Propaganda discovers Graphic Classics – Ambrose Bierce
How much do you know about Ambrose Bierce?
I found out that he was: “an American editorialist, journalist, short-story writer and satirist. Today, he is best known for his short story, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and his satirical dictionary, The Devil’s Dictionary. The sardonic view of human nature that informed his work – along with his vehemence as a critic – earned him the nickname, “Bitter Bierce.” Despite his reputation as a searing critic, however, Bierce was known to encourage younger writers, including the poet, George Sterling and the fiction writer, W. C. Morrow. He is known for his distinctive style of writing, which his stories often share. This includes a cold open, use of dark imagery, vague references to time, limited description, war-themed pieces and use of impossible events. In 1913, Bierce travelled to Mexico to gain a firsthand perspective on that country’s ongoing revolution. While travelling with rebel troops, the elderly writer disappeared without a trace.”
Or at least, that’s what Wikipedia told me. So it must all be true (his disappearance has been fictionalised a few times across the years, including in a Dusk Till Dawn prequel just a few years ago – Joe). Of course, another way to learn about a man is to read his work. Or, in this case, read the Graphic Classics adaptations of some of his works.
Graphic Classics: Ambrose Bierce is an anthology, but unlike previous Graphic Classics which had a mix of short and long adaptations, with heavy emphasis of the longer pieces, this volume is made up of 30 pieces, including a huge section of 20 one and two page strips in the middle of the book on Bierce’s Fables. This revised second edition of the book, back in print after five years, contains 70 pages of new material which unfortunately ousts some intriguing looking pieces from the first edition including work by Gahan Wilson and John Coulthart. The new material includes the 30 plus pages of Bierce’s English adaptation of Richard Voss’ German work; “The Monk And The Hangman’s Daughter”, a relatively weak tale, featuring those staples of Gothic fiction, the tortured monk, beauteous wench under threat from nobleman’s evil son, temptation, anguish and eventually murder. It’s just not that good a tale and it’s inclusion just feels wrong, especially as it’s the final piece and the longest, by far, in the collection.
But apart from those moans, I’m pleased to say the rest of the book works pretty well as an introduction to the dark, cynical work of Ambrose Bierce. One feels after reading the book that Bierce’s career in journalism, where his nickname of “Bitter Bierce” was well earned, that the short story is the best way to experience his writing style (it is as far as I am concerned – Joe) The best example of this comes in my highlight from the book: Bierce’s Fables, 20 in all, that showcase a acerbic, dark wit, ably illustrated by a great variety of artists:
(Bierce’s Fable: Compromise With A Camel, illustrated by Mark Dancey. Moral: A compromise is not always a settlement satisfactory to both parties.)
(More of Bierce’s Fables, illustrated by George Sellas)
Also worthy of mention is the 8 page “Selections From The Devil’s Dictionary” where Bierce’s bitter and cynical journalistic venom is allowed free reign, all able illustrated by Steven Cerio, who also provides the eye-popping cover to the book.
But it’s in the longer tales that certain weaknesses with Bierce’s writing come out. Instead of the quick, punchy cynicism and bite of his Fables and the Devil’s Dictionary his longer tales hinge either on a slightly supernatural theme or an investigation into human frailty and a tendency to pursue the basest of actions. There’s no real surprises to be found in the plots of his stories, but they’re all entertaining enough. Of these, the best are “The Damned Thing” telling of a hunting party gone wrong and one man’s obsession with a monster that cannot be seen and “Moxon’s Master” that sees Stan Shaw’s dark and scratchy artwork matching Bierce’s story of the world of dark science, with a sinister automaton’s relationship with his master.
After the highpoint of the Fables, it’s rather a disappointment to return to Bierce’s short stories, but some suitably Goth-y art from Annie Owens on Oil of Dog makes a weakish story a whole lot better. Such is the power of great art I suppose. Curried Cow just doesn’t really work and then we’re into “The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter” of which we’ve spoken already.
(Annie Owens’ suitably dark and gloomy artwork from Bierce’s Oil Of Dog tale.)
Overall, Graphic Classics: Ambrose Bierce just about works. It’s flawed as an anthology, but that’s always going to be the case; there’s never going to be a collection of 30 pieces that doesn’t have some variations in both quality and enjoyment. As an introduction to the writing of Bierce it does intrigue me enough to go exploring a little, although if these adaptations are true to his work, I feel I’d be far better served by seeking out his shorter pieces as I feel his longer work would just frustrate and annoy me with it’s derivative darkness. The one really great thing Graphic Classics does is showcase a wide variety of artistic styles. I enjoyed seeing the differing styles greatly, although some folks might just find it too distracting. Obviously there’s good and bad, weak and strong amongst all of this artwork, but overall it’s a good selection.
More information on the complete range of Graphic Classics is available at their website.