In what looks to be the graphic publishing literary event of the year, Seven Stories Press will publish the first volume of the Graphic Canon: Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons in May, the first of a three-volume anthology of graphic interpretations of the world’s literary classics created by 130 comics artists and illustrators. The next two volumes, Volume 2: Kubla Khan to the Brontë Sisters to the Picture of Dorian Gray and Volume 3: From Heart of Darkness to Hemingway to Infinite Jest, will be published in July and October of 2012, respectively.

Edited by Russ Kick, editor of several bestselling anthologies including You Are Being Lied To, for the Disinformation Company, The Graphic Canon is an ambitious effort to create imaginative comics adaptations of classic literary works from the beginning of civilization to today. The massive books are in full color, and the artists (some with multiple contributions) interpret the prose works of 150 writers and poets, and 189 works of literature. The artists include relative newcomers alongside veterans like R. Crumb, Gareth Hinds, Will Eisner, Peter Kuper, Molly Crabapple, Rick Geary, and Roberta Gregory. Each volume will sell for $34.95, and all three volumes will be available in a boxed-set collector’s edition (that’s 1,344 pages if you’re counting) for $100. “It comes with its own shelf,” joked Seven Stories publisher Dan Simon. He said digital strategy for the books are still being discussed. While Simon is the publisher, he’s quick to point to Kick, who came up with the idea for the work and managed to get Simon to publish it. Kick, who lives in Nashville, Tenn., told PW he got the idea for the series while standing in the graphic novel section of a bookstore in Tucson, Ariz., in 2008. “I saw a graphic adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial and it all came together,” he said in a phone interview. “I started thinking about the giant comprehensive literary anthologies done by W.W. Norton.” Kick offered the idea—at this point it was supposed to be one volume and only 400 pages—to the Disinformation Company. “They liked it, but were worried about the cost,” he said.

Kick sent an e-mail to Simon, who “totally got it.” And, yes, Simon said, the project was supposed to be one volume, but it “just kept growing.” Indeed, Simon said he’s paid about $60,000 in artists’ fees (two-thirds of the works are newly commissioned) and reprint permissions fees, although many works are in the public domain.

Kick originally thought 400 pages would be enough, “but I just kept getting more material,” plus “many of the artists wanted to do Eastern literature.” The result was an expansion of the content beyond the Western literary canon to include works from world culture like The Tale of Genji from Japan, written a thousand years ago and considered the world’s first novel, and Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, the founding document of Taoism. Other works in the first volume include James Boswell’s London Journal by R. Crumb and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, adapted by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey.

Each of the adaptations features a short introduction by Kick that “gives the work’s background and cultural impact as well as talks about the artist.” While comics dominate the contributions, many of the works are more eccentric graphic interpretations rather than comics per se. Kick capped contributions at 14–16 pages, but otherwise “I let them run with it. I wasn’t interested in a literal interpretation of the text into pictures—I didn’t want Classics Illustrated comics. I want to see the artists’ stamp on it.”

Kick said the books are aimed at “comics and graphic novel fans and people who love literature, although I know there’s some resistance to turning literary works into comics.” While he would like to see the book in schools, the classics are often filled with fairly raunchy sex and the adaptations in the Graphic Canon are “untamed and uncensored. It’s not toned down for school libraries.” Kick said he’s “wary of looking at comics as a teaching tool—as remedial reading. The goal is for it to be an end in itself, a beautiful artistic literary work.”

Simon; Kick; Stewart Cauley, the book’s designer; and Seven Stories editor Veronica Liu visited the ABA’s Winter Institute to promote the series to booksellers. “A lot of booksellers said they wanted to use the Graphic Canon to catch up on works they hadn’t read,” Kick said. “We tried to hit all the great books so it is a good way to familiarize yourself with the literary canon.”