Edgar Allan Poe: Comics of Mystery and Imagination

Edgar Allan Poe Portrait

Edgar Allan Poe

I’m listening to The Alan Parsons Project’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination as I’m writing this. The album is a favourite of mine and I consider it to be one of their finest works. The songs are all based on the works of one of the giants of American literature, Edgar Allan Poe, who died on this day, Oct 7th in 1849. Credited with inventing the detective story with his tale Murders in the Rue Morgue, Poe was best known for melancholic short stories and poetry, that, if not outright horror, were certainly gothic in style and filled with macabre themes and imagery.

The most common theme, which Poe returned to frequently, was that of premature burial. Apparently this was a common fear in the nineteenth century. Comas and cases of unconsciousness being misdiagnosed were more frequent because medical science wasn’t as advanced and autopsies were rarely performed or required. Poe’s most direct treatment of the subject was in the story The Premature Burial.

To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality. That it has frequently, very frequently, so fallen will scarcely be denied by those who think. The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?

A Corben Special cover image

The cover to A Corben Special: House of Usher, Edgar Allan Poe

Other examples of premature burial appearing in Poe’s stories are: The Cask of Amontillado, The Black Cat and The Fall of the House of Usher. House of Usher was my first encounter with reading Poe, I remember my grade nine English teacher introducing it to us by suggesting that it had one of the longest first sentences of any story in the English language.

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country ; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

Page of Richard Corben's House of Usher

The opening scene by Corben silently introduces the main character of Poe's House of Usher.

Of all Poe’s work I would not have thought of Usher, with its additional themes of incest and madness, as the most readily adaptable to comic books; but Richard Corben did a fantastic job with it for Pacific Comics in 1984. Until reading it, I was only familiar with Corben’s Den Saga from Heavy Metal magazine and never really thought of him as anything other than a fantasy artist. However, his style was well-suited to producing a gothic horror piece and his mastery of page layout was on display right from the start. The opening panels in which the story’s narrator, Edgar Arnold, silently rides into the scene are nicely juxtaposed with the opening line from the story.

Corben not only adapts Poe’s work, he also pays tribute to the author by penciling a decent rendering of Poe in the role of the main character. Sprinkling Poe’s text throughout the piece as separate snippets not only moves the story along, but also gives the sense of Poe and Corben working together as collaborators. A nice touch.

Interior Art: Corben Special Edgar Allan Poe

One of the dream scenes. The total absence of speech balloons renders this scene frighteningly silent.

The heavy use of blacks is appropriate, given the subject matter and the fact that much of the story takes place at night in the darkened rooms and catacombs of a mouldering old mansion. Although the colouring is at times almost garishly neon, it is effective at suggesting dreamlike states, paranormal events and states of decay and putrefaction. Giving whole pages to long, narrow multiple panels without any text or word balloons gives a sense of the action being slowed down leaving the reader to absorb the scene as it unfolds without commentary or distraction. I’m always tempted to linger over these pages, allowing the scene to loop and play out endlessly. Corben’s use of expression on his character’s faces, as well as gesture helps convey such plot points as Roderick Usher’s descent into madness, Edgar’s astonishment and moments of terror as he witnesses events unfold within the house.

Richard Corben's House of Usher

Richard Corben's rendering of Poe's House of Usher doesn't disappoint.

Naturally, the house itself is not ignored and Corben does an excellent job of bringing it to life with detailed exteriors and moody interior shots. Again, colouring helps to realize the sense of decay and imminent collapse so present throughout the story. The ending brings the reader back almost to where things began: a lone figure alongside Poe’s words and Corben’s art.

Corben went on to adapt more of Poe’s works. Of course, there have been a great many other adaptations of Poe in comic books by companies such as Classics Illustrated, EC Comics, Warren Publishing’s Creepy and Eerie magazines and others. DC comics did an Elseworlds Tale: Batman Nevermore which sees Gotham’s caped crusader as a nineteenth century vigilante sleuth partnering up with Edgar Allan Poe himself. Not something probably Poe himself could ever possibly have imagined in all his wildest nightmares. With Halloween approaching, Poe’s work is certainly appropriate reading whether in text or graphic form.