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Monday, May 6, 2013

New Graphic Collection of All World Literature -- Not my favorite

Kick, Russ, Ed.  (2012) The Graphic Canon.  New York:  Seven Stories Press

     Don't get me wrong, it is a great idea.  Russ Kick seeks out excellent graphic novel creators and has then each pick a great piece of world literature (Volume one covers everything from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Mary Wollstonecraft) and then turn it into a wonderful adaptation.  Some of my favorite literature ever is in here:  The Iliad, the Odyssey, Lysistrata, the book of Esther, Beowulf, Dante's Divine Comedy, Malory's Morte' D'Arthur, Midsummer Night's Dream, King Lear, Donne's The Flea, Paradise Lost, Gulliver's Travels, Candide, A Modest Proposal, and more besides. 
      But by and large, it just doesn't work -- particularly in terms of the book's usefulness for a high school or even college audience.  Some of the excerpts are more showcases for the artists than they are illuminations of the original piece (though the art is often breathtaking).  Some stories are truncated or abridged so completely that they are only enjoyable to someone already very familiar with the literature to which they are referring.  Some stories do not use the graphic Novel format effectively but really are more like an illustrated picture book in which the block of text and the images do not really interact very well.
     And what poses the biggest difficulty to teachers is that many of the adaptations are deliberately gross, vulgar, or sexually explicit.  So while I admire the creativity of the artist who took John Donne's great seduction poem, The Flea, and turned it into a lesbian love story, that piece makes it impossible to think of including this book in a high school library, let alone using it as a supplemental text. 
     And yes, I understand that wasn't the goal of the book perhaps, but come on.  The main place literature anthologies are read is in high school and college courses.  Lysistrata is a funny play, but it is not necessary to depict the characters as naked to get across the point of it -- the writing is wonderful in its subtlety.  Other pieces depict deification, vivisection, and other painful images to look at.
     So it is a great idea, and it is a beautiful anthology, and I will defend its right to be produced, sold, and collected in public libraries, but it also probably has something in it to offend everyone.  So for teachers, this anthology, which could have been a wonderful gift to high school and college readers, is instead just a frustrating failure.  Feel free to read it if you are interested, but it won't be useful for your school.

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