“Comics can play all kinds of roles: education, art for art's sake, social commentary, pure entertainment, raunchy porn,” Russ Kick explains. As the editor of more than a dozen books and the author of several more, the man’s got a way with words. These days, Kick, the editorial force behind the lauded three-volume Seven Stories Press series, The Graphic Canon, has a keen eye for pictures as well.
Arriving on November 4, the latest volume in The Graphic Canon continues in the same same vein as its predecessors, albeit with a different spin on the theme. The Graphic Canon of Children's Literature is 480 pages of comics and illustrations devoted to a wide swath of beloved children’s classics, from the iconic classics of the western world like Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz, to lesser known stories, like the Russian fairy tale The Firebird, featuring art by Scottish illustrator Lesley Barnes — a selection of which serves as the cover art for the volume.
“We're highly visual beings,” Kick says, “constantly scanning the forest and savannas for saber tooth tigers is our heritage, and kids especially seem instantly drawn to pictures, as opposed to strange squiggles— i.e. letters — whose meanings have to be constantly deciphered.”
The Graphic Canon is a series firmly established in this notion, helping familiarize readers — young and old alike — with great works of literature, adapting a staggering 190 stories over 1,600 pages in three volumes. Released in 2012, the first entry covered some of mankind’s earliest and greatest works, from Gilgamesh and Beowulf to selections from Milton and Shakespeare.
This first volume features previously published pieces from cartooning legends like Will Eisner and Robert Crumb, as well as newly commissioned works from a long list of contributors, including Rick Geary and Molly Crabapple. The Publishers Weekly review called the mammoth undertaking: “The graphic publishing literary event of the year.”
Volume Two followed later the same year, with Dame Darcy reimagining Alice in Wonderland and John Porcellino taking on Thoreau’s Walden, while last year’s Volume Three includes more contemporary works like The Great Gatsby and Slaughterhouse Five. “The original idea for The Graphic Canon was a 400-page volume,” says Kick. “It was meant to be open-ended, though. With the gigantic number of talented artists out there, and so much classic lit to be mined, I realized it could easily become a series. The idea for the first volume ballooned into three volumes, over 500 pages each — all published in a year.”
The series — and the notion of comics as a gateway to more “sophisticated” forms of literature — can trace its roots back nearly a century. In 1941, publisher Albert Lewis Kanter released the first issue of Classic Comics through his newly formed Elliot Publishing Company. The maiden entry in the series, The Three Musketeers, transformed Alexandre Dumas’ swashbuckling tale into a sequential art narrative. Kanter’s series intended to make important — but relatively dense — works accessible by transforming them into a form of storytelling still regarded as pulpy kid’s junk.
Adaptations of Ivanhoe and The Count of Monte Cristo (another Dumas classic) followed, and after a name change to the more familiar Classic Illustrated, the series became arguably as much a childhood icon as the works it adapted, enjoying an impressive 30 year run, before a number of factors, including the advent of Cliffs Notes, led to its demise.
Of course, things have changed considerably for the comic book since then. Nine years after the end of Classics Illustrated’s 169 issue run, the underground anthology Raw began the serialization of a holocaust comic called Maus. Early the following decade, the book’s author, Art Spiegelman, took home a Pulitzer Prize. In subsequent years, comics have come to be regarded as a viable art form and education tool, from universities on down. And, as anyone who’s set foot in a bookstore in the past years can tell you, the medium is a more vibrant platform for expression than ever before.
Kick transformed the concept behind Classics Illustrated into a new series of beloved anthologies. “I loved Classics Illustrated as a kid,” says Kick. My dad had most of them—pretty much all of the first 60 issues, then a smattering of the rest. Looking back, I realize how unsophisticated the interior artwork and the adaptations were. They still have a charm, but now that we've entered this new golden age of comic art, graphic novels, and illustration in general, I wanted to see what could really be done with the basic concept of adapting the classics.”
The author insists that his intent in creating the volumes wasn’t purely educational but “if comics can get kids excited about literature and reading, that's fantastic,” Kick says. “Having said that, I also think comics can be an end in themselves. The Graphic Canon series wasn't designed to be a gateway drug to classic lit (although that's a welcome side effect). It's meant to work as a self-contained experience, and I hope it achieves that. But being a springboard to other things is also a great function.”
Before embarking on the massive undertaking, Kick’s output focused on darker themes, compiling volumes on sex and lies for the countercultural publishing house Disinformation. In 2002, he founded the website The Memory Hole, which culled together government documents on topics like war and civil rights, garnering national attention after publishing images of military coffins draped in American flags.
“For a long time my focus was government transparency, freedom of information, exposés of corruption, etc., but that eventually got too depressing and upsetting,” Kick says. “I had to switch gears, so I went to my life-long love of literature and visual art, including comics, illustration, and design. One day in a bookstore I suddenly had the idea for a huge anthology of literature adapted as comics.”
After the first successful trilogy, Seven Stories Press approached Kick once again, hoping for another lightning strike. “My publisher and I wanted to do another volume, but this time with a tighter focus,” Kick adds. “We kicked around several ideas but kept coming back to children's literature—partially because it's often so dark and strange and has such visual potential, but also because we both believe that the greatest children's literature qualifies as great literature, period.”
With that in mind, it’s unsurprising that much of the work contained in this latest volume circumvents the Disneyification of so much modern kids lit. “Throughout the Graphic Canon series, the idea has always been to stay true to the works of literature,” Kick says. “Visually, the artists have free reign to depict it however they want. But I've always asked them to stay true to the plot, settings, and characters. It felt especially important in this volume, since children's lit is often much grimmer and more complex than it's given credit for being,” he said.
“The Grimm Brothers' Fairy Tales are notorious for being violent and grotesque,” he says, “but it goes way beyond that. Hans Christian Andersen's stories are really dark. In The Little Mermaid, the prince ends up marrying someone else, so the mermaid considers killing him but then commits suicide. I asked Dame Darcy to faithfully depict this in her adaptation, and she was happy to.”
It’s yet another important lesson to be gained from the ever-growing series—in literature, as in life, not everything ends happily ever after. But then, happily ever after isn’t what great stories are all about.