Way, way back in the dark ages of comics history – well, what comics collectors actually call the Golden Age – there used to be a company called Classics Illustrated. For thirty years this company took literary classics and made them into short graphic novels. It’s a great idea, taking well-loved tales and making them available to an entirely new audience. The line has since been purchased and is being revived, but now there’s another player in the literary graphic novel game: Campfire, with their publication of (among other titles) H.G. Wells’s ground-breaking science fiction novella, The Time Machine.
Competition can be a good thing. For all their collectible value and feature of a near who’s-who of Golden Age artists, many of the Classics Illustrated editions came off as stuffy and stilted. By contrast, the Campfire edition of The Time Machine has fluid, motion-filled art that makes full use of today’s printing technology. Each page is filled with vibrant color, and places the characters and action within a believable and detailed environment colored to fit the mood of the story.
That’s not to say everything is perfect. Along with the colors, the artist, Rajesh Nagulakonda, has an expressive style that sometimes gets the better of him. Our main character, the Time Traveler, sometimes could be called the Rubber Man for as many gyrations as his body goes through, frequently being posed in rather ludicrous poses and drawn from extreme angles seemingly simply because he can be. And the same goes for the futuristic races he encounters, the Eloi and the Morlocks. It’s obvious that Nagulakonda has a good understanding of human anatomy from the artwork, but one could wish for more consistency in the Time Traveler’s appearance from panel to panel. He is helped by the story, since it’s mostly just the main character as he reacts to the faceless futuristic masses, but I have a feeling the art would be incredibly confusing if this artist had to depict a story with many distinctive prominent characters. Campfire is actually an Indian company, so there might be a cultural component in the art I’m missing here even if the characters are mostly British or alien.
For all that Wells’s story helps the artist in its simplicity, it actually presents a few more hurdles for adapter Lewis Helfand. For one, the original novella is told mainly as a first person account, which means many, many narrative captions littered throughout the panels as we hear him tell his story. Helfand tries to liven it up when he can with speech and thought balloons, with mixed results. Sometimes it’s nothing more than dialogue that’s been adapted to be something besides a caption, and sometimes it’s unfortunate choices like “Noooooo!” to show emotional reaction. Also, the ending takes on a slightly different emotional note than in Well’s original. But there are always hard choices one has to make when adapting a story from one form to another and Helfand’s decisions are reasonable. The ending remains basically the same, but the characters’ reactions are what changes. One last purely personal gripe: I get thrown out of the story by poor lettering. In this case, it’s the perfectly elliptical speech balloons jammed with rather soulless computer text and no breathing space that did me in.
For all the griping above you might think I hated this version of The Time Machine. But that isn’t the case. I think it’s a very worthy effort with material that doesn’t easily lend itself to the graphic novel format. Campfire also has editions of The Call of the Wild and other adventure stories that may be better fits. In this work there are also nice additions of a short biographical page for Wells at the beginning and a two-page discussion of the technology of the 1890’s at the end. Do I wish the art was slightly different? Perhaps, but I still think it’s an improvement over the stale Classics Illustrated books I remember. If you’re looking to introduce the classics to teens who would otherwise give them a pass, this adaptation is definitely a step in the right direction.