Thursday, March 6, 2014

Back Matter #5 - Alan Moore's The Courtyard & Cells by Scott Mills

With the “Back Matter” series of posts, I am reprinting my initial writings on comics from roughly 2006.  A more detailed explanation can be found here


            Translating a story from one medium to another may, on the surface, seem like a lesson in creative typing.  But if that were true there would be a higher percentage of good movies adapted from good books or good comics.  The problem isn’t necessarily that those adapting the works lack the requisite skill, thought that can often be the case.  The problems that arise come about due to a lack of understanding of the varying strengths and weaknesses in each medium.  For example, with The Courtyard from Avatar Press Antony Johnston, ably assisted by artist Jacen Burrows, is adapting a short piece of prose by Alan Moore into comic form.  The biggest hurdle with this endeavor is the fact that prose contains internal monologue, which is part of its beauty.  But with comics being an overwhelmingly visual medium, an internal monologue is not feasible without something also happening in the pictures.  Thankfully, Johnston and Burrows have a strong understanding of these differences.
            The Courtyard is the story of Aldo Sax and his investigation into a series of strange, ritualistic murders.  Fifteen victims from different parts of the United States have shown up dead without any heads or hands, while their torsos have been carved apart in a layered star.  With all of the victims having been killed in this identical manner it appears to be the work of a single killer.  But the first suspect, a 20-year-old bookstore clerk from Seattle, admits to only six of the murders, no more.  The authorities expect to pin him with the others eventually until a wino picked up for vagrancy cops to three of the murders.  Only three.  Of the final six, four are related and the sole survivor of that massacre confesses to murdering them.  Now the murders seem to be the result of a copycat syndrome, except for the fact that many details were never given over to the press.  The subsequent investigation turns up no links between the three killers leaving the motive, and the possibility of finding the killer of the remaining two victims, almost impossible.  That’s where Sax comes in.
            Sax is a federal agent who deals with anomaly theory.  He looks at cases and sifts through all the obvious facts in order to find those obscure, anomalous ones that he intuitively knows may lead to the connection he’s looking for.  In this case the fact that all three killers have shown a tendency toward gibberish, along with a slim thread tying them all to a new rock band called Ulthar Cats, has led him to Red Hook where the Cats are scheduled to play in Club Zothique this night.  Walking out into the shadows of early evening, Sax heads across town to take in the new band and try to find the answers his superiors are so intent upon.  In the course of the night Sax is turned on to a local drug dealer, Johnny Carcosa, who might just hold the key to everything.  There’s a new drug on the street, aklo, which the lead singer of the Ulthar Cats takes before performing and of which Carcosa appears to be the main dealer.  The drug causes people to speak in gibberish, part of the appeal of Ulthar Cats, and could explain this oddity among the three murder suspects.  Making his play, Sax gets Carcosa to agree to meet with him, but the discovery he makes when Carcosa gives him the aklo will be beyond anything he could have imagined.  Opening up a new world to Sax, it will give him all the answers he is looking for.  But, will he be able to handle it?
            Moore’s original story appeared in the anthology The Starry Wisdom in which contemporary writers and artists such as John Coulthart and Grant Morrison pay tribute to H.P. Lovecraft.  Like a thin shroud, a layer of foreboding and unease settles over Moore’s narrative leaving the reader anxious through to the shocking climax.  The Courtyard is a wonderfully moody tale and is set in the near future lending it a mingled sense of exoticism and familiarity, which adds to the tension pervading this short story.  Like looking in a distorting mirror at the funhouse, the audience finds itself looking at its own world from a slightly different angle and a slightly different time when maybe, just maybe, the horror found within could actually happen. 
As in most Moore tales, the reader is bombarded with ideas and inventions at every indent of a paragraph, every jump across the comic gutters, and in the hands of many writers any one of these ideas – a character dealing with anomaly theory, the ritualistic murders, the revelation of exactly what aklo is – could be extended out over a decompressed 6-issue storyline quite easily.  But for Moore such is not the case as he only mentions these things in passing, utilizing them either to add an air of truth to the tale or propel it forward.  And instead of writing a novel he wraps everything up nicely in ten pages, which translates into two – TWO – issues of the comic adaptation.  And yet, it is as fulfilling a read as one will find.   
Johnston’s biggest worry when approaching the adaptation of The Courtyard was the fact that he has such an affinity for the works of Alan Moore and H.P. Lovecraft he wanted to be sure he did justice to the source material.  When adapting a work of fiction like this I would say that caring about the material goes a long way toward a superlative creation.  Retaining a vast majority of the internal monologue Johnston has Jacen Burrows include scenes in the background – a guy mugged by three vagrants while others just ignore it – which not only expand upon the characterization and flavor of the setting, but also add another layer of realism to the story.  Johnston understands the strength of comics and allows the visuals to move the story along at a leisurely pace without losing any of the wonder and esoteric qualities of Moore’s original. 
Something else these creators do is to take a page from Alan Moore’s and Frank Miller’s works and adapt it to their own needs.  They utilize a formal page setup – two vertical panels per page, not unlike the 9-panel grid in Watchmen, and only deviate from this standard when the story dictates.  What this repetition of form allows is a familiarity for the audience, so that when a “big moment” occurs – such as the introduction of Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen or the revelation of the drug aklo in this story – the artist can utilize a full-page or double-page spread that will stand out and lend a visual impact to the emotional one.   
Johnston noted in his introduction to the companion book for The Courtyard that he was happy to find he was working with artist Jacen Burrows who was also an admirer of Lovecraft.  Along with his work in videogame design Burrows has been one of the artists that has set the look for Avatar Press, not only working on this project but also illustrating a number of books written by Warren Ellis as well as Garth Ennis’s 303.  His art is amazing, and it’s a wonder he has not been snatched up by the “Big Two” yet.  One can only surmise that this is a conscious act on his part because his pages are as clean and polished as anything you will see come off the presses from Marvel or DC.  Burrows is able to adapt his style to anything asked of him by the writer, energetic when called for, but also subdued when need be.  He also uses standard techniques to showcase Sax’s mental state.  Throughout The Courtyard Burrows uses grey tones to great effect until Sax opens his eyes after doing a line of DMT-7.  At this point he renders the images in a very stark pen and ink style signifying the protagonists’ altered perception.  But once the aklo kicks in, with the heightened understanding of the world that comes with it, the multi-layered grey tones return signaling Sax’s newfound understanding.  It’s subtle, it’s simple, and it works so much better than any computerized technique could have.  An artist plying his trade with the tools that have always been at artists’ disposal.  Brilliant in its simplicity. 
This is one of the best adaptations in comic form I’ve ever read and it is one of my favorite Alan Moore stories.  This easily could have been overdone – horror being a genre where over-the-top storytelling is not uncommon – but Johnston and Burrows remain faithful to Moore’s tale.  Pulling readers along, they lull the audience into believing Sax might come through this unscathed before exploding a climax upon readers that is as revelatory about the fictitious mystery at hand as it is about the world around us.
Anyone familiar with Moore’s thoughts on magic will understand the implicit lesson to be found at the end of this story.  Regardless, the ultimate meaning of the drug aklo will allow the audience to look at the world with a different perspective and have them pondering what the most damaging mind-altering substance – as dispensed by Charles Manson, David Koresh, Jim Jones, et al. – can be.
Our second selection this time is the mini-comic Cells from Scott Mills.  Published in 1998, Mills was the recipient of a grant from the Xeric Foundation as a result of this work.  Available through Mills’s website,, this is a story of two cellmates in the Baltimore Department of Corrections – one black and one white – and the evolution of their relationship.
Amazingly, Mills takes us on a journey through thirteen years of the convicts’ lives, from 1997 to 2009, and does it in only 22 pages.  Aptly utilizing the cliché that less is more, Mills drops the reader in at specific points in these characters’ story, giving his audience just those bits of information necessary to drive the narrative.  For its brevity, readers miss nothing of the nuance and maturation in this relationship, watching it slowly grow from an antagonistic one into one where these two men might be comfortable calling one another friend.  Conversations that were once argumentative – more monologue than anything else – eventually become the familiar wise-cracking dialogues that embody those exchanges between male friends.  And when, at the end, one of them succumbs to cancer it is as touching a moment as one will come across.
Scott Mills is a great storyteller.  His art will not be to most people’s liking, but it ably illustrates the stories he wants to share.  Stripped down to a minimum of fluid, graceful lines, his approach to comics is similar to John Ford’s approach to moviemaking – keep it simple, resist overstated set dressing, and focus on the characters.  Mills’s characters are far from one-dimensional, refusing to speak in clichés.  And despite the lessons that can be taken away from this particular creation, Mills never talks down to the readers.  His stories are exciting and daring and Mills’s use of the comic page is as accomplished as any veteran – close-ups, long shots, and black panels all adding visual weight to the story being told.  An amazing debut from an important storyteller, and one you should hunt down.

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