Graphic Gore: Three Vidal Books That Should Be Graphic Novels (Part 1)

Gore Vidal around the time his first novel was published.

I love Gore Vidal. He was controversial, polarizing, complicated, in many ways unlikeable, in others, impossible not to like-a figure who more than earned his place in this country’s pantheon of unforgettable people.

One of the things I like best about him is that he’s unclassifiable. You can call him a novelist, a cultural commentator, or a political pundit. He does fit all of those, yet he’s slippery enough that something in each category doesn’t apply, and he’s many other things besides.

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He’s mourned by many, though he took no pains to endear himself to the world or even many of the people in his life, including his own parents. Dry, cynical, and razor-tongued (one of my favorites, though there are so many to choose from: referring to Ronald Reagan as a “triumph of the embalmer’s art”), Vidal is remembered for his quips, but his brilliance and the sharpness of his view into the American psyche has edified three generations, and will continue to do so even now that he’s gone. He grew up amidst Washington royalty, cavorted with Kennedys, literary figures ranging from Ana√Øs Nin to Jack Karouac, and Hollywood A-listers, yet he was the perennial outsider, his observations carrying all the deadly accuracy-and often the bitterness-of that status.

I discovered him some time in my 20s, through his memoir Palimpsest. I don’t recommend that anyone start exploring his life or his body of work through that particular book, since it’s a sort of coda to all his doings and writings over the decades, but introductions are introductions. A bit like me reading a retrospective before anything else, Palimpsest itself begins with the big secret of Vidal’s life given away up front: that he fell in love with Jimmy Trimble, a schoolmate who died in Iwo Jima in 1945, that Jimmy was the great love of his life, and that none ever replaced him. This experience, the memory of that doomed love and the many courses it could have followed, haunted him and saturated all his fiction. That book changed my world, gave me insights into this country and its origins, and made Vidal a subject of curiosity for me to this day. There’s little of his work that I haven’t enjoyed reading, much of it for its pure irascibility.

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But Vidal will probably be remembered mostly as a fiction writer. In the hundreds of thousands of words that he’s left for posterity, there are many powerful images, cross sections of entire cultures, and characters of depth and complexity. Many of his works have been interpreted visually-for film, television, and for the stage, including The Best Man, which plays on Broadway even now-but never as graphic novels. Perhaps that should change.

In this short series, I will cover three books of Vidal’s that are my personal favorites, and talk about how they might work if they were converted into a graphic medium. Or, to put it more precisely, stories of his I’d give my eye teeth to be the one to adapt, were such a thing ever possible-partly because I think they would lend themselves to the format, and partly because I enjoyed them and saw their stories so vividly in my mind as I read them.

So, for starters, one of Vidal’s best known and earliest works: The City and the Pillar.

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This book was first published in 1948 (and hasn’t been out of print since), the same year George Orwell put out Nineteen Eighty Four, and three years after the death of Jimmy Trimble. It scandalized the whole world, in large part because it matter-of-factly describes, in Vidal’s artificially flattened, plain prose and deliberately clunky dialogue, a love affair between two men.

With The City and the Pillar, Vidal deliberately set out to break the stereotypes set up by the very few literary works of the preceding two centuries that even hinted at homosexuality, by making one of the male lovers described in the book an athlete, and the other a member of the armed forces. But the story doesn’t consist only of the plight of lovelorn boys separated by wartime.

Jimmy Trimble, the boy to whom The City and the Pillar is dedicated (“J.T.”).

Vidal (as he reveals in Palimpsest) created a narrator who is a fusion of himself and his dead lover Jimmy, to whose memory Vidal dedicated the book. This character follows some of Vidal’s own journey through the hidden gay lives that played out in late 40s Hollywood behind closed doors, private gates, and marriages arranged by movie studios, in a way that had never been so vividly or frankly revealed. The book also discusses the presence of gay men in the military half a century before such a thing was widely talked about. Powerful stuff, and the book cost Vidal most of his friends when it came out. Many of them stayed away from him for decades; others never forgave him. The New York Times refused to advertise the novel, Vidal was blacklisted with every major publication, and no one would review his books for another six years. Vidal, always quick with his wry epigrams, said that “shock was the most pleasant emotion aroused in the press.”

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There are deeply troubling aspects to the story, without a doubt. In many ways, it’s an articulation of Vidal’s discomfort with the very labels associated with modern homosexuality, as it was thought of in his times and in ours, and his own murky identification with them. The characters are steeped in what we might call internalized homophobia in a time period completely intolerant of two men having a relationship. The story is rife with hostility and violence toward gay men, and if it were released today, some of the controversy might concern this aspect of it: that it’s built upon an often-stated hatred and contempt of practically anything and everything we might call “gay.” Vidal never made any bones about it; he considered what he called “institutionalized homosexuality” in America to be the province of triviality, silly queers (his words, I hasten to add, not mine), and effeminacy, in contrast to an abstracted Greek ideal that he greatly admired.

Yet in other ways, beyond this arguably homophobic frame, The City and the Pillar is a love story of profound, timeless beauty and universal relevance, the more poignant and tragic because it plays out within a society so closed to any possibility of it ever being recognized or considered valid. Invoking Palimpsest again, it’s plain to me that the great tragedy of Vidal’s life is not that the boy he was in love with died, but that he never saw a hope of ever being with him if he had lived, through one set of adversities or another. (The City and the Pillar‘s epigraph is from Genesis, a reference to Lot’s wife looking back at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, turning into a pillar of salt. In the book, Vidal mixes this Biblical imagery with the myth of Orpheus-just two of the many mythological dimensions of the book’s enigmatic title, and an ultimately unsuccessful warning from the grieving young author to his future self about obsession with the past.)

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A sample of Marc Hempel’s work on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. Image ¬© DC Comics/Vertigo.

With its combination of sparse dialogue and intensely evocative environments that reverberate with the characters’ repressed emotions, to say nothing of its themes’ continuing relevance, The City and the Pillar would make a very powerful graphic novel that could be published today without losing a bit of its impact. I see the whole story in washes of cool blue (for the sequences in Virginia and Washington) and warm yellows and oranges (for the parts that take place in Hollywood), punctuated with sharp contrasts and everything in clear focus, nothing soft or diffused. In the hands of the right artist, a spare, blocky style could bring the time period of the story, its characters (who range from stoic to histrionic, heroic to vile), and the settings of the book beautifully to life. The artist that comes to mind is Marc Hempel, best known for his work on Nail Gaimai’s groundbreaking Sandman series, whose reductive, expressionistic style would be, in my mind, a perfect fit. Hempel’s work is as challenging visually as Vidal’s is psychologically, both achieving tremendous emotional power through simplification and spareness-a perfect match.

A story as flatly written as this one could lean heavily on images to bring across its subtext, and its cleverly masked mythic elements-of which there are many, Vidal certainly didn’t lack an education in history or the classics-would come to life. The medium of comics can really push introspection to levels prose just can’t achieve, and The City and the Pillar is rife with it, mostly in an unstated form. Vidal also varies pace throughout, an effect that can be achieved beautifully in the graphic medium.

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It’d make a brilliant movie, too. It amazes me that no one has adapted it for the screen-but then, I’m certain that it still has the power to scandalize an America, a motion picture industry, and a military that it so pitilessly exposed 64 years ago. Although to be strictly correct, Vidal did manage to weave in elements of The City and the Pillar into his script for Ben Hur, unbeknownst to Charlton Heston (though others were let in on it), a prank he describes with great relish in the 1995 gays-in-Hollywood documentary The Celluloid Closet.

Next week: one of Vidal’s more obscure books, but one that also is begging for the graphic novel treatment. Can you guess which one it is?

Read part 2. Read part 3.