Editor Russ Kick got the idea for The Graphic Canon trilogy when he was standing in the graphic-novel section of a Tucson, Ariz., bookstore. Picking up a comic adaptation of Franz Kafka's The Trial, he was suddenly struck by the idea of developing a literary anthology that paired great stories with great visual storytellers.
Pulling texts together into a coherent whole is second nature to a veteran editor like Kick. He's best known for guides like Everything You Know Is Wrong and You Are Being Lied To, which he put out through the countercultural publisher Disinformation. These and other books established Kick as a synthesizer of disparate, fringe authors and ideas. And judging from the reviews he's garnering for The Graphic Canon, Volume 1: From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons, it looks like this combining of contemporary comics art and the world's best literature is also proving a winner. School Library Journal has called the trilogy "startlingly brilliant," and Publisher's Weekly has dubbed it "the graphic publishing literary event of the year."
The 500-page first volume was released on May 22, and subsequent installments will hit the shelves in September and October. In all, the trilogy covers world literature from The Epic of Gilgamesh through David Foster Wallace's 1996 novel Infinite Jest. A few of the works are reprinted excerpts from sometimes obscure sources, but the majority are new interpretations by consistently creative talents — names like R. Crumb, Will Eisner, Molly Crabapple, Sharon Rudahl and Gareth Hinds are enough to make any comics fan break a sweat.
Kick recently sat down with the Scene to discuss art, literature, the history of literary comics and the The Graphic Canon's Nashville connections.
When you see the word "canon" on the cover, that could mean a lot of things. But then the book opens with Gilgamesh. Tell me about why the book opens with that and why it's important.
The idea was always to go chronological with the works — even when it was one volume. And now that it's three, it's the same thing — it starts in the beginning, and Volume 3 ends in the late '90s. Gilgamesh is the longest surviving work of long-form literature. You'll hear it called the longest surviving work of literature, but that's not quite true. There are short poems from Babylonia that predate it. There's been written stuff from ancient Egypt that predates it, like spells and rituals, but, as far as a sustained narrative, an actual story, Gilgamesh is the oldest thing we have. It's from about 1,000 B.C. in Babylonia, give or take a few centuries.
The thing that's interesting to me is that when you open with Gilgamesh — instead of Beowulf, for instance — it's immediately clear that you mean to take on the entirety of world literature, not just Western works.
Exactly. That was part of the plan, too. It was never going to be maybe Europe, Britain and America. It was always going to be world literature. If you add up everything in all three volumes, it leans toward Western literature, but I definitely made an effort to bring in Asian, Middle Eastern literature and indigenous works too.
Let's talk a little bit of some of the more unexpected entries. For instance, you've included Native American stories in the first volume.
Yeah, well there is a Native American folktale there. It's a trickster's story called "Coyote and the Pebbles." That one's important because Native Americans — especially in the North American context — didn't really have written languages to speak of, you know, until the European invasion. In South America they had some pictographic written stuff going on, but in North America there was essentially nothing going on written-wise. But I wanted some of that in there, because as far as I'm concerned, it's still literature. All of the oldest literature started out being just told. I mean, The Iliad and The Odyssey were just recited for ages before they were written down. In the canon we include Popol Vuh — the ancient holy book of the Maya. That's a classic of world literature, and it's important because the Mayan culture was all but destroyed by the Spanish, but this work of literature managed to survive and get translated into Spanish. And from there it went out to the wider world. It's an amazing work with a wild creation story.
You've also included pieces from the Tao Te Ching, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Bible. You included a lot of religious writings. How did you pick the pieces you chose?
I think some religious books belong in the overall literary canon — certainly the Bible does. But people can overlook that because of all the cultural issues, and all the people who take it literally, and all the people who react against that. But the Old Testament is ancient Israelite literature, and there's some amazing stuff in there. There are some amazing stories with shocking things and beautiful things, and by placing it in The Graphic Canon, I'm trying to say, "Don't forget, this is literature too."
Why did you pick the Book of Esther as opposed to the more familiar stories of Moses or Noah?
Well, it turns out that the artist had done a full-length adaptation of the Book of Esther. He had this stand-alone book that was the entire Book of Esther as a graphic novel. It's an amazing book from an artistic standpoint. For one thing, he's got the entire Hebrew text weaving in and out through all of the artwork. It was an amazing, gorgeous book, but it didn't get much attention in the graphic novel world because it was put out by a small Jewish publisher. It didn't come out from one of your standard comic publishers, and it got completely ignored.
So what you have in the book is a section from the original?
Yeah. I was such a fan of the book, and I was so happy that it fit so well with what I was trying to do with The Graphic Canon. We included the first part of the story.
What about the Book of Revelation?
That's another amazing book of literature. If you stop trying to interpret it or decide if it's supposed to be taken literally, if you just look at it strictly from a visual perspective, it's mind-blowing. I'd approached Rick Geary, who is a pretty well-known comics artist. He's done a lot of Victorian-era work, and I approached him about being in the canon and showed him the wish list. I was thinking he'd pick something from the 1800s, Dickens or Poe or something, but he wanted to do the Book of Revelations. I was hoping someone would do it because it's just crying out for a graphic adaptation. I mean, you've got the the lamb with seven eyes, the Four Horsemen, the Whore of Babylon. I mean, come on.
So you're working with established pros in the field, but how did you get guys like Will Eisner and R. Crumb involved with the project? Here you're talking about the king of the underground and the king of graphic storytelling as we know it.
Well the first connection to R. Crumb came from the last anthology I did for Disinformation. They suggested that I include one of Crumb's works. [Crumb's "The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick" appeared in You Are Still Being Lied To in 2009.] It turned out someone there knew his agent. She let us include this piece then, and when it became time for The Graphic Canon, I was already aware that he'd done several literary adaptations.
Rather recently, even the Book of Genesis.
Yeah, the entire book. He's also done a number of smaller adaptations that haven't gotten much play. As far as I know, they've never been reprinted. So I asked if I could reprint them, and told her we didn't have a huge budget, and she was all right with that. She gave us a great deal on it. He's also in Volume 3 with an adaptation of Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre.
What's the title of Crumb's piece in this volume?
It's [James] Boswell's London Journal.
What about the story from The Arabian Nights, "The Woman With Two Coyntes?" Does that actually mean the woman with two vaginas?
Yeah, it's Middle English or Old English. Exactly. When Sir Richard [Burton] was going into the 16-volume uncensored translation of The Arabian Nights, he included that one, and that's the word he chose, that's how he chose to put it, because in The Arabian Nights, a lot of them are very sexual, like any collection of folktales. That was on my wish list.
Just something from The Arabian Nights or that particular story?
That specific one.
To read the full interview, visit the Scene's arts and culture blog, Country Life.
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