Peril & Passion!


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Volume fourteen of the stellar series of Graphic Classics from Eureka Productions arrived in the mail the other day, and I admit my first reaction was to toss it in the queue. Then I had to keep moving it around on my desk to find things, and the cover got in my head. The image would rise to my mind, unbidden. So yesterday, in a hurry to leave the house, and needing something to read, I grabbed it and ran out the door.



The stories collected in Gothic Classics have lost the power to frighten us, but they can still enthrall us with their drama and mystery. There's Carmilla (1872), J. Sheridan Le Fanu's story of lesbian vampire love that influenced Bram Stoker's Dracula. An adaptation of the most famous Gothic novel -- Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) -- is balanced by an adaptation of Northanger Abbey (1818), Jane Austen's famous satire of Gothic novels, and Radcliffe's Udolpho in particular. Edgar Allen Poe's very short story The Oval Portrait sits right in between Radcliffe and Austen, providing a spooky interlude. The volume opens with Molly Kiely's hilarious cartoon adaptation of Austen's poem I've a Pain in My Head, and closes with At the Gate, Myla J. Closser's heartwarming story about what happens to dogs when they die.

This is a great set of selections from a long list of likely candidates, impressive in its own right, but editor Tom Pomplun really outdid himself in selecting the illustrators. Above all, Gothic Classics has great art. Some of the artists are already well known to American readers, such as Molly Kiely, Anne Timmons, and Shary Flenniken. Carlo Vergara, well known in his native Philippines, is here making his second appearance in Graphic Classics, and Leong Wan Kok, known to Malaysian readers as Puyuh, makes his American debut in Gothic Classics.

Each artist's style is distinctive, thoughtful, and highly skilled. The quality of the art is surely the main reason why Graphic Classics are published to such acclaim. Lisa Weber's illustration of Carmilla is marvelous, her characters wan and droopy, with enormous eyes. I love the child-like pencil shading that belies the moodiness it enforces. Carlo Vergara's Udolpho is strongly reminiscent of the dedicated realism of the old Classics Illustrated. Leong Wan Kok's Oval Portrait goes for a hilarious sense of the macabre, and Shary Flenniken's At the Gate is clean and spare, its simplicity suggesting the quiet and peace that surely prevails at the gateway to heaven.

I had a lot of trouble overcoming the baby doll look of Anne Timmons' Northanger Abbey women. Her detailed recreations of the dress, furnishings and architecture of Regency England is breathtaking, though, as is the range of expression on the women's' faces. In the end, I couldn't imagine it any other way. After all, Northanger Abbey is purposefully silly, so a breezy, wide-eyed Catherine Morland is to be preferred over the darker, more sober Austen heroines brought to life on the BBC.

The only disappointment is Antonella Caputo's adaptation of Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho. I'm willing to grant that the adaptation of a 700-page novel to a 45-page comic presents some pretty tall challenges. And there are cases when a simple sentence and a single drawing easily capture pages of laborious 18th century writing. But the complexity of the story is unwieldy, and I gave up trying to keep the multiple characters straight. This means that when the big mystery was revealed, it was completely anticlimactic, because I couldn't remember enough of the story to know what it meant!

Austen's Northanger Abbey is a remorseless satire of Radcliffe's Udolpho, and Trina Robbins' deft adaptation keeps the satire front and center. It's laugh-out-loud funny when read right after Udolpho, and somehow the labyrinthine confusion of Caputo's adaptation of Udolpho helps to emphasize just how funny Austen's satire really is.

I liked Gothic Classics so much that I'm ready to go buy the other thirteen volumes in the Graphic Classics series for my tweener friends. Curiously enough, though, not this one. While the volumes in this series are aimed at readers 12 years old and up, I think Gothic Classics is strictly adult fare. The humor of Northanger Abbey would probably be lost on middle school kids, unless a teacher puts it in context for them. But more important is the inclusion of Carmilla in this volume. I really peered at it, hoping this adaptation would somehow subvert the argument, but it doesn't. Carmilla is an attack on the ineffable pleasure of lesbian love, and girls deserve a chance to experience it for themselves before someone comes along and tries to tell them that it's monstrous.

For grownups, though, it's a treat, combining high literary quality and great art into something you'll read again and again.

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