Skip to content

The Classics and the Comics

November 29, 2006

The Chicago Tribune ran a story today about putting “a modern edge on some required-reading type classics.” Authored by Aileen Jacobson, the article – titled “Graphic Novel Illustrators Tackle the Classics” – focused on illustrator Jae Lee and his work for Viking Studio, a Penguin books subsidiary.

Hired about two years ago, Lee has already illustrated Bram Stoker’s Dracula (predictable). But another artist, Dame Darcy, has done Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (not so predictable).

Lee’s comments about working on Dracula reveal some of the potential strengths of this kind of work and his audience. Here’s an excerpt from Jacobson’s story:

– “[Lee] found Dracula arresting partly because ‘you can’t see what a character is thinking. You can only get that with the written word,’ he says. ‘These days, when you see a horror movie, there’s more gore and shock value. To me that’s not scary. What’s scary is things you really can’t do anything about. . . . With Dracula, you’re just completely helpless in the beginning. You don’t know what you’re facing.’ So he made pictures — dozens of black and white drawings and four glossy color panels — that drive people to read the words, he says. ‘I just created atmosphere, a mood. I tried to show things that would be disturbing or make you uneasy, like a figure behind the window in shadows. If you could see it, it’s not so frightening.'”

I love illustrations of the classics, either in the text or in the form of cover art. For instance, I have found that artwork related to both Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy helped bring the authors’ works to life for me. The cover art on Patrick O’Brian’s American paperbacks captures the spirit of his Aubrey/Maturin historical novels. In all these instances, art fed my literary imagination.

It’s analogous to having a professor bring to life the wonders of Elizabethan England while reading Shakespeare, or having a classics expert point out the battlefield particulars of ancient Greece in order to understand Homer’s Illiad.

Illustration has a more serious history as well. Think of liturgical art, and the famous churches of Europe. Catholicism embraced artwork to feed the imaginations of its illiterate parishioners. In sum, illustration works. Liturgical art’s power is such that a number of Protestant churches banned iconography during the Reformation as a pernicious influence.

On another note, perhaps Jacobson’s piece on comics and the classics helps us understand why the work of many historians is not universally celebrated? If historians appreciated more the aesthetics of history – be it the beauty of artifacts or paintings – maybe more non-historians would appreciate the value of history? Maybe more artists today should be enlisted in efforts to make historical events alive to the populace? Think of Gilbert Stuart’s work, and how it causes one to reflect on George Washington’s personality and character traits.

I applaud the work of Jae Lee, Dame Darcy, Penguin, and Viking Studio. Anything that makes the ancient and modern classics – the great books – relevant to today’s populace deserves our support. – TL


From → Uncategorized

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: