There’s something to be said for going big or going home, and that’s what Santiago Garcia and David Rubin have clearly aimed for in adapting Beowulf to comics. One of the oldest surviving English language works of literature, Beowulf is one of the preeminent hero’s tales, a story of man versus beast, of bravery versus fear, and of defiance against darkness. It may, perhaps, be very rote material, but it’s also the granddaddy of warrior tales, so if Beowulf seems overdone, that’s only because a good deal of action stories can probably be traced back to it in some way.
Beowulf is not easily translated into comic book form. Or it could be, but you’d be left with a lot of lengthy text superimposed against a graphic imitation of the story. The original story is an epic poem, which–if you’ve never read one–tends to have lengthy descriptions and erudite speeches which leave the action mostly to the recipient’s imagination. Garcia and Rubin went the route of reinterpreting the story rather than recreating it, with Rubin clearly carrying the heavy load of translating epic words into epic imagery.* It’s an impressive task that keeps this version of the story unique and prevents it from being reduced to a Cliff’s Notes version of the classic.
Much of the pleasure in reading Garcia and Rubin’s Beowulf is the bleak tone used to convey the story. Rubin’s art is evocative of Jeff Smith’s cartoonish style, but not in any way that makes the story less credible. (Indeed, Smith’s Bone could get quite epic and gory at times as well.) The graphic novel’s use of bleak colors and computer-generated snow and ash create a tangible picture of a harsh Danish country where life constantly struggles against the elements and monsters. The art is light, but definitely not cute, and at times, downright monstrous.
The epic tone of the story is also carried by broad, double-page spreads which engulf the reader in the action, contrasted against multi-panel pages which are consumed by nonstop action. Garcia and Rubin juxtapose multi-panel spreads of the bleak Danish landscape being surveyed by the monster Grendel against a single spread of its rampage, followed by a cacophony of images of the creature devouring a village. These pages illustrate exactly the original poem cannot be recreated in comics: because comics thrive on the visual, and in the simulation of sound and motion through juxtaposed imagery. A lengthy written description of Grendel doesn’t do the creature justice in comics form.
Beowulf is still taught in schools as an illustration of the development of the English language, but it serves another valuable purpose. It’s also highly illustrative of the epic story and the hero’s journey. Beowulf is a tale of a hero with little time for doubt or introspection. Though flawed, for the most part, he tends to be at his core a man who knows his duty and lives to fulfill it. A reader can easily see elements of the Thor and Hercules legends in the story, and even if those legends outdate the story (the epic is only traceable to the 10th century), one can’t help but see bits of Marvel’s Thor without the superhero trappings in this story.
At $30, Garcia and Rubin’s Beowulf isn’t cheap, but you do get a solid take on one of the seminal works of English literature. Consider this adaption for the reader who needs a break from the usual capes-and-tights comics and wants to try a new take on some classic literature.
Rating: Four epics out of five.
* It’s worth noting that Garcia and Rubin’s Beowulf was originally released in 2014 as a Spanish-language story. We are, in fact, getting the English translation of a Spanish comic which reinterprets an English story.