Don’t let this word fool you, reader. Robert Berry is going to use ‘daunting’ to describe the task of translating James Joyce’s epic novel Ulysses into a webcomic for comic-fans and scholarly types alike. He’s not kidding. Joyce’s Ulysses, carefully structured stream of consciousness novel, full of parody, pun, and allusion, is regarded by most scholars as the most important piece of Modern fiction written in the 20th Century. In academic circles, the completion and comprehension of Joyce’s Ulysses is considered both a rigorous and prestigious achievement.
A Brief History Lesson about Ulysses: Originally published from March 1918 to December 1920 in the American Journal, The Little Review, and later published completely in 1922 by Sylvia Beach, Ulysses told the story of the passage of Leopold Bloom on an average day (June 16, 1904 to be exact) through the streets of Dublin, Ireland. The title and story parallel and allude to Homer’s Odyssey.
Newsarama contacted Robert Berry to discuss the monstrous undertaking of making Ulysses Seen.
Newsarama: Robert, what was your inspiration to bring James Joyces' Ulysses to the web as a webcomic? Did you realize how daunting a task like that would become? It's only one of the most complex pieces of literature ever written...
Robert Berry: One of the cool things about living in Philadelphia is the museums and cultural events still surviving in this city. In 2004, I and another cartoonist friend went to Bloomsday event here at the Rosenbach Museum & Library where they do an all-day reading of the novel. Later in the day, over many pints of Guiness, I started talking about how comics were the only viable art form for adapting Joyce's work. On a bet, and a couple more pints, I started mapping the first chapter there at the bar.
Frankly, I never expected it to be much more than an exercise in storytelling and good story of my own hubris. "Daunting" is definitely the word. It's the kind of idea you mention to other cartoonist and they look at you like your crazy; probably with good reason.
But comics, particularly webcomics, have done exceptionally well at building reader interest through long-form stories delivered in serialized form. Hal Foster did PRINCE VALIANT for over sixty years after all, and it still continues to this day. When I became sure that I was more interested in serialized long-form stories and web-based content than graphic novels, I dusted off the Joyce idea and began to look more seriously at how it could be managed. The trick in choosing long-form stories, of course, is in making sure you really want to do it for the next ten years or more. Complex as ULYSSES may be, I can't imagine a better, more challenging writer to work with than James Joyce. Yeah, "daunting" is definitely the word.
Nrama: When you first approached translating Ulysses; what did you think was the most important aspect of the translation of a such a uniquely structured narrative? For readers who aren't familiar with Joyce's work; could you explain to readers how the structure of Ulysses works?
Berry: Translation is a key word here as well. To my mind, comics is a language for storytelling rather than, say, illustration which is an illumination of a story as told in some other method. Joyce's work is loaded with puzzles made up of fragmented narrative styles, really quite a difficult structure for first time readers to get involved with. I felt that by using some of the visual tools of comics as a language, by providing visual keys to the events as he's depicting them, we might open up the door for first time readers in a unique way. Use comics as a way inside some of the novel's mysteries without minimizing their power or explaining the language.
The narrative structure Joyce uses here is often confused as being one of "interior monologue." There's quite a bit of that device but, technically speaking, the structure of the novel is one of "parallax"; the idea of the whole of the story being enriched through multiple viewpoints. Frankly, this is an approach really familiar to comics and something our art form does much better than any other. It’s the principle narrative structure of WATCHMEN, for example.
Nrama: Are you tackling this massive undertaking by yourself? Who else is working with you on Ulysses Seen?
Berry: This kind of crazy undertaking requires a strange collection of equally crazy people to get off the ground. Kind of like a support group of Joyce nerds. Actually, the people involved have a real broad set of different skills that complement the project rather than just back-slapping one another and we became aware pretty early on that there's something here, some idea for connecting web-based, serialized comics to classical literature beyond James Joyce, so we formed a partnership to help develop that; Throwaway Horse, L.L.C.
Mike Barsanti makes the whole thing honest. He edits and illuminates my interpretation of the novel and is the lead Joyce Geek. People will be familiar with him through his Readers' Guide on the site. Mike gives the clearest, most accessible ways to get to the gems in Joyce's work without the academic force feeding.
Josh Levitas is less obtrusive but just as instrumental. Josh is an artist and designer who, like a good engineer, makes the whole thing run. My own training in art is as a painter, so my sense of how to make the comic is based on that. Josh takes it from the watercolor stage to the web stage and beyond. Now he's got the got the completely unenviable job of hand-lettering the whole thing.
Chad Rutkowski is our shadowy business manager. He brings a unique skill set to the project that, hopefully, you'll never have to hear much about.
We've just added Mike Perridge (head honcho at mpd57) as a blog manager and you'll be hearing a lot from him. Mike's going spend the next few month's stumbling through ULYSSES and asking for help on the site as a first time reader. He's going to need it!
Nrama: How close are you to the original material? Have you read the Ellman biography of Joyce? Did you use supplemental material in your pursuit?
Berry: At some point n doing this as web-based material rather than just a print model, we realized just how much more material we could get into from the novel. this isn't a condensed version in the least, and the web allows people to go to the Readers' Guide or our translation key to follow some of the deeper mysteries the novel has when you read it with the annotations. We use the 1922 edition and, I'm proud to say, haven't had edit out any of Joyce's imagery yet. Of course this means a LOT of supplemental reading on my part, Ellman in particular. There are links to all those supplements on the website.Nrama: What do you think is the most compelling aspect of Joyce's Ulysses? What moments in the work seem to resonate with you the most?
Berry: One of the things that convinced me this project might work is in seeing how Joyce uses the plasticity of time and the weight of visual symbol in the novel. For me, that's the secret superpower of the language of comics. There's numerous moments of just great poetry within the text that I hope to justice to in my adaptation, but what I'm most excited about is trying to bring some of the comedy of this book out a bit. I think that the book has such an intensely academic reputation as a difficult novel (which it is) that people often overlook just how funny and human the story is.Nrama: How does the environment of Ulysses take on a new role in a visual translation of the work?
Berry: Tough topic. When one is illustrating a work of fiction, I think there's a real importance on getting a visual rendering that's closest to how the author sees the world. When the fiction is like Joyce's, rooted in a kind of detailed analysis of the Dublin of his memory, there's a tendency then on the illustrator's part to focus on a kind of naturalism and, like Joyce himself, utilize detailed reference photos and street maps.
But comics, for me, are a completely different and more personally expressive art form than illustration. Too much of a reliance on naturalism blunts the expressive power of cartooning. Also, given what I said about shifting view point and parallax, sticking with too much "realism" wouldn't afford me with as much opportunity to shift the style of depiction in later chapters. So for the opening scenes of the comic I stripped out a lot of surrounding environment, tried to look at it as if I was staging a Beckett play in a barren landscape, and concentrated on the atmosphere between the two characters.
I think some fans of the novel might find this lack of detailed environment contrary to their own way of seeing things at first. Trust me, the verisimilitude will be there, but we're setting the stage for it in later chapters
Nrama: To what lengths did you have to go to procure the proper permissions to translate Ulysses for Seen?
Berry: There's a lot of discussion about copyright law and the public domain regarding this novel, and I expect that to continue for some time. Joyce was continually tinkering with it and there are many different variations in form throughout its editions as both a complete novel and its serialized appearances before that. It has a messy history in that regard.
We've concentrated our efforts on trying to adapt the 1922 edition for a new and web-based audience out of the position that this is the first complete packaging of the material that lies in the public domain. But throughout the website and Readers' Guide why try to make it easier for people to follow along in later and more popular editions.
Nrama: Is your webcomic a sequential study of narratology as much as Ulysses is a study of literary narratology? Are the random creative elements of Stream of Consciousness lost in a translation?
Berry: Comics have a rarified language. It's impossible to look at their history or their development without making a kind of '-ology' out of the experience. I'm always surprised by the capacity of comic fans to enjoy completely different narrative approaches, say Chris Ware and Burne Hogarth, with equal relish. It's not something you find a lot on other artforms; very few fans of Mark Rothko take as much interest in Velasquez.
Joyce, and his work on this novel in particular, show the keen reworking of a classic tale through the modern view of urban polyglot mind. He saw and related the experiences of his characters and their city through many languages intermingled. What seems tangential there to some first time readers is actually part of fashioning a new and modern idea of the novel as a whole. Lord only knows what he might've accomplished through the internet.
I think there's a lot closer connection between how comic fans might understand the narrative structure of his work than comic fans are generally given credit for just as I think fans of the novel might find some interesting things happening in the field of comics if they better knew where to look.
Nrama: What next? Finnegan's Wake...maybe Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow? (haha)
Berry: I'm not manly enough tackle the WAKE, but I met an artist living in Manchester, Clinton Cahill, who's doing some interesting things there that we'll be reviewing on the site.
Funny you should mention Pynchon and the RAINBOW as it's another book that comes up quite a lot when we're discussing other projects...
Nrama: What other sorts of projects can readers expect to see from you in the near future?
Berry: Throwaway Horse has some other projects in the development stage that I'm interested in, but I've got my hands full with ULYSSES "SEEN" at the moment and trying to use its site as an example for how the company might interface people with an interest in comics and literature.
Personally, I've got a couple of other projects and commitments going on in comics. We're playing around with ideas for a second season of THE HAMMER at Zuda and a couple of smaller solo projects. I really love the collaborative side of comic-making and love to add a hand to other kinds of projects whenever I get the chance.
Nrama: How can readers learn more about Ulysses Seen? How are you utilizing the internet to spread the good work about this project?
Berry: Mike will be concentrating on a lot of that with the blog in a few short weeks, but Twitter has always been a fun resource for us. We're @UlyssesSeen on Twitter, and we post a lot of fun stuff related to Joyce and comics. There'll be some Twitter-based regular content coming up this month as well.
Interested in checking out ‘Ulysses Seen’? Check out the website here.