The Graphic Canon volume 1: From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons


By Many and Various, edited by Russ Kick (Seven Stories)
ISBN: 978-1-60980-376-6

Once upon a time in the English-speaking world, nobody clever, educated or in any way grown-up liked comics. Now we’re an accredited really and truly art form and spectacular books like this can be appreciated…

The Graphic Canon is an astounding literary and art project, instigated by legendary crusading editor, publisher, anthologist and modern Renaissance Man Russ Kick, which endeavours to interpret the world’s great books through the eyes of masters of crusading sequential narrative in an eye-opening synthesis of modes and styles.

The project is divided into three periods roughly equating with the birth of literature and its evolution up to the rise of the modern novel. Debut volume From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons covers literature from ancient times to the end of the 1700s in stories and poetry. Much of the material here has been taken from already extant or ongoing projects: indeed, as editor Russ Kick explains in his Introduction, it was a realisation that so many creative individuals were attempting to publish their own graphic responses to global heritage literature that led him to initiate this mammoth project in the first place…

Rather than simply converting the stories, the artists involved have enjoyed the freedom to respond to texts in their own way, producing graphics – narrative or otherwise, monochrome or something else, sequential or not – to accompany, augment or even offset the words before them and the result is simply staggering…

Make no mistake: this is not a simple bowdlerising “prose to strip” exercise like generations of Classics Illustrated comics, and you won’t pass any tests on the basis of what you see here. Moreover, these images will make you want to re-read the texts you know and hunger for the ones you haven’t got around to yet. You will of a certainty marvel at the infinite variety of the artistic responses the canonical works inspired…

They certainly did for me…

Each piece is preceded by an informative commentary page by Kick, and the wonderment begins with a colourful and outrageously engaging ‘Three Panel Review: Hamlet’ by Lisa Brown after which grateful Acknowledgements and that aforementioned Editor’s Introduction lead directly into a delirious snippet from The Epic of Gilgamesh.

Like many contributions collected here, The Bull of Heaven – as adapted by Kent & Kevin Dixon – was already in production when invited into this book. The finally-completed saga has recently re-manifested and you can read of it here.

Those august remnants of lost Babylonian Tablets are followed by a delicious retelling of the origin of the stars in ‘Coyote and the Pebbles’. The beguiling and witty Native American Folktale is given a compelling reworking by Dayton Edmonds & Micah Farritor and leads seamlessly into a double dose of Homeric grandiloquence.

Alice Duke samples the duel between Paris and Menelaus from The Iliad after which Gareth Hinds dips into The Odyssey to re-present the monstrous duel between the lost Greeks and the ghastly Cyclops, after which we stay firmly in the cradle of civilisation to enjoy Sappho’s ‘Poem Fragments’ as embellished by Alessandro Bonaccorsi before Tori McKenna sums up the vengeful force of Euripides’ ‘Medea’.

Aristophanes’ still-shocking and controversial play Lysistrata is potently and hilariously précised in strip form by Valerie Schrag before J.T. Waldman powerfully synthesises the erotic vision of ‘The Book of Ester’ from the Hebrew Bible and Yeji Yun translates Plato’s Symposium into stark yet effective pantomimic visuals.

Fred Van Lente & Ryan Dunlavey have adapted numerous deep thinkers in their series Action Philosophers! ‘Tao Te Ching’ as dictated by Lao Tzu is both wickedly funny and thoughtfully compelling and perfectly offset by Matt Wiegle’s colourful heroic snippet ‘The House of Lac’ from The Mahabharata.

Van Lente & Dunlavey bring us some Analects and Other Writings of Confucius – called here ‘Master Kong’ – before the Hebrew Bible provides Benjamin Frisch with the golden-hued inspiration for dreamy fable ‘The Book of Daniel’, after which Tom Bilby & Jonathan Fetter-Vorm (AKA Two Fine Chaps) graphically discourse On the Nature of Things as originally cited by Lucretius.

Michael Lagocki captures the graceful ferocity of Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ – specifically the founding of Rome – before master cartoonist Rick Geary astoundingly encapsulates the entirety of ‘The Book of Revelation’ from the New Testament and Sharon Rudahl restores calm and sanity with ‘Three Tang Poems: Frontier Song by Wang Han, A Village South of the Capital by Cul Hu and Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon by Li Bai’

Gareth Hinds grittily adapts the battle between hero and monster in Anglo-Saxon Epic Poem Beowulf after which idyllic romance is referenced by Molly Kiely through a series of portraits of some of the many erotic conquests of an ideal Japanese prince as inspired by Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji.

Far darker and more troubled love guides the images crafted by Ellen Lindner to illustrate ‘The Letters of Heloise and Abelard’ after which Kiely illuminates the profoundly eco-activist poem ‘O Nobilissima Viriditas’ by Hildegard of Bingen (look her up, you really should…).

Andrice Arp puckishly illustrates stories within a story for ‘The Fisherman and the Genie’ from The Arabian Nights, after which the same source – albeit the unexpurgated translation by Sir Richard Burton – provides racy and outrageously wry ‘The Woman with Two Coyntes’ as adapted by Vicki Nerino.

Coleman Barks translates a wonderful plenitude of ‘Poems’ by Sufi sage – and advocate of a loving universe – Rumi for Michael Green to spectacularly illustrate, after which a double dose of Dante Alighieri begins with Seymour Chwast’s smart and sassy take on The Divine Comedy. Hunt Emerson than adds his own unique spin to ‘The Inferno’ (The Eighth Circle, if you’re keeping score) whilst Sanya Glisic sustains the post-viva theme by offering views of the Eastern afterlife as cited in Padmasambhava and Karma Lingpa’s translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol).

Safely back among the living, we turn to the outrageous lifestyle of French poet and courtier François Villon, who penned in a jailhouse ‘The Last Ballad’ illustrated here by Julian Peters long before his actual end. It’s followed by another medieval masterpiece as Seymour Chwast deftly tackles the ‘Wife of Bath’ from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

Staying in England, Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur is given a stunning treatment by Omaha Perez who illumines the parable of ‘How the Hart was Chased into a Castle and There Slain, and How Sir Gawaine Slew a Lady’

The reason we have so much European and Asian literature today is the sheer fact that it wasn’t deliberately eradicated. That’s tragically not the case for the pre-Columbian Americas and a great pity since sole surviving Incan play Apu Ollantay – adapted here by Caroline Picard – is a smart and potent family star-crossed love affair worthy of the Greeks or even Shakespeare…

Outlaws of the Water Margin is a vast and sprawling epic of heroes battling against corruption and injustice in ancient China. As Shi Nai’an’s opus is far too large to handle here, illustrator Shawn Cheng has instead offered a rogues’ gallery of some of the heroic characters who feature in the portmanteau classics, whereas Isabel Greenberg has time and space to lyrically adapt Japanese Noh play ‘Hagoromo (Celestial Feather Robe)’ in full.

Roberta Gregory then pictorialises the decidedly more wholesome and charming creation myth from Popul Vuh – the Sacred Book of the Quiché Maya – and Edie Fake illuminates ‘The Visions of St. Teresa of Ávila’ as first seen in the Spanish religious reformer’s autobiography.

Almost forgotten English poet George Peele penned his own interpretation of the drama of Solomon and Bathsheba centuries ago, a snippet of which is here transformed by Dave Morice into stunning op-art masterpiece ‘Hot Sun, Cool Fire’. Conor Hughes then expertly covers in more traditional form ‘The Sun Rises’ from Wu Cheng’en’s revered Chinese epic Journey to the West before Michael Stanyer adapts and Eric Johnson illustrates a mere fragment from Edmund Spenser’s unfinished opus The Faerie Queene.

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream must be one of the most popular comic strip topics of all, but Maxx Kelly & Huxley King still add fresh zest and contemporary sparkle to the scene where Titania and Oberon haggle over the fate of an abducted child…

Ian Pollock then tackles The Bard’s darkest drama as King Lear challenges the heavens themselves before Will Eisner lends his unique light touch to Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

Robert Berry and Josh Levitas then translate Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 18’ to an effectively modern setting whilst Aidan Koch applies a more esoteric approach to the eternally-mystifying ‘Sonnet 20’ before Noah Patrick Pfarr supplies a suitably raunchy setting and quirky twist to John Donne’s erotic poem ‘The Flea’.

Andrew Marvell’s equally celebrated devious love-ploy ‘To His Coy Mistress’ is given a sentimental 19th century makeover by Yien Yip after which real-life Restoration-Era Wonder Woman Aphra Behn provides moody inspiration for artist Alex Eckman-Lawn through her poem ‘Forgive Us Our Trespasses’.

John Milton’s magnificent Paradise Lost – specifically ‘the Fall of Satan’ – is astoundingly depicted by Rebecca Dart after which ‘Part II: A Voyage to Brobdingnag’ sees Gareth Hinds lovingly limning an extract from Jonathan Swift’s satirical salvo Gulliver’s Travels whilst Ian Ball uses abreaction to hammer home the finer points of Voltaire’s Candide.

Modern graphic crusader Peter Kuper then lambasts us with a lethally edgy visualisation of Swift’s brutally critical A Modest Proposal.

Benjamin Franklin’s scandalous epistle ‘Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress’ is accompanied by a sumptuous painting from Cortney Skinner before James Bosworth’s shocking and sordidly biographical London Journal is captivatingly interpreted by comix pioneer Robert Crumb in ‘A Klassic Komic: excepts from Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763’.

Veteran cartoonist Stan Shaw then captures the wryly scatalogical spirit of Benjamin Franklin’s ‘Letter to the Royal Academy of Brussels (AKA ‘Fart Proudly’)’ and van Lente & Dunlavey return with another Action Philosophers! titbit clarifying Mary Wollstonecraft’s momentous political tract A Vindication of the Rights of Woman before Molly Crabapple illustrates select moments from Choderios de Lacios’ dark and disturbing social satire Dangerous Liaisons to bring the art schooling to a close.

Wrapping up the elucidatory experience are suggestions of ‘Further Reading’ from Liz Byer, a full list of ‘Contributors’, plus details of ‘Credits and Permissions’ and an ‘Index to volume 1’.

Although no replacement for actually reading as much of the source material as you can find, this astonishing agglomeration of visual interpretations is a magnificent achievement and one every fan of the comics medium should see: a staggering blend of imperishable thoughts and words wedded to and springing from sublimely experimental pictures.

This type of venture is just what our art form needs to grow beyond our largely self-imposed ghetto, and anything done this well with so much heart and joy simply has to be rewarded.
© 2012 Russ Kick. All work © individual owners and copyright holders and used with permission. All rights reserved.

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