Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Halloween Classics and Native American Classics

Halloween Classics, edited by Tom Pomplun. This volume was comfortably within series editor Tom Pomplun's wheelhouse, given the sort of things he's published in the past. As I've said before, there's no question that the series took a big leap forward in quality when Pomplun made the plunge into doing full-color books, because many of the illustrators and cartoonists he hires are obviously far more comfortable working this way. This volume was really as much a tribute to EC horror comics as it was to Halloween in general, with the cheesy interstitial pieces written by Mort Castle in the vein of the Crypt Keeper. I'm not sure these added much to the proceedings, because none of the jokes really landed and it felt like Castle was trying a little too hard. On the other hand, all of the actual pieces that were adapted were solid to excellent.

Ben Avery and Shepherd Hendrix's version of Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was appropriately grim and cruel to its poor protagonist, the proud but flawed Ichabod Crane. At its heart a love triangle where the more noble leg of the structure is crushed, the ending has an appropriate twist given the events at the climax of the story. I always tend to picture Crane as slightly more cartoony than what see hear, but it's a decent adaptation all the same. "A Curious Dream", a Mark Twain story adapted by Antonella Caputo and artist Nick Miller, is another acidic bit of satire wherein Twain admonishes cities who let cemeteries go to seed in the form of a parade of the dead packing up their belongings and leaving. Miller's rubbery art is perfectly suited for this kind of humor.

Pomplun and Gane adapt an Arthur Conan Doyle short story called "Lot No. 249", one written during the height of the mania regarding Egypt in the late 19th century. Like many early mystery/horror stories, the revelation here is not exactly surprising to a modern viewer, which hurts its payoff section. The good news is that Doyle's craft is impeccable and his talent for creating memorable characters makes this an enjoyable read. Rod Lott and Craig Wilson's adaptation of HP Lovecraft's "Cool Air" is extremely clever and appropriately moody and atmospheric. It really gets at the creepiest aspects of Lovecraft without totally devolving into mentions of Cthulu.  The real winner in this volume is Pomplun & Matt Howarth's adaptation of the script for the film "The Cabinet of Dr Caligari", a German expressionist classic. Unlike most of the rest of this volume, which seemed pretty easy to assemble, this was a really out of the box adaptation, especially when one considers that the original was silent. It manages to be at once visceral and cartoony, creating an atmosphere of dread and absurdity befitting the source material. The ending, when madness seems to utterly warp the world of the protagonist, is cleverly pulled off by Howarth. Overall, this is a volume that doesn't stick out from many others in the series, other than my assertion that it's more confidently executed from beginning to end.

Native American Classics, edited by Tom Pomplun, Joseph Bruchac, and John E. Smelcer. On the other hand, I admire the fact that Pomplun has the guts to step away from genre fiction and take a risk, like he did with African-American Classics and the Louisa May Alcott volume. Working with Bruchac & Smelcer, both Native American poets and writers, this volume has an impressively confrontational and bold tone. There's a sense of barely contained anger and righteous bitterness that pervades the book, yet this feeling is balanced by pride and beauty. The Benjamin Truman written and Tim Truman/Jim McMunn and Mark Nelson adaptation of Zitkala-Sa's "The Soft-Hearted Sioux" sets the tone for the rest of the book, as many of the stories are about the ways in which the white man not only took their land, but tried to seduce them over to Christianity. This story shows a Sioux man's conversion as nothing less than a disaster, one that he was cursed for and eventually executed for by the very white men to whom he now owed allegiance. The multiple hands employed here made things a bit uneven, which was made unavoidable when Tim Truman fell ill and was unable to complete the story alone. A more tragic ending came to the artist Robby McMurtry, who was killed just before the book went to press. His loose, sensitive line, expressive use of color and marvelously tremulous lettering hand give the story "On Wolf Mountain" (written by Charles Alexander Eastman and adapted by Bruchac) an enormous amount of visceral power, which was crucial given this wolf vs white man fable.

Nomenclature is another important part of this book. ""The Cattle Thief" is about a native hunted by white men for his thefts, but things are turned on their head when they are reminded who stole what from whom, and when. Weshoyot Alvitre's art is dark and expressive, though the digital lettering undercuts its overall visual effect. I wish more artists used McMurtry's example as far as lettering went. For the most part, this volume is pretty sparse on stories that deal with Native American legends and mythology. "The Hunter and Medicine Legend" is an exception, as Andrea Grant & Toby Cypress adapt an Elias Johnson tale. The slightly cartoony, animation-influenced style of Cypress works well here as a group of grateful animals found a way to raise a friendly dead chief from the dead. "How The White Rage Came To America", adapted by Pomplun and Roy Boney Jr from teachings by Handsome Lake by way of Arthur C Parker, tells of how Columbus pretty literally brought the Devil to America, only even the Devil was taken aback to see how much damage he had done to the natives. It's an effective and nasty story with moments of humor and bitter truth. The Pomplun/Tara Audibert adaptation of Bertrand N.O. Walker's "A Prehistoric Race" is a very different take on the classic tortoise vs hare story with a funny twist ending.

There are lighthearted moments in the volume (like the Buffalo Wild Woman story about Coyote eating a wild potato and getting near-fatal flatulence) and some adventure stories (George Copway's "The Thunder's Nest"), but the real showstopper down the stretch is the William Jones story "Anoska Nimiwina" (adapted by Bruchac and Afua Richardson), which is more illustrated prose than a comic, but quite dynamic nonetheless. It's the epic tale of how one woman was able to bring peace between warring tribes thanks to her voice and music. The other must-read was Royal Roger Eubanks story "The Middle-Man" written by Jon Proudstar and drawn by alt-comics legend Terry Laban. It spells out in painfully exacting detail the ways in which unscrupulous businessmen used natives looking for a quick buck to provide translations services that helped the businessmen to legally take away their lucrative land during the height of the oil boom. It gets at the heart of Native oppression: lies, assurances, contracts that mean nothing and their own kind often unwittingly selling them out. Combine this with many impressive, impassioned poems in this volume and you have the sort of collection I've never seen before in comics form, one that I hope is ready by many students.

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