War book ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ to become graphic novel
By J.P. LAWRENCE | Stars and Stripes | Published: January 30, 2020
The classic book “Slaughterhouse-Five” and its tales of war, loss, aliens and time travel will be transformed into a graphic novel available this fall.
It’s the first time the Kurt Vonnegut novel, taught in high school English classes for decades, has been adapted into that format.
Award-winning artist Ryan North said he toiled for three years on how to capture the soul of Vonnegut’s partially autobiographical work, as well as the author’s distinctive short sentences and nonlinear storytelling.
“Adapting something like Vonnegut, where I really love the book — it’s harder, because you don’t want to screw it up, right? You don’t want to be the bad version of Vonnegut,” North said in a phone interview. “And so it took a lot of thought and attention.”
North, who worked with artist Albert Monteys and colorist Ricard Zaplana, said he has a copy of “Slaughterhouse-Five” marked up in pen, with notes scrawled all over the pages.
Vonnegut based the book in part on his own experiences as a soldier in World War II. He had enlisted and was captured in the Battle of the Bulge. He was brought as a captive to the German city of Dresden, which was bombed by the Americans in an attack generally estimated to have killed 25,000 people, mostly civilians.
Vonnegut and his fellow POWs survived.
Seeing the devastation and horror wrought by the “good guys” of WWII left a lasting impact on Vonnegut. He spent years trying to write the book that would become “Slaughterhouse-Five,” named after an unused slaughterhouse converted into a POW camp.
In one chapter of the book, Vonnegut himself appears as a character, and another character warns him that his upcoming book will glorify war by presenting a sanitized Hollywood version. But the Vonnegut character says it will not.
“There won’t be a part for John Wayne in my book,” he says.
The main character, Billy Pilgrim, encounters tragedies in his life and in war, framed through dark jokes. Pilgrim skips through his life’s timeline aided by aliens.
“Slaughterhouse-Five,” because it is absurd, inspires other veterans, alongside books like “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien and “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller, said Randy Brown, a former National Guardsman who has published a poetry collection about his experiences in Afghanistan.
“Each one of those fractures the experience of war into different facets and episodes and perspectives,” Brown said. “There’s absurdity and maybe a little magic, and the slipperiness of memory.”
North, too, is known for the absurd. His web series “Dinosaur Comics” is about conversations between a T-Rex, Utahraptor and Dromiceiomimus. He has also written “The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl,” about a girl who talks to tree rodents, which won him an Eisner Award, the comics industry’s equivalent of an Oscar.
He said he had fun translating Vonnegut’s jokes into visual gags. In one example, Vonnegut wrote about a soldier who carries with him everything he’s ever been issued. The book describes this through swaths of text. The graphic novel shows him as a paper doll with all the accessories attached.
The adaptation has made some changes to modernize the original story, North said. The book uses a smaller number for how many people were killed in Dresden based on more recent estimates, though such counts continue to be debated.
The adaptation also changed how some characters derisively described women, he said.
The overall message, however, remains timeless, North said.
“Slaughterhouse-Five has these shades of gray, where there’s people just lost in this larger machinery of war and conflict, and (the main character) is not coming out the other side the same as he was going into it,” he said.
If the adaptation can push back against the sanitized picture of WWII, then the graphic novel can bring a needed message to modern times, said Matt Gallagher, a veteran of the Iraq War who wrote both a memoir and novel based on his experiences.
“Now, more than ever,” Gallagher said, “we need the firm clarity of ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’s’ anti-war message: That, for all of WWII’s necessity and justness, rampant horror and injustice occurred during it, that thousands and thousands of soldiers and civilians died violent, terrifying deaths, and thousands upon thousands more were left permanently wounded and traumatized.”
The graphic novel is due to be out in September from Boom! Studios.