It makes sense that American author Edgar Allan Poe would have been the first writer to receive a “Graphic Classics” collection. His fiction has inspired a vast amount of adaptations over the years, including prior comics art retellings — so many that one suspects a sizable majority are more familiar with the adaptations than they are the prose original originals. To a certain extent, this is understandable: Poe’s voice — for all that he helped to kick-start genres like the formal detective story — was very much a 19th century one. I remember it being fairly daunting myself when I first tried tackling it in the fifth grade, though once you got to the good grisly stuff, the effort seemed worth it.
“Graphic Classics” editor Tom Pomplun has returned to this most fertile of storytellers for the 21st volume in his still strong trade paperback series. Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery (Eureka Productions) contains ten of Poe’s short stories plus a smattering of poems. The tales run from the familiar (as with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” a work which provided a template for the detective yarn; “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Masque of the Red Death”) to the obscure (darkly comic “King Pest,” “Berenice,” and “The Man of the Crowd” among them). Editor Pomplun and his collaborators all strive to remain true to the author’s distinct narrative style, and, in general, they succeed.
Highlights in this collection of gothic treats include Pomplun and Nelson Evergreen’s “Berenice,” which takes a potentially ludicrous concept (haunted by the image of a dead love’s teeth!) and invests it with a convincing level of dread; Antonella Caputa and Anton Emdin’s version of the bleakly comic “King Pest,” which benefits from its Punk! magazine cartooning; and Ron Sutton’s modernized version of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which reconfigures its mad narrator as a girl punk. (Hey, if Lisa Simpson can hear “the beating of his hideous heart,” so can our mohawked anti-heroine.) Almost as strong are Pomplun and Michael Manning’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” and Ron Lott and Lisa K. Weber’s “Hop Frog,” both of which faithfully reconstruct their stories without quite attaining their full level of horror.
Back when I looked at an edition of Pomplun’s first series of E.A. Poe tales, I remember commenting about the fact that the collection didn’t include any of the writer’s “ratiocinative” tales. After reading and reacquainting myself with “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” though, I can understand the delay. While it may be a historically significant genre piece, Poe’s “Rue Morgue” proves rather tedious in comics format. Its prototype hero August Dupin and its Watson-esque narrator never are never quite interesting enough to hold this far-fetched mystery, and while Caputo and artist Reno Marquis capture the material, the fact remains that it’s hard to make two guys standing in a room and talking about deductive reasoning all that riveting. Perhaps if Marquis was a more stylized illustrator (as with the woodcut-inflected Brad Teare in the otherwise trifling “The Man in the Crowd”) the results might have proven more memorable.
It’s the shorter poems that provide their respective artists the most room to fly beyond the fringe, whether it’s Maxon Crumb providing a Basil Wolverton-y illo for “Alone,” Neale Blanden’s suitably surreal cartooning of “A Dream within a Dream” or Malaysian artist Leong Wan Kok staging a grisly interpretation of “The Conqueror Worm.” If the stories remain the prime draw for these “Graphic Classics” volumes, the poems add an art comics feel to the package that’s especially apt for this magnificently depressive genre pioneer.