This is how you open a comic set in space.
When H. P. Lovecraft was writing science fiction in the 1930s, space was the province of rocket-men in slipstream vehicles that sailed from planet to planet, fighting wars between the stars with strange and terrible weapons from their clean, futuristic vessels of tomorrow…or they were cast onto some barbaric planet, to fight for their lives with sword and blaster, a la Robert E. Howard’s Almuric (1939) Lovecraft & Kenneth Sterling’s “In the Walls of Eryx” (1936). It was only the rare pulpster like Clark Ashton Smith in his Martian tales or C. L. Moore in her Northwest Smith stories that showed space as a little…grubby. A bit closer to the Wild West, where fortunes could be won and death was around every corner, where the “heroes” could be rogues and outcasts that shot first without conscience, and “civilization” and the associated laws, norms, and mores could be far away. Out on the borderlands of what is known, where things could get properly horrific.
The grimy, gritty, “lived in” nature of space opera is one of the hallmarks of Alien (1979). Space works very well for Mythos stories, and shown in “Elder Gods” (1997) by Nancy Collins, “The Discovery of the Ghooric Zone” (1977) by Richard Lupoff & “In The Yaddith Time” (2007) by Ann K. Schwader, and the “Boojumverse” of Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette: “Boojum” (2008), “Mongoose” (2009), and “The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” (2012). All of these are original works, pushing the Mythos beyond the present into a hypothetical future where humanity has at least begun to explore and colonize beyond their own planet. Extrapolating out past what Lovecraft & his contemporaries would have known of the universe.
La Planète aux Cauchemars (“The Planet of Nightmares,” 2019) is a bit different: it is a direct adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” only set entirely in space. This is a new dimension for Lovecraft country; the young woman trying to catch a cheap spaceflight to Arkham Beta takes a vessel from Newburyport through a planetary colony called Innsmüt, which has a bad reputation…
Mathieu Sapin wrote the adaptation (from Maxime le Dain’s translation of Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth”); Patrick Pion provided the artwork, Walter Pezzali the vivid colors, Jean-Luc Ruault the letters. As an adaptation, readers are basically familiar with the outlines of the story, and it’s not the plot that draws readers in—we know basically what’s going to happen, there are few surprises here on a strictly narrative level—it’s seeing what Sapin, Pion, & co. do with the idea. What does Innsmüt look like as a spaceport? How does that change the original story? What does that do to how our protagonist Agent Eva Orne interprets what she sees?
The cosmetic influence of the Alien franchise is there. Newburyport isn’t some pristine future. People worry about money, there’s dirt and grime, steam, rising up from vents before neon Japanese signs like a set-piece from Blade Runner, huge cables and tubes dominate the less-traveled sections, reminding us that space stations are, after all, mostly plumbing. Innsmüt itself is a dusty colony on the edge of a salty sea…a rundown future, a bare outpost of humanity (except the Innsmüt folk don’t look very human). Starscapes, stark and beautiful mark the transitions, and the panel layouts skew as Eva Orne drops down through the clouds to Innsmüt, where the Gilman hotel waits…and there are entire pages where not a word is needed to convey the action, because the silence works to the advantage here, letting the readers drink in the details and colors. The far towers of the Ordre de Dagon, the teeth on the dead fish washed up on the shores of the sea…Sapin knows not to drown a panel in paragraphs of descriptive text, that he can let Pion get on with the business of showing rather than telling.
The art for a lot of the bande dessinée is deliberately toned down—realistic in proportions, carefully planned and drawn, but the tones are flat, muted, the shapes largely sharply defined—until Orne dreams. Then the digital coloring makes a splash, the whole tone and lighting shifts to this dark quicksilver-tinted look, and the sharp inking give way to these beautiful painted pages that are gorgeous and hyper-real compared to the waking world. The shift is so abrupt that it makes the return to the waking pages jarring…but at the same time, if the whole book were done in that dream-like style, it would have not had the same impact. Keeping the shift in style to the dream sequence was the right choice. One of many good choices in this book, where Orne borrows more of her characterization from Ellen Ripley of the Alien franchise than from Lovecraft’s nameless protagonist.
The best lettering is what isn’t confined to the word balloons; I suspect this might be more of an issue where the creators were looking ahead toward potential translations, because there is plenty of space in the speech bubbles for the text, but it is mostly cramped and fairly prosaic. There are exceptions where the balloons convey the agitation and emotion of the speaker’s voice, but for the most part the dialogue comes across as very affect-less and probably the text is smaller than it needs to be. Easy to read, but doesn’t convey any emotion outside of one or two scenes, while the text written outside of the word balloons are very active and emotive sound effects—critch critch KLANG! FRRROUSHH!!! BOM BOM BOM—which are fantastic.
La Planète aux Cauchemars (2019, Rue de Sèvres) is a wonderful adaptation that really makes the most of its premise in a relatively brief 60 pages, and there are surprises there. It is only available in French at the moment, but I would be surprised if it didn’t end up translated before too long; unfortunately, not all the great bande dessinée works make it to the United States, but Dark Horse has done translations of Sherlock Holmes and the Necronomicon (2015) and Ablaze is currently translating Glénat’s Conan adaptations as The Cimmerian (2021), so perhaps English-speaking audiences in the US might get a chance to read this, which they should.
Mathieu Sapin and Patrick Pion previously collaborated on Les Rêves dans la Maison de la Sorcière (2016, Rue de Sèvres), an adaptation of Lovecraft’s “Dreams in the Witch-House.”
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).