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Graphic Fiction Review: Graphic Classics: Science Fiction edited by Tom Pomplun

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Considering the material adapted in the newest (Volume 17) edition of Tom Pomplun's Graphic Classics series, Science Fiction Classics, I started idly wondering whether a better title might be "Scientifiction Classics."

That ungainly term, first floated in 1926 with the publication of Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories, arguably comes closer to the early sci-fi exercises presented in comics form here — especially a more technocratic work like Jules Verne's "In the Year 2889" — in part because it implies a stronger emphasis on the science component over storytelling. You can see this imbalance in Verne's tale, as well as a one-page Hunt Emerson illustrated comic of Hans Christian Anderson predictions "In A Thousand Years." Neither piece has much in the way of character or story conflict. To a slightly lesser extent, the emphasis on ideas also extends to pieces like Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Disintegration Machine" and E.M. Forster's classic cautionary "The Machine Stops."

Still, even in the book's potentially driest offering, editor Pomplun has the smarts to couple it with a sprightly cartoonist like Angry Youth Comix creator Johnny Ryan. And where the didactic "Machine Stops" might have been deadly in less visually inventive hands, Ellen Lindner's expressive cartooning and coloring keeps things interesting. This is the first Graphic Classics volume to feature color in all of its stories, and in Lindner and Ryan's pieces, it is smartly deployed. In the latter case, the bright flat colors enhance the Hanna-Barbera cartoonishness of Ryan's art; in the former, the more subdued coloration suits the washed out decadence of Forster's doomed dystopia.

The cover story, a 48-page version of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, is the book's first draw, of course. Wells' classic has been adapted into comics before — the Classics Illustrated version from 1955 was my first introduction to the story — while its status as a public domain work has inspired more than one comic company's attempt at picking up where the story ends. The Graphic Classics version, scripted by Rich Rainey and illustrated by Micah Farritor, proves closer to Wells' original intentions than the Eisenhower Era adaptation: a once bowdlerized scene featuring a hysterical curate has been reinstated in the story, while the narrator protagonist's less-than-noble moments are also unapologetically depicted. The reinsertions strengthen this retelling of Wells' familiar s-f story significantly.

Less familiar, though no less influential as an early s-f story, is Stanley G. Weinbaum's 1934 "A Martian Odyssey," generally acknowledged to be the first of its kind to depict an alien character whose thought processes are distinctly different from that of humans. Adapted by Ben Avery and effectively illustrated in a whimsical zap gun style by George Sella, it entertainingly captures Weinbaum's voice and distinct sense of wonder: "scientification" at its greatest.

Two other tales don't fare as well, in large part due to the original sources' slightness. Tod Lott and Roger Langridge's version of Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger story, "The Disintegration Machine," is well presented, though Doyle's original story — which basically involves the egotistical Challenger's besting a grotesque mad scientist in the simplest fashion — is fairly weak. Antonello Caputo and Brad Teare's retelling of Lord Dunsay's "The Bureau d'Exchange de Maux" has an appealingly dark woodcut look, though it's debatable whether the actual story fits under the science-fiction rubric. In it, Dunsany's narrator enters a shop where customers exchange a personal "evil or misfortune" for that of another's. Our hero does this, of course, exchanging a long-held phobia for a fresh one, though Dunsany doesn't take this basic conceit much further.

As a full collection of early s-f, Pomplun's volume is the most consistently accessible of Graphic Classics' genre collections that I've seen to date. (In contrast, consider the overly wordy adaptation of "Northanger Abby" in Gothic Classics.) Next up, a book devoted to adaptations of Louisa May Alcott. I wonder if it'll include any of her scandalous A.M. Barnard thrillers? It's been ages since I've read 'em, but I seem to remember they were considerably zippier than Jane Austen.

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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.