If ever there was a time to feel “stuck in the amber of the moment,” it is now. It certainly seems so for Americans, where the economy has stalled out due to a nationwide pandemic that has trapped people in their homes and forcibly separated them, even from their loved ones. Where institutional forces long ago set in motion are smothering the public, and our own air is choking us, and the sky glows an ominous orange. We are the deer in headlights, frozen and consumed by the phosphorescent glow, and yet we are also the car, careening headlong into tragedy. Slide the time bar backwards on the YouTube video of our existence, and we can review a mountain range (as the alien race known as Tralfamadorians might call it) of moments that led to the current one. Slide it past this moment and the range continues. The times we live in may seem unprecedented, but was it ever thus? Will it always be this way? If so, why? Well, as the Tralfamadorians would tell us as they told Billy Pilgrim, “There is no why.” So as long as we’re both stuck here in this moment, and this is a comic review you were always going to read, and this was a review I was always going to write, let’s get on with it. It is an adaptation of one of my favorite novels, a darkly comical anti-war novel that defies genre and has become one of the most important American novels of the 20th century. I’m speaking of Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, and of the new Archaia adaptation by writer Ryan North and artist Albert Monteys.
Written by Kurt Vonnegut
Adapted by Ryan North
Illustrated, colored, and lettered by by Albert Monteys
Color assisted by Richard Zaplana
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.
There are novels that seem almost impossible to translate into a comic, and others, such as this one, that almost beg to be adapted. The story is not unlike a Grant Morrison pitch: our protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is an American soldier and a survivor of the bombing of Dresden, a late-WWII tactical strike against an otherwise civilian German city (one known particularly for its beauty) that left the city in ruins and nearly 25,000 people dead. An allegory for survivor’s guilt and PTSD, the story lets us know from the very beginning that Billy Pilgrim has become “unstuck in time,” able to float between the past, present, and future- and the novel is told out of order, following Billy as he navigates his time-displaced journey. Never understanding the “why” of his circumstance- the crux of the Human Condition, Slaughterhouse-Five is a novel of incredible empathy, told in a manner certainly novel for its time in “high art” circles, but perhaps fitting in just fine with the pulpy sci-fi comics of the 1950’s and 60’s comics that preceded its release in 1969.
Slide the time bar forward to 2020, and two creators who seem uniquely suited to bring Slaughterhouse-Five to comics have done so. Writer Ryan North broke onto the scene in the early 00’s with his absurdist webcomic, “Dinosaur Comics,” which presents its own stuck-in-the-amber-of-the-moment framework, as the panel layout for the entire series of strips never changes, the same three dinosaurs existing in the same six panels, only the dialogue changing (with the occasional deviation). At first a simple matter of North not being a visual artist himself, the comic morphed into an experiment with graphic storytelling- how to tell a different story with the same images- and how to keep that conceit entertaining in a daily strip for any length of time. The comic still continues almost two decades later, though North has added a string of other successful projects to his bio, from his “Choose Your Own Adventure” adaptations of the works of Shakespeare, to perhaps his biggest hit, the Eisner award winning run on “The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl” with artist Erica Henderson for Marvel. The through line to North’s work is similar to that of Vonnegut’s own- a sincere and plainly spoken empathy for humanity, in all its folly.Continued below
Albert Monteys is a talent that might not be widely recognizable in America, but he is a well-known Spanish artist, working on the humor magazine El Hueves as cartoonist and editor for much of the past quarter century. His first major U.S. release appeared online through Panel Syndicate- and to much acclaim, as the entertaining and imaginative sci-fi series “Universe!” garnered the creator an Eisner Award nomination for Digital Comic in 2017. His work, too, complements both the serious and silly tendencies of Vonnegut, with an eye for humor, and a caricaturist style that reflects Monteys’ humor mag roots. Visions of Herge and Jaime Hernandez bounced around in my head while trying to determine Monteys’ influences, but also never too far from some of the MAD Magazine greats like Wally Wood or Harvey Kurtzman.
The alchemical mix of North and Monteys together on “Slaughterhouse-Five” is an incredible ride, as both together seem game to not only adapt Vonnegut’s work, but enhance it. The key to any great cover song is paying tribute to the original, but finding a way to make it your own, and I can’t help but feel that the team behind this book have done so. It is the perfect homage to a book that has influenced generations of creators- a tribute that seems to not only make sure that Vonnegut’s melody is carried along throughout, but that North and Monteys also find time to riff. This is expertly encapsulated in the “comic-within-a-comic” narratives giving pulpy life to the stories of one of Vonnegut’s most famous creations, failed writer Kilgore Trout. While often just made small mention of in the novel, Trout’s works, such as “The Gospel from Outer Space,” are given the four-color treatment, presented as full story dime-store pulp mag issues read by various characters (usually Billy). Another instance of fun experimentation is the particularly touching scene in when Billy Pilgrim, knowing he was about to meet the aliens (he’s unstuck in time, remember), watches an old war movie on his television to pass the time beforehand, but imagines the film playing in reverse. Monteys switches to drawing the film as storyboards, a somewhat jarring yet poignant reminder that Billy’s remorse and trauma are trying to rewrite existence for him so that he may better cope with reality.
As with any comic, the bulk of the story-telling heavy lifting is on the art side, and Monteys (with coloring assistance by Ricard Zaplana) will assuredly garner acclaim come award season for his work here. Like the novel, the comic jumps between serious wartime subject matter, to slice-of-life scenes, to trippy (and hilarious) science fiction. Monteys adeptly employs panel gridding and white space to stick (and unstick) us in moments throughout the comic, smartly uses beautiful splash page establishing shots (I’m thinking of the POW train-yard, and, of course, the aftermath of the bombing of Dresden, a hellish Guernica-esque visual of a once beautiful city in smoldering ruins), and also isn’t afraid to get a little weird with the Tralfamadorians- the aliens who abduct Billy and teach him a little about their concept of time. In a fantastic sequence of experimental narrative, Monteys shows us what a Tralfamadorian book might look like- an abstract grid of seemingly non-sequitur images that when viewed all at once (as the Tralfamadorians would) gives us a complete image of life, in all it’s damaged beauty. It is a strange and wonderful sequence, and there are no less than three clear Jack Kirby homages in it that made me gasp a little to see. Perhaps a nod to the progenitor of a million comic inspirations, or perhaps just Rorschach-blot panels to get me thinking about his influence on the medium. Regardless, Monteys’ work on the adaptation is a treasure, honoring the work of Vonnegut on every page.
Kurt Vonnegut walked a tight-rope of tone with his novel, precariously balancing heavy themes of war, and guilt, and loss with heady themes of the “flat circularity” of time. He made this possible by expertly employing the most disarming device a writer has in his arsenal: humor. Fans of Ryan North will know that that would hardly be a challenge, and in fact, fans of both North and Vonnegut can assuredly see that the Midwestern Vonnegut was already a huge influence on Canadian North. There is a charming unpretentiousness to their writing, even when playing with form and style that have rarely been tried before in their respective mediums. All this to say that North may have found covering Vonnegut on his most beloved work a bit daunting, but I don’t know of any other comic writer working today perhaps as well suited to make the attempt.
A bad adaptation makes a person want to forcibly remove the offending party from their memory. A good adaptation lies somewhere in the domain of “separate but equal.” A great adaptation, like the one here from North, Monteys, and the entire production team at Archaia, causes the reader to join the memories of both, hand in hand- a symbiotic relationship that informs the two works, and makes them stronger. We could not have gotten this adaption from Ryan North, or Albert Monteys, or Kurt Vonnegut individually, but together they have created and recreated Billy Pilgrim, and Eliot Rosewater, and Kilgore Trout, and the Tralfamadorian Zoo, and the meat locker underneath the ruins of Dresden, and the tiny bird that chirps his nonsensical, happy song amidst the wreckage of a world seemingly gone wrong, and given them all new meaning. Sliding the time bar backwards and forwards from when I first read Vonnegut’s novel to now, just after reading the graphic novel adaptation- the two versions bleeding together, and I’ve become unstuck in time. I don’t know that I would want it any other way.