Introduction

The Comic Creators Project at the Cartoon Museum in London has original artwork from the adaptation into a graphic novel of D.H. Lawrence’s racy novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover by Hunt Emerson for Knockabout Comics in 1986. Currently it is being displayed at the Comics Gallery in the Cartoon Museum. This graphic novel is also featured in the exhibition The Great British Graphic Novel (20th April – 24th July, 2016).

As this blog post does make reference to the explicit contents of the novel, wives, servants and those of a sensitive disposition are forewarned!

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In 1975 Tony and Carol Bennett founded Knockabout Comics, one of the most important publishers and distributors of underground and alternative comix in the United Kingdom. Knockabout was responsible for publishing the work of cartoonist Gilbert Shelton in the UK, and that of other great British creators such as Alan Moore, Eddie Campbell, Brian Bolland, Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean,  Melinda Gebbie, Brian Talbot and Hunt Emerson among others. Knockabout was therefore instrumental in providing a venue for challenging underground material that dealt with explicit adult themes like drug use, sexuality, and violence. These topics were very popular with the counterculture scene of the 60s and 70s and they left a long and lasting influence not only in films and tv shows, but also in alternative comics of the 70s and 80s. Because of the subject matter that was treated by these alternative comics, Knockabout was constantly prosecuted by HM Customs and the Obscene Publications Branch in UK, who considered some of the works that were being imported obscene (i.e. the work of Robert Crumb or Melinda Gebbie) (Gordon 2006).  Tony and Carol Bennett became crusaders against censorship by embarking themselves in legal battles against the Establishment in order to have the freedom to publish these alternative comics as their creators intended.

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Hunt Emerson by Hunt Emerson.

Knockabout Comics then became the perfect choice to publish an adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The graphic novel was created by the talented Hunt Emerson (b. 1952), who had already been helping Tony and Carol Bennett at Knockabout Comics since the initial days of the publishing house (Emerson 2000). Emerson started drawing comics and cartoon illustrations in the 70s and he became instrumental in the Birmingham Arts Lab, an experimental art center and artist collective that was active from 1968 to 1982. Many of Emerson’s influences derived from the counterculture of the 60s and 70s. He was particularly impressed by the work of  Robert Crumb, and his first creations published by Street Press in 1971 betrayed his impact. And so sexual satire with pornographic overtones  became one of the main subjects that Emerson chose to represent through works such as Firkin the Cat (a strip scripted by Tym Manley that has run in Fiesta Magazine since 1981), Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1986) or Casanova’s Last Stand (1993).  

The importance of Hunt Emerson as a comix artist cannot be underestimated. His comic strips have been translated into ten languages (especially his book adaptations like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Casanova’s Last Stand, Dante’s Inferno and Lady Chatterley´s Lover) and his work has been published in nearly all underground comix anthologies. His penmanship can be seen in publications as diverse as Fiesta, Fortean Times, The BeanoThe Wall Street Journal Europe, The Bookseller and Bike magazine; and he has also worked widely in advertising and book illustration. In the year 2000, Hunt Emerson  was acclaimed as one of the 75 European Masters of Cartooning of the 20th Century by the Centre Nationale de la Bande Dessinee et de l’Image, and has won many other international awards such as Other awards include Humorous Cartoonist of the Year 1982 given by the Society of Strip Illustration, International Album of the Year 1989 by Kemi International Festival, and the Grand Prix de la Festival 1995 by the Pertuis Comic Festival, France.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

406-1-regular-1In 1928, D.H. Lawrence privately published Lady Chatterley’s Lover in Florence with the help of Pino Orioli, a bookseller and publisher who did not object to the explicitly erotic content of the story written by Lawrence. Since the start, this book was destined to create a social uproar from the more prudish elements of British society of the early 20th century.

At the beginning of Lady Chatterley’s Lover we are introduced to Connie Reid, a young woman from the upper bourgeoisie who in 1917, at the age of 23, marries Clifford Chatterley, the last surviving member of an aristocratic line. After spending their honeymoon together, Clifford is sent to the Great War. When he returns he is paralyzed from the waist down, impotent. At that point, Clifford decides that an union of the minds is more important than an union of the bodies, and goes on to become a successful writer. Because of this success, many intellectuals are attracted to the Chatterley mansion. Clifford then offers Connie the possibility of taking up a lover in order to conceive a son that would pass as his own and carry on the Chatterley name. In this context, Connie feels isolated and lonely, surrounded by what she considers to be empty and bloodless intellectuals. She has a brief affair with one of them, but it leaves her completely dissatisfied.11_Emerson_S13

The rift between Connie and Clifford becomes even larger, and a nurse, Mrs. Bolton, is hired to take care of the handicapped Clifford so that Connie can be more independent. Clifford then enters into a dependent state with the nurse, his manhood disappearing into a child-like reliance. The emotional void of Connie’s life seems like it would last forever, but then she meets Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper of Clifford’s estate, who had recently returned from serving in the army. Connie is instantly attracted to the man, despite the fact that he acts indifferent and disdainful towards her. She seems to find some sort of innate nobility and grace as well as a sense of natural sensuality emanating from the gamekeeper. After several chance meetings in which Mellors keeps her at arm’s length by reminding her of the class distance between them, they randomly meet at a hut in the forest, where they have sex. This happens several times, but still Connie feels a distance between them that makes her feel like she is profoundly separated from him despite their physical closeness.

One day, Connie and Mellors meet once more by chance in the woods, and they have sex on the forest floor. Unlike in other occasions, this time they experience simultaneous orgasms. This becomes a revelation and a profoundly moving experience for Connie. She then begins to adore Mellors, since she feels that they have finally connected on some deep sensual or primal level. She is proud to believe that she is pregnant with Mellors’ child, because she sees him as a real man, as opposed to the emotionally-dead intellectuals and the dehumanized industrial workers-a major theme in the story as well. They grow progressively closer as woman and man rather than as two minds or intellects.

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Hunt Emerson, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, detail of original art, 1986. The Cartoon Museum, London.

Towards the end of the story , Connie goes away to Venice for a vacation with her sister and she confesses to her that she is in love with Mellors and that she is carrying his child. Meanwhile, Mellors’ old wife returns and causes a huge scandal. When Connie gets back she finds out that Mellors has been fired as a result of the negative rumors spread about him by his wife. Mellors then initiates divorce proceedings against her. From Connie’s side, she admits to Clifford that she is pregnant with Mellors’ baby, but Clifford refuses to give her a divorce. The novel ends with Mellors working on a farm, waiting for his divorce, and Connie living with her sister, also waiting for hers. And yet there seems to be hope that maybe in the end they will be able to be together.

This was one of the first novels in the UK that tackled the subject of erotic love so openly and with very explicit language, and it was for this reason that Lawrence had to privately publish it abroad. No unabridged o unexpurgated editions were available in England until 1960, at which time the novel experienced a surge of popularity due to the British obscenity trial against the publisher that finally made the novel available to the general public, Penguin Books (Rolph 1961). After months of deliberation, the result of the trial was to give a verdict of “not guilty”. This resulted in a far greater degree of freedom for publishing explicit material in the United Kingdom. The prosecution was actually ridiculed for being out of touch with the reality of changing social norms when Mervyn Griffith-Jones, the chief prosecutor stated:

“Would you approve of your young sons, young daughters-because girls can read as well as boys-reading this book? Is it a book you would have lying around your own house? Is it a book you would even wish your wife or servants to read?”

This trial ended the 30-year-ban imposed on this book and it became an instant success. The novel itself had its own kind of impact on the counterculture of the 60s and the concept of sexual freedom. Which brings us back to 1986 and the moment when Knockabout Comics published Emerson’s graphic novel adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

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As Win Wiacek has pointed out, although Lawrence’s novel is passionate and memorable, it is by no means funny (Wiacek 2007). And yet, Hunt Emerson’s adaptation manages to be precisely that. With his own characteristic style entrenched between the best American underground comix and British pizzazz, Emerson delivers a visual retelling that stays true to the spirit of the novel, but at the same time it demonstrates a sensitivity to the visual culture of his own time. Emerson is more than capable of showing the despair and desolation of Connie in a beautiful monochrome style, while tracing her personal, emotional, and social struggle. He also takes the erotic aspect of the story, full of passion, and it reminds the reader that sex is not only funny to watch, but that it can actually be really fun.

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Further Reading

The D’log interview for Artsnet: HUNT EMERSON. Retrieved on March 17, 2016.

Emerson, Hunt (2000). Largecow: Hunt Emmerson. Archived in 2000. Retrieved on March 15, 2016.

Hunt Emerson.” Lambiek Comiclopedia. Retrieved on March 17, 2016.

Estren, Mark James (1974, rev. ed. 1992). A History of Underground Comics. Berkeley, CA:  Ronin Publishing.

Gordon, Joe (2006). “Knocking About with Tony Bennett.Forbidden Planet International Blog: Comics, Interviews. Retrieved March 15, 2016.

Lawrence, D. H. (1928). Lady Chatterley’s Lover and A Propos of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, edited by Michael SquiresCambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2002.

Lawrence, D.H. and Hunt Emerson (1986). Lady Chatterley’s Love! The Comic Book. London: Knockabout Publications.

Rolph, C. H. (1961). The Trial of Lady Chatterley. London: Penguin.

Rosenkranz, Patrick (2002). Rebel Visions: the Underground Comix Revolution,1963-1975. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books.

Sabin, Roger (1996). Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels: A History Of Comic Art. London, United Kingdom: Phaidon Press.

Sabin, Rogers (2000). “The Last Laugh: Larfing All the Way to the Dock.” Index of Censorship, Issue 6. Retrieved on March 15, 2016.

Wiacek, Win (2007). “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” Now Read This! Graphic Novel Reviews and Recommendations. Retrieved on March 21, 2016.

Credits

We would like to thank the Heritage Lottery Fund for supporting our work. This blog post has also been produced with the financial support of the University of Exeter.

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