The Webcomic Overlook #93: Ulysses Seen
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.
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? 
&*#%!!! 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 .
My first impression about the artistic style was that it reminded me a lot of Dave Gibbons’ work in Watchmen.  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.
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  — 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 , 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  sticks annotations  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!
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)
 – 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.
 – Though, in his interview, Ryan North did give a shout out to MS Paint Adventures and Nedroid, so I guess that counts.
 – Which is pretty fitting since Watchmen is often quoted as the Ulysses of comic books. I disagree. Things actually happen in Watchmen, for one.
 – 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)
 – Which the Utah Shakespearean Festival did in 2008.
 – 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.
 – ‘Cuz we know how intellectuals loooooooooove annotations.
Posted on August 1, 2009, in 2 Stars, dramatic webcomic, historical webcomic, literary adaptations, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged James Joyce, Joyce, Ulysses, Ulysses Seen. Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.