Review time! with The Red Diary/The Re[a]d Diary
So here’s an interesting project. Teddy Kristiansen wrote and drew this graphic novel, which was originally published in French (I assume that’s because Kristiansen knows French because he’s a cosmopolitan European and not a knuckle-dragging Yank). At some point this was translated into Kristiansen’s native Danish. His old writing partner, Steven Seagle (with whom he collaborated on the sublime It’s a Bird … as well as the ongoing House of Secrets), wanted to publish it in English. According to Seagle, his agreement with Man of Action and Image means that they will publish stuff through the studio only if one of the founders (Seagle, Joe Casey, Joe Kelly, Duncan Rouleau) is involved in the writing or drawing. So what could Seagle do? Well, he could translate it into English. As he notes, this is a great idea … but he doesn’t know French OR Danish. So, yeah – also a problem. What he decided to do was use an old college trick where he looked at the text and picked words in English that resembled the foreign word, whether it was an exact translation or not. Seagle calls it “transliteration,” and it works quite well. So he decided to use the Danish – itself already a translation – and “transliterate” it into English. Here Seagle explains how he tackled the quotation that begins the book:
Ultimately, he cleans it up grammatically and gets this:
He then did this for the entire book, keeping the original names and trying to stay as close to the word counts and balloon lengths as he could. He calls it a “re-mix” of the original book, and thus he was able to publish it through Image, because he was “writing” the book. So that’s The Re[a]d Diary. Opposite this is The Red Diary, which is Kristiansen’s English translation. I asked Seagle what part he played in it, and he told me that Kristiansen sent him an English version and he helped shape it. The initial quotation that Seagle “transliterated” up there is actually this:
So there you have it. Two versions of a graphic novel with the same artwork. And it only costs you 30 U.S. dollars! But is it worth it?
Well, sure it is. Both versions are very good, and the fact that they tell different stories using the same exact art just adds a nice layer of curiosity to everything. Both stories are told from the point of view of William Ackroyd, an old man (the book takes place sometime in the 1960s or 1970s – it’s unclear) who is looking back to a period of time right before and during World War I. This much is the same in both versions. In Kristiansen’s story, William is a biographer who is working on a book about a poet but he gets sidetracked when a woman who said she was the poet’s lover sent him diaries written by a friend of the poet’s, a painter named Philip Marnham. For some reason, William becomes interested in Philip, and he begins to dig into his life story. At the beginning, we discover that Philip was killed in World War I, but as he digs deeper, William begins to wonder why Philip would enlist in the first place. The way Kristiansen gets around the “problem” of withholding key information from the reader is with the diaries – William reads the “blue” diary (the colors don’t mean anything, they’re just the colors of the covers of the books) first, and then he reads the “green diary,” which skips a big chunk of time. Only later does he dig up the “red” diary, where he learns all of Philip’s secrets. Kristiansen does a nice job dropping clues to what Philip is doing throughout the book, so when we get to his secret, we can see where Kristiansen has been leading us. It’s a nice little mystery about a nondescript painter who, so William believes, did nothing of note before dying in the trenches.
Meanwhile, Seagle’s protagonist is also William Ackroyd, and he’s also reading about Philip Marnham, but because Seagle is “transliterating” the original script, we get a different twist. It’s still fascinating, but it’s not quite as successful as Kristiansen, mainly because this William knows a bit more than he’s telling, and it’s a bit frustrating when you get to the “twist.” It’s certainly not a bad twist nor a bad story, but it lacks a bit of the mystery Kristiansen’s does. William, strangely, comes off as a bit more whiny in Seagle’s version – in Kristiansen’s, he seems to have more purpose, while Seagle’s William is slightly more pensive and reflective. It’s interesting, because they could easily be the same character – they are, of course – in different moods or at slightly different times in their life. William is the only character whom we really get to know – we know Philip only through his diaries, which is a bit of a barrier – and so his characterization has to carry the book, even though both plots are interesting. Part of the book’s charm is comparing the different kind of person William is in Kristiansen’s version and Seagle’s version. It’s quite neat.
What’s also fascinating is that both books deal with identity and what it means. It’s fascinating because there’s no reason why Seagle should have come up with that kind of theme without knowing what Kristiansen’s original is about, but something in the prose must have sparked that thought in Seagle. Identity is a classic theme in fiction, of course, because it touches on The Question – Who Am I? – but it’s still pretty neat that both writers should create a script that delves into the theme from different angles. Both men are on a quest about identity, and even though Seagle’s William is more reflective, both Seagle and Kristiansen do a nice job unspooling the story slowly and letting the reader digest it slowly. It makes the quests feel more important, and the revelations of the secrets more satisfying.
Kristiansen has also been an artist who relies on few lines and subtle colors to create a mood, and he does a magnificent job with the artwork on this book. Red is a motif he uses throughout, both for reasons I don’t want to get into here and also because the war is such a presence in the book, so blood is also a large presence. William’s “present” is a bit more solid than antebellum Paris, which is perhaps not surprising, because William is reading about it rather than experiencing it himself, but also because Philip is searching for solidity in his world, so it seems a bit more ethereal. Kristiansen is very good when he draws the war scenes – everything is darker and horrific, of course, but he also makes some of the scenes ghostly, as if the world has fallen completely away. The drawing of the German soldier shot through the eye is particularly haunting – the man looks almost as if he has long ceased to exist and the thing that is killed is just an echo. Kristiansen uses stark, straight lines, giving Philip a gaunt look, which is appropriate, and William a haggard look, which is also appropriate. The style of the artwork and the pale coloring make this comic look like a ghost story, which is interesting – it’s not really one, but William is reading about someone long dead, so Kristiansen’s choices make sense. William is haunted by different things in each version, and Kristiansen implies this throughout with his artistic style and choices.
The Red Diary/The Re[a]d Diary is really a marvelous project and a superb read(s). It’s not only two wonderful mysteries that delve into the things that make us who we are, but it’s also a very cool way to create a comic book. I’ve often thought that a company should take one script and give it to several different artists to draw and then publish all of the versions, because that would be very interesting, and this is a very neat opposite idea of that – taking the artwork and creating two different stories based on it. As it turns out, both stories are really good. I’d probably Strongly Recommend this if it was one or the other story, but since we get two, that makes it even easier to praise it!