Nabokov and Comics Revisited


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Vladimir Nabokov’s love of comics has been discussed on this blog before. Equally interesting is the flip-side, the love cartoonists have for Nabokov. Here are a few examples:

1. Jay Lynch interview, Comics Journal #114:

Lynch: Sure. Sometimes, I think that Nard N’ Pat is pretty much derived from James Joyce’s Ulysses and that Phoebe is nothing more than improvisations that spin off from Nabokov’s Ada.

Lait: How many times have you read Ada?

Lynch: Eight or nine. Jackie has known me for years, so he knows that I think Nabokov’s Ada is the greatest, most complex piece of fiction ever written. Once I did a thing for RAW called “The Goodnight Kids.” It’s full of Ada references. I figured if one person deciphered that, I’d be fulfilled.

“The Goodnight Kids” can be found in Raw vol. 1, #5 (1983).

2. Dan Clowes interview, Comics Journal #233, discussing his graphic novel David Boring:

Clowes: I was certainly inspired by Pale Fire, I think, with his undependable narrator, or maybe he is a dependable narrator, it’s hard to say. The way he sort of references this text, that being the old comic book, and sort of re-imagines it into what he wants it to be.

When I was reading Pale Fire, I remember the thing I really responded to was the idea that I had, as a kid, read comics that my brother had left lying around, and I had tried to take from them some unconscious message that wasn’t necessarily there. I thought that was such a great thing in Pale Fire how this unreliable critic who’s sort of mis-analyzing this whole epic poem that John Shade has written, is actually creating this whole new work of art that’s possibly even superior to this great poem itself.

Clowes also included a Nabokov joke in Eightball #17: a gag cartoon titled “The Lepidopterist.” David Boring is full of allusions to Nabokov. Perhaps the most subtle is a statement made by the hero to his lover, “You’re the original of Wanda.” (p. 92.) Nabokov’s last, unfinished book (which will finally be published this fall) is titled The Original of Laura.

3. Chris Ware interview, Comics Journal #200:

Ware: There is a segment in Lolita where Humbert Humbert is trying to describe the accumulative effect of a number of events going on in his visual field as he comes upon an accident scene in his front yard. He has to go through three or four paragraphs to describe what’s happening, and he excuses himself and the limits of his medium for its inherent lack of simultaneity. This is, of course, something you could presumably do in a comic strip, though it wouldn’t be nearly as funny.

4. In his novel Laughter in the Dark, Nabokov described a fictional animated character named “Cheapy the Guinea Pig.” In the anthology Zero Zero, issue #27, Al Columbia did a one-page strip imagining what Cheapy looked like.

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6 Responses to “Nabokov and Comics Revisited”
  1. Frank Santoro says:

    I'll have to dust off my interview with Ben Katchor from '96 that appeared in Destroy All Comics. I asked him about Nabokov cuz Chris Ware said "It'll make you sound smart if you ask him that."

  2. Joe Kuth says:

    Is Cheapie the Guinea Pig actually mentioned in Laughter in the Dark?

    If so, I missed it when I read it (which was after I had seen Columbia's strip). I believe Columbia says the character was 'deleted from the novel'.
    I've always wondered if Columbia made the character up himself…has anyone seen this allegedly deleted excerpt from the novel that names Cheapie?

  3. Jeet Heer says:

    That's a good question Joe. I was going by memory when I wrote the item on Columbia. I'm not sure whether Columbia made up Cheapie or took it from some biographical souce on Nabokov. One place to look would be Brian Boyd's biography of VN.

  4. Jonathan Bass says:

    According to Clarence Brown's previously mentioned essay on Nabokov and comics, the Cheepy material appears in the Russian original but was "deleted" from the English translation.

    P.S. I was long-looking for that Clowes quote and completely overlooked that interview. Thanks, Jeet!

  5. Brian Boyd says:

    (The first paragraph below responds also to the July 27 blog, "Plodding Along" (“it would be nice if we could all agree on an adjective that could do the same work for comics that "literary" and "cinematic" perform for literature and film”).

    What about “comicky” as an adjective? You can’t take the Mickey Mouse out of comics history, but you can take the Mickey out of “comicky” if you don’t want him there (we already have Disneyesque). And “strippy” would be possible for “comicstrippishness,” surely?

    “Cheepy” features right at the start of Nabokov’s 1930 Russian novel Kamera obskura, and in the 1936 English translation Camera obscura, but in his own 1938 revised English version of the novel, Laughter in the Dark, Nabokov dropped Cheepy for another kind of visual art (animation of Old Master paintings). Since writing the Nabokov biography, I have found the original of Cheepy, a “cute” (Disneyesque before Disney) soft-contoured dog or pup (Cheepy is a guinea pig), from a series of images by George Studdy (1878-1948), begun at the end of 1921 and soon named Bonzo. Although usually depicted within a single (and usually captioned) frame, Bonzo was otherwise to the 1920s what Garfield would become to the 1980s: an international artistic and merchandising phenomenon—exactly what Nabokov depicts in his Cheepy. In 1927 Nabokov sent a Bonzo postcard (the ‘R.P.S.’ Series Post Cards, number 1000, an image from 1922) to a student he tutored, and he mentions another image of Bonzo in one of his stories. The Original of Cheepy, as it were, gets mentioned (in much less detail) in French, German and Russian translations of my Nabokov biography.

    Art Spiegelman is certainly another comicker (not co-micer) who appreciates Nabokov (he did a New Yorker fiction issue cover featuring Lolita reading on the lawn in a bikini in the snow, to the surprise of the snowman). I have written on Spiegelman’s contribution to The Narrative Corpse, in an essay that looks at comics from an evolutionary angle, in an article in Philosophy and Literature, 2008, which you can access via my website.

    I’m also writing an essay for the forthcoming Evolutionary Review on comics from an evolutionary perspective (should go live in November). Both pieces are related to my On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. The title of the second half of the books is “From Zeus to Seuss,” because I use two extended examples, Homer’s Odyssey and Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who! Dr. Seuss is not quite a comicker, although nobody could be more comic, but he also knew Nabokov, wrote a ditty for him, and even incorporated his name into Horton Hears a Who! (Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, once spelled Nabokoff, as it should be sounded, inspired the eagle “Vlad Vlad-i-koff” who carries away the clover with the Whos aboard). I intended to include Spiegelman (Maus) in On the Origin of Stories, along with Shakespeare, Austen, and Joyce, but Homer and Dr. Seuss hogged all the room.

    Alas, I have not yet seen The Goodnight Kids (I don’t have Raw #5) but Jay Lynch and other Adaphiles might be interested in my ADAonline website, (for the Goodnight Kids in Ada’s text, go text> Part 1 Chapter 1 > 5.30 to 6.03 and click on the hyperlinks to the annotations and form there to the images).

  6. Joe Kuth says:

    Um, wow.
    Thanks so much for that fascinating info, Mr. Boyd.
    I went flipping through VN: the Russian Years just yesterday with no luck, so seeing your response is very satisfying.

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