Kafkas cockroach has a comic-book metamorphosis with intriguing but flawed results

Peter Kuper’s comic-book version of “The Metamorphosis” is a beautiful work of art. The composition is a hybrid of German woodblock-print style, detailed inking and computer-aided design. It’s crisp, dark, slightly comic. One would expect nothing less from the creator of “Spy vs. Spy,” the Mad magazine tour de force.

And the comics industry is essentially a Jewish creation, so what better combination than the anguished writer from Prague and the bleak, kinetic and hilarious artist from the U.S. of A.? 

The problem is in Kuper’s altered text of the story. If you heard a summary of “The Metamorphosis,” it would seem like a bad joke: Man wakes up a cockroach, problems ensue. Franz Kafka’s writing may be bleak, but it is powerful because of its compassionate detail. Here is a sample from the full version of “The Metamorphosis:” 

“He especially enjoyed hanging suspended from the ceiling; it was much better than lying on the floor; one could breathe more freely; one’s body swung and rocked lightly; and in the almost blissful absorption induced by this suspension it could happen to his own surprise that he let go and fell plump on the floor.” 

Kafka cares about the suffering of his characters. He imbues them with complex feelings that convey the psychology of their mysterious and usually tragic circumstances. You feel for the pathetic little guy. 

Kuper’s version relies on the art to express the formerly human Gregor Samsa’s complex predicament. There are some wonderful graphic interpretations of the stresses that preoccupy the human cockroach. Your eyes are forced to whirl around the page to match the chaos and dread of the scenario.

While compelling, the art doesn’t succeed in rendering the mixed emotions that are key to comprehending the story and the little details that convey the subtleties of Gregor’s plight.

Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” relies on the fact that Gregor was already so filled with self-loathing and repressed anguish that he was holding back not only himself but also his whole family. It may be impossible to reveal this struggle in images alone.

Other adaptations by Kuper of Kafka’s shorter works are more successful because they don’t rely so strongly on psychological nuance. They more directly and briefly relate a series of bizarre events. The full version of “The Metamorphosis” is 50 pages but reads like a novel-length piece. Hopefully Kuper will continue adapting Kafka but stick to more direct, less psychological pieces. 

You may be wondering what these two secular figures have to do with Jewish experience?” Like a good talmudic exercise, here is a question to answer your query. 

Is Judaism defined by faith in God and religious practice, or some kind of cultural affiliation? The answer these days is frequently just cultural.

The roots of Jewish faith — obvious. The roots of cultural Judaism — not as clear. 

Before Jerry Seinfeld, before Woody Allen, but after Karl Marx there was Franz Kafka, giving birth to cultural Judaism. The troubled insurance analyst was one of the first to articulate the potent mix of self-doubt (or maybe self-loathing), sardonic humor and outsider chutzpah that defines a modern cultural Jewish sensibility.

One could go further and claim that Kafka’s writings predict the terror of the Shoah, the absurdity of the communist era and the crisis of Jewish practice in the secular world. 

Take, for instance, Kafka’s short piece called “The Animal in the Synagogue,” about a small blue-green creature that lived in the rafters of a shul. The congregants get used to the weird beast, which keeps its distance. 

“It is not impossible that before long the synagogue will have become a granary or something of the sort and the animal will then have the peace it now so sorely lacks.” 

The animal remains a mystery throughout the story, a haunting symbol of the troubles to engulf Europe’s Jews soon after Kafka’s death in 1924. 

Similarly, Gregor Samsa epitomizes personal and cultural alienation, but he is also something more, something that can’t be easily explained. This unsettled sensation translates into the nervous Jewish comedy that is such a huge part of culture. It makes absurd sense that one of the masters of Mad magazine would feel at home in the nightmare world of well-meaning cockroaches, evil bosses and neurotic fathers.

Samsa’s neurosis is the shpilkes of Ross on “Friends,” as well as the restless “Seinfeld” menagerie. And are those Kafka’s eyes peering through Alfred E. Neuman’s idiot stare?

Still, it would be great if Peter Kuper were to dig into the treasure trove of Kafka’s works and try again. His next book should be fabulous.

“The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka, adapted by Peter Kuper (80 pages, Crown Publishing Group, $18.)