Archive for the ‘Lovecraft Lives’ Category

Lovecraft Lives: Steven Philip Jones

Friday, April 17th, 2009

worlds 001 Lovecraft Lives: Steven Philip Jones

(Introduction by LL

When I began putting this series together, I had no idea just how diverse the world of Lovecraftian comics would turn out to be, and it is staggeringly diverse, as you’ll discover over the next few weeks. I’m not talking about Lovecraft-inspired books like Hellboy, but comics directly playing off Lovecraft’s life and work. Once I had the first batch of guest blogs in hand — I can happily tell you that this series is likely to run far longer than the intended six weeks–a logical order presented itself. Steve Jones, in addition to his many other credits, may have more adaptations of Lovecraft stories under his belt than any other writer, and yes, I’m jealous. Fortunately for Lovecraft fans, Tranfuzion Publishing has collected some of his stories in two volumes of The Worlds of H.P.Lovecraft. And take a minute to drop by his own website, www.stevenpjones.com, to read about his two young adult fantasy tales on the horizon and other fun stuff. Take it away, Steve….)

What am I adding or emphasizing that someone else has not?  Well, I like to think I brought a pair of fresh eyes to Lovecraft, my individual style and skills, and respect for the material.

Here is the opening line from my introduction to the first issue of Malibu Graphic’s premiere issue of H.P Lovecraft in Color which featured an adaptation of “The Lurking Fear”:

“I loved the scary stuff when I was a kid.  Mad scientists, ghosts, aliens, and monsters.”

What I didn’t love was Lovecraft.

There’s no sense going into a long-winded explanation of why right now, except to add that I have since changed my mind about Lovecraft, much as he changed his mind about Lord Dunsany.  Let’s just say that I read one of his stories, “The Temple,” in one of Alden H. Norton’s excellent horror anthologies while I was in junior high back in the 1970s and it left me cold.  As a lifelong horror fan I became familiar with HPL’s reputation in the proceeding years, but it was another 20 years before I read anything else by him.

After reading this you might asking, “How did you come to adapt anything of Lovecraft’s if you didn’t like his stories?”

Blame it on the movie Reanimator.

Sorry, Larry, but I loved the film when I first saw it in 1986.  Just like Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, Reanimator was a breath of fresh air in a horror movie market overrun with Jason or Freddy sequels and rip-offs.  Three years later I was talking to Malibu Graphic’s creative director Tom Mason about the company picking up the comic worlds 002 Lovecraft Lives: Steven Philip Jonesbook rights to Planet of the Apes when Tom told me Malibu had also gotten the rights to Reanimator and asked me if I would be interested in writing the adaptation.  It took me all of a second to say yes.

In preparation I read the screenplay by Stuart Gordon, Dennis Paoli and William J. Norris and then tracked down a copy of Lovecraft’s six “Herbert West: Re-Animator” stories originally published in Home Brew.  I had been warned that these were Lovecraft’s first professional stories and were amateurish, so I was delighted to discover that despite some undeniable flaws they were really pretty decent.  Much better than I remembered “The Temple” being.  I was so delighted that I suggested that Malibu ought to publish a reprint anthology which I (ahem) offered to layout, edit, and write the introduction.  Malibu agreed and the result was a successful comics adaptation and anthology.  So successful that Malibu realized they had a good thing going with Lovecraft and asked me if I would adapt some of the author’s other works into comics.  I never turn down work so I said yes.

As far as adaptations are concerned, this wasn’t going to be my first rodeo.  My comic book credits at the time already included adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and “Dracula’s Guest” and the 1953 science fiction film Invaders From Mars.  When it comes to adaptations I try to be as faithful to the source while keeping in mind the restraints of transliterating that material from a literary or audio-visual medium into the verbal-visual print medium of comics, a medium which (unlike a webcomic) has a set page count such as a 24-page pamphlet-style comic book story or 48-page graphic novel, and works best when that story is broken down into an average of six panels a page with an average of 25 words a panel.

For example, when I adapted the film Reanimator, not only I but the artist Chris Jones decided to remain as faithful to the film’s story and straight-forward style as possible.  Since the film’s length corresponded very well within the total number of pages we had been assigned (72), we were forced to make very few changes in that regard, so most of the changes we made were based on the “bigger budget” we had then the movie.  What I mean by this is that the film’s production values (e.g., sets and effects) were limited to a $1 million budget, but Chris and I were only limited to our page count and whatever Chris could draw within that space, so we gave the villain Dr. Carl Hill some nicer clothes and added some authentic Egyptian artifacts to his office to underscore his hubris.  We also added some graphic sex “daydreams” to further drive home his perverse fascination with Megan Halsey, and as an homage to HPL himself moved the main characters of Herbert West and Daniel Cain into a one-storey version of the Samuel B. Mumford house formerly at 66 College Street in Providence, Lovecraft’s last home.   The only major change I made from the film was its ending, and that is because Mason had informed me Full Moon Productions, who owned the film, had agreed to let Malibu publish an original prequel but no sequels because of Full Moon’s plans to do a film sequel in the future (which became the inferior Bride of the Reanimator).  Since West’s death in the film at the hands (or intestines) of a reanimated corpse left his fate up in the air, I opted to make it more final with an accidental explosion.

Working on H.P. Lovecraft in Color was going to involve more research than was necessary with Reanimator, so I purchased the DelRey anthologies and checked out critical reviews and literary companions about HPL at the library and got reading.  I had already contacted Lovecraft scholar and editor S.T. Joshi while working on the Reanimator anthology, and Joshi kindly supplied me with a list of Lovecraft stories in the public domain that could be adapted.  (Without this list HPLIC may have never been published, so I repaid Joshi’s kindness by naming the anthropology hall at Miskatonic University after him on page one of the premiere issue.)

Joshi’s list consisted mostly of Lovecraft’s earliest works, so I wouldn’t be getting HPL’s best like “Colour Out of Space” and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, but there was still good material to work with even though not all of the available stories contained Lovecraft’s trademark emphasis on atmosphere, but this restriction may have proved to be an unexpected benefit.  Since even a Lovecraft expert like Joshi had told me he considered these particular stories to be among HPL’s lesser works, I decided it would be a good idea to take more liberties than I normally would while adapting them into the comics medium than I had with Reanimator.  And by chance you think I’m slighting Lovecraft with this admission, I’m not.  Like I said, Joshi’s list had good material on it, but if it helps, by way of comparison imagine that I had been asked to adapt stories by Edgar Allan Poe and then told I could not work on “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “Murders In the Rue Morgue,” only lesser-known stories like “Descent Into the Maelstrom” and “Some Words With a Mummy.”
lf Lovecraft Lives: Steven Philip Jones As chance would have it the first story I read (and ended up adapting) was “The Lurking Fear,” Lovecraft’s second professional work, and I loved it from the word go.  I am a lifelong fan of the Universal classic horror movies\ and “Lurking Fear” has all the earmarks of a great Universal film.  There is the “haunted” Martense mansion sitting atop the gothic-named Tempest Mountain in Washington Irving’s neck of the Catskills in New York state, a terrible mystery involving fifty (“Count ‘em, fifty!”) squatters vanishing after their mountain camp falls into a sinkhole during a thunderstorm, and not just one but a whole family of monsters.

I was in hog heaven, dude!

Getting back to my original statement about Lovecraft, by this time I had also read enough of HPL’s stories to change my mind about him.  Lovecraft’s stylistic elements, which seemed monotonous and obscure when I first read “The Temple,” now created mood and otherworldly suspense.  After reading HPL’s best like “Call of Cthulhu” and “The Thing On the Doorstep,” I came to the conclusion that, along with Ernest Hemingway and Dashiell Hammett, Lovecraft was one of the most important and influential writers of the early 20th century, taking the  best elements of gothic horror and early science fiction to create a uniquely American as well as personal style of weird tale that continues to grow in popularity nearly a century after his death.  In spite of my change of heart I still believe, however, that because I was seeing Lovecraft with fresh eyes, as it were, I was able to select and emphasize the choicest stylistic elements from the stories I adapted for Malibu–and later Caliber Comics in Worlds of H.P. Lovecraft–while bowing to the necessary dictates of the comics medium without feeling the need to be slavishly faithful that a lifelong Lovecraft fan might have in my place.

One of those dictates in the early 1990s was that the fact that the comics marketplace’s predominant audience had been raised on superheroes, so they knew even less about Lovecraft than I.  In an attempt to entice superhero readers to give Lovecraft a try, I decided to update “Lurking Fear” to the present and add dialogue.  This latter decision was inevitable since Lovecraft’s stories are almost always 99.9% narrative, but comics stories are verbal-visual with an emphasis on dialogue over captions.  There is no getting around the reality that generally comics work better when the words appear in balloons more often then captions.  During my Lovecraft research I read again and again that the lack of dialogue in HPL’s stories was a constant obstacle in adapting his stories into other media, but the solution seemed simple enough to me.

Write my own dialogue.

If I could borrow snippets from the source material’s narration or change second-hand reports of dialogue into actual dialogue and then put these into balloons, so much the better, but writing dialogue that fits the characters and the stylistic dictates of a particular story should not be a problem for a writer.  It should actually come second nature.

As for updating the story, it would be foolish to believe that most readers fixated on the science-fantasy adventure genre of superheroes may not be resistant to reading a gothic story set in the 1920s.  alchemist Lovecraft Lives: Steven Philip JonesUpdating the story was also respectful to the source material.  Since Lovecraft had set “Lurking Fear” in the present when he wrote it, updating my adaptation to the 1990s likewise gives my adaptation the same sense of immediacy and possibility as Lovecraft’s story, an impact that would have been lacking if I had set it in the past.

The remaining adaptation problems were mainly technical.  I had 24 pages to work with and to make things more interesting Malibu instructed me to break down each adaptation into three eight-page chapters that could later be sold to foreign comics markets.  I actually loved this added challenge because one of my favorite comics is the award-winning Manhunter by the late Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson, first published by DC Comics in the early 1970s.  Except for its full-length final episode, Manhunter appeared in eight-page installments as a backup feature in Batman’s Detective Magazine, and to pack a full-length amount of story into these shorter installments Goodwin and Simonson incorporated several clever storytelling devices that inspired me to do likewise for my Lovecraft adaptations.

So, for one example, “Lurking Fear” and other adaptations like “Music of Erich Zann” and “The Alchemist” feature frequent flashbacks, many of which are framed by inserting a speaking character’s head in the upper left hand corner of the flashback’s first panel for reader reference.  Unlike the start of a new scene in a linear storyline, where the setting has to be established, in a flashback you can cut to a new scene with nothing more than a simple acknowledgement explanation from a character like, “I was in Omaha at the time…” or “Last night I was in Duffy’s Tavern.”  If flashbacks are done properly, a mystery like the one at the core of “Lurking Fear” can still be revealed at a gradual while leaving room for those all-important atmospheric scenes, like Arthur Monroe’s tragic journey to the Martense mansion or Nathan Trith’s exhumation of Jan Martense’s grave during a thunderstorm.

I would be negligent if I did not tell you that the success of HPLIC, Caliber’s Worlds of H.P. Lovecraft or even Reanimator would not have been possible without the artists I had the good fortune to collaborate with on them.

When I wrote HPLIC I had no idea who would be drawing the series, and I was under the impression that those script could very well my last professional comics work, so I decided to go for broke and create something that hopefully would have lasting value.  I will leave it up to you readers to decide if I succeeded, but I can tell you that I was overjoyed when I saw the xeroxes for Octavio Cariello’s work on “Lurking Fear” followed by “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” (perhaps the most difficult script I have ever asked an artist to bring to life), “The Tomb,” and “The Alchemist.”  He hit a homerun each issue.

bwos Lovecraft Lives: Steven Philip Jones Unfortunately Octavio was unable to follow the series when it moved to Caliber after Malibu decided not to continue it.  An offsetting benefit with this move, however, was that Caliber’s older and more eclectic audience permitted me to emphasize atmosphere and Gothicism more than I had been able to with the Malibu series, so I decided to incorporate the Lovecraft mythos–a huge part of HPL’s continued popularity–by bringing in Elder Gods like Dagon and turning their messenger Nyarlathotep into a reoccurring cameo character in most of the tales.  As an extension of this Caliber’s publisher Gary Reed suggested instead of searching for another regular artist that I find a different artist to draw each story, and I agreed because this would allow me to emphasize certain story elements based on a particular artist’s strengths.

For instance, Aldin Baroza, who not only drew but lettered “Music of Erich Zann,” has a very design-oriented style akin to Simonson and the late Marshall Rodgers, so I could incorporate many of the Manhunter techniques from the Malibu series into that script; however, Baroza also has a very moody and cinematic style, which lent itself to creating some of the most intense HPL-style atmosphere of any of the adaptations.  Octavio’s brother, Sergio, also has a very cinematic style, and while he is excellent at creating shadowy moods, his forte is action, all of which worked very well with the submarine setting and “giant monster” threat of “Dagon.”  An artist like Rob Davis, however, has a very straightforward style that is more complex than it appears on the surface, much like the style of the great comics artists of the 1950s like Curt Swan and Dick Sprang, so when Davis agreed to draw “The Picture in the House” I knew I could emphasize a human element in the story to give pathos not only to its protagonist but also Nyarlathotep.  Wayne Reid is awesome when it comes to historical comics, so I felt fortunate to have him draw “Arthur Jermyn,” which is set in 19th century England and could have come across as a simple Victorian revamp of “Lurking Fear” in lesser hands.  Finally I had the chance to pair up again with my Reanimatorrandolp Lovecraft Lives: Steven Philip Jones collaborator Chris Jones on “Statement of Randolph Carter,” which was a blessing because Chris is not only cinematic in his storytelling but capable of creating any sort of mood in any sort of setting, yet fully understands that when it comes to Lovecraft it is important to show a little of the detail but to leave most of it up to the reader’s imagination.

In wrap-up, I think I added some faithful adaptations to the plethora of Lovecraft-inspired comics material out there.  Much like I tried to do with my adaptation of Dracula, I wanted to show comics fans that a story or an author they may have heard of but never read is worth their time.  These so-called lesser stories of Lovecraft’s not only have merit but are also awfully entertaining, so if a reader liked an adaptation I wrote then I hope he was also inspired to read the source material.  There are exceptions, of course, but more often than not even the best adaptation is only a pale shadow of the original story, so in the end leading a reader to the source material is the ultimate measure of any adaptation’s success.