Jason Novak opens his newest collection of short comics, In His Time: The Early Stories of Ernest Hemingway (Fantagraphics Underground 2022), with a question: Why Hemingway? And while the short, jokey answer (that, Hemmingway’s first book, originally published in 1924, had just entered the public domain) may be partially true, the collection’s introduction frames itself in a more telling way. Novak writes that the idea for the book – to adapt Hemingway’s famously minimalist, “iceberg theory” of prose into comics panels – came to him as something between a narrative challenge and a style exercise. What exactly, Novak asks, does he have to learn about himself as an artist from this “25-year-old born in the 19th century?” It turns out, quite a bit.
The first edition of in our time (Novak makes sure to note the lowercase) from 1924 is Hemingway’s earliest published fiction – half-page vignettes of World War 1 and Spanish bullfights whose sparse prose makes the few details that much more visceral. Novak adapts many of these stories word for word, allowing Hemingway’s sentences to serve as glorified captions to his signature black-and-white digital art style. These pieces range from the meditatively sad to the bizarre and even a few so light on action that they’re better classified as prose poems than fiction. Throughout the adaptation, the incongruencies between Hemingway’s tight, sometimes-stilted prose and Novak’s goofy, Tumblr-esque figure work have a delightful effect.
Yet, while In His Time is a great read, a carefully crafted exercise in pacing and visual style, I couldn’t help but think that as the 1:1 adaptation of Hemingway that Novak intended, it isn’t really working. Poking around online, I was able to find a scan of the original 1924 version of Hemingway’s stories, and comparing these two versions of one “text,” what separates them is clear.
The scenes Hemingway writes are understated, informal, reading more like fragments of drunk conversations overheard in public than well-constructed stories, and this sparsity is fundamental in why they work so well. In his comics, Novak tries to visually translate this effect, preserving many of Hemingway’s actual sentences within his panels but framing them on the page, surrounded in negative space, confusing minimalist page compositions as a stand-in for stark language. This, more than anything else, is why, as “translations” of Hemingway, these comics fail – that in his efforts to mirror the original stories’ minimalism, Novak frames words on the page such that they get even more of our attention, the opposite effect.
Going back to the source material – the twenty-odd stories originally published in in our time, each no more than a page or two – Hemingway’s stories look like paragraphs on the page, little more than a few periods and quotation marks keeping them from being blocks of text. The only “voice” in Hemingway’s prose is that there is no voice, that everything that makes these stories rich is happening somewhere between the lines. Taking that same metaphor to the world of comics, “between the lines”, meaning the blank space and gutters between panels that take up almost all of some of Novak’s page compositions, this interpretation of Hemingway’s minimalism has a very different effect.
For an example of this “reverse-minimalism,” look no further than the last page of almost every comic in Novak’s collection. Since the original versions of the Hemingway stories are all just a paragraph or two long, the endings come suddenly – often evoking specific images (Chapter 6’s “He was sitting down in the water with his head on his knees”) or abruptly signaling towards a future somewhere beyond the events on the page (Chapter 8’s “And he never told anybody”). Novak stays faithful to these original endings, at least in word choice, but framing these seemingly-throwaway sentences as standalone panels undermines their original effect. While most of the comics are a handful of pages long, opening with denser page compositions that evoke action, the last pages of all the stories are merely a panel or two alone on the page, like the camera lingering on the final shot of a movie.
So, while Hemingway’s stories end with non-sequiturs and a sense of dissonance, the disproportionate page space Novak gives these sentences changes how we read them, framing them as more important than (in a merely textual sense) they are. Novak’s minimalist cartooning style only reinforces this disconnect – his plain, black-and-white figures become symbolic, and therefore more important, than the understated nature of Hemingway’s prose. To borrow again from the language of movies, the camera “lingering” on nothing imbues that nothingness with meaning. The effect of this page composition on prose like Hemmingway’s – where the “point” is to read between the lines and pull out meaning from the minimal – is that the “translation” into comics loses the richness of the original stories’ style. Like a magician’s assistant too eager to mimic his teacher’s tricks, Novak ends up going through the motions of Hemingway’s prose, yet, in the process, misses the magic.
Because of this, both the strongest and most mechanically interesting stories of In His Time are the ones where Novak ventures outside the safety net of Hemingway’s prose, cutting narration almost altogether and allowing his panel compositions to tell the story. Novak’s Chapter 13, adapted from Hemingway’s Chapter 11, is probably the story most removed from its source material, and yet, because of its use of comic’s visual language, it is his strongest adaptation. Novak only lifts one sentence from the Hemingway vignette (the young bullfighter, drunk after a narrow victory, saying “I am not really a good bullfighter”), allowing the whole first chunk of the story to be told visually, through his panels.
And because the story is told visually, the negative space in these page compositions do more than simply frame Hemingway’s prose. The angular, asymmetrical panel structure gives a sense of action and disorientation (and, later in the story, drunkenness). Without the distraction of narration and dialogue, the lingering camera effect of Novak’s negative space compositions forces the reader to slow down and think about not just what they’re reading but also what they’re not. As adaptations, these more visual stories are closer to the experience of reading Hemingway’s prose than the other comics that rely more heavily on his words – the preservation of having to read “between the lines” for the embedded tension is more essential to Hemingway’s style than his prose.
Ironically, it seems like Novak really does “get” Hemingway, at least as a reader. Even in these first published stories, effectively student work, Hemingway’s lifelong obsession with natural dialogue and the story being told through subtext are undeniable. The very fact that Novak is able to read these vignettes for what they really are – narrowly focused prose poems that, in their specificity, open up to be about so much more – is indicative that he understands and cares for the work in question. It’s just that the process of “unfolding” these works as a reader is precisely the opposite skill necessary to translate Hemingway’s style (be it to another language or medium) while preserving what makes it great.
The translation of Hemingway’s words into panel compositions is, in a way, what readers do when they decipher these stories. We “translate” the few cues and hints Hemingway leaves us, latching onto the few seemingly-throwaway sentences that, for whatever stylistic reason, we’re drawn to, and then we translate those into images that start on the page and, through what we specifically bring to the reading, they become so much more. Novak breaking these stories into pages and panels, drawing specific attention to certain words and lines, is a physical representation of the exact process we do in our heads as readers. The problem, then, is that reading Novak’s “translations” of Hemingway’s stories pales in comparison to the originals. We’re reading a specific version of the story – how Novak “unfolded” it – rather than the coded, ambiguous, and ultimately richer version of Hemingway’s original prose.
If Novak’s experiments with adapting a master of prose prove anything, it’s that the visual language of comics truly is a craft without parallel in other mediums. What makes someone an understated stylist in fiction is not guaranteed to translate well to comics – in fact, depending on execution, it could even have the opposite effect. Minimalism in prose is not the same as minimalism in comics or even minimalism in other connected visual mediums like film.
In His Time is an understated, dense, stylistically rich collection of comics that – paradoxically – fails as an adaptation at the same time it elevates many of these stories in a new medium. Reading it side by side with Hemingway’s originals is a strange experience, one that raises more questions than answers about the merits of adaptation and of comics’ visual language.
So, as an adaptation, I’d call In His Time unfaithful. But as a style exercise, one that interrogates the storytelling capabilities of comics? Pretty damn successful.