Most comic adaptations seem to miss something significant about H. P. Lovecraft when they try to translate him to the medium, tending to be more concerned with formless masses of roiling extra-dimensional tentacle monsters (see ref: any comic book adaptations of Lovecraft in the 80s & 90s) and losing the weird blend of paranoiac size and a pulverizing fear of the unknown that is at the heart of the Lovecraft Mythos. When I. N. J. Culbard was presented on the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast as someone who had recently produced an adaptation of Lovecraft’s final novel AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, I had my doubts as to whether or not he could pull it off. He certainly knew the story and Lovecraft’s work very well. He also had some very interesting research points to add to the show. Nevertheless, even most of the best comic-book writers with the best of intentions of paying homage to The Old Man of Providence, seem to somehow fall short of delivering the punch of the work in its purest form. Writers like Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, and Alan Moore, seem to miss the mark with Lovecraft when they play with the toys he left behind for his successors. This is especially disappointing when it comes to Moore, whom one would have wanted to be much better at Lovecraftian fiction. As cleverly icky as relating the womb to Cthulhu’s deep-sea den and sex to the spawning of monsters is (something HPL might have agreed with, even as he turned his nose up at its frankness of concept), Moore’s recent NEONOMICON is largely unrecognizable as either good Mythos writing or even good writing when it compares to other comics the author has already given us (and Moore was ready more than once to swipe an image or two from HPL’s bag of tricks in pieces that go back as far as his original run on SWAMP THING). This is why, out of many many adaptations of Lovecraft that I’ve read over the years, AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS as adapted by I.N.J. Culbard, is a singularly special graphic novel that deserves a lot more attention than it has gotten, and one that I can strongly recommend as being a great example of what makes the Mythos tick.
Adopting a vaguelyHergé-like cartooniness and knowing when to quote Lovecraft and when to paraphrase him, Culbard takes us along with that sorry expedition to Antarctica and manages to convey the sense of wonder and audacity of explorers like Shakleton, Byrd and Scott that originally attracted Lovecraft himself to the subject matter. What starts off as a historic trip to the centre of an unexplored continent turns into a story about a great moment in paleobiology combined with a Jack The Ripper styled forensic serial killing thrown in as well. Throughout all of the story’s twists and turns, Culbard, an animation director who has adapted other works into graphic novel form by writers such as Oscar Wilde and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, deftly manages to capture the expansiveness of Lovecraft’s prose at no cost to the storytelling itself.
He also has a strong enough sense of Lovecraft’s work to bring the most recognizable elements of HPL’s style to play. Yes, there are monsters. At least one of the many alien species of monsters with non-humanoid forms show an all too human ability with scalpels and taste for vivisection. Yes, there is violence – something that the people who confuse the weaker, wordier, early work of Lovecraft with the stronger work the writer produced near the latter half of his career might find hard to believe. It’s all there, here, as it was all there in the original novel by HPL. Before too long the Necronomicon is consulted, and, ultimately, we see nothing less cosmic than the rise and fall of pre-human Earth, the formation of Pangaea, the true origin of humanity, and a cameo from Great Cthulhu himself, in his house in R’Lyeh, moodily dreaming and waiting for the stars to come right.
What is most interesting is how some of the regulars in the LOUNGE have responded to Culbard’s deceptively friendly art style and ease of storytelling. One of them, someone who is decidedly not interested in most of the Lovecraft-iana that I’ve already brought into THE LOUNGE in our month or so of being open (he openly ridiculed my dice game and stuffed Lovecraft tentacle!), read AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS and really enjoyed it, saying that it was the least like any Lovecraft things that he had read in comics up to date. He also said that he understood why I was so into the stuff if the good stuff was like this graphic adaptation. If someone who usually hates Lovecraft likes the piece as much as someone like myself (who can’t get enough of the good stuff ), one knows that the creator has done his work and that it’s certainly worth a look. I can almost guarantee that it’s worth your while.
Joe’s Rating: 8 out of 10 for masterfully getting it right while still keeping it interesting.
Currently available at THE COMIC BOOK LOUNGE & GALLERY for $14.95.