An Interview with Julian Peters

How did your interests in poetry and comic book art come together? Did you grow up reading comics?

My interest in combining comics and poetry began in my early twenties when I conceived the idea of creating a biography of Arthur Rimbaud in comics. This was soon after my discovery of poetry, but as for comics, I had been a huge fan since the time I could read, and even before, actually. Since my childhood was spent between Quebec and Italy, I mostly read French and Italian comics, and European comics are still my favourites. Among American comics, I especially loved (and still love) “Calvin & Hobbes,” “The Far Side,” “Mad Magazine,” and Carl Barks’s Duck family adventures for Disney.


How did you find the French Symbolists, like Rimbaud? Did you respond similarly to his infamous lover, Paul Verlaine? Or their contemporary, Stéphane Mallarmé?

I first encountered Rimbaud in a beat-up paperback collection of his work that I found in a used bookstore. I was probably about nineteen or twenty, and had little experience with French poetry, or any poetry, really. I think I decided to give the book a try mostly because of the cover image, a loosely-sketched portrait of Rimbaud done by Verlaine. I found the round-faced adolescent in the drawing looked quite a bit like the Belgian comic-book character Tintin, a long-time favourite of mine. It was in large part this similarity that led to my desire to create a comic-book biography of the poet. I discovered the works of Verlaine soon afterwards, and I’m a big fan of his particular brand of gentle, melancholy musicality. But Rimbaud’s in another league, in my opinion – the highest league. Even in the poems in which he’s essentially parodying the style of his sometimes-lover Verlaine, he surpasses him at his own game. As for Mallarmé, I must confess that I have never responded much to his work, except for his wonderful “Brise marine,” of course. But I haven’t read all that much by him, and maybe it just wasn’t his best or most immediately compelling stuff. I’d certainly be willing to give him another chance.


You illustrated an English version of “The Drunken Boat” by Arthur Rimbaud. Did you translate it yourself? If not, whose translation is it, and why did you select this version?

My adaptation of “The Drunken Boat” was commissioned for inclusion in the second volume of The Graphic Canon, an anthology of graphic interpretations of classic works of world literature. Russ Kick, the anthology’s editor, provided me with the translation, which is old enough to be in the public domain. I’m sorry to say I don’t know who wrote it, which is a shame because I think he or she did a terrific job. I especially admire the way the translator was able to maintain the rhyme scheme and meter of the original. A translation of a good poem is always just a shadow of the original, of course, and there is some crucial aspect of Rimbaud’s spirit that can only exist through his own French words. That being said, Rimbaud is perhaps more amenable to translation than many other poets because his imagery is so startling, and it remains so in no matter what language it’s expressed. That’s also why it’s so well suited to graphic interpretations.


The drawings at the start of “The Drunken Boat” are somewhat literal, but then seem to wander as the text does, through beautiful figurative language and strange images. And the style of your drawings in that adaptation refuses to be pinned in a certain artistic school; some of it seems influenced by Mucha and Van Gogh, as well as modern, 20th century comic artists. This seems appropriate for a French Symbolist poem, since that school of poetry is today understood to, in the words of Rimbaud, reject realism in favor of a “long, intimidating, immense and rational derangement of all the senses.” Did that aspect of Symbolist philosophy help you as an artist to draw more freely from your own imagination, rather than going with a more literal interpretation of the text?

I generally think of my interpretations as being fairly literal, but the thing is, I don’t think that attempting a literal interpretation is necessarily such a limiting practice when it comes to illustrating a lot of poetry, and certainly Rimbaud. On the contrary, I think that it is in some sense more challenging to imagine how one could literally depict something like “the ocean’s gentle buss” or “panthers with the skins of men” rather than using this poetic imagery as a pretext towards the creation of some only tangentially-related “flight of artistic fancy.” The starting point for me is usually whatever images most readily suggest themselves to me when reading the poem. These images can be very vague, and it can take a while to flesh them out in my mind and on paper. When I’m happy with the final result, though it’s often because I feel it corresponds to the image that came into my head when I first read the poem. That’s what I feel my mental process is, but who knows what’s really going on. And it’s true that I keep coming up with new ideas, and removing things that don’t work, all through the execution phase.

What images pop into my head is of course a factor of the kind of images that I tend to look at. Symbolism is one of my favourite artistic movements, and it was only natural that I would recall the work of certain Symbolist masters when reading a poem that is sometimes seen as inaugurating the Symbolist movement in poetry. For my interpretation of “The Drunken Boat” I took inspiration from the works of such Symbolist or Symbolist-influenced artists as Max Klinger, Čiurlionis, Odilon Redon, Walter Crane, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Jean Delville, Mikhaill Vrubel, Van Gogh, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and Henri Rousseau, and no doubt there are many unconscious references to other Symbolist art in there as well.


Your most recent comic illustrates WB Yeats’ poem “When You Are Old.” You chose to use the manga style for this comic, saying it’s a tribute to shojo manga of the 90s. Could you tell us more about that movement and how you think it works particularly well for this poem?

Shojo manga means “girls’ comics,” and refers to any genre of Japanese comics that are specifically targeted to young women. As one might imagine, these comics are characterized by their over-the-top romanticism, one that I thought would work well with Yeats’ poem. “When You Are Old” has long been one of my favourite works by the Irish poet. I especially like the last line, “And hid his face amid a crowd of stars” (although I’m not sure I fully understand it). But when I started to think of ways I might draw it, I had to admit to myself that the imagery that most readily came into my head while reading that line was of the kind found in shojo manga. Maybe because of the way these comics’ impossibly-romantic male love interests – the character of Tuxedo Mask, for example, in the Sailor Moon series – are so often depicted striking a weightless pose against a star-filled sky, or perching debonairly upon a moon or star. I am specifically inspired by the shojo manga of the 1980s and early 1990s because it is the kind of comics and anime (Japanese animation) that I was exposed to as a kid. So obviously there is a big nostalgia factor, which also fits with the wistful tone of the Yeats’ poem.

There was a second motivating factor for me in rendering “When You Are Old” as a shojo manga, however, besides the style’s appropriateness to my vision of the poem. There is a lot of girls’ manga that just bowls me over with its beauty and elegance. The work of the CLAMP collective, for example, contains some of the most graceful use of line in art that I can think of, almost comparable in that regard to Aubrey Beardsley or, well, traditional Japanese ink drawing. But a lot of people tend to dismiss these artistic styles because they are used to illustrate what are looked upon – often unfairly – as vacuous and saccharine melodramas. I thought that pairing the style of shojo manga with the words of a universally admired poet such as Yeats would call attention to the beauty – and indeed truly poetic qualities – of these comics.


I love your adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee.” The speaker’s antagonistic attitude with the angels becomes a little meatier with the drawings. In fact, it seems more like the prologue of a superhero’s story before he rises up and battles those angels. Have you thought about writing a sequel? Did this poem read like an origins story for you?

That’s an interesting way of seeing it! I’ve never really read superhero comics, but they’ve had an influence on all of comics that is hard to escape. My adaptation of “Annabel Lee” was the first comic I created after I conceived the project of creating a book of poetry comics. At the time I had been contemplating abandoning comics, having seen all of my projects from the previous five years or so get summarily rejected by all of the many publishers I presented them to. Then I thought, “Well, this poetry thing seems like a promising idea, so I’ll give comics one more go.” So I suppose in that sense “Annabel Lee” could be like a personal prologue.


In “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” Eliot’s description of the yellow fog and smoke is alarming, yet also endearing for its feline qualities. In your adaptation of the poem you illustrate Eliot’s zoomorphism of the smoke so playfully, even giving the smoke an innocent, little smile in one panel. How do you view the fog / smoke? Is it benign or malicious? Or something of a mix?

Some people have criticized my depiction of the fog as too cute, whereas they see it as more of a menacing presence. But some of the language Eliot uses to describe the cat-like fog seems rather endearing, as you say: it rubs its muzzle and licks its tongue – often marks of affection in a cat – and then, in a rather cozy image, it curls itself about the house and falls asleep. I imagined the fog as a kind of bumbling and fluffy Himalayan. That’s not to say it couldn’t still have something slightly malicious to it, but it’s more of an unconscious maliciousness – the unthinking maliciousness of the empty-headed, perhaps. In any case, I think it’s important that the comic adaptation of “Prufrock” have its lighter moments. The overall gloominess of Eliot’s poem is relieved by its occasional undertones of very dry humour, which are in keeping with Prufrock’s self-deprecating personality: He does not even have enough self-belief to take his own suffering entirely seriously.


Is it correct that you modeled the lead figure in this adaptation on Eliot himself?

Absolutely. And the protagonist of the “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” comic is modeled, albeit more loosely, on Keats. Also, the features of the male love interest in my “When You Are Old” adaptation are partially modeled on W. B. Yeats, even if the features are highly stylized and standardized in the manner of Japanese manga. But then, the young Yeats did actually look a bit like a character in a romance manga, what with his boyish good looks, his floppy hair, and his oversized bowties.


One thing I like about your adaptations, and particularly “Prufrock,” is that they force the reader to slow down and really consider each of Eliot’s verses and its implications, such as “there will be time to murder and create.” The speaker seems to be reassuring himself that there will be time to murder, and somehow that seems even more insidious when paired with the depiction of this Victorian / Edwardian gentleman in his top hat—one moment with his hands around a lady’s throat, the next moment beside a new mother and infant. Did you sit with those words for all the time you took to draw that panel, as well as the others? How did creating this adaptation affect your understanding of the poem?

Yes, I think often when reading poems there are certain lines that really leap out at us, and we tend to see the others sort of as filler, or as little more than a means to creating the necessary build up to the punchier bits. Adapting poems into comics has certainly forced me to consider more deeply those lines that I had previously given little thought to. In the case of the “there will be time to murder and create” line, I was trying to illustrate the many possible futures that are flashing through Prufrock’s head as he contemplates marriage. But perhaps after all I was also tapping into some latent current of sadism running through the text. I say this because I recently discovered another poem by Eliot, from the same period, but unpublished during the poet’s lifetime, that seems to shed a light on a little-known facet of the poet’s psyche. Entitled “The Love Song of St. Sebastian,” the poem presents a dark and disturbing mingling of violence and desire in lines such as these, to which my above-mentioned drawing seems eerily well-suited:

You would love me because I should have strangled you
And because of my infamy;
And I should love you the more because I mangled you
And because you were no longer beautiful
To anyone but me.

Scary stuff!


It’s been reported that you’re currently working on more panels for “Prufrock.” Will you be incorporating into your illustrations many more of the cultural allusions in the poem, from the Bible to the French Symbolists?

Certainly. There are so many layers of meaning and more-or-less thinly veiled cultural allusions in almost every line of Eliot’s writing that it is impossible to incorporate them all into a single image. One has to make choices, and some of the multiplicity and ambiguity of meaning –qualities that are among the great strengths of poetry in general – is necessarily lost. But there are still many ways of suggesting various undertones of meaning in visual form. For example, in the first panels that illustrate the repeated line “In the room the women come and go talking of Michelangelo,” the gestures and facial expressions of the women are meant to suggest the frivolity of their conversation. The miniature reproduction of the Italian sculptor’s famous David statue on the mantelpiece reinforces this idea of the trivialization of great art as fodder for parlour banter. At the same time, the sculpture’s perfect proportions evoke Prufrock’s feelings of inadequacy vis-à-vis the women’s idealisation of such larger-than-life artistic figures as Michelangelo. I hope to be able to find other such multifaceted imagery as I move ahead with the Prufrock adaptation.


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