Newer; Faster; Better

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Comix as memoir, covered in the last installment of TIME.comix, is just one of the many underused approaches to comicbook narrative. The adaptation of other media has become a lost genre in graphic literature. From the 1940s to the early 60s Gilberton Publications' "Classics Illustrated," featured "Stories by the World's Greatest Authors," as the tagline said. Since then, except for the mostly execrable "franchising" of sci-fi movies and TV series, comicbooks have done little exploring in the adaptation of other media. Of late it has been one publisher, the New York-based NBM (Nantier, Beall and Minoustchine) that has consistently published very fine, full color, hardcover literary adaptations by top comix artists. In the past few months they have produced three exceptionally well-done works: "The Yellow Jar," based on Japanese folk tales, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," based on the Robert Louis Stevenson novella, and an adaptation of Marcel Proust's immense "Remembrance of Things Past."

The third installment of Stephane Huete's Proust project — which will likely last until 2020 — has just been released in English. With the intention of adapting all seven volumes of the French masterpiece, Huete's latest continues the story of volume two: "Within a Budding Grove." Set at a French seaside resort at the turn of century, the narrator is a young man of delicate temperament. Vacationing among the idle rich, our hero spies a group of young women around the resort and has his fancy drift from one to the other. Who will the young man choose and will she reciprocate? This, the strongest "plot" of the series so far, provides the narrative thread that Proust then strings his poetic pearls along. In a medium where plot traditionally comes first, it's hard to believe that a comic can be about leisurely day trips, conversation, fashion and the politics of class and sex. Paced like a Summer's stroll, part two of Huete's "Within a Budding Grove" is about the way a young man learns to read the world.

First covered by TIME.comix in 2001, when volume one appeared, you can see improvements even over that fine debut. Primarily Heuet has cut down on the prose and given us more to look at. His highly detailed costumes and backgrounds have the sumptuousness of a Merchant and Ivory movie. This book in particular, with its lovely views of the French seaside, provides much to please the eye. The pictures perfectly compliment the dreamy, poetic text. A typical line by the narrator sums up the pleasures of this book: "I was attempting to find beauty where I'd never thought it might be, in the most ordinary of things, in the profundity of 'still lives.'"

Nearly opposite to this search for beauty is the adaptation of "Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (64pp.; $15.95) by Lorenzo Mattotti and Jerry Kramsky, with art by Mattotti. Of the three adaptations covered here, this one takes the most liberties with the original material. Organized more like a mystery, R. L. Stevenson's original 1886 novella kept Dr. Jekyll's secret until two-thirds through the book. No longer a mystery to anyone, Mattotti and Kramsky wisely focus instead on Jekyll's motivations in releasing the nefarious Hyde. They have juiced things up by turning Hyde into a sex fiend whose animal lusts culminate when he tears a prominent socialite to pieces. Thus, while Mattotti and Kramsky retain the original's central hypothesis that man has two natures, they move it to a place that Stevenson would not or could not go.

Mr. Hyde starts to get a little crazy

Significantly, the authors have updated the story from the gaslight era to the jazz age. Now Jekyll shoots up his potion rather than famously drinking a bubbling brew. This shift allows Mattotti to reference all the "modern" art styles of the beginnings of the modern age. Though ostensibly located in London, visually Mattotti has moved the action to Weimar Berlin. Filled with grotesque faces and crippled veterans, Mattotti evokes the world depicted by such "degenerate" German artists as George Grosz and Otto Dix. Other scenes take on the fractured look of Braque and Picasso's cubist work. His lines curve and twist, zig and zag, constantly delighting the eye but never losing form. Using an ochre-colored brush for the outlines and masterful shading with colored pencils Mattotti has created one the most richly, almost garishly, colored comix I have ever seen. In a manner that belongs exclusively to comix, Mattotti and Kramsky have brilliantly used both graphics and narrative to turn "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" into a treatise on the nature of the modern age.

My personal favorite of NBM's recent adaptations, "The Yellow Jar" (48 pp.; $12.95) by the previously unpublished Patrick Atangan, doesn't look or read anything like your typical Japanese comic. No saucer eyes, robots or schoolgirl outfits can be found. With Hokusai and Gustav Klimt as his influences Atangan has adapted a pair of Japanese folk tales into a gorgeous hybrid of comix and prints of ancient Japan. The titular story begins when a fisherman collects a yellow jar in his net. Somewhat disappointed that it contains no treasure, instead he finds that it holds a sleeping woman. She agrees to be his wife, but upon discovering that he has hidden her jar, she disappears. Searching for his wife, the fisherman finds her captured by a demon warrior and must rescue her with the aid of a cowardly elephant and a lame ox. Full of adventure, romance and magic, "The Yellow Jar" and its companion story, "Two Chrysanthemum Maidens," about of a pair of flower sisters who take up residence in a monk's prized garden, couldn't be more delightful.

The fisherman's wife begins to drown in her own tears

Combining the tableaus and stunning organization of Japanese prints with the narrative and expression of Japanese theater, Patrick Atangan's comix feel alive with Japanese high culture. When he's not showing off carefully arranged landscapes, Atangan gives us highly dynamic action sequences. Even when two characters are talking he charges the scene with visual energy. He does this by careful attention to exiting color patterns and vibrant "camera" angles, but mostly he creates action with the hands. When the fisherman and his wife are reunited we see only a close-up of their hands, with their distinctively chubby, curled fingers dancing with each other. Clearly referencing ancient Japanese theater's use of hand positions, Atangan puts more care into the arrangement of fingers and palms than a less interesting artist will put into an entire page. Visually complex while being incredibly easy to read, "The Yellow Jar" has the kind of magic that will appeal as much to children as adults. You won't believe it's his first book.

As "The Remembrance of Things Past" series, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," and "The Yellow Jar" attest, adapting other works into comix format can enrich not just the comix medium but the original as well. While we may not see any comix versions of the latest Michael Crichton there are plenty of (lapsed copyright) classics out there for otherwise unknown artists to rework into their own. If writers borrow and poets steal, let comix artists swipe.

All three books can be found at superior comic stores and online bookstores as well.