Because I currently live some two hours from the nearest comic book store in Tucson, this year's Free Comic Book Day proved a pretty spare occasion for me. The only title I was privy to was a sampler sent by Tom Pomplun, editor and publisher of the Graphic Classics series. A 64-page set of black-and-white graphic adaptations, the floppy contains works by Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, Lord Dunsany, Arthur Conan Doyle and Mary Shelley. Like the larger trade paperback collections that the sampler serves to promote, the collection works to demonstrate just how difficult a good comic adaptation of "classic" literature can be. Too tight an allegiance to the original written work, and you don't have comics, but an illustrated Reader's Digest abridgement, yet wander too far from the material and you run the risk of losing the writer's voice.
The five works included in the FCBD set display the varying success even good solid professional writers and artists can achieve in this arena. The sampler opens with a cover story adaptation of Poe's "The Black Cat" written by Rod Lott and illustrated by Gerry Alanguilan. Told in first person by its murderer/madman, it's a tempting story to overwrite, but Lott proves sparing with his narration, letting his artist carry the big shock scenes. (There's a half-page panel of our wild-eyed protagonist strangling his wife that looks like it could have come off the cover of EC's Shock Supenstories.) The results effectively capture Poe's words and story without being overly beholden to the former.
On the other side, however, rests Antonella Caputo and Anne Timmons' adaptation of Mary Shelley's romance "The Dream," which is so stuffed with the original work's florid narration that it overwhelms the comic. Timmons' art sweetly captures the air of 19th century romance (in more than one panel it reminds me of a more detailed Trina Robbins), but Caputo's unrestrained reliance on boxed narration ultimately proves too much.
Alex Burrows and Simon Ganes' adaptation of Conan Doyle's "John Barrington Cowles" rests somewhere in between the Poe and Shelley tales. Though Burrows relies heavily on Doyle's own words, he knows when to let a simple silent panel suffice. I wasn't familiar with Doyle's tale of a literally mesmerizing young woman, but the Graphic Classics made me want to track it down. A big key to this 'un lies in Ganes' stylized art, which at times reminds me of Alex Nino. It neatly captures its sadistic heroine in all her seductively whip-wielding glory, even if the comic's ending comes across curiously flat.
All three of these pieces are about the length of your usual single-story comic book (good value for the money, eh?) To round out the book, Pomplun includes two shorter pieces. Of these, Milton Knight's adaptation of the Lord Dunsany poem, "A Narrow Escape," proves the purest comic. Tossing out most of the poem altogether, Knight retells its comic vignette with pure cartoony vigor.
I fell in love with Knight's style back when he was writing and penning a sexy black-and-white funny animal comic for Fantagraphics entitled Hugo, and I'm always cheered to see fresh work by the man. Possessed of a Fleischer-esque visual sensibility, Knight's work is about as far from the strictures of mainstream "Classic Comics" storytelling as you can get, but he still manages to remain true to Dunsany's characteristically sardonic tone. His place at the end of the sampler makes you wish that the rest of the comic book's adapters had just a little more of his audacity. Still, I see from the credits at the end of this sampler that Knight's work appears in eight of the paperback collections themselves, so it's clear publisher Pomplun knows when he's got a good thing.
As a sample of its wears, the Graphic Classics floppy generally does the trick: it provides a fair sense of the line's material and approach – from the occasional stodgy retelling to more free-wheeling fare – and hopefully piques the interests of more than a few lit lovers out there. If you came to Free Comic Book Day looking to see the potential and diversity in the artform, chances are you appreciated this little giveaway. If you came looking to see what Marvel's offered to tie into the new Iron Man flick, you probably didn't even pick this comic off the freebie table in the first place.
All in all, not a bad Free Comic Book Day for yours truly . . .