IMAGINARY L IVES: EDGAR ALLAN POE AS A COMIC BOOK CHARACTER 1. Ana González-Rivas Fernández and Francisco Saez de Adana Herrero - PDF

IMAGINARY L IVES: EDGAR ALLAN POE AS A COMIC BOOK CHARACTER 1 Ana González-Rivas Fernández and Francisco Saez de Adana Herrero (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid // Universidad de Alcalá de Henares) 1. Introduction

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IMAGINARY L IVES: EDGAR ALLAN POE AS A COMIC BOOK CHARACTER 1 Ana González-Rivas Fernández and Francisco Saez de Adana Herrero (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid // Universidad de Alcalá de Henares) 1. Introduction At the end of the nineteenth century the French author Marcel Schwob coined the concept of imaginary life, which Jorge Luis Borges aptly defined as a story where los protagonistas son reales; los hechos pueden ser fabulosos y no pocas veces fantásticos 2 (Borges, 1996: 486). Since the time of Schwob, imaginary lives, viewed in the context of the genre of biography, have been analysed by scholars of comparative literature such as Bruno Fabre (2010), María José Hernando Guerrero (2002) or Francisco García Jurado (2008), all of whom have highlighted the importance of this modern literary genre. This tradition, the origins of which are to be found in literature, has also made use of the lives of literary and historical figures in order to create new fantasies where fiction and reality merge. This paper will analyse the particular case of Edgar Allan Poe, one of those authors most frequently subject to adaptation in what is known as the ninth art. In this context, the American author is not only of interest in terms of his life and work, but also as a character in invented biographies where he becomes the protagonist of his own short stories or the unexpected hero of new ones. Viewed as a whole, all of these recreations make up an imaginary life of Poe that could certainly have been written by Schwob himself, an avid reader of the American Gothic poet. 2. The imaginary life as a literary microgenre: Marcel Schwob 1 We would like to thank Francisco García Jurado and Christopher Rollason for their suggestions to improve my article 2 The protagonists are real; the facts may be fabulous, and sometimes fantastic. 1 Between 1894 and 1896, Marcel Schwob ( ) published Vies Imaginaires, a collection of tales where he focuses on a variety of details and curiosities to recreate the biographies of characters such as Empedocles, Lucretius, Paolo Uccello, Pocahontas, Cyril Tourneur, Captain Kidd and the famous murderers Burke and Hare. Through these imagined and imaginary lives, Schwob offers the readers an alternative insight to the official versions of these biographies as transmitted down through history, and does this by turning the real into the anecdotal, and the anecdotal into the key element of these new biographical sketches. This is how the imaginary life, which inhabitants the shifting and blurred frontier between reality and fiction, became a subgenre of biography, forging a path for illustrious followers such as Juan José Arola, Joan Perucho, Antonio Tabucchi and Jorge Luis Borges, who defined his Historia Universal de la Infamia (1935) as a low copy of Schwob s work. Marcel Schwob s Imaginary Lives implies a critical revision of the genre of biography, in response to certain specific needs explained by Schwob in the prologue of his book, a kind of literary manifesto where he complains that les biographes ont malheureusement cru d ordinaire qu ils étaient historiens. Et ils nous ont privé ainsi de portraits admirables (Schwob, 1979: 178), and that les biographes anciens surtout sont avares. N estimant guère que la vie publique ou la grammaire, ils nous transmirent sur les grands hommes leurs discours et les titres de leurs livres (Schwob, 1979: 172). Schwob does not, however, appear interested in heroic deeds, endless records of data or theories that the authors themselves have already explained, preferring to concentrate on the particular and peculiar details that make all these exceptional men human, because, in the words of John Lambert, borrowed by Schwob, the best of men are but men at the best (Schwob, 1979: 174). It is this anecdotal and yet entirely human material that is the source of inspiration for the imaginary lives. As certain authors have pointed out (De Abner, 2006; García Jurado, 2008), Schwob s imaginary lives do not emerge ex nihilo, but have their own precedents. On the one hand, there is certain agreement among scholars about the possible 2 influence of Victor Hugo s La légende des siècles (The Legend of the Ages) (1859), a poem that expresses a very particular vision of the history of humanity, with characters some considerable distance removed from the heroes of old. This concept of history coincides with the line of thought of Marcel Schwob, who, in the aforementioned prologue, affirms that l art du biographe serait de donner autant de prix à la vie d un pauvre acteur qu à la vie de Shakespeare (Schwob, 1979: ). In this sense, the literary proposals of both Victor Hugo and Schwob point to the Intrahistory later postulated by the Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno. It is also necessary, though, to take into account the influence on the young Schwob of another literary subgenre: the dramatic monologue, as created by the English poet Robert Browning ( ) 3. Neither should we forget the long tradition of biography, a genre with which Schwob was very familiar, from its very first instances in Greek and Latin literature. Nevertheless, possible influences aside, it is important to view the biographical genre of the imaginary life as the product of an ever more individualistic era, as Schwob himself noted 4. Taking into account the above considerations, and following García Jurado s assessments (2008: 47), the main characteristics of the imaginary lives may be summarised as follows: a) Brevity (in accordance with the subject of the biography to be narrated, both secondary and anecdotal); b) Visionary, oneiric and sometimes sordid elements; c) A strong metaliterary component, where the life of the author merges with his work, and which implies, moreover, una clara conciencia de estar ante una historia literaria alternativa con respecto a la oficial 5 (García Jurado, 2008: 47). 3 In this new subgenre, the poet takes on the voice of a historical or fictional character, recreating history from their perspective. In contrast to the imaginary life, which is written in the third person singular, the dramatic monologue uses the first person singular for narration. 4 Le sentiment de l individuel s est développé davantage dans les temps modernes (Schwob, 1979: 173) 5 A clear awareness of being before an alternative literary history, with regard to the official one. 3 Whereas not all the imaginary lives embrace these three characteristics, there is a clear pattern to be perceived in the maintenance and combination of these criteria, and this is also the case in the imaginary life of Edgar Allan Poe that emerges from the comic books. 3. Edgar Allan Poe in the graphic novel From very early on, Poe awakened great interest within the field of popular culture, such as cinema (especially significant in this respect are the films of Roger Corman), television (for example, the adaptation of the poem The Raven in the animated series The Simpsons ), and alternative theatre (the musical Poe, for instance, staged in Spain in 2002 by the group Dagom Dagoll 6 ). As regards the comic, Edgar Allan Poe is far and away the most American author frequently adapted, Heman Melville and Mark Twain being his closest competitors (Inge, 2008: 14). There are more than 350 recreations of Poe s work, from countries as diverse as the United States, Italy, France, Brazil, Mexico, Spain and Argentina, among others. This is hardly surprising, of course, especially if we consider the close links between Poe s work and the art of illustration ever since the nineteenth century: John Tenniel, Edouard Manet, Gustave Doré, Harry Clarke, Heath Robinson, Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham are only some of the well-known artists who have translated the writer s verses and tales into images. These connections are so clear that they may simply reflect a natural shift from the illustrated book to the comic book, where, instead of merely accompanying the text, the graphic element finally invades it 7. In this section we shall mention a number of examples of this presence of Poe in the graphic novel, which will allow us to observe how the imaginary life of the author emerges through a variety of different elements 8. 6 See Miquel-Baldellou (2010). 7 Marcel Schwob s Imaginary Lives was also illustrated by well-known figures, such as George Barbier and Felix Labisse, as early as the beginning of the twentieth century (see Lhermitte, 2009). Nevertheless, Schwob s work has not so far evoked the same interest among comic illustrators. 8 It is not our aim to provide an exhaustive catalogue of adaptations of Poe for the comic format, but simply to point out the most significant of these, and those of particular interest in terms of this study. For further information on these adaptations, see Parker Royal (2006), or websites like (most recent consultation: 29th June. 2012). 4 The first adaptation of Poe s work in the comic book appeared in the series Classics Illustrated, which was founded in 1941 as Classics Comics by the Russian immigrant Albert Lewis Kanter ( ), a passionate lover of both literature and history. His aim was to adapt the great classics of literature to the graphic novel in order to disseminate these narratives among American youngsters, who were at the time keen readers of comics, but completely ignorant about the great authors. The first story, which appeared in Issue 21 (October 1944), was a ten-page adaptation of the tale The Murders in the Rue Morgue, drawn by Arnold L. Hicks 9. Unfortunately, it contained all the flaws of the first issues of the series 10 : not only was the quality of the drawing poor, but the graphic narration was also unsuccessful and entirely inappropriate. In this case, for example, the enigma of the detective narrative, based on the mystery being resolved at the last minute, is spoilt on the very first page of the comic, which shows the shadow of a giant gorilla. A significant number of comic adaptations of Poe s work are to be found in the horror stories of the 1950s publisher EC Comics. Strictly speaking, these EC stories did not adapt the tales, but used them as inspiration for the creation of new fiction. Such is the case with titles like The Wall (1950), which combines elements from The Cask of Amontillado and The Tell-Tale Heart, or The Catacombs (1954), which is also inspired by The Cask of Amontillado 11. Because of their quality and fidelity to the literary text, two EC works drawn by Graham Ingels in 1951 are especially significant: Blood Red Wine (again based on The Cask of Amontillado ), and Living Dead (based on The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar ). Despite changes in certain details of the original work, these comics are entirely faithful to the spirit of Poe s work, thanks above all to the graphic endeavours of 9 As was frequent at the time, the writer of the comic did not appear in the credits. 10 In general, the adapted stories in Classics Illustrated tried to include as much as possible of the original text, neglecting the graphic aspect. 11 The Walls, along with The Catacombs, was drawn by Johnny Craig. As was the case with Classics Illustrated, most of the stories in the EC did not mention their authors, particularly in the case of the writers. The strip cartoonist usually stands out to a greater extent because of his particular style, but this is more difficult to determine in the case of the writers. Nevertheless, most of the stories were written by the editor himself, William M. Gaines, or by his closest collaborator, Al Feldstein. 5 Ingles, who, as a specialist in Gothic horror, had sufficient mastery of his resources to instil a feeling of unease in the reader in just a few pages. The baton was then taken up by James Warren, who created the magazines Creepy and Eerie in 1965, and Vampirella in Up to twenty-five stories based on Poe s narratives appeared under the aegis of Warren Publishing. Among these stories, the adaptations by Reed Crandall, whose elegant style perfectly suited the atmosphere of Poe s accounts 12 (see his versions of The Tell-Tale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado, both from 1965) are worth highlighting, as is the story based on The Black Cat (1974), written and drawn by Bernie Wrightson, who here demonstrates his ability to transmit the essence of the original tale through a highly detailed sketch. In general, the adaptations of Poe s works published by Warren Publishing are, in contrast to those of the EC, of a very high standard, owing to both their faithfulness to the original tale and the way they take full advantage of the graphic language of the comic to reproduce the effect desired by the American author. Among the adaptations of Warren Publishing, the work of Richard Corben deserves a special mention. Corben is considered as one of the most acute and creative interpreters of Poe in visual terms (Inge, 2008: 27), and in this respect his adaptation of The Raven (1974), a highly original comic in terms of graphic narration, is worthy of mention. Here the protagonist recites his poem through the different vignettes, showing how he feels when he is embraced by the memory of his lover. Also revolutionary are the visual solutions proposed by Corben in his adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher, published by Pacific Comics in Setting aside a certain degree of removal from the original tale (such as the inclusion of a sex scene, or the logical suppression of some passages which are difficult to depict in a comic book the narrator s reading to his friend Roderick Usher, for instance), the adaptation perfectly captures the oppressive atmosphere of the story. To achieve this, Corben introduces a number of visual aspects taken from 12 Most of Crandall s stories were written by Archie Goodwin and Richard Margopoulos, who were responsible for many of the adaptations of Poe s work published by Warren Publishing. 6 cinematographic narrative and, in particular, from Roger Corman s 1960 version of the story 13. Outside the American market, the adaptations made in 1975 by Alberto Breccia for the Argentinian public must be mentioned. Breccia published titles such as The Tell-Tale Heart, The Masque of the Red Death, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar and The Black Cat. During this period, the author was immersed in a process of graphic experimentation, and he was more interested in the recreation of atmospheres than in fidelity to the original, as may be observed in his adaptations of Poe s work for the ninth art. The use of graphic narration is especially important in The Tell-Tale Heart, where Breccia demonstrates his ability to transmit the essence of the original work almost without the use of words. Breccia s work shows the influence of the cinema here, especially in the use of techniques such as shots and reverse shots. As we have observed, there has always been a great deal of interest in the adaptation of Poe s work to the comic format, but the same is not true as regards the biography of the author. In this sense, the story The Mystery of Mary Rogers (2001), by Rick Geary, is worthy of mention. Geary begins with a meticulous investigation, narrating some of the events that inspired Poe to write the homonymous tale. This exception apart, however, it is surprising how few comics and graphic novels have paid attention to the fascinating biography of Edgar Allan Poe, leaving an empty space that does seem to have been fulfilled with the different proposals of imaginary lives. In short, from the very beginning comic books have made much use of Edgar Allan Poe s fiction, changing it, recreating it and even manipulating it, in a constant 13 Corben is clearly influenced by Corman in techniques such as the use of red as a chromatic tone for the dressing of Roderick Usher which represents the melancholy of the character or in visual effects such as the division of the house into two levels, reflecting the Freudian representation of the different levels of the mind: the conscious and the unconscious. In the work of both Corman and Corben, the narrator and the character of Roderick Usher might represent the different levels of depth that exist in the psyche or in Poe himself, in accordance with the views of Rosenblat as regards the original text (Rosenblat, 1989: 124). This element is highlighted in Corben s work, where the comic illustrator distinguishes the narrator with some traits typical of Poe, so proving that the literary character is in fact the conscious representation of the author. 7 process of revisiting and updating the American author. In this process there have been certain stories that remain loyal to the originals (such as the first adaptations of Classics Illustrated, or the accounts by Graham Ingels), others that regard Poe s work only as a source of inspiration (the adaptations by EC Comics, for example), and finally tales where the paramount aspect is the recreation of Poe s atmospheres, with the graphic component serving as an essential support for the story (as is the case in works such as those of Bernie Wrightson, Richard Corben and Alberto Breccia). These last examples, moreover, show a strong influence from cinematographic language, which plays an important role in this new dialogue between image and text. Finally, and alongside this fictional universe, certain aspects of Poe s life have also served as a source of inspiration for some graphic artists, as we have seen in The Mystery of Mary Rogers. It may be concluded, therefore, that interest in Poe and his work have been a constant in the graphic novel since the middle of the 20 th century, and that this has made the author the perfect candidate for a new imaginary life, mirroring that of Schwob at the end of the nineteenth century. 4. Edgar Allan Poe s imaginary life The interest evoked by both Edgar Allan Poe s life and his work has led to attempts to play with the idea that these could be interwoven, generating a parallel and fictional biography of the American author. In this section we shall analyse the example of three graphic novels (Jonathan Scout Faqua s In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe (2002), Len Wein and Guy Davis Batman Nevermore (2003), and Jason Asala s Poe (1996)), as well as a recently-launched film (The Raven (2012), by James McTeigue). In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe is a collaboration between the writer Jonathan Scott Fuqua, the strip cartoonist Steven Parke and the photographer Stephen John Philips, who try to reconstruct the author s biography, based on a supposedly lost diary, using both digital images and photographs. Batman Nevermore, on the other hand, is a story in which Batman and Edgar Allan Poe work closely together to solve a number of murders that took place in Baltimore in 1831, when Poe was still a young apprentice journalist. The story includes characters such 8 as the biologist and naturalist Roderick Usher, the adventurer Arthur Gordon Pym, the retired financier M. Valdemar, and other protagonists of Batman s world, such as Jonathan Crane (a.k.a. The Scarecrow ). Asala s comic, too, maintains the adventurous tone, but in a very different way. After Lenore s death, the angel Israfel offers Poe a deal: if he can kill twelve earthly demons, he will be allowed to meet his lover once more. From this moment on, the adventure, very much in line with the American road movie, leads the main characters through a variety of different scenarios into which certain details of the author s poems and tales are slipped. Finally, the film The Raven is an attempt to explore the last days of Poe s life, turning him, as in Batman Nevermore, into a detective obliged to investigate a series of murders that are related to his literary work. These four works are all interesting exercises in metafiction which contain a sufficient number of suitable characteristics to be defined as imaginary lives. According to the criteria established in Section 2, the following may be
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