I appreciated Stacy Graber's willingness to produce a blog post. Whenever I need to remind myself to think deeply, I know that I can be inspired by any Stacy has to say. Before reading her current post you might want to check out some of her earlier contributions. They can be easily found by visiting the contributors page.
Art in Literature/Literature in Art:
Notes on 3 Exceptional Works of YA Graphica:
Carroll’s Through the Woods, Kuper’s Kafkaesque, and Small’s Home After Dark.
According to McCloud’s (1993) classic text, Understanding Comics, we better appreciate comics or sequential art when we comprehend the unity between art and text. Meaning, we should not think about the components of graphica in a compartmentalized sense but rather in harmony, as a whole. Similar to Derrida’s argument regarding the cultural privileging of certain forms (e.g., speech prioritized over writing), McCloud (1993) contends that words are privileged over pictures and that such hierarchic thinking sets up a bias toward one part of the binary/pair (p. 140), which has resulted in a general demotion or trivializing of the comic artform.
David Small, Home After Dark (2018)
What Small does through a few panels is akin to the technical feat in the opening sequence of David Lynch’s (1986) Blue Velvet. That is, he zooms in closer and closer to the writhing, decaying, and squalid underside of life in all its sinister brutality. At the same time, paradoxically, Small’s book depicts the astonishing kindness of individuals who love, forgive, and offer sanctuary. These binaries are established through truncated bits of talk and chiaroscuro pen and ink drawings. On one hand, Small renders a world from the most extreme grotesqueries; on the other hand, he [also] holds out the possibility of saintliness and grace. And, between these oppositions, Small’s youthful narrator inhabits a kind of non-place through which he attempts to navigate toward some semblance of security if not wholeness.
Marina Warner argues that fairy tales are best understood through their social and historical context rather than through a psychoanalytic or archetypal lens (University of Sheffield, 2017). This is because fairy tales express something specific about their moment of production. Therefore, if we know something of the temporal conflicts informing the literature, that information provides insight into the storyteller’s perspective (Warner as cited in University of Sheffield, 2017).
In Emily Carroll’s modernized fairy tale collection titled, Through the Woods, we observe many of the evocations familiar to the genre (e.g., elements of the supernatural, antagonistic forces of good and evil, questioning of hierarchic systems, etc.) at work in a universe with a different sensibility, one more critical of the limited agency of women (although the outcome of the tales would not be characterized as sunny). A feminist-inflected yet ambivalent perspective comes through especially in two tales: a retelling of “Bluebeard” titled, “A Lady’s Hands Are Cold,” and “My Friend Janna,” which reads like a cautionary tale set in the context of a con.
In both of these tales, Carroll uses color for narrative and expressionistic effect. Meaning, color (e.g., red, blue, green, orange, white, and black) advances the elements of characterization and plot and offers an emotional vocabulary for expressing facets of experience that could not be conveyed as viscerally by realistic methods. An example of this would be a close-up montage sequence featuring bloody utensils, the reddened lips and teeth of the serial killer husband gnawing a slice of rare meat, and the cherry-ribbon choker worn by the wife—implying her as quarry (Carroll, 2014). Likewise, instances of aporia posed within the narratives defy logic and impart a sense of anxiety over ever resolving existential conflicts. Perhaps Carroll is suggesting that we still contend with gender-based struggle and have not moved much closer toward resolution since the time of the Brothers Grimm.
Could Kafka—the shy bureaucrat who invested years working for the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia in Prague —ever have imagined that his writing would be at the center of a range of international legal and academic battles? I am referring not only to the controversy concerning ownership of the cache of materials produced by the writer as delineated by Balint (2018), but also the debates surrounding the impact of translation on our understanding of Kafka’s content and style (e.g., ranging from the Muir to Hofmann translations (Woods, 2014)).
Interestingly, the comic artist/illustrator Peter Kuper (2018) built this context of conflict into his graphic representation of 14 classic short stories by Kafka by selecting a “stripped down” palette of language to more faithfully transmit the author’s tone, syntax, and commentary on the fragmentary, alienating experience of modern life (Kuper, 2018, pp. 9-10). Kuper makes provocative decisions for visually rendering the stories, which may better convey the themes, motifs, and preoccupations spanning the oeuvre. One of the best examples of this would be the strange, hybridized creature Kuper draws to dramatize action in Kafka’s story titled, “The Burrow.” The mole-man in the drawings has the body of an insectivore and the face a person. Additionally, he watches television on a flat-screen TV, consumes commercially produced food, grocery shops in a supermarket, and demonstrates many attributes indicative of human versus animal life (e.g., paranoia and miserliness). Throughout the narrative, mole-man rhapsodizes on the joys of home ownership and boasts about defense of his property. And, in time, he comes to appear much more like a member of a Board of Directors for an HOA than a fossorial animal, obsessed as he is with protecting against home invasion and keeping up with home improvements. In this way, the story functions, for a contemporary audience, as a residential allegory on the fear of encroachment by “others.”
In closing, there are many, fine graphic works produced for a young adult audience, and we need to engage in public conversations—like this one—to show our students entry points for interpretation and debate.
Balint, B. (2018). Kafka’s last trial: The case of a literary legacy. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
Carroll, E. (2014). Through the woods. New York, NY: Margaret K. McElderry Books.
Kuper, P. (2018). Kafkaesque: Fourteen stories. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
McCloud, S. (1993). Understanding comics. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Small, D. (2018). Home after dark. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
University of Sheffield. (2017). In conversation with Dame Marina Warner: On Fairytales [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKSeHHgzjns
Woods, M. (2014). Kafka translated: How translators have shaped our reading of Kafka. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic.
Biographical Statement: Stacy Graber is an Associate Professor of English at Youngstown State University. Her areas of interest include critical theory, pedagogy, and popular culture.