Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
February 2009

Comic Book Adaptation of Opera. We Cannot Fathom the Breasts.

Richard Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung by P. Craig Russell (Dark Horse, 1992)

As a typical ignorant American child, I learned everything I know about opera from Looney Tunes: "Oh Bwunhilda, you're so wuvewy . . ." "Yes I know it, I can't help it . . ." and though I knew that Elmer Fudd would always be fooled by braids and a good boustia, I was only vaguely aware that people would watch costumed fat men sing for four hours in another language in order to reach a kind of cultural edification.

But as I've said before, comics often serve as a bridge into other literary or visual forms, a way to combine caviar and wine with cats on rollerskates. The Ring of the Nibelung sounded interesting to me mostly because it had Norse mythology in it, and quite honestly, though I knew there was an opera, I wasn't sure if it was an adaptation of the actual opera or an adaptation of the Eddas, or something vaguely related that the talented P. Craig Russell was pulling out of his hat. So I got it. And such is the power of comics that I too am now watching costumed fat men sing for four hours in order to reach cultural edification.

P. Craig Russell is attempting, with Ring of the Nibelung, one of the most monumental transitions between fields ever accomplished. Adapting works from other forms into comic books seems like a good idea -- since when it works it gives a new appreciation for both forms -- but it so, so often goes wrong. Take, for example, David Wenzel and Chuck Dixon's 2001 adaptation of The Hobbit. The art was gorgeous and fitting, swept with watercolor washes over detailed pen and ink, but Dixon crammed too much of Tolkien's already weighty words into each page, leading to a comic that became more of an illustrated book with hard-to-read text. And since Tolkien's writing is already loaded with visual descriptions, the comic became incredibly redundant.

And that's a form that is all text to a form that is half-text. In Ring, Russell is trying to adapt Wagner's music into a visual. No matter how lush the staging of the opera might be, the star of the show has always been Wagner's themes and counterthemes. How do you draw the pounding brass and soaring strings of the Ride of the Valkyries, or communicate the swirling, skeetering violins, like wind on a bonfire, that accompany Logé's words?

I don't know how. But he did it.

The Ring of the Nibelung begins with an art sequence representing the initial scene at the opening of Das Rheingold where Voton breaks a branch from the World Tree to make his famed spear. The sun outlines a thick, gnarled tree with hanging threads in various states of spin, hang and snarl, on the thin angled hands of the Norns. As Voton approaches, colorist Lovern Kindzierski keeps the scene awash in light misty yellow and sepia, giving the whole situation a feeling of change and alienation; a sense that this is work that is not concerned with morality, only the subversion of fate that is Voton's obsession. Voton tears his eye from his head and hands it to the Norns, with Russell's focus in tight on the eye, then far away, showing us only sepia silhouettes conducting their world-making mythic business. A drop of water -- the recurring theme of the book -- joins the simple stream that springs from the bottom of the tree grows larger in the eye of the camera, to the size of a waterfall, the waters of all the world. It is, in picture and color, a dance and symphony more intricate than Wagner imagined in the simple, silent scene that plays onstage.

Russell sees the heart of the story in this brief sequence of pages. Voton seeks, through all four operas, to prevent the fall of the gods by manipulating others into violating natural law --but all their actions turn on capricious fate. Like a sunrise that precludes a sunset, this scene opens the four-opera cycle with stunning beauty and foreboding.

Russell also makes each character not just an archetype, but an actor. Brunhilde is "played" by Jill Thompson, famed artist of Neil Gaiman's Sandman, and though the "cast list" isn't given for the others, the boyishly eager face of Siegfried and proud but thoughtful features of Voton are just as real.

And when Wagner's music is at its greatest, so is Russell's art -- as in the tall panels full of striking lightning on sharp rocks that mark the ride of the Valkyries to earth, gathering around their sister Brunhilde. The black outlines of the Valkyries on their flying horses plummet and rise against a sky of red and cracking white. As Voton conceives of the sword that will save the gods from their eventual darkness, Russell's camera eye dives into the god's empty eye socket, where a single drop of water drips from above to strike the ground and grow up into a tree, and then transforms itself into a sword. As Siegfried faces Voton's spear, between him and the flame-encircled Brunhilde, Russell's camera takes us into the god's empty eye socket again, this time into the heart of a flame where Brunhilde appears, walking among the flames, fading simply to her half-slitted, beckoning eye.

P. Craig Russell is one of the most uniquely talented and most powerful artists working in comics, and I can't imagine any other artist who could have pulled this off. He combines a cartoonish sensibility that mirrors the best of work by Jeff Smith and Russ Manning with the action madness of Jack Kirby, but somehow infuses it with a kind of grandeur that recalls fantasy artists like John Howe. This is his self-described magnum opus, and for anyone familiar with Russell's previous work, it's easy to see that he is pushing himself to create bigger and more magnificent vistas and action shots and sequences that flow in a poetry unexplored until now in comics.

There are quite a few comic book adaptations out there, from various forms of entertainment. Books are big -- our esteemed overlord Orson Scott Card is currently producing, with Marvel Comics, comic adaptations of the Ender series, and the prequels to Stephen King's Dark Tower series are some of the finest, most gorgeous comics on the market. Still, the process of adaptation is fraught with danger. Comics can be both visual and literary, but the balance is incredibly delicate, and easy to get wrong. The Ring of the Nibelung will be the gold standard for comics adaptations until Ragnarok. Mark it well.

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth

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