Hemingway in Comics, a review, by James Bourey
Hemingway in Comics
By Robert K. Elder
Published by The Kent State University Press
First, the cover dark red background, a bright yellow all caps title, and a white-bearded Ernest Hemingway throwing a good right-cross towards an unseen adversary. This is already an intriguing book. And it’s big; 10 x 8 and 274 pages of high-quality paper. A hefty volume. But don’t be fooled by the cover or the hundreds of comic panels. This is a serious study of one author’s long-lasting impact on an often-maligned genre of modern literature.
Mr. Elder has, with the assistance of several others, done a more than credible job of researching the extensive history of Hemingway’s appearances in comic books, graphic novels, and a few other pop-culture venues. He has gone to the source material and, in many instances, conducted interviews with the artists and writers involved in the production of those materials. However, this book is not a dry, academic dissertation. The writing is as lively as it is informative. And the inclusion of so many panels of comic art adds visual appeal and fine pictorial examples of the narrative.
The book is arranged in a loose chronological order, beginning with Hemingway’s 1917 high school yearbook which had cartoon drawings poking fun at his swimming style. His next appearance in comics didn’t come until 1950 when a single panel in a Captain Marvel issue shows the author at a conference of cultural leaders. Parodies of Hemingway novels came next in Mad Magazine, Frantic a Mad knock off, and an old strip called Coogy. The author finds examples of Hemingway appearances and, more often, references in comics on both sides of the Atlantic.
Perhaps the most interesting segments of this volume discuss various graphic novels, either based loosely on Hemingway’s life or his work. Many artists in this niche of literature have been inspired by the man and his stories. His legend, and to a lesser extent his real life, fed the imaginations of artists in countries as diverse as France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and several others. This adulation has caused some Hemingway scholars to question whether the hero worship is deserved, and Mr. Elder lets those people have a say in his book.
Some philosophy enters the discussion when Mr. Elder gives us a section called Moral Formation and "Graphic Adaptations of Hemingway’s Works" written by Sean C. Hadley. This lengthy essay discusses how Aristotle’s Categories can, and perhaps should be applied when a comic artist/graphic novelist (or filmmaker, or playwright) decides to make an adaptation of a novel or short story. This section adds an extra level of thought to the examination of Hemingway adaptations and it also provides some groundwork for looking at adaptations of other authors when their work is used purely for commercial gain.
Comics are on nearly every page of Mr. Elder’s book. One could flip through the pages, reading only the comic panels and illustrations and get a sense of the subject matter. Of course, one would need to have some knowledge of French and Spanish and a few other languages to read some examples. But the pictures would still tell a large part of the story even if the text was missing.
The visual make-up of the book is stunning. And the integration of the visual elements with the text is perfect. The melding of these two facets makes this a real page-turner, something that can’t be said for many scholarly works. Even a casual reader, with a mild interest in Hemingway, or a passing interest in comics or graphic novels will find enjoyment here. In fact, this book will also appeal to readers interested in history, or the history of twentieth-century literature. It covers lots of ground and it’s worth the investment.
James Bourey is the author of The Distance Between Us, available now from Cold River Press.