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Graphic Classics: Mark Twain is Volume 8 of a series presented in the style of the "graphic novel" published by Eureka Productions. Other authors featured in this series include Edgar Allan Poe, H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, Ambrose Bierce and Bram Stoker. Fifteen of Twain's works have been adapted and illustrated by twenty-five different artists. These artists work in a black and white style of illustration aimed at a more mature audience than color comic books for younger readers. In fact, some of the visual humor or sight gags employed in this collection may go unrecognized by all but the most veteran comic strip aficionados.
The front cover features a painting in color by George Sellas and revisits the doppelganger premise of Will Vinton's 1985 claymation film "The Adventures of Mark Twain." A healthy old Mark Twain sits in the foreground as a shabby and dissipated-looking apparition of his dwarf conscience enters the room. The cover is an alternate illustration for the "Carnival of Crime in Connecticut" which is the final story in this collection.
There is a great variety of artistic styles from traditional to modern and while some strive for a period flavor, others incorporate some contemporary anachronisms presumably to emphasize the timelessness of Clemens's storytelling. The adaptations are serviceable and in some cases the original text is used and simply illustrated. Clemens himself appears in six of these pastiches and while no images of Clemens are presented in straight portraiture, his appearance seldom corresponds with his age during the year that he wrote a given story.
First up is an excerpt from Twain's 70th Birthday address illustrated with a drawing by Mark Dancey of Clemens as a sort of High Llama sitting in his rocker upon a Himalayan peak.
A thirty-six page adaptation of The Mysterious Stranger by Rick Geary from Albert Bigelow Paine's 1916 version of the story presents the characters looking as though they either stepped off some primitively drawn playing cards or are supposed to represent simplistic chessmen. Geary incorporates some vignettes of violence and damnation from the illustrations of Gustave Dore but they only serve to show how modest the rest of the graphics in this treatment are.
Milton Knight draws "How the Author was Sold at Newark" (1872) with a bold pen and ink line reminiscent of Walt Kelly's "Pogo" and puts Clemens through some extreme Warner Brothers style animation poses as he fruitlessly tries to get a rise out of a man in a lecture audience who, unknown to him, is deaf, dumb and blind.
Kevin Atkinson's rendering of "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" (1865) is executed in the tradition of classic comic book art. Compulsive gambler Jim Smiley is depicted as a strapping, broad shouldered type with waxed mustachios.
"The Legend of Sagenfeld" (1882) is abridged by Tom Pomplun and illustrated by Evert Geradts with four nicely designed and playful 1950s deco-style illustrations which take a tale set in old Germany and sets it in an oriental Arabian Nights milieu. A variation in full color of one of these grayscale illustrations is reproduced on the back cover of this book.
"Ode to Stephen Dowling Botts Dec'd" from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) is illustrated with six cartoons by Jackie Smith which evoke the early antics of Mad Magazine and suggests that young Stephen may have been abusing drugs since pills and a syringe are falling down the well with him.
Dan E. Burr utilizes an engraving style to illustrate a two-page history of P. T. Barnum's Cardiff Giant hoax written by Tom Pomplun as a "prelude" to Twain's "A Ghost Story" (1870) in which Anton Emdin evokes the character design of John Kricfalusi's "Ren and Stimpy" (the bloodshot animated characters who premiered on the Nickelodeon TV channel in 1991). The ghost of the Cardiff Giant which inhabits a crumbling plaster replica of itself in a Broadway museum makes a nocturnal visit to the narrator in his apartment across the street.
Lance Tooks gives "A Dog's Tale" (1903) a "Family Theatre" theatrical treatment with graphics representing African American actors using masks and puppets to tell the bitterly sad story of a heroic dog who rescues its master's baby, (whose face is a pasted-in photograph of Shirley Temple), only to have its puppy blinded by a vivisection experiment and then buried in the garden where the mother pines away at the grave. It's impossible to be unaffected by the extreme cruelty and pathos of this tale with which Clemens trounced his readers unmercifully.
Most satisfying in capturing a period flavor is "A Curious Pleasure Excursion" (1874) designed by William L. Brown with quaint woodcut style graphics in a four-page broadside layout including multiple font styles to advertise the attractions on a cosmic voyage aboard Coggia's Comet as a sort of Jules Verne rocket ship.
The text of "The Undertaker's Chat" (1870) is printed under its alternate title "A Reminiscence of the Back Settlements" with a stylized pencil rendering of the garrulous mortician by Lisa K. Weber.
"Is He Living or Is He Dead?" (1893), the story of an artist whose work becomes popular after he fakes his death receives a curiously chiseled and jittery ink line rendering which is unified to some extent when artist Simon Gane filled in between his lines with gray scale values. The original 1898 stage play version of this story Is He Dead? was published by University of California Press in 2003.
"Advice to Little Girls" (1865) is divided into seven epigrams, each illustrated in a variety of styles by seven female artists. Florence Cestac employed a bold editorial cartoon style to punch up the premise of sassing an old person only after you have been sassed. Kirsten Ulve made a highly designed graphic of a little girl making a mouth at her teacher. Shary Flenniken pays homage to the old single panel cartoon showing a little girl who ignores her mother's advice and sells beer instead of lemonade at her curbside stand. Toni Pawlowsky created two pop profiles of girls with their dollies to illustrate the suggestion that the one with the doll stuffed with sawdust should use discretion when attempting to swap it with the girl with the china doll. Mary Fleener channels Pablo Picasso while depicting the multiple agonies of the brother scalded with liquid thrown on him by his sister. Annie Owens pays homage to Margaret Keane's big-eyed children with a drawing of a girl who has swindled her little brother out of his chewing gum. Leslie Reppeteaux drew a rather kinky pen and ink rendering of a girl looking on in puzzled tolerance at her parents' sadomasochistic horsy ride.
"An Encounter with an Interviewer" (1875) is illustrated by Skip Williamson with a single pen and ink cartoon of Mark Twain's white hair turning into an octopus tentacle that encircles his hapless interviewer.
Nicholas Miller renders the full title of "The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut" (1876) in authentic period typefaces and incorporates character styling reminiscent of Jay Ward's Snidely Whiplash and Nell Fenwick. Charlie Chaplin as the little tramp and R. F. Outcault's Yellow Kid ("Hully Gee!") make cameo appearances in this adaptation by Antonella Caputo.
Featuring Twain or his characters in graphic novels or comic books is not a new concept. As early as 1918 illustrator Clare Victor Dwiggins (who signed his work "Dwig") began his syndicated daily comic strip "Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn" by arrangement with "the Estate of Samuel L. Clemens and the Mark Twain Co." and syndicated by the McClure Company. Dwiggins created comic situations based on Tom Sawyer and company's world of playing hooky, fishing, swimming and preoccupation with superstitions. By 1928 Dwig changed the name of the strip to "School Days" but the boys were no longer called Tom and Huck and the contract with the Mark Twain estate ended. During the 1940s Dwig drew The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the Ledger Syndicate; it was not a straight adaptation of Twain's novel but rather a fantasy series in which Injun Joe appeared frequently as the villain.
Between 1941 and 1971 the Gilberton Company published their twenty-seven-volume monthly comic book series Classic Comics which was renamed Classics Illustrated in 1947. Twain was among the many celebrated authors whose works were adapted in comic book form. Most memorably The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was drawn by Aldo Rubano in 1948 in a robust, unique style with inventive layout. Huckleberry Finn, Pudd'nhead Wilson, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and The Prince and the Pauper were also adapted by Classics Illustrated artists but none equalled Rubano's work. In 1976 Stan Lee's Marvel comic books published a version of Tom Sawyer drawn by E. R. Cruz. In 1990 Michael Ploog made a new adaptation of Tom Sawyer which was published in a revival of Classics Illustrated by the Berkley Publishing Group and First Publishing, Inc.
This latest treatment of Samuel Clemens in the comic book and graphic novel
genre is a mixed bag of art in terms of style and quality, Graphic Classics:
Mark Twain offers "something for everybody" and depending on your
personal aesthetic taste, you will probably find an artist here whose style
will please you.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Dave Thomson, an avid Mark Twain collector, is co-author of Hannibal Heritage, J. Hurley Hagood, Roberta Hagood and Dave Thomson (Heritage House Publishing, 2003).