Ulysses "Seen": Mein Irisch Kind, wo weilest du? / by David Anderson


The heart of all of art is information transfer. An artist tries to use paint or music notes or words to invoke a feeling, recount an experience, glorify a person, display mechanisms, so on and so forth. Cultural memes are the very essence of most art; wouldn't Picasso's Guernica be meaningless without the German aerial bombing of the town of the same name which killed thousands? Without that historical event, his painting might be seen as simply a mildly disturbing anti-war statement. "Ave Maria" makes no sense without the Virgin Mary, and what is even the point of anything by Hemingway or Fitzgerald without any kind of zeitgeist to draw from?

This I think is what can make studying art and literature boring for kids--you have to have historical knowledge to know the art properly. Shakespeare's comedies were funny back a few centuries ago, when the people he made fun of were actually alive and personally knowable. Nowadays, it's like one massive 4th dimensional "You had to be there" for all posterity.

James Joyce, from what I've learned, is a highly regarded Irish author who wrote a lot of words about...stuff. I know practically nothing about him other than the fact that he was mentioned by the Clancy Brothers as the writer of Finnegan's Wake. It's helpful, then, that someone decided to take one of his more famous works, Ulysses, and convert it from book to webcomic form--Ulysses "Seen", as the comic is known. Robert Berry's mission statement is to create a reading companion to the book, and so this presents a very interesting case study in how comics function by showing what happens when you adapt straight up text into a comic page form.

Ulysses, in case you're unfamiliar with it, is a series of serialized short stories penned in the 1910s-20s by Joyce, which were eventually published as a single compendium in 1934. It has been universally heralded as a difficult read, owing to the fact that Joyce basically ditched traditional narratives in favor of a weird kind of stream-of-consciousness format with a little 3rd person omniscient thrown in. Everyone attributes this to the fact that after World War I a lot of artists went apeshit and concluded that since "the old ways" had led to the then-most destructive war in history, they must be scrapped and new methods of thinking must be experimented with. Consequently art took to a weird turn and we ended up with abstract art and even weirder poems.

Two chapters, "Telemachus" and "Calypso" are up right now, and if you click on the comic panel you get redirected to a page filled with commentary on how to understand and interpret the meaning of each page. The plots of these chapters are unrelated- "Telemachus" is about a couple of guys hanging out in a tower, while "Calypso" is about a guy living in his house with his cat and girlfriend. We are here to watch these characters interact and see their thoughts and opinions in thought and word.

I think the challenge that the maker of this comic has tackled has been to take the scant descriptions Joyce has offered and converted them into vibrant pictures, giving us a clearer image of what we are seeing in the book. On the one hand this approach can cause us to narrow our interpretation of the words, but on the other hand it also alleviates some of the confusion that might be created by the text. Text boxes and speech bubbles inject words that couldn't be described in pictures. This has the effect of enhancing the significance of words that typically look like they were simply slapped in between sentences- the word "Omphalos" hanging over the image of a drop of water sticks out more to the eye when divorced from the sea of words it typically floated in. One interesting and convenient feature is that when you mouse your cursor over text written in foreign languages, a text box with the translation will pop up.

He does a great job at turning words into images, I think. I picked up a copy of Joyce's work to compare, and I think his conversion has excelled at mimicking the text. Speech bubbles can take up a lot of room, but the sizes of the panels are large enough to compensate.  The art is very interesting; it reminds me of oil paintings in how the colors and shading work. The color palette is very light, making it feel just like it might look were it illustrated in the 1920s- ocean and sky dominate the imagery. Character bodies are detailed and realistic while faces are simpler in detail and a little more stylish. He uses a lot of horizontal black lines which remind me of how prolific they were in 90's comic books, but used in a more artful and limited way. The palette feels sort of... dirty, in a way, with such liberal use of shadows. Some characters look like they're covered in soot while others are shiny as an ornament, which is likely deliberate to give us a sense of the dominating emotions of the characters.

If you want to get the full experience, I say read the book and this comic together, and read the commentaries the author provides. It will make things a lot less confusing for you, as each piece operates better in company rather than alone. This isn't for the casual comic reader, though; you probably want a better understanding of literary history before you go into this if you don't already.

TL;DR Ulysses "Seen" is a good way to visually understand a novel, but operates as merely a single piece in a larger framework. From a utlility standpoint, it does a great job, but only read it if you're into this kind of stuff.

Ulysses "Seen" is adapted from the famous James Joyce novel by Robert Berry and Josh Levitas. Presented by Throwaway Horse, LLC, you can see the site and find an iPad version here.