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Comic Books, Film
It has been quite an odyssey, so to speak, for Rob Berry, Mike Barsanti, Josh Levitas and Chad Rutkowski, the partners in Throwaway Horse and the creators, in one sense or another, of the webcomic Ulysses “Seen.” Berry and Levitas started out doing a fairly straightfoward adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, with extensive notes and translations by Mike Barsanti just a click away from each page. Then the iTunes store picked up their comic for the iPad, but Apple asked them to censor some of the content (ironic, in light of the novel’s history) and then reversed itself after the issue drew public attention. And now the creators are closing the circle by bringing the comic into print: They have signed a deal with independent publisher Atlas & Co. to bring out a print edition of Ulysses “Seen,” which will hopefully be on bookstores shelves by BloomsDay (June 16) 2011.
I talked to Berry, Atlas and Rutkowski about the new project and the challenges involved in bringing an interactive webcomic into print.
Brigid: Was making a print edition of the Ulysses comic part of your plan from the beginning? If so, what role did you feel the webcomic would play in creating and promoting the comic, and if not, at what point did you start thinking of a print edition?
Rob: Most of my plans about making comics instead of paintings (as I used to do) revolve around the notion that I wanted to make stories and books instead of one-of-a-kind objects. So everything I’ve been doing these past couple of years has been seeing where the web and print models are alike yet different. We always knew there’d be a desire to see this kind of a project through to print, so it’s designed with some of that potential in mind, but as an educational or social platform we wanted to make sure Ulysses “Seen” was something completely different on the web or iPad.
Brigid: From a purely technical point of view, one of the features of the webcomic right now is that you can click on a panel and go directly to Mike’s notes. How will that work with the print version?
Rob: Yeah, that’s a great example of one of the differences about the shape of web content versus print. And there are a lot of nuances in Joyce’s work that I can keep somewhat enigmatic in my comic adaptation so that Mike can explain further through the Readers’ Guide. I really happy to say that Atlas & Co wants to preserve that kind of scholarship approach to the project. This means Mike will be adding a new version of his Readers’ Guide notes to fit the print model. Really, really happy about that.
Brigid: Another format question: The webcomic is formatted horizontally, to fit a computer screen, which can be awkward in terms of shelving in bookstores and libraries. Are you going to keep that or reformat the comic vertically?
Rob: I designed the comic adaptation in the “landscape” format because I felt that there’s a different kind of interface going on in entertainment platforms these days. We’re being given a choice for reading books and watching movies seeing family photos all in one presentation arena; the monitor, and the monitor is, for the most part, horizontal.
But the design choices I made to keep in line with this trend will remain when we move to print. The comic is horizontal, so it makes sense that the book would be as well. Comix is a language of design to a large part, so changing the page design would be like starting over from scratch. We’ll be working right alongside the people at Atlas & Co to put together an attractive design that I think any bookstore or library would be happy to feature on their shelves.
Brigid: On a more philosophical level, how do you think the experience of reading the comic as a print volume (like the original novel) will differ from reading it digitally? Do you think it’s purely a mechanical difference, or does print add gravitas?
Rob: Well, I think that in comix as it stands at the moment there’s a certain truth to that as it’s relatively easy for cartoonists to get their work out in the world as a webcomic. There’s a certain perception about art and literature in general that one’s talents are measured in whether or not a stranger would pay money for them and that an unpublished author or unpaid blogger is “merely an over-ambitious hobbyist.” I’ve never really had much patience for that kind of thinking, however.
With Ulysses “Seen” I and my partners set out to use our combined talents to give people a new way to look at a really great novel and we took that goal very seriously whether it was for free on the web or as a book in the neighborhood library. It’ll feel great, believe me, to feel the book in my hand, to hold the physical product. There’s a feeling there that I suppose is much like “gravitas”. But it’s always really about the work you do behind the product, not the product itself, right?
Brigid: Will you be altering the pages to remove any of the nudity or other potentially problematic content?
Rob: Oh, absolutely not! It is a valuable point, however. A friend of mine is the comics librarian at Columbia and we had a conversation once about Moore and Gebbie’s Lost Girls, a beautiful book that is a “must have” for any collection, but where do you put it in a public library? The Rare Book Room so people have to wear gloves when touching it?
Our Ulysses “Seen” is meant to have and respectfully portray all the earthiness of Joyce’s 1922 edition of the novel. But to see it filed in a certain category or on a certain shelf because of that would, I think, be just as sad as placing it next to Witchblade in the “graphic novel” section by sheer alphabetical order. It’s a tricky business, that sorting out of content, and not something I’d be particularly good at. But would we even have these same questions come up if we didn’t some how still believe that in America comicbooks are for kids? Would we even have a “graphic novel” section?
Brigid: Your first volume covers the first chapter of the book, Telemachus, and also Calypso, which is the fourth chapter. Are you rearranging it?
Rob: Right you are; “Calypso” is the fourth episode (Joyce didn’t like the word “chapter”) in Ulysses and the next one we’re covering. These episodes depict events that happen more or less simultaneously on Bloomsday and I made a decision about a year or so that I was going to go chronologically through the day to make things a bit easier on new readers. There are echoes between the main characters’ lives that are easier to showcase this way and I feel it moves people a bit more into the meat of the drama by highlighting those similarities right away.
And it opens the door for something I wanted to do with episodes 2 and 5 (“Nestor” and “The Lotus Eaters”). Those two chapters will be drawn by me at the same time and presented together chronologically as well, jumping every couple of pages from one to the other. A bit more cinematic approach, perhaps, but will still get them all in there. Promise.
Brigid: How many volumes do you anticipate the finished work to be? Will it be longer than the original?
Rob: There are 18 episodes to Joyce’s novel and all of them present unique structural problems for translating into the language of comix. It’s difficult to say exactly then how many pages of the comic each episode might yield, but the plan is for me to draw two episodes a year for the next eight years. And two episodes seem to give us a nice size print volume with the Readers’ Guide.
But the first episode, “Telemachus,” is 21 pages in the novel and it took me 68 pages to carry it off in the comic. James Joyce’s Ulysses is 732 pages. Does this mean it’ll take me 2,360 pages to translate into comix? I certainly hope not, but this may be why some of my peers look at me like I’m crazy. It’s a very big book.
Brigid: Can you tell me a bit about the creation process—how you and Josh divide up the story into pages, and how you create each one. They look like watercolor paintings—is that right? And about how long does it take you to do a page, from start to finish?
Rob: All the adaptation work from novel to comic book storyboard is done by me, usually after the four of us have had a chance to get together and talk about the particulars of a given chapter. After those storyboards are done we all sit down together to edit. Josh then does what we call a “floorplan,” putting in the hand-lettered text and key-lining the panels, so I’m actual putting my drawings back in around the lettering. We make a black & white file first from my ink work and then I do a watercolor version. Josh steps in again then enhancing the rougher watercolor through Photoshop. He’ll be doing a lot of free-hand drawing in the coming chapters as well with sets, props and patterns we’ll be using throughout the book.
Brigid: Here’s a technical question for Chad: Who owns the copyright on this? Is Ulysses in the public domain?
Chad: We are using the 1922 version of Ulysses which our research indicates is in the pubic domain in the United States. You’ll notice, for example, that Project Gutenberg is treating the ’22 as public domain in the U.S.
Throwaway Horse, of which Rob is a member, owns copyright to Rob’s illustrations, the arrangement of the text and the Reader’s Guide, among other things. We do not own the underlying text of Ulysses or the words themselves.
Brigid: OK, James, I just lost an hour of my life browsing the Atlas & Co. website. How would you describe your company’s focus, and how does Ulysses “Seen” fit into it?
James: Thanks so much for spending some time on our site, Brigid. We are publishers of quality nonfiction, focusing on memoir, biography, and long-form reportage. Our primary concern is the quality of the prose; the works we publish have a distinctive voice, a sense of literary tradition, and a consciousness of craft. What really interests me is story-telling; i’m a biographer (Delmore Schwartz, Saul Bellow) and journalist as well as a publisher, so it’s all part of the same narrative impulse.
Brigid: Is this your first graphic novel, and if so, what sort of challenges do you anticipate that a prose book does not present?
James: We have not been publishing fiction; my feeling is that other publishers are adept at finding the new novelists, and have more experience, so we’ve focused our energies on what we do best. But I am obsessed with the graphic form, and avid reader of Daniel Clowes, Art Spiegelman, the late Harvey Pekar, R. Crumb and other graphic artists.
Ulysses fits our mandate as a publisher: it’s a literary classic, unabridged and in its original form. What’s exciting to me is that the entire book is there; the illustrations are an enhancement, not a simplification. The technical challenge will be to include the scholarly commentary that’s part of the package; we will find a way.
Brigid: How did you first become aware of Ulysses?
James: My father, a physician by trade, was a Joyce freak, and loved to read the book aloud; I heard a lot of it before I ever read it, in high school. Forty years ago, as a graduate student at Oxford, I studied with Richard Ellmann, author of the definitive Joyce biography, and I’ve considered myself an amateur Joycean—very amateur—ever since.
Brigid: Who do you see as the audience for this book, and how will it be marketed?
James: This is a Ulysses for a large and diverse audience: The young reader wanting an introduction to the book; the college student who knows the book and can enjoy it in this new form; and readers like myself, for whom Joyce is a familiar presence and who want to read the book in a readily accessible form that will allow them to linger over the words — to give the words a new dimension — without having to embark once again on the long march through the whole book. It’s a way of savoring Joyce.
We intend to market the book to these audiences in a targeted way, through course adoption; and to a trade readership. It’s going to be beautifully packaged, most likely in paperback, not as a “fine” book but as a book to carry around—not just to own but to read.