This review was originally published at sequart.com in 2007.
In my review of several entries from the Graphic Classics line of adaptations, I noted that some of the stories chosen seemed ill-suited for comics, and wondered what the Mark Twain collection might look like. Series editor Tom Pomplun was kind enough to send over a galley of their upcoming revised edition of Twain, and the results were impressive.
The reason why I think it worked so well was Twain's economy of style in his prose, the liveliness of the scenarios he concocted translated nicely to the language of comics, and the artists selected were astutely matched with the particular stories. Many of the stories contain some of Twain's most cynical, acidic works of satire. Even the adaptation of the little-read "Tom Sawyer Abroad", written from Huck Finn's simple-but-secretly-sophisticated point of view, contains a number of digs at religion, science, and imperialism. George Sellas' cartoony style is a nice match for what is also a rip-roaring adventure story, where Tom, Huck and Jim wind up on a mechanized hot-air balloon that sails over the Atlantic and winds up in Africa. Like any good comics story depicting action, there's a propulsive quality in both prose and art that leaves the reader breathless as they flip from page to page. The way that no-nonsense Huck acts as the foil for the slightly pompous Tom is what informs Twain's commentary and makes it crackle. The manner in which Twain is able to use Huck to get his points across while leaving him as one of the most vivid characters of all time speaks to his skill as a writer.
Twain certainly wasn't afraid to go over the top in scoring satiric points. "The Facts Concerning The Recent Carnival Of Crime In Connecticut", adapted by Antonella Caputo & Nicholas Miller, features an exaggerated rubbery art style to match the ridiculousness of the scenario. It's about a man who happens to encounter his own conscience, in the form of a dwarf. His conscience literally tortures him, until he understands that the less he allows his conscience to affect his actions and feelings, the weaker it gets. He then throttles his conscience to death--and sets about committing crime after crime! This story humorously gets across the notion of what conscience is, why we act the way we do, and is more than a little ambiguous on which side Twain falls.
By far the darkest and best story in the collection is "The Mysterious Stranger", which is one of the nastiest, most cynical stories I've ever read. It's a story of a medieval village, and a stranger who appears to three boys. His name is Satan--an angel who is the nephew of Hell's Satan. An angel does not possess "the moral sense", that which enables us to tell good from evil. As the angel proceeds to demonstrate time after time throughout the story, "good" and "evil" often depends on who's judging it, who's meting out punishment for committing evil acts and one's own attempts at justifying one's comfort. In particular, Twain has sharp words for those who declare morality to be what separates us from the animals, since men commit acts of cruelty that animals never would.
The boys ask Satan to improve people's lives, but that often winds up as him killing them so as to avoid more years of suffering on earth. Toward the end, Twain attacks the twin notions of Christianity and civilization as unequivocally good things: "We saw Christianity and Civilization march hand in hand through the ages, leaving famine and death and desolation in their wake...Who gets a profit out of it? Nobody but a parcel of usurping little monarchs who despise you--but whom you continue to fight and die for." Toward the end of the story, the boys asked Satan to make a friend of theirs, accused of thievery, happy. He responds by driving him insane. When confronted, Satan replies, "It was the truth. I said he would be happy, and he is now the one utterly happy person in this empire. No sane man can be happy. It seems to me that you are too hard to please." Twain then really unloads on religion at the very end, rejecting "a god who mouths mercy and invented hell", reducing the story and its surroundings to a dream.
Twain manages to do this while crafting an entertaining story full of twists and turns, made wickedly delightful thanks to the hand of Rick Geary, an artist who specializes in this sort of period piece. The light line and exaggerated character design are exactly what this darkly humorous story required. Even Twain's lighter-hearted stories contained a darker, cynical undercurrent as he took on hypocrisy and self-delusion. It only makes sense that a graphic adaptation of his work should also have a comic face that masks a darker heart. Every American satirist owes a debt to Twain, in terms of his boldness, clarity, wit, storytelling ability and the manner in which he managed to encapsulate both folk and sophisticated elements in his writing. Pomplun does a fine job here of finding ways to best fit his work into comics language. Given comics' long history of presenting illustrated satire, the fit only seems natural, but Pomplun clearly took pains in searching for the right artist to go with the right story. A volume solely devoted to great works of satire would probably be an enormous success in this series; I'd love to see an artist tackle Swift's "A Modest Proposal", Voltaire's Candide, Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, various works by Aristophanes along with more modern satirists.