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Graphic Novel Review: Western Classics, Edited by Tom Pomplun

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The 20th volume in editor Tom Pomplun’s series of “Graphic Classics” collections, Western Classics (Eureka Productions) boasts the appearance of two long-established comics names. Al Feldstein, known for his years as the artist/writer/editor for EC and editorship of Mad magazine, is represented by a lovely color illo accompanying a piece by cowboy poet Arthur Chapman, while Dan Spiegle, who once drew the “Hopalong Cassidy” comic strip, makes a substantial showing with a 16-page adaptation of an early Hoppy short story.

If the presence of these two old pros serves to hint that the contents in the new graphic storytelling collection will be a trace more visually conservative than, say, some of the selections in Gothic Classics, that’s arguably in line with the material being adapted this time. Pomplun and collaborators are tackling some fairly straightforward tales of the American West, after all, not opening up the deranged nightmares of an E.A. Poe. That’s for the next “Graphics Classics” set.

The book opens with a retelling of Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, a core genre work that remains the popular western writer’s best-selling book. As adapted by Pomplun and illustrator Cynthia Martin, the piece is a respectful take on this dense western work, though at times the multiple threads from the novel lead to some dialog-heavy pages. Scripter Pomplun downplays one of the novel’s most striking features — its use of Mormons as story villains — though the theme is still there for those who know to look for it. If Martin’s renderings of the cast and setting may occasionally look a bit too pristine, it’s in keeping with the early 20th century novelist’s style.

A grittier, unshaven take on the genre can be found, surprisingly, in Tim LaSiuta and Dan Spiegle’s Hopalong Cassidy tale. For those who grew up on the clean-cut movie and TV versions of the character, this 1913 Clarence E. Mulford tale is a revelation: the original version of the character was rough-hewn and gimpy legged. Mulford’s “The Holdup” is a simple yarn about Hoppy and friends’ disruption of a train robber, but if the story is pretty basic, Spiegle’s art (which at times brought of memories of Jean Giraud’s magnificent Lieutenant Blueberry comics) is not. Ninety years old, and, damn, can that man draw.

If, to these eyes, these two pieces are the highlights in Western Classics, the rest of the contributions are engaging. Ben Avery and George Sellas’ take on one of Robert E. Howard’s comic westerns is breezily cartoony, in keeping with the original, while Trina Robbins and Arnold Arre’s remake of Gertrude Atherton’s “La Perdida” (as with “Purple Sage,” a tale centering on a young beauty being lusted after by an older man) benefits from a strikingly visualized conflagration finale. David Hontiveros and Reno Maniquis’ version of Bret Harte’s “The Right Eye of the Commander” comes across a bit text-heavy, but Maniquis’ art beautifully captures the story’s western gothic tone.

The book ends on two somewhat forlorn notes: “The Last Thundersong,” by John G. Neihart (adapted by Rod Lott and Ryan Huna Smith), where the author of Black Elk Speaks reflects on spiritual belief and the decimation of Native American culture, and Willa Cather’s “El Dorado” (Rich Rainey and John Findley) which charts the life and death of a Kansas wilderness town as seen by a stranded settler. A far cry from the more spirited genre works of Grey or Howard, but inarguably part of the American western experience. One of the consistent strengths of this series has been editor’s Pomplun’s ability to pull in both familiar and obscure works under each volume’s title theme — and this entry is no exception. As with last year’s Christmas Classics, Pomplun and his collaborators are playing at the top of their game.

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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.