GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW: Shock! Horror!
Halloween decorations are beginning to show up in stores, and the air had a decided chill today in my neck of the woods – so I guess the time is ripe to look at a couple of horror-tinged graphic novels for the fall.
Angel Skin is an original GN and apparently the first published comics work of its creators, Christian Westerlund and Robert Nazeby Herzig. (By the way, I’m tentatively assuming that the two are writer and artist, respectively, but the book itself doesn’t specify their roles.) It’s a dark afterlife fantasy, beginning with the suicide of our young protagonist, Joshua Barker. He then finds himself in a gloomy city that is, in most respects, identical to the world he lived in before his death.
The story moves on from there in somewhat predictable ways; Joshua is important and special, for some reason unspecified in the book, and is the focus of several people and factions who want to find God, for their own purposes. There’s a bit of melodramatic action, but much more specifying and emoting. The general consensus of the characters is that life is essentially hell. (See Bruce Eric Kaplan’s cartoon book Edmund and Rosemary Go To Hell, which I reviewed on my personal blog a couple of months back for a somewhat more nuanced version of the same general idea.) I’m afraid I’m no longer a teenager, so Angel Skin’s primary appeal passed me by, but it was never embarrassing or puerile. (And that’s saying a lot about a Goth afterlife fantasy; it could very easily have slid into the sophomoric, but it never does.) It’s mostly a story for Goths and other depressive young people, I think, and the ending isn’t quite as uplifting as I think it’s supposed to be, but Angel Skin is a serviceable GN, and quite good for anyone’s first professional work.
The really interesting aspect of Angel Skin, though, is the art. I don’t know which of the creators is responsible, but the style changes greatly from page to page, and even on a single page. Sometimes the figures have an animation-derived flatness, with blocks of solid color of grays filling in black outlines, while other times the figures are painted (or perhaps drawn in colored pencils?) or sketched in pencil lines. The background art style similarly changes, and doesn’t necessarily match the foreground. In fact, characters don’t stay in the same style, and the several styles often uneasily co-exist in one panel. I wasn’t able to work out any coherent reason for the changes – it doesn’t seem to relate to anything thematic in the story, or having to do with location, emotional states, or anything else I could think of – so I have to assume that it was simply done for artistic whim.
And then there’s Graphic Classics: Bram Stoker, the second edition of a collection of comics adaptations of the works of the author of Dracula (and little else that anyone cares about, nowadays). It’s edited, as all of the Graphic Classic series are, by Tom Pomplun, with a cover by Mark A. Nelson and interior art by various hands.
It leads off, as one would expect, with a long adaptation of [[[Dracula]]], with art by Joe Ollmann and words edited to fit by Rich Rainey. The Graphic Classics style is to keep as much of the original author’s words as possible – presumably to increase its value as a teaching aid – but that can result in very wordy pages with captions that just describe the art. (And it does result in that, here.) It’s a decent potted adaptation, covering all of the high points of the novel, including a lot of Stoker’s words, and featuring art that’s occasionally quite effective but sometimes a bit too cartoony. It’s not as if the world needed yet another adaptation of Dracula, so I have mixed feelings about this part.
Hunt Emerson next illustrates a “[[[Vampire Hunter’s Guide]]],” freely adapted from Van Helsing’s speeches in Dracula by Pomplun. This is delightful, with fine cartooning working well with Van Helsing’s mangled English syntax.
Then Gerry Alanguilan adapts Stoker’s story “[[[The Judge’s House]]].” Again, there’s a lot of narration, but it works better here, since it’s mostly not telling us things we can see in the art. Alanguilan’s art is expressive and well-detailed, reminding me a bit of David Chelsea or Rick Geary (though deliberately without the humor of either of those artists).
“[[[The Bridal of Death]]]” is an excerpt from Stoker’s novel The Jewel of Seven Stars, again adapted by Pomplun and this time illustrated, in a very fussy, detailed, pseudo-Mitch O’Connell style, by J.B. Bonivert. This is a hokey story, and again there’s too much narration. The art is odd but does add some interest.
Onsmith Jeremi adapts Stoker’s story “[[[The Squaw]]]” into “[[[Torture Tower]]],” which has too many little panels and a lot of narration, but works reasonably well. (Though Stoker’s original story does rely heavily on a horrible 1890s stereotype of an American.)
Then Pomplun edits down Stoker’s “The Wondrous Child,” one of those late 19th century bits of whimsy-cum-pabulum, to fit on six pages with illustrations by Evert Geradts.
And the book finishes up with an adaptation (again by Pomplun) of Stoker’s other major horror novel, Lair of the White Worm, with art by Rico Schacherl. There are, once again, great blocks of text floating around the pages to explain everything, but we’re used to them by now. And Schacherl’s clean, angular lines and expressive figures carry the story well. It’s not a great story, but it comes across with more energy and verve than Dracula did, and ends the book reasonably well.
The Graphic Classic line generally draws from the work of popular adventure-story writers now in the public domain (Robert Louis Stephenson, Edgar Allen Poe, H.G. Wells, and so on), rather than the top literary names of their era (Henry James, Dickens, etc.), leading me to believe that they’re selling mostly to individuals who love those authors, not to schools or institutions for teaching purposes. If that’s true, Pomplun might be well-served to dial down the narration; it does give the reader a sense of the original author’s prose (not necessarily a good idea in Stoker’s case), but it also leaves less room for the art to move and breathe, and inevitably ends up describing the art. Unless, of course, the audience for these books really wants heavily-illustrated versions of their favorite stories, in which case Pomplun should just ignore me. In any case, this is a decent comics introduction to the work of a dead minor writer, with some strong work and some less-strong work. The Hunt Emerson piece is the best in the book, but that’s really not worth the cover price. I think this is primarily for Stoker fans, and those collecting the whole Graphic Classics series.
by Christian Westerlund and Robert Nazeby Herzig
NBM, 2007, $11.95
Graphic Classics: Bram Stoker (Second Edition)
Edited by Tom Pomplun
Eureka Productions, 2007, $11.95