Illustration brings classic literature to life

The Graphic Canon brings together 130 illustrators covering 189 classics of world literature in a project that aims to open up classic storytelling to a new audience.

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Inspiration strikes in the strangest of places. For the editor Russ Kick it came when he happened across a comic interpretation of a Kafka novel in a bookstore.

"It was a proper Eureka! moment," he laughs. "It dawned on me there and then that I was coming into contact with so many good graphic adaptations of classic literature that it would be great to try to gather them together in one anthology."
The result is The Graphic Canon – a hugely impressive project. One hundred and thirty illustrators have covered 189 classics of world literature over three volumes, the first of which, entitled From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons, just about sums up the staggering breadth of work on display here.

Of course, literature lovers may well be aghast at the sight of the Mesopotamian hero Gilgamesh as a comic figure with knobbly knees and clotted hair battling against a dung spraying Bull of Heaven. But Kick is unconcerned that his illustrators might be trampling over thousands of years of storytelling.

“If people are worried, they should actually read the book, because they’ll see how much these artists love the stories. The great literature is timeless, and I believe we can actually keep it alive and breathing for a new generation.”

A new generation from across the world, too. “I wanted this to be a global undertaking rather than an exclusively American or English thing,” Kick says. “And making sure we covered classics from the Middle East was crucial to that.”

Sure enough, the first volume boasts Rumi's 13th-century poetry, two stories from the Arabian Nights and, as the title promises, The Epic of Gilgamesh.

Below, we speak to the artists behind these new adaptations of our much-loved classics. Their interpretations might not be the traditional way in which these stories are told, but in The Graphic Canon, that's half the fun.

Kevin Dixon: The Epic of Gilgamesh

My father was really keen to create his own rendition of these great stories. He used to draw little figures as part of his bedtime stories so putting them into a coherent graphic series was just a continuation of that.

I deliberately used an overtly comical style because my father was keen to restore some of the humour and double entendres lost in the 19th-century translations. So I definitely didn’t feel like I was being unfaithful to the original text, far from it. The humour has always been there.

If you read a strict translation it’s quite hard because there’s a lot of repetition and lists of what Gilgamesh is up to. So I think doing it in this way is a great introduction to what are some of the greatest tales ever.

I do really hope that a project like this gets westerners at the very least to appreciate the debt that we owe to some of these early civilisations. The message still holds up thousands of years later too; that we must appreciate the small little things in life while you have them. It’s spelt out for Gilgamesh: enjoy the embrace of your wife, your children. Drink and eat, laugh and play – because you never know when you might not be able to.

Vicki Nerino: Arabian Nights

When people ask me what a graphic interpretation of a classic can bring to the party, I say fun. Not to say that the classics aren’t fun. But comics have a way of reaching people who wouldn’t ever lay a hand on a “classic”. Frankly, some books are humungous and intimidating whereas comics are quick to read, and they can be absolutely beautifully illustrated (which is my main draw).

I have to admit that I had no idea that the story I've illustrated from the Arabian Nights, or anything like it, existed. It was great to be asked by Russ, not least because I don't know whether I would have had the gumption to seek it out myself. But now that I do know, it has really piqued my interest, and I would really hope that perhaps others will look into Arabian Nights having read my interpretation in The Graphic Canon.

In a bizarre kind of way I think graphic novels can help stories make more sense. I would hope that classic stories from any part of the world could benefit from this strange new spin, so that kids like us could learn a thing or two.

Michael Green: Rumi

I had been studying with a Sufi teacher for a long time and got to know Coleman Barks, whose translations lifted Rumi out of benevolent obscurity in the West into his status as possibly the most widely read poet in America. I wanted to try to do some artistic interpretations of his work, and for a long time all I could think of doing was Islamic illustrations. But the revelatory moment came when I realised I could probably reach more people if I could combine art from different traditions.

I did feel a greater responsibility than I would if I was drawing something more secular, not least because his great poetry is the perfect intermediary between civilisations and peoples. There's a line where he says: "All these religions, all this singing, is just one song." And I would submit to you that there are half a dozen sound bites on which the planet depends, and that's one of them.
So I hope that my work makes Rumi more accessible to people who might not otherwise open a book of his poems. Is that dumbing down? On one level maybe, because he used complex rhyming poetry that was very structured. But his poetry rushed out of him – there's so much of it. I'm just trying to find the punch lines.?