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Graphic Fiction Review: Graphic Classics – Louise May Alcott edited by Tom Pomplun

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That editor Tom Pomplun’s latest Graphics Classics collection, Louisa May Alcott (Eureka Productions), should come out in time for Christmas is smart scheduling. Alcott’s most beloved work, Little Women, memorably opens up on the holiday, as the four March sisters and their mother strive to celebrate the season while their father is away at war, and this latest volume in Pomplun’s series of graphic adaptations of classic lit likewise opens with the same scene.

Women, which is featured in a 48-page adaptation, is none too surprisingly given cover placement on this collection, and Anne Timmons’ image of thoughtful would-be writer Jo March working on her latest manuscript could also stand in as an image of Alcott herself. (Little Women famously contains a lot of autobiographical elements.) Scripter Trina Robbins and Timmons’ color comics version of this much-adapted novel is a smart retelling, tamping down the original work’s more openly didactic moments in favor letting the March girls’ stories speak for themselves. The approach presents Alcott’s work in a good light. The only off note is the comic German dialect given to Jo’s eventual suitor Professor Bhaer. While its use in the adaptation is faithful to the author, I’ve always thought it a detriment to this courtly character.

Despite this glitch, Robbins and Timmons prove the ideal duo for a sensitive adaptation of the book. Together, they share a sensitivity that suits Alcott’s blend of the feminine and feminist: the moment where Jo bursts into tears after selling her hair to raise money for her war-wounded father, for instance, is deftly and sweetly handled. If the comics version focuses on Jo more at the expense of the other little women, that’s not unusual for these adaptations: she’s always been the most dynamic character in these books, anyway.

Women spurred three sequels, but that wasn’t the full extent of Alcott’s writings. Many of her youthful works, frequently written under the pen name of “A.M. Barnard,” are blood-and-thunder gothics of the type Jo herself would’ve written. The Graphic Classics set happily includes two of these lesser-known dark tales. The first, Alex Burrows and Pedro Lopez’s adaptation of the short “Lost in A Pyramid,” is a short and effective story of a mummy’s curse, while the 42-page A Whisper in the Dark proves an enjoyable damsel-in-distress tale featuring a wicked uncle, an inheritance scheme and a heroine who is drugged and driven mad by her tormentors. Though Antonella Caputo and Arnold Arre’s version takes a few too many pages for the dire deeds to commence, once they do, the results prove moodily suspenseful, with Arre skillfully charting the heroine’s descent into despair and madness. As a writer of “disreputable” genre fiction, Alcott was much more rousing than she was crafting her more domesticated March books. It’s great to see this lesser known Alcott storytelling being highlighted here.

The remaining shorter pieces further display her range as a writer. Rod Lott and Molly Crabapple’s “The Rival Prima Donnas” treats this tale of a deadly romantic rivalry with a trace of a wink that almost undermines its grim ending; editor Pomplun and Mary Fleenor’s “Buzz” utilizes the artist’s stylized edgy renderings to convincingly evoke one woman’s solitude in the big city; while Pomplun and Shary Flenniken’s “The Piggy Girl” wittily makes good use of the cartoonist’s skillful evocations of kidhood. The only arguable lull comes with Lisa K. Weber’s illos for the poem “Lay of the Golden Goose.” Weber’s illustrations, placed alongside Alcott’s poetry are suitably storybooky, but the poem itself is much too slight.

The eighteenth volume in editor Pomplun’s Graphic Classics series, Louisa May Alcott is one of the strongest entries yet. Not only does it contain a solid selection of modern comic art, it provides an eye-opening overview of an author most readers only know as the creator of the ultra-girly Women. Reading the opening chapter to the March saga, with its comic depiction of a disastrously performed Christmas play, I couldn't help thinking that our gal Jo'd be delighted to see one of her Christmas melodramas recreated in an anthology like this.

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.