When the Present Makes Contact with the Past:

Comic Adaptations and Translations of Medieval and Early Modern Sources

In past papers at the Plymouth State University Medieval & Renaissance Forum, I have advocated for the use of comics in the classroom in spite of the fact that this is a relatively modern and contemporary genre as opposed to the field of literature which many members of the audience teach to their students. Comics provide a different way to engage readers and help many students to ease into the material in a lower-risk format allowing them to either make new connections to the original source material or reinforce previously discussed themes and ideas. I concluded my presentation from last year with the call for increased work in the field of adapting these medieval and Early Modern sources into comics form to better aid in their use throughout high school and post-secondary classrooms, and only months later, The Graphic Canon was published[1]. I’d like to consider this article to be a continuation of the same discussion.

In 2012, Seven Studios published the first of a multi-volume series, The Graphic Canon—an anthology with selections of traditional works in comics form that touts a range of world literature from “The epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons.” With the continued growth of interest in the comics medium, this paper will focus on providing a review of this collected work within the context of a discussion on adaptation and translation in order to address one of the questions posed by the conference organizers: “What is exchanged, lost, or left behind in moments of contact” between the original, text-driven source and the contemporary, text-and-image hybrid. In responding to the question of what is gained and lost through these moments of literary contact, I want to begin my discussion with looking at some of what gets lost in this attempt at canon-building before examining some of the benefits gained from a relatively new medium coming into contact with a set of far older sources.

Russ Kick’s first volume of The Graphic Canon—there are two additional volumes that focus on Western literature from the 19th Century to the present day—attempts to embrace a wide range of World literature from the Classics up to Colonial America. Weighing in at just over 500 pages (including the indices), it is clear the work prioritizes breadth over depth in relation to the works selected. And yet, how broad ranging can a text be if only 500 pages are allocated to cover thousands of years? Further, it is important to point out that while this text attempts to expose readers to a broad range of regions from which it draws its sources, scholars and teachers will be quick to notice the significant Western bias. Of the 56 total works included, 40 hail from traditionally Western sources such as the Judeo-Christian bible to Chaucer and Shakespeare and ending with works from American colonies. Kristian Williams points out in a review on The Comics Journal that Kick’s attempt at inclusivity “may even prove self-defeating” given the significant Western bias present in the regions represented and those either marginalized or left out altogether. The difficulties with inclusivity do not end with regional disparities. Considering there are two additional volumes in the works, it is more than a little surprising that the first volume is responsible for covering classical antiquities up to the 18th Century. In spite of these problems, there are few works today that have attempted such an ambitious project of bringing together such a wide variety of different sources from different regions and periods using the comics medium; as such, I believe it is worth taking a closer look at the works included in this hefty volume. Teachers looking to use comics in their classrooms will find a variety of graphic adaptations from the original sources, and depending on the needs of the classroom, this work could prove to be a valuable resource for any number of course reading lists.

So what can one expect from the excerpts included in this comics anthology? Given that the writing and artistic responsibilities shift from source to source, the aesthetic approach and faithfulness to the source material varies. Moreover, teachers should not expect complete translations of original sources; instead, the selected extracts generally provide abridged adaptations of the source material. Individuals expecting complete renderings of the source will then be disappointed; however, that these stories are not exact translations should not disqualify them from consideration nor devalue them. There is an important difference between an “adaptation” and “translation” when considering reading selections for our classrooms that are in comic form. The OED defines “adaptation” as “an altered or amended version of a text, musical composition, etc., (now esp.) one adapted for filming, broadcasting, or production on the stage from a novel or similar literary source.” Other definitions that follow generally refer to changes in the form of a subject so that it is better suited to a new environment or situation. Since comics make use of visual imagery as a means of conveying ideas, the result is that much of the exposition from a source is condensed into the visual form. Depending on how this is accomplished, it can prove either simplistic or highly effective.

So how exactly does a translation differ from an adaptation given the definition above? If the OED views “translation” as the “expression or rendering of something in another medium or form” or the “transference of meaning” from one language to another (OED), is there much of a difference? Perhaps not on the surface; yet, there seems to be an interest in maintaining a strong sense of fidelity to the original source within the newly transcribed text. An adaptation, however, seems to allow for greater creative license on the part of the adaptor to amend elements of the original source in order to better suit the new medium. Herein lies, what I believe, to be the key difference between these two concepts. In relation to comics, this will be an important point to consider given the abridged nature of the medium when a comic is based off of a more traditional, language-based text. Form becomes an equal player in a comic adaptation whereas content trumps form in a conventional language-centric translation. An adaptation seeks to capitalize on the new form in which the content takes shape. Its success or failure is determined in large part to how well the new medium is used to communicate and contribute to a new and more nuanced appreciation of the content. A translation’s success, however, may be generally determined based upon the strict fidelity to the original.

In the case of Seymour Chwast’s adaptations of The Canterbury Tales and The Divine Comedy, this graphic adaptation results in a significant reduction of the source material. In his relation of the Wife of Bath’s prologue and tale, he does manage to cover the general plot points, but the overly simple style does little enhance the reader’s appreciation of what is one of the best-known selections of the entire work. Where Chaucer’s original source is 1,265 lines with two-thirds of the selection dedicated to the prologue, we see in Chwast’s adaptation that far more time is allocated to the tale. Given that the tale itself is arguably secondary to the prologue and there is no rationale provided, it does raise questions as to why this decision was made.

Additionally, Chwast shows a tendency in both of his contributions to incorporate contemporary elements to his art without any explanation as to their meaning, nor do they appear factor into the narrative in any meaningful way. Certainly, an adaptation can still be successful regardless of whether it has or has not incorporated changes that deviate from the original work. But these deviations should attempt to take advantage of the visual nature of the comics medium to communicate either original themes and ideas or even new ones while still maintaining the overall spirit of the original work. Although Chwast is arguably faithful to the general content, both of his works fail to utilize the comics form to enhance the reader’s experience. Instead, he opts to deliver more of a visual plot summary in both “The Wife of Bath,” and his rendering of The Divine Comedy. However, there is an additional entry from a different artist that covers an excerpt from The Inferno, which does provide a more engaging graphic adaptation whose art exhibits a more detailed and thoughtful use of style to convey the tone and atmosphere of the setting in which Dante travels.

In spite of my criticism of Chwast, however, there is value to his contributions when thinking about including his work in a classroom setting. Teachers may find Chwast’s less than dynamic and detailed approach useful when comparing it to the original source. Students could compile a list of personality traits and physical features of the characters Chaucer provides his readers in the prologue and tale from the “Wife of Bath” that Chwast either minimalizes or leaves out altogether. In doing so, students would be forced to conduct close analyses of Alison and her cast of characters. This could facilitate a better understanding of the three-dimensional nature of Chaucer’s characters through having them fill in the missing gaps that Chwast’s work creates. Through comparing and contrasting this abridged visual summary to the original source, students would find themselves engaged in a close reading that better ground their understanding of the persons involved in the prologue and tale.

But fear not! There is also some really good stuff ahead. The strongest example of a graphic adaptation of a medieval/Early Modern work from this collection can be seen in Robert Berry and Josh Levita’s rendering of William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18.” One could almost argue this entry in The Graphic Canon could be a translation as it includes the entirety of the poem while providing a visual representation that runs parallel to the poem, although it provides a very unique reading from standard interpretations of the poem’s narrator and subject. The heavy inks and lack of color lends to the bittersweet emotions of the narrator whose world is certainly less colorful. The only shade readers do see is not the standard red of erotic passion—the emotion often associated with the narrator of this poem—but instead, a soft and warm yellow—akin to the sunlight and a far better choice given that we are to read the subject as the speaker’s mother—and not lover. The vignettes Berry and Johnson construct depict both the happy memories of the speaker and his mother from the past, as well as the sorrowful present, following her funeral, where each panel poignantly complimenting each line of the poem. Few readers would have thought to view this most-famous poem of Shakespeare’s from this particular lens, and yet, the interpretation holds remarkably well.

Another excellent example of a comic that adapts the original source into comics is Michael Stanyer and Eric Johnson’s steam-punk adaptation of Sir Edmund Spenser’s epic poem, “The Faerie Queen.” The selection appearing in The Graphic Canon vol. 1 comes from Book 3, Canto 8, which centers on the devil’s visit to the witch’s workshop where the false Florimell is under construction. Like many of the selection in this collection, a more complete version is available—though in this case, it is online. As the creators mention on their website:

We’ve done a “steam punk” take on this Renaissance classic: Spenser’s Faerie Land is re-imagined with Knights in steam powered mechanical armor, sporting swords and lances against one another, but reaching for their fire arms when faced with monsters. Meanwhile, we preserve Spenser’s use of sprites and spirits. Our Faerie Land is a mix of magic and fantastic machinery.

While there is little of the steam-punk elements contained in this brief passage—aside from the modernized clothing and subtlety revealed mechanical “octopus” arms that the witch employs—the more complete version does exemplify the sort of creative and unique twist to the original poem in this adaptation as this contemporary genre comes into contact with its Early Modern inspiration. Moreover, Stanyer and Johnson blend not only this Victorian-infused fiction genre with a Renaissance source, but the form their work blends an eye-catching mix of painting and photography to form the comic aesthetic. The witch’s construction of False Florimell with the use of various insects creates an otherworldly and chilling depiction of what is otherwise, a rather short episode in the grand scheme of the third book of the epic poem. In this regard, one can view the comic convention known as “decompression” to provide an opportunity to slow down the pace of the original source to unpack the events that transpired between the witch and Satan, who conspired together to create the troublesome and false doppleganger of the beautiful and virtuous Florimell. In Stanyer and Johnson’s adaptation, we gain some understanding of the intimate history between the devil and the witch—something less of interest to Spenser. While not an element explicitly included in Spenser’s account of this episode, it does lend to a different and nuanced re-imagining of this creation story. More importantly, it shows once again the strength of comic adaptations in their ability to bring new visions into contact with older sources and produce what could be a greater appreciation for the stories being told.

Considering comics and graphic novels often carry a somewhat more expensive price tag than many more conventional texts, this single source is an excellent place to begin familiarizing one’s self with the many possible options comics provide teachers and students without the financial burden of having to buy each of the many individual books from which a number of these selections are drawn from. And I’ve tried in this short period to provide a balanced review of both the weaknesses and strengths of Russ Kicks’ The Graphic Canon, and some of the reasons why this volume (and the later ones for those of you teaching other, later periods of literature) is worth considering.

Just recently, I had the opportunity to talk to one of the contributors to the third volume of The Graphic Canon, Chandra Free, and she mentioned the challenge of adapting T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.”[2] While her contributions centered on a later work, the methods were the same for contributors to all volumes specifically commissioned for the anthology. There were parts of the primary source that clearly needed to be either condensed or cut out altogether given her constraints of retelling the poem in only 8 pages. And as we spoke, it came to my mind how similar comic adaptations like these are to the critical theories we more regularly apply to our various works of literature. Both allow readers to discover new facets to familiar works or possibly even entirely different texts from previous readings. We take our present notions and understandings of the culture and world in which we live, and then we attempt to make sense out of the literature from the past—the result often producing a new reading and appreciation of the works of old. While we may not agree with the creative choices of the comic artist or enjoy their particular aesthetic approach in certain selections, this does not mean we cannot appreciate the discussions their contemporary, critical, visual perspectives can engender amongst ourselves and within our classrooms.

Works Cited

“adaptation, n.”. OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press. 22 February 2013 <http://www.oed.com.navigator-iup.passhe.edu/view/Entry/2115?redirectedFrom=Adaptation>

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Wife of Bath.” The Canterbury Tales. Adapted by Seymour Chwast. The Graphic Canon. Vol.1. Edited by Russ Kick. New York: Seven Studios, 2012. Print.

Kick, Russ. The Graphic Canon. Vol. 1. New York: Seven Studios, 2012. Print.

Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 18.” Adapted by Robert Berry and Josh Levitas. The Graphic Canon. Vol.1. Edited by Russ Kick. New York: Seven Studios, 2012. Print.

Stanyer, Michael, and Eric Johnson. The Counterfet. Alchemist Studios. 1 April 2013. Web. <http://counterfet.com/about/>.

“translation, n.”. OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press. 22 February 2013 <http://www.oed.com.navigator-iup.passhe.edu/view/Entry/204844?redirectedFrom=Translation>.

Williams, Kristian. “Review of The Graphic Canon vol. 1.” 8 January 2013. The Comics Journal. 1 April 2013. Web. <http://www.tcj.com/reviews/the-graphic-canon-volume-i/>.

[1] An expanded copy of this paper was recently published in the Spring 2013 volume of the peer-reviewed journal, The Once and Future Classroom.

[2] If you check my Twitter feed (@fhelvie) from around April 17th for this discussion.

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Forrest C. Helvie lives in Connecticut with his wife and two sons where he is chair and professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. In addition to academic publications, he writes a variety of comic short stories, including his own children’s comic series, Whiz Bang & Amelia the Adventure Bear. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@forrest_helvie) discussing all things comics related.

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Also by Forrest Helvie:

How to Analyze & Review Comics: A Handbook on Comics Criticism

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