September 16, 2020

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Slaughter-House Five: The Graphic Novel Adaptation by Kurt Vonnegut, Ryan North and Albert Monteys


A Vonnegut graphic novel, you say? Kurt Vonnegut is undoubtedly my favorite author, and has been since my junior year of high school.* He is one of the only authors whose entire output I’ve read, and he is assuredly the author I’ve re-read the most (and re-reading is not a habit of mine). Like many people, Slaughter-House Five, by way of a tenth grade English course, was my introduction to Vonnegut’s world, but it’s never ranked as my favorite of his novels. But I still enjoy and appreciate Slaughter-House Five. My reticence to mark it top on my list likely has something to do with its required-reading status. And I’m intrigued by the adaptation of any Vonnegut work into graphic novel form, but I’m especially curious about this particular one. Will it click with me as a graphic novel?

To be fair, Vonnegut works have entered other media with mixed degrees of success. In the early 70s, there was a well-received yet mostly unknown film adaptation of Slaughter-House Five, but this Wednesday marks the first transition of a Vonnegut work into sequential art. Of course, such a publication raises all types of ethical questions about Vonnegut’s intentions and wishes, and some of those are impossible to reconcile. Dying at least ten years before adapting modern classic works into graphic novels became a fad, we can only speculate what Vonnegut would have wanted, or if he would have wanted it now. It’s not exactly as if the Vonnegut estate has swindled the author’s legacy, posthumously peddling adaptations and merchandise to make a few cheap bucks, so I’ll enter this adaptation with a bit of comfort and assumption that the choice was at least measured and thoughtful.
Ryan North and Albert Monteys take the time to explain their adaptation, commenting on their own intentional focus and their role as creators.

And Slaughter-House Five makes sense to adapt, of course, not merely because it’s his most widely-read book, but because it’s composition feels tailor-made for a form that can bend setting on a whim, one that can seamlessly move from the fantastical to the horrible without losing any flow. But it’s also strange that it would occur without any interaction from the man himself. Bradbury participated to some degree in the creation of the Fahrenheit 451 graphic novel, and Margaret Atwood has written her own graphic novels. I don’t know if Vonnegut was a comic guy. He likely read pulps, and he might have purchased some comics along the way. But his interests were less in pop-culture and more in counter-culture, and he might have been more at home with the underground comix movement of the 70s. Though, by that point, Vonnegut himself would have been a generation removed, and there is no evidence I’ve seen that copies of Zap sat on his writing desk. But I digress.

I’m not familiar with Albert Monteys at all. I hadn’t read much press about this release prior to picking up the advance copy, and I wasn’t sure what type of aesthetic we’d get. I wasn’t even quite sure what type I’d want. Did I want something dark and abstract, heavy on the shadows, with forms bending into one another symbolically? Or did I need something more refined, traditional in a way that would let the story be the star, art as a bit of an aide as it were, not the work itself? And I don’t know if this is hyperbole, but, about a third of the way into the book, I fell in love with Monteys' style, and I proclaimed it near-perfect for the adaptation. His style is classic enough that the sense of the story permeates; it doesn’t feel as if the art artificially updates the narrative. Rather, one gets the sense that this is the original work. Monteys has a style that has subtle traces of pulp and silver-age DC through the vein of class comic strips. There is a bit of Seth in his work, a less caricatured Bagge, a little less geometric Ware.
North's dialogue and Monteys' character interactions help bring the black humor of the original book to life in visual form.

Vonnegut’s most important writing trait was his comedic timing. He had fantastic ideas, for sure. There was an originality that pervaded his concepts, and his musings still seem fresh today as a result. But Vonnegut was able to make the reader laugh, and usually the loudest chuckles would come at the most inappropriate time. He was a champion of gallows humor, of pointing out the absurdity of life. And his comedic timing was the key to all of it. North and Monteys must have been cognizant of the need for well-executed timing. North’s script maintains the wit of Vonnegut’s original dialogue without stepping on it, and Monteys captures the feel of the characters and their backstories that aid the comedy. Early in the book, North and Monteys captures the contrasts between Weary, Billy Pilgrim, and the scouts. They understand how to cast them as types, and how to imbue Weary with the necessary amount of bombast that makes the reader laugh without inspiring complete disgust.
North also manages to inject a dose of meta-fiction back into the original narrative, re-imagining  Tralfamadoran literature as a version of sequential art.

As I mentioned above, Vonnegut was a force of the counterculture, but he was more of an elder statesman of the movement than anything else. He was already in his forties by the mid-60s, and he would never fully embody the low-culture aesthetic contrasts we’d see in Pynchon, despite other thematic similarities. In that way, Vonnegut helped to usher in postmodernism as a literary movement, and his version of science fiction prefigured the academic ascent of the genre. In many ways, he was thus the bridge between the high modern and the postmodern, and the conception of Tralfamadoran literature speaks to that bridge. Monteys is versatile in his execution of this concept, and the pages in this sequence are among the strongest in this book. It’s the abstract formalism of Seth  - think: the scenes documenting the mother’s jewelry - paired with Jack Kirby’s other-worldliness.
Monteys' style and visual tone is what ultimately elevates this book for me.

So why read Slaughter-House Five in 2020. Why adapt it into a new form? As I skimmed through my copy of the original novel while reading the graphic adaptation, I thought more about Vonnegut’s original intentions for the book. He says, expressly at that, he wanted to write an anti-war book. And I certainly think he did. But even more so, it’s about coming home from a war, or, more specifically, the idea that you never truly come home, not all of you at least. Vonnegut captures that notion as he plays with the conception of time. Billy becomes unstuck in time because the events he witnesses rupture his conception of reality. He manages to survive, both during the atrocities of war and in the years that follow, but he’s become permanently unstuck in time. The events of war constantly occur, and he revists them without choice, drifting back to Germany and from Germany into the future, one he can’t ever be entirely sure he actually experiences. What a graphic adaptation of Slaughter-House Five best offers is a clearer picture of the use of science-fiction elements as metaphor. By translating Vonnegut’s paragraphs into panels, North and Monteys almost demystify the book. It also made me think about the concept of providence, or more so the resiliency of it. I don’t think I’ve thought much about how fate relates to the time play, but this adaptation make me reconsider ideas of predetermination - everything that will have happened has happened and is currently happening. Billy functions as a willing participant in all of it, blessed with some break from the monotony that he can at least observe it.

All modern adaptations carry with them a sense of arrangement. Books like Ryan North and Albert Monteys’ Slaughter-House Five aren’t Classics Illustrated (nothing wrong with those), not merely a translation of forms. But they aren’t entirely new, either. They occupy a weird space, one between creation and interpretation, like a Joe Cocker cover song that sounds enough like the original to maintain nostalgic relevance but functions on its own merits artistically.

Should we have a Slaughter-House Five graphic novel? I don’t know. That question is beside the point, because now we do. The question is, what should the goal of this graphic novel be? It functions a little more chronologically - though not necessarily linearly - than the original novel. Events more or less build towards Dresden, while Vonnegut’s work immerses the reader in it for most of the book. North chooses Dresden as an event, and there is a more coherent timeline for his re-imagination. It’s hard to escape his focus on who Billy is before Dresden and who he becomes after. Over half the book concerns itself with these notions, using Dresden as more of a unifying catalyst than an omnipresent event. Hence, the answer to our question can’t only be to visualize a classic story, though Monteys is extremely proficient in bringing things I’ve only ever truly seen in my head to life on the page. North could never hope to capture every element of Slaughter-House Five in 200 pages of sequential art, so he’d need to focus his energies on a particular concept and build outwardly from there. Thus, the graphic novel centers itself on the concept of free will, of the inevitability of things, and the impact on the human condition. It becomes both a cure and a curse for Billy, and thereby North and Monteys have their vehicle for interpreting Slaughter-House Five in a manner that works to enhance the book for familiar audiences while providing new readers a more pointed look into the mind of Kurt Vonnegut.

Slaughter-House Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Ryan North, and Albert Monteys is available this week from Archaia.

*So much so that when friends of mine tried to organize an underground newspaper, I chose the pseudonym “Kilgore Trout.” It lasted one issue. That I was also the Op-Ed editor of the established school newspaper at the time complicated my involvement despite the fact I didn’t have anything published in our only issue because I didn’t finish my article. The flagship article was a great piece of satire from Optimus Prime, who would later reveal himself as Tom Mcalister who would go on to write way more important things.