Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #12, Winter 2004-2005]

Graphic Classics: O Henry
Edited by Tom Pomplun
Eureka Productions, 2005

Reviewed by Bob Wake

If it weren't for the prestigious short story award named for him, chances are that the writer O. Henry (a.k.a. William Sydney Porter, 1862-1910) would have less recognition than he enjoys today. Serious literary critics have rarely paid him much heed. Edmund Wilson's 1924 dismissal of O. Henry as a "clever journalist" probably still reflects a consensus of sorts. You won't find the writer mentioned anywhere in Harold Bloom's The Western Canon, for example, although you'll find Saki and Maupaussant, both of whom O. Henry has met favorable comparison with over the years. Is it a peculiarly American form of highbrow snobbery that stigmatizes journalists turned fiction writers? Damon Runyon, John O'Hara, and more recently Tom Wolfe, have all unfairly suffered in one form or another the condescending label of "clever journalist." Like O. Henry, they are unapologetically mainstream authors whose work has emphasized traditional storytelling elements such as plot and character over, say, structural complexity and philosophical musing. Their writing often expresses a canny awareness of gender and class conflict through social satire and irony. Popular culture is the real beneficiary here. Runyon's work was the basis for Guys and Dolls. O'Hara's steamy bestsellers brought notable film roles for Elizabeth Taylor (Butterfield 8) and Paul Newman (From the Terrace). Wolfe's work has given us one very good movie (The Right Stuff) and one very bad movie (The Bonfire of the Vanities). As for O. Henry, those of us who grew up with television in the 1950s and 60s owe him a nostalgic debt of gratitude for having created the Cisco Kid. But anyone wanting incontrovertible proof of O. Henry's enduring pop culture credibility need look no further than Graphic Classics: O. Henry, the latest volume in editor Tom Pomplun's comics anthologies of literary adaptations.

Because his corpus is comprised entirely of brief punchy tales, O. Henry is uniquely suited to Pomplun's format, which in the current instance lets loose some seventeen diverse illustrators and comic book artists, all of whom appear to be having a rollicking good time interpreting the well-chosen material at hand. Worth special mention are Mark A. Nelson's dynamic illustrations for "The Caballero's Way," a Western melodrama featuring the wily and surprisingly cold-blooded Cisco Kid. The story is visualized with explosive Peckinpah-like violence and a gritty realism that takes the narrative to another level altogether.

From "The Caballero's Way," illustrated by Mark A. Nelson

O. Henry's funniest and most famous tale, "The Ransom of Red Chief," is nearly the equal of Mark Twain in its sardonic depiction of a bratty ten-year-old boy terrorizing a pair of hapless kidnappers ("the kid had the knife we used for slicing bacon, and he was attempting to take Bill's scalp"). The story receives a gloriously cheeky rendering from artist Johnny Ryan. For a slightly more disquieting and even demonic view of the story's central character, check out the cover illustration by Esao Andrews.

From "The Ransom of Red Chief," illustrated by Johnny Ryan

The collaborative match-up of highly personalized pictorial styles with each story gives Graphic Classics their charm and variety. It's a successful formula that Pomplun seems to wield with increasing confidence in each successive volume. So thoroughly has he immersed himself in O. Henry's world that Pomplun has taken the daring and ambitious step of penning (with horror writer Mort Castle) a sequel to one of the author's better-known New York tales, "A Madison Square Arabian Night." Titled "The Eye of the Beholder," it imagines an elaborate surprise-laden backstory for secondary characters whose roles were left intriguingly vague in O. Henry's earlier piece. Pomplun and Castle, together with artist Stanley W. Shaw, invent a very clever and credible pastiche cum homage replete with high society con men and a femme fatale.

From "The Eye of the Beholder," illustrated by Stanley W. Shaw

The collection of course includes an adaptation of "The Gift of the Magi," the sentimental Christmas tale about a hard-luck married couple who individually hock something of great personal value in order to buy presents for each other. The wife sells her long radiant hair, and the husband sells his gold watch. And then ... well, suffice it to say they end up buying supremely ironic gifts for one another under the circumstances. The real surprise here isn't the familiar denouement, but rather Lisa K. Weber's beautifully stylized illustrations, which cast the soft glow of a Grimm's fairy tale and truly bring something fresh and magical to the material. Another standout is "The Marionettes," adapted by Antonella Caputo and crisply illustrated by the always brilliant Rick Geary. It's a fast-paced crime story about a well-respected doctor who leads a double-life as a burglar. There's lots more -- much much more than can be covered in a review -- but every page meets the high standard the series has come to signify. Graphic Classics: O. Henry is the best yet.


Graphic Classics can be ordered online from


Bob Wake is editor of the Cambridge Book Review.

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