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Not Your Mother's Literary Classics A Mash-Up of Comics and Literature

Posted: 2009-10-29

from Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct. 25, 2009. In 2005, Penguin began asking famous cartoonists to redesign covers for a series, Graphic Classics.



I was browsing in a bookstore recently when a copy of Little Women caught my eye. The cover featured crude, inky sketches of the March sisters, arrayed in a quadrant. They seemed to be suffering from a collective bad hair day. "Oh God please!" Meg laments in the thought bubble over her head. "My skin is so bad I want to grow up, and fast!" Next to her, Amy reads from a Bible, sounding like an evangelical Molly Bloom ("Yes Yes God says hey girls be good â¦") while the sickly Beth frets below ("But I want to be good I'm trying that's what I'm doing all day!"). On the bottom right, tomboyish Jo scoffs at her sisters. "Grow up and then get married?? Forget it I'm not interested ha ha ha hell no!!"



My mother's hardback, this was not. But something about it looked familiar. Flipping to the back flap, I realized why: The cover was drawn by Julie Doucet, a Montreal-based artist much admired in underground comics circles. In college, I was devoted to her now out-of-print comic, Dirty Plotte. But what was she doing with Louisa May Alcott?



Doucet's cover, I learned, was commissioned by Penguin as part of a series called Graphic Classics. In 2005 the publisher began asking well-known cartoonists to redesign selected titles from its catalog. The results, according to Penguin's Web site, are "timeless works of literature featuring amazing, one-of-a-kind cover illustrations from some of today's best graphic artists."



Some of the covers are, in fact, pretty amazingâand worth some scrutiny. Take Chris Ware's design for Candide. In meticulously colored panels featuring Candide and company as round-bellied bobble heads, Ware cheerfully exposes the subtexts of Voltaire's satire. In one panel, Pangloss's lesson is derailed by his prurient interest in a passing chambermaid ("Uh ⦠will you excuse me for a moment, my dear boy?") In the sequence below, a bewildered Candide wanders through a colorless wasteland. "Oh Lord, if this is the best of all possible worlds, what must the others be like?" he wonders. One can imagine Jimmy Corrigan, the protagonist of Ware's best-known work, asking the same question. His stark vision seems to imbue Voltaire's relentlessly "optimistic" hero with new dimensions.



Not all the designs are as illuminating. For The Portable Dorothy Parker, the artist Seth has created a snarky biography on the back flap. "Dot Parker: A Life" unfolds in 35 tiny boxes, telegraphing the more colorful moments of Parker's career. Some of Seth's condensations are witty ("many dogs," "married again," "Dottie the communist!"), and the pithiness of the last entry ("finally dead") seems particularly Parker-esque. But many of the biographical potshots ("suicide attempt," "some writing," "parties," "2nd try â¦") feel unearned, and even in this light-hearted form, threaten to overwhelm the work itself.



Of course there's nothing wrong, and a lot that's right, about injecting levity into literary discussion. There's pleasure in deflating Parker's personal mystique; and it's hard not to like Doucet's wicked, postfeminist take on the March sisters. But clearly, those are inside jokes. What young reader could decode Charles Burns's cryptic design for The Jungle: a bloody animal head on the front, a teeming petri dish on the back? And what would a first-timer make of Chester Brown's illustration for Lady Chatterley's Lover, which includes a speculative rendition of D.H. Lawrence's marital relations ("I'm the master, bitch!" a tiny D.H. screams in one panel) and a gallery of women Lawrence may, in polite terms, have known? (Brown, by the way, is not polite: He uses the four-letter word.)



Indeed, even seasoned re-readers may find themselves in the position of watching familiar texts deconstruct before their eyes. Tom Gauld's cover for The Three Musketeers, for instance, makes Dumas's novel look more like a Beckett play: isolated figures drifting through a bleak, deserted landscape. On the inside flap, the characters are credited only as "a musketeer," "another musketeer," and "a third musketeer." D'Artagnan is presented as our hero, but his nervous joke about dueling ("I wish I'd had lunch before I came") deflates our faith in the chivalric code.



Sammy Harkham's reconception of Kafka turns an equally merciless eye on the family. For Metamorphosis and Other Stories, he's sketched what looks, at first glance, like a typically dysfunctional domestic scene. But a closer look reveals something more sinister: a swarm of cockroaches descending on the unsuspecting Samsas. The implication is deft. They may have succeeded in getting rid of Gregor, but they have hardly expiated their sins.



Most effective, though, may be those covers that make fun not merely of the texts but of our reactions to them. In illustrating Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm, Roz Chast casually lampoons our national predilection for quaintly packaged British oddity (not to mention our inveterate consumerism). "Now available at the Cold Comfort Farm Shoppe," the front flap reads, above an assortment of invented gadgetry. Items for sale include the "Liddle Mop w' a Handle: So cute you'll have a hard time using it ($4.95)," and "the Scrantlet," an object around which Chast has sketched question marks and a cluster of confused onlookers. "Probably something to plow with," the caption reads. But who cares? It's just so incorrigibly British.



That we can now appreciate this sort of mash-up of comics and literature may be further proof that we are witnessing the ascendancy of what Charles McGrath, writing in The New York Times Magazine in 2004, called "the comic book with a brain." Since then, comics have only gained legitimacy; meanwhile literature, we are repeatedly told, is losing it. Graphic novels now regularly appear on college syllabi, and even the Louvre is feting la bande dessinée. In 2007, Art Spiegelman taught a course at Columbia University called "Comics: Marching Into the Canon"âbut in fact, they may be walking all over it. And that's probably a good thing. With R. Crumb's cross-hatched version of the Book of Genesis now on shelves, I'm betting that more than a few people will actually read it.



Elizabeth Alsop is a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She teaches film courses at Hunter College.

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