Fall 2003

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, adapted by Peter Kuper

Harvey Pekar


André Gide remarked of Kafka's fiction, "I could not say what I admire most, the naturalistic presentation of an imaginary world, rendered believable through a minute precision of the images, or the daring turn to the mysterious." Modifying and summarizing Kafka's text to create a graphic-novel version of his Metamorphosis will almost certainly compromise its quality, because little of its "minute precision" can be considered dispensable. In addition, the necessary editing can only render the work less intense and lighten its mood. However, Peter Kuper—a cover artist for Time and Newsweek, as well as the artist currently behind MAD Magazine's "Spy vs. Spy"—has retained the main elements of Kafka's plot and amply illustrated select vignettes so as to minimize the inevitable loss.

This is not the first time Kuper has adapted Kafka to the comic strip. He began in 1988 with "A Fratricide" and over the next eight years did several stories, which were ultimately published in Give It Up. Kuper has said of illustrating "A Fratricide," "Kafka's vividly imagined tale painted such powerful mental pictures that when I set pen to paper the comic seemed to draw itself." For The Metamorphosis, he employs a scratchboard, which, when inked and scratched, produces an image with the look of a woodcut. This style makes historical sense, since novels published during Kafka's era commonly featured woodcut illustrations.

The raw look of Kuper's scratchboard technique also sharpens the starkness and terror of the tale. His nightmarish vision partakes of both Surrealism and the graphic style of Winsor McCay, the creator of the early-twentieth-century comic strip Little Nemo, and his style generates a visual energy that amplifies Kafka's dire meditations. The varying of typefaces and the bold use of white and black lettering deepen the bleak mood. In a scene depicting Gregor Samsa—transformed into an insect—in the aftermath of his father's attack, Kuper skillfully overlaps his panels so that part of each subsequent image is erased. Eventually Gregor's tenderhearted sister grows disgusted with her brother: "Things can't go on like this! We've done everything humanly possible to care for it and put up with it! We must get rid of the notion that this—this monster is Gregor. If this were Gregor, he'd have realized human beings couldn't live with such a creature and would have left voluntarily! But this animal persecutes us, drives our roomers away. The only solution is to get rid of him!" But Gregor never stops loving his family, and he realizes their hardship. "He knew he had to disappear," is how Kafka pithily anticipates his death. Kuper's two-page spread in which Gregor dies is especially well dramatized, the lighting ranging gradually across the pages from somber to radiant.

Undoubtedly one of the great works of literature, The Metamorphosis surely would have been included in the Classics Illustrated comic-book series if the editors' tastes had run to the macabre and tragic. Indeed, Kuper's faithfulness to the text, with its attendant whiff of academic literalness, is reminiscent of one of those adaptations. And, like a Classics Illustrated version, it's no match for the original yet offers the eye pleasures galore.

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