Pop Culture Gadabout
Monday, September 24, 2012
      ( 9/24/2012 05:49:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“FOR GOD’S SAKE, GIVE ME THE YOUNG MAN WHO HAS BRAINS ENOUGH TO MAKE A FOOL OF HIMSELF.” As a long running series of comic art adaptations, Eureka Productions’ Graphic Classics books are approaching their twenty-third volume (the upcoming seasonal collection, Halloween Classics), though one way that editor/publisher Tom Pomplun has strived to retain school and reader interest in these modern “Classics Illustrated” has been to issue fresh editions of earlier collections in between new sets. Graphic Classics: Robert Louis Stevenson is the most recent collection to receive a new face-lift, and as with other new editions, Pomplun has added new material to the set, foremost of which is a 49-page adaptation of Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

Pomplun’s practice may drive more anal retentive collectors crazy (there are four editions of Eureka’s debut volume, Edgar Allan Poe, though I don’t know if all of these have slightly different contents), but those who came to this series late probably won’t be bothered by it, nor will those school libraries, I suspect, with earlier editions that have been much thumbed by young readers.

For most moderately literate Americans, Stevenson is primarily known for his rousing boys’ adventure books (Island, Kidnapped), his children’s poems and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Both Long John Silver and the villainous Edward Hyde are given their due in this book, alongside a series of short verses and fables illustrated by the likes of Maxon Crumb, Shary Flenniken, Hunt Emerson, Roger Langridge and Johnny Ryan, plus an exquisitely rendered version of “The Bottle Imp” by Lance Tooks. The fables prove especially fascinating as they show the writer in a much more witty and cynical mode than his Child’s Garden of Verses voice.

Tales like the Langridge illustrated “Sick Man and the Fireman” almost read as if they fell out of Graphics Classics’ Ambrose Bierce or Mark Twain collections. The fables are all fine, though to my eyes the peak pieces belong to GC regulars Langridge, Flenniken, Emerson and Tom Neely, whose rubbery art recalls some of the classic screwball comic strip artists of earlier decades. Two fables, interestingly, hinge on characters punished for either being a fool or consorting with fools. For a certain breed of Victorian intellectual, apparently, being a fool was a greater character deficit than being a sinner.

The adaptations of Stevenson’s more familiar works are variably successful. Writer Alex Burrows and artist Scott Lincoln’s version of Treasure Island comes across too cleanly cartoonish to convey the grubby villainy of its pirates and their reprobate leader Long John Silver. (For me in part, this is due to the still-remembered 1934 and 1950 movie takes on the tale that featured Wallace Beery and the iconic Robert Newton in the role of Silver -- some memories are tough to surmount.) Burrows’ treatment of the story captures all the novel’s high points, though, so hopefully this version will spur new young readers into checking out the original.

Pomplun’s adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde takes an approach that might alienate hard-core comics purists: dividing the two-part story and treating the first at as a straight Simon Gane illustrated comic with the second as a piece of illustrated prose accompanied by a single Michael Slack illo per page. As Stevenson’s original was written from two distinct perspectives -- the first that of Henry Jekyll’s straight-laced friend Utterson, the second from the journal confession of Jekyll himself -- the shift in style doesn’t prove all that jarring, though I have to admit preferring Gane’s heavy ink work over Slack’s lighter graphics. It suits Stevenson’s horror tale better.

The strongest of the longer adaptations proves Lance Took’s adaptation of the fantasy, “The Bottle Imp,” which effectively utilizes the writer/artist’s sinuous linework to capture the story’s South Seas island cast. Since the writer himself spent his last days in the tropics (as depicted in Mort Castle and Chad Carpenter’s comic bio of RLS), concluding this volume with “Imp” proves a smart editorial decision -- exiting in a setting that the writer grew to know and love as well as wrapping up this fine collection with one of its strongest entries.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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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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