Notes on “Ulysses Seen”

Michael Barsanti, Editor, Throwaway Horse, LLC

A new Ulysses graphic novel for iPad aims to bring readers closer to the original text and help to overcome the perception that Joyce has to be difficult, explains the app’s editor, Michael Barsanti

There are many reasons to not make a graphic novel out of Ulysses. First, it is a very long book. Second, it is not always easy to figure out what is actually happening. Third, the whole concept of “actually happening,” as well as the usual subjects of “character”, “plot” and “dialogue” are all up for grabs. Almost anything would be easier. But for all of these reasons, when you make a graphic novel from Ulysses, you make something that really helps people access the book.

When Rob Berry approached me with his idea for Ulysses Seen, I was working as the Associate Director of the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia. The Rosenbach is the home of many literary and historical treasures, but its most prominent item may be James Joyce’s manuscript of *Ulysses,* which was bought by Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach in 1924. The idea of a comics adaptation seemed at best bizarre to me, but after many years in the James Joyce industry I had never heard anyone else propose doing it, so I thought it was worth looking at.

Rob showed me a few of his initial drawings of the “Telemachus” episode, and I was immediately intrigued. I had read the book many times, studied its composition, looked through its notes and drafts, written conference papers and exhibition labels, but here was something new. When Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan spar at the top of the Martello tower, I saw in Rob’s drawing a bullring, or a colliseum, that emphasized the contest between them. When Mulligan proposes “Hellenizing” Ireland, Rob was able to draw his face as if it were a Hellenistic bust. In other scenes, Mulligan looks like a kind of debauched Tintin – which is a look Rob told me he was after. It goes beyond a cinematic transformation that would just “make it real” – the drawing can be inspired by the narrative distortions of the book, and can also mimic the way in which you can free yourself from the linearity of cinema by being able to flip back and forth at will.

In rendering the Telemachus episode, Rob allows its essential drama to become visible ­– physical characters relate to each other in space, in a scene, with backgrounds and gestures and expressions. As an undergraduate at University College, Dublin, Joyce wrote about the superiority of drama to other literary forms, and the work he wrote immediately prior to *Ulysses* was a play, “Exiles.” Joyce certainly believed in the power of the stage to tell a story. And yet he did not choose to write a play (or a comic book, for that matter ­– though I believe he was a big fan!). For all of the power that Joyce associated with drama, he turned to the novel form in order to take apart the whole notion of character. Even on the first page of Ulysses, it can be hard to tell exactly who is talking.

Among other things, Joyce wanted to show how complex people are, even (or especially) people leading very ordinary lives. When you see a character played by an actor on a stage, you see what looks like a unified person, a character, a human from shirt to shoes. In Ulysses, Joyce could begin to show the permeability of human consciousness ­– lines of interior monologue wander from one character to another, narration takes on the personality of individual characters, blending seamlessly into characters’ thoughts.

Joyce’s great literary innovation is widely believed to be his “stream of consciousness” style, but he didn’t really invent the stream of consciousness style, and as much as he used it, it was only the beginning of his literary weirdness. What happens over the course of the 18 episodes of the novel is that every useful organising convention of the novel – time, characters, plot, dialog, narration – is dismantled or distorted in some way, deliberately frustrating your sense of the novel as a transparent window into another place and time.

Which brings us back to comics. Comics offer an almost infinite plasticity of form – and while there are a lot of conventions for certain elements, (like dialog balloons, for instance, which get tricky on a few pages), there are infinite ways to use comic conventions to approximate the narrative innovations of the text. It isn’t the same thing as the text, not by a longshot, and we try to be careful to talk about Ulysses Seen as an adaptation not a substitute. We hope Ulysses Seen will serve as a bridge to the novel, a way of getting over all of the hype about its difficulty.

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