Making the Unseen Seen

I have a lot of opinions (surprise!) about a great many things.  Cheesesteaks, for example, or how so few people on the west coast seem to know what the word hoagie means or what does and does not constitute steampunk in the realm of fiction.  It should not be a shock, therefore, that I have opinions on H. P. Lovecraft and by extension Lovecraftian fiction and (Cthulhu) Mythos stories.

On a recent visit to a local bookshop, I ran across The Lovecraft Anthology: Volume 1, a collection of Lovecraft’s stories as interpreted by various comic book artists and writers.  Now I’m all for a well-illustrated weird tale–I absolutely love Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics, which I find to be a perfect blend of compelling characters, interesting storytelling, and perfectly atmospheric art–but something just felt a bit off to me about this collection.  While a picture may be worth a thousand words, there are some words that a picture just can’t capture.  This, I’ve found, is the case with Lovecraft’s stories.  So much of the horror in Lovecraft’s fiction stems from what the audience cannot see, and to attempt to capture those things with pictures seems like it would diminish the impact to a greater or lesser extent (depending on the story).

This is the part where I confess that I only leafed through the book, rather than giving it a thorough read, even for a single story.  I did look through the table of contents, and I was happy to see that they hadn’t touched some of my favorite stories, though I suppose that that does deny me the opportunity to complain about their ruining something I like.  On the other hand, there’s always the possibility that they would do a good job–lots of things are possible.

In the end, the thing I most object to in this collection is the same thing that annoys me about many of the movie adaptations of books that are out there–the pictures that other people are showing me are the ones that they have in their heads, and those don’t always mesh with what I’ve imagined.  I find this especially problematic in the context of Lovecraftian horror because static pictures of monsters don’t scare me that often, and in a graphic story, pictures are, by definition, the main way that information is conveyed.

Howard Tayler, in a recent episode of Writing Excuses on the subject of death, related how, when he draws a character’s death in Schlock Mercenary, he usually draws that part of the scene in silhouette, which allows the readers to fill in the details of the death, making the event that much more graphic.  Lovecraft, when writing about the monsters in some of his stories, does the same things with his language, using words to outline the monster and making his readers fill in the details with their minds.  While this technique may retain some of the impact of Lovecraft’s original words, I still think that something gets lost in the translation to a graphic story.  You cannot draw the unseen, and unless you want to fill your comic with walls of text (which you don’t), it’s difficult to convey the unseen effectively.

For all that I’ve written up to this point, I don’t think that this collection, or its sequel, are bad.  For many who are already fans of Lovecraft’s work, they could be a nice companion and a glimpse into what Lovecraft’s stories mean to the various artists featured.  These collections could also serve as a good gateway drug for those who may have previously found Lovecraft’s (rather dense) text to be inaccessible, and hopefully some percentage of the previously uninitiated will go on to read Lovecraft’s stories as they were first introduced to the world.

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About Hilary B. Bisenieks

Hilary B. Bisenieks (Biss-en-yex) n. 1. An author of fact, fancy, and opinion based out of Oakland, CA. 2. A graduate of the Creative Writing program at Warren Wilson college and Mary Robinette Kowal's Short Story Workshop. 3. A man unable to be trusted to update basic biographical information with any regularity. View all posts by Hilary B. Bisenieks

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