Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘comics’

20 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Graphic Canon of Children’s Literature: Comic Artists Reimagine Beloved Childhood Classics, from Tolstoy’s Fairy Tales to Harry Potter

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“One sign of a great work of literature or art is that it can be interpreted multiple ways, that it remains ambiguous, refusing to provide clear-cut answers.”

“Tales are powerful instruments and should be wielded skillfully,” artist Andrea Dezsö told me in our conversation about her striking black-and-white illustrations for the little-known original edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Some of history’s most skillful wielding of tales has refused to bend to the false divide between “children’s” and “adult” storytelling — there are the Grimms themselves, of course, but also Tolkien, who vehemently believed that there is no such thing as writing “for children”; Maurice Sendak, who in his final interview scoffed that he has never written for children; Neil Gaiman, who opposes the idea of protecting children from the dark; Madeleine L’Engle, who believed that the best children’s books ask questions that “disturb someone’s universe”; and most of all C.S. Lewis, who elegantly eviscerated the notion that literature should treat children as a special species.

On the heels of the year’s best children’s books comes a magnificent embodiment of that ethos in The Graphic Canon of Children’s Literature: The World’s Greatest Kids’ Lit as Comics and Visuals (public library | IndieBound) — the latest installment in an ongoing series of comic adaptations of beloved works of literature.

In this volume, fifty contemporary graphic artists reimagine such classics as The Little Prince, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Aesop’s fables, Russian fairy tales, Harry Potter, and even The Diary of Anne Frank.

Series editor Russ Kick writes in the introduction:

Part of the appeal is my belief that “children’s literature” can be great literature, period. Works meant primarily for children or teens are usually ghettoized, considered unworthy of serious treatment and study. But the best of it achieves a greatness through heightened use of language, through examination of universal themes and human dilemmas, and through nuance and layers of meaning. One sign of a great work of literature or art is that it can be interpreted multiple ways, that it remains ambiguous, refusing to provide clear-cut answers.

[…]

Children’s literature is wild. It’s often bizarre, grotesque, dark, and violent. It seems odd that many of these works are considered children’s literature… Danger everywhere! Wolves, dogs, tigers, condors, thieves, wicked stepmothers, witches, giants, pirates, disease, Nazis… There’s something about seeing a children’s work fully illustrated sequentially to make the terror and weirdness that much more visceral, that undeniable.

[…]

We ended up with over forty adaptations and over sixty stand-alone illustrations that treat children’s literature with the respect, daring, and verve it deserves. In a strange twist, we created a book that many people may think isn’t suitable for children… They might be right. The book has obvious appeal for teens and adults, and maybe they’re the only audience for a work that shows so many bizarre, upsetting, and nightmarish images. Or perhaps we should keep in mind something Sendak said in one of his final interviews: “I refuse to lie to children. I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.”

Here are a few of my favorites, beginning with British illustrator and Penguin book-cover designer Lesley Barnes’s breathtaking illustrations for the Russian fairy tale “Ivan Tsarevich, the Firebird, and the Gray Wolf,” which my grandmother used to read to me when I was little and which graces the book’s cover:

American comic artist Lucy Knisley, who read Harry Potter when she was fourteen, reimagines the famed J.K. Rowling series:

Artist Dasha Tolstikova — the illustrator behind the heartwarming bibliophile tale The Jacket — takes on At the Back of the North Wind by Victorian preacher and unsung fantasy pioneer George MacDonald, who influenced such storytelling icons as J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, and more:

Children’s book author and illustrator Karen Katz does a lyrical adaptation of Tolstoy’s little-known tales for young readers:

Comic artist and illustrator Isabel Greenberg presents an appropriately gory take on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Tinderbox:

Chicago-based artist and writer Caroline Picard adapts the tales from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book in an unusual visual sequence, where each story moves forward from left to right along a single arrow-line across multiple pages:

Illustrator Matthew Houston applies his singular style of visual psychedelia to H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine:

Swedish cartoonist Emelie Östergren presents a wonderfully twisted take on Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstockings:

The Graphic Canon of Children’s Literature contains many more treasures at the intersection of literature and graphic art. Complement it with the previous volumes of the series, then treat yourself to the year’s most intelligent and imaginative children’s books.

Images courtesy of Russ Kick

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28 APRIL, 2014

Six Rare Recordings of Denise Levertov Reading Her Poetry, Illustrated by Artist Ohara Hale

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Love songs, muses, and paradise in the dust of the street.

Between 1963 and 1991, British-born American writer Denise Levertov — recipient of the prestigious Robert Frost medal, a Guggenheim fellow, and one of my all-time favorite poets — gave several spectacular readings at the 92nd Street Y in New York, the recordings of which have been slumbering away in the institution’s vault. In this second installment of my partnership with the Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92Y — following Susan Sontag’s wide-ranging lecture on the project of literature — I’ve selected six of Levertov’s poetry readings to bring back to life.

But this is a double delight: I asked Montreal-based artist Ohara Hale — one of the most original and bewitching illustrators working today, and an enchanting musician — to respond to Levertov’s poems in the style of her singular visual haikus, creating one piece of art for each recording. The resulting three-way labor of love, months in the making, is a celebration of poetry, comics, and the cross-pollination of the arts — please enjoy.

As is customary for the Brain Pickings artist series, we’ve made prints of the artwork available, with 100% of proceeds benefiting A Room of Her Own, a foundation supporting women writers and artists.

Dive deeper with The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov (public library), treat yourself to Hale’s delicious forthcoming book of comics, and see more of her unbearably wonderful work on her site.

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07 APRIL, 2014

Tom Gauld’s Brilliant Literary Cartoons Blur the Artificial Line Between “High” and “Pop” Culture

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From Hemingway’s hangovers to the messiness of creative collaborations, wryly witty visual satire of intellectualism.

With his singular style of irreverent erudition, cartoonist Tom Gauld has emerged as an unparalleled visual satirist of the literary world. You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack: Cartoons (public library) collects eight years’ worth of Gauld’s wryly wonderful and wonderfully wry comics created for the Sunday Review section of The Guardian, mildly reminiscent in spirit of Kate Beaton’s literary cartoons and yet entirely, unmistakably original in style. From the odd habits of famous writers to the age-old tension between science and religion, Gauld leaves no cultural stone unturned in his heartening testament to Susan Sontag’s assertion that the divide between “high” and “popular” culture is a false and toxic one — after all, if a medium as “pop” as the cartoon form can serve, like Gauld’s art so masterfully does, as a form of meta-literary criticism and intelligent cultural discourse, then the polarization between “high” and “low” is instantly and spectacularly demagnetized.

In one cartoon, Gauld echoes E.B. White’s protestation that “a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper” and Bukowski’s bold debunking of the excuses writers use for not writing:

In another, he seconds Virginia Woolf’s admonition about the evils of cinematic adaptations of literature:

Another reminds us that there is no magic formula (though there are some excellent tips) for writing a great story, and that in fact, as Steinbeck put it, “the formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader”:

Then there are our greatest techno-dystopian fears and anxieties — the worst manifestation of Saul Bellow’s admonition about “the distracted public” — followed to their most tragicomic end:

Gauld also extends beyond the literary and into the broader spectrum of cultural concerns, such as the lamentable present neglect of space exploration:

On and on Gauld goes, poking gentle fun at our cultural conceits:

The rest of You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack: Cartoons is immeasurably wonderful from cover to cover. Complement it with Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant and this charming compendium of contemporary graphic artists’ takes on literary classics.

Images courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly © Tom Gauld

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