EDIT: This review has now been slightly redacted and changed because my blogging peers tell me I took my criticism of New American Library, Charles Santino and Joe Staton too far. I hope anyone who read the previous version didn’t get terribly offended at my mentioning of money changing hands or speculation of how this graphic novel came to be, but I have commented on editorial style before, which was my justification for the original post. The rest of my opinions still stand.
Sometimes life brings you surprises. You hope that they are good surprises.
Then you open the package and realize that someone decided to make a comic-book version of Ayn Rand’s famous novella, Anthem, and your heart sinks a little.
A lot of people don’t like Anthem, but I’m not one of them. I think the book illustrates a good point about not forgetting individuality and ambition, especially in her post-technological apocalypse, communal world. Of course, Anthem was written during a time when Communism, and anything similar, was still widely feared. I liked it a lot better than Brave New World, which I read around the same time and felt totally uncomfortable with.
Anthem is about a man, Equality 7-2521, who doesn’t feel quite right in his communal society where he works as a Sweeper. One day, while out sweeping, he finds a tunnel filled with old technology, the existence of which was nearly wiped out in an ancient battle. Since then, the individual has been systematically cleansed from society and everyone does as they are told, down to when they have sex. Intrigued by science and equipped with a bright mind, Equality 7-2521 re-invents the light bulb, woos the pretty Liberty 5-3000, tries to re-introduce electricity to society to make life easier and becomes a total pariah, taking Liberty 5-3000 with him. The pair then finds an old house and re-builds an individual-driven society after discovering the word “I” and the existence of ego.
Back to the graphic novel adaptation, apparently done by Charles Santino and Joe Staton, both of whom I’ve never heard of. The press release included in the package tells me Joe Staton won an Eisner award at some point. Is that so? I certainly expected more from an Eisner winner because…
The first thing you’ll notice about this adaptation of Anthem is that the art on the cover looks awful and the interior art isn’t even inked, which might have made the style slightly more bearable. The art seems to be in that awful style of 70s and 80s cartooning that assumes everyone in the Middle Ages wore a tunic and boots. The men are manly and bodily thick, unless they are villainous or a wimpy side character thrown in for laughs, and the women are gorgeous, blonde and full-lipped. But despite all this, the art is really blockish and square-like, even when things should be more curvaceous. Everything just oozes of cheesy Saturday morning cartoon. (Did I mention this adaptation felt a bit scrubbed clean to me?)
On top of that, every page only has three panels each, meaning that the comic’s pacing feels more like a 4-koma manga that you quickly zip through instead of a deeply thoughtful narrative about a man’s fight against a society who oppresses him. I’ve never fervently wished for wide open spaces on the pages of a comic book in ages, but here I was wishing for something, ANYTHING, other than three rectangles a page. You think someone could have fit it in somewhere, it would have made for a great visual metaphor if Equality 7-2521 broke through a panel somewhere. (And then the panel structure completely changed afterward.)
My biggest complaint however, is that there’s no art to it at all, just characters doing stuff. If I were drawing this, I’d go all out and draw art deco motifs and Mucha-inspired characters when the narration turns away from action and goes into exposé. Does that happen? Nope, nope, nope. It’s not that Staton isn’t capable, I’ve taken a look at some of his other artwork for the purposes of this review, it’s just that someone (or someones) didn’t try very hard as they worked on this comic. It’s pretty obvious to me that Staton is definitely a culprit here.
But let’s not forget the story! This is where things get tricky. Anthem is almost completely narrated by Equality 7-2521 referring to himself in the royal we (because “I” doesn’t exist for him during most of the story). This could make for a very un-dynamic comic in the hands of someone unimaginative. Unfortunately, Charles Santino was definitely not feeling creative when he wrote the script for this book. Like I said, it’s just page after page of Equality 7-2521 doing stuff. There’s about 35-45% of the comic that is actually Equality doing things in tandem with the narrative where it makes sense. The other 55-65% is where Rand gets eloquent and Santino just keeps writing Equality doing super-boring stuff. So we wind up getting a lot of boxes of narration that sort of conflict with whatever is happening in the art and completely fail to fit the mood of the words and the art. Something tells me Santino just copy-pasted the important lines of the book and scribbled in some basic action in order to give Staton a minimal amount of direction.
And that’s just it, this work is minimal. Santino did the least amount of work necessary on the script and Staton did the same with the art. Is this because they weren’t passionate about the work? Probably, I am sad to say. Anthem does a lot of showing and a lot of telling, but somehow the two don’t ever seem to touch each other meaningfully and show readers what makes Anthem a good book. There is no love for the material in this adaptation. What a waste of the potential of a good book.
Don’t buy this graphic novel. If you’re interested in Ayn Rand, go buy the prose version of Anthem, because she is a good author despite the complete failure to re-capture her work here.
Where the heck is Steve Ditko when you need him?
On Boing-Boing, Owen noted:
I have nothing to add to Owen’s observation.
All the best, etc.
…So what’s your point here?
You’ve probably seen me say before that I don’t think Ayn Rand was particularly skilled as an author of fiction, but I’m with you when you say that an adaptation should strive to bring out the best of the book it is based off of. It should accurately convey both the merits and the flaws of the original story, or it might as well not call itself an adaptation.
I’m curious: do they go into Liberty’s characterization very much? You mention she is “pretty,” but one of the main points of Rand’s writing is that people tend to be attracted due to the ideals they have/embody, not because of superficial sexual attractiveness. Is the adaptation faithful or unfaithful in this regard?
No, they don’t go into her character very much and their attraction feels extremely superficial in this adaptation. All I got from it was that he saw her and thought she was pretty and maybe had a spark of life that he didn’t see in other women. You kind of feel that they come together because they both looked each other up and down and liked what they saw. Liberty is never quite explained to my satisfaction in the comic, it seems like she just comes along for the ride because she likes Equality and doesn’t do much except that. I said “pretty” because she’s obviously made to look more attractive than the other women. (And blonde, presumably to help explain her nickname, “The Golden One.”)
I really feel this adaptation was a little too literally faithful and not enough emotionally faithful. The whole reason I like “Anthem” is because of how Rand wrote about the joy of Equality’s discoveries. It made me feel like I was right there with him, discovering how the world could be changed. Perhaps if the creative team had spend more time expressing things instead of copy and pasting the text into the narration boxes and then drawing something that fit the narration, this comic adaptation would have earned some love from me. Instead, it’s just horribly dry and superficial.