Laurence Sterne's vast, hilarious 18th-century masterpiece has been adapted into a mighty comic book. Here, with pages of his elaborate, brilliant and perhaps totally insane project, the artist explains how (and even why) he did it

Martin Rowson
Saturday 31 August 1996 23:02 BST

DURING the past couple of years, when I've told anyone who's asked that I'm currently adapting (translating? transliterating?) Tristram Shandy into a graphic novel, I've received two standard reactions: either "You must be mad!" or else "Wow! that must be a labour of love!" While madness and sentimentality would both be classically Shandean justifications, my real motivation in taking on Laurence Sterne's mesmerically impenetrable 18th-century anti-novel was altogether baser in origin.

To describe this project's gestation, ab ovo, I need to take you back to 1990, when Penguin published my comic-book version of The Waste Land. This book, in which I collided T S Eliot's poem with the genre of Chandleresque detective fiction and recast it as a hard-boiled film noir, has subsequently been the subject of two PhD theses (one in Italian, which I can't read), and was adapted into an opera which proved a minor hit in the Covent Garden Festival. Yet despite these fillips to my ego, I vowed never to do another graphic novel for as long as I lived.

For a start, I couldn't face that amount of hard work again. The book took me 18 strenuous months to produce and nearly drove me mad. Subsequently, battles with the enraged Eliot estate drove me madder. Penguin's insistence that it was "very much a word-of-mouth book" (ie, there was no publicity budget) drove me madder still, while my American publisher's suggestion that I do Ulysses next (thus revealing that he'd completely missed the point) drove me maddest of all.

Several years later, having calmed down a bit, I was sitting in a pub in Dublin with Antony Farrell of the Lilliput Press. Out of the blue he suggested (having seen The Waste Land) that I might do something similar to Tristram Shandy. Choking into my Guinness, I told him that he was mad. The whole thing was clearly impossible. But then, to show willing, I let the idea percolate through my mind. After a while, the very fact of the apparent impossibility of the project began to appeal.

First, there was the unquestionably weird nature of the book, weirdness being a staple of comic books from Krazy Kat to the present day. Then there was Tristram Shandy's structure which, in failing to adhere to the kind of sequential narrative which the comic book exemplifies, provided me with plenty of scope to subvert the accepted structures of comic-book narrative and design as effectively as Sterne had originally subverted the structure of the novel.

I noted with approval that Sterne had been dead for more than 200 years, as had his widow (an important consideration, this, in the light of my harrowing run-in with the Eliot estate). Moreover, I found my potential collaborator sympathetic and admirable (unlike Eliot, whom it was my intention to canard mercilessly; as one reviewer put it: "If Eliot were alive to read this, it would kill him all over again.") Finally, my agent Giles Gordon seemed excited by the idea, as did Peter Straus at Picador, with whom Giles succeeded in negotiating a hefty advance. This, to get back to my opening paragraph, was the inspiration I needed.

THE only problem now was how, in practice, to turn 500 pages of hopelessly (but magnificently) wordy text into a comic book of around 160 pages. With all my work, I tend to sit back and wait for inspiration to come in a flash. With The Waste Land, the idea of turning this Modernist shibboleth into hard-boiled gumshoe trash came when it struck me that the poem itself is now taught as a kind of detective story: identify the quotation, chivvy out the allusions and then thrash about looking for a motive. With Tristram Shandy, the defining parodic shift, which came apparently from nowhere, was an image of Tristram commencing his story in a vast Piranesian vault (left), which in turn proves to be the interior of his father Walter Shandy's scrotum.

Having struck upon my beginning, I now knew where I and the adaptation were going. Sterne's Tristram Shandy is the archetypal reductio ad absurdum first-person narrative novel. Famously, Tristram (and Sterne) take four volumes to fill in the necessary background to Tristram's birth, with continual digressions to fill in the background to the background to the background, to vanishing point and beyond. Tristram Shandy, in my version, would therefore be a wayward odyssey through the novel itself as Tristram tells his story, in his own (and Sterne's) words, as he walks, from left to right through the panels from beginning to end, with more than a few meanderings off the beaten track and wanderings down culs de sac along the way.

TO explain this more clearly, I'd better start at the beginning again. It is one of the enduring peculiarities of the English Tripos at Cambridge that in Part I the student is taken on a mad, roller-coaster ride through the canon of Eng Lit, covering a topic a week and reducing the received wisdom to an essay of not more than three sides of foolscap. Thus it was with Tristram Shandy. While recognising all this as a disreputably unShandean proposal (after all, you need at least 30 pages to describe how you got from your digs to the faculty library to get the book out in the first place), I did my best to honour the Shandean ideal.

First, I observed that the book could be read from back to front with as much benefit as the other way round. Secondly, I noted that "Lillabullero", which Tristram's Uncle Toby whistles at moments of crisis throughout the original novel, is the call-sign of the BBC World Service, leaving others to draw whatever significance they could from this. My supervisor, a calcified old fossil, abjured my line of argument and enjoined me to concentrate on the book's place in the Development of the English Novel. This attitude killed my interest in Tristram Shandy - and most of the rest of the Canon - stone dead for a decade or more. Farrell, Giles Gordon and Straus's handsome advance renewed my interest, and I reread the book 5 or 6 times in the next couple of months.

Familiarity with the text is no guarantee of a suitably Shandean mindset, however. We need now to return once more to the beginning.

My Jurassic supervisor had, unwittingly, usefully revealed himself as a kind of cultural gaoler (with options as executioner when required). He guarded Tristram Shandy, among other titles, in the dank prison of The Canon, on a strict regime of stale bread and brackish water. Now apart from, perhaps, Finnegans Wake and the wilder outpourings of the Surrealists, nothing calls out for analysis and explication more, and nothing suffers more from it, than Tristram Shandy (I mention this sotto voce in the review pages of the Independent on Sunday). During my supervision long ago in Cambridge I'd made a hesitant stab at formulating an ur-Shandean school of criticism, but without much success. "Shandean" criticism? Of course, that word is impenetrably eponymous, almost (in a Shandean sense) onomatopoeic. Pulling off my cap and bells for a moment and replacing them with a beret (worn at an angle and sheathed in Gauloise smoke), I might, in a stern (Sterne?) moment, suggest the synonym "deconstructionist" - or even (replacing the beret and Gauloise with a floppy fringe and a roll-up) hoarsely whisper "postmodern". (To digress for a moment - as a student, bored silly in my Part I exams, I suicidally answered the question "The artistic creations of one age cannot properly be analysed by the critical attitudes of another. Discuss" as follows: "Assuming this statement to be true, it is unanswerable; to make it answerable it is therefore necessary, in this instance at least, to suspend chronology and assume that everything happens at once. This makes things much easier and allows one to present the following hypothesis. We may assume that while Milton is sitting in Chalfont St Giles dictating Paradise Lost to his long-suffering daughter, at exactly the same moment Tristan Tzara, the noted Dadaist, has acquired 750 orang-utans to provide the floor show at the Cabaret Voltaire. Tzara chains these apes, as a Dadaist act, to 750 typewriters, and leaves them to it. In time (but also, of course, simultaneously), they type out the complete text of Paradise Lost, which Tzara, on reading, recognises as just the kind of unbelievable bullshit he needs for his next Dadaist manifesto. Milton's daughter and Tzara both then post their manuscripts to their publisher in Bloomsbury who, as is standard practice, only accepts the typewritten manuscript (Milton's is written, as you'd expect of the 17th century, in longhand). Now if it is accepted that Paradise Lost is the product of 750 orang-utans, it puts the whole poem in an entirely different light. For a start, it explains once and for all the sympathetic portrayal of Lucifer, whom the apes have written up as a way of getting back at God for making them fat, inarticulate and, worst of all, orange."

And so on. Needless to say, this did absolutely nothing to advance my academic career, and explains why I am a cartoonist and not - although this was never very likely - sequestered in some dreamy cloister counting the phonemes in Pride and Prejudice.)

AS the foregoing digression attests, a Shandean criticism is possible and, of course, runs in rich streaks of silver throughout Tristram Shandy itself. And it was here that I found a second and, from a satirical standpoint, more potent starting-point for my adaptation. Sterne's cod-intellectualism, with its more recent echoes in, among others, Flann O'Brien's De Selby, is mirrored, only less convincingly, in the real world of literary criticism. In seeking to avoid at all costs a straight, faithful, "heritaged" adaptation of Tristram Shandy (lovingly wrought in sepia and browner tints, on sale in leading National Trust bookshops), I needed to inject, digressively but also integrally, a good measure of modern, or postmodern, or post-postmodern, or even pre-post-post-pre-modern, hindsight.

To this end, I've structured my version of Tristram Shandy in the following way. Most of the "narrative" consists of Tristram telling his story in talk bubbles (which contain Sterne's own text, edited or rearranged where necessary). Punctuating this narrative flow are digressions featuring myself and my (fictional, talking) dog Pete (who was originally the hero of my Logorrhoea cartoon strip on the books pages of the Independent on Sunday).

Our role is to provide a contemporary viewpoint on the novel, with me as adaptor, artist and exegete and Pete as my stooge. We first appear in a pastiche of Krazy Kat, where Pete asks me what on earth is going on, and I seek to explain that this version of Tristram Shandy is a "graphic thesis", before recommending that Pete read such essential critical studies as Von Bockmist's Noses and Class Consciousness, Freud on sash windows and so on. However, there is another layer of irony lying on top of this comic book about the writing of a comic book about the writing of a novel about the writing of a novel: Tristram's story keeps intruding into and clashing with my analysis. For example, he gets his dedication in before I can present mine (humbly addressed to my publisher and his beautiful accounts department).

Throughout, my cartoon alter ego maintains an alternating mood of boisterous intellectual excitement and resentful rage at Tristram for interrupting all the time. Pete, meanwhile, remains moodily sceptical. Along the way we are (literally) deconstructed by some leaping French academics, whizz through a "Shandean Studies" seminar on Tristram Shandy as Gay Literature ("delegates may wish to concentrate on Toby's gender preference choice identifying objectification of the '****', the orifice that dare not speak its name, as the actual organ of insemination / generation and, indeed, birthing itself in this veiled hymn / him to sodomy"), and crash through a cinema screen showing Oliver Stone's film version of Tristram Shandy (subtitled: "From a place called Namur to Hell and Back!"). Later on, in a digressionary preface to Volume III, with a nod to Swift's A Tale of a Tub, Tristram, Pete and I are swallowed, along with the Legendary Lost Ship of Critics, by a huge whale. In its belly, Tristram eventually presents his Preface, while the critics confer ("Our new Defence Procurement Faculty has paid for NASA to take a latex simulation of the plot of Tristram Shandy up in the Space Shuttle to see how it behaves in Zero Gravity"; "Of course, since Le Prout's pioneering work in abstracting all the punctuation onto floppy disk, one no longer need actually read the actual text ..."). These parenthesising episodes of analytical twaddle counterpoise and complement Tristram's narrative throughout.

Naturally enough, I've dealt with inserted sub-plot first. But even when adapting a book like Tristram Shandy, you can't get away with being entirely atextual, even when banging in enough digressions to satisfy the spooky shade of Laurence Sterne. It might help, then, to explain how I've handled Sterne's narrative. In my version (as, to an extent, in the original), Tristram talks all the time, continuing his story irrespective of what is happening about him. While the action takes place sequentially, it breaks out of the conventional comic-book form of sequential frames and, indeed, narrative chronology (later on, Tristram puts on the "narrative brake" to stop Toby in mid-sentence). Thirdly, Tristram and his friends change size to suit their environment (they're microscopic in Tristram's father's epididymis). Fourthly, the auxiliary characters interact with Tristram when Sterne's text demands it, but also, atextually, with each other.

FROM this, several more aspects of my intentions should become clear. In addition to layers of irony, I'm also adopting a consciously ironic historicism. The world Tristram inhabits (when he's there and not bobbing and weaving beyond the narrative) is a pastiche 18th-century world: periwigs, Piranesi, the picturesque and Hogarth. This is to cock a snook at the costume-drama school of literary adaptation (towards the end Pete and I stumble upon a BBC crew filming an Andrew Davies adaptation in the garden of Shandy Hall): we encounter aliens from outer space in tricorn hats, homunculi in periwigs, highwaymen, 18th-century computers and so on. This world again counterpoints the modern digressions with their cinemas and seminar rooms.

This deliberate "heritaging-up" of the images used in my adaptation extends, naturally enough, to the characterisation of the chief protagonists. Tristram is my most important character, and several factors influenced me in my characterisation of him. The first is a trick of the trade, which we might term "the Mickey Mouse protocol". That is, when you need to draw a character over and over again, you need to reduce him or her to a relatively simple code. My Tristram is essentially a black T, thin black body with a big black tricorn hat pulled hard down to cover his eyes and nose (no-nose), leaving an ever-open, yelling, snarling, Beckettian mouth. Thereafter I have made him lecherous, hectoring, bullying, raging, self-pitying and, occasionally, violent (at one point he punches a hole in the chest of one of his companions in order to demonstrate an arcane point about Momus's glass). In short, he's an amalgam of carnivalesque archetype and Age-of-Reason Bugs Bunny. Take either template.

For Tristram's family, I followed Sterne's guide where I could, adapting it where necessary. Thus I've given Tristram's emasculated Uncle Toby a smooth, benign, blushing, moonface; Tristram's father Walter Shandy is a fat and choleric paterfamilias, based on Moominpappa from the Moomintrolls. Toby's servant Trim I based on a combination of Hogarthian lowlifes; the local parson Yorick (a self-portrait of Sterne) is a direct lift from a contemporary caricature of Sterne greeting Death; the man-midwife Dr Slop is, I hope, more or less as Sterne describes him; the Shandy family's servant Obadiah is, for no particular reason, based on Professor Ben Pimlott. Mrs Shandy is an idealised vision of plump, rosy English motherhood. The episcopalian court scene, where Tristram's father tries to have his son's name changed post-baptism, I've peopled with various books-page editors, publishers, agents, critics, friends and members of my wife's family.

COMPARING the length of my version (161 pages) with the 500 and more pages of the original still makes me break out in a cold sweat. Unfortunately, the equation of 1 picture = 1000 words does not apply (and probably never did). To make matters worse for me, my standard method of work was not to produce a storyboard, but to work on a few pages at a time with reference to the text. I tend to find this way of doing things more interesting: you can take ideas for a walk without necessarily knowing where they'll end up. I did have a plan, but not a precise one.

Editing, then, should have been my first priority. Alas, my mindset is too Shandean now. I found myself reluctant to cut Sterne's prose too savagely, or leave out all his good jokes. Still, I had a few tricks up my sleeve. For instance, a central section of Sterne's novel is Slawkenbergius's Tale, a very lengthy digression about the significance of long noses in determining the destiny of nations. I rendered this as five pastiche engravings with suitably pompous, sub-Thames & Hudson captions. Likewise, finding myself at the end of Volume III (with only 51 of my pages but six of Sterne's volumes still to go), I neatly excised volumes five to eight by digitalising them on a page entirely covered with ones and zeros. Pete and I thereafter try and hack our way back into the original Sternean mainframe, encountering versions of Tristram Shandy by Martin Amis, Raymond Chandler and, indeed, T S Eliot along the way.

TO return, for the last time, to the beginning, Tristram Shandy is a book of such alluring strangeness that its devotees view it as their own personal property. They have a hostility towards trespassers. Indeed, the journalist Francis Wheen as good as warned me off before I'd even started. Why this immensely long, magnificently smutty shaggy dog story, which in its various barely but integrally connected parts deals with Enlightenment views of obstetrics, the theory and practice of 18th-century siege warfare, Locke's philosophical musings on the association of ideas, grief, religion, the Law, trousers, sash windows, sentimentality, noses and whether or not the narrator's Uncle Toby had his bollocks blown off at the siege of Namur in 1695 should beguile a secret freemasonry encompassing Nietzsche, Salman Rushdie, Lord Rees-Mogg and Judge Stephen Tumin, is what the cognoscenti might term a Shandean speculation. That is, if you don't know, don't ask. Likewise, the mad or sentimental task of turning this novel into a comic book is an impossible business which is ultimately justified purely in Shandean terms. Three unmaddening years after I started it, I'm sure that Sterne and Tristram would both echo my only enduring comment on having undertaken the job and finished: Buy it.

! 'Tristram Shandy' will be published by Picador at pounds 15.95, with a limited edition by Lilliput Press, on 25 October. An exhibition of artwork from the book runs from 26 Oct to 3 Nov at Gekoski's Gallery, Pied Bull Yard, London WC1A 2LP (0171-404 6676).

! A longer version of this article is published in 'The Shandean' (Vol 7).

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