The Red Diary is a graphic novel, originally published in French, by Danish painter Teddy Kristiansen. The Re[a]d Diary is a graphic novel created when American writer and sometime Kristiansen collaborator Steven T Seagle decided to translate Kristiansen’s work without going to all the bother of learning French first. Seagle uses Kristiansen’s original art and caption boxes, filling in an entirely new story around what basic landmarks of existing text that he was in a position to understand. Image Comics have now published both books (with the Red Diary handily translated into English, for the benefit of those of us with less active imaginations than Seagle’s) in one lush flipbook hardcover in order to demonstrate what happens when creative understanding and linguistic ignorance collide.
The first thing you do when you pick up the book is make a choice – which story do you begin with? Do you take in the original before seeing which random direction Seagle takes the story in – or do you begin with the reinvention, then step back to discover the ‘real’ meaning behind the panels? In the end, I took Image’s decision to put the book’s barcode on The Re[a]d Diary side of the cover as a subtle urging to start at the start, and began with Kristiansen’s pure vision of The Red Diary.
In this tale, an aging writer named William Ackroyd discovers the diary of an English artist who became a brief toast of Paris before being swept up by the murderous machinery of World War One. The diary Ackroyd discovers is patchy, and he becomes obsessed with chasing down the details of the mysterious painter’s life, so he can fill in the gaps between the acclaim of high society and the brutal despair of exile and a gruesome, lonely death in the trenches – all the while leaving himself in no doubt that his quest is adding substance to the patches left in his own bereaved existence. In Seagle’s take on the story, Ackroyd is presented as an amnesiac, trying to discover who his younger self was by reading the diaries of his glory/nadir years. It becomes a tale of man trying to make friends with a stranger who shares his name, and little else in common. In isolation, the two stories are excellent – Kristiansen’s sketchy expressionism conveying a vibrancy and motion that is often lost in painted comics, but retaining a sense of control and quietude that befits the insular voices of the characters across both interpretations.
The most striking difference between the two narratives is that Kristiansen’s script is much darker, more claustrophobic and with less catharsis for either of its protagonists. Both Ackroyd the biographer and Marnham the artist receive little resolution for chasing their creative obsessions down to their ends, and both are ultimately rewarded only with the promise of lonely deaths and works that, though successful enough to survive and be admired long after their creators are gone, have no hope of ever being correctly understood. Seagle’s tale is of more redemption and second chances, however questionably those chances are manufactured for the redeemed. In technical terms, Seagle’s script feels much more the work of a writer – the plot is more central to the piece, with a mystery and a twist reveal that effect the narrator much more than the subject of the narration. There is a section of the comic that deals with life in the trenches of WWI, which under Seagle’s pen flows as a continuous narrative, where events build upon each other, propelling the young soldier to realisations about himself, his situation and his destiny. Kristiansen’s version of events is much more fragmented; sharp bursts of horror piercing through the dull miasma of a much longer period of time steeped in numbing experience. It would appear that Seagle is determined to tell us a story, whereas Kristiansen is set on conveying a mood.
It is, overall, a fascinating experiment in determining how the phrasing of a caption can redirect the reading of an image, and one that could only really be accomplished in comics. The only other examples of dual-stream media where one stream is significantly altered to change the interpretation of the other that readily springs to mind is in the world of animation, where Saban’s Samurai Pizza Cats and Cartoon Network’s Space Ghost Coast to Coast and Harvey Birdman, Attorney At Law both wrote new scripts to fit inscrutable images from the distant and unknowable foreign lands of Japan and the 1960s respectively. Those projects are chiefly concerned with parody however, and it is difficult to imagine how anything as nuanced and emotionally charged as The Red Diary/The Re[a]d Diary could be achieved against the backdrop of continuous movement. It is only with the snapshots and elastic timeframes of the comics page that Seagle is able to ascribe a fresh perspective to Kristiansen’s story, with a medium that inherently asks the reader to fill in the gaps between the gutters inviting you to redirect that mental scaffolding depending on precisely which edifice you are currently supporting.