Monday, April 27, 2009

Two Kinds of Adaptations: First Time and The Raven & Other Poems

Rob reviews a couple of recent releases from NBM, both of which feature artists adapting stories from a single writer. THE RAVEN AND OTHER POEMS is illustrated by Gahan Wilson, while FIRST TIME is an erotica anthology featuring a host of artists interpreting the stories of Sibylline.

I always thought that CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED was a truly odd duck in the world of comics. They essentially mangled works of literature, paring it down to a more palatable length and getting industry hacks to illustrate them. That approach changed with the 90s revival and current reprinting and expansion of same by Papercutz, a division of NBM. These comics use high production values and try to match artists with subject matter that seems right up their alley. In the case of illustrating THE RAVEN AND OTHER POEMS, legendary NEW YORKER cartoonist Gahan Wilson could not have been a better choice. It's important to note that this volume is not a comic, but rather a series of poems with accompanying illustrations. The illustrations are subservient to and not in concert with the text, but nonetheless echo the sheer obsessive passion of Edgar Allan Poe.

Wilson manages to create a vibratory quality in his line by combining a lot of loopy lines that leave a lot of space with dense cross-hatching. The way he constructs his figures is fascinating, piling on geometric shapes that add up to characters. His proficiency in depicting the morbid made him an ideal match for Poe, but there's also a playfulness to his line, a sense of whimsy, that also fits in with Poe's lilting verses and sharp wit. While the illustrations for the titular poem were appropriately gloomy, the real show-stopper here was what Wilson did for the poem "The Conqueror Worm". This apocalyptic, gruesome poem feels like a predecessor to HP Lovecraft's stories, and Wilson's grotesque stylings live up to Poe's decriptions. Fans of either Poe or Wilson should seek this book out, even if Wilson declined to really attempt to adapt it to comics form.

Adapting erotica into comics form has mostly resulted in predictably inane narratives and/or art that that failed to arouse. Of course, the line between pornography and erotica is as nebulous as the very definition of porn itself. The anthology FIRST TIME valiantly tries to fly under the banner of erotica as its concept surrounds stories fleshing out first experiences with various aspects of sexuality. The writer, Sybilline, is a woman who wrote each story from a woman's perspective, in a further attempt to subvert the usually male-centric nature of porn.

The results were decidedly mixed, both in terms of narrative and arousal. While the concept of "first time" was clever, the stories themselves were remarkably predictable, even when a deliberate twist was thrown in. For example, the story about a woman "meeting" a man in a bar who was actually her husband lacked any sense of mystery. Some of the more light-hearted stories (like a woman buying her first dildo) weren't actually funny, just inane. The dialogue didn't help matters in most of the stories, especially those that tilted more towards accounts of specific sexual acts rather than fleshing out actual characters.

A notable exception was "1 + 1", a story about a woman's first lesbian experience. The cartoony art by Virginia Augustin was sharp and angular, adding an air of whimsy to what would turn out to be a sad story. While the "twist" of her one-night-stand being a woman was telegraphed, the way the affair turned out added a downbeat tone to a book mostly about fulfillment. In terms of pure sex appeal, the story "2 + 1", about a woman's first threesome, was the most visceral in its visual approach. Sometimes this was a bit much (like the depiction of the first kiss), but artist Vince's relentless commitment to details both explicit and decorative made the otherwise standard story a success.

The book's best story was a silent one adapted by Dave McKean. An anthology of this sort consisting entirely of silent stories might have been considerably more powerful, given the eye-popping quality of what McKean did here. It's about a man masturbating to an x-rated film on TV, his wife discovering him and seducing him, and the not-so-shocking ending where she turns on the film herself. McKean switches back and forth between a distorted photorealist style for the film and a sort of cubist/futurist take on the couple. This approach is the best in representing the kinetic qualities of sex in the entire book, as opposed to a series of still drawings.

Overall, the book feels a bit betwixt and between. The characters are well-developed enough for us to care about their sexual escapades. The stories are mostly not whimsical enough to get us to laugh with the characters as they get into sexual situations. The imagery, with the exception of McKean, is mostly the sort of stuff we've seen in other places. While the feminine perspective in narration was appreciated, it didn't seem to say much that hasn't been done in other volumes of erotica. Hopefully, if there are future volumes, they'll let the artists pursue newer avenues of representation regarding sex and won't worry about if the results are truly "erotic" or not.

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