Graphic Classics: Mark Twain Review
This is the second of the “Graphic Classics” series I’ve reviewed for ComicMix, and Mark Twain has essentially the same strengths and weaknesses as Bram Stoker. It’s exceptionally wordy and takes a while to read, since it incorporates big swaths of the original Twain stories as narration or extensive dialogue. I’m not sure if there’s a good way to avoid this in an adaptation into comics form; anyone who spends that much time working on a particular story will be doing so, presumably, because he really likes that story, and so he’ll want to get as much of the text in as possible. But comics with lots of words per page read slowly and can come across as just heavily-illustrated fiction, so it’s a tough line to walk.
All of the pieces in Graphic Classics: Mark Twain are wordy, and not all of them are equally successful, but the general result is entertaining and not just educational – it’s not just a book to give to your young nephew who doesn’t like reading “real” books, but something to read and enjoy yourself. It’s edited, like the whole series, by Tom Pomplun, and, like the Stoker book I saw a few months ago, is a second edition of a book published earlier. The cover is by George Sellas, illustrating a scene from the leadoff story, an adaptation of Twain’s Tom Sawyer Abroad.
Yes, Tom Sawyer Abroad. It’s instructive to remember that our age isn’t the first one in which creators cranked out ever-less-exciting sequels to well-loved stories – we may have Live Free or Die Hard and Final Crisis, but the 19th century had not only Tom Sawyer Abroad but its even more anemic sequel, Tom Sawyer, Detective. Abroad is far below the level of Huckleberry Finn, or even the original Tom Sawyer, but it’s a decent 19th century boys’ story, if you ignore its pedigree. Editor Pomplun adapts it here into a typically wordy Graphic Classics script, and Sellas illustrates it with a cartoony style with very precise lines that look computer-drawn. The story is silly, and it’s odd that Graphic Classics chose such a minor Twain work to anchor their book, but it’s fine for what it is.
Kevin Atkinson adapts and illustrates the famous tall tale “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County in an expressive but slightly stiff style. The short story adaptation takes up twelve pages in this book, which gives it a nice balance – though it’s still very heavily narrated.
Next is a weird piece by Lance Tooks (whom I think I’ve seen before, but I can’t figure out where), adapting “A Dog’s Tale.” First of all, it’s laid out like an illustrated story, with several big blocks of text (in a pseudo-hand-lettered font) on each page, and two or three borderless illustrations. Those illustrations are of what seems to be an African-American family (father, mother, daughter) pantomiming the story, using masks, puppets, and exaggerated gestures. It’s a unique mixture of forms, but I didn’t think it worked.
And then a series of female artists each provide a single, full-page illustration for one of Twain’s pieces of “Advice for Little Girls.” Some of this is very good, but none of it is comics.
Antonella Caputo scripts and Nicholas Miller draws (in an engaging, energetic style very reminiscent of Hunt Emerson) the best piece in the book – an adaptation of “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut.” Miler also gets major props for depicting Twain as the middle-aged man he was when he wrote this story, and not the usual white-haired figure. (Unlike the cover of the first edition, by Sellas.) In this story, Twain meets his conscience, and gets the better of him.
William L. Brown illustrates “A Curious Pleasure Excursion” using the look of woodcuts to get across Twain’s satire of steamship tours by way of a prospectus for a cometary journey through the solar system.
Simon Gane does well with “Is He Living or Is He Dead?”, integrated the now-familiar big slabs of text into his layouts. Gane’s blocky, large faces and squared-but-unevenly-drawn borders add to the discursive, off-the-cuff feel of Twain’s story about the reasons only dead artists are famous.
And the book ends with a long version of “The Mysterious Stranger” by Rick Geary. In medieval Germany, an angel named Satan (not that one; that was his uncle) meets a few boys and proceeds to upend their conceptions of morality and life. “Stranger” was Twain’s last major work, and is the best look at his depressive, despairing late philosophy. Geary does a great job with it; he’s one of the best cartoonists alive at bringing verve and life to a story about people talking to each other, which this is.
Comparing this to the first edition (which I dug out of my shelves), I find that only “Tom Sawyer Abroad” is new in this edition, and that it replaced eight separate pieces from the first edition. Most of those were illustrated text, which does make the second edition more comics…but the first edition had more pure Twain (and more good Twain), so I’m not completely convinced that was an improvement. And any revision that drops Twain’s 70th birthday oration and retains “A Dog’s Tale” isn’t one I can really recommend. Still, there’s plenty of good work in the second edition, and Geary’s “Stranger” and the Caputo/Miller “Carnival of Crime” are well worth seeking out (though I’ll also repeat that both of those were also in the first edition)
Graphic Classics: Mark Twain (Graphic Classics Volume Eight, Second Edition)
Edited by Tom Pomplun
Eureka Productions, 2007, $11.95
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like their books to be reviewed at ComicMix should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.