sandra glahn guest post

Read Comics, Learn Lit

Recently at the grad school where I teach, I attended a prospective-student event in which the faculty introduced ourselves by including not where we got our Ph.D.s, but by something much more important: our favorite cartoon characters. The first words out of my mouth were “Wonder Woman,” whose history veiled in mystery Smithsonian Magazine disclosed  in their November 2014 issue.  

I’ve read some great stories in comics, and I received my Ph.D. in no small part due to them. One-third of my comps related to literature. So I reviewed major plots and characters for my oral exams by borrowing and reading Classic Comics (a series that took classic literary works and adapted their storylines into comic panels).

About three years ago, Rhonda gifted me with Volume One of The Graphic Canon: The World’s Great Literature as Comics and Visuals (Seven Stories Press). The anthology, edited by Russ Kick, is pure gold. Kick took some of the world’s most-loved literature and found the best graphic artists to render these stories into graphic-novel form.  

Volume One’s fifty-five narratives, which appear approximately chronologically based on when they were written, begin with early literature. The series’ dream team of artists (Robert Crumb, Will Eisner, Molly Crabapple, Rick Geary, and Seymour Chwast, to name a few) treats readers to eye-popping renditions of The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Beowulf, and The Arabian Nights, plus samplings from The Divine Comedy and The Canterbury Tales, Paradise Lost, and Le Morte D’Arthur. Two works from ancient Greece— Medea by the bawdy Euripides, and Lysistrata by Aristophanes — made it into the book. And lovers of the Bard will delight in the visual presentations of King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as two of his sonnets. Even Plato’s Symposium and Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, works one might not expect to make good comic-book material, work here — as do samplings from both Western and Eastern religions — from Rick Geary’s fantastic summary of the Book of Revelation to the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

When Volume One hit book shelves, NPR described The Graphic Canon as “easily the most ambitious and successfully realized literary project in recent memory, and certainly the one that’s most relevant for today’s readers.” The New York Times Sunday Book Review said, “What [editor Russ Kick] asks us to acknowledge with The Graphic Canon is this: Gulliver’s Travels, Wuthering Heights, Leaves of Grass — these works of literature do not reside just on the shelves of academia; they flourish in the eye of our imagination.”

I’m happy to say that goes both ways. Apparently, the Golden Lasso has forced its way into the academy, where professors are telling the truth about the worth of comic book characters.

1 Comment

  1. I love how we’re revisiting the ideas of play and comics as adults. Comic artists have gone without much recognition for years. It’s wonderful how they are being appreciated now.

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