Review: Universal Monsters: Cavalcade of Horror trade paperback (Dark Horse Comics)

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

[Guest reviewer Zach King blogs about movies as The Cinema King. Don't miss his month-long Monster March review of the Universal Classic Monsters movies at the site.]

When I was a very young boy, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm hit theaters. It was 1993, and I was already a religious watcher of Batman: The Animated Series. To my undying shame, I never saw it in the theaters. I mooned over the advertisements in my comic books, and I searched the racks at Walmart (ultimately in vain) for a Phantasm figure. I wouldn't see the movie for another 10 years — it ended up being the first DVD I rented from a little start-up called Netflix — but I never really lost sleep over missing the film.

You see, I had the comic book adaptation. (Still do.) I knew the ins and outs of the plot, the dialogue, the flashbacks, the twist ending. I'd seen The Animated Series so many times that I could hear the voices in my head. For my money, that Timm-inflected art by Mike Parobeck and Rick Burchett remains the definitive Bat-art. It was an early exposure to the world of Batman, and to comics more generally, but I had no idea about the rich tradition of comic book adaptations. This was all in the days before home video exploded, when your best bet to rewatch a movie might be the comic book.

In the intervening years, as home video and streaming became ubiquitous, the comic book adaptation virtually died. When 2008's The Dark Knight didn't have an accompanying adaptation, it felt like the end of an era. Sure, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has tried to keep this tradition alive with their "Prelude" comics, though these have been largely forgettable, aside from Todd Nauck adapting Captain America: Civil War in the Spider-Man: Homecoming Prelude miniseries. No, the comic book adaptation may be a relic in the retirement home for gimmicks, and it's become a side hobby for me to scoop up every one of these artifacts I can find. Prequel comics to X-Men (2000)? Bring it on. Superman III and IV in four-color? Sign me up. The Kelley Jones adaptation of Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow? No one has drawn better horses. Heck, I'll even count my issue of The Flash TV Special, signed by John Wesley Shipp.

Enter the Universal Classic Monsters and a quartet of adaptations published in 1993 by Dark Horse, later collected under a lush Eric Powell cover as Universal Monsters: Cavalcade of Horror. Over on my film blog, The Cinema King, I've been thinking about the Universal Monsters as one of the first cinematic universes, with sequels and crossovers not unlike those in the MCU. Thirty movies in 24 years (compared to Marvel's 24 in 11 years) introduced moviegoers to a host of ghouls, and Dark Horse reintroduced them to comic stands the same year the Phantasm cut a bloody swath through Gotham. With these monster movies fresh under my belt, it's a good excuse for me to jump through my "to-read" pile.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

First up after the loving introduction by Powell, who gushes over the classic horror films, Dan Jolley and Tony Harris adapt The Mummy (1932), which starred Boris Karloff. Harris' moody blacks and dark shadows are a perfect fit for the spooky Karloff classic, bringing the Egyptian scenery to life. Harris' Mummy miniseries emerged from its sarcophagus a scant year before Harris would smash the gates open with James Robinson on Starman, but it's incredible how fully formed his art style was on this adaptation. He's imitating a number of the classic shots from the film, but his rendition of Karloff is craggier and more moldering, where the film's Imhotep always looked a bit like he was wrapped in wrinkled parchment.

Jolley's adaptation, like all four of the ones collected in this volume, is fairly literal, in many places excerpting the exact dialogue from the film. In a visual medium like comics, it's a shame that the writer usually takes up so much oxygen in the conversation, because the artist is playing director, choreographer, set decorator, and cameraperson all at once. In this respect, Cavalcade of Horror is the perfect exhibition for artists like Harris; I can safely say I didn't buy the book to see writers like Jolley or Dan Vado take on these legendary tales. Rather than try to remake the classics, Jolley and his writing companions wisely step back and let their artists reimagine the monochrome movies into full-color extravaganzas.

Up next, Den Beauvais pulls double-duty as writer and artist on Frankenstein. Beauvais brings a painterly sensibility to the story, giving us a verdant colorscape of blues and greens. Beauvais's Monster is blue-green, too, echoing what Karloff's makeup would have looked like if the film had been produced in color. (The blue-green makeup photographed very well for monochrome; see also Paul Bettany's black-and-white Vision in the early episodes of WandaVision.) Beauvais's Monster is exceptionally expressive, communicating without the aid of dialogue; recall that Karloff's Monster wouldn't speak until Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Again, it's a fairly literal adaptation, but it's worth reveling in the artwork. Indeed, Beauvais has uploaded all the pages to his website free of charge, along with some videos of his method. Beauvais does his own lettering, too, though the typeface he uses puts one in mind of a Jack Chick tract, adding a frisson of the bizarre that regardless seems to fit this morality fable about playing God.

You can't have Frankenstein without Dracula, the first Universal Monsters movie and the sine qua non of the entire franchise. This version is given to us by Dan Vado and Jonathan D. Smith, and, of the four stories collected in Cavalcade of Horror, Dracula takes the most liberties with its source material. You'll immediately note that, while the adaptation is in color, Count Dracula himself appears in black and white. Everyone knows that Bela Lugosi is the undisputed highlight of the original Dracula film, and Smith's artwork aims to make the vampire stand out just as well without the benefit of Lugosi's peculiar intonations. Vado also makes the creative decision to cast Dracula and his herald Renfield as narrators, letting us into the heads of our demonic villains. Just like in the film, though, this Dracula leaves almost nothing for Jonathan and Mina to do; their romantic relationship remains pretty inert, and perhaps Vado and Smith might have done well to crib from the longer 1931 Spanish-language adaptation, Drácula (considered by some to be a superior adaptation).

As its titular antagonist fades into monochrome, an ill fit for his surroundings, this adaptation gives us far more splashes of blood and literalizes the erotic subtext in Dracula's bite. Streaks of red line the panels, intruding on Smith's soft art, with Vado giving the script's full attention to Dracula's scenes of violence. When he bites Lucy Weston, a full page is devoted to multiple angles of the Count atop his motionless, nearly naked victim; were it not for the blood literally dripping from the panels, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was an interpolated sex scene akin to Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 adaptation. Just like the film (but unlike in Drácula), the fate of Lucy is left unresolved in this comic, but Renfield's is not. In a final act of savagery, Dracula rips Renfield's heart from his chest; even before the Hays Code, the best Tod Browning devised was pushing him down a flight of stairs. Quentin Tarantino's Dracula, this might well be.

Finally, Art Adams closes the anthology with Creature from the Black Lagoon. Now I would be lying to you if I didn't admit that seeing Adams's Gill-Man was my main motivation for picking up this book; the eponymous Creature was my father's favorite Universal Monster, and I have vivid memories of renting the VHS from the library and watching it, breathless. Steve Moncuse's script is missing the blaring Henry Mancini score that made the original so alarming, but it gives Adams no shortage of panels to strut his stuff. Where the other adaptations have about five or six panels to a page, Adams is working on a 4x4 grid for most of the story, at times giving us 16 panels per page. It's the kind of hyper-detailed, nimble linework that would benefit from a gallery edition or at minimum an oversized treasury edition.

Like the film, which spends much of its time underwater, much of this Creature is silent, with Adams doing his best visual storytelling. But truly it is letterer Lois Buhalis who is having the most fun, gleefully wringing every ounce of tension and terror from her onomatopoetic arsenal of SPLASHes, WUNKs, and GRAAOUGHs. Scott McCloud has said that a key feature of comics is that they funnel all five senses "through the central conduit of vision," and on that count Creature is one of the noisiest comics I've ever read. Yet simultaneously the comic is also an exercise in restraint; you might expect Adams to draw the Gill-Man every chance he gets, but Adams follows the film's cue and keeps the creature just out of sight until the anticipation is at its highest. Those panels when he surfaces, then, are — as Spencer Tracy once put it — cherce.

Dracula might be the most interesting adaptation, but I might be a little biased when I claim that Creature is the most fun. Ultimately, any fan of the Universal Classic Monsters would do well to seek out a copy of Cavalcade of Horror, though anyone new to the monster mythos might be better served with the original films from the 1930s and '50s. (The only monster debut from the 1940s, The Wolf Man, is conspicuously absent from this book. I've read that Lawrence Talbot was supposed to get his own one-shot, but I can't find much else about this series online.) Indeed, it's hard to imagine this book landing for an audience who isn't already in the monster camp; like most movie adaptations, these are a little stodgy and overly indebted to the cinematic frame as tableau for the comics panel. You might recognize familiar stagings in these comics, as when Karloff's Mummy first lurches from his sarcophagus. But you'll also find what comics do best — distill time into a series of nevertheless potent static images.

Whether it's the Frankenstein monster lumbering into frame or the Gill-Man lunging between panels, Cavalcade of Horror is proof enough that these monsters are just as potent in two dimensions as they were in three.

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