[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.
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
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
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 graphicclassics.com
Bob Wake is editor of the Cambridge Book Review.
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