‘The Castle’ Represents the Strange Subgenre of Kafkaesque Comic Books

Franz Kafka's The Castle, as adapted for the gridded page, is fittingly bleak and frustrating, if fascinating and engrossing.

Influential writer Franz Kafka published only a few works during his lifetime and his dying wish was that all of his unfinished manuscripts be destroyed and forgotten upon his death. Kafka’s friend Max Brod ignored that wish and had these works published, thus creating a legend in Kafka.

To be clear, not all of Kafka’s posthumous works were unfinished, with at least one volume completed and approved for publication. The Castle (Das Schloss), however, is not one of those finished works. Kafka died before completing The Castle, leaving the novel not just in mid-story, but in mid-sentence.

However, the publication and subsequent literary popularity and scholarship surrounding The Castle has allowed its adaptation into several movies, animated features, radio programs, and even a stage play. In 2013, The Castle was adapted by writer David Zane Mairowitz and artist Jaromír 99 into a long-form graphic novel, lending the oft pretentious description of “Kafkaesque” to the genre of the gridded page. These adaptations (all of which were against Kafka’s will) may have been a validation of Kafka’s genius, or may have resulted in Kafka’s rolling over in his proverbial grave, were he in any position to be aware of them.

Still, this 2013 graphic novel, though written in English (as opposed to the original German), most assuredly captures Kafka in spirit, tone and mood. Jaromír 99’s art is stark and bleak, appropriately evoking images of German Expressionism, with deep, deep blacks celebrating the negative space of each page and empty whites that feel stark and cold (never bright) surrounding and accenting the darkness. The closest things to colors (besides black and white) in this book are light grey and dark gray. This dark richness can be beautiful (even as it depicts some decidedly grotesque moments) and Jaromír 99’s sharp angles (even in the snow and sky) create a foreboding, gothic atmosphere. In this way, the art is reminiscent of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2000) and Jaromír 99’s own work with Jaroslav Rudiš on the Alois Nebel trilogy.

This is a very fitting surrounding for the title “Castle”, a gloomy, gothic center of politics and bureaucracy in a small, remote European village. The story’s protagonist is a land surveyor, simply identified as “K.”, as obvious a stand-in for Kafka himself as “Joseph K.” of Kafka’s The Trial. K. arrives in this village (from where, we do not know) to take on his work as a land surveyor, yet the village denies him a place to stay, claiming that hospitality is not their way. In fact, the village denies that he has any work to do as a land surveyor in the village, in spite of the fact that he has papers to prove that he has been hired as a servant to the Count and the fact that many of the villagers are already aware of him (to the extent of even providing him servants in the form of the bizarre duo, Artur and Jeremiah).

This begins the land surveyor’s quest to gain access to the mysterious Castle, specifically the Chief Clerk named KLAMM (always depicted in all-capital letters) and, thus, sort out this confusing situation. At rare moments there seem to be steps forward, but K. is constantly met with equal or greater steps backward at each turn.

At first, K. is idealistic and indignant about the Castle and the denizens of the surrounding town who have become crushed and used to the way of life that has been meted upon them. He demands to speak to the Count and his officials and becomes enraged about the glass ceiling that he cannot pass through. As time goes on, this story of alienation, bureaucracy, isolation and loss, details K. as he slowly becomes further crushed by this denial of his worth (and, at times, even existence).

Nor is K.’s plight a constant downfall, which might have been easier. Much as K.’s quest to access the Castle and its bureaucrats marked with occasional steps forward, so is K.’s life given occasional rewards and bright moments, which are soon taken away, causing him to fall even farther. He successfully seduces and becomes engaged to KLAMM’s mistress Frieda, he obtains employment and lodging at the village’s school as a custodian, he is granted occasional audiences with officials. All of these are taken from him and his quest becomes more wrought with depression and tension.

Even these good moments are commonly made darker by the artwork here. While there are some scenes of love and tenderness, scenes of erotica are often depicted as grotesque, not sexy (and the sexually explicit is detailed as either mechanical or distasteful). Scenes of hope are drawn with the sharp, angular shapes that signify danger, or at least foreboding in each frame. Worst of all, as K. networks with the villagers, he discovers that his plight is far from unique and many, if not all, of the citizens have similar stories.

The Castle: A Graphic Novel, much like the novel that inspired it, is hardly a bright, happy read. However, it is quite engrossing and fascinating, both in Mairowitz’ adapted prose and Jaromír 99‘s art. While some may find a “comic book” adaptation of the last unfinished work of one of the 20th Century’s most esteemed authors to be something of an anathema, this is no more so than any other adaptation and is, in fact, much less so because of the skill of the writing and the art.

That said, the art of Jaromír 99 can be confusing in places. His expressionistic style is striking, but it is often difficult to tell certain characters apart from each other and while the comic’s frames flow together beautifully, it is occasionally difficult to tell which direction to follow this flow. Further, either due to Mairowitz’ adaptation or the denseness of the original work, the story itself can be hard to follow as it progresses. The tale is no less fascinating, however, and when the puzzle pieces fit, The Castle is almost impossible to put down. Readers may not “thrill” to the mundane and frustrating path our “hero” must persist upon, but they will most assuredly want to know how his story turns out.

This makes the fact that The Castle, in any form, remains unfinished all the more distressing, but somehow, in a very fitting way. In this tale of bleak, isolated confusion, what could be more fitting than a frustrating lack of closure for both K. and the reader. Had Kafka not insisted that his works be burnt without reading, one might speculate that this maddening lack of an ending was completely intentional on the part of the author. In the graphic form, this is no less frustrating, yet even with its imperfections, Castle: A Graphic Novel does demand a re-read almost as soon as the final (unfinished) page is turned.

RATING 7 / 10