Written by Catherine J. Golden, author of Serials to Graphic Novels: The Evolution of the Victorian Illustrated Book
My sons introduced me to graphic novels. When they were teens, their bookshelves overflowed with the latest issues of Shonen Jump (a Japanese manga series), Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and DC Comics books about superheroes. Our conversations at the dinner table often included the latest escapades of Goku, Green Lantern, and Batman. But one night, my son Emmet caught me by surprise when he said he was reading a graphic novel about Ebenezer Scrooge and Batman.
“Isn’t Scrooge a character in a novel you teach? You know, the one who says, ‘Bah! Humbug’ a lot.”
“I think you should read Batman: Noël,” my son Jesse chimed in.
Batman: Noël is a Neo-Victorian graphic novel, a style that brings superheroes face to face with historical figures and characters from nineteenth-century novels. I read it in one sitting. And I liked it a lot. Author-illustrator Lee Bermejo, who dedicated it “With respect, to Charles Dickens,” cleverly combines elements of A Christmas Carol (1843) and Victorian London with aspects of Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s renowned DC Comics superhero and Gotham City. Bermejo casts Batman in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, but the character looks like the Dark Knight. The three spirits who visit Batman/Scrooge are comic book legends—Catwoman is the Ghost of Christmas Past, Superman is the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Joker is the Ghost of Christmas Future. Change is possible even for the most unlikely vigilante, who, in this Neo-Victorian graphic novel, gets a second chance just like Scrooge does. After he stops saying “humbug” and embraces the Christmas spirit, Batman/Scrooge sends a prize turkey to his employee Bob Cratchit and his sickly son Tim. Bermejo cleverly updates Dickens’s work for twenty-first-century readers.
Batman: Noël is one of many graphic novels I examine in Serials to Graphic Novels. My book offers a new way of viewing the Victorian illustrated book, a vibrant genre that came into being, flourished, and evolved during the long nineteenth century and has found new expression in our time in graphic novel adaptations of the classics. Will Eisner, the recognized “father” of the graphic novel, popularized the term to promote his semi-autobiographical collection of stories about immigrant life entitled A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories (1978). The graphic novel is a high-end comic book printed on quality paper and bound with a spine to look like a novel. Some graphic novels are compilations of a series of comic books, just as many of the Victorian novels we read today are compilations of serial installments that were first published either independently or within weekly or monthly magazines. With graphic novels, as with comic books, the eye moves over panels—or frames—composed of images and words to gather meaning, rather than moving straight across to read lines of text from the top to the bottom of the page.
My particular interest lies in the “graphic classics,” an intersection of the graphic novel and the traditional canon of Western literature. The final chapter of Serials to Graphic Novels surveys graphic novel adaptations of Victorian classics as well as Neo-Victorian graphic novels. The graphic classics genre has shortened the length of nineteenth-century novels and reworked them into a textual-visual, hyper-modern form that brings new audiences to authors like Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, the Brontës, Jane Austen, and Anthony Trollope. Cinematic in nature, these graphic adaptations are made up of sequential panels with black-and-white and color illustrations that incorporate word balloons, thought bubbles, captions, a variety of fonts and hand lettering, motion lines, and sound effects (onomatopoeic words). One publisher, Classical Comics, produces several versions of each classic—Original Text, Quick Text American English, and Quick Text British English—while keeping the artwork the same for all three scripts. I enjoy the Original Text versions because they retain much of the classic’s language, although the text is shortened to fit into word balloons, thought bubbles, and captions. Quick Text, in contrast, abridges the text and updates the diction. The following examples show some of the ways the graphic classics open up psychological and supernatural elements of Victorian books for generations of new readers.
Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre originally appeared in 1847—without illustrations. In Victorian Britain of the 1840s, psychic phenomena were gaining force. Dreams, for Charlotte Brontë, are both presentiments and glimpses into the unconscious. The protagonist Jane Eyre famously foresees the burning of Rochester’s mansion, Thornfield Hall, in her prophetic dreams. For the Classical Comics Original Text version of Jane Eyre, scriptwriter Amy Corzine and illustrator John Burns use flashbacks and dream sequences to augment the novel’s psychological dimension. The graphics are mostly bright colors, indicating the present, but the color pallet shifts to a bluish-gray when indicating a dream state.
In one perceptive two-panel dream sequence, Jane is sleeping and dreaming. A thought bubble looming over her head reveals what’s happening in her prophetic dream. Jane stands in front of Rochester, who is positioned behind a brick wall, and she holds a baby swaddled in blankets. A gutter—a necessary aspect of graphic storytelling—creates a sense of timing between the panels to signal that Jane is moving deeper into her dream. In the second panel, Thornfield Hall lies in ruins. Corzine and Burns thus visualize what Jane foretells—as in the original novel, Jane drops the baby and they both tumble down a hill. A caption that connects the two panels reads: “The hurry of preparation for the bridal day, and the anticipation of the great change made me feverish. . . . my anxious excitement continued in dreams.” Jane’s dreams may be a manifestation of her “anxious excitement,” but the wailing child, its mouth open as if to cry, graphically symbolizes what Jane doesn’t put into words—her sense of self that she fears losing when she becomes Mrs. Rochester.
Adaptations of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol use sound effects, swirling letters, onomatopoeic words, and symbols even more dramatically, enhancing the supernatural element of Scrooge’s ghostly visitations. The Classical Comics Original Text version of A Christmas Carol expands the visual dimension of Dickens’s text, which was originally illustrated by John Leech. The new version adapted by Seán Michael Wilson and illustrated by Mike Collins gives chilling resonance to Jacob Marley’s famous line: “‘I wear the chain I forged in life, . . . I made it link by link, and yard by yard.’” While Dickens’s original illustrator draws the ghost of Scrooge’s former partner, Jacob Marley, wearing a substantial chain, Collins multiplies the length and width of the chain. It appears to rise out of the panel and drapes over Marley’s figure, rendered in an eerie blue that gives off a supernatural glow. Sound effects like the double repetition of “CLANK” and other onomatopoeic words like “RATTLE” and “CHINK” work with the graphics to illustrate the length and weight of Marley’s fetters. Marley’s suffering awakens miserly Scrooge to stop saying “humbug,” listen to the three spirits, and change his fate.
The graphic adaptation of nineteenth-century classics, which shows no sign of abating, is not a substitute for the Victorian novel. But this late stage in the evolution of the Victorian illustrated book complements the nineteenth-century novel, giving it new expression for our time.
Catherine J. Golden, author of Serials to Graphic Novels: The Evolution of the Victorian Illustrated Book, is professor of English and the Tisch Chair of Arts and Letters at Skidmore College. She is also the author of Posting It: The Victorian Revolution in Letter Writing and Images of the Woman Reader in Victorian British and American Fiction. She is the editor or coeditor of five additional books on topics ranging from Charlotte Perkins Gilman to Victorian illustration, literature, and culture.