The Graphic Canon volume 2: From “Kubla Khan” to the Brontë Sisters to The Picture of Dorian Gray

By many and various, edited by Russ Kick (Seven Stories)
ISBN: 978-1-60980-378-0 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A “Worthy” Present That’s Actually a Joy to Receive and Devour… 10/10

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 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, and this sequel edition takes us up to the end of the 19thcentury and the rise of mass-market fiction and (nigh) universal literacy…

Much of the material for the project has been taken from already extant or ongoing projects: as editor Russ Kick explains in his Introduction, it was the 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 Illustratedcomics, 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.

Available in mammoth paperback and digital formats, each piece here is preceded by an informative commentary page by Kick, and the wonderment is presaged by a barrage of micro-comic ‘Three Panel Reviews’ by Lisa Brown (specifically Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities; Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary; Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter) before Alice Duke sets the ball properly rolling with a stunning painted interpretation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’.

National treasure Hunt Emerson has already wonderfully and hilariously adapted the poet’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and here loans ‘Part the Second’ to this tome wherein the foolish sailor realises why he shouldn’t have shot that damn sea bird…

Straight text-&-picture juxtapositions by Aidan Koch of William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’, lead to a formal and most mannerly adaption in ‘A Selection from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: Chapter 2’ by Huxley King with designer Terrence King, after which George Gordon, Lord Byron reminds us ‘She Walks in Beauty’, courtesy of David Lasky.

The period poesy corner continues and briefly concludes with Percy Bysshe Shelley and ‘Ozymandias’ as interpreted by Anthony Ventura, William Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ via a futuristic vision from PMurphy before enjoying another Hunt Emerson gem re-examining John Keats’ ‘O Solitude’

The novel makes its first appearance here with a gothic classic as Jason Cobley & Declan Shalvey precis a key moment from Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ after which, a selection of Fairy Tales begins with text-heavy original extracts from ‘The Valiant Little Tailor’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and ‘Little Snow White’ by the Brothers Grimm, all deliriously illuminated by S. Clay Wilson.

The Grimm kids’ stuff then translates to comic strip form as Shawn Cheng adapts ‘How Six Made Good in the World’before Neil Cohn pictorializes Keats’ ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ and William Blake’s own words and images are combined to bring to life ‘Jerusalem: The Emancipation of the Giant Albion’.

‘The Confessions of Nat Turner’ is a contemporary account of a southern slave rising as narrated, prior to his execution, by Turner himself to lawyer Thomas R. Gray, adapted by controversial artist John Pierard, whilst Lance Tooks devilishly tackles a lost classic by Mary Shelley in ‘The Mortal Immortal’ before another tranche of Fairy Tales commences with more original text limned by S. Clay Wilson.

Here Hans Christian Andersen is represented by ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, ‘The Nightingale’ and ‘The Little Match Girl’ after which Ellen Lindner presents ‘Rondeau (Jenny Kiss’d Me)’ as first conciev’d and craft’d by James Henry Leigh Hunt.

Hysterical history cartoonist Kevin Dixon concocts a beautifully bonkers snippet from Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’, a delightful prelude to a dose of Victorian nonsense as seen in Hunt Emerson’s depiction of Edward Lear’s ‘The Jumblies’ and Sanya Glisic’s bombastic treatment of a selection from Heinrich Hoffman’s moralizing cautionary tales collection Der Struwwelpeter: specifically ‘Struwwelpeter: the Story of Shock-Headed Peter’, ‘The Story of the Inky Book’ ‘The Story of the Man that went out Shooting’ and ‘The Story of Little Suck-A-Thumb’.

Literary giant Edgar Allen Poe is celebrated in a haunting Poe Montage by Gris Grimly and fuller adaptations such as‘The Raven’ by Yien Yap as well as original text extracts from ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, ‘The Raven’, ‘The Bells’, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ and ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ – all grotesquely illustrated by Maxon Crumb – before we switch themes and tone for Elizabeth Watasin to open a Brontë section with stylish interpretation of Charlotte’s ‘Jane Eyre’, whilst Tim Fish adapts Emily’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, after which Ali J in one image encapsulates Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter’ and Matt Kish offers a post-futurist and quite disturbing vision of Herman Melville’s ‘Moby-Dick’

John Porcellino offers a compelling and effective cartoon analogue of Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ after which Walt Whitman is addressed through two vastly different depiction of ‘Leaves of Grass’: one by Tara Seibel’s and Dave Morice’s cheeky ‘Leaves of Grass: The Adventures of Walt Whitman’.

Tinges of literary modernism coincide with John Pierard’s hallucinatory adaptation of Fitz Hugh Ludlow’s ‘The Hasheesh Eater’ after which Michael Keller & Nicolle Rager Fuller lavishly and magnificently illuminate and interpret Chapter 4 from Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ (or if you’re a pedant like me On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life) and Seth Tobocman re-delivers former slave, equal rights advocate and freedom fighter Frederick Douglass’ thoughts on the Nature of Power from ‘The Message from Mount Misery’.

More exploration of social justice issues comes via Tara Seibel’s lengthy treatment of portions of Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Misérables’, before Dame Darcy leads off a brace of entries celebrating Emily Dickinson with ‘Because I Could Not Stop for Death’. Diana Evans then responds visually to ‘I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed’, before Corinne Mucha adapts Gustave Flaubert’s Letter to George Sand ‘Dear Master’ and Darcy returns to delineate a wild interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass’ and Eran Cantrell compellingly details his monstrous epic ‘Jabberwocky’.

Such is the impact of Carroll (AKA Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) – on artists and creators, if not the entire wider world – that a host of submissions led to the ‘Alice Gallery’ that follows, with inclusions by Alice and Mad Bill Carman, Kim Deitch, John Coulthart, May Ann Licudine, Andrea Femerstrand, Olga Lopata, Natalie Shau, Emerson Tung, Peter Kuper, John Ottinger, David W. Tripp, Christopher Panzer, Jasmine Becket-Griffith and Molly Kiely: all letting their imaginations run wild and proving the infinite power of a good book…

Another one such is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’, starkly and paranoically envisioned here by Kako, before Molly Keilly delivers details from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s long-forbidden classic ‘Venus in Furs’ and Arthur Rimbaud’s pioneering drama ‘The Drunken Boat’ is adapted by Julian Peters…

Shifting to more sedate climes and themes, Megan Kelso deliciously delves into George Elliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ before Carroll pops up again, thanks to Mahendra Singh’s treatment of The Hunting of the Snark in ‘Fit the Second: The Bellman’s Speech’, before Ellen Lindner channels Leo Tolstoy with stylish extracts from ‘Anna Karenina’ whilst J. Ben Moss offers a key moment from Mark Twain’s ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’

Laurence Gane & Piero impressively summarize Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’ in a sequence of short, sharp graphic lectures after which we enter the first moments of modernity with the accent on suspense and terror as Danusia Schejbal & Andrzej Klimowski open Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’, whilst Sandy Jimenez effectively and chillingly recounts Ambrose Bierce’s ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ before John Coulthart epically and experimentally ends our literary excursions by uniquely adapting Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’.

Wrapping up the elucidatory experience are background, context and suggestions in ‘Further Reading’ from Jordyn Ostroff, regarding all the works contained herein, a full list of ‘Contributors’, details of ‘Credits and Permissions’ and an ‘Index to Volume 2’.

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.