Kurt Vonnegut is one of those authors who is deeply, profoundly cynical about humanity not because he hates mankind, but because he loves it so very, very much. He can make you weep with a word, and then laugh so hard your sides hurt with the next. He was, to quote the good Doctor, the most human human, and on March 31, 1969, Vonnegut would publish what I consider to be the most important novel ever written by an American, Slaughterhouse-Five.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Slaughterhouse-Five is not the best novel ever written, not by a long shot, but within that strange, quirky text Kurt Vonnegut lays out one of the most amazing, tragic, hilarious, sadistic, and beautiful stories ever told by an American. It is a meditation on hopelessness that celebrates hope. It is a science fiction smut story that makes you feel holy. It’s a damn near perfect story in every way, shape, and form, and of all the books I have every read in my misbegotten youth, it’s definitely the most important.
Slaughterhouse-Five is a book that teaches you the one thing so many Americans can’t seem to grasp, which is that as much as we might want to forever rage against the dying of the light, and fight for eternal peace and justice for all, humanity is ultimately doomed to forever repeat its mistakes, over over until the end of times. While that may sound hopeless to many, it is within that cycle the Vonnegut urges us to find our peace. Wars, suffering, struggles, they will always happen, but so too with beautiful moments of peace, love, and joy. If all we do is focus on the bad, and ignore all the good that is around us, then we are only seeing half of our lives, and that half is pretty darn bad. This doesn’t mean we ignore the bad, but instead should be celebrating the good evenly, and by doing so find a way to find our own peace in the chaos of our lives.
Wait just a minute there, you might be saying, if you’re the kind of person who says stuff like that to an article you’re reading. Isn’t this supposed to be an article about indie comics? Well as a matter of fact it is, and this week I have the distinct pleasure of reviewing one of the most wonderful homage to the late, great Mr. Vonnegut, the comic book adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five from Boom Studios.
Here’s the blurb:
Kurt Vonnegut’s classic adapted in graphic novel form for the first time! With Kurt Vonnegut’s seminal anti-war story, Slaughterhouse-Five, Eisner Award-winning writer Ryan North (Unbeatable Squirrel Girl) and Eisner Award-nominated artist Albert Monteys (Universe!) translate a literary classic into comic book form in the tradition of A Wrinkle in Time and Fight Club 2. Billy Pilgrim has read Kilgore Trout and opened a successful optometry business. Billy Pilgrim has built a loving family and witnessed the firebombing of Dresden. Billy Pilgrim has traveled to the planet Tralfamadore and met Kurt Vonnegut. Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. Slaughterhouse-Five is at once a farcical look at the horror and tragedy of war where children are placed on the frontlines and die (so it goes), and a moving examination of what it means to be a fallible human.
Right off the bat, I feel I need to say that translating Vonnegut’s work into other mediums is incredibly challenging. Vonnegut is a writer whose work demands to be read on the page, as is, and does not adapt well to other forms. Bruce Willis destroyed everything beautiful about his novel Breakfast of Champions in a movie adaptation that destroyed my last shred of faith in humanity. “Harrison Bergeron” has been adapted twice, once into a terrible film, and a second time into a fairly decent short film that was beautiful and heartbreaking, and yet still not quite right (much like the month of April).
Perhaps the only film to even come close to getting one of his novels right was Mother Night, and even that struggled to fully capture Vonnegut’s crushing, heartbreakingly human soul.
(And yes, there is a film adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five already. It is…not great. Don’t get me wrong, there is some goodness in it, but all of that goodness tends to come from the scenes lifted word for word from the original novel, and not in the unfortunate changes made throughout the film itself, many of which were clearly done to try to make it more palatable to a film going audience, and only serving to drive away actual fans of the novel looking for a true adaptation.)
Ryan North and Albert Monteys get this. Their comic adaptation does not seek to replace, or even stand shoulder to shoulder with Vonnegut’s original work. Instead it is a loving tribute to it that celebrates the best of what Vonnegut did, while also not succumbing to the all-to present temptation of trying to “adapt” it to fit their own vision. All the key beats are there that readers of the original will remember, and everything is presented in a way that will give new readers a glimpse into the world Vonnegut created, while also leaving secrets and wonders to be discovered when they go on to read the novel for themselves.
That’s not to say that this is just a Cliff’s notes version of Slaughterhouse-Five. There is a lot of development for this OGN, and honestly I would feel comfortable giving this to someone who had not read much, or any Vonnegut as a great introduction to his work. The story moves at a nice pace, and the artwork is very well done.
Still, I can’t help shake the feeling that there is just something missing with this. It’s a remarkably well done book, but it just seems to be missing the bite, the smack, the backhanded compliment that the original had. Vonnegut has such a perfect voice, crusty and cranky and good humored all at the same time. Not since Mark Twain had another author managed to write with such a distinctly American voice, and try as they might, no adaptation has ever really managed to capture that 100%.
And you know what, that’s ok. North isn’t trying to be Vonnegut; he’s trying to show us what he clearly loves about him. This isn’t a replacement, it’s a celebration. It’s not the final word, but a push in the right direction. It’s beautifully illustrated, expertly crafted, and competently scripted, and a fantastic gift for anyone who loves Vonnegut, or for whom you’d like to spark the love of Vonnegut in.
As a bitter, cranky old Vonnegut fan, I whole heartedly recommend the Slaughterhouse-Five graphic novel, and feel it deserves to be on the shelf right next to the original.
Until next time, stay safe and healthy my friends.