It has been a couple of decades since I read Stephen Crane’s novella, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, and I can’t say I remembered much about it. Luckily, I still had it buried on a bookshelf, so I could skim through it, refresh my memory, and compare it to this oversized comic book adaptation of it.
Tim Hensley’s version does seem remarkably faithful to the plot, and all(?) or most of the dialog is straight from Crane’s pen. However, the original seems to be written as a kind of melodrama tragedy / exposé of tenement life in 1890’s New York, while in Hensley’s version, despite having mostly the same scenes and dialog, the story has now become some kind of a comedy / farce, simply because of the cartoony way it’s drawn and presented.
The story, apparently considered risqué when first released in 1893, is a relatively basic one. A kind of exploration of a poor family living in the bowery, and how circumstances, the prejudices of society and alcohol destroy their lives. Or traps into Maggie in a life of prostitution and early death. Bleak stuff 130 years ago, today apparently a great generator for ironic laughter. The dialog especially is a weird delight to try to parse, stuff like, “May God curse her forever! May she eat nothin’ but stones and deh dirt in deh street.”
That cartoony art though – I really love it. Hensley seems to use heads lifted from side characters of earlier comics… I see a weird mix of strangely familiar faces from Archie, Popeye, Andy Capp and more, plopped on top of rubbery bodies, placed in hilariously detailed, busy panels that are a pure delight to look at. It’s so interesting how the style of the artwork completely transforms the feel of the story.
Also included are a few back up features, a short biography of Stephen Crane (and Hart Crane!), and two pages on Jacob Riis, whose photography and writing explored the same themes as Crane. These push the comic up to forty pages, and are also enjoyably original, and funny. They have almost a Raw magazine sensibility from the 80s – I could definitely imagine that’s where they were from.
Twenty bucks may seem like kind of a high asking price for a new forty-page comic (forty-four counting the covers), but keep in mind that it’s over-sized (13 x 10″), full color, and printed on nice, thick paper. Most importantly, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable, beautiful to look at comic. It’s also supposedly limited to 2,000 copies – so if you’re interested, I’d recommend grabbing a copy ASAP.