Not Your Mother's Literary Classics

Roundup: Pop Culture & the Arts ... Movies, Documentaries and Museum Exhibits

I was browsing in a bookstore recently when a copy of Little Women caught my eye. The cover featured crude, inky sketches of the March sisters, arrayed in a quadrant. They seemed to be suffering from a collective bad hair day. "Oh God please!" Meg laments in the thought bubble over her head. "My skin is so bad I want to grow up, and fast!" Next to her, Amy reads from a Bible, sounding like an evangelical Molly Bloom ("Yes Yes God says hey girls be good …") while the sickly Beth frets below ("But I want to be good I'm trying that's what I'm doing all day!"). On the bottom right, tomboyish Jo scoffs at her sisters. "Grow up and then get married?? Forget it I'm not interested ha ha ha hell no!!"

My mother's hardback, this was not. But something about it looked familiar. Flipping to the back flap, I realized why: The cover was drawn by Julie Doucet, a Montreal-based artist much admired in underground comics circles. In college, I was devoted to her now out-of-print comic, Dirty Plotte. But what was she doing with Louisa May Alcott?

Doucet's cover, I learned, was commissioned by Penguin as part of a series called Graphic Classics. In 2005 the publisher began asking well-known cartoonists to redesign selected titles from its catalog. The results, according to Penguin's Web site, are "timeless works of literature featuring amazing, one-of-a-kind cover illustrations from some of today's best graphic artists."

Some of the covers are, in fact, pretty amazing—and worth some scrutiny. Take Chris Ware's design for Candide. In meticulously colored panels featuring Candide and company as round-bellied bobble heads, Ware cheerfully exposes the subtexts of Voltaire's satire. In one panel, Pangloss's lesson is derailed by his prurient interest in a passing chambermaid ("Uh … will you excuse me for a moment, my dear boy?") In the sequence below, a bewildered Candide wanders through a colorless wasteland. "Oh Lord, if this is the best of all possible worlds, what must the others be like?" he wonders. One can imagine Jimmy Corrigan, the protagonist of Ware's best-known work, asking the same question. His stark vision seems to imbue Voltaire's relentlessly "optimistic" hero with new dimensions.

Not all the designs are as illuminating. For The Portable Dorothy Parker, the artist Seth has created a snarky biography on the back flap. "Dot Parker: A Life" unfolds in 35 tiny boxes, telegraphing the more colorful moments of Parker's career. Some of Seth's condensations are witty ("many dogs," "married again," "Dottie the communist!"), and the pithiness of the last entry ("finally dead") seems particularly Parker-esque. But many of the biographical potshots ("suicide attempt," "some writing," "parties," "2nd try …") feel unearned, and even in this light-hearted form, threaten to overwhelm the work itself...

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