Who Are You?: An interview with Ulysses “Seen”‘s Robert Berry
Adapting a book to fit the comic/graphic novel/sequential art form is a fairly daunting task. So you’ve got to hand it to anyone for adapting one book which, on face value, doesn’t seem like a natural choice to lend itself to a comic adaptation: James Joyce’s Ulysses. Yes, the very same book that’s probably been the subject of the most “impenetrable novel” jokes outside of War and Peace. Who would dare such a foolhardy challenge?
Rob Berry, that’s who.
With Ulysses “Seen”, Berry bravely undertakes the task of adapting the 265,000 word novel for the internet. It turns out, though, that the webcomic form is but the first step. Recently, the Ulysses “Seen” app went live at iTunes, taking advantage of the latest in cutting edge technology to bring the acclaimed classic into the new Digital Age of Mobile Technology.
Lately, he’s been working on a new web-based media project with Gary Epting on Story Clouds, which will be seeing some fresh material following Bloomsday.
Rob and I got in touch via Twitter first and, after some rather enthusiastic exchanges, later by e-mail. I asked him about Bloomsday, his favorite scene from the novel, and his experiences with iTunes.
1.) So what is it you do on Bloomsday? Do you dress in any wacky outfits? Visit favorite haunts?
Well, I’m not much of a “dress-up-kinda-guy” but I do collect costume stuff for most of the projects I work on. Still got a full Captain America suit from a series of paintings I made 15 years ago. For Ulysses “Seen” I’ve been collecting hats just to get the look right. But I’d never wear them in public. Nothing says “art geek” like wearing a bowler on Bloomsday and, well, people get enough of that idea when the hear me talk. No sense broadcasting louder.
Berry’s Captain America Pagliacci
This Bloomsday I’ll be in NYC for a lot of fun Joycean events ending with Symphony Space’s 29th Bloomsday on Broadway. And I suspect there will be some drinking involved at some point as well.
2.) Is there any scene in Ulysses you could say stuck out to you or you could call your favorite?
There’s a moment when Mr Bloom is having his lunch and thinking about the first time he made love to his wife. Thinking about a picnic long ago on a hilltop, about them kissing and passing food to one another in that kiss, between there mouths, while he eats his own modest lunch now alone in pub. He knows his wife’s lover will visit her in few short hours and feels there’s nothing to be done about this. And he watches “stuck on the [window]pane two flies [buzzing], stuck.”
To me this one has always been a really vivid image that works exactly the way comix do and film does not. The idea of visual information combined through there juxtaposition but not necessarily connected in time.
3.) Joyce fans are pretty hardcore. What’s been the reaction of Joyceans to your adaptation — positive or negative?
Joyceans can be, in their own way, much more dogmatic than Trekkies. Cracking the code of Joyce’s puzzles within the book is tricky business, so really nuanced arguments prevail about what the author is really telling us. People feel an involvement with text once they’ve made it through and an investiture in telling others what they may’ve missed. It’s quite natural, really. There’s so much information in there for people to dig through.
But Joyce, plagued by terrible eye problems, is often cited as being a very “non-visual” writer. There aren’t a lot of flowery descriptive passages in there but a lot of room for argument. So most all of the comments I get from Joyceans are actually really a help to me for purposes of research. They really do know this novel waaaay better than I and I’d never be able to do it without their help and interaction.
That being said, I’d probably describe their reaction as “supportive but cautious.” Oh, and maybe “sometimes sermonizing.” Most want to encourage me in doing this, but also feel I’ll never make it or, worse yet, go horribly astray from the true path.
Ulysses “Seen”‘s Leopold Bloom
4.) Do you ever find yourself with the impatient urge to fast forward ahead so you can work on the Leopold Bloom parts?
Funny you should mention that….
The next chapter will be handling is the introduction of Mr. Bloom and his wife in chapter four. I’ve decided to work chronologically for the first six chapters and this one happens at the same time as the one we just did. There are comparisons being made in these two chapters that are easier for readers to see when they come one right after the other. Since the comic is running as a web-serial that complements first time reads of thew novel, this seems the best way to do things. It’ll still be listed as “Episode Four”, though episodes two and three aren’t done yet.
Trust me. it’ll make the trip easier in the long haul. And Bloom is just damn fun to draw.
5.) One episode I’m curious to see you pull off is the last chapter, which is a long stream of consciousness narrative. That’s a pretty risky way to end a novel, especially, I’d imagine, one that was serialized. Any juicy theories why Joyce decided to close out Ulysses in such a fashion?
It’s actually one of the best jokes in the world of modern literature that this great, epic tale of one man searching for his son and another searching for his father should end with a woman getting the last words in. I love it. The “Molly speech”, as most fans call it, is a wonderful way to end this big novel of arty form and invention with the earthy thoughts of a practical-minded person. It’s Molly, after all, who’s the real “everyman” of fiction.
I’ve got ideas for how to present just about every chapter of this book, but I keep them pretty close to the chest. The way we see and read comix, and books for that matter, is changing so rapidly that I’d be short-sighted to say what might be the right method to do something nine or ten years from now. The great thing about working with Ulysses is letting the form of the day dictate what happens next. The story and the poetry of the language is already there, so each different chapter is a new way of seeing how to make it.
6.) It’s been mentioned in previous interviews that you’ve always wanted Ulysses “Seen” to be read on a tablet, which is why you jumped at the opportunity for an iPad app. What’s the allure of having a comic published on an iPad?
Yeah, this is the device I was planning on making comix for four years ago when the iPhone first came out. I knew that a larger touchscreen reader would completely alter the landscape of magazine and book publishing, so everything I’ve been doing these past years has been with an eye towards that new terrain. Ulysses “Seen” was the one that gained ground and showed legs there first. To me, at least.
Ulysses “Seen” isn’t really a webcomic at heart. I love the pioneer energy of webcomix, certainly it’s more exciting to me than the more predictable conventions of the print comics market, but adapting Joyce’s novel isn’t really a page-a-day form of content as so much of the successful webcomix are. What I’ve been trying to do is show how comix can be a useful learning tool for a difficult book, but also a great way to deal with the idea of hypertext.
I think that what we’re talking about with the iPad (and the coming wave of new tablet readers) is that publishing off paper can now start embracing the depth of content that hypertext does; that comments, questions, links, ads, book groups, social groups and related articles all can be assembled into pages that don’t just move right or left but move readers deeper into the internet as well. Hypertext models like that have been around for awhile, but they’re largely blocks of text that loose the interest of a reading audience that has become more and more visual. Using comix as the framework to that hypertext model, relying on pictures rather than words, is a fundamental change in holding and even challenging that readers’ interest.
I think a tablet reader changes reading on the “Z” axis. It might not re-invent the wheel of publishing, but it makes us think how it might work better as a ball than as a wheel.
7.) (Note: The following question was asked before iTunes lifted its restrictions on the comic.) You had to crop a panel of art in the comic due to Apple’s “adult content” guidelines. Do you foresee this issue being a problem with future installments? I hear Ulysses gets pretty racy.
Joyce’s Ulysses is the most famously challenging novel of contemporary conventions in the English language. It’s been haunted by the specter of censorship since, and during, it’s inception and every worthwhile adaptation or treatise on the book goes through some of this somewhere along the line.
We made a decision to go with this altered first chapter to premier the idea of how comix can be a useful hypertext. The seven pages we had alter we’re difficult for me, but I believe the project is unique enough to survive this and the original pages are still available to readers’, iPad or however, at our website.
Later chapters would probably not be possible under these restrictions. The alterations would be even more debilitating and ridiculous.
But comix take quite some time to make and the conventions and moral fiber of the internet changes daily. Currently I’m making the comix first and dealing with the placement, and the changes I find acceptable for placement, later. Anything else would knock the knees out from under me as an artist.
(After iTunes reversed its policy regarding Ulysses “Seen” I followed up with Rob regarding his experiences on the matter.) I would wonder what sort of incriminating photos you had of Steve Jobs, but I know you’re too pleasant for that. But what do you think prompted the change of heart on Apple’s part?
Apple has stated that they were wrong in placing universally restrictive guidelines regarding nudity. I really do think they have an interest in seeing the world of publishing change quite a bit with the introduction of the tablet and restricting artists from the fullness of their expression runs contrary to that interest. Yes, they really were wrong and have started to think about how to change that.
Is there anything you learned for your iTunes experience that you think other aspiring small time publishers should take heed of?
The history of comics in America shows as that the most enormous strides we’ve taken as an artform have occurred when the publishing arena changes. Self publishing or responding to new trends is a big part of that history of artistic growth. I think if we’ve seen anything in the recent exchange with Apple it’s that self-publishing is possible and there and that artistic expression from the littlest of companies can go a long way to shattering restrictions.
Time Magazine, the New Yorker, and the New York Times all seem to have latched onto Ulysses Seen as a statement on anti-censorship, yet you seem a little uncomfortable with the attention. Do you think that this publicity is ultimately good or bad for the comic and for you as the writer?
No, I don’t think any of this crazy attention we’ve been receiving is bad for me or for the project, but I am uncomfortable with the number of internet news sources who’ve picked the story up and turned it to their own purposes without doing any kind of research. We were NOT censored by Apple or shut out of the iTunes Store. We decided to work within their previous guidelines knowing the restrictions. Don’t get me wrong here. I believe their guidelines were debilitating to artists and authors and I think the press we received on the project forced them to rethink their position. I’m glad about that. But if anyone got kind of a raw deal out of the whole thing it was Apple. People claimed they had censored our comic which clearly was not true. People want to hate Apple at the moment and we were just grist for the mill of that hatred.
8.) Other than Ulysses, what other works is Throwaway Horse LLC trying to adapt? Is there any other literary work you’re aching to get your mitts on?
Well, that’s a bit hard to talk about. We have some plans, but to make those plans happen we need to be a bit close-to-the-vest. Some of them, of course, depend upon money. I’ll be drawing Ulysses for the next ten years of my life and, while I can imagine other books to do as a hypertext this way, we’ll need to pay someone else to draw them.
That being said, some really interesting adaption projects exist out there on the web that we seldom see in graphic novel form. Quite a few are educationally driven as ours is. Some are in the public domain. Some are not. Some are journalistic. There’s quite a lot happening in comix that I can see going deeper into education and social media tools the way ours does and I’d like to see Throwaway Horse look to that kind of energy first. Imagine Joe Sacco’s Palestine with interviews and historical references and recent visitor reflections hanging just behind the pages, for example. I’d definitely read that and probably even suggest it to friends. Isn’t that the hallmark of web-based media as it goes mobile? “Hey, what’re you reading?” and “Oh, it’s great, let me send you a link.”
9.) In a no-holds barred street fight, who would win: James Joyce or Flannery O’Connor?
Hmmn. Good one. Much as they each wrote about real lives of everyday people each of them were not really part of their own cast of characters. Much more squeamish voyeurs of a bloodied and toothsome world that both attracted and distanced them. She got kind of sick there toward the end, but he couldn’t see that well and was a notorious coward. And her arms look, even toward the end, like they might pack a solid punch. But Joyce used to hang out with Hemmingway and have him do all the fighting when things got tight in Parisian pubs. And Hemmingway, at that time in his life, would kick anyone’s ass on command. Even a woman.
But if he ever read her work, he might give the commands of that skinny, spider-legged Joyce a second thought. That skirt has some soul, after all. Maybe Joyce is the one needs some punching.