In Herman Melville’s last novel, “Billy Budd,” we follow the fate of an orphan plucked from adversity and conscripted into the British Royal Navy. In the graphic novel by Jerome Charyn and François Boucq, the lost little orphan is carted off into the service of the Soviet Union. Like Melville’s main character, there is something special about this boy. As we find in much of Charyn’s work, we have a protagonist of limited means compelled to honor his great potential. However, as we begin, we have only an emotionally stunted, ignorant lad with a hideous harelip. It is 1954. Stalin is in power. Yuri cannot resist all that is offered to him by the Soviets. In fact, he has no choice. “Billy Bud, KGB,” originally released in France in 1990, has recently been re-issued, with a new English translation by Jerome Charyn, by Dover Comics and Graphic Novels.
Mr. Charyn’s literary career began in America in 1964 with his first novel, “Once Upon a Droshky,” a story of underdogs fighting to remain in their tenement apartment. After 19 prose novels, including the Isaac Sidel crime noir series, Charyn decided to adapt one of his stories into a graphic novel. That led to more. It all began with 1987’s “The Magician’s Wife,” with artist François Boucq. They also collaborated on 2014’s “Little Tulip.” Another graphic novel by Charyn in a similar spirit is 1991’s “The Boys of Sheriff Street,” with artist Jacques de Loustal. All four of these stories have multi-layered plots, primarily set in New York City, and filled with offbeat characters.
Our main character, Yuri, seems to be a typical malleable cog but something burns inside him making him go astray. He is far too innocent and ignorant to be in command of his intuitive desire to rebel. All he knows is that there must be more to life than what his Soviet handlers are telling him. Luckily, Yuri stumbles into a friendship with an instructor that will inform the rest of his life. Comrade Grigori’s unique artistic skills and broad knowledge have made him an asset over the years at the KGB training camp. But that same treasure trove of knowledge makes him very dangerous to the Soviet agenda. As a tutor, mentor, and friend, he provides Yuri with a key to unlock his soul.
By fits and starts, Yuri emerges as material for a competent secret agent. The KGB arranges a few encounters with prostitutes in order to, in their view, make Yuri more worldly. And then he’s shipped off to America. His new identity, a knowing nod to Melville: William “Billy” Budd, the lost soul. It will be up to the newly minted Billy in New York City to struggle with his life’s purpose. Stavrogin plucked him out of a ditch and gave him a future. Grigori opened his eyes to life’s possibilities. And Red Eagle, a Native American mystic, may offer him the salvation he’s hungered for all along.
Both Charyn and Boucq work in such a synchronized and nuanced manner that was as rare a treat then as it is now. Such pairing can only happen when the time is right. Today, readers in America and in general, are far more receptive to this level of quality. While a unique challenge, some creators choose to control all aspects of their work alone. But, as this graphic novel collaboration makes clear, the results can be stunning when writer and artist work together. We can all thank novelist Jerome Charyn for being a true trailblazer in adding his unique literary talent to the pantheon of exemplary work in comics. This book is a mesmerizing story and comics of the first order.
Also note a Kickstarter campaign going on now thru May 21st for a deluxe reprint of FAMILY MAN, a collaboration between Jerome Charyn and Joe Staton.