Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Review: African-American Classics

Traditionally, Wednesday is the day of the week when new comic books are released and I usually visit a local shop evey Wednesday; if not Wednesday, later the same week; normally I don't miss going to the comic shop unless I'm on vacation. However, I didn't go to the shop today; I don't plan to go this week; I expect there will be a lot of weeks like that in the future.

However, I'm far from being done with comics! Let's talk African-American Classics!

I've read a couple of these Graphic Classics books put out by Eureka, but they used to be comprised of unfamiliar creators in black & white on regular paper; African-American Classics, however, features creators like Christoper Priest, Kyle Baker and Trevor Von Eeden in full colour on glossy paper! Like other volumes in the series, the stories and poems are adapted from the public domain, this time bound together by the theme of African-American authors. The contents are:

"The Reward" (adapted by Mac McGill), "Two Americans" (adapted by Alex Simmons & Trevor Von Eeden), "On Being Crazy" (adapted by Tom Pomplun & Kyle Baker), "The Negro" (adapted by Stan Shaw), "Danse Africaine" (adapted by Afua Richardson), "A Carnival Jangle" (adapted by Lance Tooks), "the Castaways" (adapted by Glenn Brewer), "America" (adapted by John Jennings), "Lawing and Jawing" (adapted by Tom Pomplun & Arie Monroe), "Lex Talionis" (adapted by Christopher Priest & Jim Webb), "Becky" (adapted by Mat Johnson & Randy DuBurke), "In the Matter of Two Men" (adapted by Kenjji), "Sympathy" (adapted by Lance Tooks), "We Wear the Mask" (adapted by Larry Poncho Brown), "Buyers of Dreams" (adapted by Tom Pomplun & Leilani Hickerson), "the Bronze Legacy" (adapted by Keith Mallett), "the Goophered Grapevine" (adapted by Alex Simmons & Shepherd Hendrix), "Sanctum 777 N.S.D.C.O.U. Meets Cleopatra" (adapted by Tom Pomplun & Kevin J. Taylor), "De Cunjah Man" (adapted by Masheka Wood), "Filling Station" (adapted by Tom Pomplun & Milton Knight), "the Ghost of Deacon Brown" (adapted by Jeremy Love), "Aunt Chloe's Politics" (adapted by Titus V. Thomas), "Shalmanezer" (adapted by Lance Tooks).

Outside of Langston Hughes, I wasn't familiar with any of the featured writers, so I was curious to see what kind of stories were included. Of the entire pack, four stories really stood out:

"Two Americans" is a tale by Florence Lewis Bentley, telling of an African-American soldier in World War I who's reunited with the man who lynched his brother while on the battlefield of France. It's a somber tale about overcoming hatred first within yourself before tackling it externally. When the lead character sees his brother's killer lying wounded on the battlefield he first intends to leave him there, but his dead brother appears in a vision, pleading with him to save his own killer. It's ultimately a variation on the parable of the Good Samaritan. Trevor Von Eeden's artwork is tremendous, aided by Adrian Johnson's colours it's full of hellish blurs of fighting, fiery flames and glowing spirits. I was so taken with Von Eeden's work that I went out and bought his book the Original Johnson after reading this anthology.

I find I'm rather hit and miss with Kyle Baker, but I absolutely adored W.E.B. De Bois' "On Being Crazy" and how Baker brought it to life. It's strange that a story about racism could be so amusing; the protagonist simply goes about expecting to be treated as an equal, then responding to racists who bar his path by making simple observations. I love his reaction to a woman at a concert asking him if he enjoys being where he's not wanted: "I certainly want the music, and I like to think the music wants me to listen to it." Or when a man crosses into mud because he opines all Negroes are dirty: "So is the mud. Moreover, I am not as dirty as you - yet."

I was very surprised by Robert W. Bagnall's "Lex Talionis;" I knew anything with Christopher Priest's name attached to it would be worthwhile, but this particular story is something of a mystery/weird horror story which could have run in Weird Tales or Black Mask back in the day. It concerns a brilliant African-American scientist who's been dogged by a rival white man since their university days. When the bigot murders the scientist's sister, the scientist enacts a bizarre and grisly revenge. It's fine to see Priest's name in comic books again, having sat out of the medium for most of the last 5 or 6 years.

This volume contains a couple of stories by Zora Neale Hurston; the author biography in the back of the book reveals she was rejected by some African-American audiences because of how she wrote dialect. Certainly one of the stories, "Lawing and Jawing," reads like an old Amos N' Andy script. However, I was surprised at how well I enjoyed the second story, "Filling Station," set at a gas station on the Alabama-Georgia line. The story really comes to life when two motorists begin to feud over whose state is better, beginning by accusing the other's state of having more racists, then winding up with a ridiculous Chevy vs. Ford debate as they brag about how fast their cars can go; this rivalry and oneupmanship was actually a lot of fun to read, so I see why Hurston had her fans.

Overall I really enjoyed the book and appreciate the standard author & adaptor biographes in the back of the book, but I really feel like some sort of editorial is needed for this volume. That is, what is the theory behind this collection? Did the editor simply have a list of stories he wanted to adapt, sought out the best talent he could assign and so forth? Were the creators given free reign to choose whichever stories they want to adapt? As a Priest fan, I certainly wonder if he dug up "Lex Talionis" on his own, or if the editors presented it to him.

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