Rediscovering the Classics: The Graphic Canon

Picture copyright Seven Stories Press

Picture copyright Seven Stories Press

Despite knowing better, I repeatedly find myself thinking of comics as the purview of genre writing, usually superhero, but also magical girl, shounen, and fantasy. Perhaps it’s because comics have often been viewed as a “lesser” medium just like genre writing has, or perhaps it’s because that’s generally how we advertise comics. After all, they’re “supposed” to be more accessible, a way to reach out to kids to get them reading or as a link for adults who have trouble reading. Such goes the mainstream thinking, anyway.

However, I’ve never really been into genre writing. Until only a few years ago, I was reading mostly classics with the odd bit of humor thrown in (which makes perfect sense if you know how dumb, scatological, and innuendo-inundated Shakespeare is), and I had very little knowledge of modern writers. I liked my sequester, liked delving deeper and deeper into the classics and being able to tick off all those little boxes in “The 100 Books the BBC Doesn’t Think You’ll Ever Read,” liked the superiority of knowing I’d read Madame Bovary and Gone with the Wind, and honestly liked the dated writing. While reading classics exclusively may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I truly believe that anyone can find at least one classical novel, play, or poem that resonates – most of them are just good writing.

So when I chanced upon The Graphic Canon edited by Russ Kick, I was immediately hooked. The premise behind these three massive tomes is that various, well-known artists like Molly Crabapple, Gareth Hinds, and Will Eisner will illustrate a portion of a well-known classic like The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Tale of Genji, The Canterbury Tales, or Journey to the West. Some of the pieces are excerpts from larger works the artists have been creating while others are newly commissioned. Each piece offers a new perspective on these classic works and helps expand the readers’ understanding of, appreciation of, and interpretation of the work.

I’ve only gotten to read the first volume, From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons, but I’m already a convert. First off, the compilation is staggering with fairly wide breadth of pieces. In addition to the works I’ve already mentioned, there’s a poem by Rumi, a Native American folktale about Coyote, a letter on farting from Benjamin Franklin, a diary entry on sex and food by James Boswell, a reimagining of John Donne’s poem “The Flea,” and an illustrated entry on the Tao Te Ching (The first volume clocks in at over 500 pages.). Second, despite its girth, it is very accessible and easy to read with the artists doing their best to explain unfamiliar concepts and be clear in their illustrations and layout. Third, the caliber of the art is high, as one would expect from award-winning and decade-spanning veterans of the venerable sequential arts. I mean, just look at that picture from “The Visions of St. Teresa of Avila” – that’s gorgeous.

Picture copyright of Edie Fake

Picture copyright Edie Fake

One of its few flaws is that it often skews towards the stand-by of work by white, Western male creators with most of the entries coming from Europe. Russ Kick attempts to mix it up by adding Native American, Incan, Japanese, Chinese, and Middle Eastern pieces too, but he’s not as successful as he could be. A future edition should include more diversity (or, better yet, publish some supplementary volumes!).

Another problem is how quickly the book moves through time. This first volume spans at least 3500 years while the next two volumes won’t cover even 250. This volume really should have stopped no later than 1000 CE (if even that late) and covered more pieces that might not have been written down until very recently. It would have been a wonderful time to include tales from more non-Western cultures, especially Australian aboriginals and Polynesians, who weren’t represented at all. While I absolutely adore Western classics, I know where to find them and read them – I’m much less knowledgeable about non-Western works, especially those from oral traditions.

That being said, I still really loved this book and look forward to tracking down (and eventually buying) the next two volumes. This work filled a hole in comics that I hadn’t known existed and opened my eyes to yet another possibility of what comics can accomplish. Comics can be and indeed are so diverse, and there’s so much that they can do that simple writing can’t. They can help guide our imaginations while leaving us free to fill in the gaps. They can make it easier for people with dyslexia or learning disabilities to read. They can make works that previously seemed intimidating accessible, and they can modernize archaic stories, highlighting the humorous elements original audiences would have immediately seen and cluing modern audiences in on the fun.

Reading the first volume of The Graphic Canon reminded me of what comics can do and what I wanted to do with them. It encouraged me to go back to making comics, which I have shamefully neglected for several months. It inspired me to go and create my own interpretations of classics, especially those that don’t get enough love. Have you ever read Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well? It is his funniest, most feminist- friendly play, and no one reads it. I think it’s time it got turned into a comic.

Most of all, though, The Graphic Canon reminded me of why classics are classics. They reminded me that they’re fun and funny and, despite their elevated status, are still just pieces of media for someone to consume and enjoy. After years of intense study and research, I’d forgot that. I’m really glad that The Graphic Canon reminded me, and I’m excited to dust off a few titles that have been languishing on my shelves. Even the oldies need some love.


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