See that asterisk* above? That’s the first thing I used to draw on the board to introduce Kurt Vonnegut to my seniors. I used to do the whole English teacher thing where we’d read Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” and I’d pour it on thick about theme, and symbolism and author’s intent, and yada, yada, yada. Then after all of that explication, I’d draw that asterisk and say: “But then again, this is the same guy who drew a butthole at the beginning of one of his most popular novels, so who knows?” I wanted my kids to see that a writer could be brilliant and worthy of years of analysis as well as being a goof who would do a take directly at the camera and say “It ain’t that serious, y’all.”
This duality is what makes Vonnegut so important, and it’s this duality that Slaughterhouse-Five: a Graphic Novel Adaptation taps into so masterfully. Adapted by Ryan North with Albert Monteys doing yeoman’s work on pencils, colors, and lettering, this adaptation near perfectly encapsulates the spirit and voice of the original.
In case you haven’t read either iteration, Slaughterhouse-Five is a rare bird in that it combines elements of satire, sci-fi and semi-autobiography to tell the story of fictional Billy Pilgrim, a prisoner of war who, along with the decidedly non-fictional Vonnegut, survived the Allied forces bombing of Dresden that resulted in the deaths of over 25,000 people. But it’s more than that. It’s also a story about time travel, alien abduction, and the permanent impermanence of life.
It’s this last bit that is particularly suited for the comics medium. Time travel in fiction is often convoluted with rules that rarely make sense or leave the plot riddled with plot holes. Here, the visual representation of Billy Pilgrim’s life as explained by the Tralfamadorians is both a masterful reproduction of Vonnegut’s vision as well as evidence that comics is the perfect medium for this book.
Ryan North is the perfect pick to adapt the text with his flair for humor and absurdity, and Monteys’ art manages to visually embody the clean and simple syntax of Vonnegut’s style without losing anything. In fact, something about how this team’s adaptation allows for more of a connection with the characters. In many of Vonnegut’s stories, I find the reading experience to be almost like looking at bacteria in a petri dish. They are infinitely interesting bacteria, but bacteria nonetheless; I am interested in their stories, but I am observing them from a distance rather than being personally invested. In this version, Monteys humanizes even the most hateful of characters which grounds the text and gives the reader something to grab onto in a story that is easy to get lost in.
The visual medium also serves to hammer home the anti-war mission of the book. The depiction of war is without heroes, and absent of all glory. This is where the book and original text is most synergistically aligned: our time here is both infinite and fleeting and yet we spend our time inflicting misery on one another. So it goes.
It’s for all the reasons above that I would definitely recommend this for the classroom and for readers in general. There are some sexual situations, language, and implied nudity, but overall, if you would teach with the original text, you should be fine here. The only problem with this book is it makes me want to read all of Vonnegut’s books as graphic novels now.
This is an easy 10/10. Get your own copy here!