Covering classic works from 1000 BCE – 1782 CE, the Graphic Canon seeks to give readers a taste of the history of the written word. It does a good job of reflecting the breadth of literature, covering not only works well known to Western audiences, such as Shakespeare and Homer, but also works from the Mayans, the Japanese, the Chinese, Indians, and Native Americans. Although most of the 55 works gathered are just excerpts, they are each is presented with a short introduction, placing them in historical context and often telling the full story so the excerpt makes sense. The introduction gives information on the illustrator and adapter as well.
It starts with The Epic of Gilgamesh, a work dating back to Baybonian times from the area now known as Iraq and considered to be the oldest written work in history, and ends with Dangerous Liaisons, by Choderlos de Laclos, written during the French Revolution. Along the way it stops to illustrate Coyote and the Pebbles, a Native American folktale; the Tao Te Ching, byLao Zhu; the Mahabarata, by Vyasa; The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu; and Popol Vuh, from the sacred book of the Quiche Maya. It reimagines The Flea by John Donne as a discussion between two women and summarizes Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a three panel comic (brilliantly summed up as: first the command from the ghost “Kill your uncle,” then Hamlet pondering, “Should I kill my uncle?” And finally deciding, “You know what? I think I will.”)
The art is, of course, quite varied, as one would expect when a different artist illustrates each work. Some is in color, but most are ink drawings. For the most part, I like the variety. Matching different styles with different works makes sense. It also acts as a way to learn about and experience the breadth of the graphic novel format, as well as show the differences that are possible. Do you like Seymour Chwast’s minimalist style in The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri or the stylized art of Edie Fake in The Visions of Teresa of Avila? Do you like the wordless images of Gareth Hinds in Beowulf, or the wordiness shown by Cortney Skinner in Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress by Benjamin Franklin (who, frankly, is too wordy to illustrate any other way)? You can try them all.