, and turned in their best effort. Not all the contributions here are exclusive to this book but most are. And, like thoughtful and caring students, these artists don’t let ego get in the way or stray too far from the goal. They fall into two lines of attack: illustration and adaptation. Within these two camps, we get just about everything under the sun, an exciting array of talent, over 80 artists, that will please hardcore lit fans and newbies alike. Among previously published work, there is Robert Crumb’s rarely-seen adaptation of Sartre’s “Nausea.” Another gem is David Lasky‘s unique take on “Ulysses.” Reproduced here, you get the original 1993 mini-comic version.
Check out the first pages of this book to find a homage to “Heart of Darkness.” Matt Kish is known for creating illustrations for each page of “Moby Dick.” Here you see him bring that same level of obsession to Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece. Reproduced are some selected illustrations with the promise from Kish will go on to fully illustrate “Darkness” page per page.
Ellen Lindner‘s illustration for “The Bell Jar” sums up in great measure the internal struggle that Sylvia Path attempted to endure.
Tara Seibel provides some fanciful illustrations for “The Great Gatsby” that evoke the jazz age.
Among the adaptations, Julia Gfrörer gives us some very intriguing images inspired by Umberto Eco’s “Foucault’s Pendulum.” In the introduction, Russ Kick helps the casual reader to relate by jokingly suggesting that Umberto Eco’s masterwork is a much more complex version of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.” Full of metaphysical and philosophical observation, it centers on three characters who work at a vanity press who concoct elaborate conspiracy theories and then discover that maybe they’re true. Julia Gfrörer is clearly up to the task.
I think this unusual adaptation by Julia Gfrörer is a good place to linger since it goes a long way in representing the best you will find in this book. Gfrörer has taken on a wildly complex novel, found an opening, what she entitles, “The Chymical Wedding,” that explores the alchemical wedding in “Foucault’s Pendulum” and runs with it. This certainly doesn’t come across as Lit 101 filtered through comics. No, it does what you’d hope for: Gfrörer wears Umberto Eco like a well-worn pair of pajamas. Is that appropriate? If you don’t feel comfortable with what you’re doing, how will your reader? Gfrörer lets herself go and, without trying too hard, turns in her assignment. It’s just what editor Russ Kick would have expected.
This is the thing, there are any number of ways to go about your adaptation. “The Mowers,” by D.H. Lawrence, for example, is pretty straightforward and has a deft and gentle touch by Bishakh Som.
Another ethereal and arresting approach comes from Caroline Picard with her adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s “The Voyage Out.”
Emelie Östergren provides her heart-felt interpretation of “Naked Lunch” by William S. Burroughs.
“The Graphic Canon, Volume 3” is such a mighty undertaking that you just can’t go wrong. I come back to the idea of a powerful vehicle that demonstrates what’s possible. We’d be fools to think we’ve got literature and fiction all figured out. And we’d be fools to think we have the comics medium all figured out. It’s a post-postmodern world, but that’s no excuse. There is something very traditional about writing stories and creating comics and that’s quite alright.
Issues of storytelling will not be resolved in the 21st Century and never will be. If Russ Kick is around (gee, anything is possible), or maybe a descendent or disciple, we will find that Volume 4’s tribute to the 21st Century (available only digitally?) will continue the good fight for a good story. And we will find that all three volumes of “The Graphic Canon” have held up considerably well.