[10 February 2014]
The Birthday of the Infanta is the third volume in publisher NBM’s series The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, an exquisite set of graphic novels illustrated by P. Craig Russell. Russell earned acclaim back in the ‘70s for his groundbreaking work on Marvel’s War of the Worlds title, written by Don McGregor, which reimagined HG Wells’s Martian-invasion story to include a futuristic, low-level guerrilla resistance campaign.
Since that time, Russell’s ambition has only grown, as he has tackled projects as diverse as opera adaptations and a series of children’s stories written by Oscar Wilde, one of Ireland’s most admired 19th-century authors. Russell’s two-volume adaptation of Wagner’s opera, The Ring of the Nibeling, runs some 424 pages and remains a landmark in graphic fiction.
The five volumes in his Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde series are considerably slimmer than that, with this volume, The Birthday of the Infanta, clocking in at a mere 30pages. The tale is marked by lush, layered artwork and a storyline that, while simple, retains its power to move the reader. Given the source, though, that’s probably not so much of a surprise.
The story itself is straightforward enough: the 12-year-old infanta of Spain, the only child of the widowed King, holds a royal birthday party to which various highborn friends are invited. The children are treated to a variety of entertainments, including a band of performing gypsies and numerous trained animals, but the unintentional star of the show is the half-wild hunchback boy who straggles in from the woods nearby, unintentionally upsetting the proceedings – and delighting the princess and her friends, albeit for all the wrong reasons.
The story shifts its focus at this point, away from the royal family (tragic mother, wifeless, preoccupied with power, casually brutal) and toward the innocent boy who has stepped entirely out of his league (joyous, naïve, uninhibited and besotted with the princess). The result of this casual collision has terrible consequences, which Wilde milks for much ironic effect. Anyone who thinks fairy tales have happy endings either hasn’t read enough of them, or hasn’t read enough of the original, pre-Disneyfied material.
Despite the somber tone and downbeat plot twists, there are happier moments within the telling. Wilde could shift tone at will, bouncing from elegiac sadness to deep irony to chirping whimsy within moments. Nowhere is this whimsy more evident than in his introduction to the hunchback boy, whose introduction to the reader is accompanied by a chorus of judgment from the flowers, birds and lizards with whom he shares his days. “‘He is really far too ugly to be allowed to play in any place where we are,’ cried the tulips. ‘He should drink poppy juice, and go to sleep for a thousand years,’ said the great scarlet lilies.” Such moments are in keeping with the fairy-tale nature of the story, of course, but their presence only makes the darkness in the tale that much more powerful.
For many readers, though, the story will be almost, almost of secondary importance compared to the artwork, which certainly dazzles the eye with its kaleidoscope of color and form. Russell’s strengths are revealed here to be layout and design; every page is meticulously crafted, with borders and shadows and negative space working to create a unified effect on the page itself, in combination with panel size, shape and arrangement. Panels appear within panels, or in arrangements of tall verticals or long horizontals, or with odd-shaped panels thrown in or, most often, some combination of all of the above. The elaborate decor of the royal palace is used to good effect to create visual texture, while the hunchback’s natural environs of the forest creates a similar-but-different effect with its patterns of leaves and flowers. Cinematic techniques are mimicked as well, as when a series of panels pulls in closer to a character’s unmoving face, or a series of drawings reveals curtains falling closed in a window.
Maybe the toughest sequence to pull of is the one in which the hunchback finds himself facing a mirror for the first time; his grimaces and growls as he faces himself requires slight changes between the character and the mirror image, so as to render movement in the scene rather than just a series of static images. Russell illustrates this scene with admirable skill.
He is somewhat less successful with faces and figures, which reveal a surprising cartoonishness considering the admirable sophistication of his layouts. Given that his work elsewhere reveals a gracefulness, an almost ethereal quality to his figure work, his figures as rendered here take a little getting used to. Then again, it could be argued that the almost childlike nature of the drawings is entirely suitable to the subject matter.
This is a small enough quibble, considering the skill and sheer storytelling verve that is going on here: P. Craig Russell is a terrific comics artist, and one who deserves to be more widely known. His output has been significant over the course of his long career. It will be fun to see where he takes us next.