An Ambitious Project to Turn the Literary Canon Into Comics

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From Shakespeare to Milton to Nabokov, the world's most enduring books are being tackled by famed graphic novelists in a three-volume set.

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William Shakespeare's King Lear as interpreted by Ian Pollock. (The Graphic Canon, Volume 1 (Seven Stories Press))

The Western literary canon has long been debated and criticized by academics, and rightly so. Which books belong and which don't? Now The Graphic Canon: The World's Great Literature as Comics and Visuals, a three-volume series edited by Russ Kick (Seven Stories Press), which presents classic lit as comic strips, adds a bit more fuel to the intellectual fires.

"Whether we like the idea of a canon or not, there is a canon," Kick says. "There simply are certain works that have stood the test of time, that are still debated and written about in academia, that are taught in schools, that are constantly kept in print, that continue to be made into other art forms, that are referenced and alluded to in pop culture and 'high' culture, and so on."

Kick's notion of the literary canon conforms to the poet and scholar Harold Bloom's, although he has included various works that are not on Bloom's list. Peppered throughout all three volumes are some of the greatest pieces of science, erotic literature, religious/spiritual literature, children's literature, and science fiction. He also found some of his canon in Asia, India, and indigenous cultures.

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Do not, however, mistake this book for a canon of graphic novels. There is no Maus, Jimbo, or Persopolis included. That is a canon left for future debates.

"I was envisioning the huge, brick-like Norton anthologies of literature," Kick says, "something as epic and sprawling as that, but with the literature in graphic form."

To this end, around 75 percent of The Graphic Canon is newly commissioned material.

"Even though graphic novels have been gaining respect with critics and popularity with readers, there are huge holes as far as classic adaptations are concerned," Kick says. While the quaint Classics Illustrated comics (1941-1971) that digested everything from The Three Musketeers to The Moonstone into sequential paneled stories that eschewed irony or commentary, Kick notes that there has yet to be a book-length adaptation of any of the ancient Greek plays, the very foundations of Western literature.

What else was missing? "There's also no Paradise Lost," Kick says. "There are several full adaptations of The Iliad and The Odyssey, but no Aeneid. The entire Canterbury Tales has yet to be adapted. Even some of Shakespeare's minor plays are M.I.A. There has been no Anna Karenina or War and Peace, nothing from Dostoevsky except for a version of Crime and Punishment transplanted to contemporary Russia. Robert Berry is doing a fantastic job adapting Ulysses and putting it online, but there is no graphic novel of Joyce's masterpiece. Jane Austen and the Brontës have done all right, but there's nothing for George Eliot. There's a French-language adaptation of Candide, but nothing in English. Lyric poetry has been even less well-served, with individual adaptations appearing scattershot over the years."

Kick admirably did his best to fill these gaps with broad criteria for the selections. Any of the towering, undoubtedly canonical works were welcome, from the Bible to Don Quixote to King Lear. Pretty much anything from the ancient Greeks was sought, as well as "Kubla Khan," Pride and Prejudice, Leaves of Grass, and The Great Gatsby. Also wanted were the non-Western masterpieces, "some of the best writings ever produced by the human race, regardless of location," he says, pointing to The Tale of Genji (universally considered the world's first novel and Japan's crowning work of literature). Then there is the Incan play Apu Ollantay, all but ignored in the English-speaking world, even though it's the only surviving play from pre-Columbian Native Americans. "That alone gives it a unique status and a spot of honor," he says.

Beyond the most obvious choices, Kick says, "it still came down to whether the works are regarded as great, whether they've achieved classic status by being continually reprinted, retranslated, anthologized (in the case of shorter works). Whether they're still taught and debated. Whether they continue to inspire new works of art, cultural references, etc."

Starting his research in spring of 2009, Kick began seeking existing strips, like R. Crumb's nine-page adaptation of a scene from Nausea by Sartre, which was published in 1989 and had never been reprinted before. Gareth Hinds did an adaptation of chapter two of Gulliver's Travels that was published in the 2003 anthology of the Small Press Expo and had not been reprinted since. Through intensive Googling, he eventually stumbled upon self-published adaptations, including Jabberwocky by Eran Cantrell. He also commissioned artists for certain rarities, like Aphra Behn's poem about sexual temptation, "Forgive Us Our Trespasses," written circa the 1670s.

The first 500-page volume of three starts with the earliest known work of long-form literature—The Epic of Gilgamesh from circa 1000 BC—and ends at the close of the 1700s. Volume Two will cover the 1800s exclusively. Volume Three is all about the 20th century.

There are a number of surprises in store for avid readers. In Volume Two, for instance, S. Clay Wilson, one of the founders of the underground comix movement, has done illustrations for several fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. There is an adaptation of Venus in Furs, an erotic classic by the respected Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. There is also an incendiary speech by freed slave Frederick Douglass calling for emancipation by any means necessary, well over a century before Malcolm X.

Volume Three will feature The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud and Crash by J.G. Ballard. "There's no shying away from controversy," Kick says, "with adaptations of Lolita, Naked Lunch, and The Doors of Perception, and the legendary Dame Darcy provides several full-page illustrations for Cormac McCarthy's brutal masterpiece, Blood Meridian."

Are there any favorites in Russ Kick's canon? "From a strictly literary standpoint, I love Thoreau, Donne, Dickinson, Whitman, Hemingway, Millay, the Sufi poets, Proust, and Dostoevsky," he says. "But for the sake of diplomacy, I'd rather not say which of the adaptations in The Graphic Canon are my favorites."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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