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Volume 30, Number 1, Fall 2011

Anthem: The Graphic Novel

By Ayn Rand
Adapted by Charles Santino and Joe Staton

New American Library, February 2011, $15
Reviewed by Max Jahr

Three of Ayn Rand’s novels have been adapted into film: We the Living (an Italian production in 1942), The Fountainhead (1949), and most recently Atlas Shrugged (Part 1 appeared in 2011 and Part 2 currently is in production). Yet, in my opinion, her most visually striking work remains the novella, Anthem, first published in 1938. Told in the form of a diary, it is perhaps the least suited for the screen, more suited as an animated movie, or graphic novel. And now that it’s been rendered as an actual graphic novel, I think that medium enriches the story and adds depth to Rand’s dystopian/utopian vision, despite some flaws in the actual production quality of the final product.

The world of Anthem stands with the ranks of early 20th century dysopias, such as Yevgeny Zamiatin’s We. It predates many of the more famous dystopias like George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and even Rand’s own Atlas Shrugged. There is a jarring sense of unreality when first reading Anthem for the first time, for Rand removed the personal pronoun, and characters refer to themselves as “we” rather than “I” throughout most of the story. In this future world, technology has regressed. People live in small communities, their lives and vocations, marriage choices and names decided for them by a close-minded council antagonistic towards any personal choice or idea of self. This is the antithesis of Rand’s later ideals of the “virtue of selfishness” that she would embrace as integral to her philosophy of Objectivism.

The graphic novel version of Anthem hews very closely to the original. It tells the story of Equality 7-2521, a young man who yearns to learn science, but is assigned a vocation as street sweeper. He discovers a hidden trap door that leads to an underground area dating to “the forgotten times” and dares to explore the tunnel and everything that lies within, without first notifying the council. By keeping his secret, teaching himself science from his discoveries, he begins a journey toward freedom.

In Equality 7-2521’s life on the surface, he sees and falls in love with a girl, Liberty 5-3000 (given the interesting name, The Golden One, by Equality). In his society, love is forbidden—spouses are assigned by the council with the purpose of propagation. Yet Equality dares to love and dream, to seek knowledge, and kindles a spark of his individuality. This spark leads him to value his own thoughts and feelings as primary, rather than convention and council decrees. Equality’s first and perhaps na├»ve thought is to share his invention with his society via the council of scientists. When instead he is hounded and his invention slated for destruction, he is faced with a choice—what does he value most? As Equality grapples with this decision, he speaks to the soul of every libertarian/individualist. Contrary to anti-individualists, this doesn’t mean we see the world as society vs. the individual—both co-exist from a libertarian viewpoint that see society as arising from consent and voluntary interaction. Only to the anti-individualist can the individual be seen as the enemy, and the “community” as supreme. They make the idea of a community and society concrete objects, and the individual a mere cog, with specific roles, and minimal freedom.

In terms of execution, this graphic novel both succeeds and fails. The graphics come across as sketches, not fully realized art. Each page is broken down into three horizontal panels of art; this uniformity in Anthem slows the pace and robs it of some visual appeal. Still, having Anthem appear in this format might broaden the appeal of the book, and the ideas within. It contains a story we often forget, that invention and daring sometimes find themselves at odds with the ruling class, the differences are scored and feared, yet the fire to improve ultimately can prevail.

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