Whoever writes an anti-war novel could just as well write a book against icebergs, it says right at the beginning of “Slaughterhouse 5”. Kurt Vonnegut was not deterred by this and published his novel in 1969, which quickly became a classic with its mixture of science fiction, autobiography and postmodern irony.
The versatile author Ryan North, known for the webcomic “Dinosaur Comics” as well as for the Marvel series “Squirrel Girl”, and the illustrator Albert Monteys, most recently nominated for an Eisner Award with “Universe!” Let Romans inspire fancy page layouts.
They keep finding new graphic solutions for sequences told backwards, instantaneous changes of time and place, or the stories of the Tralfamadorians based on simultaneity. And when Vonnegut describes the belongings of a US soldier in the Battle of the Bulge, the adaptation spreads this out in the form of cut-out figures and a dress-up doll on the page.
The science fiction novels that Billy Pilgrim devours as a traumatized veteran – whether out of escapism or because that’s where a better world appears – meanwhile mutate into comic books with a trashy retro look. The playful access to the original text and the cartoon-like drawings make “Schlachthof 5” an entertaining comic that knows how to implement the absurdity of the plot well.
Being kidnapped by aliens and put in a human zoo seems just as plausible in Vonnegut’s world as being a prisoner of war in an old Dresden slaughterhouse brewing malt syrup for pregnant women. The crater landscape in which the hero finds himself after the air raids seems as unreal as an alien planet.
Incidentally, the number of victims, which Kurt Vonnegut took from the long-discredited work “Der Untergang Dresdens” by the later Holocaust denier David Irving, was corrected in the comic from 135,000 to 25,000. However, Billy Pilgrim reads the corrected figure in an edition of Irving’s book, so that this is (involuntarily) revised as well.
What gets lost a bit in the adaptation is the underlying feeling that Vonnegut’s laconic, serene diction is ultimately just a desperate reaction to not being able to comprehend the horrors of war.
North and Monteys show that they can condense the novel down to its essentials, gently modernize it and process it visually imaginatively. But the fact that Vonnegut’s postmodern gimmicks and sci-fi clichés are only mechanisms of escape and suppression in the face of war trauma is rarely felt in her comic.