The Louisville Courier-Journal (KY)

An artistic entrepreneur returns to the notion of illustrating great works of fiction
by James Bickers

For longer than anyone cares to remember, children of all ages have been pulled toward that magical alchemy of story and sketch, the perfect blend of eye candy and mental stimulation: the illustrated story, or, to put it more bluntly, the comic book. Comics have always had a tough time getting the respect they deserve. By and large, our culture views illustrated stories as somehow lesser than the "real thing," a frivolous entertainment that is just a thin notch above watching television. Devotees of the art form know better. There is real artistry here, and real magic. Even simple superhero tales are often crafted with love and expert care, much more than just a juvenile pursuit. We’re talking about the difference between "childish" and "childlike." But while many publishers busy themselves creating books that they know will be read surreptitiously, tucked inside a copy of Poe or Hemingway for cover, a small handful of others take a different path: why not take the "real books" themselves and illustrate them?

Certainly the most memorable example of this was the "Classics Illustrated" line, published from 1941 to 1971 by The Gilberton Company. The stories featured in the series spanned the shelves of Required Reading: beginning with Dumas’ "The Three Musketeers" in 1941, the series would offer illustrated versions of Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Victor Hugo, Cervantes, Jonathan Swift, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Lewis Carroll, Poe, Eliot, Longfellow, and dozens of others. For countless young people (and adults, too), "Classics Illustrated" was a turning point: an example of how literature that was "good for you" could also be a crazy amount of fun.

A Modern Chapter

Enter Tom Pomplun, a Wisconsin-based graphic designer. For years, he has been the art director for the acclaimed literary journal "Rosebud." Now, he’s striking out on his own with a series of illustrated books based on great literature, called "Graphic Classics."

"Presenting the comics to an adult audience is a bit of a personal crusade for me," Pomplun says. "While comics as an art form have been broadly accepted in Europe and Japan, they are still automatically categorized as ‘for children’ in this country, though that is finally beginning to change with the growth of graphic novels in bookstore distribution."

While Pomplun certainly enjoyed the old "Classics Illustrated" books, he points out some notable differences. For one thing, his volumes are more akin to a deluxe book than a thin, newsprint comic: "Graphic Classics" are large trade paperbacks with glossy covers and printed on high-quality paper. Also, he is using each edition of the series to focus on a single writer. Four volumes are currently available: volume 1 features works by Edgar Allen Poe, volume 2 chronicles Arthur Conan Doyle, number 3 spotlights H.G. Wells, and number 4 shows off the macabre horror of H.P. Lovecraft.

"I tend to use as subjects writers at the most recent end of the public domain period - 1923 and earlier - such as Jack London and H.G. Wells," he says, "and have chosen writers such as H.P. Lovecraft, who may not be classified as ‘classic’ authors by academia, but who certainly have a large following."

The books, which range in price from $7.95 to $9.95 and can be purchased at the website, are a combination of newly-commissioned works and authorized reprints of older pieces. The Doyle book, for instance, contains new illustrated pieces by Rick Geary, Roger Langridge, and other well-known artists and writers, but also offers a new presentation of Nestor Redondo’s gorgeous adaptation of "The Adventure of the Speckled Band."

Likewise, the volume dedicated to Poe is a mix of old and new, including Clive Barker’s little-seen 1984 story "New Murders in the Rue Morgue," newly illustrated for this book.

Bringing Back the Joy

You don’t have to spend much time talking to Tom Pomplun to realize what a lover of literature he is. Like most ardent bibliophiles, the walls of his house are lined with countless volumes of every sort. It is this love for books, and the effect they have on us, that drives him to create his lovingly crafted editions.

He’s no snob, though, which makes the "Graphic Classics" books eminently readable. "Mark Twain defined a ‘classic’ as ‘a book people praise, but don't read,’" he says. "I wanted Graphic Classics to concentrate on the books people want to read, not the ones they feel obliged to.

"Unlike the original creators of ‘Classics Illustrated,’ I am not on a mission to promote literacy, nor to preach to children to ‘read the originals,’" he adds. "My sole purpose is to entertain. I am directing these books at a contemporary, adult audience. While most of my titles are good reading for all ages, some pieces, such as the Clive Barker story are not appropriate for younger children. While I may be cutting myself off from a large potential market, I don't want to impose restrictions on my artists by making them tailor their work to a younger age group."

Whatever else "Graphic Classics" may be, Pomplun is clear about one thing: they are not "collector’s items." "The ‘collectible’ market has always been a bit of a peeve with me," he said. "And I detest the idea of limiting editions of books or art simply to create an artificial value. When I was a boy, I was first attracted to comics as things you would buy, read, fold up and shove in your pocket or a drawer and pull out and read again.

"When comics later became things that collectors bought in quantity and immediately sealed in plastic bags and held for their speculative value they lost all appeal to me. I am trying to bring back some of that early joy in the medium with my books."


The Capital Times (Madison, WI)
January 14, 2003

By Rob Thomas

MOUNT HOREB -- The walls of Tom Pomplun's lovely 123-year-old farmhouse are decorated with two kinds of artwork. One kind is the beautiful paintings by his wife, Georgene, whose work can be found in this year's Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission calendar. The other is comics and illustrated art. Pomplun, a former commercial art director, has had a lifelong love of comics and cartoons. The works of Robert Crumb, Madison artist Andy Ewen (who plays in the local band Honor Among Thieves) and others are everywhere in his house.

As one of the guiding lights behind the literary magazine Rosebud, Pomplun tried every chance he could to get illustrations and art mixed in with the short fiction and poetry. Now, he says, the current Rosebud issue is the last he'll be a part of, as he devotes himself full time to his own project -- the Graphic Classics series.

"I found that that's something that has become more interesting to me than the literary magazine itself," he says. "I was anxious to go and do something on my own, and call the shots, and make it or fail on my own."

The first issue of Graphic Classics compiled the works of Edgar Allan Poe, while the fourth and most recent features illustrators' diverse takes on the short stories and poetry of H.P. Lovecraft. Pomplun says economic concerns were the main engine driving the idea of illustrating classic stories: Because they were in the public domain, he could use them for free.

"The whole idea comes out of the old 'Classics Illustrated' books," he says, in which old literary classics such as "Moby Dick" or "Les Miserables" would be turned into comic books for kids. "There have been umpteen generations of different takes on that. I think I'm doing something a little different. For one thing I'm not adapting novels, I'm adapting short stories and poems. In that way I can get a lot of different stories into one volume, and get a lot of different styles of art."

For example, the Lovecraft edition, published in November, features Tom Sutton's very gloomy and gothic take on the horror writer's "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath." But French cartoonist Dominique Signoret takes a more amusing approach to the Lovecraft canon with "Cthulhu's Dreams."
Gahan Wilson, whose cartoons have appeared in The New Yorker and Playboy for decades, writes the introduction, and the book concludes with 17 artists taking turns illustrating sections of the epic poem "Fungi From Yuggoth."

"I'm trying to not just take the traditional or safe approach with these," Pomplun says. "In this book in particular, there's a whole group of cult artists who do nothing but Lovecraft, and I did include a number of them in this book. But then I wanted to broaden it beyond that, so I brought in a lot of comics artists."

Pomplun has also invited book illustrators, painters, and other artists not necessarily associated with graphic novels to do pieces as well. He seems to take the idea of "illustration" literally, choosing art that best helps tell the story.

"I love comics, but not all stories lend themselves to that," he says. "I try to be really sensitive to what's going to best illustrate a story, whether it's adaptable to comics form or whether it would do better as an illustrated story. And then there are some stories that I really loved that I didn't think would be helped by either.

"For example, I'm working on a Jack London volume, and probably one of his most famous stories is 'To Build a Fire.' I really looked at that story and wanted to get it in there, but I just couldn't see a way to illustrate it that would add to the text."

While the old Classics Illustrated were marketed as books that would both educate and entertain young readers, Pomplun says his sole mission is to entertain. While the books are suitable for all audiences, he makes sure that the content isn't dumbed down.

"The books are intended as entertainment," he says. "You read things about Classics Illustrated, and the publishers will give you stories about their educational value -- "Now that you've read this, go read the original." If that happens, that's great. But I'm not on a mission to do that."

Graphic Classics are available in bookstores and comic book shops, and Pomplun sells copies all over the world through his Web site, Upcoming issues will feature the works of London, Ambrose Bierce and Bram Stoker.

The Pompluns' farmhouse may seem like a distant place to ship orders to European customers or accept artwork from Japanese artists. But he says it's the ideal place for him to work. "I love it out here," he says. "I love the isolation. On the other hand, I'm connected to the whole world over the computer. I'm old enough that I'm still amazed by that constantly. I still get a thrill out of getting a piece of work from the Philippines over the phone."


Isthmus (Madison, WI)

A local publisher illustrates literary gems
By Aaron R. Conklin

You have to believe that Edgar Allan Poe and H.P Lovecraft would appreciate the setting. For the last three years, in an isolated farmhouse in rural Mount Vernon, Tom Pomplun has been weaving the words of classic authors and the images of modern artists into graphic novels on his Macintosh computer. Pomplun, a former ad agency art director and freelance designer, calls his slowly growing series Graphic Classics. To date, he's produced editions featuring Poe, Lovecraft, H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle and Jack London.

The series began as an offshoot of Rosebud, a Wisconsin-based literary mag that Pomplun started with a couple of friends in 1993. Pomplun always envisioned Rosebud as aforum for visual arts, and he began adding comics in 2000. Desire for greater control drove him to part ways with Rosebud in 2002, a move that's allowed him to focus entirely on Graphic Classics.

Pomplun's had a thing for comics since boyhood, when he enjoyed the stiff Classics Illustrated series. "They're not just pictures or words, but a unique combination that can tell stories in a different way than text or movies," he says. "And I always loved the physicality - it was something you could fold in half and stick in your pocket and take anywhere to read. I love the touch and feel of ink on paper." The speculation boom of the 1990s that changed comics from breezy fun into pricey collectors' items turned Pomplun off, and it's part of the reason he's invested his time and money in Graphic Classics - to recapture that simpler magic.

The series, published in black-and-white, generally stays away from the familiar stories you soldiered through in that lOth-grade literature class. The edition featuring Jack London, for instance, eschews White Fang in favor of London's more gruesome fare, like "The Francis Spaight," a vignette about a drifting ship's crew forced to murder one of their own for food.

Each edition has a decidedly different visual feel, due in no small part to the huge stable of artists Pomplun has recruited. Some stories are told entirely in comics form, while others pair ornate illustrations with the author's text. The artists come from such varied places as New Zealand (Roger Langridge), France (Dominque Signoret) and Madison (Andy Ewen), and include famed illustrators like Rick Geary and Gahan Wilson. Selecting the artists isn't actually the tough part. "Once I reach them," Pomplun says, "I have to convince them to do great work for the ridiculously low payment I can afford."

Pomplun denies he's on some sort of educational mission, luring readers to the original material with pretty pictures and sleek presentation. But he's been surprised to find that the series' audience includes teachers and librarians, who are using the books to accomplish that very thing.

It's tough to turn a profit in the world of small independent publishing, but Pomplun is batting out a volume every six months or so. He just finished volume six, a tome featuring Ambrose Bierce. Next up is Bram Stoker; followed by Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson.

So far, the series has focused on horror, adventure, science fiction and mystery Pomplun says he'll consider anyone, as long as the stories are interesting and the author's work is in the public domain, allowing him to avoid pricey royalty fees.

"I want to do comics that can add something to a story, rather than just reiterate it," he explains. "Jane Austen's stories might make good films, but in comics they would be a succession of talking heads in parlor scenes."

Now that's sense and sensibility.