The Webcomic Overlook #93: Ulysses Seen

WCO-big-review

Over the years, The Webcomic Overlook has offended many different kinds of people: conservatives, gamers, furries, Apple users, Lost Cause proponents, anime fans, and Bobby Crosby, to name a few. Ah, what a fruitful two years it’s been. Just so you know, I’m not sitting around in my Cave of Hate trying to figure which people to tick off. El Santo doesn’t roll that way. However, reviews are reviews, and getting a rise out of people fuels our passion, no matter how tangentially related it is to the subject matter.

That said, I’m at least a little bit hopeful that today’s review will be the sort that brings in more literary nay-sayers. You know, just to see if I can class up this blog.

“Whatever,” you’re saying. “It’s not like you’re bagging on James Joyce.”

Ah, monsieur… but I am! For James Joyce has deigned to enter the world of webcomics. Today, I’m reviewing Ulysses Seen, illustrated and adapted by Robert Berry, laboriously annotated by Mike Barsanti, and written by some bespectacled Irish dude who’s been dead since 1941.

us1

The problem with reviewing anything to do with James Joyce is that if you don’t like it, Joyce fans will snootily deride you as “anti-intellectual.” Worse, it is always with that term: “anti-intellectual.” This leads me to conclude that Joycians, for all their book-learning, need to widen their vocabulary on choice insults. Feel free to call me an “uncultured barbarian” or “snotrag,” for example.

Or worse. I hear your boy Joyce had quite a potty mouth.

Not that I’ve ever read Ulysses in full. Frankly, that novel is thick as hell (a “diarrheic flow of words,” as noted Ulysses critic Dale Peck would say). As I grow older my time looks like it’s better prioritized by, say, finally installing that shelving in the garage that I’ve been putting off.

Besides, the premise doesn’t look all that promising. In preparation for writing this review, I looked up Ulysses in Wikipedia. While some of the summaries, like the one about the fireworks and the naked lady, leads me to believe that Joyce was indeed the master of visual imagery, my distinctly anti-intellectual mind thinks Joyce’s masterpiece a bunch of pointless navel gazing. If you we going to spend your time writing a 300,000 word novel, wouldn’t you at least make sure it had … you know … a plot?

And what’s this? One of the episodes is done in the format of a play?

And the last episode is a collection of run-on sentences, including the longest sentence in the English language? [1]

us2

&*#%!!! THAT. I could barely stand it when William Faulkner pulled that stunt in The Bear. I decided to browse that final episode over at Project Gutenberg and I almost threw my latte in a rage.

Kiss my ass, Joyce. KISS. MY. ASS.

It occurs to me that “intellectual,” then, is just some fancy term meaning “big fan of word puzzles.” Or, as Joyce to the World author Dianna Wynne puts it, “The paradox is that the book is a giant fart joke. There’s this huge vocabulary and complex technique, references to English literature and all kinds of obscure learning. But at the story level there’s a lot of low humor, base jokes, and a celebration of ordinary people.” So… I’m supposed to embrace a novel that’s the high-class version of Games Magazine?

Fine. Have it your way, “intellectuals.” I’ll stick with my picture books.

Picture books like Ulysses Seen. I saw it as my gateway to hang out with the cool kids and their leather-studded chaise lounges, their labyrinthine personal libraries, and their kick-ass pipes. And none other than The New Yorker, the Mother Flippin’ Gray Lady of the Print Establishment, called the comic “lush and comical.” The New Yorker! Incidentally, the only two other webcomics ever mentioned in that mag were xkcd and Dinosaur Comics, so Ulysses Seen is in some rarified company [2].

My first impression about the artistic style was that it reminded me a lot of Dave Gibbons’ work in Watchmen. [3] That is, the layouts are pretty matter-of-fact, and contours are marked off by neat, parallel inks. Everything’s grounded in reality. Nothing flashy. The delicate watercolors suit the story well so far, as Episode 1 is set in a tower by the sea. I don’t know if it’ll hold up when the narrative switches to Leopold Bloom’s masturbatory fantasies, though.

us3

Back when I posted news of Ulysses Seen in June, a commentor — after predictably deriding me as an “anti-intellectual” — went on to mention that while Ulysses was “a funny and entertaining novel,” he claimed that “that comic version is dry and uninteresting.” Fair enough. So I went back to read Episode 1: Telemachus on Project Gutenberg.

You know what? I’d say Robert Berry pretty much did a perfect job translating the script to comic form.

Did it raise my interest in actually reading Ulysses? Nope.

First, part of the blame lies in La qualité française [4] — that is, transcribing way too literal a translation. I’m not saying you need to put killer robots in there or something. However, when Shakespearean productions are making Julius Ceasar interesting by turning him into a Mafia don [5], then taking a few liberties might not be a bad thing.

Secondly, the opening to Ulysses is not exactly the most sparkling intro in the world. I mean, it begins with some fat dude, with his shirt open, lounging around in a tower and thinking he’s the height of humor by praying to a bowl of shaving cream. Good to see the smug guy is so pleased with himself. Brigid Alverson once said it was important to hook a reader in the first eight pages. Now, I took her to task on that assumption, but I now realize her point when Ulysses Seen makes me want to read that comic about the exploding dog instead.

If the annoying symbolism of Ulysses becomes too vague to decipher, Mike Barsanti [6] sticks annotations [7] for each and every page of the comic. For example, Buck Mulligan (the gross fat guy), his prayer, and his shaving bowl are accompanied with this excerpt:

Mulligan’s travesty of the Catholic mass continues with a joke about transubstantiation–he pretends to be changing his shaving lather into the body and blood of Christ. Rob and I had a long conversation about this passage and what Buck means when he says “back to barracks.” I see it as a garden-variety transubstantiation joke–wherein Mulligan is trying to keep the genie in the bottle, the spirit of Christ (or “christine,” as Mulligan will say in a moment) from escaping the shaving bowl before it can be transmuted into the shaving lather.

Well, OK, then!

us4

So, after 29 pages, I can’t say Ulysses Seenmade me want to ever read Ulysses. It seems like a fine translation … but do I want to really stick around for Episode 3, where, as Wikipedia describes it, “[Stephen Telemachus] he lies down among some rocks, watches a couple and a dog, writes some poetry ideas, picks his nose, and urinates behind a rock”? Or Episode 7, where “Bloom notices a worker typesetting an article in backwards print, and this reminds him of his father reading the Haggadah of Pesach”? Why don’t I just friggin’ install a tile floor in the master bathroom instead? I’m almost certain that the experience would be just as captivating, and I’d have a nice floor on which to dry off besides.

So thus I’m afraid that my dreams of raising my pinkie finger with the grey-haired literary elite have been dashed. I just can’t get into what is allegedly The Most Influential Work of English Literature, even if the only influence stream-of-consciousness writing ever had impact on was on emo LiveJournal posts that use too many run-on sentences.

Rating: 2 Stars (out of 5)

Annotations:

[1] – Ulysses was originally serialized in the US. I really would’ve liked to see the look on people’s faces when they realized that THIS was the last episode. Of course, maybe they would’ve appreciated it. There’s so much inaction that any change of tone would’ve been a blessed relief.

[2] – Though, in his interview, Ryan North did give a shout out to MS Paint Adventures and Nedroid, so I guess that counts.

[3] – Which is pretty fitting since Watchmen is often quoted as the Ulysses of comic books. I disagree. Things actually happen in Watchmen, for one.

[4] – The phrase was coined by François Truffaut, one of the influential French New Wave directors and a writer for the highly influential Cahiers du Cinéma film criticism magazine. He was refering to how French movies at the time were “nothing more than a matter of transposing (and hence, betraying) novelistic values from the page to the screen … that had nothing to do with the expressive qualities specific to the cinema.” (ref.: FilmLinc.com)

[5] – Which the Utah Shakespearean Festival did in 2008.

[6] – Mike Barsanti once curated the 2000 exhibit “Ulysses in Hand” at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin. He also calls himself a “Joyce Trekkie.” Hmmmm. Never has a description of a Joyce fan been more relevant and more precise.

[7] – ‘Cuz we know how intellectuals loooooooooove annotations.

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About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on August 1, 2009, in 2 Stars, dramatic webcomic, historical webcomic, literary adaptations, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. You uncultured barbarian! Thought I’d get in first with that.

  2. Well, I liked your review quite a bit, of course. Joyce is a tough read for people, but you did seem to nail a lot of what the trouble is these days with public opinion on his work. The novel itself is a lot of work and some people who’ve made it through just can’t stop reminding others of their own sense of accomplishment.

    There are some fantastic moments in that novel, though. Sorry if the work we’re doing here doesn’t help to encourage reading it, but I hope the comic itself is entertaining. Joyce is, without question, the funniest genius of a writer I could ever imagine working with. Try him in DUBLINERS first and you’ll see what I mean.
    -Rob

    • Thanks for taking the review in good humor, Rob. Despite my ranting, I still admire your drive in trying to open up Ulysses for the masses. I have to say, I think I understood the book better by reading “Ulysses Seen.”

      It doesn’t make Ulysses more palatable, per se, but it does make it easier to understand. :)

      • You know, this is a major problem with the book and something we definitely took into consideration in beginning the project. Joyce one said that he “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing…” But I don’t really think many of them realized that the joke was on them.
        To a large degree the greatness of this book has been done a disservice by scholars telling us just how great it is and why we should like it. The book, after all else is said and done, is really a celebration of the common man and the poetry of everyday life. But its told from a unique and very modern perspective of an author who draws on many sources; historical, contemporary, mythical and personal. it takes some decoding, sure, but its meant for everyone to enjoy once they’re inside the basic riddles.
        I really got started on this because I see the novel and its narrative style as very closely akin to how comics work as a storytelling medium. There are things that Joyce does here that with plasticity of time and the weight of visual symbol that are better adapted into comics than they might be in any other media. In fact, this novel invents some of the things that modern comics do best.
        That plus I like the idea of spending the next ten years of my life illustrating the very specific events of one day over a hundred years ago.
        Comics are a lot like this novel. They both been codified and put into a kind of niche market that moves them away from their original intent; to entertain and dazzle their readership. ULYSSES has never been for “the grey-haired literary elite” any more than comics have been just for kids or people trapped in adolescence. The hard part is getting people to think of them outside of the market they’ve become associated with.
        By the way, a great new book on this problem, and a beautiful introduction to the novel is Declan Kiberd’s “ULYSSES and Us” (sorry I can’t link here). I believe it was just released in the States this past week and a fantastic example of how the cultured try to tell us what culture is.
        -Rob

        • That reminds me of that GK Chesterton quote about Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky: “Poor, poor, little Alice! She has not only been caught and made to do lessons; she has been forced to inflict lessons on others.” The poem was supposed to be a jab at pretentious literary critics, and yet the poem itself became a subject of scholarly study. It makes me wonder, sometimes, if literary critics of that era were so insufferable that multiple authors were trying to put one over on ‘em.

          By the way, Rob, I gotta say you make some of the best pro-Joyce arguments I’ve ever heard. Your comments are very much valued and highly appreciated!

  3. You criticize Ulysses for being a novel where pretty much nothing happens, but that is (he says snootily) kind of the point: highlighting the absurdity of rainy gray modern Irish life when compared to the vibrant pre-Christian myths that the novel is structured on.

    just thought I’d be an irritating pedant

    /snoot

    • You make a good argument… but couldn’t Joyce have made the same point without resorting to custesy narrative devices or going on for six times the length that the novel needed to be? Couldn’t the sentiment have been encapsulated in 50k words (the NaNoWriMo minimum length for a novel)? I’m not trying to pick on you … I just asking if you thought Joyce’s experiments in storytelling ultimately paid off.

      • Nah I agree with you, I don’t think that Joyce really appeals to anyone outside of a very select group of self-appointed dour intellectuals. As far as length goes though, I guess that he (and his readers) were just really enjoying a story about aimless pathetic nobodies soaking in existential dread. I suppose that at the time, this was quite a fresh and honest look at life, so Joyce needed to make it as heavy an epic as possible to really give it some weight and make sure it had an impact.

  4. I really like Joyce’s short stories.

    His novels put me to sleep. The only other book to do that was the Silmarillion.

    • Hmm… maybe it’s time for a Silmarillion comic as well?

      • A Silmarillon comic would be chock-full of action, at least.

        Though I do tend to agree with William George. I know a lot of folks who consider the Silmarillon better than Lord of the Rings. I personally couldn’t get past the first few chapters.

  5. Joyce. Lord of the Rings. Might I suggest SpongeBob for the next dot on this graph we are charting?

  6. as a massive joyce/ulysses fan, i take issue with one of your comments:
    MULLIGAN IS NOT FAT! he is described as “plump” and “wellfed.” i’ve always pictured him as your basic fratboy type, and the story kind of makes more sense if he’s hot. the adjectives draw a contrast between him and stephen, highlighting mulligan’s life of privilege compared to stephen’s poverty, which has left him skinny with rotten teeth.
    but you don’t care. *sniff* why don’t you take care of your diy projects and leave my favorite book alone!

    • Stevie, Stevie, Stevie: “Plump” and “wellfed” are just nice ways of saying that someone’s a fatty. I know what I’m talking about. I read the comic. Mulligan has a round fish-belly.

  7. it’s hard to take criticism seriously from a person who admits he hasn’t read the book and doesn’t understand it.

    or from from a comics critic who devotes two paragraphs out of 30-odd to actually discussing the comic.*

    withal, “ulysses,” which has been continuously in print for 90 years, read by millions of people, translated into at least twenty languages, including chinese, made into two movies, excerpted in a hit play on broadway, will probably struggle on.

    *incidentally, for those who like puzzles, there is an error in the comic, repeated in several panels.

    • I like to think of it this way, cbarney: if I had read “Ulysses,” I would be very ill-qualified to read the comic from the perspective of someone who wonders if it would make me interesting in Joyce.

      Also, you know what else has been read by millions of people and translated into a bunch of languages? Pretty much anything that’s been in continuous print for 90 years. This includes anything written by Jules Verne, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens.

      • my own opinion is that the comic by itself would be a poor introduction to joyce. it’s interesting as one person’s take on the novel.

        as for jules verne, jane austen, and dickens – not bad literary company, wouldn’t you say?

      • I’m sorry to hear you think the comic is a poor introduction to Joyce, cbarney. We really do try to do our best to not only bring new readers to the novel but also to invite active discussion and debate from more experienced Joyce fans in the annotation section. Hopefully through that kind of exchange more people will enjoy this book outside of a classroom setting.

        I’ve mentioned numerous times on the site how making a comic like this would not be possible without ongoing web-based comments from fans helping me catch the details and nuance of the novel and the period. If there is an error repeated through several panels as you mention, then I’d hope you be kind enough to let us know what it is so that I might correct it or explain my choice for doing it differently. I enjoy puzzles as much as any Joyce fan, but I prefer help in revealing them to people who wish to understand the work rather than keeping the answers to myself or a few friends. I think that latter approach is part of the problem readers like El Santo encounter when trying to appreciate Joyce and what the other paragraphs of his review were all about.

        Being in print for 90 years is certainly a triumph for any piece of literature, but if we take a look at the pattern of sales outside of the classroom environment we might see some problems on the horizon. Through comics and other web-based media we have a great opportunity to bring difficult, enigmatic and “research-heavy” books like ULYSSES to a whole new audience of readers. Not because they should read it in order to know the hallmarks of great literature, but because its thoroughly enjoyable book on many levels and I’ve seldom met a person who, once making it all the way through the labyrinth of language and method, wasn’t eager to read it again and again.
        -Rob

        • rob —

          i apologize for the offhand comment about the comic not being a good introduction to ulysses; it may well be. have you tested it that way? i merely felt that the pictures might get in the way of the text. and if one is to go back and forth between pictures and explanatory material, that interrupts the narrative. but to be honest, i hadn’t given this much thought. i certainly did enjoy the comic myself.

          as to the error, it has to do with the number of entry ports to the tower. from my own visits, and from a couple of pictures i took, i think there are only two such ports, both of them on the land side of the tower. however in the comic, there are ports on the seaside in panels 3,4,5 (which also shows, correctly, the two doors on the land side), 6,8,16, 21, and 22. panel 23 even shows a door on the sea side from a point of view looking through the door on the land side. panel 25 has a door on the sea side though the aerial point of view shows clearly that there could be no place for it to go.

          on the other hand, panels 9, 10, 12,and 13 show no doors on the sea side.

          you are probably aware of these anomalies, but they do seem like errors to me; after all, you wouldn’t show no. 7 eccles on the wrong side of the street.

          forgive my thoughtless remark about the value of the comic; it is certainly a wonderful contribution to joyceana.

          best regards,

          clif

        • Thanks for the response, clif. If El Santo doesn’t mind me hogging the space, I’ll respond here.

          The question of accuracy to the real Martello tower in Dublin is something we dealt with in response to other readers’ similar questions in the readers’ guide portion of the site for those pages (sorry, I can’t link to it here in a reply thread).

          Quite a lot of Joyce’s novel deals with verisimilitude and historical accuracy of course, but I think these are things that are more important in the narrative voice of some of the novel’s episodes and, perhaps, less important in the first chapter “Telemachus.” Personally, I feel this kind of attention to “real-world” detail sacrifices a lot of the expressive power of cartooning and wanted to make a case against it in these first few pages through which people become comfortable with my own style. I decided to pare down the environment and surrounding details to a simple stage setting that would allow readers to concentrate on the dialogue between these two characters and ease their way into how the story moves from that into the narrator’s voice and into Stephen’s internal monologue. I felt that was important to readers’ who might be encountering the book here first and might, I hope, help them struggle over one of the more confusing problems first-timers have with Joyce; sorting just who is doing the talking.

          The doors are wrong, the staircase doesn’t really apply to shape of the wall and the tower itself seems to change proportion to suit the demands of tensions in the dialogue of the two characters. Basically speaking, I chose to reduce the top of Martello tower to the stage of a Beckett play. I tried to think of the roundness of the tower to give me the opportunity of treating like a bullring or arena. Visitors to the real Martello tower will also notice that Hothshead, clearly visible from there, is missing from the pictures. That’s the Beckett again. I wanted to work off the “omphalos” comments being made and start the conflicts between these two characters quite literally in the middle of nowhere.

          No need to ask for any forgiveness here, clif, because I’m well aware of the fact that I never would be able to do something like this project without the active participation of fans of the novel. I’m going to get quite a lot of it wrong along the way and need experienced Joyceans to help keep those errors to a minimum. Many very smart people have spent many long lifetimes dedicated to researching the mysteries and puzzles of this novel. Its arrogant enough to assume I can do justice the work through drawing it, but it’d be just plain foolish to believe I can answer some of these enigmas without the help of fellow Joyce-heads.

          Thanks for watching and keeping it honest,
          -Rob

        • Don’t ever worry about taking up to much space on this blog, guys. I started the Webcomic Overlook up with the hopes that sparkling discussions like this would occur. Perhaps some wouldn’t find it comic related … but ultimately it is!

          Rob brings up a fine point about the benefits of working in different media, something I tried to point out about my quote about “La qualité française.” There are advantages in the comics medium that would be sterilized in a strict translation.

          Also, cbarney, I like to consider my little review to be the actual “newbie product test” (which is why it was important that I hadn’t read Ulysses beforehand).

  8. “Over the years, The Webcomic Overlook has offended many different kinds of people: [snip] Bobby Crosby, to name a few.”

    I feel you, man. It’s almost impossible NOT to offend Bobby Crosby. I wrote a glowing review of his latest webcomic on my own blog…and the crazy guy lashed out at me with so many insults and so much vulgar language that the webmaster had to step in and ban him from the site.

    My crime? I warned people interested in leaving comments on the comic’s site that Crosby has a temper. He pretty much proved my point for me excellently with his reaction to my review–which, I must say again, was basically a love letter of how much I adored his work. I still read the comic, but the creator’s behaviour has certainly dampened my appreciation of it.

  9. I think you really get to the heart of the matter. If your don’t like or don’t want to read Ulysses, there’s no point in reading the comic. Its not anti-intellectualism, its simply taste. I am English scholar by trade and even I have difficulty getting into Joyce’s writing. Sure, he writes at a genius level, but is it entertaining? Only when you’re ready for it and are ready to make the necessary extraction of text to enjoy it. A comic is meant to be enjoyable. Sure its a fine intellectual project, but if you want to be entertained, you should stay away

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