REVIEWS OF GRAPHIC CLASSICS: AMBROSE BIERCE
MIDWEST BOOK REVIEW
Graphic Classics is a rousing and impressive anthology of the illustrated stories by Ambrose Bierce, tales of war, satire, the occult, and more. Bringing together contributions from a very wide variety of artists, Graphic Classics features sharp wit, biting insight, and a vast range of illustrative styles. Enhanced with an Introduction by S. T. Joshi, Graphic Classics is very highly recommended for graphic novel enthusiasts, and a "must read" for the legions of fans of the literary legacy of Ambrose Bierce.
THE TOMB OF DARK DELIGHTS
Tom Pomplun and company have captured one of the TombKeeper's favorite writers in illustration with this sublime collection of Mr. Bierce at his most scathing and supernatural! Following a masterful and intriguing introduction by S. T. Joshi, a renowned expert on supernatural literature, you'll find not only the famous "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and one of my favorites, "The Devil's Dictionary" among a number of wonderful short stories, but also 29 short Bierce fables brought to life by the finest illustrators in the business. Included is a fascinating inquiry into Bierce's mysterious death by dark fantasy writer Mort Castle, illustrated by Dan Burr. This is an outstanding and engrossing collection from one of America's greatest writers of the past illustrated by some of America's top artists of today. Click on the cover and get your copy now! TombKeeper's highest recommendation.
Creature Feature ©D. Dyszel 2003
"Patriot: One to whom the interests of a part seem superior to those of the whole. The dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors." - from the Devil's Dictionary, by Ambrose Bierce.
Do you remember Paradox Press? That DC Comics imprint that, during its all-too-brief existence, put out the Big Book series? I really miss those. The Big Books, in brief, took a concept like Urban Legends and adapted them to comics form. There were two things that really made this work for me: they were black and white, and each short segment was by a different artist. I really miss Big Books.
I'm glad, then, that I hold in my hands the sixth volume of Eureka's Graphic Classics series, which appears to be somewhere between a Big Book and a Classics Illustrated. Each volume of Graphic Classics takes short stories by an author (previous volumes boast the works of Poe, Wells, Doyle, and Lovecraft) and adapts them in black and white for the comics medium, using a variety of artists.
This time out, U.S. satirist Ambrose Bierce gets the treatment. Honestly, I'd only read the Devil's Dictionary (which isn't a short story, but rather a short, tongue-in-cheek dictionary) and "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" as far as Bierce's work goes, so this was also an opportunity to get more exposure to a man who was quite a bit more prolific than a mere two well-known works would suggest.
Considered one of the most under appreciated authors and journalists of our time, "Bitter" Bierce was quite famous in his day, but is now mostly known by a core following of academics and literary enthusiasts. A defining moment in his life was the Civil War. He enlisted and worked primarily as a topographical engineer. Nevertheless, he fought in many key battles, including Shiloh, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, and Kennesaw Mountain. His experiences in war are considered the source for the cynical realism that permeates his writing.
In 1867, Bierce landed in San Francisco where he would begin his career as a journalist. His days as a novelist began in the 1870s. He published his first novel, Nuggets and Dust, in 1872. Additional books would emerge through the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20th. As a man into his 70s, Bierce toured the battlefields of the Civil War in which he fought, wrote a final letter, and disappeared off the face of the Earth.
All but forgotten by book readers of today, Eureka Productions gives Ambrose Bierce his due in this collected volume of illustrated adaptations. While some of the stories might fall just shy of "classics", most of these works could hold their own against those of Twain. The format, for its part, serves these stories well, though some of the artists take more of a standard "text with illustrations" tack, which is a bit of a disappointment.
The weakest entry, artistically, is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", by John Coulthart. Now, this might just be personal preference, since I'm not really one for computer-generated comic book art. However, it just doesn't seem to translate well into black and white. It makes me think that I'm watching the Sims in the late 19th century.
Leslie Murray gets the difficult task of putting periodic illustrations in the selections from the Devil's Dictionary, which is perhaps the work that has best survived in the minds of the present. The illustrations in this segment reminded me of Herman cartoons, both in look and humour. Take that as you will.
Contributors Rick Geary ("An Imperfect Conflagration") and Gahan Wilson ("the Boarded Window") shine, and I really wish that Johnny Ryan ("A Dog's Bequest") had more than one page and the first segment, "The Disappearance of Ambrose Bierce", illustrated by Dan E. Burr, really takes me back to the Big Books.
The good of this book outweighs the not-as-good. I've been introduced to artists whose work I'd never seen, and read stories I'd never read. So, while not as good, in my mind, as the Big Book of Grimm and its family, it really does perform a good deed. It gives us a chance to learn about "Bitter" Bierce.
3.5 of 5
COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1554
Ambrose Bierce, a great American author, is the subject of the latest volume in Eureka Productions' Graphic Classics series. This series typically features a combination of comics adaptations and illustrated stories. Since Bierce's works were typically short, there is a higher percentage of pure comics stories than usual in this collection.
Many of "the usual suspects" contribute to this volume, including Gahan Wilson and Rick Geary, both of whose selections are right in their elements. Shary Flerniken and Johnny Ryan are just two more potentially familiar names from among the more than three dozen contributors.
Bierce is sort of a more pessimistic Twain. His dry; cynical humor is so perfectly suited to the comics page that it's surprising that more of his writing hasn't been adapted. The average reader may be less familiar with Bierce than with Poe, Doyle, and the other writers in the series. It's worth a look for fan or newcomer.
Pro: Perfect for comics.
THE AMBROSE BIERCE SITE
GRAPHIC BOOK OF BIERCE'S MOST SINISTER WORK A STANDOUT
Graphic Classics, a Wisconsin publisher, has issued Volume Six of a series of illustrated works by famous writers, this one by Ambrose Bierce: The Devil's Dictionary and More Tales of War, Satire, & the Supernatural. The artwork is sensational, some of it beautiful, and all of it clever. By such artists as Gahan Wilson. At 144 pages it's only $9.95 and worth every penny. Go to: graphicclassics.com.
In his introduction, S.T. Joshi points out that Ambrose Bierce, "was censured, even in his own lifetime, as a cynic or misanthrope."
Bierce's life is encapsulated in a two-page cartoon written by Mort Castle with the illustrations of Dan E. Burr. Taking sort of a *Mad Magazine* approach to the events, the strip depicts what undoubtedly contributed to much of Bierce's bitterness; his stint as a Union soldier for nearly the entire duration of The Civil War, in which he survived no less than a gunshot wound to the head.
The strip concludes with the fact that the satirist eventually set off on horseback for Mexico never to be heard from again, leading to such sensationalistic theories about his ultimate fate as alien abduction.
John Coulthart provides an amazing comic book adaptation of what may be Bierce's most famous subtly supernatural drama, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." Coulthart's photo-like illustrations seem to have been rendered on a computer. The artist does incredible things with lighting and shadow, angle, and perspective, to great dramatic, and very cinematic, effect.
An incomplete homage to another infamous Bierce creation is "The Devil's Dictionary". "Dance: To leap about to the sound of tittering music, preferably with your arms about your neighbor's wife or daughter." And, of course, "Distance: The only thing that the rich are willing for the poor to call theirs, and keep." There are many, peppered with original cartoons in the same spirit by Leslie Murray. They are, if certainly cynical, as habit-forming as peanuts.
The complex familial lunacy of Bierce's "An Imperfect Conflagration," is nicely adapted into comic book form, and illustrated, by Rick Geary. "Conflagration" begins with the line "Early one June morning in 1872, I murdered my father--an act which made a deep impression on me at the time."
"The Stranger" is a ghost tale told by a mysterious wanderer who approaches a high plains campfire in the dead of night in the old west, nicely dramatized through the pen and ink drawings of Mark A. Nelson. There's also an ironic yarn about body thieves in a graveyard, "One Summer Night," very stylishly depicted, underground comic-style, by Francesca Ghermandi, while a one-page bit, "The Conservative Employer," takes a crack at power moguls, an old story of haves and have-nots, its timeless core demonstrated by the fact that illustrator, Mike Konopacki, has drawn it in a contemporary setting, (Including one character who looks remarkably like George W. Bush.), without missing a beat.
I don't care for cynics, generally, but getting back to S.T. Joshi's informative introduction, we learn that H.L. Mencken posthumously categorized Bierce as "one of the most idealistic men that his generation produced in America." Add this to what is borne out in his work, and it becomes clear that if he was disgusted with Homo Sapiens, it was disgust born of the realization of what human beings could, and should be, as opposed to what they so often allow themselves to stoop to. (Ya bastids!)
COMICS WORTH READING
Graphic Classics: Ambrose Bierce is, like the other books in this series, a collection of short pieces and stories that nicely fills the Classics Illustrated niche of educating readers at a reasonable price, in this case $9.95.
I know little about Ambrose Bierce, mostly that he wrote the sarcastic Devil's Dictionary. The first piece, a wordless one-page strip about "Compromise with a Camel" with art by Mark Dancey, was a great start, putting me in the mood for dark twist endings and professional art.
Unfortunately, the rest of the book doesn't live up to its quality. Too often the comics are simply decorations, illustrations for stories that already stand on their own merits.
A short but informative text introduction gave me crucial information about Bierce's talent, style, and time. I admire his love for short literary forms; I've found myself that short, punchy work is harder to do well. The more words you have, the more you can cover yourself. Saying just the right thing briefly takes more skill.
Apparently, one of Bierce's best-known pieces is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge". Here, it's illustrated by John Coulthart with stiff, computer-generated figures that take the whole thing too literally. Selections from the Devil's Dictionary are amusing, with or without the lightly related spot illustrations that look to have escaped from a Shoebox greeting card.
Rick Geary's illustration of "An Imperfect Conflagration" is a pleasure to read, as expected. The story of a falling-out between family burglars suits his style and usual subject matter.
The selection of one-page fables that make up a third of the book are illustrated in underground-influenced styles. They're quite funny, but that's due to the underlying content, not the cartooning (except in the case of Johnny Ryan's dissipated Peanuts).
Most of these tales are ghost or horror stories with the reserve of an earlier age. I'm more interested in Ambrose Bierce's work after reading this, which is a nice plus.
So what else have you all missed out on due to my negligence and overseas travel? Well, there's Graphic Classics, volume 6, Ambrose Bierce, by Eureka Productions (www.graphicclassics.com). This is a semi-obscure writer of the 19th Century, an extremely controversial satirist. He begat H.L. Mencken who took on the bible freaks of his time, who begat Gore Vidal, a major 20th Century science-fiction writer and satirist. Everything works in continuity. This instructive line of books is discharged by such great illustrators as Rick Geary, Mark Nelson, and Stanley Shaw. It also showcases art by British illustrator John Coulthart, who got his first U.S. exposure here as a title bar for this column (June 97, Issue 36). But then Lollipop prides itself on breaking new artists that're going to make a difference in three to six years. Stay with us, folks...
Graphic Classics has a Jack London item out, #5, with terrific art by Geary, Peter Kuper, and Hunt Emerson, another Brit whose art has shown up as the title bar of this column.
THE SMALL PRESS BOOK REVIEW