Kurt Vonnegut is one of the American masters. Wry, tragicomic, simple yet constantly evocative. There are reasons for his enduring popularity, and reasons to be worried when posthumous adaptations such as Slaughterhouse Five are announced.
Yet the writer of the adaptation, Ryan North, has been one of my favorite writers for a long time. I’ve enjoyed his work since Dinosaur Comics was still in its infancy, and I’ve seen him get more mainstream success with Chooseable Path Shakespeare books, a mainstream Marvel comic with The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and his ‘How To Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler.’
Adapting a famous piece of prose can be done simply, but North and Albert Monteys, the artist, wanted to make sure this graphic novel version of Slaughterhouse Five used the medium of comics to its fullest potential.
If you’re a newcomer to Slaughterhouse Five, it’s a masterpiece, and the best anti-war novel of all time. Too often, anti-war novels either get elaborate with gruesome depictions of war to turn the stomach or make overly simple platitudes. Slaughterhouse Five does neither.
It follows Billy Pilgrim, an inept soldier, captured by the Germans, who is sent to POW camp in Dresden prior to the city’ firebombing. Billy survives when most of the city has died. But he becomes unstuck in time, leaping about through parts of his life without control. When he gets abducted by aliens, it’s really a relief.
To be clear, they didn’t cause him to be unstuck in time. The Tramalfadorians explain to him that they’re always unstuck in time the same way too. They see someone at all points in their life simultaneously.
In many ways, Slaughterhouse-Five is the perfect book to adapt into a graphic novel, because in a graphic novel you can also see all the panels simultaneously. There are numerous fantastic touches through the adaptation that are things that can only work in a graphic novel.
The tone of the book is perfect. This had been a concern—I like North’s writing, but he’s much more upbeat and positive than Vonnegut. Clearly, North took extensive notes and used as much of Vonnegut’s actual voice as he could. When he couldn’t—such as in Derby’s speech, which was never explicated in Vonnegut’s text—the effect is almost seamless.
Montey’s art is phenomenal throughout. It has a very animated style to it that fits the story. When things are subdued—in particular the Dresden sections—the colours are significantly more muted. When things are more excited—in particular the Tramalfadorian sections—the colours are brighter and more lively, with the Tramalfadorian book being a particular highlight.
There are also some smaller, very clever things with the art. Whenever Billy goes through time, there are different colour lines suggesting which timeline he’s heading towards. When Billy gets a bit of tasty nutrition in the Dresden section, he suddenly turns bright orange, suggesting vibrancy and health.
Slaughterhouse-Five is an excellent adaptation of some exemplary source material. I cannot recommend it highly enough.