Guest blogger: Matt Badham ‘The Oldest and Strongest Kind of Fear’

Dan Lockwood is the editor of SelfMadeHero’s Lovecraft Anthology series. I talked to him about the enduring appeal of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction, the nature of fear and the various challenges that transforming prose fiction into comic strips presents. The following interview is an extended version of a feature that originally appeared in 2000AD.

What will readers get from graphic adaptations of the Lovecraft stories that they will not get from the source material itself?

Part of the fun of reading Lovecraft is trying to visualise his monstrous creations from the impossible descriptions he gives, which can be vague and quite abstract. The original stories also typically involve a lot of backstory and description, which some people find a little off-putting or intimidating. The nature of adaptation means that this information can be presented visually, or at least in a much-reduced form. By focusing in on the key elements of the plot and tightening up some of the background information, these graphic adaptations hopefully make the source material accessible to all readers (whether they’re new to Lovecraft or established fans). The anthology is also an opportunity for the creators to give their own interpretation of the stories – which they have done with huge enthusiasm.

What particular challenges do you think crafting comic adaptations presents that creating original comic strips doesn’t?

I think it really depends on the adaptation. Some slavishly follow the original text, while others try to reinterpret or update the story for a new audience. With The Lovecraft Anthology, the plan was to aim for faithful adaptations in terms of plot, language and period, while condensing the material down to a manageable length. It’s about conveying the essence of the source material without including every last detail; given a finite number of pages, it’s inevitable that some elements will be cut down or removed entirely. Adaptation also presents creators with the challenge of dealing with – meeting, exceeding, confounding or ignoring – reader expectation, especially when depicting characters or scenes which readers remember fondly from the original. In contrast, original comic strips give creators the freedom to develop their plots and characters in their own way (which obviously affects the comic’s structure, tone and pacing), because there are none of the limits imposed by converting a story from one medium into another.

Which stories have been chosen for adaptation and why?

The initial position when we starting planning the anthology was that there would be one volume, so I wanted to try to include a selection from Lovecraft’s best (and best known) tales. This list was eventually whittled down to include ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, ‘The Dunwich Horror’, ‘The Haunter of the Dark’, ‘The Colour Out of Space’, ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’, ‘The Rats in the Walls’ and ‘Dagon’. These stories share various Lovecraftian themes in common (teetering on the brink of madness, terror of invasion), so it seemed to make sense to present them together. And there were several classic ‘indescribable’ monsters for the creators to get to grips with, which I thought would make for some compelling artwork.

How did you go about finding appropriate creators for the anthology? Please tell us about the creative teams and what they’ve brought to each strip?

We drew up a list of potential writers, and either suggested artists or asked them for their own recommendations. We wanted to make sure that each story would be visually distinct from the others, but beyond that we were willing to consider any suggestions. Some were people who had previously worked with SelfMadeHero, while others were new partners in crime. It all fell into place fairly easily, because many of the contributors were already fans of Lovecraft and jumped at the chance to work on the project.

Ian Edginton has reteamed with D’Israeli (Stickleback, Leviathan) to adapt ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, which benefits from a streamlined structure and striking visuals. At the Mountains of Madness adaptor I.N.J. Culbard has illustrated Rob Davis’ sterling script for ‘The Dunwich Horror’ with his usual aplomb. Leah Moore and John Reppion (Albion) bring their talents to bear on ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’, setting Leigh Gallagher (Defoe) the challenge of producing his first colour strip – a lovely mixture of adventure and foreboding. For ‘The Colour Out of Space’, David Hine (The Bulletproof Coffin) has joined forces with cartoonist in residence at the Cartoon Museum, Mark Stafford, to perfectly capture the doomed atmosphere of decay which dominates the tale. SelfMadeHero were kind enough to let me adapt the remaining stories myself: ‘The Haunter of the Dark’ features some incredibly detailed artwork from Shane Oakley (Albion, Channel Evil); ‘The Rats in the Walls’ was illustrated by US artist David Hartman to atmospheric and dark effect; and the short ‘Dagon’ benefits from some gorgeous work from up-and-coming illustrator Alice Duke.

Why do you think Lovecraft’s work endures?

I think the best of Lovecraft’s tales strike a chord because they put you at the centre of a bleak universe filled with deadly threats, which is something no sane person wants to believe is true – anything could be out there, just waiting to be found. Or woken up. It’s a world view that manages to be somehow enthralling and horrifying at the same time. Lovecraft’s writing style also helps to draw you into his complicated mysteries. We often know that the main character is in serious trouble from the opening lines of a story, so we’re instantly put on edge, waiting for something bad to happen. At the same time, Lovecraft’s monsters (whether human or alien) are usually described with hints and allusion, which allows the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps. Lovecraft didn’t reach a particularly wide audience during his lifetime, but his influence on popular culture has been growing ever since in literature, film and music. I think we’ve now reached the point where even if you’ve never read anything Lovecraft wrote, it’s still likely that you’ve enjoyed something else which draws on his style or themes. The reason for this wide-ranging influence is surely that the best of his stories are bursting with imagination – they are great stories, and they continue to thrill readers now as they have done for generations.

Can comics scare?

I think horror works well in pretty much every medium – it’s just the approach which differs. In comics, the nature of the medium means that you tend not to get the physical jolt which film or TV can provide, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be scary. It’s about building tension through atmosphere and the structure of the story. Unsettling images and layouts also play an important role. For example, as a teenager I was haunted by Raymond Briggs’ When The Wind Blows – not strictly a horror comic, but tragic and terrifying nonetheless. Last year, I was genuinely freaked out by John Hicklenton’s 100 Months, which was emotionally raw and profoundly disturbing. These books are very different in style and detail, but both contain particular images which will stay with me for the foreseeable future. I think that whenever a reader is drawn into unfamiliar territory, there’s scope to scare them. As Lovecraft famously wrote, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” I’d agree with that.

My understanding is that there is going to be another anthology. Can you tell us a little about that?

As the first anthology moved forward, it became clear that Lovecraft was experiencing something of a resurgence in popularity – there was a huge amount of interest from both fans and potential contributors, and this response lead SelfMadeHero to propose doing a second volume. I’m currently in the process of selecting stories and putting together a list of contributors, which means I have a lot of reading to do! There are various well known stories which didn’t make it into the first book because of space restrictions and clashes of theme, so I’ll be revisiting those ones first. That being said, I’d like to try to include a couple of the more obscure tales as well.

Matt Badham is a freelance writer living and working in Manchester. His writing has appeared in the Big Issue in the North, the Judge Dredd Megazine, 2000AD, Tripwire and Comics International. He has also provided online content for both the Forbidden Planet International blog and downthetubes.

Plus he’s sold a few comic scripts, although only two have been published so far (in 2000 AD and Commando Picture Library).

Dan Lockwood is an editor and writer, who studied Sanskrit and Greek. He is a huge fan of horror and science-fiction on the page and screen. For SelfMadeHero, Dan has previously edited The Trial and The Master and Margarita. He lives and works in north London. He is editor and a contributor to the Lovecraft Anthology series for SelfMadeHero.

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This weekend at Bristol Comic Expo: Dan Lockwood, David Hine, Ian Edginton, INJ Culbard and Rob Davis will be talking about Lovecraft in a dedicated panel event. We have produced 100 extra special, gold foil blocked bookplates hand-signed by all the contributors that will only be sold that weekend. When they are gone, they are gone.

The full details are here and here.

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