This article was originally published at sequart.com in 2007.
I've reviewed a number of books in the Graphic Classics line, and while the ambition shown in each has been impressive, adapting classic fiction hasn't always been successful. One problem has been that some of the stories that may have been innovative when published seem predictable and cliched to modern readers. Choosing the right illustrator for the right story is an endeavor in itself. Another difficulty is that not all of these stories seem like great fits to be adapted into comics form (a problem in the Lovecraft collection, for example). On the other hand, when editor and publisher Tom Pomplun finds the right formula, he really produces a winner, like in the recent reprint of the Mark Twain volume anchored by Rick Geary. The latest volume, Fantasy Classics, is perhaps the strongest volume to date that I've read from this series.
The key to its success is that its two anchor stories are classics in very different ways and both are translated quite successfully into the language of comics. The first such anchor is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a story that is obviously familiar to anyone. That said, the original novel, revolutionary as it was, isn't all that widely read anymore. In the original narrative, Dr Frankenstein is frightened of the abomination that he created, but his monster is intelligent. As a result of his self-awareness, the monster is tortured by his appearance and driven to madness and murder. Confronting his creator, he demands a mate--but Dr Frankenstein reneges on his word, leading to more murder, mayhem and a showdown in the Arctic Circle. Skot Olsen was an interesting choice to illustrate this story, with his distorted and cartoony style. While he uses a washed-out approach appropriate for the gloomy nature of the story, his looser, more distorted figurework prevents the story from becoming too melodramatically oppressive in tone.
The other anchor, and one whose success lies mostly in the hands of artist Leong Wan Kok, is The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, by HP Lovecraft. This story was so successful because it didn't bother trying to set up the normal day-to-day life of protagonist Randolph Carter, then lead up to his own eventual madness/destruction (or both) like in so many Lovecraft stories. In this tale, Lovecraft (and adapter Ben Avery) gets straight to the weird and then keeps upping the ante. Carter has seen a magnificent city in his dreams called Kadath but discovers he can no longer access it--and learns that the various forces of the elder gods are trying to prevent him from finding it again. So he goes on a quest in his dreams to find the city, which finds him dealing with fierce fighting cats, ghouls, tiny creatures called Zoogs, being shanghaied to the moon by the forces of the Crawling Chaos Nyarlathotep, giant carnivorous worms called Dholes and a final showdown with the emissaries of the elder gods. Kok's fluid, vibrant and slightly rubbery art is a perfect match for the weirdness within this story, keeping up with Lovecraft's vivid imagination while maintaining clarity for the reader.
The other stories, "The Glass Dog" by L. Frank Baum and "Rappaccini's Daughter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, are also quite clever. Lance Tooks handled the adaptation on the former, integrating large fields of text with his illustrations that occasionally slipped into comics form. That approach took a while to get used to, especially the overly ornate cursive script he used for dialogue. It was distracting to try and make out at times and got in the way of the story. Lettering is a tricky business, and it's one of those things that ideally should enhance what we read but never distract. Ideally, the reader should rarely consciously make note of lettering, so the way it jumped out here was a bit disconcerting. That said, once one got used to this approach, Tooks' visuals were quite beautiful and fit nicely with the story, about a scientist who raises his daughter to exude poison and the man who falls in love with her. "The Glass Dog" is a fun trifle about a wizard, a glass-blower and the awful woman the latter falls in love with. It all ends horribly, as Baum himself notes that he'd like to consult the wizard as to the moral of the story. One other note--it was nice to see Rachel Masilamani illustrate a poem here. I haven't seen much of her work since her self-published RPM COMICS. All told, I'm impressed that Pomplun is able to get such an unusual assortment of artists and writers to adapt these stories, and find ways to make them work well as comics.