Slaughterhouse-Five Review

By | Monday, November 02, 2020 Leave a Comment
Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five is, of course, a classic of American literature from the back half of the 20th century. The book was adapted to film within just a few years of its initial publication, and it's also been adapted to the stage and radio. Ryan North and Albert Monteys, however, have adapted it to the comics medium for the first time.

North and Monteys use the basic plot and structure of Vonnegut's original. Meaning that the story hops around protagonist Billy Pilgrim's life in a seemingly haphazard manner. It starts with him in World War II, then jumps to his childhood, then to his mother's deathbed, then to a party in 1961, and then back to WWII. All in the span of a few pages. Although Vonnegut (and North) describe Pilgrim as a time-traveler, it might be more accurate to say that he experiences his life non-linearly. And throughout the story, we see how the events he experienced during war impact the rest of his life.

But you can read a review of the basic story anywhere. It's been around a hald century at this point. How do North and Monteys handle the adaption?

Interestingly, the first thing they do is acknowledge that it's an adaptation. The first seven pages meta-textually explain (using comics) how Vonnegut came to write the original, and how their adapation is similar but in a distinctly different medium. As such, they then provide a visual guide to some of the characters and the different version of Pilgrim we'll see throughout the book. And, in a manner that seems to acknowledge they're racing to catch up with Vonnegut himself, they then start the story proper a little ways after the original. Kind of a "we now return you to the story, already in progress..."

Not surprisingly, other elements gets shortened or eliminated. Pilgrim's son is all but gone entirely, as is the co-pilot who survived a plane crash with him. Also, notably, Kilgore Trout is now an author of comics as well as pulp stories. This is perhaps most significant as we're treated to some of Trout's stories, and they're presented as if they were published in the 1960s... with Ben Day dots and mis-registration and the like.

That approach, where North and Monteys try to take advantage of the different medium, shows up at several points. The sequence where Pilgrim watches a movie backwards is told via story boards. The Tralfamadorian book is actually shown for a couple pages... and is, of course, as unintelligible as Vonnegut described. Roland Weary's thoughts about explaining his 'adventures' once he gets home are shown rather than explained. While most of this book does depict the original story as told in comic form, the creators here aren't simply transferring Vonnegut's words into illustrations, but they're making it a solid comic experience.

The one element I didn't care for in that regard, though, was there was also a visual depiction when Pilgrim went from one time period to another. Admittedly, it's been 15-20 years since I've read the original, but I don't recall Vonnegut marking those changes quite so explicitly in the text. Further, Monteys does an excellent job with the visual storytelling anyway, so there's never any question when Pilgrim has switched time periods even if you ignore the visual markers he puts in place. These visual markers don't really reduce the reading experience or distract the reader per se, but I think the story would have flowed just fine without them.

Overall, I would say that North and Monteys have done an extremely admirable job in translating the novel into comics form. If this had been available when I was a teen, I would've been reading Vonnegut's work MUCH earlier and not have waited until I was in my 30s before even considering him. Well worth picking up!
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