Playwright David Zane Mairowitz has a history of mixing the literary classics with the comic book format. He was the author of Kafka For Beginners, famously illustrated by Robert Crumb, and also adapted two Kafka novellas for the comic book format: The Trial (with Chantal Montellier) and The Castle (with Jaromir99). In addition to this, he has adapted Crime and Punishment and Heart of Darkness. With the exception of The Castle, all of these publications have been translated into Norwegian, so it the Norwegian audience had ample opportunity to get familiar with his works by the time he decided to adapt one of Norwegian literature’s greatest classics - Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt.
Penned by Ibsen as a “dramatic poem”, Peer Gynt was originally intended to be read rather than performed on stage, but was later reworked for the stage and has become one of our most famous plays ever.
The most important task – to illustrate the adaptation - went to Geir Moen, a Norwegian artist who’s neither a stranger to Ibsen, big drama nor 18th century imagery. One of his previous works was illustrating De Fire Store ("The Four Great Ones") based on scripts by Øystein Runde; a steampunk/proto-superhero comic starring four of Norway’s greatest 19th century writers (including Henrik Ibsen) as secret agents. Both conceptually and art-wise, the premise was somewhat similar to Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
This background serves him well when illustrating Peer Gynt. As previously mentioned, the work was originally meant to be read, not performed on stage, but in retrospect it comes across as a visually strong story with many burlesque and imaginative ideas. So Moen has a committed to tradition, while at the same time he and Mairowitz have a commitment to try and renew it.
Geir Moen has a somewhat rigid art style, and his characters are often lacking in animation. On the other hand, he also has a detailed and expressive line, which looks great in this story. His creativity is considerable, and his respect and enthusiasm for the original is very transparent. In his own statement he has "taken a million reference images" from the text.
A pattern becomes evident as soon as you begin reading: The images that are (probably) only in Peer’s head are brightly colored, while the images from reality are dimly colored. But just as you have gotten accustomed to this pattern, it becomes more unpredictable again. The scene with Anitra and from the madhouse, for example, are both dim, while the homecoming scenes (which admittedly include some surreal images) are in color. The distinction between fantasy and reality, and what symbolizes what, are becoming more ambiguous, and the reader is being challenged. This makes for a more interesting read.
The comic also has an international flavor. Some of it is probably due to Mairowitz' contributions, but Moen has a certain international artistic flair himself. Many of his Gynt characters are reminiscent of Vertigo Comics boogeymen, including the Strange Passenger and the Button-Molder. The trolls in the hall of the Mountain King look more like demons from medieval art than traditional Norwegian folk-art. The Mountain King himself is obviously Ibsen, and he resembles the playwright more the further out in the story we get.
If you know the original well*, you'll appreciate that relatively little is cut from this version, all in all. Every scene of some importance is included and the flow of the original story is retained. Mairowitz has done a very good job of keeping that. The spelling is cautiously modernized, and for the sake of the format some rhythm and rhymes had to be broken down, but are mostly kept very recognizable.
Comics Norway in general are breathing a sigh of relief well these days, even though we did have faith in Geir Moen all along: One of Norway's foremost literary works have made a successful transition into comics.
* Translations of Peer Gynt are widely available on the net. Here are a few links:
http://gutenberg.spiegel.de/buch/peer-gynt-1716/1 (German translation)
http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k54702240 (French translation)