Black Classics Reborn

Article excerpt


For more than a decade, Eureka Productions has been converting i9th- and 20th-century literature- Poe, Wilde, Stevenson, Akott- into high-quality graphic novels. The Graphic Classics series reminds us of the comic genre's literary potential and harkens back to the popular origins of much of our most revered literature.

The twenty-second volume, African- American Classics* the first in the series to feature the work of black authors, has adapted 23 stories and poems by writers such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and W.E.B. Du Bois.

The stones and poems were written between 1891 and 1931, and predictably, the Harlem Renaissance predominates. More than a third of the selections included were published in 1922. The literature is old, but the art- all of it by contemporary African Americans- is new.

Race is the unifying theme of the book, it being what all the writers and artists share, and the African -American experience is present, in both large and small ways. Some of the pieces represent a kind of protest literature, exposing the cruel and absurd inequalities of American society. Others celebrate blackness in its various forms, embracing the sense of community, taking pride in the cultural heritage, or meditating on the physical beauty of black features. But nothing in the book is only about race, and it would be wrong to try to reduce any of these pieces to a single dimension. There are stories here about war, loneliness, magic, neighborhood life, morality and the foibles and flaws that so often characterize humanity.

Besides race, other kinds of inequality also receive attention. Gender discrimination and violence against women feature prominently. Poverty is an element in almost all of the stories, though usually in the background. In the story "Shalmanezer" however, the abolitionist and suffragist Frances E. W. Harper notes the suíferíng of toiling workers and starving children (whom illustrator Lance Tooks portrays somewhat pityingly); and she attributes their misery to the upper class' single-minded pursuit of riches.

The featured artists relate their images to the text in diverse ways. In some cases- John Jennings' single, striking image for Claude McKay's poem "America" is one example- the visuals are an artistic response to the literature, but either could stand on its own. In others, such as Keith Mailetts art for Eme Lee Newsome's "The Bronze Legacy," the visuals illustrate the story, and therefore depend on the text. And in some- comics in the purest sense - the image and the text are interdependent. Leilani Hickersons art for Ethel M. Caution's "Buyers of Dreams," is perhaps the best example. In this fantastic morality tale, three young women enter the "Shop of Dreams," and each selects the dream that she believes will bring her happiness. The plot is simple, the writing is plain, and the vivid images are literal in their approach. However, one could not get the whole story by reading the narration and dialogue, nor merely decipher the action in the pictures; the meaning exists in their interrelation. The words on the page tell us what is happening and move the action along, but the art sets the tone, showing us how ordinary, and also fabulous, the events depicted really are.

The most interesting pairing of art and lit occurs in Milton Knight's illustration of what is the funniest story in the book, Zora Neale Hurstons "Filling Station." The plot is really just a series of humorous encounters in a gas station at the border of Alabama and Georgia. …