The Role of Gender and Literature in Alison Bechdel’s [Fun Home]

Front cover of Alison's Bechdel's Fun Home (2007 paperback version)

Front cover of Alison’s Bechdel’s Fun Home (2007 paperback version)

Originally published in 2006, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a graphic memoir that led Alison Bechdel to commercial and critical success. Reminiscent of Art Spiegelman’s MausFun Home explores the relationship between Alison and her closeted father, Bruce Bechdel, to shed light on themes such as gender, the coming-out process, and the complicated dynamics of family life. The exploration of these themes are facilitated through discussions of death, life, and literature–triggered by Alison’s efforts to illustrate an accurate portrait of her complicated connection with her father, particularly after he commits suicide.

Alison and her father share many traits: they are both queer (even though the father remains closeted and married to his wife throughout the entire duration of the memoir), they both have a love for reading and for art, and they both wish that they were born the opposite sex. Despite these similarities, they never seem to forge a strong and intense bond due to their reserved personalities and their divergence in terms of gendered affiliations. Whereas Bruce tends to express traits that can typically be approached as feminine, Alison admits that she has been “a connoisseur of masculinity” (95) since she was a child. Thus, even though their share many similarities, their divergence in terms of their gender alignment creates significant tension between the two characters.

Not only does Alison approach herself and her father as “inversions” of each other, but she also makes note of how she struggles to emphasize her masculinity while her father struggles to prevent her from expressing it. She approaches her father’s attempts to feminize her as an almost pathetic effort embody femininity (vicariously) through his daughter, which leads to what Alison calls “a war of cross purposes” that is “doomed to perpetual escalation” (98). Thus, differences of gender are not invoked to uphold the division between men and women, but rather, to illustrate the differences and tensions that exist between Alison and her father.

Figure 1. Page 95.

Figure 1. Page 95. Many of the images in Fun Home stress the dichotomous view of Bruce as a feminine presence and Alison as a masculine presence. In the image above, notice how Bruce engages in an activity that is stereotypically approached  as feminine. The wall unit splits this panel into two sections, thus highlighting Alison’s placement in front of the television showing a Western movie. Keep in mind that this memoir is not necessarily upholding gender binaries–a man with feminine characteristics and a girl with masculine characteristics, in due course, challenges the binary in the first place.

Bruce’s reserved and temperamental nature is attributed to the fact that he’s had to keep his sexuality a secret due to his upbringing in a society where homosexuality is considered a disgrace. It is suggested in the memoir that Bruce’s repressed nature, his wife’s request for a divorce, and the fact that Alison is able to live an open life as a lesbian (whereas he was not) are the events that prompt him to commit suicide by running in front of a truck. This suicide is the event that prompts Alison to explore her father’s life through memoir, while in turn coming to a more enlightened understanding of the influence that she and her father had on each other. This exploration, however, does not take place in a linear or organized fashion. Fun Home is as a pastiche or decoupage of many elements presented in a non-chronological fashion. The comic panels are supplemented by snippets of other literary texts, photographs, letters, and even newspaper clippings. Furthermore, the narrative itself is supplemented with Bechdel’s interpretations of the events that she lived, in addition to theoretical interventions from areas such as gender and psychoanalysis.

I am deeply interested in the role of literature and literary texts in Fun Home, not only because they add more depth and nuance to the memoir, but also because literature (particularly novels) is a crucial element that must be kept in mind when interpreting and understanding the central developments in the graphic memoir. For instance, literature is the catalyst that helps Alison to discover that she’s a lesbian–leading her to describe her lesbianism as “a revelation not of the flesh, but of the mind” (74). At the age of thirteen, she first encounters the word “lesbian” in a dictionary. She later reads a book focused on offering biographies of queer figures, which leads her on an obsessive mission to read and consume as many queer texts as she possibly can, such as E.M. Forster’s Maurice and Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. 

The very act of accessing and reading this literature is depicted as a deeply political and almost revolutionary act, for it entails developing the courage to buy these books in spite of their overtly queer titles, or to borrow them from public libraries, “heedless of the risks” (75). These books inspire her to attend a gay union meeting at her university, and to come out to her parents in a letter. Whereas her father seems quite accepting of her sexuality, claiming that “everyone should experiment” (77), her mother responds with mild disapproval, approaching her lesbianism as “a threat” (77) to her work and her family.

Figure 2.

Literature is associated with almost every single significant event that takes place in the novel. Alison’s first relationship blossoms when she meets a poet named Joan. Every time they are shown in bed together, they are surrounded by novels and other books. The images depict them reading even when being intimate with one another, and they critique and analyze books even when sprawled naked on their beds (see pages 80-81). The importance of books is her life is unsurprising when taking into account that her father was an English teacher at their local high school, and he spent a lot of time recommending and discussing books with Alison.

Even though Bruce engages in sexual acts with other men, and even boys, the memoir highlights novels and literature as the outlet of escapism that Bruce used to express his sexual frustrations, and even his subconscious sexual desires. His favorite books, such as Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Joyce’s Ulysses, touch upon matters and themes that are central to Bruce’s characterization. The Great Gatsby, for instance, highlights the pains of yearning for someone or something we cannot possess, whereas Ulysses depicts how characters can cross each other’s paths without affecting one another in a significant way (reflecting Alison’s complex relationship with her father). Given how closely Bruce’s books are tied to his suppression, his secrecy, and his hidden desires, it is no wonder that his wife gets rid of most of his book collection after he dies.

It is literature that allows Bruce and Alison to achieve a degree of closeness that they’ve never felt before. It turns out that Alison ends up taking English with her father in twelfth grade, and she realizes that she really likes the books that her father wanted her to read, such as J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. She becomes deeply invested in discussing these books with her father within the classroom–and her interest leads her to develop “a sensation of intimacy” (199) that she has never felt before with her father. When Alison leaves to college, she grows even closer to Bruce, calling him every once in a while to discuss the books that she reads for her English class. Their connection reaches a peak when Bruce lends his daughter a copy of Earthly Paradise by Colette (an autobiography with lesbian themes) even though she has not revealed her lesbianism to him. The book sparks a conversation between the two, leading Bruce to open and honestly discuss his sexual orientation with Alison for the first time.

Figure 1. Alison and her father have their first frank discussion regarding his sexuality. Although their relationship is cold and distant, this marks one of the moments in which they begin to grow closer to each other.

Figure 3. Page 221. Alison and her father have their first frank discussion regarding his sexuality. Although their relationship is cold and distant, this marks one of the moments in which they begin to grow closer to each other.

Literature becomes the agent that allows Alison to forge a connection with her father. Although she admits that her intellectual connection and her intimacy with her father is seen as unusual to other people, she still seems to thoroughly enjoy and appreciate it. Alison does, however, lament that they “were close. But not close enough” (225). However, despite the fact that they were not as close or as intimate as she wanted them to be, she cherishes the fact that “he was there to catch [her] when [she] leapt” (232).

I can’t even begin to describe how much I enjoyed this memoir. It is complex, rich, funny, heartbreaking, and deeply insightful. I’m sure that this book is going to contribute significantly to my academic work, and I can’t wait to re-read this memoir in the near future.

You can purchase a copy of Bechdel’s memoir by clicking here.

Work Cited

Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. Print (Paperback edition).

An Analysis of Pastiche in Art Spiegelman’s [Maus I: My Father Bleeds History]

Art Spiegelman’s Maus revolutionized the perception of comics not only in academia, but also in popular culture. Not only is it the first graphic novel to ever win a Pulitzer prize, but its presence has been ubiquitous in academia–appealing to scholars interested in areas such as the image-text relationship, animal studies, postmodernism, history, memoir, Holocaust studies, and race, among others. Maus possesses two intertwining narratives.The core narrative focuses on depicting the experiences of Vladek Spiegelman, a Polish Holocaust survivor, as he struggles to survive the horrors triggered by the rise of Hitler and the German Nazi Party. The other narrative focuses on the speaker’s attempts to interview his father to get the information needed to craft the core narrative–making Maus a work that attempts to recover history through a depiction of the actual recovery process. This secondary narrative frames the discussion of Vladek’s tale of survival while simultaneously giving the reader a glimpse into the relationship between a son and his father.

The following set of panels are depicted on page 90 of The Complete Maus. These panels highlight how events from the past and the present are combined within the same pages--which sometimes makes it difficult to keep track of the narrative strand that is taking place. At times, Vladek's retelling of his story is interrupted by his son, who often demands his father to tell a more coherent and chronological tale.

Figure 1. The following set of panels are depicted on page 90 of The Complete Maus. These panels highlight how events from the past and the present combine within the same pages–which sometimes makes it difficult to keep track of the narrative strand that is taking place. At times, Vladek’s retelling of his story is interrupted by his son, who often demands his father to tell a more coherent and chronological tale.

The interesting aspect about these intertwining narratives is that many times they clash or interrupt each other. Vladek often tells his story in a very fragmented fashion. Sometimes he will interrupt a story to talk of another event, other times he adds details that he forgot to recall, and he often leaves gaps in his stories–much to the chagrin of his son, who is trying to create a comic book using his father’s story. The speaker, sometimes rudely, interrupts his father to ask questions, and to ask him to cover events that he skipped or that he didn’t explain with enough nuance. Thus, what manifests in Maus is a tension between the father’s efforts to recall past events and the speaker’s efforts to distill his father’s story into the comics medium. This tension is reminiscent of Fredric Jameson’s views on the postmodern historical novel, which he discusses in his book, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. 

Given that postmodernity questions the ability to identify absolute truths, and given the awareness that the past is impossible to accurately represent, Jameson argues that the postmodern historical novel can only possibly represent one’s interpretations, notions, and preconceptions of the past (25). Postmodern historicism manifests in Maus in two ways: the father’s memories are often presented in a fragmented non-linear fashion that Art desperately tries to organize and make sense of–often leading him to reprimand his father for not presenting events in chronological order. Secondly, the graphic novel itself is a reflection of Art’s interpretations of his father’s story–which pushes readers to not only question the flawless authenticity of Vladek’s story, but also Art’s depiction of these events. The combination of different modes of temporality and narrative ultimately create what Jameson would call a pastiche, which is the amalgamation of many styles and discourses without specific norms or guidelines (17), which leads to the creation of an “ahistorical” product.

Despite this sense of ahistoricism and the overall distrust that exists towards exact history and truth, Spiegelman does an effective job of trying to persuade the reader into confiding in him by highlighting his unwillingness to censor his father’s story. This is seen in the instance in which Vladek is talking about his relationship with Lucia, the woman he dated before meeting Art’s mother. Even though Vladek makes Art promise not to include Lucia’s story within his work, Art not only includes the story, but also a depiction of the moment in which he promises not to share the story with others:

From page 25 of The Complete Maus. Here we see an instance in which Art depicts certain aspects of his father's tale, even when his father explicitly tells him not to include these details within his graphic works.

Figure 2. From page 25 of The Complete Maus. Here we see an instance in which Art depicts certain aspects of his father’s tale, even when his father explicitly tells him not to include these details within his graphic works.

When analyzing pastiche in Spiegelman’s work, it is important to closely look at the art techniques and the style that Spiegelman’s employs in the comics panels. I mentioned above that the past and the present blur within the panels due to Spiegelman’s amalgamation of the novel’s two narratives within the same pages and sections. One panel, for instance, could depict Vladek’s attempt to hide from the German forces, and the next panel suddenly jumps to the present, depicting an ill Vladek feeling chest pains as he strives to tell his tale (see pages 119-120 for this example). According to Jameson, since postmodernism is characterized by our loss of connection to history, what we know as the past is nothing but a style (or as he refers to it, a simulacrum) or a code that is commodified into our collective consciousness. Now, this is simply a fancy way of saying that we make used of clichéd and stereotypical signs in order to indicate that we are invoking history or a sense of a past (Jameson 19-20).

When watching a film or viewing an image, the past is invoked by signs like color (i.e. black and white imagery to convey a sense of antiquity, as seen in films such as Schindler’s List), certain styles of clothing, and even certain accents (people from older cultures, for instance, rarely ever speak in American accents in contemporary films). Something I noticed, however, is that Maus at times rejects using these codes and signs, thus making it a challenge to invoke a concrete sense of pastness. This blurring manifests not only through the combination of panels representing both of the novel’s narrative strands, but also through the application of the same artistic style for past and present events.

The fact that the entire graphic novel is colored in black and white, and the the images that invoke the present and the past are stylized in the same fasion,  it becomes even more challenging to distinguish between Vladek’s story and his son’s attempts to create a record of this story. Notice that Spiegelman could’ve stylized the past using different drawing techniques–as he did with the well-known comic book within the comic book–but he chose not to do so. If you take another look at figure 1, notice how the event taking place in the present and the event taking place in the past are colored and stylized in the same fashion. This blurring can either indicate Spiegelman’s attempt to highlight the relevance of his father’s events in today’s culture, or it can even be approached as a rhetorical device used to help readers connect the emotions embedded in both narrative strands. Could this be approached as an attempt to escape from the conventions of pastiche that are usually used in postmodern historicism?

The fact that Spiegelman represents characters as animals can also be interpreted as a symptom of pastiche. In order to grasp the complexities of the relationships that exist between Jews, non-Jewish Poles, and Germans, Spiegelman represents these socio-cultural demographics as animals–Jews are represented as mice, Germans are represented as cats, and non-Jewish Poles are represented as pigs. All of these animals are associated with strong signs and connotations, which Spiegelman appropriates to bracket a better historical understanding of the tensions that exist between these demographics. After all, the relationship between mice and cats is very well-known–and other well-known texts, such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm, use animals as an allegory for highly charged political themes. The use of animals emphasizes, in this particular case, Jameson’s views of pastiche, which he also approaches as a parody or appropriation of particular aesthetic forms due to the inability to create new forms with new meaning. Due to our inability to relive Vladek’s experiences, Spiegelman must make use of pastiche in order to allow us to grasp the pathos and logos of his historical account.

While I do buy Jameson’s views on the process of pastiche, I am slightly hesitant to embrace his negative and bleak views of the consequences of this process. Jameson would argue that pastiche creates what he calls a “pop history,” which approaches as an empty or blank stereotype of a time that can no longer be accessed or understood. If this is the case, do we necessarily want to imply that Spegelman’s Maus is nothing but a product of pop history? Sure, I think today, it is clearly understood that it is impossible to reach absolute truth or that it is impossible to truly understand the past–which explains our current cynicism towards historical depictions and distillations. However, should this prevent us from attempting to access or recreate history through art? This view is too unproductive and stagnant–not to mention frustrating. Is Maus simply a manifestation of pop history? A better question would be: is Maus nothing but a pastiche?

As always, feel free to discuss these ideas below!

You can purchase a copy of Spiegelman’s work here.

Works Cited

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. Print.

Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus. New York: Pantheon Books, 1996. Print.

Beyond “Words, Words, Words”: Soliloquies, the Graphic Novel, and the Great Shakespearean Divide

The following post is an excerpt from an article I am working on originally written for my class on Shakespeare: Editing and Performance, offered by Peter Holland at the University of Notre Dame (Spring 2012). This paper was presented at the 2013 Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference in Washington, D.C., on March 20th, 2013.

FAIR USE NOTICE: This blog post contains some copyrighted material  (samples from the comics adaptations used in this study) whose use has not been authorized by the copyright owners. I believe that this not-profit, educational use on the Web constitutes a fair use of the copyrighted material (as defined in section 107 of the US Copyright Law). No infringement is intended.

Beyond “Words, Words, Words”:

Soliloquies, the Graphic Novel, and the Great Shakespearean Divide

The fourth soliloquy in Hamlet, commonly referred to as the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, is considered to be the crown jewel of the play. It is not only the portion of Hamlet that is most referenced to in scholarship and popular culture, but it has become intricately tied with the concept of the soliloquy itself. When watching a performance of the play, it is the moment that we most anticipate as spectators, and its delivery has the capacity to either enhance or damage the overall perceptions, attitudes, and affinities of the play as a whole. This is precisely because this soliloquy not only encapsulates the core issues and rhetorical appeals of the plot, but also because it outwardly presents the most intense and direct codification of who prince Hamlet is, and more importantly, who he is not.

But this codification is more complex than it initially presents itself as being. Hamlet’s struggle is simply not a matter of choosing what to be or what not to be, but rather, it is also his struggle to define himself within an external world with demands of its own. Furthermore, the complexity of codifying this soliloquy is enhanced when taking into account its inherent disorganization and enigma, and the fact that readers and viewers tend to overestimate their familiarity with the speech. As Douglas Bruster argues in his treatment of this pinnacle soliloquy:

While Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy remains one of the central speeches of all of Western culture, it is also one of the most mysterious. There are reasons for this mystery. […] the speech as a whole is quite messy. And its beginning (the most orderly part of the soliloquy) seems so familiar that we think we know the entire speech better than we do. No matter how many times we hear it begun, though, it is easy for us to get lost in the middle and end. […] the speech turns on itself time and again, sometimes like the back-and-forth rallies in a tennis match, at others like the coils of a snake moving sideways through the grass.

This disorder and ambiguity increases the difficulty of determining the intentions of Hamlet’s monologue and its overall climactic role within the structure of the play. Moreover, it becomes tricky to determine whether the target of Hamlet’s words is either himself or an external force in the form of King Claudius: is Hamlet contemplating suicide in the fourth soliloquy, or is he debating between action and inaction towards his uncle? Once again, we find ourselves in a situation in which language fails to sustain an exact interpretation of Hamlet’s words, and thus, we rely on performative interpretation to point us toward a specific direction.

What is clear, however, is that the soliloquy is designed to challenge and shatter dichotomous views present within Hamlet’s perspectives, making clear that life does not consist of clear-cut choices, and that all decisions ultimately bear consequences. Keeping the literary, contextual, cultural, and structural importance of the fourth soliloquy in mind, it would be easy to assume that graphic novel adaptations of Hamlet would place significant aesthetic and creative effort into its depiction and interpretation. Given the correlation between rehearsal and the process of creating comics, it can also be assumed that a great degree of experimentation would be embodied in the manifestation of this soliloquy in comics format. In other words, seeing that the fourth soliloquy is arguably the epitome of English soliloquies, and seeing that a decoder has high expectations of this speech, the adapter and illustrator would do their best to exploit the possibilities of comics to concretize the struggles, paradoxes, and inevitable outcomes depicted in the playtext. Alas, as seen in the following panel, this is not always the case:

1

“To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Magic Wagon.” Illustrated by Ben Dunn. Rebecca Dunn, Hamlet – Graphic Shakespeare (Edina: Magic Wagon, 2009). 20. Print.

This panel is taken from Rebecca Dunn’s adaptation of Hamlet, an adaptation that is overall very short, abridged, and focused on plot-driven performative realism. But more than anything, the adaptation is very clearly a text designed to chew Shakespeare’s original text, partially digest it, and regurgitate the remains onto page.

Dunn’s adaptation is extremely plot-driven and focused primarily on giving the decoder a simple and straight summary of the tragedy. As can be seen on the panel, the entire fourth soliloquy has been condensed to a sequence of four external speech bubbles, and no effort is put into the concretization of the imagery imbued within the language. We simply encounter a depiction of Hamlet, with a stern façade and his hand on his chest, uttering a short series of words before the sudden arrival of Ophelia. There is little to no attempt to convey any of the aforementioned qualities and rhetorical appeals of this soliloquy, and there is nothing that demands close attention or scrutiny. The juxtaposition of word and image creates no resounding effects within the reader, and there is little difference between approaching this particular adaptation and approaching a summary of the playtext—except that a summary of the playtext arguably would not stifle the imagination as much as this adaptation does. Perhaps the intention of this adaptation was to try to make Hamlet more accessible to younger readers, but as evidenced by the depiction of this soliloquy, I assume that even young readers would find the text excruciatingly boring.

When the conventions of comics are invoked and employed effectively, and when the graphic novel makes effective use of the source playtext by focusing on performativity rather than the reduction of the plot, the results are exciting and fresh. In my opinion, the best adaptations are those that approach Shakespeare’s soliloquies not only as tributes, but as independent works of art with a distinctive style that instills particular emotions and decodings. Let us now turn our attention to how Sexton, Pantoja, and Babra approached the quintessence of Hamlet’s soliloquies in their adaptations, beginning with an excerpt from Sexton and Pantoja’s interpretation of the soliloquy:

“To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Manga Edition.” Adam Sexton and Tintin Pantoja, Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The Manga Edition (Hoboken: Wiley, 2008). 77-78. Print.

“To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Manga Edition.” Adam Sexton and Tintin Pantoja, Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The Manga Edition (Hoboken: Wiley, 2008). 77-78. Print.

Within Sexton and Pantoja’s interpretation, the absence of speech bubbles establishes the interiority of the speech. The overwhelming presence of black and shades of gray in this soliloquy can be interpreted in many ways; in a sense, the theme of this soliloquy is darker and more concerned with the topic of death and suicide when compared to the other soliloquies in Hamlet. Perhaps this use of color is also an illustration of how Hamlet himself is slowly descending into the darkness of his own folly and inaction. The interiority of this interpretation is emphasized with the fact that Hamlet does not look into the decoder’s eyes, and in the first panels presented in the excerpt, he has his back facing the decoder. This gives the sense of the decoder as an intruder who is overhearing the prince’s thoughts. Furthermore, it depicts a sense of aloofness, solitude, darkness, and impartiality, thus reinforcing the image of the character distancing himself away from his world, and from our interpretive purview.

The first panels of this soliloquy depict a shadowy Hamlet scrutinizing a dagger while thinking about the act of directly dealing with the troubles that haunt him. The act of taking arms against “a sea of troubles” is materialized with his holding of the dagger in front of his face, as if he were placing himself in a battle stance, ready to duel. Yet, as his thoughts pivot to thoughts of suicide, we see a clear and shadowless depiction of the character as he changes the direction of the dagger’s blade and points it to his neck. We then cut to another panel in which we are exposed to the handle of the dagger moving in a thrusting motion accompanied by a splatter of blood, reinforcing the interpretation of the soliloquy as a gesture towards suicide. Note that Sexton and Pantoja depict this soliloquy with a graphic and violent hue, highlighting physical images of death rather than metaphorical or subtle ones.

“To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Manga Edition.” Adam Sexton and Tintin Pantoja, Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The Manga Edition (Hoboken: Wiley, 2008). 77-78. Print.

“To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Manga Edition.” Adam Sexton and Tintin Pantoja, Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The Manga Edition (Hoboken: Wiley, 2008). 77-78. Print.

The graphic violence escalates as we shift our view to the next panel, in which we see Hamlet desperately clutching his own neck as blood flows through his fingers. The visible fear in Hamlet’s eyes and expression is complemented with his thoughts about the uncertainty of what comes after death. Note that the page depicts Hamlet being caught between a heavenly figure with wings, and a deathly figure below, thus highlighting Hamlet’s position between two oppositional forces salvation and eternal punishment; action and inaction. Notice that Sexton and Pantoja also made the choice to illustrate Hamlet as half-naked, which is an interesting aesthetic choice that further highlights a dualistic struggle: half of his body is covered with man-made clothing while the other half depicts a natural and nude man. With this in mind, the panel reinforces another binary perspective between the realm of man and the enigmatic realm of the afterlife; not only is Hamlet unaware of what comes after death, but he is also unsure of the effects that his death will induce in the mortal realm. All in all, we get an image of a man who is not only confused and conflicted, but a man unable to define himself in a world defined by choices, paradoxes, and binaries.

I will proceed to close my discussion on the fourth soliloquy by analyzing Neil Babra’s take on Hamlet’s crown jewel. But first and foremost, credit must be given to where credit is due. Before engaging in this project, I studied countless graphic novel adaptations of Shakespearean works, including excruciatingly tedious full-text adaptations of Romeo and Juliet[1], a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream[2] clearly geared towards children, and even an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet[3] that took place in the future in which the Montagues are depicted as robotically enhanced cyborgs and the Capulets are depicted as genetically modified humans. Nonetheless, of all the adaptations that I read before settling on the study of soliloquies in Hamlet, I must acknowledge that Babra’s work was the most effective not only in terms of transmuting the essence of Shakespeare into a comics format, but also in terms of presenting itself as a standalone work of art. Let us take a look at how Babra interprets the soliloquy:

To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Sparknotes.” Neil Babra, Hamlet - No Fear Shakespeare (New York: Spark Publishing, 2008). 81-82. Print.

To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Sparknotes.” Neil Babra, Hamlet – No Fear Shakespeare (New York: Spark Publishing, 2008). 81-82. Print.

Babra’s illustration deeply emphasizes the interpretation of the soliloquy as Hamlet’s negotiation between living and committing suicide as a way of ending his troubles. It also stresses the many paradoxes and dual manifestations peppered throughout the speech. Seeing that this soliloquy is a deep struggle for Hamlet to find conciliation between his interior desires and external social/spiritual demand, we see the separation of Hamlet into two: the passive Hamlet and the inactive Hamlet, the Hamlet that suffers in life and the one that rests in death. The soliloquy therefore begins as a debate or a negotiation between the multiple and binary sides of the character in order to find a space in which he can make sense of his convoluted emotions and thoughts.

Babra depicts the monologue as one that begins with a physically external delivery and progresses into a subconscious and mental dialogue. While reflecting on the opening lines of the soliloquy: “To be… Or not to be,” Hamlet stares into a pool of water in which he sees his reflection as a skeletal corpse donning his clothing, thus illustrating the tension between living or ceasing to exist. As he proceeds to think about the tortures of enduring the pains and tribulations of life, he envisions Claudius as a grand and Cthulu-esque agent whipping him with tentacles as arrows pierce the flesh on Hamlet’s back, depicting life as difficult to endure and physically painful. When pivoting to the thought of suicide, emphasis is placed on a panel in which Hamlet is removing a sword from its sheath. We then observe the split of Hamlet into two bodies, where the active Hamlet proceeds to stab the inactive Hamlet in the chest with the sword. In an eerie move, a close-up of the inactive Hamlet’s stabbing shows the fusion between the living Hamlet and the skeletal figure, and in death, he flashes a wide grin, as if the end of life has granted him the release that he desperately craves for. The struggle and rigidity between living and dying is made blatantly obvious in the imagery, and it reinforces the binary tension that refuses to situate Hamlet.

To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Sparknotes.” Neil Babra, Hamlet - No Fear Shakespeare (New York: Spark Publishing, 2008). 81-82. Print.

To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Sparknotes.” Neil Babra, Hamlet – No Fear Shakespeare (New York: Spark Publishing, 2008). 81-82. Print.

Taking advantage of the possibilities of the comics medium, an elongated panel is used to give the impression of Hamlet falling into a pit, with his head in a cloud as to illustrate the notion of sleeping or dreaming. In another unnerving move, we then observe how Hamlet’s flesh begins to unravel and disengage from his body like the peel of an orange as the text displays his questioning of the dreams that come after death. The physical skin continues to peel away as Hamlet reflects on the enigma of existence after death, and how fear of the unknown prevents him from taking action in terms of self-slaughter. The inner essence of Hamlet is revealed in its entirety with the removal of his skin, and we observe him floating in the sky as a pair of celestial hands manipulate this unraveling of the flesh. On one hand, this may indicate the exposure of the soul and its judgment in an afterlife. On the other hand, the act of having one’s skin peeled away is an extremely painful and physically violent act, thus alluding to the pain that his indecision is provoking, and the possibility of punishment after committing the sin of suicide.

After depicting the troubles of humiliation, pain, embarrassment, and other follies in the physical world—which are so intense that they induce the image of Hamlet’s heart breaking—the page concludes with a panel illustrating his resignation towards self-slaughter: instead of taking arms against the sea of troubles, he puts his sword back into its sheath. Babra’s interpretation of the soliloquy not only depicts the tortuous consequences of choice and of being caught between a dichotomous split, but it also emphasizes how death manipulates the prince’s mental processes. This is important because death is a central theme of the tragedy as a whole. The play begins with the apparition of a dead king, it climaxes with a mental debate about living or dying, and, spoiler alert: it ends with the death of all the central characters. Dichotomies are ever-present in this soliloquy: the struggle between action and inaction, sleeping and awaking, living and dying, suffering and relief. There is no easy way of dealing with these binaries precisely because they are not able to encapsulate the intermediary position that Hamlet is positioned in, which in due course causes the peeling and unraveling illustrated in Babra’s interpretation. Ultimately, Babra’s adaptation was a magnificent effort to concretize this struggle and eventual externalization, and to demonstrate the tidal forces of this sea of troubles.

In this presentation, I offered examples of the rhetorical, analytical, and evaluative possibilities that close-decodings of Shakespearean graphic novels can offer. Bear in mind that my interpretations and decodings of the soliloquies in comics adaptations of Hamlet are in no way definite or conclusive, seeing that there are many other interpretive directions that one could take in terms of the images, their juxtaposition with traditional text, and usage of the conventions of comics to convey imagery and ideas. Nonetheless, I hope that my interventions of these works stress the overall aesthetic and semantic richness present within comics adaptations of Shakespearean works, and how notions of the soliloquy are translated, transformed, and permanently altered in this medium. No longer is the soliloquy abstract and subject to the partialities of language: the character’s mind, through the comics medium, literally becomes illustrated in ways that transcend the realm of the realistic and the physical. When it comes to soliloquies in comics, the wall between the character’s mind and the decoder is not shattered, but it is ultimately non-existent within the medium when and if the conventions of comics are employed effectively. Therefore, with the lack of a wall to block a full view of the character’s mind, the question that remains is how far are we able to take these elucidations of Shakespeare, to new interpretive heights. How will we envision the dreams that are to come with the inclusion of comics into the interpretive norm? That is the question, and I hope that I have provided some answers.


[1] McDonald, John, et.al. Romeo and Juliet – The Graphic Novel: Original Text. Litchborough: Classical Comics, 2009. Print.

[2] Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Saddleback’s Illustrated Classics. China: Saddleback, 2006. Print.

[3] Work, Max, Stan Lee, et. al. Romeo and Juliet: The War. Dallas: Viper Comics, 2011. Print.

WORKS CITED AND CONSULTED

Babra, Neil. Hamlet – No Fear Shakespeare. New York: Spark Publishing, 2008. Print.

Babra, Neil. “On Writing and Line Editing.” NEILCOMICS– Hamlet. March 2008. Web. 21 Apr. 2012.

Bruster, Douglas. To Be or Not to Be. New York: Continuum, 2007. Web.

Dunn, Rebecca. Hamlet – Graphic Shakespeare. Illustrated by Ben Dunn. Edina: Magic Wagon, 2009. Print.

Eisner, Will. Comics & Sequential Art. Tamarac: Poorhouse Press, 2001. Print.

Erne, Lukas. Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.

Grant, Steven and Tom Mandrake. Classic Illustrated #5: Hamlet. Hong Kong: Papercutz, 2009. Print.

Knight, G. Wilson. “Hamlet Reconsidered.” The Wheel of Fire: Interpretation of Shakespeare’s Tragedy. 4th ed. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1964. 298-325. Print.

Maher, Mary Z. Modern Hamlets and Their Soliloquies. Expanded ed. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2003. Print.

Melchiori, Giorgio. Shakespeare’s Dramatic Meditations: An Experiment in Criticism. London: Clarendon Press, 1976. Print.

Mott, Lewis F. “The Position of the Soliloquy ‘to be or not to be’ in Hamlet.PLMA 19.2 (1904): 26-32. JSTOR. 16 Apr. 2012. Web.

Newell, Alex. “Images of the Mind.” The Soliloquies in Hamlet: The Structural Design. Cranbury: Associated University Press, 1991. Print.

Sexton, Adam and Tintin Pantoja. Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The Manga Edition. Hoboken: Wiley Publishing, 2008. Print.

Oscar Wilde and the Graphic Novel: [The Picture of Dorian Gray]

The following post is an excerpt from my seminar paper written for my class on Wilde and Synge: Art as Subversion, offered by Dr. Declan Kiberd at the University of Notre Dame (fall 2012). In this paper, I evaluate the artistic merit of literary comics adaptations using Wilde’s views on aesthetics. I then perform a series of close “readings” in order to assess how comics adaptations of The Picture of Dorian Gray take advantage of the conventions of the comics medium in order to offer a standalone artistic expression. This excerpt displays my analysis of Basil Hallward’s death as depicted in the comics adaptations I selected.

FAIR USE NOTICE: This blog post contains some copyrighted material  (samples from the comics adaptations used in this study) whose use has not been authorized by the copyright owners. I believe that this not-profit, educational use on the Web constitutes a fair use of the copyrighted material (as defined in section 107 of the US Copyright Law). No infringement is intended.

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ACTION versus PASSIVITY: The Death of Basil Hallward

Basil’s death is a key moment in Dorian Gray, not only because it is the novel’s climactic point of no return, but also because it is the moment that Dorian truly obfuscates any light he had remaining in his soul. Part of what makes this instance so memorable in Wilde’s novel is that he certainly had no reservations in illustrating the graphic and violent nature of Hallward’s death. Everything from the sounds of Basil choking on blood, to the repeated stabbing motions delivered by Dorian, are emphasized by Wilde in his uncensored version of Dorian Gray:

He rushed at him, and dug the knife into the great vein that is behind the ear, crushing the man’s head down on the table, and stabbing again and again. There was a stifled groan, and the horrible sound of someone choking with blood. The outstretched arms shot up convulsively three times, waving grotesque stiff-fingered hands in the air. He stabbed him once more, but the man didn’t move. (Wilde 223-224)

Perhaps the overt violence in this passage can be approached as gratuitous, but on the other hand, it emphasizes the rage and the loss of sanity that Dorian was undergoing at the moment. Surprisingly, despite how descriptive Wilde was in this passage, adapters of the novel tend to diverge in terms of how Basil’s death take place, and the adaptations differ drastically in terms of the grotesqueness and detail that characterizes the murder. I will first focus my attention on John Coulthart’s adaptation of the text, in which he combines quotes from the source text with pen and ink drawings of the actions taking place.

Coulthart’s depiction of Basil’s death (see Figure 1 below) is nowhere near as explicit or overt as Wilde’s text is. Rather than depicting Basil’s death or focusing on the depiction of Basil’s lifeless body, the comic shows an image of Basil looming towards the painting, raising his candle in the air as he stares in horror at the disfigured painting. Interestingly, in Coulthart’s collages of Dorian Gray, the decay of the painting is not shown until the very end—an interesting choice when considering that the degeneration of the picture is one of the most vivid and concrete images that Wilde portrays in his novel. Coulthart develops a sense of anticipation and avoids showing the monstrosity of the painting until the final reveal at the end of his collage sequence. Coulthart’s interpretation of Basil’s death illustrates Dorian’s arm and hand approaching the shocked victim with a knife in hand, suggesting the murder rather than directly illustrating it. Note that the image alludes the idiomatic expression of ‘stabbing someone in the back,’ strengthening the element of betrayal present within the narrative.

Coulthart’s images are known for depicting Modernist, decadent, and intertextual elements. Close attention to the squared background of the image reveals that it is divided equally into back and white colors. However, the parameters within these boundaries of space are not respected; not only does Basil’s candle provide illumination into the darkened area of the background, but the white side of the background melds into the darkness with the prominent splatter of blood (which foreshadows Basil’s death). This can be interpreted as a sign of transgression, in which certain limits and socio-cultural parameters are not respected—thus forcing the decoder to rethink the image of innocence that Dorian initially projects. This use of imagery can also be interpreted in a moralistic sense, for we see that although Basil is trying to provide some illumination to the darkness present within the scene, it is darkness that ultimately prevails.

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Figure 1. “The Death of Basil Hallward—The Graphic Canon Edition.” Designed by John Coulthart. “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” The Graphic Canon (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012). 481. Print.

The intertextuality at play in this image is quite stark as well. In the upper corner of the image, emphasis is put on the curtain that is draping over the painting. When thinking of curtains within the context of a stabbing, it is nearly impossible to avoid invoking the image of Prince Hamlet stabbing Polonius as a consequence of invading a private space[1]. The connotations of this invasion of privacy and its murderous consequences are eerily similar to those that take place in the murder of Basil. The other objects depicted in the painting, such as the candle stand and the book holder, also emphasize the lavishness and decadence present within Dorian’s lifestyle. Note that within the context of the original novel, these objects seem out of place because the painting is supposed to be located within Dorian’s childhood room. Their baroque nature and depiction of nudity certainly creates a clash with the simplicity and the purity that is typically expected within a child’s room.

Coulthart’s suggestive and subtle interpretation differs immensely from the artistic direction that Roy Thomas and Sebastian Fiumara take in the Marvel Illustrated adaptation (see Figure 2 below). Thomas and Fiumara certainly invoke the graphic and brutal nature of Basil’s death in Wilde’s novel, and unlike Coulthart’s version of the death, these adapters want their decoders to be disturbed and shocked by Dorian’s violent and transgressive act. Mirroring the description offered in the source text, one can observe a knife being pugnaciously jammed into the vein behind Basil’s ear. Blood gushes out of the puncture would in a hyperbolic fashion—accompanied by the onomatopoeic word “SHUNK,” which verbally simulates the sound the knife makes as it punctures Basil’s flesh. The image also places emphasis on the fact that Basil is choking on his own blood, as evidenced by the streams of scarlet spewing from his mouth, and the disturbing sound effect that accompanies this ghastly discharge.

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Figure 2. “The Death of Basil Hallward—Marvel Illustrated Edition.” Adapted by Roy Thomas and illustrated by Sebastian Fiumara. The Picture of Dorian Gray (New York: Marvel Publishing, 2008). No page number available. Print.

The image is not only meant to shock, but it also demands pause and careful observation. It is not a coincidence that this image is not placed alongside other comic panels, but rather, the artists use an entire page of the comic to depict Basil’s death. The use of color is particularly effective in this panel. Unlike the bulk of this comic adaptation, which makes use of vivid colors and tones in most of the panels, this image is depicted with an opaque crimson hue, further adding to the aggressive and ferocious nature of the act taking place. Basil’s expression also denotes an element of shock and surprise—his mouth is wide open and his pupils are positioned upwards as if he were mirroring the reader’s reaction towards Dorian’s slightly unexpected transgression. His eyes are quite reminiscent of a martyr’s countenance during the moment of sacrifice—looking upward as if they were surrendering themselves to God. This interpretation definitely fits within the context of Wilde’s work. Recall that Basil implores Dorian to give up his evil ways, and to embrace piousness as a form of salvation. As Basil beseeches in Wilde’s uncensored version of the novel:

“Pray, Dorian, pray,” he murmured. “What is it that one was taught to say in one’s boyhood? ‘Lead us not into temptation. Forgive us our sins. Wash away our iniquities.’ Let us say that together. The prayer of your pride has been answered. The prayer of your repentance will be answered also. I worshipped you too much. I am punished for it. You worshipped yourself too much. We are both punished.” (223)

This plea greatly mirrors the narrative of most martyrs, for after they implore a non-believer to be reverent and to turn their faith into a higher power, they are then sacrificed under the hand of the non-believer. Although this sense of martyrdom can be implied by the Wildean text, Thomas and Fiumara make this notion overt with their visual depiction of Basil’s countenance. Dorian’s act was violent, but in this case, the artists focus on Basil’s self-sacrificial attempt to save the remnants of Dorian’s soul—an attempt that failed miserably.

Alex Burrows and Lisa K. Weber take a subtler approach to Basil’s murder (see Figure 3 below). As mentioned previously, their adaptation is part of the Graphic Classics series, which similar to the Classics Illustrated series, is aimed at a younger audience. With this in mind, the violence and aggression in this adaptation has to be more subtle than that which is seen in the Marvel Illustrated edition, yet it has to be less abstract and open to interpretation than it is the case of Coulthart’s collages. In the images depicting Basil’s murder, none of the panels represent the actual insertion of the knife into the victim’s body. Rather, the decoder is offered a silhouette image of Dorian mounted over Basil’s lifeless body with a bloody knife in hand, preparing to stab the body once again. The inversion of black and white in this particular panel forces the decoder to pay close and sustained attention to the action occurring in this image. The panel that follows in this sequence depicts Dorian in a raged and infuriated stance, covered in blood. The final panel in this particular sequence depicts Dorian hunched over Basil’s body, vis-à-vis the cursed painting—which now portrays Dorian gray in a decrepit and grotesque fashion reminiscent of the crypt keeper[2].

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Figure 3. “The Death of Basil Hallward—Graphic Classics Edition.” Adapted by Alex Burrows and illustrated by Lisa K. Weber. Graphic Classics: Oscar Wilde (Wisconsin: Eureka Productions, 2009). 31. Print.

The greatest difference between Burrows and Weber’s interpretation of Wilde’s text, and the other adaptations discussed previously, is their choice of subject for the murder of Basil. Whereas Coulthart and Thomas/Fiumara approach the victim as the subject of the murder, Burrows and Weber place more emphasis on Dorian Gray and the heinous deed that he committed. This difference in subject has resounding interpretive effects—Burrows and Weber’s interpretation pushes the decoder to attribute agency to Dorian, thus enforcing an understanding of the climax based on an actual change within his persona. This adaptation approaches this point as a moment of transformation, for although he was partially responsible for other deaths in the narrative, this is the first death that he is directly responsible for. This notion of change is capitalized when Dorian himself is forced to come face to face with the decay of the painting. On the other hand, the other adaptations offer a sympathetic interpretation that focuses on Basil as a victim—thus reinforcing a reading centered on the grotesque nature of the act itself rather than its transformational effects on Dorian Gray. It all comes down to the issue of passivity versus activity: Does one focus on the fact that Dorian murdered Basil, or does one focus on the fact that Basil was murdered by Dorian? Despite the superficial similarity between these approaches, they do manage to highlight different concerns and issues that affect the interpretive possibilities of the novel.


[1] I would like to thank my friend and colleague, Leanne MacDonald, for pointing out this possible allusion to Shakespeare’s Hamlet as we were scrutinizing the imagery used in my selection of comics.

[2] See HBO’s television series titled Tales from the Crypt.

Works Cited

Burrows, Alex. “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Illustrated by Lisa K. Weber. Graphic Classics: Oscar Wilde. Wisconsin: Eureka Productions, 2009. Print.

Coulthart, John. “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” The Graphic Canon. Ed. Russ Kick. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012. Print.

Thomas, Roy. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Illustrated by Sebastian Fiumara. New York: Marvel Publishing, 2008. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition. Ed. Nicholas Frankel. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011. Print.

FAIR USE NOTICE: This blog post contains some copyrighted material  (samples from the comics adaptations used in this study) whose use has not been authorized by the copyright owners. I believe that this not-profit, educational use on the Web constitutes a fair use of the copyrighted material (as defined in section 107 of the US Copyright Law). No infringement is intended.

Conference Proposal on Shakespeare and Comics… ACCEPTED!

Great news! My proposal submission for the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association (PCAACA) National 2013 Conference was approved today! This year the conference will  take place at the Wardman Park Marriott in Washington D.C. from March 27th-30th. My paper, titled Beyond “Words, Words, Words”: Soliloquies, the Graphic Novel, and the Great Shakespearean Divide, will be part of the “Adaptation” subject area of the conference, which deals with how adapters and adaptations are concerned with the cultural aspects of particular works as they are translated from one medium into another.

Here is the abstract that I submitted with my proposal. The paper is actually written in its entirety, and I am currently working with Dr. Peter Holland at the University of Notre Dame to explore possible venues for publication:

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The study of Shakespearean works is traditionally grounded on practices and approaches that are conceptually binary, resting on dual and at times contradictory modes of operation and interpretation: playtext and performance, linguistic and non-verbal, intentional or accidental. However, what occurs when these dichotomies fail to sustain the weight of Shakespearean works? In order to address this question, there is a particular binary that I want to focus on: source texts and adaptations. Certainly, these two “divergent” categories are invoked when graphic novel adaptations of Shakespearean works come into play. These creations bridge the chasm between performance and text by implementing the visuals and performative aspects made present in film and play performances, and combining them with the narrative pacing and the interpretive freedom provided via a static text.

The graphic novel curtails a sense of hybridity between reading and viewing, further pushing the explanatory limits that encircle Shakespeare’s dramatic works. This expansion manifests through the combination of images and words in ways that are impossible to achieve by approaching a performance or the playtext independently from one another. With this in mind, I approach a selection of soliloquies depicted in graphic novel adaptations of Hamlet using a method that I call close-decoding, which involves a meticulous look at how image and text are juxtaposed to offer an interpretation of a Shakespearean work, and how conventions unique to the comics medium serve to invoke performative aspects of the play in a static format.

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Within my paper, I explore many comics adaptations of Hamlet, including the downright awesome adaptation created by Neil Babra, and even some Manga adaptations.

Sample page from Neil Babra’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”

Anyway, I am absolutely thrilled that my proposal was accepted. Washington D.C., here I come!