Pop Comic Review – The Willows #1 (of 2)

‘Before Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft was the 20th century’s master of the macabre. But Poe and Dunsany did not alone beget Lovecraft. In fact, the opinionated New England gentleman is on record stating that his favorite short story was none other than Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows. Blackwood was a prolific English ghost story writer and a grandfather of today’s Weird Fiction scene; The Willows is remembered as one of his greatest contributions to dark, atmospheric literature.

This immortal novella of extra-dimensional weirdness on the Danube comes to vivid life in graphic comic form thanks to the incredibly detailed black-and-white linework of talented newcomer, Sam Ford. Writer Nathan Carson’s thoughtful retelling reverently preserves the plot while breathing character-driven depth into this all-time classic. Two adventurous women, one British, one Swedish, encounter strange horrors in the Hungarian wilderness of 1907. What they discover on that crumbling sandbar makes them question their sanity, fear for their lives, and revel in otherworldly strangeness. Readers familiar with the story will delight in seeing it depicted in such painstaking, quality illustrations. And those for whom it is new will want to leave a light on for many nights after.’

Written by: Nathan Carson

Art by: Sam Ford

Publisher: Floating World Comics

Released: 15 November 2017

Floating World Comics

 

This was another week where it was hard to pick which comic to cover (well, that’s most weeks actually). Seriously, go check out the Can I Pet Your Werewolf? werewolf themed anthology published recently too, it’s fun and funny and touching and great. However, I ended up sticking with The Willows, because I love horror stories, and this one was an influence on Lovecraft himself. There are several not very well known ghost, horror, and various dark fantasy story writers from the turn of last century and earlier (Ann Radcliffe’s novels from the turn of the 18th century are spoken highly of by Lovecraft in his 1945 Supernatural Horror in Literature essay) that are amazing to find out about while also being sad that I hadn’t heard of them sooner. Algernon Blackwood wrote approximately one zillion novels, novellas, short stories, plays and other various literary works up until a couple of years before his death in 1951, and with such a prolific output it’s not surprising his horror works, like the better-known 1907 novella The Willows, influenced later authors. When I saw the amazing artwork accompanying this classic horror tale adaption, I was hooked.

Carson’s adaptation isn’t perfect in my opinion, though it’s pretty great. Like many broadly Victorian era writers, Blackwood tends to waffle on a bit, so a visual-based adaptation obviously cuts down a lot on what’s included in the narration by necessity; but there is the occasional line I wish had been kept in, such as this early line from the original story about the low marshland willow trees: ‘ . . . and so continually shifting that they somehow give the impression that the entire plain is moving and alive’, a great piece of foreshadowing, and that creates a sense of what’s happening that the illustrations can’t really capture. Selecting exactly what will be included in an adaptation like this isn’t easy, and apart from personal quibbles like that, I think Carson did good work. The dialogue flows well and doesn’t seem out of place for the time setting, and the whole works well as a story without ever needing to read the original source material, which is the basic goal of an adaptation work.

The main characters – two unnamed men travelling down the Danube river in a canoe – have been Starbucked to be two women instead, which doesn’t affect the details of the story at all but, for example, adds a poignant touch when they briefly discuss why they have fled their home countries to undertake their adventure. For myself, I think it also added an extra layer of depth to the basic tenseness that comes with figuring out whether an encountered stranger in an unknown land considers you friend or prey; of course, the concept of encountering a strange being/presence and being unsure of its intentions is a basic horror trope for a reason, because it works so well for nearly all humans on different levels. In this case the stranger is what they find on the marshland island they make camp on, when the narrator makes the dream-like discovery of something amazing but is soon taken over by fear, which of course turns out to be very justified.

Floating World Comics

 

That artwork, though. So gorgeous! Ford is an unknown in comics, though his website is replete with fantastic album cover commission work. Every panel here is packed with detail in dense and delicate linework, and the feature pages are dang lovely. The faces sometimes stand out a bit as simpler than the rest of the detailed surroundings, but it makes conveying emotion and expression easier, and I can’t fault him much for them being slightly off the rest of his work, because that’s such a high bar that’s been set. The visuals build up the tension well, and the big scenes introducing the creeping horror of the island are great.

The detail work really comes into play in those tense scenes where the reader first takes in the overall picture, then takes the time to look closer. This being a two-parter comic, it ends halfway through the story, and the penultimate scene involves our narrating main character being sure they’re not dreaming, although it’s still being debated, and visuals that can mix monstrous or surreal details into an overall picture that can seem normal or close to it at first really helps convey the idea. The dense plain line work always makes me think of fine woodcut style, which matches well for old tales (even if woodcut is still centuries older than the story in question). I hope Ford does more comic work in the future, because he seems to have jumped into sequential art almost effortlessly and I love what he’s done here.

Blackwood’s The Willows turns 110 years old this year, and being such an oldie, is available for free on Project Gutenburg along with a bunch of his other work. However, I will recommend this adaptation to people in a heartbeat before saying they should go look up Blackwood’s actual work (there is so much of it, seriously). Victorian era gothic may be hugely influential and popular as classics, but it isn’t everybody’s cup of tea because it so often relies on long descriptions, slow tension, low action, and subtle payoffs relying on character emotions. But tightly hewn text and rich, emotive illustrations make this adaptation a great horror story, and as a fan of classic literary ghost stories/supernatural/horror I’m going to be buying the two parts once issues #2 is released.

Thanks to Comixology.com for providing this copy of ‘The Willows’ #1 for review.

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