Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Strange Adventures of H. P. Lovecraft (2010), Image Comics

I think I mainly enjoyed this graphic novel because of the way it resonated with me as an aspiring writer of fiction.  That's a bit odd in that I'm not a huge fan of Lovecraft's actual writing.  I'm more into Lovecraft for his philosophical struggle and unique artistic vision - his actual prose inspires me very rarely.  But it is Lovecraft's vexed career as a writer that forms the central motif of this period comic set in the 1920s.  It's a very well-told and gripping tale if relatively simple.  The complexity comes not in the plot but in the meditation on art and life.  It's about 'high' literary aspirations in a world that can only take what you make as pulp fiction, lurid shockers to be read and trashed.  If what you make can be read at all, that is.  The opening portrays the editor of Weird Tales magazine complaining to Lovecraft's fellow writer Clark Ashton Smith that Lovecraft's stories are just too bizarre and not gripping enough.  The scene shows how even the pulps didn't have much time for Lovecraft's truly (not just surfacely) weird tales.  (Various characters throughout, such as policemen, remark that they've never been able to actually finish reading one of Lovecraft's stories.)

Lovecraft was too freakish and monstrous for the literary canon and too meditative and visionary for the pulps.  Add to that a childhood disfigured by parental mental illness and a failed attempt at romance (central plot features of the graphic novel) and you have the quintessential (and slightly clichéd) Unhappy Poet.  Such a man might be prone to make monsters in his art, but in this comic's story the monsters step outside Lovecraft's brain and murderously into his world. It's another fairly hackneyed trope, but fun enough nonetheless and, again, not really the point.

The point is that it's incredibly difficult to grope toward an original artistic vision in a world that needs to sell, sell, sell, and in a world where we're all nursed on lowest-common-denominator aesthetics and ontologies.  Probably about half of the graphic novel's text is comprised of actual quotes from Lovecraft's writings - I recognised a number of them from both his fiction and non-fiction writing. Some seemed obviously from letters or journals.  There's a lot of soul-searching and frustration and bleak determination, but in a way I found sincere and inviting, not goth-angsty.

The illustrations are fine.  They are skilful drawings that get the job done and tell the story well.  It's not really my style, but some of the monsters are interesting interpretations, quite gruesome and repugnant.  They flesh out effectively the sheer madness of what it would be like to see the brain-shattering otherworldliness of such beings disgustingly intersect with our own organic matter and psyche.  There was, however, perhaps not enough emphasis on the cosmos, the dreadful sense of deep space and lightyears so crucial to the ambient of the Lovecraft's monstrosities, his seminal 'cosmic horror'.

One thing I found interesting was that the editor of Weird Tales complained that Lovecraft didn't have busty blondes and the accompanying sexual under- or overtones in his tales, the misogynistic soft-smut that sold so well.  But this graphic novel's illustrator made sure to include a number of panels of fairly graphic sex and nudity (the comic would surely need to be rated R for a number of elements).  I thought most of these sex scenes fairly gratuitous.  Some of them were commenting on men's abuse of women (e.g. prostitution), but as is so often the case in our society, these depictions drag the male imagination through a suspiciously loving and lingering objectification of lust-embellished female bodies in order to 'subvert' that same male gaze. I find this element of the comic highly ironic in light of the complaint that Lovecraft couldn't sell well without such lubricious voyeurism.  There is a deeper and real issue in Lovecraft about phobia of sex and relationships, but that's not really touched on in this comic in favour of a more simple Hollywood tragic romance line.

Speaking of Hollywood, there have apparently been talks with Ron Howard about adapting this comic to film.  I found myself wishing that might happen as I read it, especially as a number of counter-cultural writers have had films made about them in the last decade (e.g. Hunter S. Thomson and Allen Ginsberg).  I just wish a more visionary director than Howard could get hold of it.

Fellow Lovecraft enthusiasts might at least enjoy seeing Lovecraft's own words on writing and life strung together into a tale as I did.  And those interested in a first glimpse of the thinking and worldview behind this tragic mad genius of outré literature might find this graphic novel an accessible intro (but please don't stop here as it is probably misleading in some ways).  The book cemented a growing feeling for me, that in spite of the fact that I don't care for Lovecraft's actual prose, he is becoming something of a writer's writer for me, a rather poignant champion of artistic integrity in a world that doesn't value that often enough.

For an outro, here are a few of the pretty cool cover illustrations from individual issues of the series, found at the back of the book: