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Graphic Novel Review: Fantasy Classics, Edited by Tom Pomplun

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The first real adaptation of Mary W. Shelley's Frankenstein that I remembering seeing was a Classics Illustrated comic owned by a collecting buddy. Though originally printed in the forties, the comic (adapted by Ruth Roche, Robert Heywood Webb & Ann Brewster) was reprinted with a different cover in the fifties, which is when my young boy self would've discovered it. Truer to the book than the original James Whale Universal Pictures version, it contained an image that's still retained by my mind's eye: a panel showing Victor Frankenstein's disastrous wedding night. It was a moment that lingered in my boyish imagination and contributed toward spurring this post-EC reader's love of horror comics.

Shelley's classic is the cover feature of the latest Tom Pomplun-edited Graphic Classics trade paperback (Volume Fifteen in the series), Fantasy Classics. And though scripter Rod Lott remains as true to the source novel as the earlier Classics Illustrated did, I'm not sure this latest comics adaptation would work as well on my former young boy self. At issue is artist Skot Olsen's big-foot cartooning style, which works against the unflinching horrors being depicted. When we're shown a young seemingly flattened from his encounter with the Frankenstein monster, for instance, the effect is more Wile E. Coyote than gothic. The adaptation is preceded by a prologue recounting the well-known origins of Shelley's seminal novel, and looking at Mark A. Nelson's more conservative "realistic" art, I can't help wishing he'd been given the full assignment instead of just its footnote.

To my eyes, Olsen's caricatures are more apt for a more whimsical fantasy, such as the volume's retelling of L. Frank Baum's "The Glass Dog," than it is this groundbreaking work of horror s-f. It occurs to me that someone who has raved in the past about the hyper-stylized art of a horror manga artist like Hideshi Hino may have no business complaining about cartoony art, but I'm comfortable with the contradiction. I do wonder if a young boy reader reared on manga conventions would find it easier than me to get into this new version, though.

Apart from two one-page illustrated poems, the new volume contains three more classic adaptations: the first, Lance Took's version of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter," is more an illustrated story than a comic, though his artwork has such a sensual elegance to it that I love looking at his images even as my eye resists the plethora of text surrounding 'em. Antonella L. Caputa & Brad Teare's version of Baum's "Glass Dog" is an amusing take on one of the Wizard of Oz writer's more obscure comic fables, though the stand-out story in this volume has to be Ron Avery & Leong Wan Kok's version of H.P. Lovecraft's "Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath."

Unlike most of his better-known horror fiction, "Kadath" is a fantasy tale devoted to the sleeping wanderings of Randolph Carter, who is seeking a mysterious city located in the unknown parts of a dreamland. His voyages take him through a landscape filled with talking cats, undead ghouls and dwarflike creatures called Zoogs, culminating in a face-to-face with a massive tentacled god named Nyarlathotep. As a fiction, Lovecraft's work doesn't have the impact of his great horror works – it meanders too much to be as effective – but Malaysian artist Kok does a wonderful job of capturing Carter's dream world. Unlike Olsen, he balances stylization with enough realistic touches to keep the reader in the story.

I can see some young reader following Avery & Kok's version of Lovecraftian love into further explorations – perhaps the Graphic Classics volume devoted entirely to the man's eldritch horror tales?

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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.