When not writing and drawing Spy Vs. Spy for Mad Magazine or cartoons for The New Yorker, writer and artist Peter Kuper has done graphic novel adaptations of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Now he’s turned his eye, and his pen, towards Joseph Conrad’s controversial novella, Heart of Darkness. In the following email interview, Kuper discusses how he came to write and draw Heart Of Darkness (hardcover, Kindle), and how he adapted this racist story without losing its meaning.
Photo Credit: © Holly Kuper
For those who haven’t read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, what is that book about?
Apocalypse…then. Written in 1899, it’s the tale of a young captain named Marlow sent to Africa by a trading company that needs to retrieve one of their best managers who has apparently gone mad. A man named Kurtz. The deeper story is about civilization and savagery and a commentary on the barbarity of colonialism, but that’s the short answer.
What made you want to do an adaptation of Conrad’s novella and, more importantly, made you think you were the right person to do it?
I had been adapting Franz Kafka short stories for the collection that became my previous book, Kafkaesque. The publisher agreed to do that book if I would do Heart Of Darkness. It was their suggestion, but it was right up my alley, and having adapted Kafka my adapting brain was in full swing. It was more than perfect fit with both my visual approaches and my direct experience. I’ve done lots of traveling over the years including Africa and New Guinea, and could really visualize the circumstances in the tale. To further get into the material I moved to Mexico (where I had previously lived for a couple of years back in 2006-8) for a four-month period while I was working on the research and roughing out the art to get into the proper sweaty frame of mind. I got a month-long flu, stomach trouble, stung by insects, chased by dogs — it was perfect. I truly love Mexico, especially Oaxaca.
And is your version a 1-to-1 adaptation?
Not one to one. I’m translating it into a visual medium that allows the pictures to stand in for some descriptions. Also, I was looking at this story through my 21st century lens, as well as my own take on the book as a reader. There are aspects of the book I found confounding and felt I could clarify and address some of the criticisms of the book, without undermining the essence of what makes it worthy of being in the literary canon.
Would that have changed if Heart of Darkness had been novel length and not novella sized?
I’m grateful it was a novella. The longer a book the more editing has to happen to make it work as a graphic novel. Back in 1990 I adapted Upton Sinclair’s 358 page The Jungle into a 48-page comic. Those were the parameters working on the Classics Illustrated series. That required a hack saw to make that book work in that reduced format. It was by necessity a pretty long way from the source material. With Heart Of Darkness, the 75-page book expanded to about 135 and it is a much greater reflection of Conrad’s book.
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has, of course, been adapted before, albeit loosely, as the movie Apocalypse Now. Was there ever any thought of doing something like that, like maybe doing Heart of Darkness but as a sci-fi story or Iraqi War story?
Though I think Apocalypse Now is a tremendous translation, my aim was to be as true to the original novella as possible. I never considered rewriting it. It’s an incredibly engaging, visually rich story, and offered enough challenges as was.
Conrad’s version of Heart of Darkness has rightfully been criticized for being racist. How did you handle those aspects of the book?
I felt the criticisms — particularly Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s — were accurate and needed to be addressed.
For starters, the n-word that Conrad used fairly often didn’t enrich anything, it just made it a period piece and I didn’t feel like I whitewashed the work by excising that.
The African characters are mostly one dimensional and it made the story richer if they were brought forward more. In a number of places, I turned the viewpoint so that it wasn’t just the narrators view. For example, Conrad describes a French ship shooting a cannon into the coast, but doesn’t elaborate on that impact to the African population. I show the cannonballs’ impact on the people. This didn’t change the story, it merely showed what was otherwise unspoken.
Racism is, sadly, a relevant topic these days. Did anything going on in the world influence how you handled the racist aspects of Heart of Darkness?
Certainly. Not so much a specific incident, but a general fact of how people are dismissed and grouped as a vague “other,” which robs them of individuality and humanity and treats death as inconsequential. I tried to delineate and foreground characters that Conrad had only roughly sketched. Also, in places I found the way Conrad had written the character’s reactions in extreme situations robbed scenes of a greater emotional impact, so I drew the character’s reactions and circumstances in ways I felt was more appropriate to the gravity of various situations.
In your version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness there’s a forward by Maya Jasanoff, who is the Coolidge Professor of History at Harvard and the writer of the relevant book The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad In A Global World. It’s obvious why you chose her to write the forward; I’m wondering why you felt it was important for this book to have a forward written by someone like her.
Since she wrote a fantastic biography of Conrad, I thought a foreword by her would bring the readers an authoritative background on Conrad and Heart Of Darkness that I couldn’t.
Actually, besides my editor, I asked a good number of scholars and various readers I trusted for their opinions on my adaptation as I worked on it. Their many perspectives and suggestions, including Maya Jasanoff’s, were invaluable and helped me consider all the facets of the story and adjust my visuals and text choices.
As you mentioned, you previously did similar adaptations of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and fourteen of Kafka’s short stories in the collection Kafkaesque. How was adapting Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness different from those experiences?
I approach each book differently depending on the story. As they say; “The play’s the thing.”
With Kafka, I felt like I should draw his stories in graphic black and white referencing German Expressionism and his era, which is very much in my style anyway — or at least one of them. The Jungle I did in stencils and spray paint in full color — good for blood and guts and the grit of 1906 Chicago. Heart Of Darkness I treated more like a sketchbook. I drew it in black pencil and wash. Conrad’s book is psychologically very much about dark and light, so black and white art seemed appropriate. I also stylistically separated the story being told about the past from the present narrator, by having “present” be pen and ink with gray-tones done in Photoshop. Another beauty of comics is the way visual cues can subtly let the reader know what time from they are in, unspoken.
Was there anything you learned doing those earlier adaptations that made your version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness better?
Coming off Kafkaesque, my adaptation muscles had been flexed a lot. I was able to dive in on Heart Of Darkness with enough confidence to ignore the fact I was tackling a very well known, treacherous, complicated text, and forget that I was over my head and might drown at any moment. Ultimately whether I’ve sunk or done the backstroke will be up to readers to decide.
Your work has always been socially conscious and / or political. Would you ever want to do an adaptation of a story that’s just pure fun?
I did a book called Stop Forgetting To Remember that was about (not enough) sex, (way too many) drugs, and lots of rocking music. Also about having a kid and the hilarious trials and tribulations there. I’ve done a ton of auto bio in general, most intending to find the humor.
Those are “adaptations” of my life experience. I don’t have to look to another writer for those kind of stories, though I love the challenge involved in adaptations. I’m a generally happy person, since my career is doing what I love and it gives me a cathartic outlet to let off steam.
I just find I need really meaty material to have it be worth the incredible effort it takes to do a graphic novel. Also in a time of Trump, climate change, atomic bombs etc., I feel compelled to work on things that reflect and inspect the world around us. I’m hyper-conscious of that ticking time bomb.
I assume — and please correct me if I’m wrong — that there has not been interest from movie or TV people about adapting your version of Heart of Darkness, given that we have Apocalypse Now, and Conrad’s book is in the public domain. But do you think an animated movie of this story in your unique style would even work?
I hadn’t thought about that and nobody has yet approached me, but the book is only just out. I’m happy with the art form as it is. It’s of course possible to adapt an adaptation, but those are different animals: comics and film. There’s some parallels, but my area and passion is comics. I love the unique aspect and intimate dialogue between reader and the visual sequencing in this medium. Comics requires the reader make a lot of decisions about what to look at on each two-page spread. The form allows you to stop and consider the visuals at your own pace, move backward in time with the flip of a page and a picture can telegraph a layer that enhances the text or contradicts what the words are conveying. But, nothing against what can happen in a great animated film. Feel free to share my email with interested parties.
If some party was interested, would you want Martin Sheen to do a voice for it? Or Charlie Sheen? Or Emilo Estevez?
I would choose Mel Blanc for ALL of the voices, but unfortunately he’s no longer with us.
Finally, if someone enjoys your version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which of your other books would you suggest they check out and why that?
Ruins, for the travel aspect, entomology and cultural exploration, The System for the possibilities of visual story telling without words, Kafkaesque to see some variety in my approach to adaptations and…never mind. Just go to my website and look under “books.” There you can see the whole shebang and decide for yourself without me yammering on.