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.