Slaughterhouse-Five seems to resist adaptation. Originally published in 1969, Kurt Vonnegut’s semi-autobiographical, time-hopping, anti-war book about the life of fictional World War II soldier Billy Pilgrim is constantly popping up on lists of the greatest novels of the 20th century — look, here it is on Time’s all-time top 100.
Over the years, it’s been adapted into a movie (the first time in 1972, not long after the book hit shelves; Guillermo del Toro and Charlie Kaufman were set to take a second crack at it a few years back, though the project sadly never came to fruition). There have been multiple theatrical productions, a radio drama ... and now it’s a comic. A graphic novel, if you want to get fancy about it, from Ryan North and Albert Monteys, released by Boom Studios.
And what I’m here to tell you, friend, is that it might just be the best version of this story in existence.
Who is making Slaughterhouse-Five?
Ryan North you’ll likely know for one of two things. As the man who made Doreen Green one of Marvel’s finest characters, with the hilarious and humane The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. Or for getting stuck down a hole that one time.
But take a look at North’s broader catalog of work, from Dinosaur Comics — a webcomic that has been repeating the same six MS Paint-ass panels with new jokes every few days for over 15 years — to his Shakespearean choose-your-own-adventure books, like Romeo and/or Juliet, and he makes complete sense as the person you’d pick to adapt Vonnegut’s work into comics.
Albert Monteys might be a new name to you, but he’s no less of a shoo-in for this particular project. He spent five years as editor of the long-running Spanish satirical magazine El Jueves, but he first came to my attention as writer and artist of Panel Syndicate’s Universe! It’s a sci-fi anthology comic that reads like Philip K. Dick with more gags — and the digital version is pay-what-you-want, which means you can pick up all six installments for absolutely free. You shouldn’t — the comic is more than worth your money — but you can.
Kurt Vonnegut was the acclaimed author of novels including Cat’s Cradle and The Sirens of Titan. I cried when he died in 2007. So it goes.
What is Slaughterhouse-Five about?
Slaughterhouse-Five, both the novel and the comic, is an anti-war book telling the story of Billy Pilgrim, who was on the ground in the German city of Dresden as a prisoner of war when the Allies firebombed it during WWII. Twenty-five thousand people were killed. Vonnegut was there, too — he appears in the book multiple times, as both author and character — but, like Billy, survived by taking refuge in a meat locker in the basement of the titular slaughterhouse.
That is a compelling enough reason to read Slaughterhouse-Five. But it is also a remarkably weird and influential sci-fi story, featuring time travel and aliens. The key thing to know is that, as the first line of the story proper tells us, “Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.” If we experience life like a playlist, Billy’s life is on shuffle, basically, and we follow his story the same way. One moment you might be on the Western Front, the next in a childhood swimming pool, or at a drunken party decades after the war.
Is there any required reading?
Well, there’s an obvious answer here: Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. But in truth, while knowledge of the original book might enrich your experience — the adaptation does some really smart stuff, which we’ll get to in a minute — everything you need is contained within.
North and Monteys’ Slaughterhouse-Five is very faithful. It edits down the (already slim) novel, but all the important scenes are present and correct — and in most cases, with very few changes. You’ll get the full story, but also a good sense of what it’s about on a deeper level: a war story that rejects not only the “war” half of that equation but the “story” part too.
It’s certainly against people killing one another, even for reasons as good as those that motivated the Second World War. (To recap, for the benefit of the internet: Nazis are bad.) But, for me, it’s even more against the narratives that allow those killings to be perpetuated.
As Vonnegut promises in the opening, “There won’t be a part for John Wayne in my book.” Billy Pilgrim is a lead who makes very few active choices, and the character in the novel who fancies himself a war hero is an asshole kid who fantasizes about ridiculous torture methods. Don’t expect any tales of heroism, or pretty lies about “good deaths” or “honor” or “duty.” As you’d hope.
But with its time-unstuck storytelling, Slaughterhouse-Five goes further still, eating away at all the narrative struts and scaffolds that support those notions. The story jumps between moments seemingly at random, sidesteps anything that might constitute traditional “action,” and even tells you how it will end, right in the opening pages. It’s an intentionally disorienting experience.
And this is where a comics adaptation starts to make perfect sense — and where it might actually improve on the original.
Is Slaughterhouse-Five good?
Oh boy, is it.
The book’s nonlinear structure, with short vignettes taken from along the entire timeline of Billy’s life, are brilliantly suited to the pages of a comic. Scenes can last a single page or a couple of spreads, and then you turn over and you’re in another time and place. That’s kind of how comics always work anyway, and the transitions are smoothed by a smart use of color.
These short scenes are often structured like jokes, building to a punchline — a weird incident or a sharp one-liner. And with North and Monteys at the helm, the humor really pops. I’ll normally crack a wry smile or nod in recognition while reading a Vonnegut book, but this comic squeezed a few belly laughs out of me. If I’ve made the book sound at all highfalutin up to this point, please know that it features the best format-bending dick joke since Fraction and Aja’s Hawkeye.
So that’s one good reason to read Slaughterhouse-Five. The main one, though, is what North and Monteys do with the comics form. They constantly find new ways to adapt the source material, taking Vonnegut’s own experimental approach as an excuse to fiddle with what a comic can be, and what it can do.
This is obvious right from the start. It’s a good 10 pages of story before you reach anything that looks like a traditional comic book page. Flick through this book and you’ll find timelines, three-panel gag strips, pages from in-universe comics on faded newsprint. I can’t remember the last time I read a book this restlessly inventive.
Honestly, I could have just spent this whole review sharing snippets of the comic, pointing at them and going, “Cor, look how clever that is.” Picking a panel for the final section of this review has been giving me headaches for days.
But the appeal of the graphic novel is not just cleverness, which brings me to the reason I think this comic might be the best version of Slaughterhouse-Five, at least for me.
I’ve always found the original a fascinating intellectual exercise, but it’s never got me in the gut. Vonnegut was an incredibly humane writer, but that rarely extended to the way he wrote his characters. Your standard Vonnegut protagonist is, to be blunt, kind of an asshole. And so it is here.
But Monteys’ cartooning is so expressive that it’s hard not to feel for every single character you meet, even the awful ones. (It helps that North does some judicious editing, especially around the character of Valencia Merble, Billy’s wife — to whom the original book is consistently cruel, calling her “ugly” and referring to Billy marrying her as “one of the symptoms of his disease.” None of that is present here, and the book’s better for it.)
In this telling, no one looks like the person who’d play them in a film, but they’re all incredibly human. Which might be the reason I found myself getting a little choked up, for the first time, at parts of the story I’ve read three or four times in the past.
One panel that popped
This is a great example of what I mean — one of the single-page vignettes the comic does so well.
It’s one of the few scenes with Billy’s mother, in either version, showing her at her most vulnerable. But in the original book, it’s more of a short, sharp shock.
Maybe it’s the elderly relatives I’ve lost in the (meager) time since I last read the novel, but here, this scene is a stab right to the heart. It’s the look of genuine concern in Billy’s eyes, the tear streaking down his mother’s cheek, how Monteys captures the way that age pulls your face right back to the bones. This is far from the flashiest bit of storytelling in the book, but it’s absolutely remarkable in its emotional clarity. The kind of thing you gain from an adaptation that can put wide-eyed faces to names.
And then you turn the page, with the purple lava-lamp effect and change in color palette that indicate a time jump, and it’s right on to the next thing. Onto the next scene, the next wonderfully framed Vonnegut aphorism, the next brilliant visual idea fighting for its rightful place in this section. I wish I could pick them all. So it goes.