Mar 6, 2009

Medieval Literature, Modern Comics

(Note: This piece was originally a presentation for a Medieval Literature class. After the year was over, I revised it, replacing the Middle English with a modern translation, for the sake of ease.)
(Further note: In November of 2010, a proposal to present this paper at the Pop Culture Association of America's annual conference was accepted.  Pending a complete re-write and begging for funding, it will be presented at the conference in Texas in April of 2011.) 


When I started thinking about this project, I was concerned that I wouldn't find nearly enough material to make it worthwhile. There are definitely a large quantity of comics that feature knights and kings and peasants and fairies. I wondered if they would necessarily have much to do with their 12th - 14th century precedents, or would it just be a matter of a particular thing looking cool in a comic book story? Luckily, the answer fell somewhere in the middle, and the discoveries I made not only carry forward many elements from the medieval period, but they also look really cool! Some pieces I looked at were so dense that I probably could have focussed solely on them. Grant Morrison and Simone Bianchi's "Seven Soldiers: Shining Knight" is deserving of a paper all its own, but my purpose is to give a broad view of the medieval in comic books, and so a broad selection of comics is necessary. I'm going to break my discussion up into three sections: Stories, Forms, and Themes. Within each section I'll give specific visual examples, and discuss how each example is related to a text from the medieval period.

Note: All the images within the text can be enlarged by clicking on them.

1. Stories

Stories are perhaps the easiest aspect to address in adapting medieval literature to modern comics. Indeed, almost since the beginning of the form, and definitely pre-dating Superman, comics' most recognizable hero, medieval stories have figured prominently. Hal Foster began "Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur" in 1937, and it has continued, in some form, right up to present day (Torregrossa 244). In the modern age of comics, the most recognizable revival of the medieval story is DC Comics' Camelot 3000, originally published between 1982 and 1985. It is an example of what Jason Tondro calls an "Arthur Transformed" tale, "stories which pick up after the death of Arthur" (170). Camelot 3000 bears out Malory's prophetic "some men say...that King Arthur is not dead...that he shall come again" (Malory 713). Arthur returns in the year 3000, as do the best of his knights, and they battle against Morgan Le Fay to save the Earth. The treasonous love between Guenivere and Lancelot also makes a return. There is much emphasis throughout the story on the cyclical nature of the tale. Arthur's, it seems, is a story that will go ever on.

Another story of time-travelling knights is Morrison and Bianchi's "Seven Soldiers: Shining Knight." While the greater part of the tale is about a time-displaced knight, the opening pages give an interpretation of the fall of Camelot. The illustration to the left is an example of Tondro's "Traditional Tale," ones that are "adaptations of...tales in the Arthurian 'canon'" (171). This bloody depiction of the Camelot's defeat (the violence of which will be addressed in the "Themes" section) could easily be compared to the "[g]reat carnage...suffered on both sides, [the] countless groans issued from the dying men" (Geoffrey 155). The balance of the tale, however, falls into the "Arthurian Toybox," where a writer grounds "an original character in an Arthurian setting, from which he soon departs to carry on modern superheroic adventures" (172). This is certainly the case for Sir Justin, the hero of "Shining Knight," who finds himself in New York, 2005, very shortly into the story.

The stories of the medieval period have survived in many forms through the ages, from poem to pamphlet, song to cinema. Their use in modern comics is not unusual, and is likely only the latest iteration of the tales. It could be that soon there will be online "webisodes" on YouTube, or some other video sharing site, depicting Gawain's struggles with the Green Knight, or the ribald humour of "The Miller's Tale." These stories will continue to be told in many different media for many years to come.

2. Forms

Aside from the stories that lend themselves to the comic book, the forms those stories take also make an appearance. The use of these forms varies quite widely. An implicit reference to one form, Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," is also the most recent example we will be looking at. Neil Gaiman's story "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" in "Batman" #686, published in February of 2009, and its second part in "Detective Comics" #853, as yet unpublished, tells a vaguely surreal tale of the funeral of The Batman. Various people, friends and enemies, stand to recount their stories of his last days. Each story is sub-titled, much as each section of Chaucer's work is. The example to the right is the introduction to Alfred's (Bruce "Batman" Wayne's butler) tale. The archaic way of referring to a butler accentuates the connection to Chaucer's text. The other story sub-titled in this comic is simply called "The Catwoman's Tale." The pun is likely very intentional. Jason Tondro writes about "the depth to which Arthurian legend has permeated our culture" (174), such that elements from that legend can be used in comics without explicitly making reference to the legend. I believe that this is the case with "The Canterbury Tales," that it has become so much a part of the culture that a reference such as Gaiman's is implicit.

Where the previous example uses a form specific to one work, Grant Morrison and John J. Muth's The Mystery Play uses the literary form of the mystery play as a jumping-off point for a surreal murder mystery. The setting is a small village in England with a "tradition...of participation in the Yorkshire cycles" (Morrison 6). The Mayor of the town goes on to talk about the involvement of the whole community in the staging of the medieval plays, and in contrast the action of the graphic novel involves many members of the close-knit community. The basic premise is that the actor playing God is murdered, and the actor playing the Devil is the main suspect. Assigned to the murder is one Detective Carpenter (symbolism utterly intentional), who's investigation leads to some profound moral questions and lessons. In this manner, the graphic novel mimics not only the form of the mystery play, but its meditational purpose too. In the illustration to the left, the play is taking place on a flat-bed truck, a fair update of the "system of movable wagons that was England" (Klaus, Gilbert, and Field 118), upon which the play would have taken place on in its original context.

There are other aspects of medieval form that appear in comic books. In issue #4 of "Seven Soldiers: Shining Knight," the villains, a race called the Sheeda, a fairy analogue that will be dealt with in the next section, speak in a runic script. The script is Ogham, an "Early Medieval alphabet used primarily to represent the Old Irish language" ("Ogham" Wikipedia).

These uses of medieval forms serve a number of purposes. They link the modern work with a medieval predecessor, lending an air of authenticity, especially in a medium so marginalized through its history. There is also an aspect of tribute in the works, an acknowledgement that these forms were used in some of the greatest works of English literature and that they should be respected and remembered. Building on this idea is the notion that these forms can be adapted for a modern audience, that they are not just forms that were useful in the medieval period, but ones that can be useful in our modern one.

3. Themes

Thematic elements are somewhat harder to pinpoint. The use of the Sheeda in "Shining Knight" can be interpreted as a "Toybox" approach, as Tondro suggests with Arthurian comics. The fairies are an element of medieval stories (Lanval and Sir Orpheo spring immediately to mind), but their involvement in "Shining Knight" is not specific to one particular tale. In this way they become a thematic element, specifically that of an outside presence, of a magical or unknown nature, intruding upon reality and causing chaos.

Another theme shared by the comic and medieval tales is one that has landed the comic book in trouble quite often over its history: violence. Fredric Wertham's attack on comic books in the 1950s was based almost entirely around depictions of violence on the printed page, and it was an attack that nearly shut down the comic book industry. In the early 2000s, Steven Seagle and Kelley Jones investigated this aspect of medieval literature in their series "The Crusades." The series chronicles, as the back cover of The Crusades: Urban Decree graphic novel claims, the exploits of "an enigmatic 11th-century crusader...come to render a terrible justice on the citizens of 21st-century San Francisco". As can be seen from the picture to the right, the "terrible justice" is quite brutal. However, if we contrast this with Gawain's exploits in the wilds, where "[s]ometimes he fights dragons, and wolves as well,/Sometimes with wild men who dwelt among the crags" ("Gawain" 255;l.720-21) and on to the declaration that "fighting troubled him less than the rigorous winter" (255;l.726), we see that the violence, the terrible justice, is less troublesome to a character from the medieval period. How, then, can this attitude toward violence be reconciled in the modern day? While the man the knight attacks is a mugger, as are many of his victims throughout the series, his vigilante-style of justice does not sit well with modern people.

It is on the topic of themes that the greatest disparity between medieval literature and modern comics can be seen. The cultural norms of the two periods are so different that transposing into one what is acceptable in the other becomes problematic. However, consideration of such cultural clashes is often the point of superimposing one period over another. In examining the differences between cultural perceptions, a common point of reference can sometimes be distinguished. In such a case, lessons can be learned about both time periods.


The comics I've highlighted here are just a sampling. They are only indicative of medieval elements in comics that I have in my personal collection, and are therefore subject to the whims of my tastes. I have purposefully left out much of the specifics of the stories, purely in the interest of people who might be intrigued and want to go out and find these books. Some among you will perhaps want to find out how Arthur manages to defeat the alien invaders and Morgan Le Fay in Camelot 3000, or just what happens to Sir Justin after he finds himself in New York, circa 2005, in "Seven Soldiers: Shining Knight." What these glimpses may prove, or support at least, is that there is a reason that the great works of the medieval period continue to be studied and read: they are great stories, with great characters, and they deal with themes common to human experience, whether you are a peasant listening to a storyteller in the 13th century, or a person sitting on your couch reading a comic in the 21st.

Works Cited

Barr, Mike W. (w), and Brian Bolland (a). Camelot 3000. New York: DC Comics, 1988.

Gaiman, Neil (w), Andy Kubert (p), and Scott Williams (i). "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader part 1 of 2: The Beginning of the End." Batman #686 (April 2009), DC Comics.

Geoffrey of Monmouth. "A History of the Kings of Britain." The Broadview Anthology of British Literature volume 1: The Medieval Period. Ed. Joseph Black, et al. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2006. 136-57.

Klaus, Carl H., Miriam Gilbert, and Bradford S. Field, Jr. "Medieval Theater." Stages of Drama. Ed. Carl H. Klaus, Miriam Gilbert, and Bradford S. Field, Jr. 2nd Ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991. 117-121.

Malory, Sir Thomas. "Morte Darthur." The Broadview Anthology of British Literature volume 1: The Medieval Period. Ed. Joseph Black, et al. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2006. 679-719.

Morrison, Grant (w), and John J. Muth (a). The Mystery Play. New York: DC Comics, 1994.

Morrison, Grant (w), and Simone Bianchi (a). "The Last of Lancelot." Seven Soldiers: Shining Knight #1 (May 2005), DC Comics.

---. "The Last Stand of Don Vincenzo." Seven Soldiers: Shining Knight #4 (October 2005), DC Comics.

"Ogham." Wikipedia. 28 February 2009 .

Seagle, Steven T. (w), Kelley Jones (p), and Jason Moore (i). "The First Crusade A.D. 2001." The
#1 (May 2001), DC Comics.

---. The Crusades: Urban Decree. New York: DC Comics, 2001.

Sir Gawayn and the Grene Knyght.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature Volume 1: The Medieval Period. Ed. Joseph Black, et al. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2006. 236 – 300.

Torregrossa, Michael A. "Once and Future Kings: The Return of King Arthur in the Comics." Adapting the Arthurian Legends for Children. Ed. Barbara Tepa Lupack. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. 243-62.

Tondro, Jason. "Camelot in Comics." King Arthur in Popular Culture. Ed. Elizabeth S. Sklar and Donald L. Hoffman. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2002. 169-81.

1 comment:

peteybrigade said...

Perhaps medieval literature and superhero literature also link with the theme of the 'hero'; the outsider figure who sits between civilization and nature. Such a character has a long history in literature and myth: Gilgamesh and Enkidu spring to mind, as do Hercules and Theseus.

I consider the violence of these characters, throughout their various cultures and times, to reflect the necessary violence that humanity inflicts on nature in order to subdue it. I certainly wouldn't say that the violence depicted in comics would be acceptable in our everyday life today, but nor would Sir Gawain's violence, I imagine, have been acceptable in his own time.

I would contend that by simultaneously marginalizing and deifying heroes, we mediate the anxiety which is felt over the violence in our own society; heroes, in literature and myth, become almost scapegoat figures, onto whom violent impulses can be focused, so as to provide an outlet, and remove such impulses from the community.

Just some thoughts. I can't get to sleep :)