Monday, September 5, 2011

Graphic Classics: Poe and Christmas

Let's take a look at some recent volumes from the Graphic Classics line.

Edgar Allan Poe is the fourth, expanded edition of the very first volume from Graphic Classics. The results are a mixed bag, due in part to the difficulty in translating the atmosphere of dread and madness essential to Poe's work into comics form. One example is Rick Geary's adaptation of "The Tell-Tale Heart", one of Poe's most intense, gripping stories. While Geary's rendering is spot-on and suitably creepy, the short adaptation lacks the same impact of the short story, in part because this abbreviated version doesn't have the same tense, crazy momentum of the short story. The story puts the reader in the grip of the narrator's madness, whereas the reader is merely an observer in the comic. On the other hand, the straightforward rendering by David Hontiveros & Carlo Vergara of "The Pit and the Pendulum" makes the story clearer, in part because it's less about the mental status of its protagonist than it is about a particular environment. There story fairly cries out for a visual component.

Art by Matt Howarth

The other problem with this volume is that a number of Poe's stories have a certain sameness to them, differentiated only by length and tone. A number of his characters wind up in the grip of madness, frequently precipitated by bouts of alcoholism ("William Wilson", "The Black Cat"). Two stories feature people being bricked behind a wall, be it alive or dead ("The Black Cat", "A Cask of Amontillado"). "The Tell-Tale Heart" famously features the titular body part driving the narrator mad after he commits murder. Two stories concern premature burial, with "The Fall of the House of Usher" the more elaborate of the two. That story was adapted by Matt Howarth (of Those Annoying Post Bros fame) and he brought his trademark manic energy to it, with lots of hatching and cross-hatching in play to emphasize the dread the title house invokes. The other such story, "The Premature Burial", had pleasingly neurotic-looking art by Joe Ollmann, best known now for his Drawn & Quarterly work. Milton Knight's "Never Bet the Devil Your Head" was actually one of the more successful adaptations in the book, partly because it didn't try to match Poe's tone of dread and instead went to a more broadly humorous interpretation of a boastful bet gone horribly wrong.

If the book of Poe adaptations was uneven, the Christmas Classics book was remarkable in its consistency. What's impressive is that this volume provided a wider range of tones and storytelling styles than the Poe book did, even if the subject would seem to be far more restrictive. Pomplun was aided by once again publishing a full-color volume, which has helped the most recent volumes in the Graphic Classics series really pop. He also did a nice job cherry-picking a couple of traditional Christmas pieces (like A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and A Visit From St. Nicholas by Clement Moore) with more obscure pieces by famous authors like Willa Cather, O. Henry, F.Scott Fitzgerald and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He also gave the artists some room to let their stories breathe, with page counts ranging from 8 to 46.

The Dickens adaptation, by Alex Burrows and Micah Farritor, was a fairly straightforward,
painted version of the familiar story. The story retained more of the flavor of the original Dickens story than most adaptations tend to. The Rich Rainey/Hunt Emerson adaptation of Doyle's "The Blue Carbuncle" was an absolute delight, thanks to the great Emerson's cartoony, angular features. Sherlock Holmes stories do quite well as comics, thanks to their emphasis on plot and action, but Emerson added a level of visual wit that made this especially memorable. The O.Henry story's eventual plot twist was more restrained than usual for his stories, and Cynthia Martin's naturalistic style was well-suited for it. Willa Cather's crazy story about the White Bear who protects Santa's reindeer and the vicious Werewolf Dog who menaced them was heightened by the occasionally lurid colors of Evert Geradts, striking an interesting balance between comics and storybook graphics.

Art by Cynthia Martin

Fitzgerald's "A Luckless Santa Claus" was written when he was just sixteen years old and displays a wit and sophistication that was far beyond his years. Simon Gane was up to the task of drawing a snowy New York City near the turn of the 20th century, and the result is a treat for fans of Fitzgerald who may not be familiar with this story. Finally, Pomplun unearthed a fascinating story by an obscure 19th century author named Fitz-James O'Brien that was a sort of proto-fantasy/conspiracy story about a group of villains plotting to kill all the Christian children in a city with toys animated by evil spirits. O'Brien lacked the sophistication and subtlety of great authors like Cather or Fitzgerald, but his pulp storytelling instincts were quite sharp and added a wicked edge to a collection of stories about Christmas. Pomplun is really on a roll with his most recent volumes and is getting the most out of adapting these stories as true comics, rather than just illustrated text.

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