Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death needs no introduction. Besides being Kurt Vonnegut’s most famous novel, there is an argument to be made that it’s also the most famous anti-war novel, period. Ryan North and Albert Monteys’ new comic-book adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five isn’t far from the first time the text has been translated into another medium; a film version exists, alongside numerous plays and radio dramas. This adaptation, however, is the first of its kind, bringing Vonnegut’s novel to the illustrated form, and allowing for a story that is—at its core—about the experience of time to be examined in a medium built on frozen time.
The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is a man who experiences time non-linearly. He jumps from moment to moment, though the central event of his life is surviving the Dresden bombing of 1945. Vonnegut, prone to metafiction, features himself in his novel as character and narrator. Ryan North takes this first-person voice from the novel and makes it a third-person one. Many sentences are taken wholesale by the comic book team; this dedication to translating Vonnegut truthfully can be stunning, and the book features many creative ways of doing so. On one page, instead of visually depicting a character’s “balls and pecker,” North and Monteys put a caption box containing the words over the character’s groin. Along with valorizing Vonnegut’s words, this decision and others like it cement the book as an adaptation deeply respectful to the original work.
However, this dedication is also the cause of the comic’s one minor flaw. While it’s a mostly mind-bendingly great adaptation of the novel, the inclusion of so much of the text might result in a reader already familiar with the novel glossing over the speech captions. This over-reliance on text is disheartening, because there are many instances where the graphic novel beautifully translates prose into illustration. A passage from the novel that listed a soldier’s belongings is rendered by North and Monteys as a page reminiscent of advertisements for G.I. Joe action figures found in older comic books. And how the comic visualizes the manner in which Billy jumps from time to time, relying on sharp panels of color, is breathtaking. Where the graphic novel depends less on the prose tradition and more on the comic tradition is where it shines best. The fictional pulp books of Vonnegut’s novel become pulp comics of the ’50s and ’60s in the graphic novel, honoring Vonnegut’s intention without relying too much on his text.
Still, this one piece of criticism shouldn’t deter any readers from the graphic novel; this comic is an exemplary adaptation of prose-to-panels. Considering Vonnegut delved into more collaborative work with plays later on in his life, many readers might wish that Vonnegut had delved into writing comics, so solid is this graphic novel adaptation. Really, the comic’s only minor failing is that, ironically, it’s too true an adaptation, form-wise.