Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Visualizing the Romance: Uses of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Narratives in Comics

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Visualizing the Romance: Uses of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Narratives in Comics

Article excerpt

Classic works of American literature have been adapted to comics since the medium, especially as delivered in periodical form (i.e., the comic book), first gained a pop cultural foothold. One of the first texts adapted by Classic Comics, which would later become Classics Illustrated, (2) was James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans, which appeared in issue #4, published in August 1942. This was immediately followed the next month by a rendering of Moby-Dick and then seven issues later by adaptations of two stories by Washington Irving, "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Headless Horseman." (3) As M. Thomas Inge points out, Edgar Allan Poe was one of the first, and most frequent, American authors to be translated into comics form (Incredible Mr. Poe 14), having his stories adapted not only in early issues of Classic Comics, but also in Yellow-jacket Comics (1944-1945) and Will Eisner's The Spirit (1948). (4) What is notable here is that almost all of the earliest adaptations of American literature sprang not only from antebellum texts, but from what we now consider classic examples of literary romance, (5) those narrative spaces between the real and the fantastic where psychological states become the scaffolding of national and historical morality. It is only appropriate that comics, a hybrid medium where image and text often breed an ambiguous yet pliable synthesis, have become such a fertile means of retelling these early American romances.

Given this predominance of early nineteenth-century writers adapted to the graphic narrative form, it is curious how one such author has been underrepresented within the medium, at least when compared to the treatment given to his contemporaries. The work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, unarguably one of the most canonical examples of antebellum American writing, has seen relatively little attention within comics. Outside of a few adaptations of The Scarlet Letter and House of the Seven Gables, one would be pressed to find significant visual translations of Hawthorne's fiction. And what comics adaptations there actually are of Hawthorne's work are uneven at best, especially when compared to the attention that other nineteenth-century authors have received. In the examples of Poe, Melville, and Mark Twain, their most canonical and anthologized works have all been translated into comics form. "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Raven," Typee, Moby-Dick, Billy Budd, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, just to name a few, have seen multiple adaptations into comics form.

Yet, a survey of the adaptations given to Hawthorne's narratives would show that those stories that have best defined the author's oeuvre are represented little, if at all, in comics. Regarding Hawthorne's many tales and sketches--and one could make the case that the author's literary reputation is largely built upon these short fictional pieces--almost none of those that critics would consider "canonical" have been adapted to the comics form. There has been one rendering of "Rappaccini's Daughter," adapted by Lance Tooks in 2008, and a comics translation of "Feathertop" that appeared in a 1974 issue of Forbidden Tales of Dark Mansion. But the tales that Hawthorne is best known for, and the ones that are most anthologized and most frequently considered by scholars, (6) have been noticeably absent in comics. Of his short stories, most of what has been adapted have been Hawthorne's handling of the Greek myths that appeared in A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys (1852) and Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys (1853), and those in comics that were marketed specifically for children. Adaptations of his longer fictional works are likewise skewed. In terms of his novels, The House of the Seven Gables (1851) has, surprisingly, received almost as much attention as has The Scarlet Letter (1850), and the latter has never received a satisfyingly full treatment. …

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