Monday, July 30, 2012

Kim by Rudyard Kipling / Lewis Helfand / Rakesh Kumar

I was inspired by both my positive experience with the graphic novel retelling of The Scarlet Letter, and the discussion of Rudyard Kipling by the protagonists in Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, to revisit a book that was one of my favourites, back when I was 10 years old: Kim. Campfire is a company based in India that has produced many retellings of classics in comics format, including this one with text by Lewis Helfand and full colour art by Rakesh Kumar. The background details in Kumar's artwork are nicely evocative of the setting.

The story starts in 1901 in Lahore, when it was still a part of India. Kim was a young street orphan of Irish descent who became a disciple of a Buddhist lama. By the time he was 16, Kim was working for the British Secret Service.

As a child, I found Kim's adventures exciting and I loved all the details of the exotic setting too. Maybe there is too much in Kipling's original to pack into a short (68 page) graphic novel. Each scene is so brief that there isn't time for suspense to build. When Kim overheard men planning to kill his friend Mahbub Ali, for example, it is only 5 panels later (and on the facing page) that we see the men being violently apprehended by the British police. Two men lie -- possibly dead -- on the ground. The next panel shows Mahbub Ali with his head thrown back in laughter at their fate. I found the juxtaposition disconcerting.

It is unfair to expect a comic to capture all of the drama and texture of a longer literary work. Readers intrigued by the action and characters in Lewis Helfand's retelling may very well turn to the original book. It was great that Campfire included two pages of cool information about the art of spying at the end. I had forgotten that I used to play Kim's Game with my sisters after I first read the novel. The game involves remembering as many objects on a tray as possible in a short time before it is covered up.

This edition is okay for kids, but the original version is so much better. Actually, since my social awareness has changed as I've grown up, I might be disappointed with the original if I reread it today. I guess I'll stick to my rosy memories.

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