“Kafka Komix,” an art installation by Bryant's English and Culture Studies chair Professor Martha Kuhlman, Ph.D., represents a synthesis of teaching, scholarship, and artistic expression. An effort to grapple with Franz Kafka's classic novella "Metamorphosis," in which salesman Gregor Samsa awakens to find that he has become a huge insect, “Kafka Komix” draws on the power of innovative transformation to tell a well-known tale in a fascinating new way.
Adapting a classic
“Kafka Komix,” currently on display in Bryant’s Krupp Library, represents a journey more than ten years in the making. Inspired by studying "Metamorphosis" alongside students in her Honors Introduction to Literature course, Kuhlman began to research graphic novel interpretations of the work, including an adaptation by cartoonist Robert Crumb, and a mash-up version by Robert Sikoryak in the style of the classic “Peanuts” comic strip. Ultimately, this research was turned into a chapter published in "Drawn from the Classics: Essays on Graphic Adaptations of Literary Works" (2015).
A hands-on art class she took gave her the push to create an adaptation of her own. “I actually came to an art practice through my teaching,” explains Kuhlman, the author of articles in the Journal of Popular Culture, the European Journal of Comic Art, the International Journal of Comic Art, and the MLA volume Teaching the Graphic Novel. “When I first started teaching creativity in the arts, I had to really dive in and research and think how am I going to design the curriculum? What kind of assignments will I make? And as I was making the assignments I thought oh, I really want to do that, too. And that gave me the desire to get back into art making.”
When people see “Kafka Komix,” I hope they'll think about the many ways that you can spin an idea, how many different ways you can tell a story, and how the medium that you choose affects how people perceive your project.
Intrigued by Kafka’s request that the transformed Gregor never be portrayed in illustrations of the story, Kuhlman sought to develop a novel way of telling the story without representing the main character.
The result is “Kafka Komix,” 25 8x8 inch collage panels recreating the novella in a unique and exciting fashion. Fittingly for a project on Metamorphosis, the panels focus on transformation, incorporating and re-contextualizing elements such as 19th century engravings, depictions of atomic structures, and word balloons from old Tintin comics.
“When people see “Kafka Komix,” I hope they'll think about the many ways that you can spin an idea, how many different ways you can tell a story, and how the medium that you choose affects how people perceive your project,” says Kuhlman.
“Kafka Komix” also encompasses several additional components, including an option for exhibit goers to take selfies with one of the panels and add their own captions and a side project where Kuhlman reached out to other artists all over the world, including acclaimed comics writer and artist David Mazzucchelli, to contribute their own versions of mini-comics based on her fill-in-the-blank model.
In addition to the exhibition in Krupp Library, “Kafka Komix” was featured at the AS220 gallery in Providence and has been accepted for exhibition in January 2019 at the Elzay art gallery at Ohio Northern University. Kuhlman is considering an interactive 3D version of the piece as well.
“The Douglas and Judith Krupp Library was excited to partner with Professor Kuhlman to exhibit her recent work,” says Laura Kohl, Krupp Library’s Director of Library Services. “Exhibits like ‘Kafka Komix’ provide an opportunity for our users to be exposed to interesting creative works that they might not see otherwise. We’re always excited to showcase what the Bryant community produces, from faculty works to student projects.”
For Kuhlman, the rewards for such a complex project are simple. “If someone tells me that they saw it and it made them think, or it made them smile, or they felt some sort of reaction – that's absolutely the best part,” she says.