Alienation; the relentless oppression of modern life; the sense that we’re trapped like lab rats in a vast, nightmarish and illogical system in which we can never truly comprehend any meaning.
These were just some of the sensations aroused by having to get from Canary Wharf to South Kensington on London’s decaying transport network the other night.
However, things picked up immeasurably when I arrived – just in time – at my destination: the Goethe-Institut, where the (slightly awkwardly titled) K: Kafka in Komiks exhibition was being launched.
The exhibition, which has already run in Stuttgart, Salzberg, Prague, Dresden and Krakow, displays extracts from three graphic treatments of Kafka’s work, all scripted by David Zane Mairowitz, a US author who now lives and works in Europe.
The earliest work in the exhibition dates back to 1992, when Mairowitz collaborated with no less a figure than Robert Crumb on Introducing Kafka. Sixteen years later, he worked with a French artist, Chantal Montpellier, on a graphic version of The Trial, and last year he teamed up with Czech illustrator and musician Jaromír 99 to adapt Kafka’s unfinished work The Castle. (The latter two of these are published in the UK by SelfMadeHero.)
To mark the opening, “Man at the Crossroads” Paul Gravett talked to Jaromír 99 (via an interpreter) about the process of adapting Kafka for comics.
The project started with an email from Mairowitz, who wanted to adapt The Castle and felt that a Czech collaborator would provide the right sensibility. With his reputation forged by the Alois Nebel trilogy of graphic novels (later turned into an award-winning animated film, but sadly still not available in English), Jaromír 99 was top of his list.
As Jaromír’s nicely prepared presentation revealed (don’t knock the Powerpoint!), a loose scripting process and a bit of back-and-forth soon led to the creation of a ‘storyboard’ that laid the foundations for the finished work.
Then, interestingly, the artist went about ‘casting’ and finding locations for his book. He visited the former German-speaking area of the Czech Republic, where Kafka spent some time, to find a suitably imposing castle and surroundings (settling on the villages of Branná and Javorník). Then, wanting his characters to have an authentic period look, he based their design on photographs found on the graves in the German cemetery in Branná.
Once the book had been completed, the project took on another dimension with the formation of the Kafka Band to devise a ‘soundtrack’ for it. As Jaromír 99 described it, they perform “traditional music we made up”, accompanied by visual displays from The Castle and narration from the book. (The video for their song Grob/The Grave is here on YouTube.)
The exhibition is modest in scale but nicely designed, with each little ‘unit’ depicting a fragment from one of the works. I had been expecting a display of original artwork, but the outsized reproductions work well, playing with the format to take the action ‘off the page’.
(Maybe it’s worth mentioning that all the work on display is in German, although folders containing English translations are readily available.)
Another nice touch is a side room that displays two comics versions of Kafka’s enigmatic parable Before the Law, by Crumb and Montpellier, while Orson Welles reads the corresponding text, allowing a comparison between the three versions.
The exhibition has also spread to other areas of the building, so be sure to explore a little. You never know where a cockroach is going to turn up next!
It’s always good to see comics being drawn closer to the literary mainstream, so kudos is due to the Goethe-Institut, the Czech Centre London and the Austrian Cultural Forum for presenting the exhibition.
K: Kafka in Komiks is on display until Friday 19th December, so if you’re in the area and the experience of holiday shopping is proving a bit too much, pop in for some light relief!
Goethe-Institut London, 50 Princes Gate, Exhibition Road, London SW7 2PH • Admission free, Mon-Fri 0900-1800, Sat 0900-1700.