Thoreau at Walden
By John Porcellino
The Center for Cartoon Studies (Hyperion)
Ages 9 and up
On shelves April 22, 2008
Credit The Center for Cartoon Studies with this much; it isn’t your everyday average run-of-the-mill comic book variety factory. I mean, any schlub can slap together a bunch of panels, paste in some vague dialogue and facts, and then create enough computer images to declare their product a graphic novel bio of such n’ such a figure. It’s much harder when you want to do something a little more original with your subject. When The Center produced Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow last year, they didn’t make it some rote retelling of facts. Instead they created a story around their subject, placing Satchel at the center of the action rather than the story. I was curious to see how they’d tackle their next project: Henry David Thoreau. The result was not what I’d expected. Simplifying everything down to its most essential components, John Porcellino takes Thoreau’s Walden and conveys ideas through the minimum words and images needed to tell his tale. Its success is dependent entirely on the reader’s willingness to play along.
Separated into four seasons, the reader follows Henry David Thoreau as he spends time living on his own alongside Walden Pond. Snatches of his writings from the time dot the text, with much of the attention paid to his quieter moments of pause and reflection. Watching an owl in a tree, standing in the rain, or sitting in the middle of a boat in the center of his pond, artist John Porcellino allows us the chance to experience the simple miracles of the everyday through Thoreau’s eyes. With an almost minimalist style of cartooning, we see Porcellino recount the incident with the poll tax and other well-known moments, but for the most part this is a book that takes Thoreau’s message to heart and seeks to present a book that conveys the message of Walden visually rather than with words.
I was pleased to see that D.B. Johnson was responsible for the Introduction to this book. Best known for his Henry picture books ( Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, Henry Works, etc.) starring a Thoreaunized bear, Johnson delivers a beautiful summary of Thoreau’s life, his ideas, and the way in which John Porcellino has captured the his spirit with remarkably few lines. Says Johnson, “You may regret that not all of Thoreau’s words are here, but I do not. His words are among the most quoted of any writer and are found everywhere today. What could not be found until now are the countless moments of silence that Thoreau experienced at Walden Pond.” I see it this way; anyone can relay a person’s words. It takes a special talent to relay a person’s peace of mind. I would also say that Johnson’s Introduction is essential reading before you start in on the story. If you don’t understand that this is a book that hopes to capture the quiet moments between Thoreau’s thoughts then you might be confused as to why not much happens in the story. As Porcellino says of his book, it is, “not a definitive or chronological account of Thoreau’s stay at the pond, but rather an impression of his experience there.”
My husband was unconvinced of Porcellino’s cartooning talent. And it would be fair to say that many people could pick up this book and see it as childlike and simplistic. But I suppose that Porcellino was paired specifically with Thoreau because the simplicity of his line echoes the simplicity of the text. I began to wonder if the story could have been improved it had been in color. Thus far the books created by The Center for Cartoon Studies have all been black and white. This cuts down on costs, but something about this book felt like it should have had color in it. Not gross shadings and undulating tones, but straightforward blues for the lake, greens for the trees, and the color of a huckleberry hanging off a bush. If any book deserved it, this one did.
I know that when some people read in Johnson’s Introduction that Porcellino has reduced Thoreau’s words to a minimum, they’re going to be concerned. To what extent do you trust a comic book artist to adapt an American philosopher? Porcellino’s Afterword addresses the changes that he has made, and it certainly put my heart at ease to hear him describe what he did. “All the words in this book, with a few exceptions (noted below), come directly from Thoreau’s published writings (though I’ve taken the liberty of altering punctuation when necessary, and combining, and rearranging the quotations to make the story flow.” To account for all of this he has a complete list of Quotation Sources at the end of the book detailing each quote and where it can be found “in editions of Thoreau’s work that are currently in print and easily available.” The book’s last few pages also contain a map, Panel Discussions, and a Bibliography of works about both Walden and Thoreau.
Thoreau at Walden would pair most beautifully with a high school or college course in which students had to read Walden on their own. I know that had I read this book (and its Introduction) when I was younger I might have been able to understand a lot more of what Thoreau was trying to say. Advocates of civil disobedience, environmentalism, simple living, vegetarianism, and more adore him. It only stands to reason that we should find ways to get his books into the hands of our children. And Thoreau at Walden is now the number one method of doing so.