Two hands holding a black box over a table.

Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery,’ The Authorized Graphic Adaptation by Miles Hyman

Dread seems to have become the unitary emotion of the day, reinforced by stern warnings of insecurity all around, interrupted mainly by pharma ads offering relief of almost every non-lethal dread. Perhaps life (and death) were once simpler, or perceived to be simpler. “The Lottery,” an allegorical or non-allegorical short story by Shirley Jackson exquisitely touched the Dread button almost seventy years ago – at the time, the most popular story in New Yorker history – and comes alive today, if “alive” is right word, in a notable graphic novel adaptation.

For those interested in the history of comic art, this rings a certain bell or perhaps two or three. The saga of a village choosing, once per year, to stone to death a villager chosen by lots, might be in the horror vein, although personally, I see it as much more sci-fi. Horror comics, driving sales of comics skyward in the later 1940s and early 1950s, also led to suppression by way of a Comics Code that would be enforced through concerned (mostly Catholic) threats of boycotts. If sometimes well crafted, horror comics were certainly not cerebral. Sci-fi comics, given to themes of post-nuclear civilization, or of bitterly disappointing space travel, never sold so many, but had a more artistic touch, not to mention progressive sentiments. Both genres reached a peak in EC Comics, the backdrop to Mad, with some of the key artists carrying their talents over effortlessly to brilliant satire.

Comic art aficionados are not likely to forget Jack Davis (horror) and Al Williamson (sci-fi) as the two giants of such genre art work. It is not altogether fair to place Miles Hyman, grandson of Shirley Jackson and highly successful illustrator, in the same league. And yet Hyman, perhaps unwontedly, has recovered a lot of the EC “look,” brilliantly underplayed drama subtly marking the faces of the villagers as the drama unfolds.

But let’s take a step back and think about the author and the work. Shirley Jackson (1916-65), growing up Jewish in a homogenously gentile suburb of San Francisco, had an apt partner in her husband Stanley Edgar Hyman, a youthful near-communist who backed away from active Left politics but carried his Marxist background into a lifetime of literary criticism. They graduated from Syracuse University and left for Greenwich Village in 1940. He landed a job at the New Yorker and she wrote fiction for popular magazines. He became a professor at Bennington in 1945 and except for their frequent visits to New York, the couple spent the rest of their lives in a generally affable Vermont community where swastikas might nevertheless still appear, amidst some local controversy, on home windows (theirs). He taught and wrote distinguished criticism; she wrote fiction that got furiously better and then seemed to peter out.

Loaded with neurotic anxieties and abundant symptoms both physical and mental, Jackson chain-smoked and devoted herself to what might be called “sagas of alienation.” Her 1948 novel, The Road Through the Wall, concerns a young Jewish Californian prevented from joining a local Shakespeare reading circle out of a supposed community sense that “The Merchant of Venice” would prove too much for the youngster to bear.

That Jackson had the contacts to get “The Lottery” read seriously at the New Yorker was a writer’s good fortune. But it is safe to say that no one at that August magazine – then approaching the postwar peak of what we might call cultivated suburban alienation – guessed just how popular the story shortly proved to be. Literary scholars remain to this day baffled at why it was so extremely riveting to so many readers, in an era of finely crafted short fiction. But there are theories aplenty.

An interviewer in the Forward recently rehearsed the inescapable if often invisible presence of anti-Semitism, i.e., the very near background of the Holocaust, and perhaps also the paucity of Jews in Vermont. A better theory, not altogether contrary (the attack on comics in Congress, only a few years later, exposed the conservative suspicion that Jewish pulp merchants were poisoning Christian youth), could be found in budding McCarthyism. Cold War critics of any kind, not to mention actual left wing Jews living within unfriendly communities, often acted with secrecy and for good reason, fearing “mobs” as much as they feared the FBI.

I wish to put forward a third theory. The postwar era, for another decade or so, could be described as the golden era of the pulp fantastic. Sci-fi fiction anthology magazines and, soon, thirty-five cent novels of the same ilk crowded the shelves and movable racks. Ray Bradbury’s cult classic, Fahrenheit 451, with its warning of future civil servants torching books, was years in the future. But the (almost entirely) Jewish-liberal circle of talent, veterans of the Futurions, a New York amateur-writers’ social club of the late 1930s (its most famous figure: Isaac Asimov), was making its way as quiet social critics through their varied work as sci-fi writers, editors, and subtle social critics. The EC comics were written by other Jewish New Yorkers of the same humble backgrounds, and depicted future horrors. They arguably borrowed ideas aplenty here. This is not to say SciFi did not harbor outer worlds of Space Cowboys shooting down alien ships Star Wars-style, but in an era where serious social criticism was suspected of potential subversion, the pulp world offered interesting corners to casual readers.

The artist of the new “Lottery” adaptation, published on the centenary of Jackson’s birth, has his own version of “Grandma,” even if he was entering third grade when she died. Miles Hyman roamed her extensive personal library at his leisure, grew up intellectually on the stories of their social milieu in Vermont and New York – including Ralph Ellison, Bernard Malamud, and even Dylan Thomas – and in a way, grew into his own occupation as an illustrator. He told us that as he was setting himself up to create a graphic adaptation of James Ellroy’s famed noir novel, The Black Dahlia, the key notions of how he might adapt “The Lottery” came to him. That makes sense.

This is a comic that uses its color scheme with great subtlety. The pages are notably darkish, the action or non-action so much in the shading as well as the detail that words are almost unnecessary. Everything, all the suspense, builds up to a mere three hours in a village of three hundred souls. As in Jackson’s original story, it is the children who gather the rocks for the kill, adding an eerie touch rare in even the best of the old horror comics but not entirely absent from sci-fi giant Ray Bradbury’s short fiction, written around the same years.

We know what the end is, and we see it coming, but the shock value remains undiminished and the aftermath so poignantly blank as to return the town to its own perverse version of normality. It is quite the artistic achievement.

 

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Paul Buhle, the thirteen year old of 1957 who wanted to be a science fiction writer when he grew up, but became a historian and comics editor instead.


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