Why, one wonders, would anyone feel the need to illustrate the lyrics of the most evocative of modern songwriters? Do such Bob Dylan lines as "Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night," "I've walked and I've crawled on six crooked highways" or "the cracked bells and washed-out horns / blow into my face with scorn" really require graphic interpretation?
That depends, of course, on the illustrators. More than a dozen of Europe's most skilled graphic artists and authors, including Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" series cover illustrator Dave McKean, tackle 13 of the bard's songs for "Bob Dylan Revisited," a handsome new collection of drawings published by W.W. Norton -- evidently with the approval of Dylan and Sony Records. The book's cover, by Serbian artist Gradimir Smudja, borrows from the cue-card sequence in "Don't Look Back," D.A. Pennebaker's riveting behind-the-scenes documentary of Dylan's 1965 British tour. The pages lying at the feet of a "Blonde on Blonde"-era Dylan in this image hint at bold new interpretations of his work in the book.
Indeed, nearly all the graphic interpretations are visually striking, some even breathtaking in their powerful imagery. Only a few, however, rise to the level of Dylan's thought-dreams, let alone go beyond them.
McKean, the British artist whose musings on art, life, death and creation are collected in the groundbreaking graphic novel "Cages," delivers a stunning Goya-esque riff on American society for Dylan's song "Desolation Row" its lynchings, cripples, martyrs and drug-pacified souls in subterranean torture chambers all witnessed by a familiar-looking balladeer in serape-style vest. Eisner Award-winning Italian artist Lorenzo Mattotti illuminates the 1963 song "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" with fluid and muscular imagery to the brink of nuclear holocaust. Smudja's panels in "Hurricane" leap off the page as he punctuates the lines of the 1975 protest song written by Dylan and Jacques Levy about boxer Rubin Carter.
But the interpretation of "Like a Rolling Stone" by French artist Lionel Papagelli, who publishes under the name Alfred, seems to be more an extended rumination on the betrayal of a revolutionary spirit to the gods of OPEC, suburbia and conformity than a scathing indictment of a phony. That might have been fine if he hadn't gone on to make the central character, Miss Lonely, a mother mourning her lost youth, end up getting dissed by her children. Say what?
"I Want You," as adapted by Nicolas Nemiri, doesn't bother with the opening images of a guilty undertaker, a lonesome organ grinder or silver saxophones as a pencil-legged figure wearing Cuban-heeled boots dashes into a diner much like that in Edward Hopper's painting "Nighthawks." Curiously, it becomes a way station of sorts to a more literal rendering of the song, complete with a flute-playing boy in a Chinese suit.
Admittedly, it must have been tough for Jean-Philippe Bramanti to fashion an entire 30-panel graphic tale around a song with two verses and the relentless chorus "Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door" from the soundtrack of "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid." The artist faithfully conjures a fresh-faced Dylan as the character Alias, but the rest of the images seem to spring from a more traditional western, say "High Noon." Worse, his song-story panels pale next to the images in Sam Peckinpah's film, especially the searing sequence of a tear-stained Katy Jurado bearing witness to Slim Pickens' death as Dylan intones the mournful "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."
For the fans
Most befuddling is the artist Christopher's interpretation of "Positively 4th Street," Dylan's caustic dismissal of his folk scene critics after he hit the big time and went electric in 1965. Here the singer-songwriter's scorn seems to be directed at a hapless mini-skirted groupie. Perhaps most satisfying of all is French artist Benjamin Flao's take on "Blind Willie McTell." Departing from the linear comic panel form on this tour of the South of black Americans, Flao captures Dylan's haunting lyrics of slave ships and chain gangs, of dusty juke joints and the young boy who channels their stories on guitar under an owl's watchful gaze.
If you're a Dylan fanatic, "Bob Dylan Revisited" is a grudging must-have. If you're an aficionado of these graphic artists, thumb through it and see. In the end, though, Dylan's songs are cinematic enough to stand on their own.
Lindgren, a former editor at The Times, is a freelance writer and book editor.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times