If you took a Norton Anthology of Literature and converted it into comics, the result would be something like The Graphic Canon.
Russ Kick has collected graphic adaptations of 56 classics of world literature, beginning with Gilgamesh and ending with Dangerous Liaisons. Most appear as excerpts, though a few, disappointingly, are merely summarized or simply mentioned in the course of a short bio of the author. So if you want world literature, you should find an anthology of literature; it is really the art that makes this book worth having. With artists as prominent and diverse as Rick Geary (The Book of Revelation), Roberta Gregory (Popol Vuh), Will Eisner (Don Quixote), Peter Kuper (“A Modest Proposal”), and Robert Crumb (Boswell’s London Journal), the styles cover a spectrum from simple iconography, to grotesque caricature, to hyper-realism, to broad impressionistic washes of color.
The result is a long collection, dense with both text and imagery. It takes time to read this book, but it is a book worth taking time over. Reading one, or sometimes two, chapters in an evening, I enjoyed the careful pace of the work, as I let my eyes take in the page, slowly absorbing the meaning of the art, and then the words, and then, as often as not, considering the art again.
Of course some pieces succeed better than others. Alessandro Bonaccorsi’s single ghostly image for Sappho’s Fragments feels cold and alien — entirely wrong for the poems it appears alongside. But Ellen Linder’s modern-yet-medieval style is exactly right for The Letters of Heloise and Abelard. Many of the excerpts are so abridged that they seem to start and end somewhat arbitrarily, whereas the first entry — the Epic of Gilgamesh — wanders pointlessly for sixteen pages.
Those that work best capture the entirety of an episode, if not the entirety of a piece. Robert Berry and Josh Levitas’ adaptation of Shakespeare’s eighteenth sonnet is among the best of the lot. They succeed, not only in doing justice to the original poem, but also, with the illustrations, in adding a kind of meditative short story reflective of the emotion the sonnet conveys. Among the very worst is Ian Ball’s excerpt from Candide, the illustration for which is both ugly and irrelevant. The greatest disappointments, however, are those illustrations which, while beautiful, only barely remind us of the story, adding nothing of substance to our understating of it and giving no taste of the style of the original author. Molly Crabapple’s beautiful and clever illustrations to Dangerous Liaisons fall into this trap, while Cortney Skinner’s stiff but stunning painting for Ben Franklin’s “Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress” is only saved by the editor’s decision to include the entirety of the text in his introduction.
However — the question that hangs over a collection like this is always, necessarily, one of selection. What gets included, and why? Declaring in the title that the collection is the canon only adds to the difficulty. Canonization, if we consider the historical origin of the term, is not only incidentally but primarily a process of exclusion. The question of what gets included and why can turn on accidents of taste and access, but the question of what gets excluded and whom is almost inherently political.
Kick has included some examples of literature from Chinese, Japanese, Mayan, Indian, Tibetan, Middle Eastern, and pre-Columbian American cultures (though nothing from Sub-Saharan Africa — oops). On the whole these are good pieces, and I’m glad to see them adapted. But I don’t think the effort at inclusion really succeeds, and it may even prove self-defeating. Were this a collection of “Western” (meaning European and North American) literature, the exclusion of work from China or India would be explicable and even correct. But if it is an anthology of world literature, the inclusion of this or that representative piece is not enough. A quick glance at the “Country/Area of Origin” index on the last page illustrates the point: Britain has seventeen entries (eighteen if you count the three-panel Hamlet on the Contents page), whereas China, the oldest continuous civilization in the world, has five. The canon, in other words, remains stubbornly centered in Europe.
The problem, of course, is bigger than any one editor, or one book, or one series, can possibly correct. And I don’t know if it would be enough to simply shift the ratio of works from one part of the world or another. Some of the difficulty, I think, is that a canon implies a shared tradition. And I’m not sure one can create a tradition — at least, not such that anyone would recognize — simply by adding contributions to an anthology. There are larger forces at play, which both give this dilemma its urgency and make it, at present, irresolvable.
It may be that, under imperialism, no global canon is possible and, after imperialism, the questions of “canon” will become refreshingly irrelevant.