I.N.J. Culbard & H.P Lovecraft, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (Self Made Hero, 2013)
I will surely need to turn in my geek badge when I confess that I have never really gotten the whole Lovecraft thing. And I have tried, told over and again by friends, students and my own kids that I am missing something profound and life-changing. It’s not that I don’t find the stories wildly imaginative and compelling in their earnest drive towards myth and, well, precisely the cult-status they would achieve many years later. “He’s the heir to Poe,” my students insist. But in the end, Poe could write a masterful sentence. Lovecraft could not. Try as I might, I have a hard time getting past that.
Fortunately, Ian Culbard has come to my rescue, taking some of the most influential stories I have never been able to finish reading and transforming them into graphic novels that make me, for the first time, able to appreciate the unique vision of H. P. Lovecraft. Culbard’s first Lovecraft volume, At the Mountains of Madness, was an adaptation of Lovecraft’s 1936 remarkably influential (and ponderous) novella. This month, Culbard’s second Lovecraft adaptation for the British imprint Self Made Hero was released in the States, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Here we have everything wonderful about Lovecraft’s vision brought to light, and the unfortunate prose stylings transformed on Culbard’s page into something simultaneously beautiful and horrifying. (As an added bonus: all the Lovecraftian racism is wonderfully excised for your reading pleasure.)
This is the story of an investigation into the case of a man dedicated to obscure genealogy, research and magics, a story made up of lots of talking, incantation, and people researching things—in other words, not the stuff a graphic novelist usually dreams of. What Culbard does in distilling the story visually such that it never feels plodding despite the need to history, explication and length backstory feels at times like its own kind of alchemy. For example, there are extended scenes in the novella of detective work while our Charles’ doctor and father try to find a pattern in the articles Charles has been clipping from his family’s newspaper. They are rendered here simultaneously with narrative economy and visual energy:
For me, the real pleasure of reading this book was watching a different kind of magic than the dark magic at the center of the story—the magic of an artist and a fan revealing the essences of a storyteller whose gifts I could not receive in their original form. This was true in Mountains of Madness as well, although that story offered far more in the way of visual spectacle and gut-spewing gore for the artist to play with and so I was not as struck with that first book by the achievement. For the first time in my life, I am looking forward to reading more Lovecraft (Culbard’s next volume, The Shadow out of Time, is due out in the fall). If I didn’t know I owe it all to Culbard, I might now be ready to declare myself a Lovecraftian after all.
Boaz Yakin & Nick Bertozzi, Jerusalem (First Second, 2013). $24.99, hardcover.
Pretty much everything I know about Israel I learned from comics. As a Jew who spent a lifetime studiously avoiding the topic — first, in the 1970s, because it was too boring when every adult seemed to have the same zionist catchphrases always at hand, and then, in the 80s and 90s, because it was too depressing after the Intifada made it impossible not to look more closely at all the ways in which, as Harvey Pekar put it in the title of one of his last books, this was “not the Israel my parents promised me.” Rather than learn about the issue, I chose instead to stay home and read comics.
Comics have not made it easy for me, to put it mildly. In the last fifteen years, there has been a flotilla of comics devoted to asking hard questions about Israel and Palestine. In addition to Pekar’s book, we have seen Joe Sacco’s Palestine and his masterwork of historical journalism, Footnotes in Gaza; Sarah Glidden’s How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less; and Guy Delisle’s recent diary comic, Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City. All of these works have differently raised challenging questions for readers on both sides of the story, and especially for those inclined to proffer Israel an ethical blank check.
Boaz Yakin and Nick Bertozzi’s Jerusalem: A Family Portrait, however, is the first major graphic novel focused on the early history of the state of Israel and using the unique affordances of historical fiction to raise different kinds of questions than can be asked by a first-person work of non-fiction.
As I said at the outset, everything I know about Israel I have learned from comics, and so this truly was my first introduction to the history of Jerusalem in the years leading up to statehood, where this book begins—during a period that could plausibly be described as a Jewish “intifada” against British colonial rule. In the anger and actions of the novel’s young men and women in their search for stability, justice and a future (which each member of the family defines in different terms), it is hard not to see parallels to the anger and actions of young Palestinians during the Intifadas.
But this is far from a doctrinaire book—it is a novel, albeit a very personal one, about the choices we make when faced with violence, with the threats of disinheritance, with the possibilities of peace and brotherhood. It is as much about the cruelties families do to each other as about the inhumanity of the wars we fight in the name of religion or race.
A screenwriter, this is Yakin’s second graphic novel for First Second, and it is clear how much he has grown as a comics writer in the short time since his first. And much of the credit for the success of the book belongs to his choice of collaborator: Nick Bertozzi, one of the most gifted visual storytellers of this generation (and a master of historical graphic fiction). Bertozzi’s ability to distill with flattening complex action, ideas, and emotions is truly unrivaled and it makes him the ideal partner for such an epic and ambitious historical novel.
After a long hiatus wherein guttergeek wandered hither and yon (to the Comics Journal, to the Panelists, to hibernation), I am reviving the site — now as a more informal review-blog/reading-journal and as a place for my half-baked meditations on comics, media and pop culture (mostly comics–the part remains as it was). Send on comments and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org and if you have books you’d like me to review, send them to guttergeek c/o Jared Gardner, Department of English, 164 W 17th Ave., Ohio State University, Columbus, OH 43210