A conversation with Julian Peters

Julian Peters is in the process of creating a comic book adaptation of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” He graciously agreed to an interview with poetry critic and comic book aficionado, Micah Mattix, to discuss the adaptation, why he chose “Prufrock,” and the most difficult aspects of comic adaptation.

You have adapted a relatively wide variety of poems—from François Villon’s fifteenth-century “La dernière ballade” to Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” and Arthur Rimbaud’s “Le bateau ivre.” How did you get into doing poetry comics?

I drew a lot of comics as a child, but I stopped in my teen years. When I returned to comics in earnest in my early twenties, it was with the express intention of creating a comic book biography of Rimbaud. I had been struck by a few drawings of the boy poet done by Verlaine in which I thought he looked a lot like a dishevelled, bohemian version of Tintin. Soon I began to see all kinds of parallels between the French language’s most famous comic book character and its most famous poet: Both came from the same geographic area (Tintin from Belgium, Rimbaud from the Ardennes region of France right next to the Belgian border); both are blessed with an unwavering conviction in their ideals, in marked and often times humorous contrast to their intemperate, older, bearded companions (Captain Haddock and Paul Verlaine respectively); and both are indefatigable travellers. The idea of a Rimbaud bande dessinée seemed so good to me that I basically taught myself how to draw comics with the intention of realizing it. All of which is to say that, from the beginning of my return to comics in adult life, the notion of associating the medium to poetry was always a central factor. Because I was so inexperienced with comics, I kept reworking the Rimbaud project over and over, continually dissatisfied, and never actually finished it. However, the short section I did end up completing included an adaptation into comics of Rimbaud’s short poem “Sensations.” That was the first of my poetry comics.

Why Eliot’s “Prufrock”?

First off, because it is one of my very favourite poems. The language is incredibly beautiful, of course, and lord knows I can relate to Prufrock’s indecisiveness. And it is one of those poems that has always spontaneously created a multitude of vivid images in my mind’s eye. I also think it is just the sort of poem that works best as a poetry comic. First because it lays forth a narrative of sorts, and second because it is not too concrete in its imagery, so that in converting it into visual form there is little risk of being too straightforwardly illustrative.

They will say How his arms and legs are thin

What’s the most difficult part of transforming a poem into a comic?

Well, each part of the process seems like the hardest one when I am actually grappling with it, but I suppose ultimately the most challenging aspect of making poetry comics for me is getting the pacing right. There should be a rhythmic flow to the comic that captures the corresponding flow of the poem. Achieving this is mainly a matter of how to break up the text between the panels, how to arrange the panels, how to pace the visual narrative, and where to place the text in relation to the imagery. Of course, these aspects can be judged the most successful the less the reader is immediately aware of them.

You discussed the research that goes into the comics with The Boston Globe, along with your decision to set “Prufrock” in Boston. Are there any particularly thorny parts of the poem that you are working on now? You may not have gotten this far, but I am curious to see how you will treat the following lines: “And I have known the eyes already, known them all— / The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase, / And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, / When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall …”

The next stanza I am set to illustrate is the one containing the celebrated line “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” I’m still not entirely sure how I’m going to render that very abstract notion into a tangible image. As for the next stanza, in which Prufrock imagines himself “formulated, sprawling on a pin,” I am planning on depicting it very literally, with the protagonist up on the wall with a pin running through him. But it’s very important in that scene to get Prufrock’s movements and the expression of the “formulating” eyes just right. Generally speaking, I am giving a lot of thought to how to capture the sense of oppressive social anxiety that Prufrock is experiencing at this evening get-together, in which most of the rest of the poem, at least according to my interpretation, is set. I’m still quite perplexed as to how to go about drawing “the butt-ends of my days and ways,” the afternoon and the evening “sleeping so peacefully, smoothed by long fingers,” and also the very last line, “Till human voices wake us, and we drown.” But these challenges are all part of the fun, of course.

I noticed that Prufrock looks like Eliot. Did you ever consider drawing him otherwise?

Not really. The young Eliot’s physique always seemed to me to be perfectly suited to the role. The only quibble is that Eliot always had a good head of hair on his head, whereas Prufrock is worrying about going bald. But then, that may all be in his mind (along with everything else). I also tried to make the knight in my adaptation of “La Belle Dame sans Merci” look a bit like Keats, although I wasn’t as rigorous in that regard as I was with Eliot. And of course, the male figure in my adaptation of Yeats’s “When You Are Old” is intended to look like the Irish poet as a young man, albeit as a Japanese manga character.

There will be time to murder and create

For the line “There will be time to murder and to create” you have Prufrock imagine killing a woman and sitting at the side of the bed of what looks to be the same woman who has just given birth. While you have said that you try to refrain from introducing your own interpretations too strongly in the strip, I thought this image was particularly effective. Of course, you don’t want to ignore the constraints of the poem itself, but it seems to me that some of the most interesting parts of the adaptation are those parts in which you risk a bit of interpretation.

I don’t mind going out on a limb with an interpretation once in a while, but my process usually involves trying to capture whatever imagery seems the most natural to me, rather than the most clever, or the most unexpected. In the case of that line, I really had no idea what Eliot meant, so I came up with that highly speculative visual rendering of it. Later it was pointed out to me that “time to murder” was likely simply an intensified modification of the expression “time to kill.” Still, I suppose the image I came up with is among the more memorable panels of the Prufrock comic so far, and I think it’s useful in foreshadowing what I interpret as Prufrock’s speculation as to the possible outcomes of marrying the woman he is presently infatuated with (whom he has come to see at this evening get-together).

You have done a character portrait of Rimbaud, and it’s not uncommon to see comic histories. I remember a graphic history of the Beats by Harvey Pekar and Ed Piskor a couple of years ago that was intriguing as an idea but fell kind of flat in its execution. You never finished the Rimbaud and have written that “the ambitiousness of the project far outweighed my abilities at the time, a problem compounded by my disastrous decision to attempt to tell the story in French.” You’re a couple of years older now, with a lot more experience under your belt: Have you ever thought of doing a graphic biography of Eliot or Poe, or picking up the Rimbaud again?

I would definitely like to go back to the Rimbaud biography at some point. I think now I would write it in English, or work in close collaboration with a native French speaker. I still believe Rimbaud would make a terrific comic book character, and there would be something very satisfying about finally completing the project that really got me into comics in the first place. I also think Yeats’s life would make an interesting comic, at least as a study in unrequited love (given that the poet spent most of his life pining over the beautiful revolutionary Maud Gonne, who always turned down his advances). Another, slightly less serious-minded idea I had was to create a kind of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen–type graphic novel involving Trecento Italian poets. The dour Dante, the hopelessly romantic Petrarch, and the ribald young Boccaccio would team up to battle the forces of the underworld, unleashed into Tuscany following Dante’s journey to the Inferno. Now that would be a lot of fun to do! There will be time, there will be time … But now it’s time to finish “Prufrock”!

And when will “Prufrock” be finished?

I plan to finish “Prufrock” during the first half of 2014.  

Micah Mattix edits the e-mail list and blog called Prufrock, now at The American Conservative.

The editor of the book and ideas newsletter Prufrock interviews artist Julian Peters, who is creating a comic book adaptation of T. S. Eliot’s famous poem.