I gotta admit, on some level I approached this comic with a little bit of trepidation. A book like African-American Classics could have been an extremely noble book, the kind of book that's so earnest and sincere that it feels like homework to read through it.
But my fears were unfounded. As you might guess from the outstanding roster of creators involved in this book — the amazing Kyle Baker, the woefully underrated Trevor Von Eeden, the whimsical Milton Knight and the wonderfully talented Shepherd Hendrix, among many others — this book is full of adaptations that succeed on their own really wonderful terms. Far from being work to read this book, the best stories in this book are great comics stories in their own right.
The first story in this book sets the tone for everything that follows it. "Two Americans," adapted from Florence Lewis Bentley's 1921 short story by writer Alex Simmons, artist Trevor Von Eeden and colorist Adrian Johnson, is a wonderfully presented story that shows off Von Eeden's always fantastic storytelling. While the story itself is a bit preachy, Von Eeden presents it with art that emphasizes the real drama and intensity of the story, delivering art full of slashing diagonals and terrific page composition. Simmons and Von Eeden really know how to use silence to emphasize the horrors of war and racism. The final page depiction of a gravesite in France really moved me — proof of the power of the good storytelling they present.
Immediately following Von Eeden and Simmons's story is Tom Pomplun and Kyle Baker's adaptation of W.E.B. DuBois's 1907 story "On Being Crazy." Of course most comics fanns are very familiar with the brilliance of Baker's cartooning, from comics like Deadpool MAX back to classic '80s comics like The Shadow. If you know Baker's work you know that he displays a whimsical style to most everything he creates. The whimsical style he uses in this story elevates the tale from being preachy to being fun. Readers can see themselves in the face of the protagonist that Baker presents, and that goes a long way towards creating empathy in the reader.
The story that Shepherd Hendrix illustrates, an adaptation by Tom Pomplun of Charles W. Chestnutt's 1899 "The Goophered Grapevine," This charming tale tale of enchanted grapes and enchanted slaves wins a lot of pleasure through Hendrix's wondefully animated style. His work walks the fine line between being too whimsical and too serious, and ends up charming the reader. I really liked how Hendrix established scene and character with a minimum of lines and how that slighly minimalist feel gave the story a wonderful sense of unreal reality.
Milton Knight's story, a wonderfully broad adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston's 1930 "Filling Station," is a nice contrast to the story illustrated by Shephard Hendrix. Where Hendrix's story is light and tight and whimsical, Knight's story is wild and loose, full of broad cartoon gestures and humorously overwrought emotions. It's a fun story precisely because it's so over-the-top, precisely because Knight has embraced his usual style and presents something that looks like a cartoon from the Golden Age of Animation.
There are over a dozen more short and long stories in this generous anthology, and while none of them are as wonderful as the four that I highlighted, all of them have their own unique merits. Lance Tooks co-edited this book with Tom Pomplun, and his unusual and design-oriented style is on display in several stories, including the intense and thoughtful "Shalmanezer." The team of Christopher Priest and Jim Webb deliver and involving adaptation of "Les Talionis," a brutal tale of revenge and viciousness that held me rapt for its ten pages. And Randy DuBurke's sumpuous art on "Becky," a 1922 Jean Toomer story adapted by Mat Johnson, is a wonder to behold, all suffused with Southern gothic beauty as intense and inescapable as the kudzu in Georgia.
By the time I looked at Jimmie Robinson's wonderful back cover, I was completely won over by this book. This book isn't just worth picking up as a literary anthology or ccollection of interesting African-American writing. It's worth picking up as a collection of outstanding comics art.
Jason Sacks has been obsessed with comics for longer than he'd like to remember. He considers himself a student of comics history and loves delving into obscure corners of this crazy artform. Jason has been writing for this site for about seven years and has also been published in a number of fan publications, including the late, lamented Amazing Heroes and The Flash Companion. He lives in north Seattle with his wife and three kids.