Propaganda : Graphic Classics – A Mark Twain anthology.
This is the Mark Twain volume of the Graphic Classics series, where comic artists adapt and illustrate various classic stories of Sam Clements. It’s an impressive looking anthology, full of writers and artists that may or may not be new to you but including the ever wonderful Rick Geary, which was why I actually enthusiastically picked this up off the reviewing pile and dived in.
It suffers greatly from the rule and the curse of the anthology. It’s patchy. But all anthologies are by their very nature. You can’t like everything unless you’re:
a) easily pleased or
b) you are the publisher or
c) you happen to be reading the one anthology that is the exception to the rule.
I found myself most enjoying the strips where the artists took the most original route rather than those where writer and artist just blankly and quite blandly adapted the text.
The opener by Tom Pomplun and George Sellas is interesting and good reading and sets the tone of the whole book, choosing to concentrate on Twain’s lesser known pieces. “Tom Sawyer Abroad” was the less successful sequel to “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and a parody of Jules Verne style science adventures where Tom, Huck Finn and Jim climb onboard a hi-tech hot air balloon and venture overseas on their adventures. And although it’s very much a straight romp it’s really good fun.
Likewise, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County is a bit too bland and just does a straight retelling. It’s only with the heartbreaking “A Dog’s Tale” and accompanying political cartooning by Lance Tooks that the book really comes alive. Tooks illustrates Twain’s short story on animal abuse to show us that it’s not just man’s inhumanity to animals that is a terrible thing.
(Lance Tooks poignant and beautiful art on A Dog’s Life.)
Simon Gane‘s adaptation of the story “Is He Living or Is He Dead?” is given new life by the originality of Gane’s artwork and is a visual treat. Caputo and Miller’s “Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime” is a quick, funny read with delightful cartooning, despite dealing with the darker side of Twain as he deals murderously with his own conscience.
But possibly the best bit of this book (apart from the aforementioned Rick Geary story) is the section halfway through: “Advice to Little Girls” finds eight women artists brilliantly and originally illustrate Mark Twain’s text. Single pages by Shary Flenniken, Mary Fleener, Florence Cestac and Lisa K. Weber stand out from the rest as wonderful pieces.
(Advice to Little Girls by Lisa K. Weber)
But it’s obviously the Rick Geary piece; The Mysterious Stranger that drew me to read the book and it’s a definite highlight of this anthology. In it an angel named Satan (nephew of the other Satan, or maybe it’s Satan himself? It’s deliberately vague) appears in a small town and takes a couple of country boys through a tour of the worst of humanity and the totally uncaring nature of existence. In seeming innocence he points out the horrible futures of the townfolk and, when begged by the boys to do something to change the future, acts in a deliberately pedantic and cynical manner which always seems to have terrible and fatal consequences. If charged with preventing someone’s death from illness after years of poor health, he will simply and mercifully strike them down dead on the spot, thus saving them years of suffering. It’s packed with dark deeds and human weakness, something Geary has always excelled at portraying. Rick Geary’s art is always worth a look, unlike anything else you’ll see and possibly worth the price of admission alone.
(The Mysterious Stranger: Art by Rick Geary)
So, in conclusion, it’s an anthology. So it’s flawed. It was always going to be.
But despite the flaws it’s a worthy and interesting read with every single story being readable and worthwhile, and a great deal of them being thoroughly enjoyable and great reads. I will be looking out the rest of the series, because the greatest thing I can say about Graphic Classics: Mark Twain is that in the end it’s a glorious and valiant failure. But they shouldn’t feel bad about this at all. Anthologies invariably are. Especially anthologies that try hard to do something a little different and put as much variety in between the covers as this one does.
Richard Bruton (that’s me) is a lifelong comics fan and former Comic Book Store Guy; you can read more of his thoughts on comics and life on his blog Fictions.
I also think extra credit is due for not using the initial title: Propaganda boards the Twain. That would have been awful.