Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by Ian Culbard

Lovecraft has always been a subject of interest for folks looking to adapt works to other media. He’s probably the literary figure of the last century who casts the largest shadow, in terms of direct and indirect influence. I’m thinking of this, in part because of my fascination with the new HBO series True Detective and its allusions to Lovecraft with images of “a spaghetti faced man” and “the King in Yellow” (by way of Robert W. Chambers). But Ian Culbard’s series of graphic novels adapting Lovecraft consumed me even more when I encountered them recently, and they are perhaps the finest adaptations of Lovecraft’s stories I’ve yet seen.

If there’s one single thing that characterizes Lovecraft’s writing, both good and bad, it’s his awareness of and emphasis on dread. Dread, for Lovecraft, is the key to horror. And dread is best achieved through anticipation, apprehension, and fear for what is about to be revealed. Essentially, you don’t dread something you can see and know – it’s about the terror of the unknown.

Therein lies the problem with adapting Lovecraft, particularly to a visual medium like film or comics. The history of comics in particular is littered with bad Lovecraft adaptations. In part this is because Lovecraft had the luxury of using words rather than images to suggest the most horrific and terrifying things, to point toward, that is, instead of directly pointing out, his subject. And luxuriate he did, sprawling his language deep and wide with often purple prose all in service of obscuring what he was writing about. The horror, his stories suggest, was in part due to the confusion of never quite knowing for sure what’s going on.

Most cartoonists have sought to cleave to Lovecraft’s prose when looking for the solution to Lovecraft’s inversion of the old “show, don’t tell” adage. Murky, heavily inked or darkly colored drawings accompanied by large chunks of Lovecraft quotes was the typical “go to” answer to the question “how do you make Lovecraft comics?” Unfortunately, this makes for a pretty miserable read—stuffy, stilted, and neither as moody or immersive as Lovecraft’s prose, nor as visually captivating or as lively as comics can be.

This is where Culbard really shines. His previous works (three adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories and his art on the odd yet entrancing police-procedural-meets-the-Walking-Dead-by-way-of-Downton-Abbey series The New Deadwardians are among the best) showed and interest in, and facility for, both the art of adapting popular works and period illustration. However, his clean style, with its simple, bold brushwork suggestive of an animation background, would not appear to be a good fit for Lovecraft. He proves that wrong. These adaptations, particularly The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward, do a great job of getting at that dread, in part by kicking to the curb much of Lovecraft’s prose in order to get at the heart of the story in a very “comics” kind of way. He suggests, hints, teases at the horrors behind the actions we observe. 

All in all, each of his adaptations (he’s also done At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Out of Time) is solid and well worth a look, but in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, he gets at what is both great and difficult about Lovecraft – it is moody, steeped in dread, confusing, terrifying, complete and yet riddled with unanswered questions—all that delicious and maddening about Lovecraft all at once. I loved it so much I immediately found Culbard’s other adaptations through the Library, and went back and reread the original Lovecraft stories as well. And that’s another thing these adaptations get right—like the best translations of an author’s work to another medium, they invite new readers to the author’s work and provide surprises and delight for those familiar with the original.

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