Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #11, Spring 2004]




Graphic Classics: Mark Twain
Edited by Tom Pomplun
Eureka Productions, 2004

Reviewed by Bob Wake


Graphic Classics: Mark Twain is the eighth issue in editor/designer Tom Pomplun's eye-popping series of literary comics. As with earlier volumes -- which have spotlighted such authors as Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Jack London, and Ambrose Bierce -- Pomplun has tapped a wide array of underground and mainstream artists from around the world to illustrate the often cannily selected stories, essays, and excerpts. The works of Mark Twain (1835-1910) are varied and fairly immense, to be sure. Popular sets of his Complete Works published in the 1920s, which are by no means definitive, run to twenty-six volumes. Enough of his oeuvre is considered canonical that even the keenest of editors would be hard-pressed to compile a representative sampling.

The fifteen selections here are inspired. The longest and most ambitious is based on Twain's posthumously published novella The Mysterious Stranger (1916), strikingly adapted by San Diego-based illustrator and National Lampoon alumnus Rick Geary. Hands down the most pessimistic tale that Twain penned, it's the story of a visit by Satan's impudent nephew to the seventeenth century Austrian town of Eseldorf (a name which translates in English as Stupidville or, more colorfully, Assville). The supernatural nephew's pranks grow increasingly life-threatening to the local residents. His demeanor, however, is so blandly nonchalant and his philosophical justifications so darkly nihilistic that the narrative seems in the end to deconstruct itself and blot out any glimmer of purpose or meaning to human life. If ever a story could be said to anticipate both Kafka and Borges, this is the one.

Read Twain's story after experiencing Geary's adaptation. It's a safe bet you'll not only find that the artist has captured the sulferous narrative to a tee, but the illustrations will replay themselves in your mind's eye in much the same way a first-rate movie adaptation stays with you when rereading its literary source. Geary's images at times recall the sinister iconography of medieval tarot cards.

From The Mysterious Stranger, adapted and illustrated by Rick Geary
The short stories in the volume include the tale that established Twain's career as a writer, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" (1865), adapted and illustrated by Kevin Atkinson. This is Twain in his most audience-pleasing role as a folklorist and humorist, minus the brittle irony and social satire that he would later bring to his work. Atkinson, who is a native Texan, perfectly nails the story's frontier tall-tale pedigree with lusty illustrations that seem derived from equal parts Paul Bunyan and John Ford. Not to mention that he draws damn funny frogs. Jump ahead eleven years to "The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut" (1876) and you'll find Twain's genius in full flower. Essentially a metaphysical wrestling match waged between Twain and the troll-like personification of his much-abused conscience, the story pokes sharp fun at America's inner Calvinist. And it's not all that much of a stretch to recognize in the story a forward-looking conceptualization of the Freudian superego. (It's worth noting, in fact, that Freud was an admirer of Twain's writing.) Wittily adapted and illustrated by a pan-European partnership known as Team Sputnik (writer Antonella Caputo and artist Nick Miller), there's enough slapstick verve on display to remind us that the late great animator Chuck Jones counted Twain as a major influence.

From "The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut," adapted and illustrated by Team Sputnik

Perhaps wisely, the overly familiar Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) is touched upon in the briefest of whimsical fashion via Emmeline Grangerford and her hilariously awful mortuary doggerel, "Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec'd" (from chapter seventeen in Twain's novel). The six stanzas of woeful rhymed couplets -- about a boy who, in Huck's words, "fell down a well and was drownded" -- are illustrated with thoroughly goofy charm by UK artist Jackie Smith.

Graphic Classics: Mark Twain offers more variety than can be adequately summarized in this review. The overall design is supremely fun and readable. If the volume errors, it errors on the side of diversity and abundance. The wildly original styles of the individual artists can sometimes clash if you're sampling more than one story in a sitting. Best to savor these tasty selections over time in bite-sized servings.

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Graphic Classics can be ordered online from graphicclassics.com

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Bob Wake is editor of the Cambridge Book Review.



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