Wednesday, October 29, 2014

W27 replay: OCTOBER COMICS 3 (Universal Monsters, Frankenstein, and Starchild)

Three years ago, I did a short series here called "October Comics."  Like the over-arching title states, these were comics I felt epitomized this time of year - with the leaves turning color and falling, the temperature becoming colder, the nights longer.  It's a great time of year to curl up with a good book (or comic, as the case may be) and let that autumnal mood take you away on dark flights of fantasy and horror.  Here are a few books that can take you there.

UNIVERSAL MONSTERS by Art Adams, Denis Beauvais, and others

The Universal Monster films hold a dear place in many people’s hearts. They’re fun and, as a boy, were great for a scare when I watched them on television late at night. So, when Dark Horse published comic adaptations of some of these classic films back in the early 90s, I was onboard.
It’s been a number of years since I read them, but I remember enjoying these books immensely. The adaptations were very true to the movies from which they derived, and, as it is when we see Iron Man or Batman on the silver screen, it was a thrill to have these stories in a new medium for which I have such passion.

Dark Horse did a stellar job of pulling together creators for these books. Art Adams and Tony Harris are the obvious “name” stars to have contributed to this short series. Adams’s meticulous linework in the “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and his notable detail offer a fully-realized and icky swamp for this creature to reside in. Conversely, Harris’s more flowing ink style fit well with the fraying wraps of the mummy, bringing this encumbered figure to vivid, haunting life.

However, despite the involvement of Harris and Adams on this project, I was more anxious for the Frankenstein adaptation from Denis Beauvais. I was familiar with Beauvais’s painting from Dark Horse’s Aliens books. And he did not disappoint. His use of color and ability to evoke atmosphere through his painting fit this book perfectly. Easily, this is my favorite of the bunch.
And finally, Dracula was brought to life by Dan Vado, “supreme commander” of Slave Labor Graphics, and J.D. Smith, who works primarily as a colorist in the comics field today. Like Frankenstein, these two were able to imbue their adaptation with the atmosphere evoked in the film.The soft linework of Smith worked well in this respect.

Are these books scary? No. Are the original films considered scary by today’s standards? No. But these books are fun, and, if you enjoyed the Universal Monster films when you were younger, reading one of these will touch that nostalgic part of you that is also what keeps us reading comics.And that, to me, seems fitting.


A few years back, Steve Niles started a series of “Little Books of Horror” through IDW. They were slim, 48-page adaptations of classic horror stories. Niles wrote the adaptations with a number of distinct artists providing illustrations. Ted McKeever provided art for “The War of the Worlds,” Richard Sala did so for “Dracula,” and Scott Morse drew the single volume I own, “Frankenstein.”
I re-read this book just the other night, and, although it was a quick read, I enjoyed it thoroughly.Niles manages to encapsulate the entirety of Shelley’s novel with an economical use of prose. True to the source material, he includes bits that are often overlooked in other adaptations, and I applaud him for this.

It is a great challenge to boil down a novel to a few hundred words, and yet, Niles manages to do just that. Obviously, readers do not get the nuance and more fully-realized narrative that can be found in Shelley’s novel through this 48-page graphic novel. But, if one is already familiar with the book, a faithful adaptation such as this ignites the memory of the original’s reading. And, if one has not read Frankenstein before, this is a great introduction to a classic of literature that could, very easily, spur one on to go and read the original.
The big draw for this book, though, is the lush painting of Scott Morse. He provides richly imagined pieces, full of color and design and symbolism, and adds so much to Niles’s adaptation. Between readings of this book, I have often pulled it from my shelf and slowly leafed through it, studying the artistry of Morse. Somehow, his animation style fused with his sense of color manages to evoke the very genuine emotions that are to be found in the source material.

And it is a very distinct book that feels and reads like little else in comics – or prose, for that matter.This is mainly why I appreciate Scott Morse’s work so much. He – like Paul Pope or Kate Beaton or James Owen – prefer to carve out their own niche in this medium doing challenging work that stands out among the soulless “house styles” found in many of the “mainstream” comics on stands today (not that this is unique to current comics). If you love great art and can appreciate the skill necessary to create such a faithful adaptation in so few words, then this is a book you should seek out.

And if you do choose to read this book in a dimly lit room as the moon falls behind the swaying trees outside your window, you just might hear the monster crying off in the distance, and you may need to pull another blanket up close to your chin, just to keep the cold away.

STARCHILD by James A. Owen

James Owen’s Starchild series was one of those books that would rise to the top of my “to-read” pile when it was being published regularly back in the early 90s. I love that book and have read it a number of times through the years.
Not a horror book – as most of my other “October comics” offerings have been – it is a book perfectly suited to reading during this time of year when the days get shorter and the air becomes cooler. This was pointed out to me by my friend from the CGS forums, Adam Murdough, and when he shared this insight, I knew instantly he was correct.

The tale of the Higgins family, the bulk of Starchild is set in the timeless village of Fool’s Hollow near a magical forest. Hearkening back to our romanticized versions of ancient English villages, this is a tale wherein mythical characters like Titania live alongside caricatures of some of my favorite fantasists such as Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore. It’s a masterful blending of myriad times and settings that Owen manages to pull off with intelligence while never forgetting to tell an entertaining story.
Owen both writes and draws these tales, and his art meshes wonderfully with the writing. Owen’s delicate lines and slightly rough style are reminiscent of old woodcuts, evoking through his artwork the atmosphere of such a tale. One can almost hear the wind whistling across the glens as the pages turn. Drawn in a different style, or by a different artist, I don’t think Starchild would evoke such wonder as it does.

Within the pages of Starchild, one encounters mystery, high drama, and familial secrets tempered by the whimsy and lyrical comedy of characters such as Old Tom and Martin Humble, and simmering beneath it all is the magic of stories, the kind that ignited our imaginations as children.

If you love fantasy and appreciate the mood found in that hour right before midnight in the early autumn, then this is a book for you. Definitely worth seeking out, Starchild is best read on the porch at dusk, with a steaming mug of cider close by.

Go ahead, listen to the crisp leaves beneath your feet, the cool breeze rising to a soft shriek at your back, and watch for those long shadows growing deeper, with the coming of winter just over the horizon, and try to tamp down that shiver rushing up your spine as you spy something in the corner of your eye ... and turn to find nothing there. 

Then sit down to read these comics and try to tell me you don't get that same feeling of anxiety and anticipation as the words and images wash over you.  You can't.  


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