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Graphic Novel Review: African-American Classics, Edited by Tom Pomplun and Lance Tooks

For all the talk about the U.S. being a multi-cultural society, it’s telling that the material in African-American Classics will be largely unfamiliar to most of its audience. Where earlier “Graphic Classics” collections like Fantasy or Christmas Classics have included comic art adaptations of fare most readers will recognize, the work in this set is a different matter. The names may be familiar (Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. DuBois), but their actual written words are less so.

The relative “newness” of the material (much of it written in the twenties and thirties) proves to be one of the collection’s biggest strengths. Where most educated Americans know “The Tell-Tale Heart” (if only from more than one parody on The Simpsons), they’re less likely to recognize Robert W. Bagnell’s horrific revenge tale, “Lex Talionis,” even if its core plot idea has been later used on more than occasion. The material in Classics ranges from fiction to poetry to philosophical ruminations on the nature of race. Dubois’ “On Being Crazy” provides a strong example of the latter, a set of dialogs between the narrator and a quintet of racist Southern folk who repeatedly turn him away. Artist Kyle Baker wittily captures the narrator’s rueful recognition of the reality surrounding him even as he acknowledges the insanity of it.

Many of the adapted short stories here prove highly allegorical: Ethel M. Caution’s “Buyers of Dreams,” for instance, depicts three women who enter a mystical shop to purchase a dream. The first two seek baubles and career; the “wise” one chooses love and family. (You can definitely tell the piece was written in 1921.) Other stories inevitably prove didactic: opener “Two Americans” by Florence Lewis Bentley, puts white and black Southern soldiers in the Great War for a not-unexpected lesson about the importance of putting aside racial differences against a common enemy. Trevor Von Eedon, an artist best known for his work on super-hero titles, makes his debut in “Graphic Classics,” and it’s a welcome addition.

More startling to modern readers, perhaps, are several dialect pieces (Hurston’s “Lawin’ and Jawin’” and “Filling Station,” Leila Ames Pendleton’s “Sanctum 777 NSDCOU Meets Cleopatra”) that at times read like a couple of white radio comedians playing Amos and Andy. (Looking at “Lawin,’” for instance, I couldn’t help conjuring up the image of Sammy Davis Junior strutting before the teevee cameras on Laugh-In.) The book’s invaluable Author Notes state that writers like Hurston saw some critical disrepute for a time due to their reliance on heavy dialect, and I have to admit to having some mixed reactions to the stories featuring it myself. Love Milton Knight’s cartoony art on “Filling Station,” though.

Where this trade paperback collection really shines is in its moodier entries: co-editor Took’s evocative reworking of Alice Dunbar Nelson’s “Carnival Jangle,” a tale of murder at the Mardi Gras, and Matt Johnson/RandyDuBurke’s version of Jean Toomer’s “Becky,” both linger long after they’ve been read. The latter, a story of a young white girl shunned by all in her community for giving birth to bi-racial sons, is especially effective. With the exception of its opening panels, the whole piece focuses on the ramshackle cabin where the title figure is exiled, observing its unknowable isolated protagonist from a distance. A very effective treatment of this disturbing story: artist DuBurke’s green-washed panels add to its considerable melancholy.

Tom Pomplun’s Eureka Productions has been putting out these well wrought literary comics collections long enough (this is Volume 22 in the series) that it’s been easy to take ‘em for granted. Here’s hoping that the distinctness of African-American Classics sparks renewed interest in this enjoyable series of trade paperbacks.

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.