Friday, December 09, 2011

African-American Classics

Go getter that he is, Lee asked Eureka Productions, the publisher of the soon to be released African-American Classics, to send a copy of the book for Comics and... to review. Not being the tops at being a go getter, but a hell of a delegator, he asked me to read and review it. Knowing my place in the order of things here at Comics and... I did so.

The book is volume 22 in a series called Graphic Classics. Previous books include the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, O. Henry, Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Science Fiction Classics and Fantasy Classics. This book falls into the theme category rather than single author category, making it more a traditional anthology than the volumes featuring a single author.

The cover of this volume notes that it includes works by W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes, but there are a lot more lesser known writers as well. It's a varied selection of works originally written from the 1890s to the 1930s. I'll mostly talk about the prose work because the poems don't entail much adaptation. They just have illustrations to accompany the original poem.

The first prose work is Two Americans by Florence Lewis Bentley from 1921. Alex Simmons adapts and Trevor von Eeden illustrates. It's a WWI piece in a small French town where black and white American soldiers march through to approbation on their way to battle. Shortly after, one of the black soldiers struggles back a couple miles, gravely wounded and carrying an equally grievously wounded white soldier. He gains enough consciousness to tell the story of how the white soldier led a mob who tortured and burned his brother back in Georgia. He had sworn revenge but the ghost of his brother came to him and told him not to pursue the path of vengance as he had done. So, the black soldier tries to save the white soldier. They both die and are buried in the small town. Von Eeden's art is great. It captures a nostalgic feel for this quiant French contryside, but also captures the brutality of the mob lynching and the war. No small measure of that is owed to Adrian Johnson's colors. The story itself reminded me of the many Sgt Rock, Our Army at War, and other comics I'd read as a kid. There was always some story in there with these sorts of themes, such as brother killing brother in the Civil War or friend killing friend in Korea. It had a message of forgiveness over hate that I'd say was directed at a black reading audience when written. It was a bit pat.

Now, On Being Crazy, by W.E.B. Du Bois was great. Written in 1907 and adapted for this work by Tom Pomplun (who's also one of the editors of the book), it's illustrated by Kyle Baker. I really liked Baker's Nat Turner book and his art here is even better. It captures disdain, superciliousness, arrogance, and dismay as a prim and proper black man attempts to eat, go to the theater, and rent a hotel room in a segregated world. Riding a train isn't any better, either (as Plessy v Ferguson certainly showed). The best part, though, is when the man gives up and decides to walk. He comes across a poor white farmer walking in the opposite direction, and that's when we get into the discussion that asks the reader to decide who is crazy. It's an exchange I can't do justice by summarizing, so you'll just have to read it.

A Carnival Jangle is by Alice Dunbar Nelson from 1892 and adapted by Lance Tooks (who is the other editor of the book). This one is more an illustrated story than a comic book type of adaptation, but Tooks has a very nice line to his work. Set in Mardi Gras, a young girl leaves her group of friends to celebrate with another group they met on the street, only to be mistaken for someone else and stabbed. It's a mistaken identity killing with no consequence to the killer. The killer is white and the girl black, but race doesn't seem to be a reason for the killing. Rather, it's a personal grudge that ends up targeting the wrong person. Normally I wouldn't be all that concerned about any greater message, but with writers from this era, I wonder what Nelson's message was intended to be. Don't leave your friends? Stay close to what you know? Hard to say.

I'm not generally mentioning the poems, but The Castaways and America, both by Claude McKay from 1922 were both excellent. I particularly liked the illustration that accompanied America, which was by John Jennings.

Possibly controversial, Zora Neale Hurson's Lawing and Jawing features a courtroom where all the participants are black. It's from 1931, adapted by Pomplun, and illustrated by Arie Monroe, whose style is very much toward cartoon. That's probably best because no one in this should be taken too seriously. The judge is primarily interested in getting rid of a courtroom observer so the judge can take up with the man's girlfriend. No real law is involved as the judge makes things up as he goes along. What's most likely to be controversial is the vernacular Hurson used for her characters. It's an extreme form of black dialect, taken to that extreme for humor, most likely. A segment of courtroom argument by a man who steps out of the crowd is pure gibberish, but Hurson throws in a reference to Marbury v Madison, a case well known to lawyers, but not to a lot of other people. Whether it's funny is up to the reader, but I'd bet that if it was by a writer who isn't black, it would be taken entirely differently, even if the writer intended it to be funny. And that may be why Pomplun is including it here, as it'll make a reader think.

Robert W Bagnall wrote Lex Talionis in 1922. It's a bit of science fiction mixed with racial justice. The narrator reminds me of Sherlock Holmes stories, what with his pipe and all. Of course, it also reminds me of an episode of MASH where a racist soldier, concerned he might be given black blood during his surgery, is colored with dye by the hospital staff to teach him a lesson. This story is not so funny and a lot more harsh when a racist rapes and kills a talented black scientist's sister (who could pass, whereas her brother could not). The scientist devises a way to permanently change the appearance of the racist so he looks like a black man, which leads to his lynching when he shows up at his home insisting that the white woman and children there are his wife and children. Perhaps the most science fiction element to this story is that it's set in some unknown Southern location but the black scientist went to high school and college with white students. I don't know where that might have happened in the South in 1922.

Ethel M Caution's Buyers of Dreams, from 1921, is adapted by Pomplun and illustrated by Leilani Hickerson. It's a straightforward tale celebrating the virtues of Love, Babies, and Life by looking at 3 customers of a shop where dreams can be bought. Interestingly, Caution never married and had no children.

The Goophered Grapevine by Charles W Chesnutt, adapted by Alex Simmons and illustrated by Shepherd Hendrix is from 1899. An old black man tells a tale to a young, wealthy, black couple who are considering buying a delapidated plantation. The old man tells the couple that the grape vines are haunted because of a hex put on them by a witch at the instigation of the slave master who didn't want his slaves eating the grapes. It's a fun story. There's quite a bit of humor at the expense of the master, who thinks he's getting over on his neighbors. Possibly the most amusing part is that the master raises a company to fight for the South in the Civil War mostly because a Yankee had swindled him and managed to kill off his grapes. He swore he'd kill a Yankee for every dollar he lost, but the Yankees killed him first.

And then we hit more vernacular in Sanctum 777 N.S.D.C.O.U Meets Cleopatra. This one is a social club being told the story of Cleopatra (or Clea Patrick) by the woman who's the president of the club. It was written by Leila Amos Pendleton in 1922, and adapted by Pomplun and illustrated by Kevin J Taylor. It's a sort of Shakespearan version of Cleopatra as told by someone who doesn't quite understand it but gets the major points. I can argue the validity of portraying Cleopatra, who was Greek, as an African, but considering that the story is being told from the perspective of someone who believes Cleopatra was African, illustrating her that way makes sense. It's interesting that there's a cartoon quality to most of the story but the picture of Cleopatra after she's been killed by the asp is quite lovely.

Zora Neale Hurston makes another appearance with 1930's Filling Station. Pomplun again adapts the story and Milton Knight illustrates. Hilarious. Alabama v Georgia regionalism, Ford v Chevy bragging rights, sexism, and a whole lot of Warner Brothers cartoons type of effects. I love the part when the Ford and Chevy owners started making digs at one another's vehicles. Took me back to high school and the rednecks arguing such things all the time. Of course, arguing over who's state has the worst racists was pretty funny, too. Knight's work is heavy in line and color and appropriately ridiculous.

The last prose story is by Frances E.W. Harper. Shalmanezer! was written in 1891 and is adapted by Lance Tooks. This is also more of an illustrated story than a comic book style story. It's an African fable about learning the importance of self discipline. Tooks uses an entirely different style in this story than he used in A Carnival Jangle. This one is also largely black and white on a light blue background with some color thrown in for emphasis at different points. I wasn't enamored of the story. It never had any dramatic tension. From the beginning it was easy to see where Shalmanezer was going and how he would get there. The illustrations were really better than the story.

On the whole these were very good stories, and the illustrations on all of them were excellent. As to be expected in an anthology, I liked some more than others. W.E.B. Du Bois was easily my favorite for the humorous point he made. I think Two Americans was a bit heavy handed and Shalmanezer was too predictable, which is unfortunate because they're the prose stories that bookend African-American Classics, but the stories and poems in between were excellent and showcased a variety of styles, not only in writing styles and illustrations, but also in how this period of early African-American writers ran a broad spectrum of approaches to telling a story or making a point.

As a bonus, there's a three page bio section where a little bit is laid out about each writer and artist. I like that sort of history generally, and in the case of some of the more obscure writers in this collection it helped to get a feel for where the writer was coming from in the story.

This is a delightful, occasionally thought provoking, collection of stories. The illustrations are all wonderful and further the telling of each story, appropriate to the story. Highly recommended reading. The back cover says it's recommended for readers 12 to adult, but I think some younger reviewers could handle it. Not something for your six year old, but your nine or ten, depending on the kid.

Ye Ed's Note: African-American Classics was released Dec 1. It is in stock at Diamond, and is now available for next-day shipping from the Graphic Classics website at

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