Sometimes, a book can begin with a small spark: an unanswered question, a half-heard bit of conversation or an image that you just can’t shake.
In the case of my book Hemingway in Comics, the spark came from a few warped comic book panels framed on the wall of the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, Florida. In the comic, a Disney-fied caricature of Hemingway crosses paths with Donald Duck and his nephews outside Sloppy Joe’s Bar.
That single comic led me through four years of research for a 280-page book that chronicles more than 120 Hemingway appearances in comics, from Superman and Wolverine, to Mickey Mouse and Doonesbury and Peanuts. The book includes illustrations from Oak Park artists such as Chris Ware, Keith Taylor, Mae F. Parker and Wednesday Journal’s Marc Stopeck.
The project became a pop culture meditation on what happens when an author’s iconic image and life competes with the legacy of his work, creating a fascinating post-modern spiral.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning, in Key West.
At the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, none of the staff could tell me anything about the comic. No one even remembered how the framed comic page found its way onto Hemingway’s wall. An added wrinkle: the word balloons appeared to be German.
Returning home to Oak Park, I searched for a version of the Disney comic in English. I was stumped until my friend Klaus Strzyz, a former editor and translator for a publisher of Disney comics in Germany, pointed me to a 1984 German comic whose title translates as “Adventures from Uncle Scrooge’s Treasure Chest #3: The Trip to Key West.”
Klaus also introduced me to the Donaldists, an online group of Disney enthusiasts and researchers who track characters, artists, authors and story translations across continents. “The Trip to Key West,” it seemed, hadn’t been published in English—and there were scores of stories commissioned on other continents that never made it to the U.S.
From then on, I started collecting comics in which Hemingway appeared from across 18 countries — from Croatia to Italy — in which the author is often portrayed as the hyper-masculine legend of Papa: bearded, boozed-up and ready to throw a punch. However, just as often, comic book creators saw past the bravado, to the sensitive artist looking for validation. “Hemingway in Comics” endeavors to explore these Hemingway appearances from the divine to the ridiculous.
Before the pandemic hit, I’d planned to host gallery events, to showcase what is now a large collection of original art featured in the book. I’m still hoping to bring that show to a local venue once we’re clear of COVID-19. “Hemingway in Comics” is a project that continues to expand, and I hope this book isn’t the final word on the topic. In fact, I’ll leave the final word of this article to Chris Ware, who included a young Hemingway in a fundraising art print for the Oak Park River Forest Museum.
“I included Hemingway because he’s, needless to say, an important figure in the town’s history, and, well — how couldn’t I?” Ware says in the book. “I read ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ and ‘The Sun Also Rises’ in high school and it was the first time I realized that writing could be writing and not just storytelling; I was struck even then at how Hemingway carefully tuned the order of sense perceptions and experiences directly to how one would experience them. In other words, it felt real.”
Signed copies of “Hemingway in Comics” are available at The Book Table, booktable.net, 1045 Lake St., Oak Park. More: HemingwayInComics.com. Elder is also the co-author of “Hidden Hemingway: Inside the Ernest Hemingway Archives of Oak Park,” published in 2016.