Before you read Peter Kuper’s graphic novel version of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” take a moment to riff through its pages quickly, like you would a flipbook.
That’s the perfect introduction to what Kuper is trying to do. In the novel, Conrad expertly juggles images of lightness and dark, and Kuper makes that metaphor literal, which flipping through his book reveals: As “the horror, the horror” (to cite the most often quoted line from Conrad’s novel) mounts, the black-and-white pages get darker and darker, ending on an image of near-total blackness.
Conrad’s book is a classic, as well as being the inspiration for another masterwork, Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam-set movie, “Apocalypse Now.” By contemporary standards, “Heart” is problematic because it’s not skeptical enough about colonialism and not interested enough in the native people who background the story of Marlow, an adventurer who rides a river into a jungle, searching for a megalomaniac named Kurtz. Kuper, whose book is the latest of several “Heart” graphic novels, addresses those issues by paying more attention to the Congo setting.
Conrad wanted to create a universal story, so he deliberately left out details, but Kuper’s explicit setting lets him introduce the perspective of people from the Congo, who are the bewildered victims of madness and greed. It’s still a story about white men who prey on native people, but Kuper takes care to differentiate the dozens of Congolese people he depicts, all of whom are more vivid than the blank white dudes to whom Marlow tells his tale.
When Marlow throws a dead African man overboard on his journey back from finding Kurtz, the man’s floating corpse lingers in the next several panels, as if to remind Marlow — and us — that he’s the human face of enormous pain. The wounds of colonialism linger even after he returns to London; Kuper incorporates the Congolese in a scene that depicts Marlow alone in his drawing room, illustrating that their deaths will haunt him forever.
Kuper, an award-winner who has contributed to the New Yorker and Mad magazines, finds many efficient ways to visualize Conrad’s ideas, such as a passage, illustrating the greed around the ivory trade, that makes use of Conrad’s words, “Ivory: the word rang in the air. You would think they were praying to it.”
He builds on that line with a gorgeous illustration of elephants that includes a border of piano keys, to remind us what they were being slaughtered for. But the cartoony-ness of many of the humans works against the subtlety Kuper achieves elsewhere, rendering the colonialists, for instance, more comic than monstrous. And, while it’s smart to incorporate some of Conrad’s actual words, that tactic ends up making us miss the vigor of his language.
Actually, that might be what Kuper is hoping for — to whet our appetites and send us back to Conrad’s masterful, complicated novella.
Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
By: Peter Kuper.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 160 pages, $21.95.