I'm honored to have been a contributor to the Graphic Classics comics series for several years now. Editor and Publisher Tom Pomplun has from his series' inception 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 volumes 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 Graphic Classics 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. 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. Helping to create this book has been a blast for me, and I can't wait for you to see it!
I'd like to share a little about how my own short pieces in AFRICAN-AMERICAN CLASSICS came to be.
Alice Dunbar Nelson was the wife of better known poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, and a respected author in her own right. A dream project of mine would be to create a biographical comic about the pair, a classic turn of the century literary couple with a difference... and dispersed throughout would be bits of their unique poetry and short stories, to complement the pair's various hardships and victories. So I suggested Dunbar Nelson early on as a favorite candidate of mine. Her short horror tale, A CARNIVAL JANGLE would be one of two pieces I would adapt for the book.
My first step when adapting an author's prose work is often to create a rough worksheet in two parts, onto which I sprawl on one side, a series of notes and ideas about my approach to the tale and on the other, a grid noting the key visual event taking place on each page. I markup my printout of the original story as well, editing the text down to a workable first draft. (I later edit it more on the actual art files, and my editor usually does an even cleaner job of it when I turn in the finished work.)
I then choose my cast, which usually involves drawing versions of the character until I feel I've got the look I want... but in the case of JANGLE, I knew I needed to find a particular innocence in the eyes of Flo, my doomed protagonist. So I flipped through one of my old hard-covered "graffiti" sketchbooks until I stopped upon a sixteen year old illustration that I had done of a doe-eyed woman. For my Mephisto character, the story's antagonist, I went even farther back, summoning forth a skull-faced malefactor from twenty years past. (In my LUCIFER'S GARDEN series of graphic novels for NBM, it was a regular occurrence to mix the old art with the new... it's ALL new to 99 percent of the world anyway, and I see no reason to waste a drawing if it still has value to me.)
Then, because I don't have a traditional art studio, I take to the streets. I used to lament the fact that my place was too small to work in and too busy to concentrate in... but I had a change of heart the day I decided that all of Madrid was going to be my art studio. Now, armed with pencils and pens to draw with and sketchbooks and card stock to draw on, I wander into my favorite bars in Huertas or Lavapies, turn up my Ipod and pick these stories apart visually. I create finished art on the spot, which upon returning home, I scan into my Mac and assemble into viable layouts in Photoshop. (Many of these "bar sketches" have turned up on this blog from time to time, inspired by the energy of young Spanish people... and a wee bit of whiskey, perhaps.)
Here's a preview of the completed A CARNIVAL JANGLE...
I was unfamiliar with author Frances E.W. Harper before Tom introduced me to her story SHALMANEZER, PRINCE OF COSMAN, an old Arabian Nights style passion play about a young prince who comes face to face with entities representing Fame, Wealth and Pleasure. I had adapted a similar piece by Ambrose Bierce for my very first Graphic Classics contribution way back in 2003, and my father and uncle once turned the medieval morality play EVERYMAN into a lively musical, so this was not uncharted territory for me. SHALMANEZER was at 12 pages, twice the length of JANGLE, and thus required a larger worksheet. (Here in two parts.)
I drew the characters the same way I did NARCISSA, which required creating my trademark silhouette people with double lines suggesting white interior highlights and filling in jet black skin using Photoshop's trusty paintbucket. The only significant change I made to Harper's text was 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 more limited color palette because the chiaroscuro figures would be overwhelmed if I added too much color. Here's an uncorrected preview of the completed SHALMANEZER...
And so, after 30 years as a freelance artist, I finally get to make a color comic book! There will be plenty more preview art by a whole posse of talented illustrators up very soon at the GRAPHIC CLASSICS website. Thanks to Tom Pomplun for making it possible, the many legendary authors for paving the way for us against all odds, and two dozen brilliant contributors to AFRICAN-AMERICAN CLASSICS for creating such a wonderful book! So, what are you waiting for? Go get yourself a copy!
best, Lance Tooks