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Fidelity and Period Aesthetics in Comics Adaptation

By Matthew Bolton

The most basic formal feature of comics is the simultaneous presentation of verbal and iconographic language: words and pictures. This will be a common observation to anyone who is familiar with comics scholarship, and in particular with this journal, whose name comes from W. J. T. Mitchell’s term for “composite, synthetic works…that combine image and text” (89). Indeed, much comics scholarship takes this formal feature as the particular object of its study, examining and unpacking the cognitive, aesthetic, and thematic effects that arise from the friction between word and image, and it is this friction that I take as my subject. However, rather than focusing on comics’ dual-track narration as an end in itself, I want to suggest that this feature makes comics a uniquely productive (if underappreciated) site for the study of adaptation. The force of comics’ blend of image and word is especially felt in regards to one of the most troublesome concepts in adaptation theory: fidelity. In addition, I argue that the particular case studies I discuss below—Jason’s The Left Bank Gang1 and Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli’s City of Glass—each exploit the intersections between original and adaptation, word and image in order both to demonstrate a respectful loyalty to their source materials and to recast these source materials according to the cultural dominants of postmodernism. By having it both ways in this manner, these artists demonstrate the inability of the fidelity model to account for comic adaptations’ hybrid form.

In Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate, Kamilla Elliott argues that the history of adaptation studies has been shaped largely by the dispute between the categorical and analogical approaches. The categorical approach emphasizes the unbreakable link (some would say the identity) between form and content, placing visual and verbal arts into emphatically distinct categories and calling on artists to recognize the limitations of their media and to strive to work within these boundaries. This critical paradigm conceives of fidelity as an impossible dream, kept always just out of reach by the limitations of each medium’s formal affordances. Opposed to this view, the analogical approach focuses instead on the cross-pollination between the visual and the verbal, regularly adopting the critical terms of one aesthetic form to discuss another.2 This camp argues that an adapter can realize the facts of a source text as metaphors, gesturing obliquely at the original as a way of remaining faithful to it.

Elliott positions herself within this debate with reference to film adaptations of novels, but comics are particularly situated to nuance the focus on fidelity and on the relation between word and image. The fact that all comics texts combine both halves of the word/image divide into a single text troubles the categorical paradigm’s strict separation between the two; indeed, the very existence of the speech balloon—an iconographic union of word and image which David Carrier claims is one of the two innovations fundamental to the comics aesthetic (along with the narrative sequencing of images)—seems to deflate the categorical effort to keep these realms separate.3 In addition, the existence of two distinct narrative tracks in comics creates a larger issue for the notion of fidelity, as each line of communication can have varying degrees of fidelity to the source text. As we shall see, this hybrid narration provides an opportunity for comics artists to be faithful to the source material they adapt, while at the same time bringing their own innovations to their adaptation.

Turning first to Jason’s Left Bank Gang, we must begin by addressing how this revisionist history can be said to be faithful in any way to its historical sources, which include biographical materials, photographs, and anecdotes about the modernist writers of the Parisian Left Bank.4 After all, the work is transparently fictional, featuring an elaborate heist (complete with double- and triple-crossings) attempted by Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce, who are depicted as anthropomorphic cartoon dogs, a motif which appears throughout Jason’s work.5 As such, this seems like the last text one would bring to a discussion about fidelity. After all, even if an unbelievably credulous and ill-informed reader takes as historical fact that Joyce, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Sartre were all killed in a bungled robbery in 1920s Paris, this misreader will at least guess that these historical figures were not talking dogs. Surely, one thinks, this would’ve been covered in a lit class somewhere along the way.

Nevertheless, putting this cosmetic difference aside, Jason quickly demonstrates to readers with a passing familiarity with literary history that he has done his homework, filling the first half of The Left Bank Gang with familiar depictions of the 1920s modernist circle. We see Scott and Zelda drink endlessly and squabble even more, followed inevitably by Scott’s complaining to Hemingway. Scott also alludes to having his portrait shot by Man Ray, grouses impatiently about the French, and summarily dismisses Stein’s comics work as “shit” (22). (In Jason’s text, all of the writers, in addition to being dogs, produce comics instead of prose. For the record, Joyce finds her work “unreadable,” while Pound “kind of like[s]” it [ibid.].) Hemingway, on the other hand, spends his days seated at the feet of a sage Stein, chatting with Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Company, diligently working on his own comics, and spending time with wife Hadley and son Bumby.

In addition to recreating the general atmosphere of the Left Bank relationships, Jason also integrates specific anecdotes into his narrative. Two examples involving Hemingway will suffice to demonstrate the larger trend. First, Jason depicts Fitzgerald and Hemingway in a bar, with Fitzgerald confiding to Hemingway his fears of sexual inadequacy stemming from Zelda’s constant deprecations, especially about the size of his penis. Hemingway gamely offers to give Fitzgerald a second opinion, and the two adjourn to the restroom to view the evidence. After Hemingway tells him that “[i]t’s completely normal” and “just fine the way it is,” they go to a museum to further set Fitzgerald’s mind at ease by taking an inventory of the male nudes on display (16). Though the scene seems too parodic to be true, the entire sequence is taken directly from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, from the chapter drolly titled “A Matter of Measurements.” Hemingway’s version further specifies Michaud’s and the Louvre as the locations and supplies some comforting advice on the foreshortening effects of Fitzgerald’s bird’s-eye perspective on the penis in question, but the spirit of the anecdote is essentially the same in both accounts.6

In a similar example, Jason later depicts Hemingway at a park feeding pigeons with Bumby. Hemingway lures a bird close enough to eat from his hand, then quickly breaks its neck. Scooping it up, he conceals it in his pocket before suggesting to his son that they “go home and have supper” (21). The scene ends when Bumby and Ernest’s stroll home is interrupted by a woman calling for help and a purse snatcher fleeing. Aside from this last detail, which Jason supplies to illustrate the origin of Hemingway’s heist plot, this scene is taken directly from Hemingway’s own remembrances from a letter to fellow author A. E. Hotchner:

On days when the dinner pot was absolutely devoid of content, I would put Bumby, then about a year old, into the baby carriage and wheel him over here to the Jardin. There was always a gendarme on duty, but I knew that around four o’clock he would go to a bar across from the park to have a glass of wine. That’s when I would appear with Mr. Bumby—and a pocketful of corn for the pigeons. I would sit on a bench, in my guise of buggy-pushing pigeon-lover, casing the flock for clarity of eye and plumpness. The Luxembourg was well known for the classiness of its pigeons. Once my selection was made, it was a simple matter to entice my victim with the corn, snatch him, wring his neck, and flip his carcass under Mr. Bumby’s blanket. We got a little tired of pigeon that winter, but they filled many a void (quoted in Hotchner 45).

Here again, we see Jason foregrounding his faithfulness to his source material by integrating a significant piece of Left Bank and Hemingway mythos into his text.7 By choosing anecdotes like this and the previous one, Jason builds a trust with the implied audience that recognizes his allusions to the biographies of these historical figures—trust that provides a foundation for the fantastic leaps that follow.

Before we turn to Jason’s alternate history, however, it is worth mentioning one other way that Jason establishes The Left Bank Gang‘s fidelity, one more reliant on the comic’s visual track. In addition to the representation of the Left Bank relationships and specific anecdotes, Jason also inserts the modernists’ texts into his own work. By this I mean not simply alluding to them, though Jason does that as well; in addition to the discussion of Stein’s work mentioned above, Hemingway discusses having his comic “A Very Short Story” rejected by Vanity Fair, and the gang discusses the merits of Jason’s fellow Norwegian Knut Hamsun’s The Growth of the Soil.8 On top of these allusions, however, Jason reproduces visually a handful of modernist texts in ways that are recognizable to an audience familiar with these authors. First, Jason twice shows detailed panels of Hemingway working on his comics. The first (Fig. 1) occurs just after a title-card-style panel establishing the setting as “Paris, the Latin Quarter, sometime in the 1920s” (3). A sequence of three panels shifts the readers rapidly across fictional levels from a close-up of the setting of Hemingway’s comic, then to the panel Hemingway is working on—his hand in the foreground retroactively establishing that the first panel is indeed a text within the text—and finally to a reverse angle that shows Hemingway working at his desk.9

Figure 1: All images (c) 2010 Jason, used with permission from Fantagraphics Books

Readers familiar with Hemingway’s body of work will recognize the subject matter as iconic to the author: the image of a man (or rather, a dog) fishing. Gregory Smith suggests that this is a sketch for the fishing scenes in The Sun Also Rises, which is listed as Jason’s favorite novel in his succinct biographical note. To me, the lone figure and the coniferous trees suggest rather the depiction of Nick Adams and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in “Big Two-Hearted River,” but ultimately the specific identity of the scene is less important than the shock of recognition that Jason’s audience experiences at seeing a familiar Hemingway trope deployed unexpectedly in (meta-) comics form. The same effect is achieved later when Jason offers a visual rhyme to the second panel of Figure 1 (see Fig. 2), this time with the fishing scene replaced by a dialogue-heavy draft featuring a man, a woman, and an approaching train. (Hemingway is deep in thought in this scene, presumably trying to figure out how to draw hills that do, in fact, look like white elephants.) In both of these examples, the familiarity of these scenes helps Jason establish a textual world that, despite the cartoon animals, strongly resembles the career of the historical Hemingway.

Figure 2: All images (c) 2010 Jason, used with permission from Fantagraphics Books

Jason doesn’t limit this technique to Hemingway’s work alone, however. We see one other comic-within-a-comic: a Fitzgerald work, but too indistinct to recognize. Jason does, however, replicate another kind of modernist text: the portraits of Man Ray. In a supremely ironic scene, Hemingway listens attentively while Gertrude Stein holds forth the proper techniques for a young comics artist (see Fig. 3). In particular, she insists that Hemingway should “avoid narrative captions. Never ever write ‘a little later.’ It’s unnecessary. The reader can figure it out” (11). Naturally, the last panel of the page is topped with a caption that wryly violates Stein’s proscription. Readers familiar with Stein’s career, however, will also recall the famous photograph of her and Alice Toklas taken by Man Ray in 1923 (see Fig. 4). While Jason’s clear line style simplifies the clutter of the portrait and focuses exclusively on Stein, it is nevertheless clear that the scene depicting Stein prohibiting Hemingway from copying photographs is itself a copy of the Man Ray portrait.

Figure 3: All images (c) 2010 Jason, used with permission from Fantagraphics Books
Figure 4

The irony here is only appreciated by the reader that recognizes the portrait, of course, but this is part of Jason’s strategy for establishing his text as one faithful to the Left Bank moment. The depictions of Hemingway’s prose and the portrait of Stein have the effect of inviting the audience to identify the source texts themselves, rather than having them named explicitly by the characters (as with the Hamsun example above). This identification implicates the audience in the faithful recreation of the Left Bank world; in spite of the fact that we are at least one remove from historical reality, our efforts to enter the implied audience make us complicit in generating a storyworld faithful to that reality. It’s a clever trick on Jason’s part, and that much more clever in that it works even for those audience members who fall just below the threshold of historical and literary knowledge to recognize his visual references. For whether we identify Hemingway’s comic in Figure 1 as a draft of The Sun Also Rises or “Big Two-Hearted River,” we are right to the extent that Jason has conscribed us into recognizing his version of the Left Bank as one that we ourselves conceive as faithful to the historical record. These images work both to involve readers who know little more than that Hemingway occasionally wrote about fishing, while at the same time rewarding those ideal readers for whom these images recall specific texts.10

So after all of Jason’s work demonstrating that his graphic novel can be faithful to its source material—in the broad sense of faithfulness to these historical figures, as well as on a microlevel in the reproduction of specific texts—why then does he pull the rug out from under the reader in the second half and introduce an entirely fictional heist plot, replete with the clichés of intrigue, violence, and betrayal requisite to the genre? Beginning with Hemingway’s suggestion that the group of impoverished cartoonists should stage a robbery to support themselves, the rest of the comic depicts their crime and its aftermath from each characters’ point of view—a multiperspectivalism made explicit with the return of title-card panels, this time featuring the names of the characters. The plan is for Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Pound to pull off the robbery while Joyce distracts the police by pretending to be lost and, ironically, blind. The four will then rendezvous at Hemingway’s flat, splitting their ill-gotten gains. The caper naturally goes wrong, however, as these things always do, after Fitzgerald tells his wife about the plan. Zelda—who has been having an affair with Sartre—shares this information with her lover, who then infiltrates the gang by knocking out Fitzgerald and taking his place.11 After the crime is pulled off, Sartre shoots Hemingway and escapes back to Zelda. She is no more faithful to him than to her husband, however, and in another twist, she shoots Sartre, switches the bag of money for one filled with newspaper clippings, and sets the apartment ablaze, off to meet up with her other paramour, Ezra Pound. And she would have gotten away with it, too, if not for Sartre, whose last act is to shoot his treacherous lover. Joyce then shows up and is also shot, but he manages to grab the bag and escape. Unfortunately, he grabs Zelda’s decoy bag, as Pound and Hemingway discover after Joyce returns to die in the threshold of Hemingway’s apartment. In the end, only Hemingway, Pound, and Fitzgerald survive, though none of them know the whole story, and no one benefits from the crime, the money having been consumed in Zelda’s arson, along with her body and Sartre’s.

This radical shift obviously undermines all of the work Jason has put into creating a text that is faithful to modernist literary history, but to what end? Why turn his deft recreation of 1920s Parisian literary culture into the comics equivalent of a gangster film?12 I argue that this is Jason’s way of updating his source material, but not, as is a more common practice, by transposing it into the present moment. Instead, Jason revises his sources by maintaining the 1920s setting and updating instead the period aesthetics of the text, generating a hybrid text with a high modernist subject matter, but a decidedly postmodern style.

Fredric Jameson observes that “one fundamental feature of all postmodernisms [. . . is] the effacement in them of the older (essentially high-modernist) frontier between high culture and so-called mass or commercial culture, and the emergence of new kinds of texts infused with the forms, categories, and contents of that very culture industry so passionately denounced by all the ideologues of the modern” (2). This tearing down of the wall between high and low culture shows up throughout the postmodern canon in a variety of ways, and this blending between high and low could be seen as an instruction manual for creating a text like The Left Bank Gang. This is especially true if we take Jameson literally; Jason takes not only modernist sensibilities, but also the “ideologues of the modern” themselves, and plunges them into the clichéd plot of a genre fiction staple. In addition, Jameson also claims that postmodernism is characterized by a loss of historical consciousness, a rupture in historicity. This absent sense of history, Jameson argues, produces two distinct branches of postmodern historiography: the fantastic historiography (novels like Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude) and postmodern blends of fiction and fact (see Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo or Don DeLillo’s Libra) (368 – 69). And while Jason’s anthropomorphic animals are fantastic, The Left Bank Gang obviously fits more comfortably in the latter category, mixing carefully researched history about the life and times of the Left Bank modernists with the absurd caper that erupts in the second half of the work.

Importantly, I want to claim that this reorientation of modernist literary history around postmodern aesthetics is not only a stark contrast to the realism and historical veracity of the first half of the text, but depends on it as well. Simply creating a narrative in which famous authors behave incongruously and counter to the historical record might be interesting on its own, but The Left Bank Gang generates surprise and interest for its readers by having it both ways. Having led his readers to expect a relatively authentic depiction of a “gang” of literary companions with the first half, Jason double-crosses us, much as Zelda does to her husband, by changing genres mid-stream. What makes this double-cross a pleasant surprise and a virtuoso performance, rather than a cheap trick, is the way Jason manages to be meticulously accurate and wildly unfaithful at the same time.

In addition, this fusion of modernist subject matter and postmodern style depends on the hybrid nature of the form itself: on the two narrative lines of word and image. The work Jason does establishing his fidelity to the Left Bank history (and thus, his own credibility) is bound up, as we have seen, both in referencing modernist works and anecdotes through the characters’ dialogue and recreating particular modernist texts as cartoon images. Now, this elaborate bait-and-switch would by no means be impossible in other formats; we can certainly imagine a hypothetical novel that spent its first half in a historical fiction mode, establishing its fidelity to history and setting readers up for a sudden shift in genre and style. Such a novel might fit comfortably with the Reed and DeLillo works mentioned above. But the particular power of the comics form, the ability to work this strategy along two narrative lines, gives Jason’s work an expediency and punch that further heightens the narrative reversal. By establishing his historical credibility and fidelity in both word and image, Jason employs the affordances of the comics form to maximize the shock readers feel when the unlikely caper begins and their trust in his fidelity is undermined.

If Jason’s achievement is grounded in using both the verbal and visual narration to the common goal of an unanticipated postmodern reversal, Karasik and Mazzucchelli’s adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass works instead by faithfully recreating its source material along the verbal track, while foregrounding a postmodern aesthetic along the visual track. But this claim requires a bit more nuance than in the case of The Left Bank Gang, for unlike the emphatically modernist source material for Jason’s comic, Auster’s original novella is a postmodernist mainstay. Indeed, summarizing the story can be difficult for just this reason. The protagonist, Daniel Quinn—a writer haunted by the death of his wife and son—receives a mysterious call in the middle of the night for the Paul Auster Detective Agency. On a whim, Quinn impersonates Auster and finds himself entangled in a case to protect Peter Stillman, Jr. from his father. Stillman, Sr. had years before imprisoned his son alone and in darkness in an attempt to discover if, in isolation, he would begin to speak the language of God; now he has been released from jail, and Stillman, Jr. and his wife Virginia fear that he will attempt to find and murder his son. Quinn (posing as Auster) takes the case, locating Stillman, Sr. and shadowing him throughout New York City. After weeks of tailing Stillman, Quinn loses track of him shortly after he discovers that Stillman’s seemingly random wanderings have actually been spelling out the phrase “The Tower of Babel” on a map of the city. Not knowing where else to turn, Quinn contacts Paul Auster, who turns out not to be a detective, but a writer who is nearly identical with the biographical Auster. (More on this in a moment.) With Auster unable to help, Quinn’s obsession with the case leads him to become homeless, watching the Stillman apartment constantly in an attempt to protect his charges. His inevitable break with reality ends with him locking himself in the apartment—long since vacated when Peter and Virginia left New York City after Stillman, Sr.’s suicide—and reenacting Stillman’s childhood isolation.

One obvious problem with summarizing Auster’s text—and I’ve simplified a great deal here—is that every name refers at various times to multiple characters. Stillman refers to both father and son, and also briefly to Quinn, who, while pretending to be Auster, introduces himself to Peter’s father as his son. There are proliferating Austers, as well: the flesh-and-blood author of City of Glass, the fictionalized author that appears in the text, the unseen gumshoe of the Paul Auster Detective Agency, and Quinn’s Auster persona. This last gets that much more convoluted when Daniel Quinn meets Paul Auster’s—the author in the book’s—son, whose name is Daniel Auster. And of course, at this point, the discovery that the actual Auster’s real son is also named Daniel should come as no surprise. This dizzying crisscross of referents forces Auster’s readers to work to follow exactly who knows whom and by what name, and the book’s end, where Quinn (still on the case as Auster and going insane) recreates Stillman, Jr.’s childhood, does nothing to help matters.

It is important to note, however, that the disorientation that readers experience is limited exclusively to the circulating identities of the characters. We constantly have to keep track of who a character truly is and what aliases he or she is going by, but we don’t need to expend much effort keeping track of which diegetic level the characters inhabit. All of the characters mentioned in my synopsis exist on the same ontological plane; none are fictional to each other, and all are equally real. This applies both to the major characters—Quinn and the two Stillmans—and to more marginal characters, as well—the Auster who is an authentic detective, for example, or the unnamed narrator who is a friend of the fictional author Auster. Even these characters who never appear physically in the story still exist in the same storyworld that Quinn moves through. This is even true of the seemingly disruptive presence of an author named Paul Auster. This apparent metalepsis is, in the end, only pseudometaleptic, because this character is identical to the flesh-and-blood Paul Auster in all respects except that the Paul Auster in the book is not the author of a novella called City of Glass nor is he the creator of Quinn or the Stillman family.13

I emphasize the shared diegetic status of all of these characters to underline that our readerly disorientation is purely epistemological in nature; we might have trouble keeping track of who characters are and are pretending to be, but we won’t be confused by the nature of their being or existence. This is significant because it reveals the surprisingly conservative nature of Auster’s original novella, at least from the standpoint of postmodernist aesthetics. As Brian McHale argues, “postmodernist fiction differs from modernist fiction just as a poetics dominated by ontological issues differs from one dominated by epistemological issues” (xii). In other words, the dominant focus of modernist fiction is on questions of knowledge, how we know what we know; Proust’s involuntary memory, Joyce’s epiphanies, and the multiple perspectives characteristic of Faulkner are all examples of this epistemological mode. Postmodernist fiction, on the other hand, takes as its focus questions of being, how we know what we are; think here of the gaps and frictions between various worlds in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, or the porous, unstable worlds of Garcia Márquez’s magical realism. This difference is significant because while all of Auster’s bewildering games with names and referents gesture at vast ontological instability, in the end the text remains firmly rooted in a single story level. And it is here that Karasik and Mazzucchelli’s graphic adaptation distinguishes itself from being simply a faithful remediation of Auster’s prose. Instead, Karasik and Mazzucchelli exploit comics’ hybrid narrative structure to create a text that both faithfully replicates Auster’s text and actualizes the ontological disarray that exists only as potential in their source material.

As I mentioned earlier, the verbal track of Karasik and Mazzucchelli’s City of Glass is almost slavishly faithful to its source material. The two artists obviously cut a great deal of Auster’s prose to turn the 150-page novella into a graphic novel, but the captions and dialogue that appear in their work are taken verbatim from the source text. In addition, as Art Spiegelman points out in his introduction to the 2004 Picador edition, the two have even taken pains to ensure that even the space their panels take up in their text corresponds to the space taken up by Auster’s corresponding paragraphs.14 The two make no additions or deletions to the plot, and every event and character is present as it exists in the novella. On the visual track, however, the graphic adaptation features visual metaphors and formal play that realize the ontological play Auster only hints at—and in this way, produces a more fully postmodern text.

Karasik and Mazzucchelli give us an example of this strategy in the first pages of their adaptation. The first page of the work is simply a black square, interrupted only by the words “It was a wrong number that started it…” (1). As readers progress across the first six panels of the second page (See Fig. 5.), they experience an ontological disruption that visually incarnates the unstable relationship between sign and referent, a relationship that is both the theme of the novella and Stillman, Sr.’s motivation for imprisoning his son. What exactly is being depicted in the first panel is unclear; the darkness of the first page is receding, but the second panel is the first one in which readers are able to distinguish a clear visual impression—though pointedly, it is not clear whether this image is an oval, the letter o, or the number 0, a iconographic ambiguity that signifies the semiotic instability of the original text. The third panel, combined with the mention of the telephone in the verbal track, gives readers enough visual information to identify a rotary dial phone; this impression is confirmed in the fourth panel, not only in the full image of the phone but also with the onomatopoeic visualization of the ringing that began in the first panel’s verbal track. This impression is immediately overturned in panel five, though, where the picture is reframed to reveal that the image of a phone in panel four was just that—only an image, printed on the cover of a directory. The final panel in the sequence reveals the real phone sitting on top of the directory; this, in the storyworld, is presumably the source of the ringing.

Figure 5

This sequence lends an ontological flavor to Auster’s prose, foreshadowing that “much later, [Quinn would] conclude that nothing was real except chance” (Auster 3; Karasik and Mazzucchelli 2). Importantly, though, the phrase “nothing was real” in Auster’s text refers not to the ontological bait and switch of the visual track’s telephones, but is only a turn of phrase referring to the conclusions Quinn later draws about the misdialed number that begins his adventure. In this sense, “nothing is real” might be more literally phrased as “nothing was accurate.” Karasik and Mazzucchelli instead turn this comment into a visual sequence that imposes on the readers an ontological disorientation that is nowhere present in the original text—a disorientation firmly underscored when Quinn answers the phone, reaching not for the real object we were left with, but for the iconographic phone of the directory’s cover. (See Fig. 6.) What was simply a ringing phone in Auster’s text develops into a series of ontological shifts in Karasik and Mazzzucchelli’s visual track that culminate in what appears to be an impossible ontological violation, a real hand reaching for a fake phone.15

Figure 6

This sort of ontological expansion on Auster’s verbal text is particularly evident later, in Stillman, Jr.’s monologue that relates, in his fractured way, his childhood imprisonment. In Auster’s verbal text, this monologue consists of eight pages of unbroken dialogue marked at the beginning only by the innocuous dialogue tag “the young man said at last” (18). The absence of anything but reported speech for eight pages, combined with Stillman’s unusual manner of speaking, is of course worthy of comment in its own right and makes for a surreal reading experience. Karasik and Mazzucchelli, however, use the absence of narration through this section as carte blanche to create one of the most innovative visual passages of the book. While the verbal track continues in Stillman’s voice throughout, the visual track changes rapidly and radically, first travelling down Stillman’s throat and then into a series of other mouths, holes, and openings from which Stillman’s voice appears to emerge. (See Fig. 7.)

Figure 7

The only precedent in Auster’s novella for this recursive series of images is the description of Stillman’s movements—not his speech—as “not quite corresponding to the will that lay behind it,” but the visual rendering of Stillman’s speech obviously goes well beyond this disjuncture (Auster 17). In the graphic portrayal, Stillman’s monologue is instead portrayed as an aggressive and seemingly random series of ontological breaks. Furthermore, in addition to generating ontological disorientation within the text, this sequence is also part of a pattern of disrupting the formal features of the text itself. In all other dialogue in the text (and in most comics), the tail of the speech balloon comes to a point that guides the reader to the agent responsible for the utterance. Here, however, the tail of each speech balloon is open, descending just a little further down the rabbit hole of Stillman’s consciousness than we can see. This regression keeps us constantly at ontological arm’s length from Stillman and could presumably continue infinitely without allowing us access to the utterance’s true source. And this formal innovation has no analogue in Auster’s source text; while the pages of uninterrupted dialogue are unusual in their own right, Auster doesn’t engage in any formal novelty to call the readers’ attention to the quotation marks or other markers of dialogue. In this way, Karasik and Mazzucchelli transform what, faithfully rendered, would have been a fairly dull visual sequence into a dizzying plunge downward into the infinite ontological depths of Stillman’s trauma at the same time as they call attention to the ontological level of the physical text itself and the formal conventions of the comic medium.

This ontological play with form is a regular feature of the graphic novel. Karasik and Mazzucchelli regularly tweak comic conventions in order to suggest distinct vocal styles by way of visually distinct speech bubbles, as seen here in Stillman, Sr.’s speech. (See Fig. 8.) Although this particular use is ambiguous—how exactly would this angular shape translate to verbal speech?—this formal technique is not particularly unusual; comics artists regularly use the size and shape of speech bubbles as a kind of graphic inquit tag, indicating not only the speaker, but also the tone, pitch, volume, or emotional content of the utterance that the bubble contains. More strikingly, though, Karasik and Mazzucchelli thematize the grid formed by the panels themselves, both by presenting rhyming grid patterns en abyme within the visual track and by changing the gutters from empty space between the panels to part of the image itself.

Figure 8

Grid patterns proliferate within the panels, generating a self-referentiality that continually refers readers back to the physical object they hold in their hands. These range from diegetically embedded grids—including the cubbyholes in Stillman, Sr.’s hotel, the pattern on Quinn’s bedspread, the pattern of the numbers on a pay phone, and the sidewalk outside Auster’s house—to more abstract backgrounds like the cross hatching used to represent shadows and Quinn superimposed on a map of New York City. The text also includes more specific references to the formal three by three pattern in the icon of a window that appears throughout the text. (See Fig. 9.) In addition, these somewhat subliminal reminders of graphic construction leap into the literal foreground at several points in the work, forcing readers to reconfigure what appeared at first as the blank formal space of gutters as a physical object within the space of the story. Twice the three by three grid becomes the nine panes of the window above Quinn’s desk. This second appearance of this pattern (see Fig. 10) is even more ontologically disorienting for the reader, as we must oscillate back and forth between a verbal track that presents us with a single, full page image illustrating a single moment in time and a verbal track that presents not only an ongoing telephone conversation in the speech balloons, but an iterative description of similar conversations in the captions.

Figure 9
Figure 10

This formal play is that much more striking in the pages near the end of the graphic novel which depict Quinn’s descent into madness in the Stillmans’ apartment. Beginning with a full page view of the apartment from Quinn’s perspective—one of only two “first-person” panels in the text—the grid begins to slowly breakdown. This change is at first subtle, only a slight shift in the gutters. (See Fig. 11.) This collapse accelerates quickly, though, first in further panel skewing and then in the breakdown of the panel borders themselves, which begin to warp and take on an uneven, hand-drawn quality. Finally, the last pages of this sequence literalize the metaphoric collapse of form as the panels come loose on the page and fall into a chasm that opens up in the gutters, at the same time as Quinn descends into madness within these same panels. (See Fig. 12.) Every formal element of the graphic novel literally falls apart in this last sequence: the panels, the gutters, even the page numbers, which for the first time have disappeared.

Figure 11
Figure 12

What’s important to remember here is that all of these strategies on the visual track that draws readers’ attention to the ontological and to the formal level of the surface of the text are nowhere to be found in Auster’s prose; there is no formal play in Auster’s text comparable to what we see here. In fact, aside from a few line drawings that represent Quinn’s mapping of Stillman’s routes through the city (see Fig. 13)—a feature that Karasik and Mazzucchelli ironically reproduce without alteration or embellishment in their text—Auster’s text is formally conservative. As compared to the formal innovativeness of later postmodernists—as in David Foster Wallace’s expanding footnotes, Dave Eggers’s revision of his memoir’s copyright boilerplate, and Mark Z. Danielewski’s disorienting lexigraphic play—Auster’s novella does little to challenge the formal conventions of prose narrative. Thus we see in the graphic adaptation a wholly original emphasis on the ontological level of the text itself as a physical and formal object that builds upon the gesture at ontological instability in Auster’s novella. In this sense, Karasik and Mazzucchelli’s adaptation takes its source material’s gestures toward a postmodern ontology and brings them to fruition, while at the same time remaining completely faithful to Auster’s prose on the verbal track.16 As such, it, like The Left Bank Gang, is an example of comic adaptation that shifts the aesthetic dominants of its source text, though it is more of an amplification of Auster’s postmodernism than a transposition into postmodernism, as with Jason’s text.

Figure 13

Taken together City of Glass and The Left Bank Gang demonstrate a larger trend in comics of adapting source material through the lens of postmodern aesthetics, while at the same time offering two different specific ways in which this technique can function. Other nuances and avenues can no doubt be found in other adapted texts, including Alan Moore’s appropriation of vast swaths of Victorian literature in his on-going League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Frank Espinosa’s frenetic Odyssey-cum-space-opera Rocketo, and Martin Rowson’s revision of T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land by way of a Raymond Chandler detective novel. In different ways, these texts—and many others, besides—all use postmodern aesthetics as a way of re-viewing their source material, generating fascinating new hybrid texts.

Finally, in addition to offering an opportunity to consider how period aesthetics can inform the practice of adaptation, comics adaptation clearly can work to complicate and trouble adaptation theory’s larger discussions of fidelity. As we have seen in the cases of The Left Bank Gang and City of Glass, the study of comics adaptation has much to offer the fidelity debate. By exploring the ways in which the twin narrative tracks of word and image can be used to create a legitimate sense of fidelity while at the same time extending the source material in new directions, we can reconsider the larger variety of interactions between source and adaptation.


[1] “Jason” is the pen name of Norwegian comics artist John Arne Saeteroy.

[2] One classic example Elliott cites is Walter Pater’s use of architectural metaphors to discuss literary texts. As Ellen Frank points out, this ut architectura poesis is also a significant analogy for Gerard Manley Hopkins, Henry James, and Marcel Proust.

[3] We might also think here of Scott McCloud’s famous triangulation between “reality,” meaning, and the picture plane from Understanding Comics, which demonstrates that the word/image dichotomy is in fact more akin to a continuum (52 – 53).

[4] I was introduced to Jason’s text at the 2009 International Conference on Narrative by my co-panelist Gregory Smith. I am grateful to him for the observations below regarding Fitzgerald’s sexual insecurities and Stein’s portrait, which I borrow from his paper on Jason’s source materials.

[5] Joyce, always the exception, is instead drawn as a bespectacled crow.

[6] As Scott Donaldson points out, Hemingway told this story differently on several separate occasions, and it’s unlikely that every detail of the Moveable Feast story is accurate (160). However, to the extent that The Left Bank Gang takes this text as one of its sources, the actual historical accuracy is immaterial.

[7] Though The Left Bank Gang certainly features an ensemble cast, Hemingway is the most sympathetic figure in the novel, and the one readers spend the most time with. In fact, The Left Bank Gang was originally published in French under the title Hemingway, and it is no accident that many of the scenes Jason uses to establish his fidelity and modernist credentials center around him.

[8] Fitzgerald declares Hamsun’s novel “not bad,” while Joyce wonders why he has to “fill up every square inch of every panel? You’ve got to leave some white space, for chrissake! Let the page breathe!” (22).

[9] This bit of diegetic play anticipates the ontological shifts foregrounded in Karasik and Mazzucchelli’s City of Glass, which I discuss below.

[10] Though the comparison between comics and sacred text may strike some as improbable, Jason’s technique here has much in common with Sternberg’s account of the Bible’s “foolproof composition,” which offers rewards to more sophisticated readers, while at the same time ensuring that even novice readers will understand the basic moral of a given story.

[11] Zelda’s affair with Sartre is really the only detail that might tip off readers before the book’s halfway point that all is not as it should be, biographically speaking. True to form, though, this sex scene is just as over the top and clichéd as the hyperbolic crime spree, and even readers who don’t recognize the historical inaccuracy will likely notice that Sartre’s boasting “I don’t have a little prick. I have a big one!” and Zelda’s amorous “And I love it! Put it inside me, Jean-Paul! Put it in! Now! Ahhh! Faster! Oh yes! Ohh!” are markedly different in tone from the calm conversation that characterizes the text’s first half (13).

[12] Issac Cates compares The Left Bank Gang to a Coen brothers film in the sense that it is “neither simplified nor self-important, neither pandering nor posturing, but tell[s] a curious story with both intelligence and humor,” but Jason’s text might also remind us of their films’ neo-noir sensibilities and frequent tales of crimes and plots gone chaotically wrong, particularly in their award-winning Fargo and the recent Burn After Reading (320).

[13] Compare this, for example, to Kurt Vonnegut’s fully metaleptic appearance in Breakfast of Champions, where the author emancipates his character Kilgore Trout from his service.

[14] Emphasizing the impressive effort Karasik and Mazzucchelli go to in order to remain faithful to Auster’s text, Spiegelman refers to the graphic novel as a “strange doppelganger” of the original text.

[15] My claim here runs counter to David Coughlan’s argument that “if words are ‘a way of being in the world,’ so are pictures, and though the degree of sketchiness may suggest gradations of reality, nevertheless they all exist on the same plane” (843). However, even if Coughlan would dispute my claim that Figure 6 represents an ontological contradiction, he would be hard pressed to argue that images like this one (see Fig. 14), where Quinn’s anguish at seeing the happy Auster family is manifested as an image of him literally being stabbed through the heart, exist on the same level of reality as the panels before and after.

Figure 14

[16] Or, as Mazzucchelli puts it in a 2004 interview, the dual-track narration allows “the style of drawing to act as another layer of information” (Kartalopoulos par. 7).


Auster, Paul. “City of Glass.” In The New York Trilogy. New York: Penguin Books, 1990. 3 – 158.

Carrier, David. The Aesthetics of Comics. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

Cates, Isaac. Rev. of The Left Bank Gang and The SalonConfrontation 98/99 (2007): 319 – 321.

Coughlan, David. “Paul Auster’s City of Glass: The Graphic Novel.” Modern Fiction Studies 52.4 (2006): 832 – 854.

Donaldson, Scott. Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship. New York: Overlook Press, 1999.

Elliott, Kamilla. Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Frank, Ellen. Literary Architecture: Essays Toward a Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. New York: Scribner, 2003.

Hotchner, A. E. Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir. New York: Random House, 1966.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.

Jason. The Left Bank Gang. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2005.

Karasik, Paul and David Mazzucchelli. City of Glass. New York: Picador, 2004.

Kartalopoulos, Bill. “Three Questions for David Mazzucchelli.” Indy Magazine (Spring 2004). 20 Jan 2010. <>.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Mitchell, W. J. T. Picture Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Smith, Gregory. “Sketching a Modernist Moment: Graphic Narrative Adaptation in Jason’s The Left Bank Gang.” International Conference on Narrative, Birmingham, UK, 6 June 2009.

Sternberg, Meir. The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1985.

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