Friday, February 06, 2015

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain, adapted by Seymour Chwast

Seymour Chwast has made a pleasant second career -- maybe third or fourth? he's in his eighties and has been one of the great designers of modern times, so it depends on how you count -- out of adapting classic works into graphic novel form. For his previous books, he's gone far back into the mists of the public domain, with The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, and The Canterbury Tales.

But his 2014 book, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, leapfrogged a few hundred years further forward than he'd previously worked -- and, more than that, the Connecticut Yankee is an essentially modern book, all about freedom and liberty, political economy and money economy, the ways in which all men should be allowed to live in a free society. It also sees Chwast dial back his re-interpretations: there are no hardboiled PIs or Flash Gordon spaceships here.

Instead, this time Chwast just retells Twain's story -- as straight as he did with his other adaptees in his previous books -- with his characters dressed in appropriate garb for the period and riding horses instead of motorcycles. (The knights-on bicycles scene from Twain remains intact.) It's all fine and entertaining, but there's less Chwast this time out -- his drawing style is still flat, functional and precise, without a lot of frippery, but his defining intelligence is deeper behind the scenes. This may be slightly better for Twain fans, but it's perhaps slightly worse for Chwast fans.

Chwast did a lot of work for younger readers over his long career, and I suspect he may think of this latest project as similar: a way to jump onto a currently trendy idea, the graphic novel for children, and to use it to work out some artistic ideas of his own, or just spend time in some of his favorite stories. As introductions to both great literature and 20th century design, it would be hard to beat Chwast's books. (But I'd still direct new reads to the others before this one.)

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