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Apr/May 2007 Reviews & Interviews

A Lovecraftian Adaptation

by Maryanne Snell

Tom Pomplun, Ed.
Graphic Classics Vol. 4: H.P. Lovecraft.

Eureka Productions. 2007.
ISBN 978-0-9746648-9-7


Buy now from Amazon! H.P. Lovecraft is known as one of the forefathers of American horror, and while he stands with the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and John Webster as a master of the macabre, his voice and style stand apart- singular and unmistakable. His stories are set at the edges of this world and unknown others; his characters exposed to truths and images to which the human mind was never meant to be exposed and thus has no way to describe or comprehend. Paradoxically, his prose is dense and lush, peppered with archaic terms and an esoteric and precise vocabulary. His works, while effective singly, have a cumulative effect when read in succession; the sense of dread and awakening realization of vast unknown horrors builds as the reader becomes fluent in the language and themes that course through the tales. With those qualities, how do you go about trying to adapt a selection of his writings into comic form? Comic adaptations try to make the original work more accessible but is it possible to capture the mood and style of Lovecraft without relying on his own tools?

Editor Tom Pomplun took on this challenging task with Graphic Classics Volume Four, which adapts eight of Lovecraft's poems and stories. Pulling from the Cthulhu Mythos, the Dream Cycle, the macabre stories, and even a rare comedy, this volume serves as a sampler of Lovecraft's work. Each story is adapted and drawn by different writers and artists, and while the writers stay close to Lovecraft's original text, the artists branch off in unique directions that give each story an individual feel.

The first piece, placed across from the contents page, could easily be overlooked, but that would truly be a shame. The text is verbatim Lovecraft, taken from the poem "Fungi from Yuggoth," and the combination of the dread-inducing words and the stark, intricate illustration by Gerry Alangulian is the perfect introduction to what is to follow.

The volume proper begins with the strongest adaptation: "The Shadow over Innsmouth," by Alex Burrows and illustrated by Simon Gane. Burrows strikes a comfortable balance between dialogue that pulls the reader into the experience and captions written in the style of Lovecraft that provide tone and mood. Gane packs a high level of detail in each panel while utilizing thick lines and shadows to invoke an ever increasing atmosphere of claustrophobia. His rendition of the reptilian humans is disturbing but restrained, making the village people's reaction to them believable. As the tension builds, prose and art combine to create a visceral reaction to the horror the protagonist is experiencing, and the final choice he makes.

While Burrows and Gane created a comic, the adaptors of "The Cats of Ulthar" and "Herbert West: Reanimator" employ layouts that more closely resemble an illustrated book, with heavy sections of text (many taken straight from the originals) accompanied by spot illustrations. This technique works well, as it allows Lovecraft's words to speak for themselves while permitting the artists to focus on iconic images.

Tom Pomplun adapted "Herbert West: Reanimator" into four chapters, each illustrated by a different artist, uniquely suited to their subjects. Richard Corben's meticulously detailed, almost photorealistic style perfectly matches the cold logic of Herbert West in the opening chapter, while Rick Geary's slightly looser yet utterly controlled images demonstrate West's coming decline as he descends further into the darkness of his attempts to reanimate the dead. J.B. Bonivert's cartoon-y depictions of West's increasing violence exemplify the madness that allows West to take his acts so lightly, and Mark A. Nelson wholly captures the gruesomeness of West's final comeuppance.

Lisa K. Weber's illustrations for the almost verbatim text of "The Cats of Ulthar" are deceptively cute, a word rarely, if ever, used in conjunction with Lovecraft. She draws heavily from an animation base, with deliberate and complex pencil work providing subtle detail. Her style is suitably goth, and its charm distracts the reader from the coming grisliness until it perfectly portrays the resulting madness of the villagers.

Two of the stories ("Dreams in the Witch House" adapted by Rich Rainey and drawn by Pedro Lopez, and "The Shadow Out of Time" adapted and drawn by Matt Howarth) feature adept art and strong text adaptation, but struggle with a problem inherent to translating stories set in Lovecraft's Dreamlands: the artists are required to portray unearthly and incomprehensible images while remaining tied to a visual language their readers can understand. Lovecraft himself described the issue in "At the Mountains of Madness" when his intrepid explorers came across inexplicable monuments and attempted to draw them:

Even the pictures illustrate only one or two phases of its endless variety, preternatural massiveness, and utterly alien exoticism. There were geometrical forms for which an Euclid would scarcely find a name- cones of all degrees of irregularity and truncation, terraces of every sort of provocative disproportion, shafts with odd bulbous enlargements, broken columns in curious groups, and five-pointed or five-ridged arrangements of mad grotesqueness.

Descriptions that are horrifying in prose lose their power when drawn in two dimensions, and the visual elements in these stories succeed best when focusing on the protagonistsí reactions to the horror, rather than the instigators of the fear.

"The Terrible Old Man," adapted by Onsmith Jeremi, and "Sweet Ermengarde," adapted by Rod Lott and drawn by Kevin Atkinson, succeed because the artists honed in on the tone of their stories. Jeremi focuses on the macabre while Atkinson takes Lott's clever setting of the comedy at Miskatonic University's drama department and notches up the visual jokes.

Adapting Lovecraft is a daunting task, yet the artists and adaptors at Graphic Classics have worked within seemingly insurmountable constraints to create a well crafted introduction to a truly matchless author's work.

 

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