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PG Tips No. 34:

Obvious Impostures

At the 9th Annual Open Illustration Forum at University College Falmouth this March, organised by Steve Braund and chaired by me, on the theme of Metamorphosis: Interpretation and Adaptation in Illustration, acclaimed Lewis Carroll illustrator John Vernon Lord commented, “While every writer uses the same language of words, every artist uses their own self-invented language.” This is especially true when graphic novelists bring their idiosyncratic vision and personal perspective to adapt existing texts into comics. In the process there may be losses but also gains. Some great works of literature have been abridged too far, infamously those condensed into sixty-four pages at most in the much-reprinted American comic book series Classics Illustrated, which began in 1947. Once derided as Classics Desecrated, many of those primers and their modern successors should be viewed as works in their own right which also deserve credit for instilling in some readers the curiosity and courage to explore the unillustrated original. More recent attempts in graphic novels to retain every last word, for example when adapting Shakespeare’s plays, have resulted in some unwieldy, Zeppelin-scale speech balloons imbalancing the pictures. The Bard was not writing for this medium, of course. His unedited plays could still work in comics, if only enough illustrations and pages could be alotted to express them fully.

Luckily, the British adaptor I.N.J. Culbard has been granted 128 pages in which to tell H.P. Lovecraft’s 1936 tale At The Mountains of Madness. While undertaking to delineate Lovecraft’s lavishly described yet indescribable horrors, Culbard may have empathised with the narrator, Professor William Dyer, who reports on his Antarctic expedition and laments that his “ drawings…will be jeered at as obvious impostures.” It takes nerve to pollard Lovecraft’s verbiage to fit inside caption boxes. Culbard keeps bursts of Lovecraft’s voice almost word for word, but mostly uses the heady prose and proliferating adjectives as inspiration for his image-making, to show rather than tell. Using a bold brush line, he stylises faces, mixing Dan Dare chins and Tintin dots-for-eyes, propelling the growing tension across each dynamically composed spread, with images bleeding off the edges of the page. Novels can hide their shocks within rows of typeset words, but graphic novels surprise most effectively by the reveal of a fresh page. So, for example, instead of being immersed in Professor Dyer’s lengthy biological analysis of the first otherworldly fossil discovered by his team, the readers turns the page and happens upon this disturbing monstrosity all at once; it fills their field of vision and with the same frightful suddenness the scientists themselves experienced. While sacrificing much of Lovecraft’s elaborate flashbacks, Culbard distils from it dialogue and action, which give events a greater unnarrated immediacy. We are there. From the start we ‘hear’ the haunting sound of ‘Tekeli-eli’ which Lovecraft only reveals near the end. Images cleverly give us extra elements: a nod to the atomic bomb, undreamt of at the time of writing; and a glimpse of Danforth’s “final horror” reflected in his goggles as gigantic tentacles writhe around the devastated ancient cityscape. It’s entirely appropriate that the massive murals the explorers discover there - “Vivid. Skilfully intricate. And yet utterly alien” - are drawn by Culbard to resemble page after page of comics.

A present-day horror that many would prefer to ignore lies at the heart of The Rime of the Modern Mariner: the man-made North Pacific Gyre of plastic pollutants which is decimating birds and sealife. Its spiral form, a symbol in the lexicon of comics to represent dizziness, becomes a motif for the whirling winds and waves and our sailor storyteller’s disorientating travails. Although Coleridge in his day was unwilling for his ballad-form verse to be illustrated, adaptations soon followed from Gustave Doré in 1876 to Hunt Emerson in 1989. Nick Hayes, however, boldly updates Coleridge’s vision by crafting fresh, affecting verse for his “bearded park bench loon” who pours out his warning of ecological disaster to a callous businessman. Hayes’ stanzas are printed in rough-hewn capitals of uneven size, only occasionally in speech balloons, swimming smoothly among the images. Most words are neatly justified to fit the width of panel or page, so that the emphasis suggested by certain larger words seems mainly spatial rather than meaningful.

Hayes’ artwork comes in black and tones of blue, restricted further to only one of these colours for impact or for most of Part Seven’s account of the mariner’s recovery and reconnection to nature, when his toes sprout roots and his fingers leaves. Many of Hayes’ long-nosed male characters look similar, but he makes up for some lack of variety and subtlety in his facial types and expressions by his general graphic inventiveness. He shows the damaged sea and sky awash with chemical formulae or imports the detailed textures of whalebone scrimshaw, making use of Christian and mythological iconography, including Gaia and Thor, and Oceanic native art. He often matches his drawings to his verbal flair, for example by portraying “a medusa’s head of nylon knots / a clotted ragged knot / acrylic foam and polymers / that still refuse to rot”,’ or “the heart of a two inch salp beating like a bell”. Even the albatross turns out to have died from “a fine nylon gauze tangled in its chest”. The Rime of the Modern Mariner achieves a powerful cumulative effect, and the Mariner’s environmental message will surely influence many readers to never casually discard another plastic carrier or water bottle again.

Challenges of adaptation are openly addressed by American comics creator Jon Macy in his introduction to Teleny and Camille, his reinterpretation of the anonymous homoerotic novel Teleny, or The Reverse of the Medal, published in 1893 and attributed to Oscar Wilde and his circle. Macy draws himself at work on the project, realising that “only adding pictures to the [complete] text would not do it justice”, but anxious about having to “trim the Victorian gingerbread”, and imagining himself “facing a tribunal for all my Wildean crimes.” Macy would not be found guilty, as he has made this book his own by focusing on its love story between two men, put in context in a prologue narrated by the London bookseller Charles Hirsch. Macy goes on to accompany the already highly charged texts with an imagery of brooding eroticism and, as required, uninhibited pornography, in some passages stripping everything down to purely visual terms. His inky linework stays sensuous and sensitive to the turbulent emotions and settings of his two idealised lovers, shifting between streamlined simplicity and more ornate flourishes from Expressionism to Art Nouveau. Although Macy stays true to the original novel’s tragic conclusion, he finds it unsatisfactory that every “story of gay love has to end with one or both dying.” So he adds his own epilogue, imagining a happy ending in which the couple are rescued and relocated to Paris and eventually Algiers. Teleny itself was originally the result of several collaborating imaginations, so it seems fitting that, in a very different climate more than a century later, Macy joins them as this book’s latest contributor.

In 2007, the Israeli poet Galit Seliktar entrusted her short semi-autobiographical story The Substitute Lifeguard to her younger brother Gilad Seliktar to transform into a comic for the literary magazine Masmerim. Something sparked between them and the siblings went on to produce two more comics based on Galit’s first-person accounts of events that took place between the mid 1970s and late 1980s. These are now compiled into Farm 54. In a postscript, Gilad discusses his decisions in translating into comics his sister’s “extremely poetic” writings, which are often “saturated with elaborate descriptions” and “more explicit”. Their bond of trust allowed the artist to come up with his own bold solutions, preferring to “lower the volume” on parts of Galit’s stories which he found “too loud”. He replaces her deliberately abrupt opening sentence in the tale Spanish Perfume  - “In the morning Mom ran over our German Shepherd” - with five pages of subtle, wordless sequences of the dog’s death. Elsewhere, he tones down a pivotal scene in Houses, in which a weeping Palestinian boy is begging a female Israeli soldier to give his pet rabbit back to him, by showing across two pages the woman cradling the animal to her breast and face while the boy looks on, the only dialogue her whispered “Beautiful”. The pages are divided into a three panels, wide like a cinema screen but borderless as if about to dissolve, the restrained blacks contrasted by the bleached creaminess of the paper and accents in a dusky pink. A deep moral disquiet haunts these tales, not least in Houses, Galit’s “most autobiographical” story, which records her remote yet complicit involvement while on compulsory army service in a night-time exercise to demolish Palestinian houses.  Whether in the modest handwritten words or the tenderly observant pictures, what is never lost in this remarkable debut triloy is the poet’s exquisite poise and telling understatement.

The speeches and autobiographical notes of one of India’s foremost revolutionaries, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar (1891-1956), provide Srividya Natarajan and S. Anand with the springboards for an unusual graphic biography, Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability. One sixth of the world’s population lives in India, and one sixth of those are classified as Dalits or “untouchables”. The caste system continues to deny most of India’s 170 million dalits the dignities of life; in 2008 a crime was committed against a dalit every 18 minutes.

Dr. Ambedkar is remembered mainly for drafting India’s national constitution in 1947, but his significance, as an untouchable who rose to prominence and as a lifelong activist against discrimination, has been largely neglected. Ambedkar’s historical experiences of prejudice, from the age of ten in school, are framed here by a passionate present-day debate at a bus stop between a young man, who believes “Caste isn’t real any longer. It’s a non-issue”, and a woman who brings to his attention recent harrowing outrages reported in the media. There follow four “Books”, three based on Ambedkar’s reminiscences about injustices concerning basic rights to Water, Shelter and Travel, the fourth explaining how Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam, the husband-and-wife artist team, adapted their tribal aesthetics into comics. Pardhan Ghond art does not represent, it signifies, so here a train becomes a snake, a fortress a lion, happiness a peacock. Refusing to “force our characters into boxes - it stifles them”, the Vyams make their panels sinuous, organic, outlined by dignas, decorative borders normally applied to buildings with colored earth. Their intense patterning, their faces mainly in profile with large single eyes, and their balloons - bird-like for gentleness, with a scorpion’s sting for venomous dialogue or the mind’s eye for thought - show how traditional artists can reinvent and re-invigorate the medium. Ambedkar’s plea for justice can be heard again through this beautiful, compelling documentary.

Posted: May 22, 2011

A version of this Article ran in The Times Literary Supplement, May 20th 2011


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Article Tags

Classics Illustrated
Durgabai Vyam
Galit Seliktar
Gilad Seliktar
I.N.J. Culbard
Indian Comics
Jon Macy
Nick Hayes
PG Tips
S. Anand
Srividya Natarajan
Subhash Vyam

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Featured Books

At the Mountains of Madness
by I.N.J. Culbard

Rime of the Modern Mariner
by Nick Hayes
(Jonathan Cape)

Teleny and Camille
by Jon Macy
(NorthWest Press)

Farm 54
by Galit & Gilad Seliktar
(Fanfare-Ponent Mon)

Experiences of Untouchability

by Srividya Natarajan,
S. Anand,
Durgabai Vyam
& Subhash Vyam
(Navayana, New Delhi)