Early comic books had close ties with the pulps; they sometimes shared artists, writers, editors, even publishers. Both DC and Marvel started off publishing pulps; Harry Donenfeld’s Spicy magazines ran comic strips like Polly of the Plains, Olga Mesmer, and Sally the Sleuth. Donenfeld switched to producing comic books—and ultimately found Superman more profitable.
Lovecraft had no direct ties to the nascent comic book industry; he died the year before Superman appeared on the newsstands, but several of his associates and contemporaries did. Julius Schwartz, the teenager who acted as Lovecraft’s agent to sell “The Shadow out of Time” and “At the Mountains of Madness” to Astounding ended up at DC Comics. Frank Belknap Long, Jr. and Otto Binder wrote for the comic books, as did Manly Wade Wellman. August Derleth was more of a collector—and famously used his Guggenheim grant to bind his collection of newspaper comic strips—but he made it into the comics anyway when a writer plagiarized his story “The Ormulu Clock” (1950) for a comic (Forbidden Adventures: The History of the American Comics Group 73).
Plagiarism, or at least “borrowing,” was rife in both comics and the pulps; and not even H. P. Lovecraft was immune from it. “Cool Air” had already been discreetly adapted by EC as “Baby…It’s Cold Inside!” in Vault of Horror #17 (1951). In 1952, someone else published an adaptation of “Pickman’s Model”…with a few changes.
The writer is unknown; the artist is Rudy Palais, who had been working in comic books since the 1930s. “Pickman’s Model” was first published in Weird Tales in 1927, but had been reprinted a number of times, including in the Best Supernatural Stories of H. P. Lovecraft (1950, World Publishing, Co.) and Famous Fantastic Mysteries (Dec 1951), so it was definitely available.
At seven pages, the adaptation drastically truncates Lovecraft’s story, and the character of Richard Upton Pickman is replaced by the slightly more generic (but still vaguely Lovecraftian) Eric Gilman; the narrator is replaced by female investigative reporter Pat Carter—shades of Lois Lane and Sally the Sleuth. Her journalistic instincts are correct, her courage is undoubted, and Pat Carter is tough enough not to “scream like a silly fool.” Hardboiled though she might be, Carter is not prepared for Eric Gilman’s secret…that he paints from life!
Much as with “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” (2008) by Caitlín R. Kiernan, the writer goes a step further than Lovecraft—capturing actual video evidence for the ghoulish creatures that live beneath the earth. The denouement is stereotypical of horror stories and creature features in comics at the time—the preservation of the status quo, at least nominally; the trust in the “proper authorities” to deal with the unpleasant realities that normal people wouldn’t be equipped to deal with and the desire not to cause mass panic. The preservation of normalcy.
“Portrait of Death” is ultimately an effective adaptation; not the first or the best, although perhaps the first with a female protagonist. It definitely isn’t one of the most gruesome of the pre-Code horror comics ever published, but it gets the job done…and in an intriguing way. Other uncredited Lovecraft adaptations may well still in the yellowing pages of old comics, waiting to be recognized for what they are.
The story was first published in Weird Terror #1 (1952, Allen Hardy Associates), republished in Horrific #8 (1953, Allen Hardy Associates), and slightly reworked and republished in Tales of Voodoo #3 (1968). The reworked version has been reprinted in Weird Worlds #2 (1971) and Terror Tales #6 (1972) from Eerie Publications. It has also been republished as part of Weird Terror volume 1 (2016).
The original story is in the public domain, and may be read in its entirety here.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).