William Beckford’s Comic Book, or Visualizing Orientalism with Vathek
Abstract

ABSTRACT:

Since its publication in 1786, William Beckford’s oriental tale Vathek has polarized readers. Written in the style of The Arabian Nights, Beckford’s novella of the ninth caliph of Baghdad has been paradoxically defined as Eastern fable, Western fiction, autobiography, biography, and proto-ethnography. Likewise, stylistic assessments have cast Beckford’s tale as satire, parody, pastiche, gothic, horror, and camp. This article attributes Vathek’s striking polysemy to its visualizing orientalism, a graphic—and graphical—manner of depiction not unlike the visual-textual language of comics. With its emphasis on setting, action, and gesture, Vathek reads like a classic action-adventure comic book. Moreover, Beckford’s penchant for exaggeration and distortion steers Vathek into the domain of caricature and cartooning, an aesthetic that dominated the most popular European action-adventure comics, or bandes dessinées, of the mid-twentieth century. Drawing heavily on comics theory, this anachronistic and experimental re-evaluation of Vathek as a comic book uncovers the mechanics of Beckford’s visualizing orientalism and gauges the effects of caricature and cartoons on its resonance and reception.