By Pedro Moura
Dispossession is an adaptation of John Caldigate, Anthony Trollope’s 1879 novel.
That was easy.
But something’s amiss. Perhaps we should speak instead of “inspired by,” because this does not seem to be a clear-cut adaptation of a several hundred page, meandering, Victorian, triple-decker novel into a modern graphic novel. But are we completely sure of what we mean when we refer to a “clear-cut adaptation”, or to “Victorian novel”, or even “modern graphic novel?” Perhaps not, and Dispossession nurtures much of its strengths, in point of fact, precisely on the interstices of such knowledge.
Simon Grennan is living proof that creativity does not necessarily draw solely on inspiration, intuition, muse-whispered impressions and embodied expression. An accomplished scholar himself, Grennan brings to the fore the magnitude of the creative forces that drive academic research, intellectual endeavor, and artistic inquiries, via careful, patient, and thought-out industry. One can read Dispossession singularly or one can read it immersed in its wider context, to wit, its creation in the framework of Trollope’s bicentenary under the Belgium Paul Druwe Fund, which also originated a sort of companion piece in a collection of academic essays issued by the new comics scholarship series from Leuven University Press: Transforming Trollope. Dispossession, Victorianism and Nineteenth-Century Word and Image (from which most quotes in this article are drawn).
This scholarship book is co-edited by Grennan himself and Laurence Grove, and it collects ten essays, plus an interview, by leading international comics scholars or academics from contiguous areas (literary studies, illustration, other media) that act upon the “fields” that, one way or the other, traverse Dispossession as, at one time, a contemporary graphic novel, an adaptation/remediation to a comics work, an encounter between text and image, a reassessment in late modernity of Trollope’s writing, an opportunity to rethink late-19th century British society, and so on. Presented in three sections – one specifically about Dispossession, the other focusing on 19th century visual culture, and the last addressing issues of connecting with Victorian culture – the essays deal with very specific themes and objects, not always directly linking to the modern comic book project, but that in their entirety coalesce into that which Grennan addresses in his interview with John Miers as “types of knowledge” or a series of “special knowledge.”
Plot-wise, Dispossession is about the fame and fortune of John Caldigate, a young man of high bourgeoisie extraction. After finding himself disinherited by his father, vexed by his son’s wanton abandonment of a gentleman’s demeanor, he sails to New South Wales, where he will make his own fortune in goldmining, before returning to England and marrying his first love. However, a woman Caldigate met on his way to Australia on the ship, and with whom he would establish a long-lasting out-of-wedlock relationship, the widower Mrs. Euphemia Smith, also returns to England, claiming to be his wife. An intricate blackmailing plot, as well as legal and family-life trouble, ensue, leading to a prolonged trial, solved by the ultimate nitpicking clue, thanks to a Postal Services’ eagle-eyed employee (using Trollope’s real life professional knowledge).
All of these plotlines are indeed present in Dispossession, but even if calling it an “adaptation” seems to be a sufficient explanation, one must be wary of the facile notions that come with its use. When we think of an adaptation, what are we thinking of? More often than not, we refer to the plot, the chain of events that “make up” the story of any given narrative. But as Ian Hague points out in his essay in Transforming Trollope, an adaptation may be “faithful” also to “the ideas and concepts, the characters, the style, the structure or something else” (192). Simon Grennan’s take is in fact attentive to “something else,” a tone, if you will, but he also is quite attentive to the specificities of structure and visual style that are afforded by contemporary comics, or rather, by the diverse history of the comics medium, in order to come up with something quite unique.
For instance, literary critics discuss how Trollope purposively created a character in John Caldigate that seems too complacent, and too difficult to sympathize with; one could say that this character “creates some distance” from us. This distance is visually embodied by Grennan’s choice of drawing every single page with a similar 2×3 grid panel, and every single panel with a similar full-body shot, something that David Skilton calls “the representation of fictional action as though it was being played out on a stage” (89). This proscenium-like vista was in fact a very common, albeit not exclusive, regime for quite a long time, both in 19th-century book-bound comics (at least since from Töpffer and those who followed suit) and newspaper comics (Steinlen, Willette, Christophe, Bordalo Pinheiro, Caran D’Ache, etc.), and it would continue throughout the 20th century; one but has to look at Little Nemo or Krazy Kat. This is but one trait in which, as Peter Wilkins writes, “Simon Grennan… actively seek[s] visual analogues for [Trollope’s] prose style” (224).
Grennan’s version demands the reader, instead of concentrating solely on the plot – what is happening? – to slow down one’s delight of both the reading act and the textual matter presented to our eyes and senses – how is this happening? As Jacques Rancière writes in relationship to cinema, there is a demand here “to replace yesterday’s stories and characters with the impersonal deployment of signs written on things, restoring the speeds and intensities of the real world” (The Intervals of Cinema). As of course, this mention to the real world seems a little off when considering such a book that brings to the fore its very artificiality. Rancière called “the disappearance of any obvious sign of art in its product” the style of the movies he is analyzing in the quoted work, a disappearance achieved by the mechanicity of the camera. This is something that literature cannot reach in the same way. It needs artifice. Comics, in this equation, may be seen, to a certain extent, halfway. Or rather, enmeshed in the textures of the artist’s particular style (more naturalistic, more stylized, rendered with crosshatching or with a minimalist approach, and so on). The unrelenting regular grid of Grennan’s book, the distance that prevents us from “reading” the character’s expressions, the garish colors mixed with quick, sketch-like brushwork, as close as it can get to a calligraphic draughtsmanship, and the obsessive loose parallel linework in every surface create a paradoxical ulterior presence of the artist’s graphiation – the act of drawing is not invisible at all – and the Rancière’s restoration of “the speeds and intensities of the real world.”
In the essay book, a long interview with John Miers allows the author to minutely describe and discuss such highly thought-out structure, which invites the reader to reread Dispossession with a different outlook towards its qualities as a manufactured object. After all, there is a specific sensorial dimension to Dispossession that bolsters such artifice. Grennan is aware that most comics that address adaptations, transformations or usages stemming from 19th Century British and/or North American literature (Victorian, Gothic, etc.) make specific stylistic choices that are seen as “more appropriate” to the subject matter (see also Julian Round’s book on the subject, Gothic in Comics and Graphic Novels). This is, of course, a generalization, but more often than not it is true that we’ll find black-and-white work, with lots of crosshatching, stippling, and a number of recurrent tropes, if not outright storylines and characters.
In French, the physical support of the drawings is named “page,” whereas the visual structure that make up the comics-specific text is called ”planche”. This becomes very clear in Dispossession, as we realize that each planche focuses on one particular “slice” of the plot, where space, actors, time and action is concerned. Here we find again another factor that allies theatre and illustration (and comics). Many of the illustrations that accompanied 19th century literature, according to Skilton’s essay, were called “scenes” (89). As of course, when I compare theatre scenes to 19th century and early 20th century comics visual strategies, I am well aware that I am skipping extremely important differences, such as the use of a multitude of different kinds of panels or frameworks, the use of smoother transitions or just blank space, as well as the types of settings (closed spaces vs. open ones), format and composition, and so on, stressing solely the use of a one-sided perspective and the view of entire bodies inside the panels. The point, however, is that this leads to yet another paradoxical nature, or so I believe. On the one hand, each page is blatantly plot-driven, as it dissects and presents the development of a meeting, an argument, a dialog, a particular situation. However, every time we shift from page to page, the passage is abrupt, sudden, jarring even, which undermines, to a certain extent, the usual “flow” of what we call plot-driven stories. Each page becomes a unit in a series, a sequence, of staccato-like advancements.
The intervals between each panel seem to be a little stretched as well, leading to transitions that are less clear than usual, to movement progressions slightly more difficult to suture together. In his interview with J. Miers, Grennan affirms that within the many possibilities of visual storytelling regimes, the choice of a realistic, “clear” depiction of time-progression and the character’s gestures, as one comes across in the “cinematic” approaches of most comics nowadays “is only one type of possible ‘manipulation’. All images and sequences of images produce a temporal order of some sort.” (37) Those wider intervals, then, not only underline the “artificial” nature we have been referring to, as well as the theatrical quality underneath its research, as it also contributes to a feeling, almost below the threshold of perception, of an incremental, sharp, sudden articulation of time.
Such unusual manipulation of time opens up the possibility of an extra layer of meaning to be inculcated into the “original plot.” Instead of subsuming the images into a mere “retelling” of a story, they force the reader to relish in the interstices and the details of what the visual matter brings up. The “something else” lies there, just as it did in the outstanding illustrations of 19th century literature. Quite contrarily to popular belief, sometimes shared by scholars who do not study attentively this chapter in the history of the discipline, 19th-century illustration, specifically if associated with (what later would be called) “high” or “true” literature, is indeed quite sophisticated, and does bring an extra layer of meaning. However, they do bear a code that one must study (or be embedded in, culturally speaking) to “get”. David Skilton dedicated his chapter on the academic book precisely to the rhetorical strategies found in certain Victorian works, such as John Tenniel’s illustrations for F. W. Robinson’s Grandmother’s Money or John Everett Millais’ for Trollope’s own Framley Parsonage.
Moreover, this bold new regime, precisely because it “feels” unnatural within a conventional understanding of comics’ modern specificities, draws the reader closer to alternative, older and often neglected visual storytelling strategies. Barbara Postema, in her assessment of the transformation from 19th- to 20th-century comics and the emergence of wordless works, quotes Thierry Smolderen, who considered how “storylines” without words “often became more causality-driven” (143). Grennan creates slightly “longer” transitions between scenes, where reference points for the movements of the bodies are not always given, forcing us to actually engage in a stronger relationship between text and image, or “a combination of verbal and visual referencing, or bimodal textuality, as it is now increasingly called” (Skilton: 92). This wider interval opens up to yet another important “something else” from Trollope’ writing. Perhaps its most important trait. Ambiguity.
D. Skilton reinforces this aspect when he writes that in “later Trollope… readers are often left uncertain about important facts, so that they must become active in their collaboration in the processes of meaning-production” (97). Ambiguity seems to be quite the keyword in John Caldigate and, consequently, in Dispossession, where it gains further power. This seems to be Dispossession’s most profound strength as well, inviting the reader to engage with the text in unexpected, open-ended manners. In his chapter about Moby Dick and comics adaptations, Peter Wilkins states that “the person who can engage with uncertainty and ambiguity triumphs over the person who would eradicate them” (218). Dispossession plentifully offers moments of ambiguity both on a microscopic level (panel to panel, singular gestures, a few dialogues, an unfinished thought) and macroscopic (events that take months, relationships that are not “solved”, and so on).
The book is filled with visual interpolations, such as quotations from English 19th-century painting, illustration and specific knowledges (those discussed by Grennan in the interview), drawing from multiple sources that enrich the reading of the novel by those who master such references, but they are not “keys” necessary for a more straightforward reading. However, the interpolation of wider episodes or scenes may bring to the fore aspects of its social world that the original novel may have underplayed. Above these all are the parts in which the “Others” of the book, namely, the Wiradjuri people, are detached from a purportedly “exotic background” and are brought to the fore, even if momentarily, and show how many of the passions, concerns, and family dynamics are quite similar to “ours.” In fact, during those pages, it is John Caldigate’s and Mrs. Smith’s convoluted love story that becomes background noise, if not totally neglected. Or perhaps mirrored or conveyed through the dialogs of the Wiradjuri folk, who speak in their own native tongue (the reader must use the translation at the back of the book). This speaks volumes of Grennan’s engagement with a contemporary ethic of responsibility through the comics medium in order to address the past, or as Walter Benjamin would put it, “telescoping the past through the present”. These are perhaps the parts where it becomes quite clear, as Hugo Frey himself writes, that Dispossession is one of those projects, in its consideration as an adaptation, in which “the graphic novel takes control of the source novel”. (64)
Be sure to check out Pedro Moura’s interview with Simon Grennan, and get your copies of Grennan’s works and other texts mentioned in this Critical Take: