By Beth Hewitt
A dear friend of mine likes to tell the story of how the legendary Classics Illustrated saved his scholarly ass: during his candidacy exams, he managed to survive this particular ritual of academic hazing solely by the miracle of recalling the plots he had read years earlier in comic form. While his colleagues smile condescendingly—the story confirming their conviction in the puerility of comics—I guffaw because, to my mind, rather than confirming the childishness of comics, the tales chosen for Albert Kanter’s original series (adventure stories by Dumas, Scott, Cooper, Stevenson) confirm the essential juvenility of so many novels. My friend tries to vindicate his early reading choices by explaining that the pleasure of Classics Illustrated was not their function as illustrated Spark Notes, but as works of art that served as homage to their original sources.
Since the discontinuation of Classics Illustrated and Classics Illustrated Junior (in 1971), there have been numerous (largely unsuccessful) attempts to revive the project. The most recent of these is Marvel Illustrated, a new line of 6-issue comics, inspired by Kanter’s Classics Illustrated, which has already published The Last of the Mohicans, Treasure Island, Moby-Dick, The Illiad, and Picture of Dorian Gray. As was the case with Kanter’s original, these new titles do more than merely summarize plots with pretty pictures. Indeed, reading them, I was struck again and again by the ways that the comics so often brilliantly get the essence of the classic text.
The most impressive, I think, is the recently completed adaptation of Moby Dick. In many ways, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick has always seemed the most improbable of titles for a comic book: its narrative seems too slender and its non-narrative parts too immense for graphic representation. Unlike the other fiction mined for Classics Illustrated, the novel of Ahab’s obsession with the white whale—with its chapters devoted to cetology or meditations on transcendentalism and misanthropy—does not seem especially well suited to the impulse towards adventure fiction that appears to undergird the publishing project of both the old and new classic literature series. And yet, the new version by Roy Thomas and Pascal Alixe is a stunning representation not just of the novel’s basic plot, but also of the novel’s generic originality and philosophical challenges. We move quickly through the novel, but the abridgment is really nothing short of masterful. I was a fan after the first page, which begins with the famous first words from the novel (“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago, having little or no money in my purse, I thought I would see the water part of the world.”) Offering a full page picture of Ishmael, who seems a bit younger and a bit more attractive than my mind’s eye always fancied him, Melville’s text litters the page as a series of torn text boxes, subtly emphasizing the textuality of the novel—that this is Ishmael’s story as recollected and written down on paper. The first issue quickly moves us to Ishmael and Queequeg’s first romantic night in Spouter’s Inn, their decision to ship with the Pequot, and concludes with the first sighting of Ahab. But the pacing somehow—I’m not even entirely sure how—manages to represent the meditative deliberation of Melville’s novel even as it condenses the 600 page novel.
I was not quite as blown away by some of the other titles, but they were all well done, and I was consistently impressed with Thomas’s writing. In interviews he explains that he long wanted to work on this project, and his appreciation for the authors he reworks is evident on every page. In his Last of the Mohicans, for example, he splendidly produces Cooper’s action plot at the same time as he evokes the slow and evocative mood conveyed by the original novel. The illustrator of Mohicans, Steve Kurth, produces more standard fare than did Alixe in Moby Dick (indeed, the art looks a lot like the version from 50 years earlier). While the art in Moby Dick captures the spirit of the novel, I was disappointed not to see Kurth get the essence of Cooper. Surprisingly, it would have been easier to “get the spirit” of Cooper, given the novelist’s own tendency towards visual description and the substantial artistic tradition of illustrations from Cooper’s novels. I would like to have seen something of that picturesque quality in the comic, but the framing is small, and much of the comic is tight shots of fight scenes. The pictures are dynamic—but the aim seems less like a intellectual attempt to put Cooper’s novel into a combination of words and pictures, as it is an attempt to juice up Cooper by turning every frame into an action scene.
Both Treasure Island and The Picture of Dorian Gray better captured the aesthetic style of the originals. The illustrations in Treasure Island (done by Mario Gully) resemble those in Last of the Mohicans, with lots of very small horizontal rectangular frames, causing the tale to have a kind of hyperbolic dynamism. I like it better here, as it sits more neatly with the story: together both Thomas and Gully nicely represent the story as Jim Hawkins tells it—with the limited perspective of a child breathlessly telling the adventure story that children have been reading for years. In Dorian Gray, the illustrator, Sebastian Fiumara, masterfully captures Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic (while continuing to rest in Thomas’s skillful hands at adapting the novel). The muted pastel colors, the emphasis on line design, the Beardsley-like style perfect captures the surreal landscape of the novel.
I will confess that I was annoyed by Marvel’s decision to do a version of The Illiad. Why, I thought, are they reproducing a text that is being so masterfully handled by Eric Shanower in Age of Bronze (I should note, however, that the series has hired Shanower to write their Wizard of Oz series, which I eagerly await.) Even Thomas’s writing here doesn’t approach the level of his other titles. My guess is that because the source material is poetic, and because, therefore, he cannot turn to it as faithfully, the writing seems somehow less, how shall I say, literary. One of the aspects of the other comics (but especially Moby Dick) that I enjoy so much is that so much of the script is taken from the original. The artist here, Miguel Angel Sepulveda, also seems to suffer some of the same challenges as did Gully and Kurth. Attempting to inject “energy” into the classic tale, the Illiad is dominated with tiny horizontal boxes that contradict the epic grandeur of the story. When Sepulveda gives himself the luxury of the full page, things really open up, but such moments are too rare.
Any of these quarrels aside, I am grateful that Marvel has decided to put their publishing might behind this worthy venture—and that they put it in the remarkably capable hands of Roy Thomas. These are splendid versions of splendid novels, and I am certain they will find readers of all ages, including (no doubt) some who will one day become literature professors.