Saturday, May 12, 2012

Obvious Impostures: A Review of At the Mountains of Madness by I. N. J. Culbard

Generally, I am very skeptical of graphic novel adaptations of anything, but especially of literature.  The trend of adapting classic literature into graphic novels has been developing over the last decade or so, and with each book I see on the shelves, I involuntarily wince because I’m biased.  Maybe it’s because of my English major past, maybe it’s because I’d rather see original content be developed by talented cartoonists, or maybe it’s because it smells like a quick, easy, and cheap cash-in on a burgeoning graphic novel market using free public domain properties.  It’s probably all of those and more that causes me to cast sideways glances, hoping no one saw me looking at such a travesty of public pandering.

The full wraparound cover for At the Mountains of Madness.
Art by I. N. J. Culbard.
However, many publishers have smartened up and hired very talented visual storytellers for the adaptations.  A great example of this is Paul Karasik & David Mazuchelli's excellent, artful adaption of Paul Auster's post-modern detective novel, City of Glass; also, Neil Babra’s excellent, artful adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet for the artless and sanitizing “No Fear Shakespeare” graphic novel series by Spark Notes; or there is also the recent Jane Austen novel adaptations by Marvel.  I think “sanitizing” is the key word for me.  Though I don’t want to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I don’t want to read a watered-down version of it, either.  That was why I became particularly disheartened when I first saw I. N. J. Culbard’s graphic novel adaptation of my beloved H. P. Lovecraft novella, At the Mountains of Madnesson the shelves at the local chain bookstore.  Now that I’ve spent some time with it, I am glad to say that it is, actually, not only a fantastic adaptation of the Lovecraft classic (hardly sanitized at all, despite first impressions), but it’s also a brilliant graphic novel in its own right.

In the Mountains of Madness is found... a salad.
Art by I. N. J. Culbard.
If you do a Google image search of terms like “Lovecraft,” “Cthulhu,” “At the Mountains of Madness,” or “The Elder Ones,” you’ll undoubtedly be inundated with nigh-gothic, macabre, shadowy, ugly, desaturated images full of tentacles, cyclopean architecture (as Lovecraft loved to say), and questionable anatomy, even for creatures of inconceivable horror.  Looking at Culbard’s At the Mountains of Madness (ATMoM), with such Google searches in mind, was a startling departure from the norm.  Starting with the starkly gorgeous, brightly lit cover, the work inside is even more surprising: the linework is crisp, confident, and––for lack of a better term––cartoony.  It very much speaks to a lineage stretching back to HergĂ©’s ligne clairestyle and, upon first glance, does not seem to be immediately suited to tell a Lovecraftian story, at least not in terms of indifferent cosmic entities and the abandoned cities they left behind in the mountains of the antarctic.  Culbard's art––from the character design to the page design––is simple, effective, and smart, aspects that many might not immediately expect from a Lovecraft adaptation.

Lovecraft's likely vision of Cthulhu.
Art by D. Bethel

But one must consider Lovecraft as a storyteller.  To put it bluntly, Lovecraft, as a stylist, is impenetrable.  I tried to read Lovecraft for years before I was actually able to do it because his style, in technical terms, is boring.  He writes these supposed tales of horror in a reflective, journalistic language, detailing the simple facts in a stolid manner evocative of the 18th-century (a time Lovecraft admitted he would have preferred to live––yearning for the days of respect for blood-borne aristocracy rather than those with wealth built from a Puritan work ethic).  To summarize his style and language, Lovecraft writes––for all the shapeless, cosmos-hopping, plethora of monsters he created––concretely.  While we might expect an art style that matches what a Google image search would suggest, Culbard’s style in fact fits Lovecraft's stylistic mold all too well, except for the boring part.  There is not much left to the imagination in Culbard’s retelling of what is probably the most concrete and descriptive of Lovecraft’s mythos-focused tales (ATMoM literally describes how the creatures we know and love got to Earth, what their hierarchy is, and how they tie to humanity).  Luckily, he is also a modern artist with sharp sensibilities and a keen awareness of how to guide a reader through what is, even in its original form, a harrowing, terrifying, and interesting story (once you get past the antiquated syntax and diction, that is).  I realized while reading this book that there was nothing really to sterilize from the source material, that Lovecraft, just by being Lovecraft, wrote a book that translates pretty easily and effectively into a graphic novel.  As a graphic novel it pulls no punches, or, at least, Culbard swings every time Lovecraft does in his novella and, thusly, creates some quite shocking scenes that need to be seen to be believed (those poor, poor dogs) and speaks to what makes the source material so memorable.

Yes, extend the search for more quality Lovecraft adaptations.
Art by I. N. J. Culbard.

 Each entertainment medium is its own thing, and any adaptation into another medium should be judged on the merit of whatever genre it is in and not on how well it has adapted the source material.  The fact that I. N. J. Culbard was able to capture the awe, anticipation, weirdness, and terror that is hidden behind Lovecraft’s inimitable style so perfectly points to the book’s success as an adapted work, while the quick pacing, stark dialogue, masterful coloring, and confident layouts and character designs prove its success as a graphic novel in its own right.  Even if ATMoM is a cash-in (which I can't confirm nor deny), this is the one of the most well-thought out and considered adaptations of literature into graphic novel form I have seen.  On his blog, Culbard has shown images of another Lovecraft adaptation––this time, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward––and now, instead of involuntarily wincing upon seeing it, I eagerly await to have it in my hands.