REVIEWS OF THE GRAPHIC CLASSICS SERIES:
Graphic Classics: Edgar Allan Poe
Comics, for a century the most popular reading matter of the masses, have been amazingly slow to gain respectability in the U.S., where they made their flrst big splash. The reasons for the giant cultural lag, by now a generation or two since comics were recognized as a legitimate art form in Europe and Asia, are worth exploring before we dive into our subject proper.
An insecure intelligentsia, with no historical legacy to speak of and a patronage class of tasteless nouveau riche, produced mediocre art and novels (with some exceptions, mostly unappreciated ones, like Melville in his lifetime), while the rise of commercial popular culture arose like a genius illegitimate child during the 1880s-1910s. Having worshipped the European novel, American critics disdained movies as wretched mass production, and thought even less (if at all) about the other art form that immigrants with little or no English could readily appreciate. What made this all worse was not just the continuing popularity of these fresh forms but the role that radicals played in their development from the late 1930s onward.
At the start of the Cold War; the reorganized intellectual elite joined, with a fever that only envy can full explain, the campaign to blacklist many of the popular intellectual-artists that the nation had produced, from Charlie Chaplin to Paul Robeson to Woody Guthrie.The simultaneous appearance of television dealt another shock, handled by elevating moviesor at least certain kinds of moviesup a notch: "Hollywood" would still be firmly disdained, but auteur directors were hailed as giving intelligent viewers an alternative. Comics, faced with their own Congressional investigating committee (and a purge of the most unrestrained comic book lines), didn't get a similar bump upward.
Decades passed, the Underground Comix came and went, and most of the period's comic artists soon went silent. Not Art Spiegelman, whose RAW magazine was the first real cosmopolitan comic on this side of the ocean, and who moved through Maus to a Pulitzer and to the pages of the New Yorker; nor Ben Katchor, who won a MacArthur for his picaresque Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer; nor Harvey Pekar, whose steady work and Deepest Cleveland persona has been immortalized in the award-winning biopic American Splendor. And there was Dan Clowes's Ghost World, not to mention the oddball documentary Crumb, about the "King of the Undergrounds" who defected to France where he could make a living selling his work as art.
Maybe it's due to the recent success of big-budget films made on strictly mediocre comic characters, but it's recently dawned on the hard-hit publishing industry that comics sell; in response, chain bookstores may actually take graphic novels out of the "Humor" section for the first time. We can expect to see some extremely good work, collections and originals, in the next few years, even as the smaller specialty publishers still struggle to survive.
Eureka Productions is one such publisher, and its Graphic Classics line has hit upon a format and price point that should sell a bundle. The formula is deceptively simple: find a beloved author whose work is in the public domain, and invite a host of interesting artists to adapt various pieces of fiction as well as the story of the author's life. The artists range from big shots (like Gahan Wilson) to underground icons (like Skip Williamson) to comics industry professionals (after an artistic assignment, for once) to new talent, at least new to this reviewer.
It's awfully good work that, book for book, is nevertheless bound to hit every reader's tastes differently. Speaking as a WWlI baby who absorbed comics long before the family got a television setI probably first learned about the idea of "rebellion" or "social justice" from Classics Illustrated's William (they Americanized it from "Wilhelm") Tellthe Graphic Classics series offers a chance to rediscover the joys of childhood and adolescence. For a younger person, this may be a first chance to see the stories in pictures, though at least once in every book, prose excerpts are illustrated with drawings that are too imaginative to be called "illustrations." Kids, especially, should love the series.
The Poe number can be seen as a try-out of sorts, although the strips by Spain Rodriquez (reprinted from the middle 1970s) and Gahan Wilson are charming, and the notion of illustrated poetry is a renewal of a venerable tradition. H.G. Wells gets closer to the mixture of materials familiar to later numbers, with art by Dan O'Neill (whom comics aficionados will remember for the Air Pirates series, ended by a negative judgment in a suit launched by Disney) and M.K. Brown (one of the most charming artists in the 1970s incarnations of Arcade and National Lampoon), among others. The Arthur Conan Doyle, for this reader at any rate, is more readable than the original, with some fine science fiction offered along with the expected detective tales.
Perhaps the signature volume so far is devoted to H.P ("I am Providence") Lovecraft. Scorned and ridiculed as a mere purple-prose writer, even by so sagacious a writer as Ursula K. LeGuin, Lovecraft has been adapted for films and television more than any other horror writer but Poe, and for good reason; behind the horripilation is a philosophical critique of social corruption, a deep desire for the Outsiders to give puny humanity the lesson that it deserves. Wonderful narrative strips by Onsmith Jeremi, Matt Howarth, and George Kuchar, and illustrations by Trina Robbins, Maxon Crumb (Robert's reclusive brother) and others, is not only steadily charming but downright memorable.
The same is true of the Jack London and Ambrose Bierce volumes, as these writers are the most radical (albeit in different ways) of the crowd memorialized, and also the most philosophical. Not enough credence is given to London the socialist and syndicalist, but the comics and illustrations (including some notable pieces by Peter Kuper) make the stories read as well as they were written. "Bitter Bierce" is made for the series, from The Devil's Dictionary to An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.
The excellence of these books even extends to the "Contributors" section at the backseries editor Tom Pomplun offers the most scrupulous recitation of artists' backgrounds and credits that any reader of comic art can reasonably hope to see. Published separately, these descriptions would add up to a small biographical dictionary of sorts, covering a lively section of comics practitioners.
In short, every volume is highly recommended. No publisher will return to the days when, working with little overhead, it was possible to turn out magazines and little books costing a penny or two per page. But for these days, the prices of Graphic Classics are extraordinary.
Graphic Classics: Edgar Allan Poe
Remember CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED? They were comic book adaptations of great works of literature. Ideal for doing book reports without reading the book; shorter than Cliff Notes and with pretty pictures to boot. Despite good art, most CLASSICS were comics kids read more out of necessity than desire: but there were a few you would read for fun. The gory ones, the ones that adapted Frankenstein and other spine-chilling tales. You know, the good stuff. ROSEBUD GRAPHIC CLASSICS is a CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED for the modern era: they only give you the good stuff.
ROSEBUD GRAPHIC CLASSICS is the umbrella title for a series of trade paperbacks, each of which will present illustrated adaptations of the works of a great author. Here's the kicker: at least so far, the subjects have all been horror, sci-fi and mystery writers. Future issues will focus on H.G. Wells and H. P. Lovecraft. The publisher, Eureka Productions, also produces ROSEBUD, a magazine of fiction, poetry and illustration (www.rsbd.net).
I'll be honest with you: despite being a comics geek, I knew nothing about these books until the publisher, Tom Pomplun, sent me review copies. They've received little, if any, coverage in the comics press, which is a shame, because these are some well put together books. The prices are quite reasonable ($7.95 for the 136-page Poe volume, $9.95 for the 144-page Doyle volume), and the art is by accomplished illustrators like Gahan Wilson, Spain Rodriguez, Maxon Crumb (Robert's brother), and Nestor Redondo. (HOLY SHIT! I'm there, dude! I'm there! -feo) Some of the work is original to these volumes, whereas some has appeared before, but usually in overseas or underground publications, so it's not likely readers will have seen it.
VOLUME ONE: EDGAR ALLAN POE contains an introduction by horror writer Joe R. Landsdale and thirteen (how appropriate) stories, ranging from the well-known (The Tell-Tale Heart) to the less famous (Hop Frog). Not all are comic book stories; some reprint Poe's prose tales with illustrations accompanying them. I have to confess I was a bit disappointed by what I felt were too many "prose stories with illustrations" as opposed to straight comic book adaptations: call me doctrinaire, but I can get the stories themselves in any Poe collection: I want a book like this to be chock full of art!
But if I'm sounding like I didn't like this book, that's not the case; I liked it quite a bit. Gahan Wilson's art accompanying "The Conqueror Worm" just oozes classic Wilson, and Rick Geary's work on The Tell-Tale Heart has a nice trippy quality that mirrors the madness of the main character. Since Poe is a familiar subject to me, my favorite moments in this collection came when I encountered something I didn't expect. For the poem Annabel Lee, a typically depressing account of Poe's favorite subject a lover lost to the icy touch of death illustrator Toni Pawlowsky chooses to focus on the kingdom of the sea refrain and re-imagines the title character as a mermaid reclining happily in an underwater realm.
Also included is Clive Barker's prose sequel to Poe's seminal detective yarn "Murders In The Rue Morgue", entitled "New Murders In The Rue Morgue". This is the only piece I'd read before, in Barker's THE BOOKS OF BLOOD, back in the mid-80's, when I was a big-hair-havin', Iron Maiden t-shirt-wearin', bad-teenage-mustache sportin' -ass kid seduced by Stephen King's proclamation that "I have seen the future of horror: and his name is Clive Barker!" (Steve was right, too.) It's been a good fifteen years since I last saw it, and if it's been as long for you, you'll enjoy the trip down memory lane, as well as the evocative, new illustrations by Mark A. Nelson that accompany it.
As competently rendered as the stories in here are, I couldn't help but compare them to the spectacular work done in CREEPY and EERIE by the likes of Bernie Wrightson, Richard Corben, and Reed Crandall. These men are icons of the art world, and it's hard to compete with them. So, while I enjoyed this book, I couldn't help thinking that I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn't seen it done better before. A promising start to the series, but one that leaves room for improvement.
I'm pleased to report that the problems I had with Volume One were gone by VOLUME TWO: ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE. This book is nearly all comics, and has a greater proportion of non-reprint stories than the first one. Editor Tom Pomplun has wisely chosen not to focus entirely on Doyle's most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes. There are three Holmes tales ("The Adventure of the Copper Beeches" by Rick Geary, "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" by the late Nestor Redondo, and "The Hound of the Baskervilles" by Tim Quinn and George Sears); enough to please fans of the great detective, but not so many as to go overboard. Donald Marquez, whose FANTASTIC STORIES comic I reviewed not long ago, provides an adaptation of the novel "The Lost World", featuring Doyle's other recurring character, Professor Challenger, in an Edgar Rice Burroughs-esque tale of hidden realms and dinosaurs.
There's an interesting reproduction of a preface written by Doyle for his 1922 book "The Coming Of The Fairies," which described the real-life case of the Cottingley Fairy Photographs, in which two young girls claimed to have photographed real forest sprites at play. Doyle, who spent the latter part of his life as a devotee of Spiritualism, believed in the photos' authenticity: a striking contrast to the skepticism of his literary creations, Holmes and Challenger; and died trusting that they were real (the girls confessed it was a hoax in 1983). All in all, a highly enjoyable package that shows that Doyle's work still holds up today, and reveals where a lot of the mystery genre's archetypes originated.
The one problem I had with this second volume is that two of the stories, "The Lost World" and "The Hound Of The Baskervilles", previously appeared elsewhere in longer form, and have been abridged for inclusion here. In both cases, while you can still follow the stories, they feel choppy and do not flow as well as they should. I realize it's tough to condense what were originally quite lengthy tales, but I would have left out the Hound story (which everyone knows anyway) and reprinted The Lost World in full. Or better yet, increased the page count: you could add a couple bucks to the cover price and still stay competitive with most other TPBs on the market.
The overall quality of this series and the improvement from one issue to the next are remarkable, considering that this is Tom Pomplun's first foray into comics publishing (though he has worked extensively with illustrators in his magazine work). Volume 3, due out in July, covers H.G. Wells, with art by the likes of Alex Nino (doing "The Invisible Man") and Skip Williamson. Volume 4, slated for November, spotlights the Rhode Island Madman, H. P. Lovecraft, and promises work from Richard Corben, Rick Geary, and Tom Sutton, with an introduction by Gahan Wilson. If future editions continue along the path begun by the first two volumes, they'll be well worth seeking out.
ROSEBUD GRAPHIC CLASSICS is a great idea, executed in a professional, attractive package. I wish the publishers great success, and wait with bated breath for the Lovecraft volume! What I've seen so far rates three rabid fanboys, and I have every expectation that the level of quality will continue to rise.
Review copyright 2002 by E.C.McMullen Jr.
Graphic Classics: Edgar Allan Poe
Rosebud is an eclectic literary journal whose designer, Tom Pomplun, describes himself as a lifetime science fiction and comics fan. Since 2001 he has been combining these interests by editing, designing, and publishing the Rosebud Graphic Classics series, each volume showcasing a seminal writer of genre fiction, with artwork and comics by an admirable diversity of modern-day cartoonists and illustrators.
All three volumes released so far are exquisitely designed. I love books that have been crafted with care, and it gives me pleasure simply to look, hold, and flip through the beautiful objects that are the Rosebud Graphic Classics.
The first volume, focusing on Edgar Allan Poe, comes with a colorful cover by Lisa Weber that playfully balances the cartoony and the surreal. Next, the front matter frontispiece, introduction, etc. is decorated with Maxon Crumb illustrations reprinted from Maxons Poe. These pieces are disturbingly primal and totemic, in fact far more powerful to me, at least than the source material that inspired them.
I guess here I should own up to the fact that I do not much care for Poes writing. I admire his accomplishments in the history of fiction, but I get no satisfaction from reading his work: it leaves me utterly cold. His florid, overwritten mannerisms irritate rather than ensnare me. Nevertheless, this is such an attractive book that I couldnt resist picking it up.
Also, although Poes work might not light up my imagination, I can nevertheless be interested in how others might find inspiration in his words and tales. For example, of note in this volume is Clive Barkers homage, New Murders in the Rue Morgue, reprinted from Books of Blood and newly illustrated by Mark A. Nelson.
My personal favorites here are: the aforementioned Maxon Crumb illustrations, Rick Gearys comics adaptation of The Tell-Tale Heart, and the illustrations accompanying the poems The Conqueror Worm (Gahan Wilson) and Spirits of the Dead (Andy Ewen). Truth be told, though, despite my lack of affinity for Poe, I enjoyed the whole book.
The next subject is Arthur Conan Doyle, a writer best known for a creation he despised (Sherlock Holmes) and for his astonishing credulity towards spiritualist charlatans, an attitude at odds with the relentless intellectual rigor of his famous detective. Doyle resented Holmes mostly because the detectives popularity eclipsed his other writings, which spanned weird tales, ghost stories, historical fiction, lost world adventures, and more.
Again, this volume is graced by an exceptionally attractive cover, this time by Richard Sala: Holmes and Watson depicted against a mosaic backdrop invoking several of their celebrated investigations. And the book as a whole is once more stunningly gorgeous. The centrepiece is a serviceable, if unremarkable, 30-page comics adaptation of The Lost World.
This time the stand-out pieces include The Los Amigos Fiasco a science-fiction story adapted to comics by J.P. Bonivert, and two Sherlock Holmes stories: The Adventure of the Copper Beeches by Rick Geary and, my very favorite, The Speckled Band, a cleverly conceived text-and-comics hybrid designed and adapted by Tom Pomplun with classically elegant illustrations by Nestor Redondo.
My one complaint is that the adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles by Tim Quinn and George Sears was too rushed and light-hearted, failing to convey the creepy atmosphere and careful pacing of Doyles most accomplished Sherlock Holmes novel. Still, all in all, another impressive volume.
The third subject is H.G. Wells, the most influential writer in the history of science fiction and, arguably, the genres founder. Like Doyle, Wells output ranges far beyond the genre of the works for which he is best remembered. Although this volume does give a glimpse of Wells non-SF work, it concentrates on the SF, as is appropriate, for those are the works at which he excelled and whose cultural impact is unequalled by his now obscure (and lesser) writings.
This time, the cover is taken over by Wells notorious Martian tripods, robustly rendered by renowned SF illustrator Vincent Di Fate. And once again the authors words are illustrated and adapted by an impressive array of cartoonists.
The book opens with The Invisible Man, an abridgment of the novel edited by Tom Pomplun, with kinetic artwork by Alex Niño. This is one of two such abridgments, the other being The Truth about Pyecraft edited and illustrated by M.K. Brown. In both cases, the artwork is among the best in the book, but I cant help but be irked by the idea that Wells texts were abridged. Its a questionable esthetic choice, and, to my mind, regrettable.
Some of this volumes highlights include a beautiful frontispiece by Rick Geary, inspired by The Invisible Man; a portfolio of illustrations by Nicola Cuti, each accompanied by a caption from The Time Machine; a comics retelling, by Antonella Caputo and Nick Miller, of the events surrounding Orson Welles infamous 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds; excerpts from Wells childhood oeuvre, an illustrated novel written and drawn by Wells at age 13; and the retro chic illustrations by Shag that accompany Le Mari Terrible.
Ironically, of these three Rosebud Graphic Classics, my favorite is the one about the author I like the least (Poe) and the volume that left me most unsatisfied featured one of the writers I most admire (Wells). But that probably says more about me and my expectations than about the books themselves. All three are very enjoyable regardless.
Next up is H.P. Lovecraft. I cant stand Lovecrafts fiction, filled as it is with racism, classism, and clunky, overwritten sentences. In other words, itll probably be the best Rosebud Graphic Classics yet. I cant wait!
Graphic Classics: Arthur Conan Doyle
THE COMICS JOURNAL
Perhaps my expectations were too high but sorry to say, these books are something of a disappointment. Many of the pieces are not actual full comics adaptations but unsatisfying hybrids where individual illustration or comics panels are set within blocks off typeset text. The series has the look and feel of an underfunded project. Much of the work represents leftover comics previously published and now recycled for these editions or unused material scrounged from artists' portfolios. Some of the newer work looks hastily done, as though the artists weren't being paid enough to devote much time on their assignments.
One big problem is that when the stories of authors like Doyle and Wells originally appeared years ago on the pages of magazines like the Strand, they were often illustrated by superb craftsmen. Most of the work in these present volumes does not compare in quality to that earlier work or even to the Classics Illustrated versions published in the '50s and '60s. To my mind, too much of the artwork here seems uninspired and some of it is inappropriately cartoonish.
For example, "War of the Worlds" cleverly revisits Orson Welles' 1938 radio broadcast and the panic that ensued when people mistook the program for an actual newscast of a Martian invasion.
The piece is extremely well-scripted by Antonella Caputo and laid out, but Nick Miller's artwork is far too broadly drawn to sustain the narrative. The caricatures of Welles and his crew are accurate, but the drawing lacks subtlety and is devoid of any sort of interesting or evocative rendering effects. The backgrounds are especially boring. The sterility of the rendering is enhanced by the use of mechanical lettering (here and throughout the volume).
Brad Teares' "The Star," done in scratchboard in a neo-primitive style, is probably the most interesting strip in the Wells book, although there are some very nice individual illustration sprinkled about.
The Doyle book contains an adaptation of his Lost World, but its abridgment for this volume results in some confusing narrative lapses. It also suffers from the artwork by Donald Marquez, which has obviously been cribbed from the foremost illustrator of primeval fiction and lacks the dazzling virtuosity of its inspiration.
This volume also presents a trio of Sherlock Holmes tales: "The Speckled Band" suffers from being an ungainly combination of panels and text, but at least illustrator Nestor Redondo possesses an undeniable level of technical finesse. "The Hound of the Baskervilles," on the other hand, is crude and cartoonish when what is required is a brooding sense of atmosphere. Rick Geary brings a Victorian flavor to his rendition of the "Copper Beeches," but this story also is prey to the same basic failing as its companions. That is: if anyone ever wished to point out the limitations of (or challenges to) the comics medium, they could hardly do worse than to use the Holmes stories as examples, because these stories are long on dialogue and exposition and do not readily lend themselves to the sort of visual exaggeration of form and action that the comics medium seems to be so well adapted to. To bring these Doyle stories to life requires an innovative, highly creative approach not in evidence here.
Sometimes high cartooniness can work well as in George Kuchar's brief biography/lampoon of H.P. Lovecraft's life, which is nonetheless packed with truthful and interesting material about the writer of weird fiction. In fact of the three Graphic Classics examined here, the Lovecraft collection is by far the most accomplished. Lovecraft is more modern than Doyle or Welles; his sensibility and imagery have infiltrated the horror/science fiction realms of the popular culture and even into the darker strains of Goth/metal music and associated fantasy art. His work seems to have captured the imagination of at least some of the artists involved in this book.
It sports a witty, exquisitely well-painted cover by Todd Schorr depicting the gaunt Howard Philips Lovecraft attired in a white serving apron and cap (with "Howie" stitched on it) pushing a steam wagon and serving up French fried wrigglies to an all-American youngster with mottled reptilian skin who's slathering his treat with Cthulhu brand cocktail sauce. In the Lovecraftian mythos, Cthulhu is an obscene creature lurking at the dimensional threshold, awaiting its chance to engulf humanity in dark, gibber-ing chaos. Closer inspection reveals that H.P. himself is attached to one of the monster's tentacles.
The interior work is more of a mixed bag. For example, one of the longest pieces, the poem the "Fungi From Yuggoth" is illustrated by a host of different artists and some of these individual pieces by the like of Skot Olsen, R.K. Sloan, Jeff Remmer, S. Clay Wilson(!), Allen Koszowskl are great, but some of the others are mediocre at best. In any case, the wide divergence of styles makes for a disjointed quality. A similar problem arises with "Herbert West: Reanimator."
Unfortunately some of the artwork elsewhere is far too simply rendered to do justice to Lovecraft's words, although, as in the Wells volume, several individual illustrations are quite nice. Like I said, a mixed bag.
I wish these Graphic Classics were better. The basic idea behind the series is sound; to put together illustrated collection of science-fiction/fantasy/horror classics that showcase the work of some of the best artists working in the field today. There are a wealth of talented creators around, many of whom don't work in the prevailing superhero style.
Further collections are promised! I hope these future volumes live up to their undoubted potential.
Graphic Classics: Jack London
SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL
Graphic Classics: Ambrose Bierce
VOICE OF YOUTH ADVOCATES
With their dramatic retellings and marvelous artwork, the books prove interesting and entertainlng on their own. Certainly, they make the prospect of reading pre-192Os literature seem like less of a chore and more of a choice. But ultimately, they go one step even better: many readers might just be interested enough to seek out more Stoker and Bierce on their own.
Graphic Classics: Bram Stoker
Graphic Classics from Eureka Productions has carried on Classic Illustrated's legacy with a wonderful set of squarebound trade paper back books that feature many of today's top comic book illustrators/writers who adapt stories by bygone literary masters. Eureka was kind enough to send me two of its compilations: Mark Twain and Bram Stoker. Each features pages packed with illustrations of all styles, text pieces and spot drawings that present such classic tales as Dracula's Voyage and The Mysterious Stranger. Rick Geary, Anton Emdin and Rico Schacherl are just a few of the illustrator/writers who have contributed their interpretations of classic works.
Each TPB is wrapped in a gorgeous full-color painting or illustration. Other authors work compilations available from Graphic Classics include: Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, H.G. Wells and many more.
Graphic Classics: Mark Twain
Horror Classics: Graphic Classics Volume Ten
When I collected comics, as a youth and younger fellow, I collected Classics Illustrated, and enjoyed them. Graphic classics are not altogether the same as that fine series. These are certainly of equal or greater quality, but instead of "classics" that everyone recognizes the title of, these are short stories and such by the greats of classic literature. Pulps and early Sci Fi and Speculative fiction are all subjects for interpretation. The writers are therefore dead guys, and the stories are being illustrated by some very fine, if not recognized names, and very much high quality artists. As you can see, the two covers here, demonstrate that the covers alone are worth the purchase.
HORROR CLASSICS Volume Ten
ADVENTURE CLASSICS Volume Twelve