Illustrated Classics of African-American Literature

Students: If you plan to cheat on your book reports, take a look at Graphic Classics. As Art Spiegelman put it, “Comics are a gateway drug to literacy”; for the visually oriented, this series will open doors to literature. It’s also a stunning contrast to those dreadful 1950s Classics Illustrated comic books, with their dry, tedious plotting and bland, pedestrian art.

Ah, progress. Rather than unabridged novels, each Graphic Classic is an anthology of stories and poems, usually from 6 to 20 pages. Each tale has its own visual flair, enlivened by a diverse array of book illustrators, painters, and comics artists (regular contributors include J.B. Bonivert, Roger Langridge, and Rick Geary). And they’re often so imaginative, evocative, and compelling in their execution that they leave readers with no choice but to crave more.

Graphic Classics are produced by Tom Pomplun, a former advertising art director turned literary-magazine publisher, who actually has a fondness for those old Classics Illustrateds. The series debuted in 2001 with a collection of 12 Edgar Allen Poe tales, followed by other genre favorites: H.G. Welles, Arthur Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft. After nearly two dozen volumes, the author list has expanded to include Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and Louisa May Alcott. There are also a variety of themed compilations on horror, sci-fi, gothic, western, and other genres.

The latest is “African-American Classics,” from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, by Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, and 16 others. Lance Tooks, the book’s co-editor, and Kyle Baker of DC Comics fame are among the featured artists. And here are some sample pages.


2 thoughts on “Illustrated Classics of African-American Literature

  1. Patrick Holt

    @ Paper Acrobat: I get (and agree with the spirit of) what you’re saying, but the word cartoon has a complicated relationship to perceived value and seriousness.  It was originally used to mean, more or less, a sketch for a work of “greater” value — painting, tapestry — that was typically thrown away (cartoon from the Italian cartone, or card).  In the 1800s, Punch used it for the first time to refer to single-panel, satirical/gag comics done in a sketchy and caricaturish style; still “low” visual value, but slightly more cultural worth. Nowadays it’s a mixed bag, with The Center for Cartoon Studies being one of the finest comics schools in the country, but then I still hear parents at my library complaining (unfairly) about their kids’ love of “those cartoon books”, which is partly because so many popular comics are derived from animated TV shows (Naruto, etc.).  It’s confusing, but I guess what I’m getting at is that cartoon doesn’t have to signify “lowness” anymore than comic book does. Not that my ramble exactly clears a path to a solution…
    BTW most of my information is from the R.C. Harvey essay in Jeet Heer’s A Comics Studies Reader, which is a great collection of essays.