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.

Next stop, the Twilight Zone

Twilight Zone Title Card

One of television's most recognizable logos

October 2nd, 1959 saw the debut of one of television’s undeniable classics, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. Dealing with the supernatural and paranormal, the anthology show would run for five seasons, receive numerous awards and set a standard for creepiness on late night television. Intelligent and well-written, Twilight Zone attracted an impressive roster of known and up and coming actors such as: Art Carney, Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Carol Burnett, Elizabeth Montgomery, Julie Newmar, Cliff Robertson, Telly Savalas, Dennis Hopper, Ron Howard, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner, to name but a few. With such talent involved, Twilight Zone understandably makes top television and cult television “best of” lists on a regular basis.

Twilight Zone issue #10

The moody atmosphere for Twilight Zone comics was established thanks largely due to Gold Key's house practice of using painted artwork on their covers.

Although the show ended in 1964, it still appears in syndication to this day. There have been two attempted television revivals of the program (1985-89, 2002-03) and a theatrically released film (1983) produced by Stephen Spielberg starring Dan Akroyd, Albert Brooks, Vic Morrow, John Lithgow and Scatman Crothers. Current rumours suggest that another film may be in the works with participation from Christopher Nolan and Leonardo DiCapprio.

The Twilight Zone’s popularity, short story anthology format, and frequent use of surprise or twist endings made it a natural for adaptation into comic books. It was first released in 1961 by Western Publishing through their Dell comics line. Four issues were printed, two under Dell’s Four Color comic title and the other two as The Twilight Zone before being switched to Gold Key comics, also owned by Western. The series ran successfully for 91 issues until 1979 with one final issue being published in 1982 by another Western company, Whitman.

 Gold Key were no strangers to licensed product producing comic lines for such television adaptations as The Addams Family, The Munsters, Adam-12, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and most famously, the original series Star Trek. Gold Key’s forays into spooky-themed comics included: Boris Karloff: Tales of Mystery, Grimm’s Ghost Stories, and The Occult Files of Doctor Spektor as well as other, shorter-lived series.
Twilight Zone issue 84

Issue #84 of The Twilight Zone marked the pro debut by none other than modern comic icon Frank Miller.

Each Twilight Zone issue contained several stories, some as short as a single page, others as long as eight or eleven pages. Like the television series, the comic featured the work of top talent such as former EC comics artists: Reed Crandall, George Evans, Frank Frazetta and Al Williamson. Other now-familiar names also included: Len Wein, Alex Toth, Joe Orlando, Walt Simonson, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez along with many others. The Twilight Zone comic also has the distinction of having provided Frank Miller his first professional credit, long before his successful work on Daredevil, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Sin City and 300.

Although the Twilight Zone comic enjoyed a long run, it eventually came to an end. Like the television show, however, The Twilight Zone enjoyed a few attempted revivals in comic book form as well. NOW comics revived the series with sporadic printings through the early 90′s including one issue written by Harlan Ellison and pencilled by comics great, Neal Adams. In recent years Walker Books have published a series of graphic novel adaptations of original Twilight Zone episodes. These books are aimed at younger readers, but have been met with lukewarm reception.

The greatest difficulty in adapting a series like Twilight Zone lies in capturing the moody atmosphere of the show. As mediums go, television and film have a lot of tricks up their sleeves: lighting, extreme camera angles, fast panning and jump cuts which can all be attempted in comics with varying degrees of success depending on the skills of the artist. But there are other aspects which cannot be so easily translated: music, sound effects and, most notably, the abilities of the actors to be convincing in their roles. This is not to say that one shouldn’t attempt adapting such material, if that were so, suspense or horror comics wouldn’t exist.

Who knows, if the rumours are correct, and a successful film adaption of Twilight Zone hits the screen, comics might get another chance to go traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead — your next stop, the Twilight Zone.

Of things that go bump, pow, crash! and ar-woooooo in the night

Batboy in the Halloween sky

A little something I drew. Halloween is a time of full moons, bats in the sky and other spooky delights!

I woke up to a cold house this morning. Outside, a strong north wind gusted and howled, causing a tree branch to tap and scratch forlornly at our bedroom window. Fallen leaves swirled about, dancing through withered flower-beds. The sky was ominous and grey, populated with grim-looking clouds. October had arrived, bringing the Halloween season with it.

Very soon the landscape will be littered with jack-o-lanterns, fake tombstones will spring up on front lawns, phony cobwebs will support giant, plastic spiders and paper bats, ghosts and skeletons will decorate window panes along with orange and black crêpe ribbons. Horror movie marathons will flicker across late night television screens and we’ll all sit back and enjoy being scared out of our wits for a few hours.

For as long as there have been campfires mankind has indulged in telling tales of terror. Whether to explain, to moralise, or to entertain, these stories tap into our universal sub-conscious with themes exploring life, death, and life after death. As a genre, horror has played a big part in comic books and there is a rich history of fantastic story-telling in the four colour world, all of it dedicated to sending chills up readers’ spines.

Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror covers

EC comics set the standard for horror comic art and storytelling in the 50's with such titles as Haunt of Fear, Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt.

As with every entertainment medium there have been trends in fan interest and taste which have dictated the level of popularity for horror comics during different periods of time. Both Marvel and DC have put out horror-themed books, but they have not been the only comic publishers to tap into readers’ fears. Nor have they been the most successful. I think that title would unarguably go to EC Comics, which set the standard for horror comics in the 50′s with their three main books: Haunt of Fear, Vault of Terror and, of course, Tales from the Crypt. Employing some of the best writers and artists of the day, EC’s huge success inspired more than a little jealousy and mimicry from the other comic companies. Eventually the other companies virtually black-balled EC from publishing with the formation of the Comics Code Authority. (This story will be explored in a later post.) The CCA was a self-regulating body created in response to increasing parental anger and fear over comic books’ influence over youth at the time. The prohibition of super-natural creatures such as vampires, werewolves and zombies from comics pretty much ended the horror renaissance of the 50′s.

In the late 60′s and through the 70′s Warren Publishing went outside the CCA and unleashed its black and white comic magazines Eerrie, Creepy and Vampirella on a horror-starved fandom. Soon after, Marvel and DC both followed suit with black and white magazines of their own as well as comic books that pushed the boundaries set by the comics code.

No single comic company dominated the horror genre in the 80′s but a number of independent comic publishers kept the flame alive such as Pacific Comics, with its Twisted Tales.

In the 90′s DC introduced its Vertigo line where darker, more mature subject matter such as Hellblazer, found a home. Although Warren Publishing had ceased to exist, its most popular character Vampirella was revived by Harris Comics. Independent publisher Chaos Comics burst onto the scene with its violent characters Evil Ernie and Lady Death which also inspired an explosion of imitators.

Walking Dead vol.1 Days Gone Bye cover

Robert Kirkman's phenomenally successful zombie comic The Walking Dead has been adapted for television on AMC.

Over the past ten years the horror comics scene has had its core of loyal followers and comic companies big and small have fed on various trends such as the zombie resurgence with popular books like Image Publishing’s Walking Dead.

As with any sort of genre there are plenty of examples of dreck which drag the artform down into the muck, but for the time being horror seems to be trading on a wave of popularity. What’s the key to this revival? Strong storytelling. It puts the fun into being scared by giving us characters we want to care about and stories that interest us.

In the spirit of the Halloween season, for the month of October, I will be digging a little deeper into those comics that go bump in the night. Follow along… if you dare!

Five things to do at FanExpo

2011 FanExpo Floorplan

FanExpo is a very BIG show. Plenty of room for line-ups and a crowd here.

I’m not really good in crowds. Oh, I’m not phobic about it or anything, I can still function. Let’s just say that I prefer smaller groups to larger ones. My chief complaint is that I have little patience for waiting in lines. It’s unlikely you’ll ever find me camping out for the next Apple store opening or even the final acts in George Lucas’ Star Wars trilogy of trilogies.

So why would I go to one of the ultimate geekfest calendar events like this weekend’s FanExpo in Toronto? Opening today, this four day pop-cult extravaganza is a comic book, sci fi, horror, anime and gaming expo all rolled into one enormous, awkward mass of humanity. The event has grown into the third largest of its kind in North America and boasts of hosting Canada’s largest masquerade.

Past guests have included: Stan Lee, John Romita Jr. and Sr., Alex Ross, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Patrick Stewart, Carrie Fisher, Malcolm McDowell, Edward James Olmos, Alice Cooper, Clive Barker, George Romero, Wes Craven, Bruce Campbell, Margot Kidder, Elvira and many more. And, guess what? People… Line… Up… That’s right, when they’re not jostling one another around the 700 retail booths, thousands of people will stand patiently (mostly) in line to meet their idols, speak with them for a moment or two, maybe have a photo taken and get their gear autographed.

To be honest, I haven’t really had much experience with comic cons, having only gone to some of the smaller shows. FanExpo will be the biggest show I’ve gone to. So what should I look forward to doing? Here’s five things:

Shopping? Of course!

The vendor booths are one of the largest components of any con. There’s always deals to be had and you never know what gems from yesteryear you might find if you take the time to dig through a few longboxes. All New Comics, the online comic mailing service I use will be there so in addition to being able to chat face to face with Peter and Brian, I’ll also be able to pick up my most recent orders along with a special gift. Thanks guys!

Attend a panel

Historically, this is one of the most important parts of the con experience, the opportunity to see your favourite writers, pencillers, inkers and industry execs discussing what’s hot, new and important in the industry. DC Comics will be there to roll out more teasers about their New 52 relaunch. Marvel Comics will be there to make certain DC doesn’t score too many points as the topic de jour amongst comic fandom.

Check out all the Exhibitors (similar to vendors, only not)

The major companies will be there, so will all the indy companies. They’ll all be introducing their new books, characters, storylines and merchandise. This is a great opportunity to find out what’s coming up in the world of comics through sneak previews, giveaways and deals, deals, deals.

Stroll down Artist’s Alley

I may not line up for much, due to that crowd/standing in line thing, but still, it’s worth a look and a lot of big names in the industry will be there including: Joe Kubert, Andy Kubert, Adam Kubert, Jeff Smith, Chris Claremont, Tony Moore, Matt Fraction, Steve McNiven, Brian Azzarello, Jill Thompson, Ethan Van Sciver, Francis Manapul, Dale Eaglesham, Fred Van Lente, to name only a few.

Try to stare without staring

One of the most enduring clichés surrounding comic cons is that of the over-the-top fan. You know what I’m talking about. The nutters who take their hobby to the next level of extremes and attend events dressed as their favourite characters. The anime and manga crowd are really big on this, to the point of having coined a word to describe this activity: cosplay. This sort of activity is not only encouraged, but also rewarded at such events as the Saturday evening masquerade. If masquerade isn’t enough there’s also the Teletoon Retro Costume Contest.

There’s lots of other things I could do. Take in a sketching duel, go to a portfolio review or have my picture taken with all my favourite costumed characters. But hey! There’s only so many hours in a day and if I have the time I wouldn’t mind catching some of the activity at the sci fi, horror and anime expo portions of the show.

In spite of the crowds, it should be a good day.