Friday, February 27, 2009

Only My Genius: Graphics Classics/Oscar Wilde

Rob reviews the sixteenth volume from the Graphic Classics series edited by Tom Pomplun, featuring adaptations of short stories by Oscar Wilde (Eureka Productions).

Tom Pomplun's task of adapting classic and/or pulp literature into comics form has had its share of successes and misfires throughout the course of his publishing GRAPHIC CLASSICS. Most of the volumes have skewed toward classic genre stories, be it horror, adventure or science-fiction. The atmospheric or kinetic nature of those stories naturally lend themselves to a visual adaptation, even if the stories themselves are more than a little uneven. A number of the stories he edits are densely wordy, making the issue of adapting them a difficult endeavor. Some authors, like HP Lovecraft, are almost impossible to translate into comics form because the sheer denseness of Lovecraft's atmospheric horror writing is pretty much the entire appeal of the work. Something gets lost in the translation when it was brought into comics form.

On the other hand, the Mark Twain volume worked precisely because the economy of Twain's writing and his wit lent themselves to a crackling visual presentation. This was even more true of the latest volume, featuring adaptations of Oscar Wilde's short stories. This was by far the most successful of Pomplun's volumes for any number of reasons. First, this volume only had four stories, and each was allowed to be fully fleshed out and breathe. Second, the match between artist and subject matter of each story was ideal. Third, Wilde's work has a modern sensibility to it and a lightness to its prose style. Wilde keeps things moving, and while he can turn a phrase, he's not so in love with the sound of his own "voice" that his stories bog down. The way he paced and created transitions from scene to scene made it ideal for translating it into comics form. Lastly, his satiric voice is devastating even today. There's a viciousness to his satire that's hilarious and even unnerving at times, and the way he combines his skewering of social mores with legitimately exciting plot twists makes this comic satisfying on every level.

Lisa K. Weber illustrated and Alex Burrows adapted "The Picture of Dorian Gray", a story whose basic twist (a painting growing older while its subject stayed eternally young) is known to most. What's interesting about reading the actual story is that it's a vicious satire of upperclass life and the narcissism it engenders. Its subject, given the opportunity to lead the most dissipated of lifestyles with no ill effects to himself, becomes vain and self-centered to the point of solipsism. That detachment from human relationships, that total loss of empathy, made it easy for him to become a murderer, because other people had no more importance than objects. The famous quote "What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?" is the lynchpin of this story, leading Gray to reconnect with his conscience, a little too late.

"The Canterville Ghost" is both a parody of overstuffed Gothic horror stories and a scathing parody of the foibles of nouveau riche Americans and stuff British nobility. The concept of an ancient ghost not only being unable to scare the Americans who had bought a castle, but of being frightened of them was a hilarious one. The story then takes a slightly more serious and even sentimental turn toward the end, with tongue still firmly in cheek all the while. The team of Antonello Caputo and Nick Miller gave the story a light touch. Miller's line is a thin one, bolstered by characters with their eyes bugging out, exaggerated expressions and manic action. About my only complaint is that this story wasn't hand-lettered; the computer font was a bit distracting and took one's eye out of the panel at times.

"Lord Arthur Saville's Crime" is another story ragging on the aristocracy, this time in the form of free will vs fate. Saville learns from a palm reader that he's supposed to kill someone. He becomes obsessed with the idea that he might become a murderer at any time and sets out to kill someone as innocuously as possible so as to avoid a nastier murder later. Of course, those murders go comically wrong and Saville is first forced to think of another solution--and then that solution is thwarted at the very end. Stan Shaw's art is rougher and blockier than the other artists, giving the whole story a raw quality that works to its advantage.

The best story and adaptation was "Salome", adapted by Pomplun and drawn by erotic comics artist Molly Kiely. Kiely's mastery of body language and depiction of seduction made her an inspired choice for this retelling of the wicked Salome desiring the head of a prophet she lusted after on a plate. It's an interesting companion piece to "Dorian Gray" in the way it examines lust, narcissism and obsessiveness and the way each grows out of control when presented with no constraints. Like "Dorian Gray", Wilde delves into some dark areas here, with the implied necrophilia at the end a signal that Salome had gone too far. Both stories also have a strongly implied homoerotic element that shocked readers at that time. In this book, that simply serves to flesh out the characters a bit more and offer an alternative to the narcissism of the leads. In "Salome", the love that one guard has for another plays out first as jealousy but then as real concern for his friend becoming obsessed with as wicked a character as Salome. And that concern came with good reason, as his friend wound up killing himself when it was clear that Salome had no interest in him and couldn't care less when he died.

If Wilde was writing today, I'm convinced that comics may very well have wound up being his medium of choice. The crispness and wit of his stories, combined with a certain visual flair and clever plotting, would have served him perfectly in working with any number of cartoonists. He was truly a man ahead of his time.

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