Interview with Tom Pomplun |
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Interview with Tom Pomplun

Editor and publisher of the critically acclaimed Graphic Classics®, a series of illustrated comic adaptations of classic literature, Tom Pomplun was born and raised in Whitewater, Wisconsin. After studying fine and commercial arts at the Art Institute of Boston, he returned to Wisconsin in 1976 to complete his BS in Art at UW–Madison and earn a Certificate in Printing from Madison Area Technical College. After thirteen years in advertising and a few more in the printing industry, in 1994 Pomplun formed his own one-man graphic design/prepress training company, Eureka Productions.

Pomplun is also co-founder—with publisher John Lehman (now literary editor of Wisconsin People & Ideas) and editor Rod Clark—of the literary magazine Rosebud. He designed and produced the first twenty-six issues, gradually introducing comics into the magazine’s eclectic mix of fiction, poetry, and illustration. Pomplun left the magazine in 2002 to found Graphic Classics, for which he has been editor, producer, and publisher over the series’ twenty-two volumes.

Pomplun and wife, Georgene, live in a 130-year-old farmhouse near New Glarus. A fine artist represented by Fanny Garver Gallery, Georgene provides considerable help in the production of Graphic Classics, and she also works part-time for VSA Wisconsin (the state organization on arts and disability) and the Wisconsin Historical Foundation.

To learn more about Graphic Classics or browse recent editions, visit

Bookstores are full of graphic novels and long-form comics, and almost every recent Hollywood blockbuster is based on a comic book superhero. To what do you attribute the current public fascination with comics?

I don’t know that I am really qualified to answer that question, as I operate in my own little niche of the market. Plus, I haven’t read superhero comics in over thirty years—though I do enjoy the movies and cartoons. When I first started Graphic Classics over eleven years ago, there was no “graphic novel” category in bookstores. They didn’t know where to shelve my books. With the regular fiction? In the art section? Now every bookstore has a dedicated aisle. Obviously the popularity of superhero comics has driven the growth of graphic novels, and I think movie and television producers see them as ready-made source material as well as a training ground for writers and storyboard artists.

While superhero comics have opened up markets for many other genres of graphic novels, I think many comics and graphic novels today are created primarily as prospective movie fodder, and their original ink-on-paper form is somewhat weaker and less inventive for that. It is understandable, as movie options are the only way most creators make money in the comics field, but not particularly good for the genre. I also think the popularity of graphic novels is partly driven by their growing acceptance by educators. Teachers who looked down on comics when I was young now see them as a valuable teaching tool, particularly for “reluctant readers.”

What are the challenges of adapting classic material to graphic form for a contemporary audience? Do you get any push back from the Great Books types who feel that you are perhaps “dumbing down” the classics?

I have heard complaints from readers and teachers over the years who felt my adaptations were “dumbing down” or doing a disservice to the originals, but those reactions have receded with the growing acceptance of graphic novels. I don’t think comics adaptations are a threat to the originals, any more than adapted movies, plays, or radio dramas have been for generations. They are merely another way of presenting or interpreting a story and have no effect on the original stories or novels, except perhaps to increase the reader’s interest in investigating the original author.

There are always challenges in adapting works from one form to another, and all stories do not work equally well as comics. I think that is a problem with the current popularity of graphic novels, in that publishers are attempting to convert everything, including nonfiction and even instruction manuals into the format. But many originals are not well-served by the conversion, and only communicate less effectively.

When I consider stories for adaptation, I attempt to visualize them in comics form as I read. At least 90% of what I read I reject as not suitable for adaptation. That is obviously an arbitrary decision on my part, and another adaptor may feel differently about a particular piece. But it is a decision that has to be made by all adaptors, and hopefully for literary, rather than marketing reasons.

My books are done on a tight budget, though I feel their quality is as high as any other publisher’s. Part of that budget restriction means that I need to utilize books that are in the public domain (that is, published before 1923). Hence the “classics” designation, though I intentionally broaden the range beyond the standard canonical classics. I feel any story or author who has remained popular for a hundred years is worthy of that consideration. There are challenges in adapting literature of that period for a contemporary audience, mostly language which has become antiquated, but also in terminology acceptable then that today would be considered racist or sexist. In adapting the stories, we try to keep as much of the original “voice” of the author as possible, while making the text understandable to an intelligent reader age twelve through adult.

Which of the Graphic Classics editions is your favorite and why?

I’m proud of all twenty-two of my books to date, but of course my favorite is whatever book I am currently working on. I am particularly happy with our most recent release, African-American Classics, as it broke new ground for the series that, until now, had been organized only by author or genre. But I am most excited about the upcoming books.

I am just now finishing production on our twenty-third volume, Halloween Classics, which will be released in September 2012. This book is something of a tribute to the brilliant and controversial EC Comics of the 1950s: It includes a comics “host” who provides narrative sequences and has story introductions by famed horror writer Mort Castle. The book also showcases our first adaptation of a screenplay from a classic movie: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Following that, in February 2013, will be Native American Classics, co-edited by well-known Native American writers John E. Smelcer and Joseph Bruchac. It’s being illustrated right now.

What is it about the genre or art form that you find so appealing? Who are some of your favorite past and contemporary illustrators and/or writers who work in the genre?

Like most kids, I grew up reading comics, and I’ve never lost my love for the form. I devoured comic books and newspaper
strips as well as illustrated children’s books by Dr. Seuss and others. I was always a voracious reader and finished the entire adult science fiction section of my local library while still in second grade.

I think part of the reason I was an early reader was due to my exposure to comics, as well as the illustrated books. I’ve always been fascinated by ways that pictures could tell stories, and comics seem an ideal marriage of pictures and text.

My list of favorite artists would probably be longer than you could fit in your magazine, but if I had to pick one who I most admire, the one who had the biggest influence on my life, it would be Robert Crumb. His comics of the 1960s broke all boundaries and opened my thinking, and I still respect him for his total dedication to his art.

Over the past ten years Graphic Classics have been featured in the Milwaukee Journal, Capital Times, and Isthmus, and favorably reviewed in Newsweek, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and the Onion’s AV Club (and those guys hate everything). What’s the most unexpected surprise and the biggest disappointment for you as editor of this series?

My biggest disappointment is that I still have not figured out how to make a living at this, and my biggest surprise is that I am still doing it, regardless. Graphic Classics has become so much a part of my lifeblood that I can’t imagine not doing it, or something similar.

I’ve always been compelled to make things—especially scrapbooks, handmade books, and the like—ever since I was a child. I’ve done professional illustration, design, print production, teaching, writing, and editing over the years, but Graphic Classics is the one thing that has allowed me to bring my various experience and abilities together as a whole.

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