Thursday, April 8, 2010

Review - Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
by Robert Louis Stevenson
Adapted by Jerry Kramsky and Lorenzo Mattotti
2003 Eisner Winner for Best U.S. Edition of Foreign Material

I was surprised to find out recently that Classics Illustrated is still around. If you've never heard of them it was a comic book series that started in the early fifties and adapted works of literature to a comic book format. They varied the length a bit over the run but generally they tried to fit a novel into around forty comic book pages. The original U.S. publication stopped in the early 1970's but other spin offs from around the world continued sporadically and it is currently being reprinted each month in the U.K. The quality of the adaption was never very good but often the illustrations were usually better than most. This adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde isn't from the Classics Illustrated line but it would have fit in without any trouble since like their older, American counterparts the quality of the writing isn't the best but the artwork is incredible.

There is a man by the name of Dr. Jekyll. Jekyll is a well off man who dabbles in chemistry and wonders about the nature of morality and if a human being's mind could be divided. Then there's Mr. Hyde who runs wild in the town at night satiating his vast appetites as the id run wild. Jekyll's friends look for the link between them and are shocked by what they find.

A problem with a direct adaptation of Stevenson's novel is that the identity of Hyde is the novel's major plot twist. It's a plot twist that has become so ubiquitous that trying to treat it as a plot twist would be confusing to someone who has not read the novel. So most people who adapt the story wind up restructuring it entirely and that is exactly what Kramsky has done. He reworks the novel so the focus is on Jekyll's loss of control and unleashed passions rather than the mystery of who Hyde is. This aspect of the adaptation is fine; transforming the character into a sex crazed serial killer is bit blunt but it does filter the themes through an appropriately modern lens.

Unfortunately when it comes to the actual prose (and this may not be Kramsky's fault since this is a translation) it is tough going. It's been a few decades since I read the novel but it felt like the translation was copying and pasting bits of Stevenson's writing into the word balloons and descriptive captions. The slow pace of nineteenth century writing runs headlong into the fast pace of the modern comic and the writing comes across worse for it. Clipping out overwritten sentences and reassembling them to match the artwork made it tough to read. And if these were edited from Stevenson's own words then the translator was attempting a similar style. Either way this book cried out for a livelier pace in the actual prose.

The art on the other hand is about as lively as you can get. Mattotti uses an almost cubist style for the book with strange perspectives and angular, flattened faces dominating. Colors are handled in huge blocks create stunning contrasts. I can't call it a beautiful book because the artwork isn't beautiful; it's glaring, sharp, and twisted. It's also astounding to look at which makes me thing that Mattotti has achieved exactly the effect that he wanted with it.

It's best to think of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as an art book that happens to follow a plot. The plot itself isn't presented very well but the artwork is something that is memorable. I may leave it out on my coffee table just to flip through from time to time because of that.