Pop Culture Gadabout
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
      ( 12/25/2007 04:09:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"HE WAS A PRESBYTERIAN, AND HAD A MOST DEEP RESPECT FOR MOSES, WHO WAS A PRESBYTERIAN, TOO." After revising and reissuing two editions of its candlelit collections (Gothic Classics and Bram Stoker), editor Tom Pomplon's Graphic Classics series (Eureka Productions) has recently retooled its anthology of Mark Twain comic adaptations into a spanking new edition. To the untrained eye, this newest reissue may represent a considerable shift in tone: from the ominous trappings of sinister towers and dark deeds to the lighter voice of America's great humorous storyteller. But to those who know Sam Clemons beyond such crowd-pleasers as Tom Sawyer and Prince And the Pauper, it isn't such a big leap after all.

With the exception of an early short story ("The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," neatly adapted by Kevin Atkinson), the bulk of the material in Mark Twain is lesser known fare. Instead of adapting The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or that giant of banned books, Huckleberry Finn, for instance, Pomplun scripts a 37-page adaptation of Twain's later attempt at cashing in on his beloved characters, Tom Sawyer Abroad. (The inclusion of Abroad in the new edition replaces several items from the first printing, including two pieces about P.T. Barnum's Cardiff Giant that this fan of humbug history would love to see.) General critical consensus has long placed Tom's travel adventure far below Finn or Sawyer in the pantheon of Twain's work, and it's true that the work's fantastic premise - Tom, Huck and loyal ex-slave Jim get trapped on a cross-oceanic balloon flight which carries them to the Middle East - is not in keeping with its more down-home Missouri-bound predecessors.

But if the story's starting premise is a stretch, in many ways, Twain's sly take on American cultural imperialism proves even more applicable today than it was during its initial release. In the voice of Tom Sawyer, who typically presents American values in their most comically bald-faced fashion, our heroes fly to the Middle East "to recover the holy lands from the Payguns." "They own the land," Tom explains at one point, "but it was our folks, the Jews and Christians, that made it holy, and so they haven't any business to be there defiling it."

Though spot on in its take on American self-importance, Abroad maintains a genial tone that's sustained by artist George Sellas' big-eyed cartooning. The later Twain works, best repped by "A Dog's Tale" and "The Mysterious Stranger," are considerably grimmer fare. In "Tale," adapted and illustrated by Lance Took, the writer focuses on human mistreatment of pets, a theme that's also briefly touched on in "Stranger." In Twain's eyes, nothing typified human depravity better than its arrogant abuse of "lesser creatures" – whether they be animals of human slaves – and Took expands upon this idea by presenting his adaptation as an illustrated theatre piece being dramatized by the "Uhuru-Kai (Free-Life) Family Theatre." If this approach occasionally blunts the impact of Twain's screed against animal experimentation, perhaps that's a good thing. Treated less emblematically, the story would be devastating.

But for a more direct decent into the darkness of Twain's twilight years, there's Rick Geary's adaptation of Twain's unfinished novella, "The Mysterious Stranger." Set in the Middle Ages, it describes the visit of a blandly boyish figure named Satan ("He is my uncle," the mysterious stranger states at one point, though everything the character tells us is suspect), who gives two youngsters a series of lessons in human depravity and the uncaring nature of the cosmos. Ending with one of the most demoralizing declarations of disbelief that Twain ever penned, it's a lifetime away from the high-spirited tall-tale spinning of "The Celebrated Jumping Frog." Geary, the author of a striking series of graphic docu-novels devoted to Victorian Era murders, is definitely suited for this gloomy fare. You can really see him reveling in the material when Satan takes the lads on a tour of a prison torture chamber and a medieval sweat shop.

Graphic Classics: Mark Twain concludes with "Stranger," so if you don't feel like finishing this book staring into the existential abyss, you might want to hold a few of the lighter pieces for last. Twain's "Advice for Little Girls" and "A Curious Pleasure Excursion" are more straightforward humor pieces that could've easily appeared in an issue of National Lampoon back in that mag's glory days. (Note the presence of NatLamp great Shary Flenniken as one of "Little Girls'" eight women illustrators.) And while "The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Conecticut" may be almost as cosmologically sardonic as "Stranger" (in it, Twain meets and murders his own conscience), British cartoonist Nick Miller's panels are so full of eyeball kicks that the whole piece reads as more goofy than despairing - even if the tale's final image is of our narrator standing over several buckets of severed Little Tramp body parts.

Still, like I say, taken as a whole, Graphic Classics' Mark Twain set proves to be closer to the series' horror anthologies than you might initially think. As ol' Sam Clemens himself well knew, it doesn't take much to transform a chuckle into a shudder.


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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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