Brain Pickings

The Graphic Canon of Literary Comics: From Virginia Woolf to James Joyce, Visual Artists Take on The Classics

Ulysses in six panels, Colette in pen and ink, Yeats in watercolor, and other literary springboards for art.

In 2012, The Graphic Canon, Vol. 2 — Russ Kick’s fantastic compendium of literary art and comics from Lewis Carroll to the Brontë Sisters by way of Darwin — came in as one of the year’s best graphic novels and graphic nonfiction. Now, Kick is back with the final installment in his trilogy: The Graphic Canon, Vol. 3: From Heart of Darkness to Hemingway to Infinite Jest (public library), a magnificent 560-page tome offering artful takes on classics published after 1899 by such beloved authors as Virginia Woolf, Jack Kerouac, James Joyce, Edna St. Vincent Millay, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and T. S. Eliot.

Among the 84 contributing artists are longtime favorites like Matt Kish, whose Moby-Dick illustrations remain indispensable, Molly Crabapple, who illustrated Salvador Dali’s manifesto in a Brain Pickings Artist Series collaboration and visualized the power of introverts, and the great R. Crumb, who brought comics to album covers and memorably illustrated Bukowski. Their remarkable range — from the minimalist to the elaborate, the rugged to the dreamy — infuses these classics with new dimensions of celebratory love and appreciation.

‘The Voyage Out’ by Virginia Woolf, illustrated by Caroline Picard
‘The Voyage Out’ by Virginia Woolf, illustrated by Caroline Picard
‘Heart of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad, illustrated by Matt Kish
‘Heart of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad, illustrated by Matt Kish

In the introduction, Kick writes of the project’s ethos, all three volumes of which were edited simultaneously and thus bear the same editorial sensibility:

I asked the artists to stay true to the literary works as far as plot, characters, and text, but visually they had free reign. Any style, any media, any approach. Spare. Dense. Lush. Fragmented. Seamless. Experimental. Old school. Monochrome. Saturated. Pen and ink. Markers. Digital. Silk-screened. Painted. Sequential art. Full-page illustrations. Unusual hybrids of words and images. Images without words. And, in one case, words without images.

‘The Dreaming of the Bones’ by W. B. Yeats, illustrated by Lauren Weinstein
‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ by Langston Hughes, illustrated by Jenny Tondera
‘Colette’ by Cherí, illustrated by Molly Crabapple

At the heart of the project is the recognition that literary classics have always inspired visual art. Kick adds:

The Canon was always meant as an art project, part of the ages-old tradition of visual artists using classic works of literature as their springboard. It was also conceived as a celebration of literature, a way to present dramatic new takes on the greatest stories ever told. It turned into a lot more — a survey of Western literature (with some Asian and indigenous works represented), an encyclopedia of ways to merge images and text, a showcase of some of the best (and often underexposed comics artists and illustrators. And a kicky examination of love, sex, death, violence, revolution, money, drugs, religion, family, (non)conformity, longing, transcendence, and other aspects of the human condition that literature and art have always wrestled with.

‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce, illustrated by David Lasky
‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ by D. H. Lawrence, illustrated by Lisa Brown
‘Nausea’ by Jean-Paul Sartre, illustrated by R. Crumb
‘Nausea’ by Jean-Paul Sartre, illustrated by R. Crumb
‘Naked Lunch’ by William S. Burroughs, illustrated by Emelie Ostergren

Given my undying love for Anaïs Nin’s diaries and letters, which have been the subject of several Brain Pickings Artist Series original collaborations, I was particularly delighted to find this contribution by Mardou:

Anaïs Nin’s diaries, illustrated by Mardou

The Graphic Canon, Vol. 3 was preceded by the equally fantastic The Graphic Canon, Vol. 1: From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons and The Graphic Canon, Vol. 2: From “Kubla Khan” to the Bronte Sisters to The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Images courtesy Russ Kick / Seven Stories Press

Published July 8, 2013




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