Lovecraftian Comics

I’m a longtime fan of H.P. Lovecraft, and the chance to see some of his works adapted as comics was intriguing. Most horror fiction leaves me unmoved, but Lovecraft’s byzantine prose and trendsetting stories straddle horror and science fiction and bridge the 19th and 20th centuries in terms of style, moving from the verbose, Dunsanian style to one closer to popular fiction of the 1920s-30s. There is nothing quite like him, despite myriads of imitators. I thought this week I’d look at a couple of Lovecraft adaptations, and throw in (or throw out) an original in a Lovecraftian vein.

First, two Lovecraft stories adapted by artists:

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At The Mountains Of Madness, adapted by I.N.J. Culbard, Sterling Publishing, NY, 2010, 124 pages.

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Culbard stylizes facial features with only a little loss of expression. His use of color is wise; muted, cold colors, greyed and evocative of the frozen landscapes the characters traverse. Red barely appears, and emphasizes how Culbard has underplayed the story’s bloodshed – a PG ATMoM, proving to Guillermo del Toro (who has tried to adapt the story for the movies, but insists it must be R-rated) that it is possible. Culbard has adapted the story well, presenting the horrors encountered in the frozen north while skirting the final revelation, as Lovecraft himself did.

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Pickman’s Model adapted by Kim Holm, self-published. unpaginated, 2012.

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Holm’s stark black and white work – some of it scratchboard, I think – adds to the sense of terror and unease. His more comic-esque style simplifies facial features in much the same fashion as Culbard, which takes a moment getting used to when places opposite the harsh shadows of his more expressionistic drawings. Expressionism works well with Lovecraft, and Holm’s decision to leave the book uncolored works to its advantage. The short story form allows Holm to cover every facet of the plot at his own pace; where he wisely turns his eyes away is from making explicit what Lovecraft – a master of suggesting without spelling out – only hints at. That’s an essential when adapting HPL, one that movies in particular are bad at: not being too literal.

Now a well-known, and controversial, original:

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Neonomicon, by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows, 2010-2011 color by Juanmar, 176 pages. Avatar Press

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Alan Moore is one of the foremost comic book writers of the present day, but his work is maddeningly uneven and prone to pastiche and misogyny. It’s hardly a surprise that I disliked Neonomicon, Moore’s 4-part take on Lovecraftian themes. While Lovecraft eschewed the explicit, Moore brings it front and center, never to the story’s benefit. For those of you benighted enough to find rape sexy, most of one issue – a quarter of the whole story! – is devoted to what one character suffers at the hands of a Lovecraftian monster. The famously puritanical Lovecraft would have been appalled; all I can say is that It would have been easy to make it much worse. Burrows is given limited opportunity to create mood, and makes only adequate use of the opportunities. For a story that relies so much on sex, Burrows doesn’t render the human physique particularly well. Juanmar’s coloring is okay, nothing more. The final twist is hardly unexpected, or original. Moore simply spells out the obvious as though it was new. You can safely skip Neonomicon and be none the worse, which is a pretty damning indictment. If you’re going to follow in the footsteps of giants, an attempt should be made to blaze some new ground, not just set things in the present day.

Expressing horror purely through visual terms is difficult. Fears age and fade with time, and the monsters of the past become fodder for parody and condescension. After almost 100 years – Lovecraft’s first professionally published story appeared in 1922 – the Lovecraftian horror genre shows no signs of stopping. Ian Culbard has adapted several other Lovecraft works (which I have not yet read) and I expect many other such adaptations will appear from other hands. For lesser talents, simply showing what HPL only implied is an obvious route, one that leads almost inevitably to failure. What we see is not what we fear most – it is what we might see, and can only partially imagine.

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