Ulysses and the road to the iPad

Note: The following story contains images intended for an adult audience.

Earlier this year, Rob Berry and Josh Levitas launched an ambitious project: Adapting James Joyce's Ulysses into webcomic form. Their Ulysses "Seen" is more than just a graphic novelization; readers can click on the images to a reader's guide that translates the parts in foreign languages, explains the obscure references, and notes how Berry and Levitas had to improvise to put the text into graphic novel form. So when Buck Mulligan hoists his shaving bowl and intones "Introibo ad altare Dei," readers who did not grow up with the Latin Mass will know what he is talking about.

Yesterday, Berry and Levitas unveiled their free Ulysses "Seen" iPad app. In order to meet Apple's standards for the iTunes Store, they had to tone down some of their art—specifically, the nudity—and since fig leaves and pixelation weren't allowed by Apple, they had to reframe some of the panels. Below is their description of why they undertook the project and what it took to get it accepted, as well as a panel (NSFW) from the webcomic, the original version of the art reproduced above.

Brigid: How did you get involved with Ulysses?

Rob: I tried reading the novel 5 times before I finally made it through. Even then I could've used some coaching, but I was living in Italy and just hungry for that kind of love of the language Joyce offers. So I muddled through on my own, which isn't something I suggest for most first time readers.

We often hear people say this is the hardest novel they've ever wanted to read again and again and I think that's definitely true. It has so much going on, so much humor and philosophy, so much complexity about everyday life that it gives you a kind of experience you want to return to, but it's the shifting point of view that first attracted me to the idea of it in comix. I was at a BloomsDay reading of the novel a few years back with a fellow cartoonist and got caught up in an argument about how comix was the only suitable artform for adapting Joyce and did about twenty pages of thumbnails on beer-inspired bet just to prove it. Of course, the project has changed a lot since then.

Josh: I made it through on my first read (with a little help), and I LOVED it. The first thing that struck me, was that this book, which has the reputation of being one of the greatest novels ever written, and of which everyone is so afraid, was incredibly funny. I still fall over laughing at lines I've read 5 or more times. Underneath that disguise of high art, there's a considerable amount of low-brow humor, which I absolutely love.

When I first heard about the project, I thought it was an insane idea—and very intriguing. I left a full-time job to pursue a freelance career on a Friday, and I ran into Rob, who asked me to join the effort, the following Monday. I thought it was the craziest once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that ever had or would come my way, and I accepted gladly. I'm still glad I did.

Brigid: What does the webcomic have that the novel doesn't, and what does it lackthat the novel has?

Rob: Ulysses "Seen" is meant to be a kind of compliment to the novel and never a replacement. The web allows readers to leap right through the page into annotations, translations, discussions of major themes and events or view related materials all in one light-weight format like a laptop or the iPad. A lot of Joyce readers like myself have shelves full of "support material" to better understand the book but the web, of course, changes that need quite a bit. For a novel that's intended to be so puzzling a "hypertext' model like this may seem a bit of a cheat, but most people I've talked with so far see it as a blessing.

The comic is something a bit different. Rather than presenting all these annotations through their hundreds of pages of original text, a comicbook allows readers to enter the scene of the novel visually and, unlike film, understand it one frame at a time. With a comic, you know who's speaking when, where they're standing and hundreds of other nuances of gesture and environment but you've got them frozen in time like the reading experience itself. I often thought this is one of the most over-looked strengths of the medium: its ability to freeze moments of story without interrupting the experience.

But it is an adaptation and, as such, it's never the same as reading the novel in its original form. Nothing can replace that experience but, maybe, we can make that a little easier somehow.

Brigid: Why did you decide to launch it as an iPad app?

Rob: Actually, we've always seen this as an iPad app from our initial plans three years ago. We were just waiting for Apple to catch up! With Ulysses "Seen" on the iPad I think we've put together a completely unique notion of what a "tablet book" can be, not just a graphic novel or discussion forum, but a different kind of reading experience that people can carry along with them.

Brigid: What sort of changes did Apple ask you to make?

Rob: Apple has strict guidelines and a rating system to prevent "adult content." Their highest mature content rating is 17+, which doesn't seem to be a problem since no one reads Ulysses at sixteen anyway. But their guidelines also mean no nudity whatsoever. Which is something we never planned for.

Joyce's novel is pretty explicit in its language and themes, so much so that in 1932 it won one of the most important court decisions about censorship in American history. While the first chapter of the book, the one now at iTunes, doesn't contain "offensive language" our comic does have frank nudity. Something we figured we might have to pixelate or cover with "fig leaves". But Apple's policy prohibits even that. So we were forced to either scrap the idea of moving to the tablet with Apple or re-design our pages.

Fortunately, the design of our application presents one version of the comic downloaded to your iPad and the ability to go to the website for discussion. This means that readers can still see the pages in their original form. So two versions of the comic exist for now; one on the device and one on the website. readers can decide which works better.

Brigid: What is your long-term plan for Ulysses "Seen"?

Rob: Now that we've got the general design of the thing in place and we've seen the hardware for getting it out there, I get to go back to the drawing board heavily. Current plans are to keep two chapters of the comic adaptation rolling off my desk a year, making this a ten year serialized project. Comic-making is slow and deliberate. No real way to do it any faster. I still work with ink, brush and watercolor and the same set of hands. How that serialized form will adapt within the coming years however is another question entirely. We plan on continually looking at what people want out of the reading experience and taking things from there. We've got, well, since I can't really say much yet, we've got a lot of future additions to the thing in mind well beyond new pages of comic. Things that are intended to make it easier to understand and read Joyce as well as share and explore it with others.

UPDATE: Here's a video demonstration of the iPad app.

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