If ever there was a writer more aligned with the sensitivities of today's young cartoonists, it's Ambrose Bierce. The journalist and author, a master of the darkly cynical, provides plenty of good material for the grim at heart, and the newly revised and reissued Graphic Classics (Eureka Productions) devoted to his works ably makes this case. Planted with the middle of the 144-page book is a selection of "Bierce's Fables," one- and two-page pieces done by twenty different cartoonists (among them: onetime Air Pirates Shary Flenniken and Dan O'Neill, P.S. Mueller and alt cartoonists Roger Langridge and Johnny Ryan) – each one of which lovingly recreates Bierce's caustically comic take on the human condition.
Series editor Tom Pomplun balances the quick and the snarky (including an abridged version of Bierce's "Devil's Dictionary" with gloriously elaborate full-page graphics by the Residents' artist-in-residence Steven Cerio) with some of the writer's tales of the supernatural. New to this edition are adaptations of two horror tales, "The Damned Thing" and "Moxon's Master," and a piece adapted by Bierce from an original German short story, "The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter." The last, scripted by Antonella Caputo and illustrated with moody gray-tones by Carlo Vergara, is an especially fine bit of Bierce-ian bleakness. A tale of romantic obsession, religious madness and murder, it captures those elements of human hypocrisy and self-deception that were fodder for the American writer. Vergara's rendering of the story's climax, where its narrating protagonist slays the object of his affections to "save" her soul, is overwrought and restrained at once.
The remaining new stories aren't as effective. In the case of "The Damned Thing," the fault perhaps lies in the source. Though Bierce's central concept (of a creature whose coloration puts it beyond human visual capacity) has been one that's sparked plenty of later day horror writers, the story itself is no great shakes. "Master" is the stronger entry, though the voluminous word balloons and narrative boxes that writer/artist Stan Shaw utilizes in his comic adaptation prove more than a little daunting. Shaw's expressionistic art is engaging but not enough to keep the comic from being weighted down in wordiness.
All three of the new pieces take a visually serious approach to the material – as does Mark A. Nelson in an elegant adaptation of the Arizona ghost story, "The Stranger" – though several of the book's other contributors provide a lighter touch to Bierce's short fictions. Particularly strong is Michael Slack's stylized artwork on the illustrated story, "The Hypnotist," an unflinching piece narrated by an unapologetic murderer that might have been unbearable if it'd been rendered more realistically. Same goes for Anne Owens' adaptation of "Oil of Dog," which is rendered in a buoyant cartoon gothic style that looks like something the Tim Burton of Sweeney Todd might have lensed. Owens' adaptation is nearly as wordy as "Moxon's Master," but because she letters her longer passages outside the panels, giving them less of a constricted feel, the story reads more smoothly.
Pomplun also includes a cartoonishly irreverent four-page consideration of the life of Bierce by Mort Castle and Dan E. Burr, which itself proves as entertaining as any of the tales in this book. The adventurous Bierce famously disappeared in Mexico in 1913 or '14, and "The Disappearance of Ambrose Bierce" examines the various theories put forth to explain this slice of American literary history – including Charles Fort's magnificently bizarre theory that the man of letters was abducted by aliens looking to collect men named Ambrose. Bierce, one suspects, would've been amused both by Fort's wackiness and the comic here exposing it . . .