Wednesday, January 2

Thoreau at Walden

by John Porcellino
from the writings of Henry David Thoreau
with an introduction by D.B. Johnson
Center for Cartoon Studies/Hyperion
April 2008

Moving to New England a few years ago I felt compelled to finally be a good citizen and read Walden. It was one of those books assigned to me back in high school that I never go around to because I could never get into it. Thoreau was not approachable to me then -- not as approachable as Cliff Notes, for all the good they did me -- but time and experience and an open mind have helped. I found myself nodding and agreeing with appreciation, and recognized instantly how much misery in life and thought Thoreau could have saved me had my mind been ready for it when I was a teen.

The idea then of taking Thoreau's key ideas -- the man did ramble -- and converting them into an accessible graphic novel format seems almost too easy. The man goes into the woods and builds himself a home trying to remove himself from the trappings of his 19th century materialist society. The man gets off the grid before there really was one. For two years he observes and meditates and tends to his navel gazing through his diary. In the end he returns to the world he left, his experiment over, hoping to report back to the world what he has learned and gained from the experience. No one really cared at the time but History and English teachers have since come to his rescue and changed all that.

The way Walden is presented here a young reader might surmise that a poet went into the woods one day to commune with nature, occasionally to journey into town, he had various and occasionally profound insights that still ring true today, and then rejoined society and hoped to spread the word.

It's Walden Lite and among it's sparse illustrations one might glean what it is Thoreau is all about, but most likely not. It is precisely Thoreau's verbosity that is at issue because in streamlining his thoughts into what can be illustrated Porcellino jettisons the process by which Thoreau comes to his conclusions. Short scenes where a cartoon philosopher view nature from the lake or while crouched in the forest convey a certain mise en scene but they also reduce Thoreau to a mere back-to-nature lover and fail to connect with what he draws from these moments. Thoreau lived in a house he built in the woods, stated in this graphic novel in a single panel showing the cabin, but in Walden Thoreau makes much of how he came to the land, how he chose the spot for the cabin, how he built it, what his supplies cost. It's the details that underscore what he's going on about, the idea of living by the labor of his own hands, and sadly we are shown none of it here.

The book does try to cover the topics most relevant to Walden -- befriending a rat, the night in jail, communing with nature -- but, again, as illustrated we are treated to panel after panel of minimalist drawings which fail to engage precisely because they contain so little information. In one panel an illustration of Walden Pond is rendered so generically it's inclusion almost seems an embarrassment. There are ways to suggest place and to present visual information using the barest of lines -- think of the portraits of Al Hershfeld -- but what we have here suggests a cartoon landscape drawn without a point of actual reference. Porcellino may have gone into the woods at Walden, as have I a year or so ago, but I don't recognize that place in these drawings.

Interestingly, the forward is by another artist who has tackled Thoreau himself, and I believe rather successfully. D.B. Johnson has three illustrated books for the picture book crowd that turns Thoreau into a bear and isolates specific moments from Walden to illustrate their point. Henry Climbs a Mountain takes Thoreau's night in jail and makes it easy enough for a child of six to understand, and it's more sophisticated than the way Thoreau's words are illustrated in this graphic novel. Its unfortunate because up to this release I have been excited by the books coming from The Center for Cartoon Studies. I'm going to chalk this one up as a miss and hope for more forthcoming titles along the lines of Satchel Page and Houdini, The Handcuff King.

In the meantime, if you need a shortcut to Thoreau, Cliff Notes and their ilk are readily available.
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