SPOILERS for Slaughterhouse-Five, both the Kurt Vonnegut book and this graphic novel adaptation. It almost goes without saying, but now you know. Carry on, pilgrim.
NOTE: A review or analysis of Slaughterhouse-Five’s story, themes, or characters this is not. CliffsNotes: it’s a masterpiece. This review will look more into how it’s been adapted. If you want a real story analysis, go ask your English lit teacher.
It’s no easy task to adapt novels, especially one of the most iconic, beloved, imaginative, philosophically interrogating novels of all time, such as Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.
Part of this graphic novel’s appeal might be housed in a morbid curiosity: to see how the heck somebody is going to try and adapt the time-hopping WWII novel.
While it may seem a tall order to fill, Ryan North and Albert Monteys have done a stellar job, using the very format of the comics medium to match the novel’s stream-of-consciousness approach. Instead of flatly adapting the novel, North and Monteys, in a very Alan Moore way, utilize and showcase the comics medium’s unique functions to bring the novel to paneled life.
Comics that use their format the most boldly often call attention to their format, challenging the reader to acknowledge the artifice and techniques being used in the story. So in that sense, it makes some sense bringing Slaughterhouse-Five to the comics medium because the first and last chapters of the novel call attention to the fact that you’re reading a novel. It’s all very meta and post-modern, isn’t it?
However, what’s exceptionally clever about North and Monteys’ exciting, meta-textual, form-conscious approach is that it expands on the novel’s themes about time in the comic format.
Grant Morrison has spoken extensively about how comics makes the readers into gods (so to speak). As a reader, you are almost omniscient: you can flip forward and backwards through a comic, seeing the characters distilled in moments in time like a god purveying the story of blissfully unaware creations whose time is an illusion readers aren’t subject to. Well, unless the characters are made to be self-aware (like Deadpool or Flex Mentallo).
So, similarly to the novel, Billy Pilgrim is unmoored from time and becomes aware of the fourth dimension, told by the alien Tralfamadorians that they can see all of time at once and accept whatever comes (boiled down to the iconic phrase “So it goes”); which accounts for the novel’s time-hopping, non-linear approach.
All that to say, the idea of time being a flat circle or non-linear is a lot more digestible and fascinating when you can flip through the images of a comic at your leisure. Admittedly, I haven’t seen the film adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five, but I’d guess the film format limited the adaptation’s creativity or ability to match the novel. In contrast, this graphic novel format re-contextualizes the book with its visual splendor.
The way prose information is relayed visually here is exceedingly clever. For instance, Billy Pilgrim reads bizarre, pulpy science fiction novels by a Kilgore Trout in a mental institution.
So North and Monteys lovingly illustrate these sci-fi stories to evoke pulp, EC-styled comics or zines—even reminiscent of The Black Freighter segments in Watchmen.
Another example of form mastery involves the Tralfamadorian novels. The alien stories supposedly consist of a string of images that are “read all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between the images, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep.” So, to depict this, North and Monteys give us a trippy two page spread of psychedelic images, the gutters black.
When Pilgrim watches a war film backwards, having become slightly unmoored later in his life, we see this depicted via rough sketches, like a string of storyboards.
These are glorious examples of mediums cross-pollinating that build, or at the very least transitions complex ideas across platforms; completely exuding a flat approach. This is the farthest thing from the many classic literature comic adaptations I’ve read as a kid, that blandly recite passages accompanied with unchallenging, dull panel layouts and compositions that really made you feel the loss of the original author’s prose. That’s the key with this adaptation: prose is preserved, but not to the point of taking away visual innovation and exuding the adapting creators’ personalities/vision.
Now, would this graphic novel work if a reader hadn’t already read the original? I must say I’m not totally sure, but I wouldn’t recommend just jumping into this as somebody’s first experience with Slaughterhouse-Five. Having to condense the prose and information of the original book into a graphic novel format is hard, and while this book does a very solid job, I still get the nagging feeling that there are plenty of moments that mainly work if you know the full context, especially in regards to pacing.
Take for instance when Billy Pilgrim and other prisoners stay with the British for a bit and watch a play. While watching, Pilgrim has some kind of nervous breakdown and has to be given morphine and taken into another room. This happens so quickly in the comic, in about a page, that I’m not sure it works by itself without the full prose context. Granted, this isn’t a huge problem by any means. In order for North and Monteys to have some breathing room, they have to pick and choose their battles; decide what really needs attention and what needs condensing.
But what about the art? The style, specifically? The level of craft? Well, aside from the visual innovation with the panels, Albert Monteys’ specific style is wonderfully suited to this story. Accompanied by brilliant layouts, Monteys’s cartoony yet pathos-evoking style is reminiscent of the great Scott McCloud, even down to the elasticity they both achieve. It’s no easy task to illustrate alien worlds and dismal POW camps back to back, but Monteys gives ample detail and fluidity to every time-frame, scene, page, and panel.
And yes, the right alchemy of details is fantastic, but what really stirs the emotions are the FACES. Vonnegut’s overall style is renowned for being darkly comic yet evocative, and Monteys does his prose a service by coupling these wonderfully manic, fate-trapped characters with equally manic yet strikingly sympathetic faces.
Another hugely effective visual component is the color work, also by Monteys. Every scene has its own color palette, which does wonders for managing tone. There’s a lot of intentionally dismal color choices here, especially in the WWII segments, but that makes the more fantastical elements all the more contrasty and striking. Some period pieces overdo it by trying to mimic a “retro” palette, but Monteys is able to subtly evoke the past with slightly muted oranges and Robins egg blues in particular depicting the ‘40s-‘60s.
Adapting classic literature is a daunting task, but Ryan North and Albert Monteys preserve the excitement, strangeness, and biting philosophical comedy at the heart of Vonnegut’s iconic work by calling attention to the comics medium, just as Slaughterhouse-Five called attention to its form and the fate that binds us all.