When the press release came out about the first Graphic Classics collection, I remember its stressing that these books were not an updated version of Classics Illustrated. I also remember being skeptical. You mean to tell me that you’re adapting the work of literary giants into comic format, but it’s not like Classics Illustrated? How do you do that exactly? There can only be so many ways to adapt this material, right?
The old Classics Illustrated comics had a house style that all their titles were illustrated in. It was functional and realistic and boring. Graphic Classics has chosen unique and talented illustrators who have something they want to say about the pieces they’re adapting. The difference is profound. Take any particular volume and you won’t find a straight retelling of, say, Arthur Conan Doyle or Edgar Allan Poe stories (although precious little if any of the writers’ words have been altered); through their visuals the Graphic Classics artists interpret the author’s work.
Lance Tooks’ contemporary version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Bottle Imp” is a good example. I love reading how the hero “drew rein” while I’m looking at the picture of him in his convertible, or reading about his being “in the ship’s forecastle” with the accompanying illustration of his riding in a commercial airliner. Hunt Emerson’s Mad Magazine-esque adaptation of Stevenson’s “The Sinking Ship” is another case, in which a captain calmly and ridiculously tries to reassure his mate that there are more important things to consider than the fact that their boat is going down. Take any number of the deliciously illustrated stories in any of the collections – not a one of them dull; all of them putting the illustrator’s unique spin on a classic author’s stories and poems.
The creators of Graphic Classics have even found ways to improve on the original works in some instances. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for example. I’ve always grown bored with Jekyll’s letter in Stevenson’s story and this was no exception, but illustrator Michael Slack is one of my favorites, and his illustrations are anything but uninteresting. They look like something you’d find in a very macabre children’s book and I found myself looking at them and skipping the text that accompanied.
Sticking with the Stevenson volume for a minute, there’s an entire section devoted to his fables and poetry that shows a sense of irony and humor I didn’t realize he had. This irony and humor is amplified by the illustrators, but it’s there even in the text by itself. Consider the short poem “The Angler:” The angler rose, he took his rod. He kneeled and made his prayers to God. The living God sat overhead. The angler tripped, the eels were fed. Pieces like this (or the inclusion of Jack London and Uncle Wiggly creator Howard Garis stories in the Horror Classics volume) make Graphic Classics as educational as they are entertaining.
They include popular works too to be sure. Like Dr. Jekyll or Captain Blood (in the Adventure Classics volume as well as the Sabatini one) or “The Raven” in the Poe volume or a couple of Sherlock Holmes stories in the Arthur Conan Doyle one. But in each volume there’s just enough of the familiar to draw you in and make you at home. That way, when Editor Tom Pomplun hits you with Western author Bret Harte’s melodramatic “Selina Sedilia” (with hilarious, over-the-top illustrations by Nick Miller) or one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s silly “Brigadier” stories, you’re comfortable giving them a try as well.