Graphic Gore: Three Vidal Books That Should Be Graphic Novels (Part 2)


Last week in part 1, I proposed that Gore Vidal’s works are begging to be adapted into graphic novels, and that his controversial The City and the Pillar, published in 1948, would make a great illustrated work. Fast forward to 1981’s Creation: why hasn’t anyone adapted this into a comic yet?

Gore Vidal is probably best known for his series of novels concerning America and American history, but his education and interests went way beyond just those themes. One thing that made him such an acute observer of America was his fascination with ancient cultures, and how their values and ideas have traveled forward into what we think of as the modern age.

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Vidal’s novel Creation, originally published in 1981, followed a dense cluster of America-focused books (Washington, D.C., Burr, 1876), a few oddities like 1968’s Myra Breckinridge (and its follow up, Myron, in 1974), and Julian (1964), about the Roman emperor. So Vidal had pretty thoroughly explored the themes he would get into in the late 70s and 80s: the trajectories of civilizations, the huge impact specific individuals can have on them, and the funny little ideas societies carry around that come and go, like religion, or democracy.

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The story of Creation is told from the perspective of Cyrus Spitama, a fictional 5th Century BCE Persian diplomat, who happens to cross paths with all the great religious and philosophical thinkers of his time-of which there were many, given that it was the Axis Age. In his travels, Cyrus encounters Zoroaster, the Buddha, Mahavira (the founder of Jainism, an offshoot of Hinduism devoted to nonviolence), Lao Tzu, and Confucius.

To me, this is an obvious choice for conversion into illustrated format. Consider the figures described in the story and the cultures they hail from: as a graphic novel, Creation would be visually splendid. The character of Cyrus stays with us from his early years through his old age. He’s an anchor, a device that would give an illustrated version grounding where the prose version often meanders, unavoidably, given the philosophical and historical details that must be spelled out in order to build a sense of that heady, transformative epoch.

A graphic novel adaptation of Creation would be very different from its text counterpart. Much of the conversations with the religious figures Cyrus meets, while interesting, would need to be heavily condensed and changed into visual representations of the concepts described. This would make it rather less dense-Creation clocks in at a hefty 510 pages, Vidal having reintroduced four chapters that had previously been cut-and also faster-paced, which I think would suit its sweeping quality.

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What better illustrator for a story like this than a caretaker of cherished superheroes? The artwork of Phil Jimenez.

If I were to choose an artist for this, I’d call in Phil Jimenez, one of mainstream comics’ most well-known and respected figures. He’s one of the few to have worked for both giant publishers, DC and Marvel, on their most highly valued characters, like Wonder Woman, Spider Man, and The New X-Men.

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While he loves his iconic superhero characters, there is a special magic when Jimenez works on side projects, like Tempest, a 1996 miniseries he drew for DC. One characteristic I’ve noticed about Jimenez’s work is that he renders different ethnicities with a particular flair, with almost photographic accuracy. Not only would such a skill be necessary in a story like Creation for obvious reasons (telling the characters form the various cultures apart), but also for narrative ones: the story is full of nuances concerning race, origin, and even national costume. One example: Cyrus observing the subtleties of the Buddha’s ethnicity, given that he’s from a crossroads area of India near the Nepalese border. A brilliant flash of putting together historical details visually by Vidal, which Jimenez could render beautifully.

More broadly, Jimenez’s artwork, honed over two decades of drawing characters’ emotional dilemmas as they fight superpowered battles, could show both the mundane and the transcendent aspects of Creation simultaneously, like the baseness of characters surrounding figures like the Buddha, and the sublime qualities of characters like Conficius. Vidal loves flipping between caricature and grandeur, and it would take a very adaptable artist-and one capable of extremely subtle portrayals of emotion-to pull off the rapid shifts.

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Tempest, an example of Jimenez’s ability to draw nuanced expressions.

There’s no specific place for it in an adaptation of the book into graphic form, but I couldn’t help but think that Vidal himself is a bit like Cyrus, having crossed paths (and clashed wills) with pretty much every major American of his time and a pretty wide swath of European luminaries too. Each time I’ve read Creation, I found myself connecting Cyrus’ sense of wonder about being at the convergence of such figures with what I see as Vidal’s own bewilderment at the amazing events he witnessed in the twentieth century. This feeling would translate beautifully in the graphic medium, by being able to show Cyrus and his reactions to his environment rather than merely looking out at the world through his eyes and inferring his inner states through the prose.

Next week: a Vidal novel you probably haven’t heard of, even if you’re familiar with most of his work.

Read part 1; read part 3.

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