Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Culbard on Lovecraft and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
by INJ Culbard, based on the story by HP Lovecraft
SelfMadeHero, 2013
Next up in my review of two recent books from newish British publisher SelfMadeHero is H.P. Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward adapted by I.N.J. Culbard. My first exposure to Culbard's work was the Victorian zombie-vampire occult murder mystery thing The New Deadwardians he created with Dan Abnett for Vertigo. Though uneven, I largely enjoyed that book, including Culbard's fairly straightforward art. Apparently Culbard has adapted quite a few classic works for SelfMadeHero, which shows in the assured and accessible adaptation presented here. I've read some Lovecraft, though I haven't read Lovecraft's original in this case. Lovecraft is in vogue lately - though one could argue that he's never been out of vogue - with recent adaptations by the always creepy Richard Corben, to the heavily Lovecraft-influenced recent works from Alan Moore like the wonderful League of Extroardinary Gentlemen graphic novel Nemo: Heart of Ice and the reprehensible and irredeemable Necronomicon. Culbard does a fairly competent job of crafting a graphic novel that is obviously very Lovecraftian, less in overt monsters and more in reveling in the 1920s New England period drama of people coming to terms with forces beyond their understanding. There are creepy immortals and grave robbings and strange alchemy and weird noises and lights in the night and plenty of good old-fashioned madness.

But something is lost in translation - much of the thrill of Lovecraft is in interpreting his descriptions of things ancient and evil and so completely other. When you read Lovecraft, you get to sense the utterly alien in every conceivable way, the very profound wrongness of the proceedings, something few authors before or since have ever achieved. By adapting the work, you lose that thrill of mystery because it is made literal on the page before you. Just like the movie is rarely better than the book or comic, so here the comic is not (quite possibly can not be?) better than the original. At least that's the sense I get here, one of slight dissatisfaction rather than profound vicarious disturbance. Culbard has also adapted Lovecraft's masterpiece At The Mountains of Madness for SelfMadeHero... While I haven't read his adaptation - so perhaps this is unfair - I cannot imagine how it can possibly work. When Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neil set Nemo: Heart of Ice, essentially in and around At The Mountains of Madness, they at first focus on the terror in their eyes and faces rather than the horrors they see. And when those horrors do show up, an artist with O'Neil's sensibilities does a remarkable job of illustrating them, but even he cannot match up to the picture painted in the mind's eye. The characters have experienced horrors beyond the human capability to even understand, and that's the key to Lovecraft: you cannot possibly translate those horrors, and Culbard understandably falls short in Charles Dexter Ward.

(Another observation about the work: Culbard's art, in places, looks exactly like Guy Davis's - not Davis-influenced, but almost as if Davis himself illustrated some pages in places. Guy Davis is a damn fine artist and an appropriate influence for the subject matter, especially considering Davis's deep catalog of Lovecraft-influenced storytelling in BPRD, but the similarities in places here, which I did not see in New Deadwardians, were quite striking. I am not remotely saying that Culbard cribbed Davis by any means, just that the influence is definitely showing.)

Lovecraft's unique and timeless horror tales have inspired artists and writers for generations now, and will continue to do so. And sometimes as an artist you need to work through your influences to develop your own voice, just as Culbard is working through both Lovecraft and (seemingly) Davis in this work. Depsite its obvious qualities, Culbard's Case of Charles Dexter Ward doesn't quite hold up, though the attempt is certainly admirable and well-made. I just can't quite recommend it.

No comments:

Post a Comment