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Updated: November 10, 2013 16:26 IST

Pen, ink, passion

Vaishna Roy
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A panel illustrating T.S. Eliot's 'Prufrock'
Special Arrangement A panel illustrating T.S. Eliot's 'Prufrock'

The author marvels at a little-known artist’s efforts to adapt classic poetry to comic form.

When certain phrases, the cadence of their words or the mood they evoke, have been reverberating in your head for decades, to see the phrases illustrated is like someone opening the door to a secret chamber. That’s how I felt when I stumbled upon Julian Peters’ online comic book version of T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. It has always been one of those poems that you feel was written especially for you, evoking memories of your own personal cityscape and mindscape. I have walked those streets of insidious intent, been overwhelmed by those questions, been paralysed by indecision wondering if I dare. Peters’ drawings of those winding lanes and their shadows, the street lamps and cobblestones make you gasp in recognition, as if someone had entered the back alleys of your mind and taken pictures of the pictures you had taken of Eliot’s city.

This Montreal-based art history student and artist specialises in adapting classic poetry into comic form, and Julian Peters Comics (www.julianpeterscomics.com) is the name of the blog where he has put up a selection of his illustrated versions of work that ranges from child prodigy Émile Nelligan’s poetry to Arthur Rimbaud’s ‘Sensations’ to John Keats’ classic ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ to even a Manga rendering of W.B. Yeats’ ‘When You Are Old’. The comments section of the blog is filled with admiration and clamours asking when he will publish in book form and where one can buy the prints.

Often, the stumbling block of a book rendered into film is that your head rebels against the way a story you have internalised has been visualised by the director. His version of a character or the way a scene plays out is not how you have ‘seen’ it. It’s often the same with graphic versions of the classics. Peters’ drawings, somehow, don’t fall into that trap. Is it because he deals primarily with poetry, which is more abstract and, therefore, we are instinctively more amenable to multiple imaginings? Or is it possibly because he chooses to be quite literal with the way he renders the poems? For instance, his splendid drawing of the iconic opening lines of ‘Prufrock’ (‘Let us go then, you and I/When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherized upon a table’) quite literally has an etherised patient merging into the foreground of the evening street down which a distant tram trundles and bowler-hatted men walk home.

I was conquered even earlier, though. Right at the epigraph, where the brooding Italian of Dante’s Inferno comes alive like no translation ever can. This directness, possibly one of the greatest gifts of the graphic artist, is at its best when Peters illustrates ‘Déraison’ (Insanity) and ‘Le fou’ (The Madman) by Émile Nelligan, the Canadian who had a mental breakdown aged 20 and never recovered. After the poems, there are two last panels — one showing his parents leading a hunched Nelligan to an asylum; the second a desolate autumnal sketch of leafless trees with the words that the poet never wrote again (‘Il n’a plus jamais rien écrit.’) It’s a marriage of text and image that is stunning in brevity and impact.

The drawings for ‘Déraison’ and ‘Le Fou’ reminded me of Epileptic, the incredibly moving and disturbing graphic novel of one family’s battle with their son’s epilepsy. The intimacy that Pierre-Francois Beauchard (writing as David B.) builds between the reader and the protagonist is terrifying in its detail, its suggestion of complicity. And Peters’ images evoke the same response.

His illustrations for Rimbaud’s ‘Le Bateau Ire’ (The Drunken Boat) is a fascinating combination of what you would imagine he might do for Tennyson’s Ulysses or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness — brooding, seething panels that teem with strange life and a seaman’s visions. Unforgettable lines like these — ‘I saw star archipelagos, isles of light, whose delirious skies lie open to the wanderer…’ or this one ‘I have wept too much; how dawn breaks the heart…’ come alive in a fever of black and white lines.

Peters does not usually play with typography, letting his pictures do the talking. But sometimes, a subtle variation hits hard. In Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Annabel Lee’, in the haunting lines ‘And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side/of my darling - my darling - my life and my bride…’ the second ‘my darling’ is in a different font, heartbreaking in its loud solitude in that large drawing of a starry black seaside.

Fame is catching up with Julian Peters. Some of his drawings for Keats’ ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ were included in the Illustrating Keats exhibit that took place at the Keats-Shelley House in Rome in 2012; and a French translation of the comic is to be included in Le Canon Graphique, according to the artist. I am fairly certain we are going to be seeing a lot more of this artist. And it won’t be a day too soon.

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