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Robin Hood and the Compulsion to Gild the Lilly

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There’s a strange tradition in book publishing which compels editors to decide periodically that a classic illustrated book needs to be reinvented and illustrated by a new artist to appeal to a contemporary audience. This decision is usually driven by the belief that you can sell more books if you can pass them off as worthy of purchase because of new art. There is risk inherent in this strategy when previous illustrators set the bar too high for their successors to exceed or even approach, leading buyers to reject the new edition as an inferior shadow of the classic.

The most famous example of this is Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland which went through three illustrators in its first 50 years in print with definitely mixed results. When the lack of color in the original extraordinary pen and ink drawings by the legendary John Tenniel seemed too pedestrian for a new generation accustomed to color, the publisher turned to Arthur Rackham. Not a bad choice since Rackham was already established as the greatest book illustrator of his age and arguably the greatest book illustrator of the last two centuries. Rackham had the skills and imagination to top Tenniel and not embarrass himself trying. But even Rackham’s classic work was not sufficient, and within 20 years it fell to the estimable Charles Folkard to try to top Rackham’s work with something more lush and with richer colors. Folkard’s illustrations are brilliant, but now largely forgotten, because fine though they were, they came after artists whose work was impossible to outdo. The publisher had essentially set Folkard an impossible task and the result was an edition which vanished into obscurity.

The situation with Alice is hardly unique, and as classic works go out of copyright it seems to become more common as more publishers have the opportunity to make bad decisions and desecrate classics with inferior illustrations.

Perhaps the most bizarre is the decision to publish books by writers who illustrated their own work with their illustrations replaced by someone else’s interpretation of their ideas. With some who were primarily writers and only nominally artists like J. R. R. Tolkein this makes some sense, but in other cases where legendary artists also wrote the texts they illustrated the decision just seems bewildering.

A case in point is a relatively recent edition of Howard Pyle’s classic The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood from Fall River Press which preserves Pyle’s stilted and archaic retelling of the tales, but replaces his remarkable and evocative illustrations with scratchboard vignettes by Scott McKowen. Now there’s no question that Pyle was an interesting writer and his version of the tales is a classic, but Pyle’s work as an artist and illustrator towers above his work as a writer. He’s not just an illustrator, he’s the greatest American book illustrator of the 19th century and the teacher who inspired subsequent generations of artists and revolutionized book illustration. To give any artist, no matter how skilled, the challenge of updating Howard Pyle is just ridiculous.

McKowen’s scratchboard illustrations are technically skilled, but sterile and a far cry from some of the more interesting illustrative work he has done for other projects, particularly the covers of graphic novels like 1602. I can only surmise that he was intimidated by the ludicrousness of being asked to do new art for a book Pyle had already illustrated and just fulfilled the contract, took his paycheck and walked off shaking his head at the absurdity of the assignment. The strangest part of the whole design concept of the book is that McKowen’s illustrations are effectively black and white sketches just like Pyle’s when the one area that you could argue there might have been a justification for redoing the illustrations would have been to add color, the one shortcoming of Pyle’s original work. Of course that problem was already addressed almost 100 years ago when Pyle’s student N. C. Wyeth added remarkable color plates to Pyle’s text.

My puzzlement at the editorial decision to reillustrate this Pyle classic seems well founded, because although I spotted one copy of the book on a shelf at Barnes and Noble, it appears not be available through Amazon which suggests that it has been a deservedly dismal commercial failure. Fall River Press is an imprint of Sterling Publishing which mainly exists to release reprints and specialty books through Barnes and Noble. Nonetheless you would think that their editors had more sense than to undertake such a wrongheaded project. Why spend the money on inferior new illustrations when the brilliant original illustrations are just as much in the public domain and just as free to use as the text itself. I’m sure McKowen’s work didn’t come cheap, making it a remarkably bad business decision, paying money to reduce the quality of the product, and the end result is a book which just seems sad and lackluster in comparison to the original.

It’s hard enough to make a profit in the print publishing industry these days, even if you have some guaranteed exposure through a big chain like Barnes and Noble. This kind of poor decision making is why there probably won’t be a Sterling Press or even a Barnes and Noble in a few years, though I bet that someone (probably Dover) will still be making money publishing facsimile editions of Howard Pyle’s books with the original illustrations and decorations intact.

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About Dave Nalle