As a junior in college, I took a course in the English department focused on postmodernism in literature. And I can say, without a doubt, it was the worst class I’d ever taken (and would ever take) as a student. Not because I didn’t love the professor (I did, he was the reason I took the class in the first place) or because I didn’t get the theory of postmodernism (I did, and loved it in the context of art and philosophy). I hated it because almost without exception, I despised every novel on the curriculum.
The lone deviation in my dislike was Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk; I remember picking it up toward the end of the semester and feeling a little more optimistic because I’d loved the movie adaptation. I had a way to interpret the scenes I was reading because I had a pre-established visual palette from which to paint the novel in my mind. Blame it on not have a very vivid imagination, but for many of the books we were reading, I had no way to visualize the books in my head.
Postmodernist literature, if you’re unfamiliar with the theory, is characterized by a rejection of accepted form and narrative coherence and the embracing of playfulness, fragmentation, irony, intertextuality, metafiction, and temporal distortion. This is all a very fancy way of saying that postmodern authors are basically playing with the very idea of the novel and sticking out their tongues at you to try to define or understand it.
You might be going, okay, so? That doesn’t tell me anything. Some of the most notable postmodern novels include books like The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, and basically anything by Kurt Vonnegut. If those books give you any unifying theme, it should be that of absurdity.
With the release from Dark Horse Comics of Palahniuk’s sequel to Fight Club, but in comics form, with artist Cameron Stewart, a lightbulb went off in my head. The thing I was craving from most of the postmodern novels I’ve read (in both that class and beyond) is a visual component, which makes them the perfect source material for a comics adaptation. In fact Watchmen and Maus are both considered to be examples of postmodernism in comics form.
Here I give you my picks for six postmodern novels that I’d like to see adapted into either a graphic novel or a comics series (because, let’s be real, some of these novels are so long, they beg to transformed into a full comics run). Add your suggestions in the comments:
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. This is one of those books I was assigned and which I completely despised. But it’s got some fantastic elements that lend themselves to comic form so easily. Set in a 21st century Los Angeles, the government has ceded control of most of its territories to private entities and entrepreneurs. Most people live in sovereign enclaves, protected by security firms and mercenary armies, where the Metaverse has become the natural evolution of the internet and virtual reality is mostly the reality people experience. The setting description alone makes me yearn for a version of this novel done by the team behind Lazarus.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson. Another book-turned-movie that I want a comics version of instead (and it turns out it is indeed being adapted into a comic!). This is a hallucinatory, drug-induced joy ride that begs for the Preacher treatment by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. The two works have a trippy road trip at their core and the protagonists of each are disillusioned by the society in which they find themselves.
Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie. Haroun – which Rushdie wrote for his son to explain the fatwa calling for his assassination after he published Midnight’s Children – is a lovely, magical and playful allegorical fairytale. It pulls apart language in a way that is delightful and funny, but it has some amazing fantastical descriptions that would translate to comics so easily. I’d love to see Mike Carey and Peter Gross do for this story what they did in The Unwritten.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. Often described as the Murakami novel with the loosest grip on reality, this is a bizarre, ponderous examination of Japanese identity that gets weirder the farther it progresses. Not content to explore Otherness in this world, Murakami takes his wanderings into a mystical quasi-alternate universe. To see the real vs. unreal landscape juxtaposed in comics would be an amazing way to explore this dreamlike narrative. How amazing would an adaptation with the art of Rob Guillory a la Chew be?
Kindred by Octavia Butler. A soul-shattering examination of race in America, Kindred follows an African-American woman as she jumps between her current time in 1976 and the pre-Civil War plantation where her ancestors are enslaved. Incorporating elements of science fiction and fantasy, the time shifts and flashbacks make for a difficult narrative structure and would be well served by graphic depictions, though the sometimes very violent realities of slavery would need just the right artist to convey those moments well. I think a realistic but slightly distorted view like what Peter Milligan and Leandro Fernandez create in The Names.
The City and the City by China Miéville. A combo police procedural and bizarre sci fi novel, The City and the City centers on the investigation of the murder of Mahalia Geary, who had been involved in turmoil between two cities which occupy the same geographical space but which its citizens perceive as two different cities. Also there might be a third city that exists in the space between the other two. It’s a tricky and complicated setting, with a great crime story driving the narrative. I’d love to see how the team behind Trees renders the woven and overlaid cities.
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