Chicago Tribune recommends MASTERPIECE COMICS

Illustrated classics sure to please the Grinchiest

Chicago Tribune    |    Christopher Borrelli    |    January 5, 2010

For those who plan on giving a classic work of literature as a gift this holiday -- particularly those who have never given a classic -- a word of warning: It's not the selection that's dry -- this year, for instance, you can't go wrong with one of the revamped hard-cover, dust-jacket-free editions of Dickens or Hardy from Penguin, its pattern-stamped covers evocative of the wallpaper in every Merchant-Ivory drawing room ever. It's the reactions, the tight smiles -- often less effusive than you had imagined.

That said, you have options: You could spend the next year resenting that your brother-in-law didn't turn cartwheels when handed a new annotated copy of "Dr. Faustus," or you could rethink your approach, and consider one of the following, each of which, in its own way, rethinks classics themselves.

[email protected]

"Masterpiece Comics"

Drawn & Quarterly, $19.95, 65 pages

Best appreciated by: English majors with a sense of humor; aging devotees of "Classics Illustrated"; students of the fine-art of the mash-up; pop culture cultists.

What it is: Your eyes insist, but this is not a satire of canonical literature, or a series of great works adapted as classic comics by the original artists. This is the work of one man, R. Sikoryak, best known for his New Yorker covers (he did the Buckingham Palace guard shedding a tear after the death of Lady Diana). Thirteen abbreviated classics reinvented as newspaper strips, comic books and, incredibly, in the case of Dante's "Inferno," "Bazooka Joe" wrappers. The joy is not in the irony, which is as mild as the jokes in the originals, but in the clever juxtapositions -- Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" as "Peanuts" ("Get lost, you stupid bug!!!"), "Candide" as "Ziggy," and, the centerpiece, "The Scarlet Letter" as "Little Lulu." Each is a spot on impersonation, with dialogue that, like the book itself, honors both classic literature and cartoonists, revealing something fresh in each.

Gravitas? As thin as it is, yes.

"The Toon Treasury of Classic Children's Comics"

Abrams Comic Arts, $40, 352 pages

Best appreciated by: Precocious, creative kids; old-school comic book collectors; graphic designers; the nostalgic.

What it is: A generous consideration of an overlooked milestone of American childhood -- comics produced exclusively for pre-superhero-smitten adolescents, mostly in the '40s and '50s. Curated by Art Spiegelman ("Maus") and Francoise Mouly (art editor of the New Yorker, and Spiegelman's wife), and well-selected (everything from "Uncle Scrooge" to obscurities such as "Patsy Pancake"), it serves both as a children's book and a revelatory catalog of styles that, a bit later, led to MAD magazine and the underground comix of the 1960s. (Bonus: They even reproduced the sweet, uneven dot-matrix color of vintage titles.)

Gravitas? Not really, but as a loving, unexpected argument for the invention of midcentury kids comics, it's wonderful.

"The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb"

Norton, $24.95, 224 pages

Best appreciated by: Lapsed Catholics; friends who say they plan to read the Bible someday; fans of sex and violence.

What it is: Exactly what Crumb, the godfather of alternative comix and purveyor of very squeamish iconic adult illustrations, has been threatening for years -- a graphic-novel distillation of the first book of the Bible, from Creation to the story of Joseph. The surprise is how affecting it turned out, and how lacking in irony its gorgeous near wood-cut illustrations are. Those expecting cheerful blasphemy will be disappointed Crumb sticks close to the text, condensing in panels what the book takes a doorstop to address. He even gives God a traditional appearance. (Which is to say, God looks like Duane Allman impersonating Santa Claus.)

Gravitas? Nothing but.

You might also like


Select Your Location: