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Classics Illustrated #1: Great Expectations

Posted: Wednesday, May 21, 2008
By: Penny Kenny

Charles Dickens (with Rick Geary)
Rick Geary
Papercutz
ďMy fatherís family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Phillip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer and more explicit than Pip. So I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.Ē

So opens Richard Gearyís adaptation of Dickensís Great Expectations, exactly as the original opens. Published by First Comics back in 1990, this new Papercutz re-issue should be welcomed warmly by every lover of Dickens and the graphic art form.

For those who arenít familiar with the story, or who find it difficult to separate it from Dickensís other tales of orphaned boys finding their way in the harsh world, Great Expectations is the story of Pip--who is chosen to be the playmate of Estella, ward of the bitter Miss Havisham. At the bequest of a mysterious benefactor, Pip is later sent to London to become a gentleman; but his heart remains with the heartless Estella. Mysteries abound: who is Pipís benefactor? Who is following him? Who are Estellaís parents? But the story is really about what makes a person good.

Obviously Geary was forced to cut a great deal of the original--and purists will argue that itís to the storyís detriment. But I disagree. Geary focuses the story on Pip, Estella, Miss Havisham, and the convict Magwitch. The relationships between these four people are the heart of the story, and by pruning it back to just these four, Geary makes it stronger. It also reads much easier. As much as I love Dickens, he can get caught up in exploring byways--making it difficult to follow his many plots.

Geary is the perfect Dickensí collaborator; maybe even more so than his original illustrator ďPhiz.Ē Dickensís characters are broad, almost caricatured, individuals; yet for all their broadness, they remain recognizably human. Geary works in the same style. No one could mistake his work here for photo-realistic or even realistic. Heís capturing the essence of the characters with broad, deceptively simple-looking strokes. Itís a combination of the grotesque and charming--much like the Victorian Age itself.

Take for example the cover. It depicts the first time Pip sees the two most important women in his life: Miss Havisham and Estella. Thereís an air of gothic mystery to the scene: the elderly, twisted Miss Havisham greedily eyes the young, proud Estella beside her. Spiderwebs cover the cluttered dressing table beside them. Done in dirty whites, dull grey and brown, and accented with dull red and yellow, the cover captures the bookís theme of youth caught within the shadows of the past.

Miss Havisham is old age concentrated to the nth degree, but thereís still something real and solid about her. As for Estella, except for the corkscrew ringlets and bow, I know a girl whoís a dead ringer for her. This blend of life and art is what makes Dickens so memorable in the first place, and Geary captures that spark with his artwork.

Each page is packed with small, filled panels. Itís not unusual for there to be eight to ten panels per page. In adapting a six hundred and nineteen-page novel into forty-four pages, Geary is forced to use bloated captions, quick scene changes, and tight shots of characters to get it all in. But, again, that works to the storyís advantage. Everything extraneous is gotten rid of. Geary focuses on the glint of an eye, the good-natured smile, the look of scorn.

When Geary does devote a panel to the scenery, itís as mood-evoking as anyone could hope for. The marshes are grey and dead looking. Miss Havishamís mansion is bewebbed, dark, and dwarfing of its occupants. London is crowded and threatening with its leaning, towering buildings, and packed streets.

This adaptation of a great classic is a classic in its own right. Itís well worth seeking out.



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