In early 2011, a small publisher reaped a whirlwind of controversy when it announced a new edition of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” that would replace words deemed offensive in contemporary society with less inflammatory terms. But the version due out in November from IDW Publishing is not that at all; the text remains true to Twain’s original and is accompanied by new illustrations by “The Goon” and “Chimichanga” creator Eric Powell.
Twain’s classic novel follows the adventures of the eponymous boy hero and Jim, a runaway slave, as they venture down the Mississippi River on a raft. Despite being one of the finest works of American literature, parent groups and other organizations regularly petition to have it removed from schools due to its frank, period-accurate language and, to a lesser extent, for its adolescent mischief. The edited version released earlier this year arose from a teacher’s discomfort when reading aloud from the original and from his unease asking teenage students to do the same. However, this step was widely criticized in literary and academic circles, though there were some supporters.
Powell, no stranger to controversy himself, spoke with Comic Book Resources about his take on “Huck Finn” and the sins of bowdlerization.
CBR News: First, Eric, what was the origin of this project? I don’t reckon you and Mark Twain had a drink at Comic-Con…
Eric Powell: I wish! That would be an experience. I’d love to hear what Mark Twain would think of Comic-Con. I believe it started by me making some smart-ass comment to Chris Ryall at IDW about them censoring “Huck Finn.” He said they were doing some illustrated books and that I should do an illustrated “Huck Finn.” I had actually thought of doing some adaptations of some Twain books so it was a pretty easy sell.
I see. You’re adding illustrations to the novel, rather than adapting it as a comic. Why take this approach?
Well, that’s what was suggested to me by Chris. If he had said a comic, I would have just said no. Too much work. My schedule is pretty busy with “The Goon.”
How many illustrations are included? Is it every other page, only select scenes, etc.? And are there spot illustrations or are they all full-page?
Around 20. These are full page drawings.
How do you choose which scenes to illustrate, and how do you determine how much story to pack into each single image?
I just picked out scenes that really resonated to me. You really can’t put too much into a book illustration. You have to pick a moment in time to freeze frame. If you try to put in every little nuance, you lose the power of the image in minutia.
From a character design standpoint, how do you go about working through what Huck and Jim look like, how they move, etc.?
Being a young southern kid in the late ’70s, I’m familiar with the look of poor, dirty children. I think I can do a decent representation of Huck. But I’m going more for establishing atmosphere than to painstakingly point out how the characters should look. I want to evoke the feeling of a riverbank rather than draw a historically accurate riverboat that shows off how good I use photo reference.
“Huck Finn” is consistently one of the books challenged most often by would-be censors. I’d be curious to hear your take on the book’s language, especially in light of the recent edited version.
How can you censor Mark Twain? Racism is a fact in this country. There is no denying it’s still a problem. Anyone who wants to deny it… I can tell you some stories. Trust me. Did I mentioned I live in the south? But how does censoring one of the greatest satirists of all time, who was using the language of the day, solve anything? If you think Twain was writing a racist tale, you don’t understand the book.
I imagine in its day, that the relationship between Huck and Jim changed the opinions of quite a few readers for the better. You can’t change history and you can’t learn anything from it by denying it.
How do you feel your edition of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” fits within the different versions of the book that are available? Do you see this illustrated edition being adopted in schools?
I have no idea, but the idea of a Mark Twain book with my illustrations in it being in schools sounds really cool.
Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” with illustrations by Eric Powell arrives in stores November 23, 2011 from IDW.