When I was a teenager in the ‘70s, I read a lot of comics. One of my favorites was Marvel’s War of the Worlds book, which posited a Martian invasion in the early 21st century that brought the world to its knees, resisted only by a few bands of resistance fighters. Among them was Killraven, a colorfully-costumed, typically Marvel-esque hero who traveled with a multiracial band of followers, fighting to good fight and generally never giving up hope.
It all sounds terribly dumb and dated now, and maybe it is, but what elevated the book far above its contemporaries was the text-heavy writing of Don MacGregor and the ethereal, multilayered artwork of P. Craig Russell. These two enigmas were responsible for the War of the Worlds and not much else as far as I could tell, and when the series was tragically but unsurprisingly cancelled, both figures dropped out of my consciousness. They both went on to other things, I’m sure, but I more or less supposed that they’d given up on comics.
Boy, was I wrong. Russell was far too accomplished an artist to “give up on” comics, but it’s perhaps not surprising that I’d lost track of him. His interests led him away from superheroes and into the realm of graphic interpretations of classic material, including Oscar Wilde stories and the operas of Mozart and others. Publisher NBM has collected these theatrical reinterpretations and reissued them in handsome, oversized hardcover volumes, and what a treat they are. Russell is a master storyteller, and these tales, filled with magic and melodrama, suit his talents perfectly.
Not an opera lover? It doesn’t matter. Comics are a visual medium, and while the absence of music certainly alters these stories into something altogether new, they are nonetheless rewarding in their own right.
The first volume in the series is The Magic Flute, Mozart’s tale of witchcraft, sorcery, youthful obsession and true love. It is magnificent. Mainly this is because the artwork is so powerful—the oversized artwork is built up of layers of color and finely-sketched line work, and will reward long minutes (or hours) of attention. Russell’s skillful use of shadows and negative space is also striking, and recurrent visual patterns (of flocks of birds that cut across panels and pages, for example) is particularly effective. The story is magical as well, and does its share of the work in keeping the reader engrossed, featuring as it does any number of twists, turnabouts and reversals that will keep any reader unfamiliar with the plot guessing.
Volume 2 in this three-book set contains adaptations of Wagner’s Parsifal and Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci, Maurice Maeterlink’s play “Ariane & Bluebeard” and a pair of songs composed by Gustav Mahler. What’s striking about this book is the wide variety of visual approaches, which is entirely in keeping with the varied source material. The Leoncavallo story is done in black and white, with effective use of gray shading, while the Parsifal is rendered in a straightforward “comic book” style that would not have looked out of place in any Marvel book of the 1970s. In fact, these lines and colors are much less striking than those of The Magic Flute.
This relatively ordinary approach, though, is made up for by the Mahler song interpretations. “The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow” is presented in stark, bold images, while “Unto This World” is rendered in shades of icy blue and pale yellow, with elongated figures that seem sprung from the fairy world. They are neither of them terribly happy poems, but at just three pages apiece they are finished far too quickly. The other highlight here is Ariane & Bluebeard, a sinister tale that is once again elevated by Russell’s excellent visuals.
Finally, the third and final volume in the series brings together another far-flung group of works, including Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé, Maeterlink’s Pelleas & Melisandre, Hugo Wolf’s song Eid Heldentraum and an extract from Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni. Again, the artwork for each piece varies from the rest, but the differences are not so extreme as in Volume 2. For the most part, Russell’s hallmarks are always present—the graceful lines, rich colors, smooth textures and exquisite rendering of figures and facial expression. There is variety of course—Salomé’s violent tale is told in saturated colors and surprising angles, while the gentler Pelleas & Melisandre brings earthier tones, sketchier line work and subtler shading. Regardless, all the reinterpretations are exquisite.
Also outstanding is the production quality of these books. Publisher NBM has made a fine effort here, with heavy glossy paper and excellent reproduction of work that is often minutely detailed and subtle. There are many nice touches, from the end papers to the hard covers themselves, which, beneath their dust jackets, each bear the imprint of a scene from the book. Brief introductions to the individual chapters help ground readers whose knowledge of opera and 20th-century classical music (*cough, cough*) might not be entirely up to speed.
P. Craig Russell is an essential 20th century comics artist, and it’s delightful to redicover him here. These books are fantastic—in more ways than one—and are certain to delight any aficianado of comics as an art form deserving a bit more respect than it often gets.