At the Mountains of Madness: A Graphic Novel
By H. P. Lovecraft. Adapted by I. N. J. Culbard.
Sterling Publishing, 2012. 128 pages.
Paper with flaps. Color.
$14.95 US/$17.95 CAN
It has often been said that Lovecraft, as written, is unfilmable. In many aspects, this is true. Much of Lovecraft’s effectiveness derives from his use of language, setting, and mood to achieve tension and the proper effects. Film, being such a visual medium, does not translate Lovecraft very well. This often results in filmmakers feeling compelled to ‘add’ to Lovecraft’s text which generally does not work out to anyone’s benefit.
Given that comics are a blend of both art and words, one would think that Lovecraft would do quite well in that medium but that has not always been so. The question has always been; “do we adapt Lovecraft literally? Line for line? Or go for more focus on the plot?” Most comic adaptations have focused on more plot than style. Roy Thomas’ adaptations in Marvel comics, for instance, relied more on what happened when. His version of “Pickman’s Model” in Tower of Shadows #9 (1971) dealt with the problem of Pickman’s photograph by actually showing it rather than letting it stay in the reader’s imagination. Thomas, a talented writer, must have known that it was mistake to reveal the photograph but also that the reader would have felt ‘cheated’ without the revelation. In film and comics, you cannot talk about a monster without, at some point, showing it.
Bernie Wrightson‘s adaptations of Lovecraft for the black and white Warren magazines fared better but only because his artistic skills were able to carry off the ‘unnamable’ aspect of Lovecraft’s creations. During the 1980s, a spate of ‘Lovecraft’ comics appeared which were little more than ‘action plots’ based on the Cthulhu Mythos and other trappings of Lovecraft’s work.
Thankfully, in the last decade, more comics have appeared that have a better understanding of both the stories and Lovecraft’s philosophy that is their foundation. BOOM comics have released several excellent examples of this, along with some not so excellent examples, which would lead one to believe that the creators of comics are finally catching up to Lovecraft.
Culbard’s recent adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness not only fulfills that promise but surpasses it. This book, quite simply, is the best adaptation of Lovecraft’s work yet done in comics and, dare I say, in any medium yet.
A veteran of graphic novels (having already produced versions of The Picture of Dorian Gray, A Study in Scarlet among others), Culbard brings his skills to this challenging novel. Believed by many to be one of, if not the, best work by Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness is a multi-layered scientific horror story that is as epic in its scope as it is in its execution. Lovecraft carefully constructed the novel to be an unrelenting push towards the mind-shattering conclusion but did it in such a way that very little action actually appears ‘on-screen’. It is the knowledge, the realization of the meaning of what is learned that gives the impact to the story and which also makes it virtually unfilmable as written. There are vast sections without any action, which is anathema to a film. But, here, in this graphic adaptation, Culbard uses it just as effectively as Lovecraft had.
Culbard’s art style is a deceptively simple blend of cartooning and color. In some ways reminiscent of Herge’s Tintin books, the figures are iconic because, as in Lovecraft, it is not the characters that are important but the story they uncover. It also brings to mind the early days of animation such as the 1940s Superman cartoons. Blended with the excellent design and layout, the art style echoes the time of the story and are absolutely convincing in their honesty.
Often, those who have never done so, will say that it is easy to write a comic book. The best response is usually to tell them to try it themselves and judge the result. Comics require a method and understanding that is uniquely their own. It is not only knowing how to frame a panel, construct a page but how to pace the story as well. In this, Culbard excels. His pages are simply magnificent. Shifting seamlessly between the statement of Professor Dyer and the actions he describes, there is never a misstep or miscalculation. The graphic novel is constructed just as intricately and purposefully as the novel it adapts.
The only place where Culbard could have ruined the effect was the climatic shoggoth chase underneath the hidden city. But even here Culbard shows his mastery of the novel and his own unique artistic skills. The chase remains every bit as suspenseful and heartstopping as Lovecraft intended.
In recent years, a film adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness was rumored to be in production. Helmed by director Guillermo del Toro, it was hoped that it would be a true and faithful adaptation of the original. Recently, however, that production has been scrapped. Although disappointing, it is highly unlikely that del Toro’s film would have reached the heights of this graphic novel. In the end, Culbard’s At the Mountains of Madness deserves to stand proudly on the bookshelf alongside Lovecraft’s own novel.