Beowulf in Comic Books and Graphic Novels. McFarland & Company, Inc., 2023. Pp. xi, 197. ISBN: 978-1-4766-8778-0. $50.
Reviewed by Carl B. Sell
University of Pittsburgh
Richard Scott Nokes’s Beowulf in Comic Books and Graphic Novels offers a thorough examination of themes, textual differences, and key similarities in adaptations of the Old English epic poem Beowulf in the contemporary medium of comics and graphic novels. Based in part upon Jason Tondro’s five categories for adaptations of King Arthur from the article “Camelot in Comics” and, later, the monograph Superheroes of the Round Table, Nokes categorizes Beowulf adaptations into “the artist as manuscript illustrator, the further adventures of Beowulf, Beowulf as storyteller, Beowulf transformed, and Beowulf for younger readers” (10). The categories also provide the names and focal points for each of Nokes’s five chapters, which is the structure of the book aside from the introduction, a conclusion, and additional textual apparatus. In these chapters, Nokes explores exemplary texts for each of the five categories, looking at both the art and the narratives of each to further explore the rationale behind each successive adaptation of Beowulf’s character, purpose, and story in relation to the time period and place of their publication—and, in some instances, the reception of the works by readers. It is useful for the reader to remind themselves that Nokes has added a “Timeline of Beowulf Comic Books and Graphic Novels” (x) before the introduction, as it becomes essential to contextualize the discussions of time, place, and purpose for these adaptations. It should also be noted that this timeline contains works briefly mentioned in the text as well as some that are not, so the timeline is also useful for those looking to collect these works as well as those who study them.
Nokes begins the introduction by stating that the key difference between Beowulf’s comic books and graphic novels and the adaptations of King Arthur and Robin Hood is that Beowulf lacks a “cultural moment” where the character and the text became prominent in cultural consciousness (5-6). While Nokes does expand further upon this statement by showcasing the single source text and lesser popularity to the other two mythic figures, it does remain a rather broad swathe to paint King Arthur and Robin Hood adaptations, as both, as well as Beowulf’s own, come in waves rather than a single cultural inception point. The remainder of the introduction posits the framework of Nokes’s argument about these adaptations, and writes that “this book will demonstrate the broader truth of [Siân Echard’s] claims” about the symbiotic nature of Beowulf adaptations as responding to each other, either consciously or unconsciously (6). While this strong focal point will be the backbone of Nokes’s own work in examining comics, there remains a lack of critical examination of the theory of adaptation, which would do a great deal to strengthen this claim and would assist in providing a touchstone for the extension of Echard’s ideas into the classification system that Nokes creates. The introduction comes to a close by briefly introducing the author’s five categories for Beowulf comic books and graphic novels, and the launches into the first chapter.
Chapter 1 is designated for Nokes’s first category, “the artist as manuscript illustrator,” and examines comic artists’ representations of Beowulf in conversation with illuminated manuscripts of the medieval period. Nokes argues that it is “the liminal nature” of the poem itself that allows for artists to create new visual representations of Beowulf regardless of “their distance in time, space, or culture” (16) which opens the door to more possibilities from even more adapters. The author notes that there are “three degrees of authenticity” for comics art: “Beowulfian,” which is categorized by its desired connection to the medieval source; “medievalist,” categorized by general allusion to medieval illustrations that are not necessarily connected to the source; and “fanciful medieval,” which abandons actual medieval styles and references and leans into the popular conceptions of what the medieval was like (18). Gareth Hinds’s version (2017) is explored as a representative of the Beowulfian category, Santiago Garcia and David Rubin’s (2016) is examined with the “mood” of the medievalist in mind, Rodriquez’s adaptation is fanciful medieval in its desire to be entertaining rather than adhere strongly to sources.
Chapter 2 centers on “the further adventures of Beowulf,” opens with a quote about intertextuality from T. S. Eliot that provides the basis for Nokes’s own ideas about recontextualizing the extension of Beowulf to new stories, settings, and reimaginings that deviate from the character’s and story’s original contexts (74). Beowulf: Gods and Monsters (2006) is used as an example of this, and the author writes that, while there are no direct flashbacks to the story of the poem, Beowulf himself mentions the events as seemingly passing references to his past, which Nokes coins as Gods and Monsters being “haunted” by its source. This is connected to a kind of calling-into-question motif often found in this category of adaptations, as is found in Metal Hurlant’s “A Different Shade of Grey,” (Francis Lombard, 2003) which defines the poem as “mostly true” (83-84), but also questions which parts are, in fact, the truth.
Chapter 3 explores “Beowulf as storyteller,” which Nokes defines as presenting “[the character] Beowulf as unreliable narrator” (96). The author writes that, in this category, the story “follows the plotline of the original poem very closely . . . But while illustrating the manuscript, these particular artists ask, ‘Is it true?’” (96). By allying this category with the artist as manuscript illustrator, the avenue of study that is also opened up with books such as the Beowulf of Deadpool: Killustrated (2013) and Beowulf in Civil War II (2016), both comics from Marvel, is one of examining of the way that the story and characters in the poem are destabilized by their representations in comics. Deadpool: Killustrated’s Beowulf, as Nokes sees him, is the archetype of the monster hunter and functions as little more than such; the Beowulf Marvel gives the reader in Civil War II, however, is one that is “denying fate” and serves as a gritty, less-idealized version of the character from the source. Indeed, Marvel’s various Beowulfs serve as representatives of the most popular aspect of the Beowulf as storyteller category: “[Beowulf] as part of an intertextual literary universe,” just as we see in DC’s own usage of the character (98). This allows the events of the original poem to either be referenced or mirrored in such a way as to call into question the veracity of the source, a hallmark of Nokes’s third category.
Chapter 4 features “Beowulf transformed,” which the author allows is a category of representations that is difficult to identify given that its features variances and differences that Nokes calls the “radical translation” of this tale to certain comics and graphic novels (107). The author allows that there is a need for changes beyond the normal scope of textual adaptation in this category, and calls attention to what he terms the “unheimlich Beowulf,” a character who is recognizable as Beowulf but who is also clearly not the Beowulf of the poem (108). Adapted from the idea of the uncanny in literature, Nokes uses David Hutchison’s Beowulf (2006), Wally Wood’s story “The Ghost-Beast!” from Tower of Shadows (1970), and Erik A. Evensen’s The Beast of Wolfe’s Bay (2013) are explored as exemplars of this category, narratives and art styles that mostly capture the tone of the original, but the plot and characters are very far away from any source material. Everything is fluid, and all of it is questionable when closely examined to the original text—some things remain recognizable, but most portrayals are tenuously connected to the Geatish hero of old.
The final category, “Beowulf for younger readers” is relegated to Chapter 5, which asks a crucial question: which comics and graphic novels are intended for younger readers? The lack of a consensus from scholars, readers, and critics on this question perhaps makes scholars’ work all the more difficult, and while Alexis E. Fajardo’s long-running Kid Beowulf series (2008-2017) is clearly intended for a younger reader in its intent to educate, albeit while straying from the source, Michael Uslan’s Beowulf: Dragon Slayer (1976) for DC Comics is less certain, and has fewer narrative or artistic tells. It is worth noting, though, that Nokes argues that the audience is often made clearer by the artwork, too, and the decreased or non-existent erotic representations of women and the lessened male gaze often means that the book has a younger audience in mind; however, the author also rightly allows that it is often the subversive nature of more adult-oriented art and narratives that all but ensure younger readers will want to read such books, too. It ultimately, for Nokes, comes down to whether or not it is clear that the artists are trying to push younger readers to learn about or to engage with the source material or even the wider world of reading that makes the all-important distinction.
It is Nokes’s conclusion that serves as a kind of call-to-action for scholars, arguing that comics and graphic novels do “bear the weight of critical scrutiny,” (173) and, as such, we are meant to engage with the large corpus of these and similar adaptations. The author states that scholarly study of Beowulf adaptations like these is “in its infancy,” (173) which perhaps does not encompass the various connections to be made between critical frameworks for other heroic figures in comics—such as King Arthur and Robin Hood, which the author mentions earlier in the book. This is tempered by the fact that Nokes does makes mention of various options for further study for Beowulf comic books and graphic novels, which include reader-response theory and other reception studies, which can perhaps be extended to the connections between the Beowulfian tradition and other such figures.
Perhaps the only real point of contention remains the author’s lack of a critical touchstone for adaptation. This becomes particularly noticeable given the continued use of the word “adaptation” and, to a smaller extent, “appropriation,” as both are critical terminology of Julie Sanders and Linda Hutcheon. The exclusion of such does not take away from the analysis Nokes presents, particularly because of the author’s approachable style and general accessibility of the presented argument; rather, this is pointed out as a possible inclusion for a follow-up or for continued research into adaptations in comics. The author should also be praised for the acknowledgment of the male gaze of comics, and the desire to explore the differences between art styles therein (64-65), which is sometimes a difficult subject for writers to expand upon in the methodical way Nokes does. In a similar manner, Nokes mentions that the “presuppositions that scholars bring to the books and their content” (130) add difficulty to any amount of analysis on adaptations in comics, specifically those that are well-known or frequently studied. Those of us who look to new media for scholarly analysis of adaptations are keenly aware of the regard in which others hold certain mediums, texts, and critical lenses, and Nokes adroitly navigates this often-difficult matter in his own exploration of texts. The notes provided are both extensive and well-written, and offer crucial context and information, and the index of terminology, texts, and images is also of note. Perhaps of worth in a future edition or update would be a separate index for the 25 black and white images Nokes provides in the book, but largely the textual apparatus remains a crucial component to such a study. What cannot be denied is the extensive work that Nokes has put into this monograph, and medievalists and comics scholars alike will find a great deal of value in these pages.
Carl B. Sell
University of Pittsburgh