Classic Tales: The Story Behind African-American Classics
Co-editors Tom Pomplun and Lance Tooks discuss the work behind their new book, African-American Classics, which features the works of Trevor von Eeden, Jeremy Love, Christopher Priest, and many others.
How did this project come about?
Tom: The project began years ago, when I was considering doing a Graphic Classicsvolume of stories by Zora Neale Hurston, a writer suggested to me by GC contributor Mary Fleener. When I mentioned my plans to Lance Tooks, a longtime contributor to the series, he liked the idea and also told me that he had long intended to do a book of stories by the Dunbars; Paul Laurence Dunbar and his wife, Alice Dunbar Nelson. I thought about this for a time and decided that we might fill both goals by making Hurston and the Dunbars part of a GC volume dedicated to early black authors. It seemed to me that there was nothing previously done in the comics field that was comparable. I asked Lance to co-edit the book, and he enthusiastically agreed.
Lance: I sure did! I'm proud to have been a contributor to the Graphic Classics series for almost a decade. Tom has taken the greatest writers in the world, from Poe to Twain, Wilde to Lovecraft, and placed them in the hands of some of the most unique contemporary cartoonists. Their approaches range from faithful to irreverent, but none of his contributors has ever been indifferent to their source works, adapting them with personal flavor and verve. (Imitation series are springing up everywhere as we speak, not necessarily a bad thing!) So when Tom and I discussed the possibility of a volume adapting never-before-seen-in-comics authors like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and W.E.B. DuBois into the GC format, I was thrilled at the prospect that readers of all ages might be exposed to such a brilliant group of writers for the first time. He asked me to share the responsibility of editing the project with him, a privilege I truly couldn’t refuse. I can’t wait for the whole world to see this book…helping to make it happen has been a blast!
Was this a difficult undertaking? Were there any particular difficulties associated with telling these stories in a graphic format?
Tom: This volume was more challenging for me than most previous ones in the Graphic Classics series in that I was initially less familiar with the authors. I read everything I could find by Hurston, then went on to discover other great writers from the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and W.E. B. DuBois. But I still felt I needed help on the volume, which is why I asked Lance to co-edit. He was much more familiar with the great black writers included in the book and had grown up reading many of them. We both spent about a year reading and researching possible authors, then came up with a consensus.
Lance: When adapting a classic author, I always go where the tale takes me…the fun comes in deciding which storytelling approach will serve the finished work best. I adapted two short pieces in African-American Classics, as did scripter Alex Simmons elsewhere in the volume, taking a slightly different tack to each. For Alice Dunbar Nelson's short Mardi Gras horror tale "A Carnival Jangle," I chose to limit my use of the color red to moments of impending danger and terror. For Frances E.W. Harper's "Shalmanezer," an old Arabian Nights style passion play about a young prince who comes face to face with entities representing Fame, Wealth, and Pleasure, I interpreted the characters as near-silhouettes, my only significant change to the text being a change of gender for some of the abstract cast members. I felt that if all of Shalmanezer's "evil" temptresses were women, the "good" ones representing Peace and Self Denial should be female as well. I chose a limited palette because my chiaroscuro figures would be overwhelmed by too much color. Far from being difficult, this project has been a joy to bring to life—I only hope I did the authors justice.
I really love the cover of the book. It’s perfectly emotive and seems to evoke a story before you even open the book. How did you choose it?
Tom: I can take little credit for the cover, other than helping select Afua Richardson as the artist. Lance and I gave her a free hand, other than the restrictions of format, and she came up with a great idea.
Afua Njoki Richardson (cover artist): Thank you. I spent hours pouring through images while treating myself to ragtime and standards of Ella, Sarah, and Sinatra. There is something romantic about the style of those times, so they were enjoyable hours. I came across a snapshot of a scene in a movie I can't remember the name of. The scene took place in an old rail station. The gents sitting on the bench were not wearing fedoras and trench coats like we might imagine everyone wearing. They were working men, charcoal- and leather-skinned, tired, dirty from the day's task with hands that have seen the minerals of the earth.
It reminded me of the work of the writers featured in the book. I imagined rail stations were places where everyone was just passing through; similar to the feeling you get being in an airport. Considering the times, not belonging somewhere could mean trouble. I thought about the train rides these authors endured. The work they did allows us a glimpse into their journeys. Not just a polished musical or love story, but a real walk in their arduous, charming or horrific encounters. Travel along with them, even if only for just a few pages.
How did the Graphic Classics series begin? What kind of ground has it covered so far, and what are its goals?
Tom: The Graphic Classics series began in 2001 (we just celebrated our tenth year!). I got into this business by what is probably an unusual route for a comics publisher. In 2003, after many years as an art director in advertising, I cofounded and designed Rosebud, a nationally distributed literary magazine. Rosebud is a magazine of ﬁction, poetry, and art, and in 2000 I began to add comics to the mix, with both original strips and reprints from artists including Robert Crumb, Jack Jackson, Frank Stack, Skip Williamson, and Rick Geary. I found that the comics soon grew to be of more interest to me than the rest of the magazine, so in 2003 I left to create my own publication. I originally wanted to do something that would be a combination of comics and heavily illustrated stories. The format would be closely derived from that of Rosebud, which had developed through years of trial and error. The difference was that I wanted to do a series of books, which would be distributed differently and have a longer shelf life than a periodical.
The idea of doing adaptations of classic literature was settled on partly due to my childhood recollections of, and fondness for, the Classics Illustrated comics of the 1950s, and partly due to economics. Since I was attempting to publish this series on my own, with no financial backing, utilizing stories in the public domain was a necessity. But I soon found that what began as a constriction became an opportunity. These are authors and stories that have been popular for over a hundred years, and with good reason. There is a vast wealth of material that can be presented in illustrated form to a new audience or in new interpretations to an existing readership. Also, when I began the series in 2001, there was no other publisher regularly doing comics adaptations of classics, though there are now a number of other publishers who have come out with competing series.
The ﬁrst volume, Graphic Classics: Edgar Allan Poe, was a mixture of comics adaptations and illustrated text stories, with a number of reprints from other publications. Subsequent volumes quickly evolved into all-original adaptations, and the text stories were eliminated in favor of comics adaptations, as these proved more popular with readers. The early books in the series were all black and white, single-author collections. I sought to distinguish the books from previous classics adaptations in that the series would concentrate on short stories and poems, rather than exclusively on condensed novels. I later converted to color, and began alternating the author collections with thematic anthologies including Horror Classics, Western Classics and African-American Classics.
Our goal is to present the works of the authors of the standard classical canon in new ways, but also to expand the definition of what is considered "classic" to include a much broader range of writers who have influenced our cultural history.
Lance: I feel that we're part of a long tradition of adapting works of literature into song, into theater, into dance, into movies, into comics…it’s a natural desire for any storyteller to want to retell and reinterpret the myths and stories that inspired him. Many classic works now considered literature are themselves reiterations of older myths and legends. This opportunity to “collaborate” with the grand old tale-spinning masters has taught me a lot about what makes a great story, improving my own creative skills in the process. Every contributor to African-American Classics brings his own life experience to their adaptation, choosing which things to emphasize or exclude from the finished work. Subtext in the stories can be brought to the surface in the art, things with one intended interpretation when originally written can reveal different meanings to our current generation, nearly a century later. At their core, these are wonderful, entertaining stories, with much to say about America and the events that brought us all to where we are now as a nation.
How did you go about finding all the collaborators and artists for this project?
Tom: Having done this series for over ten years, I have developed a core group of artists and scripters who have become regular contributors. But I thought the selections in this volume would be best interpreted by black artists and writers who could bring their own personal experiences and perspectives to the adaptations. I still scripted several stories myself, as I do in all GC volumes. There were a few stories that I had a particularly clear vision of, or thought would be particularly tricky to adapt to comics. As publisher, I was in the enviable position of deciding which pieces I would do myself.
The remainder of the scripting and artist selections were made by me, in consultation with Lance. I of course included artists Milton Knight and Stan Shaw, who have been regular contributors to the series for years. Others I found through referrals and research in publications and on the web. John Jennings and Damian Duffy’s collection Black Comix was an invaluable resource. Lance has had many contacts and collaborators over his comics career and he was able to bring a number of creators into the project.
Lance: Tom and I gathered short stories and poems from various sources, both in print and online. In choosing both our classic authors and modern artists, we each created a pool of names from which we selected a veritable “dream team” of contributors. These artists, all of whom are African-American, have long dreamed of being a part of such a project, and have rendered each tale with great care and respect.
After deciding which poems and stories to adapt, we paired each story with scripters, then each piece with three potential artists that we thought might do it justice. In hindsight we had incredible luck, because in most cases our first choices were more than enthusiastic about the project.
Which of the stories particularly resonates with you and why?
Tom: Having spent two years immersed in these stories, I am fond of them all. But I feel a special attachment to Zora Neale Hurston's short play "Filling Station," as it was my first selection for the book. From the moment I read it I saw it as illustrated in Milton Knight's wonderful style. And of course Milt went on to surpass my own vision of the story.
Lance: I think each cartoonist took his or her particular story and ran with it. I can't describe the thrill each week as another breathtaking completed piece arrived at the inbox, from artists and writers I greatly admire, like Mac McGill, Kyle Baker, Milton Knight, Stan Shaw, Mat Johnson, Randy DuBurke, Alex Simmons…and I was particularly impressed by Kenjji Jumanne-Marshall, Shepherd Hendrix, and Arie Monroe's contributions! I'm also thrilled that I was able to twist reclusive scripter Christopher Priest's arm into returning to comics, linked to Jim Webb's images for a wonderful piece in our book.
There’s a lot of breadth and depth of African-American literature featured here. What drove the different aspects of what you wanted to include?
Tom: Precisely what you just stated; we purposely sought to reflect that breadth and depth. While we set restrictions as to time period, we tried to include a wide range of fiction and poetry, from tragedy to comedy, and from both male and female authors, well- and little-known.
Lance: I kept a picture in my head throughout of a kid, much like the one I once was, potentially discovering our volume in a library and getting to meet Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes for the first time. We're telling stories of vengeance and forgiveness…of action and reflection…we wanted to present a fairly complete sampler of these remarkable authors to readers of a variety of ages and cultures.
With so much literary history to draw upon, will there be another volume of African-American Classics?
Tom: There were a number of great writers, including Rudolph Fisher, Countee Cullen, and Ray G. Dandridge, as well as additional works by the selected authors that we were unable to fit in this volume, as well as a number of talented artists and scripters we could not include. So a More African-American Classics volume is a definite possibility for the future. Frankly, that depends largely on sales of this book. I need to recover my costs and my breath before tackling a sequel.
Lance: There is such an abundance of great literature by unsung authors and coincidentally so many remarkable cartoonists in the world right now that I can easily imagine a companion volume springing up, or even a series of books. I'd jump at the chance to do it all again.
What’s the next book in the Graphic Classics series going to focus on?
Tom: In April 2012 we will be releasing a revised edition of the out-of-print Graphic Classics: Robert Louis Stevenson with a new comics adaptation of Treasure Island and Lance’s adaptation of The Bottle Imp. The all-new 23rd volume in the series will be Halloween Classics, scheduled for August 2012. The book is being done as something of an EC-style tribute, with story introductions by famed horror author Mort Castle. It features The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and, in a first for GC, an adaptation of a classic movie: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. And for January 2013 we are beginning work on Native American Classics, stories and poems from America’s earliest authors. My co-editors for the volume are noted writers John E. Smelcer and Joseph Bruchac.
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