What Gets Lost (and Found) in Translating Prose to Comics
Tobias Carroll on the Generative Power of Literary Adaptation
As goes language, so too goes form. Comics creators have long drawn on literary sources for inspiration or outright adaptation. We’ve moved far beyond the days of Classics Illustrated, wherein a condensed version of a novel was translated in a straightforward manner to words and pictures on a page. David Mazzucchelli’s adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass is a notable work in its own right, and one that neatly blends the aesthetics of two distinctive artists.
Therein lies the challenge of any adaptation from one medium to another, though. For every work that achieves a harmonious means of evoking the rhythms and style of one artform in another, there are plenty that assume that a verbatim translation is entirely fine. Largely, though, fine is the opposite of what results. Instead, you get an adaptation that loses something fundamental to the source material and acts as a kind of reduced shorthand of it—a work that fails both as an adaptation and as a work in its own right.
Peter Kuper’s graphic novel Kafkaesque serves as a welcome example of how to do this right. Kuper’s stylized figures, often dripping with elements of sociopolitical critique, have a bold aesthetic all their own; it feels simultaneously time-worn and ahead of its time. In his introduction to Kafkaesque, Kuper discusses his process for illustrating these stories, which blend adaptations of Kafka’s work with original stories that thematically mesh with them.
“I chose to draw on a scratch board, a chalk-covered paper that can be inked and scratched to approximate woodcuts,” Kuper writes. “This evoked German expressionism and artists I loved, like Kathe Kollwitz, Georg Grosz and Otto Dix, who were creating concurrent to Kafka’s time in Prague, Czechoslovakia.” In other words, Kuper sought an artistic style that both hearkened back to his own influences and tapped into artistic contemporaries of the writer whose work he was adapting. This helps to create a sense of unity throughout the project, whether the stories originated with Kafka or Kuper.
Kuper is also unafraid to make bold artistic decisions when adapting Kafka into comics form. In his introduction to the book, he notes that Kafka probably didn’t see his story “Before the Law” as “a comment on institutional racism,” but notes that it’s a way that it “spoke to me.” Kuper doesn’t treat Kafka’s work as sacred texts, to remain inviolate; instead, they feel fluid here; they feel fresh. And in doing so, it helps to demonstrate why Kafka’s work has had so much staying power over the years. There’s a commitment to bringing distinct interpretations of these stories to fruition, and the way that these do click—Kuper’s been making acclaimed comics for decades now, after all—creates something that feels new.
Direct adaptation isn’t the only way in which prose and comics have overlapped, however. Numerous comics creators have turned biographies of writers into panels, images, and dialogue on pages. These, too, have a range of tones. Mary M. Talbot and Brian Talbot’s The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia uses an expansive historical canvas to tell the life story of the French feminist thinker and anarchist Louise Michel. Spanning years and continents, this is the comics equivalent of an end-of-year Oscar-bait film (at least, it would be if Oscar-bait films were made about radical thinkers). At the other end of the spectrum is Warren Ellis and Marek Oleksicki’s Frankenstein’s Womb. This is a much more concise work, a dreamlike work that borders on the metafictional about Mary Shelley’s creation of Frankenstein. Here, too, the book’s roots are in the life of a writer—but the approach taken is a much more experimental one. It’s an informative look at Shelley’s life and the continuing influence of her work, but it’s far from dry.
Given the recent upswing in interest in her bibliography, it’s not surprising to see a new biographical look at the life and work of Hannah Arendt. Ken Krimstein’s The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth turns her life, in all of its historical sweep and philosophical inquiry, into a similarly sprawling graphic novel, told from Arendt’s perspective. Krimstein’s stylized artwork comes to the forefront most frequently here when the narrative turns atmospheric or theoretical. Narratively, The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt also abounds with footnotes—an understandable choice, given the number of writers, historians, and philosophers in Arendt’s orbit over the course of her life. Not everyone will know offhand who, say, Salo Wittmayer Baron is, and the thumbnail biographies of him and others keep the book from being bogged down in exposition.
Krimstein’s book closes with a lengthy “Suggested Reading” section, in which he offers recommendations both of Arendt’s own work and of books about her life, and—in keeping with the narrative, which abounds with heated philosophical debates—delves into some of the arguments about Arendt-related scholarship that have arisen since her death. “I recommend balancing writings from her own hand with critical interpretations,” Krimstein writes. The presence of this document suggests that Krimstein views his own work as something that might serve as a good introduction to Arendt for a curious reader.
Joe Ollmann’s biography The Abominable Mr. Seabrook is in many ways the opposite of Krimstein’s work: while it doesn’t take much searching in 2018 to find a thinkpiece on the relevance of Hannah Arendt’s writings, a deep dive into the influence of journalist William Seabrook would be a bit more elusive. And to the extent that there has been an even moderate Seabrook revival, it’s been due in part to Ollmann, who contributed artwork and an introduction to new editions of his books Asylum and The Magic Island.
Reading Ollmann’s book is enlightening, however. For starters, Seabrook was a highly regarded writer in his day and one whose tendency to, as Ollmann put it, “wrestle with all of his many demons in public. In print,” places him as a literary ancestor of much contemporary confessional nonfiction. (I picked up Asylum shortly after reading Ollmann’s biography, and was much impressed.) Ollmann also had numerous self-destructive tendencies, however—alcoholism being one of several manifestations of this. Some biographies trace the course of an almost heroic narrative; Ollmann’s book on Seabrook chronicles a man grappling with his own worst impulses, and ultimately failing at this, while still maintaining a fascinating literary career. Ollmann’s storytelling approach, which largely involves a nine-panel grid and knowing omniscient narration, furthers this comprehensive sense of a life.
The lives of some writers may translate easily into words and pictures; for others, their ideas and imagery may be the better option. But the era where comics and prose were entirely separate is behind us now; with the right sense of innovation, the overlap of the two may continue to lead to enlightening moments for readers and scholars alike.