The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate (2019) by Massimo Rosi & Alessio Landi

Oggi Aquilonia has ottenuto la pace a caro prezzo e il Barbaro ormai è un vecchio stanco Re pieno di rimorsi, sognando il clamore della battaglia e l’adrenalina dell’avventura… questi sono tempi in cui il fuoco e l’acciaio potrebbero dettare le nuove leggi dell’uomo.

Today Aquilonia has obtained peace at a great price and the Barbarian is now a tired old King full of remorse, dreaming of the clamor of battle and the adrenaline of adventure … these are times when fire and steel could dictate the new laws of man.
— The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate

Dead pulp authors can eternal lie, and in strange aeons many of their works may still be under copyright or have certain characters trademarks depending on the intellectual property laws of any given country. In Europe, the works of Robert E. Howard may be in the public domain, and because of that they are fair game for reprinting and reimagination. This applies both for prose works like the novel The Song of Bêlit (2020) by Rodolfo Martínez, and for comic books and graphic novels like French publisher Glénat’s gorgeous series of new adaptations of Robert E. Howard’s original stories of Conan the Cimmerian.

Comic books and graphic adaptations of the Cimmerian are intriguing because from 1970 to 1993 Conan (and other Robert E. Howard characters) were licensed to Marvel Comics, which provided a distinctive and iconic interpretation of the character—all the more so because the Conan comics were translated and published everywhere from Japan to Turkey. Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian was the most successful sword & sorcery comic of all time, with tie-ins to the 1980s Arnold Schwarzeneggar films, merchandise, and the lore of Robert E. Howard became intimately entangled with the Marvel Universe—including the Serpent-god Set, the Serpent Men, the eldritch entity Shuma-Gorath, the sinking of Atlantis, and by extension the Hyborian backstory of Varnae the Vampire and Kulan Gath, the villain of a popular X-Men event.

Marvel wouldn’t be the first to publish a Conan comic—La Reina de le Costa Negra in Mexico has that honor with its blond barbarian—nor the last, as Dark Horse held the license for many years. Yet Marvel’s Conan remains distinctive in fixing the barbarian’s appearance and some of his mannerisms and the development of his world. Even Dark Horse’s Conan under various artists and writers looked a bit more like the Marvel Conan than it did the original illustrations in Weird Tales, although the Frank Frazetta covers for the Lancer paperbacks in the 60s had their influence on both. Both Marvel and Dark Horse worked to both adapt Robert E. Howard stories and to publish new adventures of the barbarian, woven in and around his published career.

Which makes it really exciting to see how different creative teams handle the character.

The Barbarian King is an Italian-language series of fumetti (comics, equivalent to perfect bound graphic novels in the United States) from publisher Red Dragon and Leviathan Labs. The creative team for the first volume, Le Spade Spezzate (“The Broken Swords”) is Massimo Rosi & Alessio Landi (script); Luca Panciroli, Federico de Luca, & Alessandro Bragalini (pencils, ink, & layout); Marco Antonio Imbrauglio (colorist); Enrico Santodirocco (editing); Mattia Gentili (letterer); and Lucrezia Benvenuti (logo & map design).

In adapting Conan to comics there are traditionally two routes to take: adaptation of the original stories or the creation of new works that are based on past works and/or the same characters—Marvel also had a habit of adapting some non-Conan Robert E. Howard stories, non-Robert E. Howard Conan stories, and even some non-Conan sword & sorcery stories as Conan comics. One reason Marvel could “get away” with this is because they took a very different approach to continuity than Robert E. Howard did.

By the time Marvel got Conan, essentially all of his adventures had been published. These were initially written and published out of chronological order; Robert E. Howard was not setting out to create a single sprawling epic novel like The Lord of the Rings or The Odyssey, the adventures of Conan were written and published out of order, telling different stories from different periods of Conan’s life. This freed Howard from any strict timeline of events, much as the Hyborian Age—as a prehistoric hodgepodge of different places and eras—allowed him the freedom to shift setting and tone. Conan could be in a young thief in police procedural one story (“The God in the Bowl”), then an experience adventurer in a pirate story (“The Treasure of Tranicos”), then a king of a mighty nation overthrowing usurpers in a medieval war (The Hour of the Dragon), and it was up to the fans to piece together a probably outline of Conan’s career…which a couple of early fans did in the 1930s, and which other fans have added to or revisited ever since.

Marvel and to a degree Dark Horse would use these outlines as the skeleton on which to build their own storylines. By starting more or less linearly from the beginning of Conan’s career, they could intersperse Robert E. Howard adaptations with original storylines, follow the trace of Conan’s journeys and develop additional characters and plots—sometimes expanding on what Howard and others had written, sometimes adding new elements, even borrowing from the Cthulhu Mythos or staging crossovers. As a method, this has the advantage in that the Conan comics often had a kind of narrative flow that is usually missing from monthly comics in the United States: you can often literally trace Conan’s travels on the map of the Hyborian Age.

It also allows the development of series characters—sidekicks, reoccurring antagonists, etc.—which are almost entirely absent from Howard’s stories. Robert E. Howard’s Conan is not like Michael Moorcock’s Elric to have a Companion to Champions along for the ride for several subsequent adventures, neither does he have the same lover or enemy. Stygian sorcerer Thoth-Amon as Conan’s arch foe is entirely a creation of later writers; they never even meet in “The Phoenix on the Sword,” or in any other Howard story (although Conan runs afoul of the wizard’s deeds in “The God in the Bowl”). Conan’s habit of killing every wizard he meets and always ending the story with a different girlfriend was one of the major critiques laid against the pulp hero—but in the comics, many more encounters could be planned and carried out, more tension built up, relationships would have more lasting impact because they lasted longer from issue to issue and story to story.

The Howard’s Conan chronology ends, effectively, with The Hour of the Dragon. There he is king, he has survived multiple attempts on his life and rule, and he is going to take as queen the young woman Zenobia. No Howard stories are set after this point, though other authors and comics picked up at this point because it is a natural gray area: anything can happen, because nothing more is written after this point! Conan could even die—an impossibility in earlier tales, because of course he has to survive for the next adventure that is already planned out.

So after the events of The Hour of the Dragon is where The Barbarian King picks up.

King Conan is conspicuously different in this incarnation than the Marvel or Dark Horse versions: heavier, hairier, with grey streaks in his beard and scars on his face. While Conan comics have often been a bit more mature than others on the stands, able to get away with more gore and nudity than most comics, The Barbarian King leans into both more than most, but less for exploitation than because this is a very different, darker, more mature story than more readers will be familiar with and occasionally gritty, multi-media artwork fits the tone.

If acid sword & sorcery is a thing, this might be it.

When Roy Thomas and other writers began to adapt Conan to comics in the 1970s, they did so in part with the guidance of L. Sprague de Camp; de Camp had inserted himself into the editing of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, and had written several Conan pastiches, finished various fragments and synopses, and expanded the outline of Conan’s career. He didn’t do this for free or even directly, and Roy Thomas is frank about their relationship in his great memoir Barbarian Life: A Literary Biography of Conan the Barbarian, but de Camp’s influence was still strong on the series. Dark Horse’s comics, on the other hand, were published after a revolution in Howard studies & publishing had strongly emphasized the publishing of the original, unedited Robert E. Howard texts and the decline of pastiche—so show fairly less influence from de Camp—but they still follow Campian certain trends, like the emphasis on Thoth-Amon as an archvillain.

The Barbarian King ignores de Camp more or less entirely. Rather than setting Thoth-Amon up as the villain, they turn to one of the most iconic Conan stories of all time: Yara from “The Tower of the Elephant,” who has escaped from his prison and is now in command of new and inhuman powers from the Cthulhu Mythos to revenge himself on the barbarian king. This crossover isn’t the first time the Mythos have entered a Conan story (Robert E. Howard himself included explicit refrences to Lovecraft’s Mythos in the first draft of “The Phoenix on the Sword”), but it set the tone for the series as it develops: this is sword & sorcery with a strong blend of horror into the mix.

If The Barbarian King avoids de Camp and Marvel’s legacy for the most part, the influence of the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian is still very obvious, in theme, language, and occasional artistic flourishes that call back to the iconic Atlantean sword. Perhaps some of the costuming and nudity may also be reminiscent of 1980s Italian Sword & Sorcery films that were inspired by Conan, such as the Ator series or Sangraal…or perhaps not; the artists and writers on this project are obviously keen on the genre, but this is a Robert E. Howard project through-and-through.

Il desiderio era fondere il Fantasy Eroico Howardiano con un qualcosa di quasi Lovecraftiano e Barkeriano, cosa che immaginai quando lessi i VERMI DELLA TERRA con Bran Mak Morn la prima volta, nonché flavour che ho ritrovato da poco in Britannia di Milligan e Ryp, ad esempio.

The desire was to blend Howardian Heroic Fantasy with something almost Lovecraftian and Barkerian, which I imagined when I first read WORMS OF THE EARTH with Bran Mak Morn, as well as the flavor I recently found in Milligan and Ryp’s Britannia, for example.
—Massimo Rosi, “Intervista a Massimo Rosi a cura di Italian Sword & Sorcery” in The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate

The story is brutal enough in some places to edge toward grimdark, although I don’t think the story is amoral or dystopian in that sense. It is definitely less reminiscent of Howard’s more high-hearted hero and more Conan in his darker and broodier moods, pushed in directions that Howard would never have dared take him in the pulps—and in that respect, I think, the series is highly reminiscent to the new Elric graphic novel adaptions being published by Titan books beginning with The Ruby Throne. Comic storytelling can be grittier and more explicit now than ever before, and in revisiting these characters these writers and artists are pushing the limit a little, going beyond just the words in old paperbacks and pulp magazines…and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Questo è il Re Barbaro! E sono sicuro che lo riconoscerete nell’albo che stringete ta le mani, perché gli autori che lo hanno realizato sono figli di Cimmeria e hanno compreso da temp il segreto dell’acciaio; ad animarli è la passione per le battaglie e per le donne; a contraddistinguerli uno lo spirito libero, sprezzante della censura e del politically correct. Chi sono io per dirlo? Son il cronista delle loro imprese e brindo alla loro gloria. Ma ora, bando alle ciance, è tempo di tornare nel mondo hyboriano.

Buona lettura cimmeri!

This is the Barbarian King! And I’m sure you will recognize it in the book that you hold your hands, because the authors who made it are sons of Cimmeria and have long understood the secret of steel; to animate them and the passion for battles and women; to distinguished by a free spirit, contemptuous of censorship and political correctness. Who am I to say? I am the chronicler of their exploits and I toast to their glory. But now, no more chatter, it’s time to go back to the Hyborian world.

Happy reading Cimmerians!
—Enrico Santodirocco, “Introduzione” in The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate

A preview of the first few pages of The Barbarian King can be read for free on Issuu, and there is a video trailer on Facebook. While The Barbarian King is not yet available in English, the series and its art volumes can be purchased from Leviathan Labs, and some translations into other languages are available; O Rei Bárbaro (2019) for example is in Brazilian Portuguese and printed in black and white.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

The Mystery of Lustful Illusion -Cthulhu Pregnant- (2015) by Takayuki Hiyori (宇行 日和)

愛欲幻想の怪~クトゥルフ・プレグナント~ (The Mystery of Lustful Illusion -Cthulhu Pregnant-) by Takayuki Hiyori (宇行 日和) is a 2015 Japanese tankōbon hentai manga published by Unreal Comics (アンリアル). This book is divided into ten chapters, each of which contains a fully-illustrated and sexually explicit Cthulhu Mythos story.

In art style, the book is geared more toward erotic comedy than erotic horror; and many of the Cthulhu Mythos entities within are presented as monster girls. Takayuki Hiyori had been previously known for their dōjinshi based on popular monster girl harem manga Monster Musume, and their manga are essentially a pornographic parallel to the mostly non-explicit books like Monster Girl Encyclopedia II (2016) by Kenkou Cross (健康クロス).

Cthulhu_TOC

In terms of writing and storytelling, The Mystery of Lustful Illusion -Cthulhu Pregnant- is a disconnected collection of short works, much like most Lovecraft story collections or Lafcadio Hearn’s classic collection Kwaidan. There is no larger overarching story of narrative, the major appeal of the work being simply that it uses the Cthulhu Mythos for these erotic stories and sexualized versions of eldritch entities like Cthulhu, Hastur, Shub-Niggurath, the Deep Ones, the Hounds of Tindalos, and the Cats of Ulthar.

The contents are aimed toward some well-established tropes and kinks: as the title might imply, impregnation is a fairly significant theme in many of the stories, but there are also instances of multiple penetration, sex work, incest, nonconsensual sex, body transformation or modification, breast expansion, group sex, large genitals, etc. Readers familiar with tentacle erotica might wonder if such appendages play their part, as they do in Le Pornomicon (2005) by Logan Kowalsky, but in truth they don’t play a significant role in the proceedings.

Cthulhu_CalloftheAbyssIn point of fact, The Mystery of Lustful Illusion -Cthulhu Pregnant- is difficult to distinguish from Monster Musume or Monster Girl Encyclopedia products. While Takayuki Hiyori uses references to the Cthulhu Mythos in the crafting and telling of the stories, the manga itself is pretty straight forward monster girl erotica, and aimed more directly at that audience than Lovecraft fans. The depictions of the various Mythos entities is mostly original, but skewed toward “mostly human with a few non-human traits”—the Cats of Ulthar, for example, are indistinguishable from the generic manga or anime “catgirl,” with their primary feline traits being cat ears and tail on a nubile young woman’s body. Eldritch horrors are hinted at but seldom realized.

The contents of this book might be generally compared to the more sexually explicit chapters of The Elder Sister-like One by Pochi Iida (飯田ぽち。), but where Pochi is telling an extended narrative with a few characters with extended character development and exploring emotions, Takayuki Hiyori is necessarily more episodic, with varied content and swift-moving stories that tend to get to the sexual action fast, dwell on them for the majority of the length of the chapter, and come to a relatively swift conclusion.

Cthulhu - Ulthar

Arguably the most fun chapter in the book is a variation on “The Cats of Ulthar.” While the forms the cats take are stereotypical for hentai manga, and the results are pretty much what you might expect, it both pays homage to Lovecraft’s original work while playfully subverting aspects of it. One might compare it in some ways to the “erotic” versions of classic horror novels which achieved a bit of notoriety in the 1970s, like The Adult Version of Frankenstein and The Adult Version of Dracula by “Hal Kantor” (Ed Wood, Jr.). Erotic retellings of Lovecraft aren’t exactly new—for example, “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) by Lula Lisbon—but illustrated or graphic adaptations are relatively scarce.

愛欲幻想の怪~クトゥルフ・プレグナント~ (The Mystery of Lustful Illusion -Cthulhu Pregnant-) by Takayuki Hiyori (宇行 日和) has not been officially translated into English or published in the United States; perhaps some company like FAKKU might do so in the future and make it more widely available. Until then, those interested in the Japanese original can still find copies available from retailers online.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

“Nelle Spire di Medusa” (2019) by Massimo Rosi & Tommaso Campanini

Una chioma simile la faceva sembrare una principessa orientale dipinta da Aubrey Beardsley; quando li sciogleva le arrivavano sotto le ginocchia e brillavano come se possedessero una vitalita propria.

Chiunque avrebbe pensato sen’zaltro a Medusa o a Berenice…
The Miskatonic Diaries: Nelle Spire di Medusa e altre storie 25

Such hair made her look like an oriental princess painted by Aubrey Beardsley; when she melted them she reached under her knees and shone as if they possessed a vitality of her own.

Anyone would have thought of Medusa or Berenice without any doubt …
—”In the Coils of Medusa” (trans.)

There have been many graphic adaptations of H. P. Lovecraft’s work; adaptations of his revision tales are scarce, and it very unusual to run into two that cover the same story. However, there are two adaptations of “Medusa’s Coil” (1939) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft“Medusa’s Curse” (1995) by Sakura Mizuki (桜 水樹氏) and “Nelle Spire di Medusa” (2019) by Massimo Rosi (writing) & Tommaso Campanini (art), which is the title story to The Miskatonic Diaries Vol. 1—and it is interesting and informative to compare the two adaptations to each other, as well as to the source material.

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First story page, sans text, by Tommaso Campanini
DeviantArt

The title, to start with, is interesting: most Italian translations of “Medusa’s Coil” are titled simply “Medusa,” but the earliest translation listed in H. P. Lovcraft A Comprehensive Bibliography is “Nelle spire di Medusa” in a 1976 collection of the same name. The story itself hews closer to Lovecraft’s text than “Medusa’s Curse”: the setting is once more in the United States, in the early 20th century, and the main characters are Denis de Russy, his father, Frank Marsh, Marceline Bedard, and the nameless narrator. The character of Sophonisba, and all the other servants white and black, are absent. This is not to say that the adaption completely ditches the background of the original story:

C’era stata un’epoca in cui le capanne che sorgevano nella parte posteriore della proprieta—su un tratto pianeggiante ora sommerso dal fiume—avevnao ospitato fino a duecento schievi negri; sentirili cantare, ridere e suonare il banjo di notte equivaleva a cogliere il fascino di una civilta e un ordine sociale purtroppo estinti.
—”Nelle Spire di Medusa” (25)

There was a time when the huts that stood at the rear of the property—on a flat stretch now submerged by the river—had hosted up to two hundred black slaves; hearing them sing, laugh and play the banjo at night was tantamount to grasping the charm of an unfortunately extinct civilization and social order.
—”In the Coils of Medusa” (trans.)

Yet here there are some differences from the original story as well. Whether this was an issue with the translation or a deliberate twist by Massimo Rosi isn’t clear, but the character of Denis de Russy is given a little quirk:

Romantic young devil, too—full of high notions—you’d call ’em Victorian, now—no trouble at all to make him let the nigger wenches alone.
—H. P. Lovecraft & Zealia Bishop, “Medusa’s Coil”

Un giovanotto romantico ribelle, pieno di sentimenti che probabilmente lei definirebbe antiquati. E le assicuro che non era facile tenerlo lontano dalle ragazze negre!
—”Nelle Spire di Medusa” (26)

A rebellious romantic young man, full of feelings you would probably call antiquated. And I assure you it wasn’t easy to keep him away from black girls!
—”In the Coils of Medusa” (trans.)

While it is an inversion of Lovecraft’s original text, this formulation adds a bit of foreshadowing to later developments in the story.

As with “Medusa’s Curse,” the graphic adaptation greatly compresses and somewhat linearizes the original narrative; we never see the unnamed narrator arrive, by the time the story starts he is in the house with the elder de Russy, who is telling their story. The contours of the narrative, as with “Medusa’s Curse,” follow the general outlines of a romantic tragedy, right up until the point of the murder.

As in the original story, Marceline hardly gets any speaking lines. In “Nelle spire di Medusa” however, what she says has more portent than the dialogue Lovecraft gave her:

Voi tutti dovreste stare molto attenti se cantassi le vecchie preghiere o cercassi di evocare ciò che dorme a Yuggoth, Zimbabwe e R’lyeh. Ti facevo più prudente.
—”Nelle Spire di Medusa” (26)

You all should be very careful if you chant the old prayers or try to evoke what sleeps in Yuggoth, Zimbabwe and R’lyeh. I used to make you more cautious.
—”In the Coils of Medusa” (trans.)

Marceline Bedard in this story is more fully involved with the Cthulhu Mythos, or at least more openly conversant; while she doesn’t quite take Soniphisba’s place in ranting about “Marse Clooloo” and invoking Shub-Niggurath, there the Mythos element is more prominent, especially with the more compact narrative.

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Sixteenth story page, sans text, by Tommaso Campanini
DeviantArt

We never see the first two murders, not in the original story and not in the two adaptations. That lends an almost Gothic atmosphere as the elder de Russy has to follow the bloody trail back to Denis, and provides some great visuals…and it’s also where the story transitions from the romantic-tragedy to something weirder, where the hints of the supernatural cult background become shockingly, terribly real.

Which leads to the inevitable reveal…or, perhaps more accurately, the confirmation of what the readers already know, or have guessed. That the painting, as in “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” will be the mirror that reveals the truth about Marceline. In the original narrative, Lovecraft had this final confirmation placed at the very end of the story, and used it as a sort of double revelation as to both the truth of Marceline’s supernatural affiliations and, almost as an afterthought, her “passing” as white. As with “Medusa’s Curse,” Massimo Rosi and Tommaso Campanini move the reveal of the painting forward, so that the subsequent events flow naturally without requiring a flashback or other device to show what the painting looked like before its destruction.

Appena ho visto il quadro ho capito ciò che era e il suo ruolo nei tremendi segreti che si tramandano dai giorni di Cthulhu e dei Grandi Antichi…

Segreti che furono quasi cancellati dalla terra quanto Atlantide sprofondò tra le onde, ma che continuano a serpeggiare in certe tradizioni nascoste, in certi miti e riti esclusivi che si celebrano nel cuore della notte.

Vedi, non era una ciarlatana: sarei stato contento che lo fosse, invece era proprio quello che diceva.

Era l’antica, orribile ombra a cui i filosofi non hanno mai osato dare un nome… l’essere di cui il Necronomicon fa solo cenno, ed e simboleggiato dai colossi dell’isola di pasqua.
—”Nelle Spire di Medusa” (44)

As soon as I saw the painting I understood what it was and the role of him in the terrible secrets that have been handed down from the days of Cthulhu and the Great Ancients …

Secrets that were almost erased from the earth when Atlantis sank in the waves, but which continue to meander in certain hidden traditions, in certain myths and exclusive rituals that are celebrated in the dead of night.

See, she wasn’t a charlatan: I would have been glad she was, but that was just what she said.

She was the ancient, horrible shadow to which philosophers have never dared to give a name … the being of which the Necronomicon only mentions, and is symbolized by the colossi of Easter Island.
—”In the Coils of Medusa” (trans.)

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Nineteenth story page, sans text, by Tommaso Campanini
DeviantArt

“Medusa’s Curse” side-stepped the racial reveal by eliminating the “passing” subplot of the story completely; “Nelle Spire di Medusa” chooses to address it by making it purely visual. Marceline’s race is never mentioned once in the text, and she is continually depicted as being light-skinned and with straight hair. If the reader goes back through the story and examines her features closely, they might find facial features which are ambiguous…but there is no shading that differentiates her from the rest of the characters. She basically does pass as white, even in death, except in the painting itself where she is deliberately shaded darker, with frizzier hair, and in the close-ups more pronounced features…but this aspect is never given any textual relevance.

It is a device that can only rally work in a graphic medium: it puts the onus of the issue of race on the reader as to how to interpret the painting, and thus how to interpret Marceline Bedard. Technically accurate to Lovecraft’s original, yet a new interpretation that presents a degree of ambiguity as to where the true horror in the story lies.

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Nineteenth story page, sans text, by Tommaso Campanini
DeviantArt

There is a bit of action in the ending, as the elder de Russy’s narrative draws to its close, the supernatural vengeance is culminated, Riverside house meets its “Fall of the House of Usher”-esque demise, and we are left with the disquieting ending where the narrator wonders at what ghostly events had replayed themselves…both “Medusa’s Curse” and “Nelle Spire di Medusa” play out these last few story beats fairly faithfully.

There’s no reason not to. It sounds weird when talking about one of Lovecraft’s least-loved stories, but once an adaptor resolves the question of how to handle the Marceline Bedard’s portrait (and all the issues bound up in that), the remaining narrative structure is cobbled together from bits and pieces that are almost too familiar: young woman marries into a family, big isolated house in the country, a friend arrives to set up the love triangle, a bloody double murder resolves the love triangle, a supernatural vengeance from beyond the grave, the house burns down, it was all a dream…or was it?

These are all very familiar story elements for anyone that’s ready a good chunk of weird fiction or Gothic fiction; they’re not all usually mixed together, but you can see the prototype of this kind of story in, for example, Robert W. Chambers’ “The Mask” from The King in Yellow (1895). The use of the Cthulhu Mythos and the revelation that Marceline Bedard is “passing” as white are novel to the story, but they also really don’t mesh well, and the slightly convoluted narrative structure that Lovecraft used to express the ideas unnecessarily conjoins those two plot threads, which is what makes the revelation of Marceline’s portrait both so memorable and so terrible: the one-drop rule is put on the same tier as some of Lovecraft’s cosmic horrors.

So if you just look at the story without that racial element, the rest of the story structure tends to fall into place fairly easily. Subtraction is the route that “Medusa’s Curse” took“Nelle Spire di Medusa,” however, goes for intimation. The story is technically very faithful to the original text, but it does so in a way that refuses to spell out the racial prejudice that underlay the original story prompt by Zealia Bishop. Whether or not that is enough is a question for the reader…and there are other questions readers might ask themselves:

Would it have been better if Marceline’s skin had not been shaded in? Will every reader of every adaptation of “Medusa’s Coil” go into the story looking for hints to her race? Would they have if they didn’t know that was the revelation all along?

You can read a Mythos story more than once, but you can only really experience that culminating confirmation, the ripping-the-band-aid-off sensation, the first time. Once you know what there is to know about “Medusa’s Coil,” there is little “shock” value left…it is only a question of the skill of the writers and artists that do the adaptation, and how they choose to handle the subject matter.

Massimo Rosi and Tommaso Campanini both do a more than adequate job on all the technical aspects of this adaptation: the narrative is relatively faithful, the pacing is right despite the front-loading of exposition and the relative death of action that are hallmarks of Lovecraft stories, and Rosi makes some clean cuts and welcome additions that tighten the narrative. Campanini’s art, in clean black-and-white except for the shaded segements of the portrait itself, are very pleasing; you can tell he put a lot of thought into the framing and layout, with a real preference for floating panels set above and in front of a larger illustraton which makes the reader sit back a little and take it all in. If I had to voice a criticism, it’s that Marceline’s hairlength is depicted inconsistenantly…it looks very short in many shots before her death…but chalk that one up to artistic license.

Tommaso Campanini uploaded the raw, textless art for “Nelle Spire di Medusa” to their DeviantArt gallery.

The Miskatonic Diaries Vol. 1: Nelle Spire di Medusa et altre storie (2019, Weird Books) is available on Amazon Kindle; the hardcopy graphic anthology does exist, but is a little harder to get in the United States. 


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Le Bol Maudit (1982) by Enki Bilal

Et tu sauras ce que je sais…tu connaîtras par ce bol, les secrets les plus terrifiants, car comme moi tu es damné… par Yuggoth le maudit prends!!!
—Enki Bilal, Le Bol Maudit 2

And you will know what I know … you will know by this bowl, the most terrifying secrets, because like me you are damned … by Yuggoth the evil take this!!!
—English translation

“Le Bol Maudit” (“The Evil Bowl”) was the first story that Enki Bilal published, in the Franco-Belgian magazine Pilote in 1971. Over the next few years, Bilal would publish several more short stories in Pilote, including “A tire d’aile” (“On the Wing”), “Ophiuchus” (from the Greek, “Serpent-bearer”), “La chose a venir” (“The Thing To Come”), “Ciel de nuit” (“Night Sky”), “Kling Klang,” “Le mutant” (“The Mutant”), and “Fermez les volets et ouvrez l’oeil” (“Close the shutters and keep your eyes open”).

Most of these were very short black and white affairs, some only a couple pages long, with surreal and science fiction themes: astronauts, aliens, mutants, dreams—that would see much broader exploration in his more well-known and longer works such as Légendes d’Aujourd’hui (with Pierre Christin) and the Nikopol trilogy, which was partially adapted in the film Immortel (2004). These early works by Bilal were later collected, first by Minoustchine in 1975 as L’appel des étoiles (“The Call of the Stars”, 1975), containing only five stories, and then by Futuropolis in Le Bol Maudit (1982) containing eight. An English translation of the Minoustchine volume (reprinting “The Evil Bowl,” “On the Wing,” “Ophiuchus,” “Pulse” (“La chose a venir”), and “Close your shutters and watch out!”) was published by Flying Buffalo as The Call of the Stars (1978).

“The Call Of The Stars,
or the dark destiny of men called on by
the unutterable and inconceivable unknown.
Four stories with a Lovecraftian touch,
plus an authentic dream-nightmare voyage
I experienced with my tender companion
To whom I dedicate this collection dark with hope.”
Enki Bilal
—Back cover text of The Call of the Stars

In this early work, Bilal is displaying many of his influences very openly; there are gorgeous full-page compositions that show the influence of Philippe Druillet’s Lone Sloane, which was also published in Pilote for a period; scenes inspired rather blatantly from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and there are stories like “Ophiuchus” which is essentially an adaptation of, or at least a variation on, H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Bilal hadn’t quite reached his distinctive style of art and storytelling yet, but he was definitely on his way.

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Pages from “Le Bol Maudit”

“Le Bol Maudit” has the most explicit references to Lovecraft, although these are basically just Easter eggs for fans. Appreciation for Lovecraft blossomed in France, and in the Franco-Belgian comics circles during this periods, which would culminate in the special Lovecraft issue of Metal Hurlant in 1979, and still continues today in works like La Planète aux Cauchemars (2019) by Mathieu Sapin & Patrick Pion

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Panels from “Ophiuchus”

From a Lovecraftian standpoint, “Ophiuchus” is probably the most interesting, however. “Beau Rivage” (“Beautiful Shore,” “Pampona Beach” in the Flying Buffalo translation) is an intriguing variation on Innsmouth. A city of an alien race, human enough but decaying, mutating, shunning the sun, participating in the strange cult of Ophiucus until, the distant constellation. None of Bilal’s stories attempt horror, exactly, although a few of them have that surreal twist reminiscent of the Twilight Zone. In this respect, Bilal’s twist on Lovecraft’s ending is fitting: it is one thing to be an outsider among a crowd, not knowing why you don’t belong, and something else again to know yourself truly and completely…and know exactly why, and why you can never go home again.

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Page from “Fermez les volets et ouvrez l’oeil”

The most ambitious story, artistically, is the last one: “Fermez les volets et ouvrez l’oeil,” a surreal, fantastic dream-voyage of a young man and woman, with some incredibly elaborate crosshatching and a kind of plot like a more mature, Tolkien-esque version of Winsor McCay’s “Little Nemo.” There are some creatures and places here that would not be out of place in Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, although there is no explicit connection made. Like Lovecraft and Randolph Carter, Bilal inserts himself into his work now and again, most deliberately and explicitly in “Fermez les volets et ouvrez l’oeil,” where he is the male dreamer.

Taken all in all, Le Bol Maudit is a fun collection; the individual stories don’t build up into anything bigger, but they provide an interesting insight into Bilal’s earliest work, and a few nice little Lovecraftian Easter eggs for fans. The Flying Buffalo translations leave a little something to be desired; and chunks of the text go from serif to sans serif without warning. While apparently Bilal did his own lettering, parts of the English translation (translator and letterer uncredited) look like they were done with a typewriter, while others were lettered by hand or used stencils. It would nice to see a new translation into English, perhaps including the stories that never made it into the Flying Buffalo volume…but whether that will ever happen, who can say?

Thanks to Dave Haden at Tentaclii for pointing out a couple things I missed.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

Dagger of Blood (1997) by John Blackburn

They that write as a trade to please the whim of the day, they are like sailors that work at the rafts only to warm their hands and to distract their thoughts from their certain doom; their rafts go all to pieces before the ship breaks up.
—Lord Dunsany, “The Raft-Builders” (1915)

Popular fiction, whether it be for pulp magazines, comic books, or pornography, is ephemeral. Precious few authors have the kind of posthumous renaissance that H. P. Lovecraft has experienced. Even those who build up a considerable body of work, or a dedicated follow, often sink out of sight once they die. Their works aren’t reprinted. Work goes uncollected, unread, forgotten.

John Blackburn died in 2006. His raft is breaking up.

In 1989, Blackburn self-published his own comic, Coley on Voodoo Island, acting as writer, artist, and letterer. While normally categorized among gay comics, Coley is bisexual, or maybe pansexual; a living sex icon, his very presence tends to attract everyone, regardless of sexuality or gender identity. Some folks might characterize Coley—the ageless, immortal, six-pack-abs voodoo sex god with a large penis, a bottomless libido, and a constant parade of sexual partners—as a form of wish fulfillment. Yet it’s wish fulfillment in the same way that Conan the Cimmerian, or Captain America, or the Vampire Lestat are; Coley embodies a pure fantasy, a larger-than-life figure who moves through the world, and in so doing changes it.

The first four issues of Coley’s adventures were self-published by Blackburn; in 1992 Fantagraphics which was publishing a great number of alternative, independent, and erotic comics picked up Coley, reprinting the first adventures and then new ones. While a supernatural fantasy element was present from the beginning, the Cthulhu Mythos slid into the mix in 1993 with the two-issue series Idol of Flesh, where Coley runs up against a cult of Shub-Niggurath.

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Idol of Flesh #2 (1993)

As an artist, Blackburn puts a lot of work into his hatching; you can see some influence from superhero comics in the often skin-tight clothes and Coley’s heroic proportions, and this sometimes goes for other characters as well. Compositions tend to be focused: the reader’s eye is usually drawn to the center of each panel, each pane, and backgrounds usually fade out to dark hatching during the frequent erotic scenes or conversational back-and-forth. Stylistically very different from Le Pornomicon (2005) by Logan Kowalsky or Insania Tenebris (2020) by Raúlo Cáceres, and many readers might fairly judge it to be almost crude by comparison, it might be better to compare Blackburn’s work with underground cartoonists of the ’70s in terms of style and technique.

The plot of the series revolves around Coley, even when he isn’t on the page. The other characters are almost invariably attracted to him, but have to figure out for themselves what that means, what their relationship is about, particularly as Coley—while a loyal friend, and falling in love easily—has basically zero interest in monogamous relationships, and doesn’t cater to anyone else’s efforts to constrain or define his behavior. This tends to put him at odds with local authority figures, such as the police, religious types, and general bigots—and in a few cases, attracts supernatural forces.

The Cthulhu Mythos intrudes on Coley and his gaggle of associates in the three-issue Dagger of Blood series in 1997. This was the final standalone comic produced featuring Coley, although Fantagraphics would publish three additional omnibus albums Coley Running Wild from 1997-2003. Coley’s earlier encounter with the cult of Shub-Niggurath put him on the cultist radar, and he now has to deal with another descendant of the Old Ones.

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Dagger of Blood #2

While the story takes many X-rated breaks, the plot takes a turn strongly reminiscent of the post-war Men’s Adventure Pulps of the late 1940s and 50s—though not one that would probably ever have passed the editors of those magazines.

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Dagger of Blood #2

Old Nazi mad scientist in a temple of the Old Ones deep inside a jungle probably sounds like an exploitation script treatment even before you add the pornstars, voodoo sex god, flagellation scenes, interracial relationships, body modification, sex changes, and bloody violence…but there is something more interesting at work here.

One of the things that sets Coley apart from the other characters in this series is that he is completely accepting of both his body and his sexuality; it helps that by the standards of the characters in the comic, he’s basically perfect: young, slim, muscled, big genitalia, etc. and he maintains it with seemingly zero effort. By contrast, many of the other characters are not all happy with their body or their sexuality. The main antagonist Joquatoth is dealing with the effects of his inhuman heritage—and wants to stay human. If he wasn’t deliberately set up as evil, he could be seen as an almost tragic figure, facing parallel issues of body image issues that affect many transgender folk  as they deal with issues like puberty, or strive to achieve a body closer to their gender identity via hormones and surgery.

Blackburn doesn’t explore these issues in anything like depth; the castration scene is a setup for a sub-plot where the genitalia of two characters are swapped: Coley’s lover Lonny gets a vagina, and the the mostly lesbian Kit gets his penis. Lonny and Kit’s introspection at these drastic and fantastical changes to their bodies is less than profound…but it’s there.

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Dagger of Blood #3

The idea of transsexual or intersex characters that don’t conform strictly to a sex or gender binary are nothing new, not even in Lovecraft’s time. His friend Samuel Loveman wrote “The Hermaphrodite” in 1926, some pulp stories like Seabury Quinn’s “Strange Interval” (Weird Tales May 1936) and Lovecraft’s own “The Thing on the Doorstep” (Weird Tales Jan 1937) play with gender-changes, albeit in very non-explicit and largely sexless ways. It takes a certain amount of artistic freedom to actually depict and address some of these issues, and that just wasn’t possible under the editorial and mail censorship of the 1930s, even if there had been writers among Lovecraft’s correspondents and devotees who had desired to address such issues.

Which is one of the things that makes Dagger of Blood stand out. Yes, it’s very blatantly pornography, with a rare page that goes by without nudity or some sexual act; it’s a comic book and not a novel, which places it in that weird intersection of being doubly disposable for being taboo in subject matter and a medium often derided at the time as childish or trash (though that was slowly changing). The Mythos material is slight, being two storylines involving cultists with semi-human leaders. There is a tentacle erotic scene, which might owe something to the popularity of Japanese manga and anime like Toshio Maeda’s La Blue Girl (manga 1989-1992, original video animation 1992-1993).

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Dagger of Blood #3

Yet it’s for that exact reason that Dagger of Blood has its charms, and can even address some of these issues of gender, sexuality, relationships, and body image when contemporary Mythos works largely didn’t…because Blackburn didn’t have to subscribe to the same editorial taboos, the social norms and mores that he would if he had been working for Marvel Comics or even Playboy. Working on his own he had more creative freedom to get really weird—and that kind of growth can be important. Even if Blackburn’s Coley opus isn’t destined to stand the test of time, it is one of Dunsany’s rafts set adrift…and who knows what it might inspire, if it does survive a little while longer?

Our ships were all unseaworthy from the first.

There goes the raft that Homer made for Helen.
—Lord Dunsany, “The Raft-Builders” (1915)

John Blackburn’s Dagger of Blood #1-3 were published by Eros Comix in 1997; they were collected in Coley Running Wild, Book Three: Hardthrob (2003).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“Massacre à Miskatonic High School” (2008) by Jean-Jacques Dzialowski & Dimitri Fogolin

Depuis la nuit des temps,
Des dieux noirs corrompent notre monde.
Ce sont les Grands Anciens.

La folie est leur visage.
L’horreur est leur royaume.
Leur éveil approache…
Since the dawn of time,
The dark gods corrupt our world.
These are the Old Ones.

Madness is their face.
Horror is their kingdom.
Their awakening approaches…
Back cover, Les Mondes de Lovecraft

MondesLes Mondes de Lovecraft (“The Worlds of Lovecraft,” 2008, Soleil) is a standalone French-language comic anthology of stories set in the world of H. P. Lovecraft, including an adaptation of Lovecraft’s “Dagon.” Two of the stories in the book are the work of Jean-Jacques Dzialowski (writer) & Dimitri Fogolin (artist): “Le Signe sans Nom” (“The Nameless Sign”) and “Massacre à Miskatonic High School” (“Miskatonic High School Massacre”). The two works are complementary, in that they tell different sides of the same story from different perspectives. “Le Signe sans Nom” is given after-the-fact, during the deposition of a Sergeant McDermot, who responded to the events at Miskatonic High. “Massacre à Miskatonic High School” on the other hand gives the perspective of the school shooters. 

 

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The 1999 Columbine High School Massacre casts a long shadow over culture and pop culture alike. The media blitz helped to inspire numerous copycats; partisan politicians and pundits in the United States tend to quickly politicize shootings to minimize arguments over gun ownership as happened in the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School Shootings. Comic books have rarely touched on such controversial and emotionally-charged territory; DC Comics notoriously cancelled the Hellblazer story “Shoot” by Warren Ellis, Phil Jimenez, and Andy Lanning in 1999 over concerns of backlash.

At the bottom of most coverage of such shootings is one question: Why did they do it? What drove these kids to kill other kids?

Real-world causes are complex: psychological issues, a disturbed home life, access to firearms are all contributing factors. In the worlds of H. P. Lovecraft however…it’s rather simple.

They want the books.

Toute sa vie, grand-père a cherché les livres. Il en avait trouvé certains et il m’a laissé plein de notes…

All his life, grandfather searched for books. He had found some and he left me lots of notes …

In real life, the two Columbine Massacre shooters committed suicide in the library. In this Miskatonic Massacre, Dzialowski and Fogolin have something similar happen, but for very different reasons. Taking a page from Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror,” the two shooters want access to the ancient tomes contained (somewhat inexplicably) in the Miskatonic High School library.

“Massacre à Miskatonic High School” is nine pages; “Le Signe sans Nom” is eight. The two works should really be considered as parts of the same story, and being parallel narratives, they have visual and textual echoes and references to one another—the final panels are largely identical. Fogolin, however, approaches each story separately. “Le Signe sans Nom” is darker, with more blacks, greys, and blues, while “Massacre” is brighter, dominated by yellows and greens—appropriate enough given the prominence of Hastur in this chapter of the story. The layouts for both stories also start the same: a regular nine-panel grid, which breaks down in the subsequent pages.

Given the subject matter, there is a certain amount of commendable reticence to show too much. We see bullets, blood, dead bodies, but we don’t actually see anyone get shot on the page, in close up or detail. Readers can be appalled at what is happening without seeing every last bullet hole or shard of bone. At the same time, this gloss of violence and the digital coloring lends a certain muddiness to the compositions; one wonders how it would have been different if Jacen Burrows or Raulo Cáceres might have handled the same material.

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Lovecraft never quite tackled such a mundane horror as a school shooting. Yet the horror in this story is a little different from real life. What if Wilbur Whateley had reached the Necronomicon? Would he have succeeded in clearing off the Earth, or would he have ended up as these two did? The central issue isn’t just the horrors perpetrated, but that the two shooters in this story very nearly succeeded. If someone had been a little more competent…how much more damage could they have wrought?

Perhaps more importantly, what’s to stop the same thing from happening again?

“Le Signe sans Nom” and “Massacre à Miskatonic High School” are both published in Les Mondes de Lovecraft. It has not been translated into English or reprinted, as far as I have been able to ascertain.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

Insania Tenebris (2020) by Raúlo Cáceres

This dossier collects research on the nineteenth-century engravings of a mysterious Goya student that represent impossible beings and disturbing anachronisms.

Following in the footsteps of the Genius of Providence and inspired by the Cthulhu Mythos, the group of writers The Bastards of Abdul Alhazred and the cartoonist Raúlo Cáceres come together to recreate this universe of madness and darkness.
—Back cover copy, Insania Tenebris, translated from the Spanish

Spanish artist Raúlo Cáceres is no stranger to Lovecraft, and though many fans might not recognize him by name, there’s no mistaking his incredibly detailed, explicit style that often takes horror and eroticism for its subject. His comics and graphic novels in this vein include Elizabeth Bathory, Cuentos Mórbidos, Justine y Juliette (after the Marquis de Sade novels), and Agues Calientes, which have been translated into several languages. Less pornographic but still fun are books like Galeria de los Engendros Album de Cromos de los Monstruos, an album of monsters in the vein of 1970s and 80s compilations for kids.

For English-speaking audiences, Cáceres’ most notable work would include his work on Crossed, Crécy, and The Extinction Parade, but he also provided some gorgeous covers for Alan Moore and Jacen Burrow’s Providence which showcase not just his skill and style, but his deep appreciation for the details of Lovecraft’s Mythos.

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Cáceres was also the artist on the Lovecraftian horror series Code Pru, written by Garth Ennis, and Ennis/Cáceres continued the storyline in the anthology book Cinema Purgatorio, and provided illustrations for the Lovecraftian alien gods of Spanish roleplaying game Eden.

In 2020, Raúlo Cáceres published the first volume of Insania Tenebris: Textos de Los Bastards de Abdul Alhazered (Shadowy Madness: Texts from the Bastards of Abdul Alhazred), a 32-page collaborative project where multiple Spanish writers provided short text pieces to accompany Cáceres’ unique vision of Lovecraft’s Mythos—which takes the form of a series of found documents. Imagine stumbling across a dossier of evidence proving the existence of the Mythos, from ancient times through World War 2 and to the present day—illustrated in glorious and disturbing detail.

It is these collaborators who are the “Bastards of Alhazred”: Gabriel Soriano, Emilio Gómez, J. M. Morcillo, La doctora X, Gómez Navarro, Tito Alberto, and of course, Raúlo Cáceres himself.

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En el lecho de un ataud asiste
sobre absorta dama, su piel mancilla
un lúgubre gul perpetra y resiste.

In the bed of a coffin attends
Above lost lady, her skin stained
A melancholy ghoul persists and remains.
—”Despertar oscuro” by Emilio Gómez, Insania Tenebris 10

Like many extreme artists, Cáceres is at his best when there are no holds barred—but just because he can show as much graphic detail as he wishes to doesn’t mean every scene has to be fit for a death metal album or a storyboard for a graphic erotic horror film. Look at the names on the niches in the wall: Clark Ashton Smith in the top left, the name “Agatha Tremoth” on the coffin lid. This is an homage and illustration for Smith’s “The Nameless Offspring,” a ghoul story that Lovecraft praised.

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En dicho grabado, y tal como se describe en el texto de Notre-Dame, destaca la figure de un caballero ritualista invocador de seres oscuros que, a través de la utilización de plegarias de sangre, buscará la intersección con seres del más allá, valiéndose para ello de la lectura del libro prohibido De Vermis Misteriis, utilizado como llave conductora a la mediación interdimensional.

In said engraving, and as described in the Notre-Dame text, the figure of a knight ritually invoking dark beings stands out who, through the use of bloody prayers, will seek the intersection with beings from beyond, availing himself by reading from the forbidden book De Vermis Misteriis, used as a conductive key to interdimensional mediation.
—”Las cartas de Notre-Dame” by Emilio Gómez, Insania Tenebris 6

There are influences here beyond just Lovecraftian fiction and in-jokes. As with Monster Girl Encyclopedia II (2016) by Kenkou Cross (健康クロス), the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game had an obvious visual influence in the way Cáceres depicts some of his Mythos entities, notably the Night-Gaunts, Mi-Go, and Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath. The nature of the texts are also representative of gaming influence: these are all in-character pieces, found documents, meant to be read and interpreted not as complete stories in and of themselves but as deliberate fragments—like piecing together the clues in a Cthulhu Mythos story, from copied snatches of journals and paintings.

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En esta, encuentra un viejo diario firmado por un tal capitán Pierre Eaudon, escrito en francés, con extraños dibujos de figuras humanas de aspecto reptiloide, cálculos matemáticos, anagramas y las palabras “YIG” y “VALUSIA” repetidas de forma obsesiva a lo largo del texto.

In it, he finds an old diary signed by a certain Captain Pierre Eaudon, written in French, with strange drawings of human figures of reptilian aspect, mathematical calculations, anagrams and the words “YIG” and “VALUSIA” repeated obsessively throughout of the text.
—”Informe de las SS” by J. M. Morcillo, Insania Tenebris 14

There are scenes in this portfolio which might turn a weak stomach or dissuade the prudish; notably a cannibal feast captured in particularly lurid detail, and the final pièce de résistance which captures Cthulhu and his paramour mid-coitus as the acolytes look on…and there are scenes that might make a reader smile, like the nod to death metal church-burning, the Mi-Go and the astronauts…and maybe just the care and detail that went into the written work as well.

For make no mistake, while Cáceres’ art is the main attraction (especially for those who don’t read Spanish), this is a true collaboration and the Bastards deliver appropriately creepy context that adds depth and substance to already fantastic scenes. There is a story here, told in bits and pieces, building up to more than just a portfolio of exquisite artwork. Goya’s student found himself on the trail of something bigger and darker than he could have imagined.

As of this writing, Insania Tenebris (2020) is only on sale in Spain, and has not been translated. A second volume, Insania Tenebris 2, is due to be published in 2021…and if anything, looks more daring and fantastic.

With thanks and appreciation to Iantha Maria Fyolek for her help. Any errors in translation are mine.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“La mano de la diosa” (2013) by Fátima Fernández & Paco Zarco

Lovecraftian horror appeals to a blind and sick cosmos where human beings are little more than ants. The abysses of the human soul that the tortured characters of Poe traversed, give way, in Lovecraft, to a struggle of inhuman powers, nightmarish deities that dispute the dominion of the living beings and that have, among us, their brotherhoods, their cults and their devotees.

Since the disappearance of the master, his fictions have gradually increased in popularity until they became, together with The Lord of the Rings, one of the most fascinating literary mythologies of our time. His influence on popular culture is still valid, demonstrating a surprising ability to adapt to the tastes and sensibilities of several generations.

The authors of CTHULHU magazine come together again to pay tribute and emotional tribute to what we can consider the father of modern horror and his pantheon of nightmare creatures and deities. A journey through 15 stories that demonstrate the variety and richness of a privileged imagination.
—Manuel Mota, Lovecraft un homenaje en 15 historietas (2013), back cover copy
Translated from Spanish

Diábolo Ediciones of Madrid has been publishing Cthulhu, a Spanish-language anthology of comics and dark fiction, since 2007. Despite the name, the majority of the stories in any given issue aren’t necessarily explicitly devoted to the Cthulhu Mythos, although most issues have at least some Lovecraftian reference. The focus is on horror and dark fantasy, and the editors are not afraid for the works to be gory or involve nudity, if that’s what the story calls for, but they also contain moments of light-hearted ghoulish fun like the episodes of El Joven Lovecraft by José Oliver and Bart Torress. Special issues have been devoted to William Hope Hodgson and Robert E. Howard.

In 2013, Diábolo Ediciones published Lovecraft en los cómics. Un homenaje en 15 Historietas (Lovecraft in the Comics, An homage in 15 stories). The creators all presented diffrent styles and approaches, from a straight adaptation of “The Transition of Juan Romero” by Juan Aguilera to original works, every mood from ghoulish comedy and satire to visceral body horror, styles ranging from neatly inked black-and-white to digitally colored works. It is probably the first Mythos comic anthology to include former president Barack Obama and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton among its characters—which is to say, the book showcases not just the depth of talent that the editors of Cthulhu can draw upon, but the vast variety of approaches there are to the subject of the Mythos.

“La mano de la diosa” (“The Hand of the Goddess”) by writer Fátima Fernández & artist Paco Zarco is an original Cthulhu Mythos story, set in contemporary Spain, in a rather classical Cthulhu mode: a journalist after a story  finds themselves on the trail of something more than they expected.

No se trataba de seguir la logica, sino las pistas.
It was not about following the logic, but the clues.

The story is based on a real-life series of curious events. The Fuente de Cibeles (Fountain of Cybele) in Madrid includes a statue of the goddess Cybele—the Magna Mater of Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls”—by sculptor Francisco Gutiérrez. In 1994 and 2002, the left hand of the statue was broken off. The events were seemingly unrelated, the statue was repaired…

…pero nunca se recupero la mano robada de la diosa.
…but they never recovered the stolen hand of the goddess.

As setups go, this is a solid premise for a Mythos story. Fernández conveys the minimal amount of information necessary in a few succinct captions, as if the reporter was giving the voice-over on a film, and Zarco captures the mood of the events in an economical and effective manner. The focus of the panels is drawn to the statue of Cybele, to the stump of the hand, to the trenchcoat-wrapped reporter who moves between shadows on cracked pavement. This could almost be a Kolchak story…or, if it had been cast in stark blacks and whites, a noir. Essentially an occult detective tale, with a protagonist that doesn’t yet know it’s an occult detective tale.

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Turn the page, and the dialogue begins. Human players also complicate the simplicity of one person’s narration; readers now have to deal with multiple points of view, conflicting motivations, weigh each word and sentence carefully to look for hidden meaning. Who do you trust now?

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Mi madre era une persona gentil y hermosa en todos los sentidos. Pero ambiciosa.
My mother was a gentle and beautiful woman in every way. But ambitious.

Lovecraft had made a study of the detective stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and many of his Mythos tales follow a similar form of nested narrative. There is the story set in the now (here, the reporter investigating the missing hand of the statue), and there is the story in the past (the story being told to him); the story in the past is the nested narrative, like the manuscript uncovered in “The Mound” or Rose’s diary in “The Man of Stone.” The reader simultaneously is in the present, with the protagonist, but they are also looking over their shoulder and reading what they read. This narrative trick allowed Lovecraft to avoid the simple exposition of the narrator simply telling the reader (through some audience surrogate) what they have discovered, and takes the reader on the journey of discovery along with them. It also allows for a very effective reveal when the two layers of the narrative meet: past foreshadowing future.

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Paco Zarco’s artwork is competent, and he has an eye for panel layouts the emphasizes the repetition of key elements—portraits, eyes, hands—in a way the underlines the relatively sparse script. Considering relatively little is happening, this might seem like padding, but it feels more like pacing. At seven pages, “La mano de la diosa” doesn’t overstay its welcome or drag at all, but the Mythos twist, when it comes, is sudden.

In black and white, it might be much more effective; the digital coloring and shading, especially on the backgrounds, does little service to the linework and tends to emphasize the flatness of the faces rather than give them depth. That is a common issue with digital colorization, trying to achieve effects with the palette instead of the pen tends to catch the eye like a false note catches the ear.

Mi madra siempre me decía que las estatuas disponían de mucho tiempo para pensar y observar…
My mother always told me that the statues had a lot of time to think and observe …

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Zarco knows what he is doing when the actual supernatural element arrives onto the page; the clearly defined boxes of the panels give way to Dutch angles, ragged and uneven panel breaks and gutters. Like Jacen Burrows in Providence, this is visual rhetoric that informs the reader without telling them explicitly that they’ve entered a nightmare; like a horror movie when the killer’s motif begins to play, and the camera shifts from smooth movement to sudden and abrupt close-ups and shifts.

Algo mas fuerte que su ambicion se apoderaba de el.
Something stronger than his ambition took hold of him.

“La mano de la diosa” manages to evoke the Mythos without a single fhtagn, and very few tentacles; a particularly Lovecraftian figure makes an appearance in the final panels in a bit of a well-worn twist, for readers who have read enough Mythos stories to recognize similar endings. At seven pages it is neither too long or too short for the story it has to tell, getting the job done without rushing it or overstaying its welcome, and most of that is told not through the text, but by visual storytelling and unspoken hints. In the context of Lovecraft un homenaje en 15 historietas, it is the most subtle, the most understated of the stories…and one which is set in Spain, and couldn’t really be set anywhere else.

Lovecraft un homenaje en 15 historietas has not yet been translated into English.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“O que dorme” (2016) by Bábara Garcia & Elias Aquino

“O que dorme” (“What sleeps”) by writer Bábara Garcia & artist Elias Aquino is the final entry in the comic anthology O Despertar de Cthulhu em Quadrinhos (“The Awakening of Cthulhu in Comics,” 2016) by Brazilian publisher Editora Draco. The book was edited by Raphael Fernandes, who introduces the volume on the inside cover flaps:

The cult work of H. P. Lovecraft is the main inspiration for this collection with eight comics that will transfer the imagination to the darkest side of the human mind, a cosmic horror in white and green.

[…] The Awakening of Cthulhu in Comics and the horror that cannot be uttered, get lost in images and stories that shouldn’t have been conceived. Now there’s no turning back for those involved by the tentacles of despair, it’s time to wake up to a decadent reality tinged with just two colors.

All of the comics, including “O que dorme” are done in black, white, and green—and the addition of the bright, almost sickly green against the otherwise stark noir black-and-whites significantly enhances both the effectiveness of the individual stories, and the uniformity of the overall book—readers might compare the glowing green Loc-Nar from the Heavy Metal (1981) film, or the sickly yellow in Frank Miller’s That Yellow Bastard (1996)—it’s not that the Mythos are color-coded, since any entities that appear on the page can be seen in black and white as well, but only that the splash of color is used by the artists to convey subtleties of mood and atmosphere. Like in the title page, where the green is a faint tinge against the night sky.

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The setting is contemporary. The sensibility is postmodern. Captions and word balloons, but no thought bubbles, no sound effects. A rural community in the mountains which produces coffee. A young woman named Greta who can’t sleep, but stays up all night reading Edgar Allan Poe, a Bauhaus poster on her wall…

I always planned to leave as soon as I had money or a place to stay. Time passed and neither happened.

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Here, the green frames figures and offers contrast. Varies in depth and intensity, fading into the shadows on the corners, but distinct. It gives texture to what would be a blank wall, but doesn’t bleed past the outlines. The atmosphere is aggressively normal, yet something’s off. People talk about the heat, a bad smell, it hasn’t rained, the panels darken as it shifts to nighttime…most of the storytelling is expressed in these little details, showing rather than telling. Ordinary scenes and remarks receive significance only because they are what are being shown to the reader, in the same way as a David Lynch film or Mike Mignola’s Hellboy.

But the fact is that, little by little, everyone stopped sleeping. An entire city sleepless.

Things move quicker. The timeline grows uncertain, but within a panel the corpses appear, and things shift from uneasy to macabre. There is a Poe-like quality to the rapid downward spiral…but the reader knows there are pages left. How much worse can it get?

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The rain comes.

There’s nothing explicitly Mythos to any of this yet, no ancient tomes, not a whisper of alien entities or black stars. Everything that’s happened to this point, it could a disease, a toxic gas, simple madness as the heat and lack of sleep take their toll on frail human psyches. Then the rules change.

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The green in the story to this point had been balanced, contained, a highlight; this deep splash shows it as pervasive, all-encompassing…and a herald of what’s coming. Maybe it was always that.

The only ones who were saved were those who were lucky enough to be already dead.

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As narratives go, the twenty pages go by swiftly. This is a story all about mood and atmosphere, not explanations. No one is at fault, no one went poking about where they shouldn’t, or read the wrong spell and awakened the eldritch horror. There is no cult to worship the things that crawl down off the mountain. It isn’t a deep dive into the lore of the Mythos, though there is definitely some artistic influence from the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game on the design of the Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath. This is almost the definition of the Mythos as uncaring, not even necessarily malevolent, but simply destroying humanity by its very presence, like a tiger in the jungle stepping on so many ants.

“O que dorme” showcases the universality of the Lovecraftian experience. The liminal spaces we know are out there, the things that creep in from outside.

O Despertar de Cthulhu em Quadrinhos has not yet been translated into English.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“R. H. B.” (1978) by Andreas and Rivière

 

À Suivre (“To Be Continued”, 1978-1997) was one of the major Franco-Belgian comic magazines of the period, publishing such great European comics creators as Alexandro Jodorowsky, Milo Manara, Mœbius (Jean Giraud), François Schuiten, and Guido Crepax, a contemporary of magazines like Métal hurlant and Pilote, focusing on comics for a more mature audience.

“R. H. B,” by Andreas (Andreas Martens) and Rivière (François Rivière) was published in À Suivre 6-7, the July-August double issue for 1978. The title stands for Robert Hayward Barlow, friend and literary executor to H. P. Lovecraft. This coincides with the increased enthusiasm for Lovecraft in France, particularly the publication of LETTRES, 1 (1914-1926), which was published May 1978—a translation of Lovecraft’s letters, taken from volume I and part of volume II of Arkham House’s five-volume Selected Letters series. By comparison, Métal hurlant‘s Lovecraft special issue was published in September 1978.

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H. P. Lovecraft received a fan letter from a 13-year-old R. H. Barlow in June 1931; Lovecraft was then 41 years old, and the two continued corresponding for six years, until Lovecraft’s death in 1937. The two met in May 1934, when Lovecraft took a trip down to Barlow’s family home in DeLand, Florida, a visit which lasted seven weeks; they met again briefly in New York during the winter of 1934-1935, where Lovecraft was in the habit of meeting friends for New Years Eve, and Lovecraft repeated his trip to visit the Barlows in Florida in 1935, where he spent ten weeks with his hosts, but begged off the invitation to stay all summer. Their next visit was when Barlow came to visit Lovecraft in Providence, Rhode Island, 28 July 1936, when the teenager stayed more than a month at the boarding house behind Lovecraft’s residence. It was the last time the two would meet; Lovecraft would die of cancer on 15 March 1937. Lovecraft’s “Instructions in Case of Decease,” dating from 1936, named Barlow his literary executor…and it is through Barlow’s efforts that many of Lovecraft’s papers, unpublished stories, and letters were preserved at the John Hay Library.

The comic proper is presaged by an introduction by editor Marc Voline:

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At the time the Ides et Autres (“Ides and Others”) fanzine published an unpublished poem by Lovecraft (3), (A Suivre) presents a comic strip approach of the great writer universe. “Biography of Robert H. Barlow and his relationship with HP Lovecraft” is the first of a five-part series, collected under the title Mythographies. Andreas and Rivière designed this as a kind of oblique exploration, referential and ironic, of sometimes poorly known literary universe. As for Lovecraft the famous “hermit of Providence,” we wanted—they say—to prove that the legend that he would, during his life, never leaves the perimeter of New England was all simply false. From the thick and rather indigestible biography of the author of La malediction d’Ansmouth (“The Shadow over Innsmouth”) written by Lyon Sprague de Camp, we briefly identify with the existence of an endearing and terribly pathetic “fan” most assiduous without doubt Lovecraft. Robert Barlow well deserved homage …

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Most of the material in the comic would come from L. Sprague de Camp’s H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography (1975); this would not be available in French until 1987 when Richard D. Nolane translated it as H. P. Lovecraft ; le Roman de sa Vie, so the creators of “R. H. B.” were working through some linguistic hurdles and miscommunications. As Lettres 1 doesn’t have any actual letters from Barlow, essentially all of the material for “R. H. B.” was drawn directly from de Camp’s book, with many phrases translated directly from the English edition.

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Small issues of translation aside, this is a starkly beautiful comic, with fantastic linework by Andreas, who obviously referenced what photos of Lovecraft were available. Translation of the French above:

Robert’s is not a happy family. There are frequent conflicts between him and his father, who suffers from depression (he is paranoid and continually fears the coming of improbable enemies.) Bernice, the wife of the colonel, spoiled the only son and quarreled with his father.

In spring 1934, Robert makes a profit of the absence of his father to invite Lovecraft to De Land. In April this year, HPL makes this journey. Lovecraft, in contact with the hot climate of Florida, is in an unusual state. He presents himself to Barlow with hatless and coatless.

His first stay in the house of his admirer is as a dream thanks to Bobby, he will see for the first and last time in his life a river full of alligators, at Silver Springs!

By comparison, this is how de Camp described this encounter:

The family home was at De Land, Florida, seventeen miles inland from Daytona Beach. Barlow’s father, Everett D. Barlow, was a retired U. S. Army lieutenant colonel and something of a mental case. Subject to moods of intense depression, he suffered from delusions of having to defend his home against the attacks of a mysterious Them. He was cracked on religion and on sex.

Robert Barlow got on badly with his father. At this time, he told his friends that he hated the colonel; although later, after his parents had been divorced, he carried on a friendly correspondence with him. Robert Barlow’s mother, Bernice Barlow, spoiled and pampered her son (somewhat as Lovecraft’s mother had done with him) and quarreled with her husband over the boy’s upbringing.

In the spring of 1934, Barlow and his mother were at De Land while the father, in the North, recuperated with relatives from one of his attacks. In January, Robert Barlow began urging Lovecraft to come for a visit to Florida. By April, Lovecraft had planned the trip. […] At the Barlows’, the heat stimulated Lovecraft. In high spirits he went hatless and coatless and boasted of the tan he was working up. His one disappointment was in not being able to go on to Havana. He was consoled by a trip with the Barlows to Silver Springs. There he had his first view of a jungle-shaded tropical river and even glimpsed wild alligators.
—L. Sprague de Camp, H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography 393-394

There are some errors in de Camp’s portrayal, which were repeated by Rivière. Lt. Col. Everett D. Barlow had seen action during World War I, and may have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder; Lovecraft was aware of the elder Barlow’s mental illness and was notably more sympathetic than de Camp:

I surely am sorry that your father remains under the weather psychologically. These depressed states may be troublesome to others, & may seem exasperating when coupled with good physical health, yet they are really every inch as painful & unavoidable as any other form of illness. The victim can’t help himself any more than a victim of indigestion or cardiac trouble can. The more we know of psychology, the less distinction we are able to make betwixt the functional disorders known as “mental” and “physical.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 10 April 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 125

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The narrative is, like most biographies, not some action-and-romance-packed account. Artist and writer manage to convey a sense time passing with the arrangement of the panels, particularly an extended shot of a kitten falling through perfect blackness that stretches out over several pages. While Lovecraft is the principal focus of the story because of the narrative, he dies in 1937…and Barlow’s story goes on, to his university education in Kansas, California, and then Mexico.

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He unfortunately suffers the cruel intolerance due to his particular sexuality, at present known to all. It is the subject of an odious blackmail as a result of links with a Mexican youth. On 2 January 1951, it takes a large amount of sedatives and falls asleep forever. He is 33 years of age.

There are large parts of Barlow’s life that are not included in this brief but poignant bio-comic, because de Camp was more focused on those parts of Barlow’s life that concerned Lovecraft. We don’t read much about his career as a poet or writer of fiction; the issue of his sexuality and how de Camp came to publicize it was touched on in “The Night Ocean” (1936) by R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft, and here we see an example of how information spreads.

Notably absent from “R. H. B.” is an accurate depiction of R. H. Barlow himself. De Camp didn’t include any photographs in his biography for Andreas to base his depictions on, and few photos of Barlow at that point had been published.

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Left to right: H. P. Lovecraft, R. H. Barlow, Bernice Barlow, unknown cat, Wayne Barlow

“R. H. B.” stands as an artistic achievement, and one of (if not the first) graphic adaptations of Lovecraft’s life to feature R. H. Barlow, who did so much to preserve his legacy. Others appear in Alan Moore & Jacen Burrow’s graphic novel Providence (2015-2017); Henrik Möller & Lars Krantz’s Vägan Till NecronomiconCreation of the Necronomicon (2017); Sam Gafford & Jason Eckhardt’s Some Notes on a Nonentity (2017); and especially in Alex Nikolavitch, Gervasio, Carlos Aón, & Lara Lee’s H. P. Lovecraft: He Who Wrote in the Darkness: A Graphic Novel (2018), which showcases Lovecraft’s first encounter with Barlow in 1934…and all of these showcase how Barlow’s story has assumed its own mythical proportion, entwined with Lovecraft’s own.

While it was not uncommon for works in À Suivre to be reprinted, other than the publication in À Suivre, the only other publication of “R. H. B.”  that I have been able to confirm is in The Cosmical Horror of H. P. Lovecraft: A Pictorial Anthology (1991), a tri-lingual guide to Lovecraft comics published up to that point, which reproduces six of the eight pages of “R. H. B.” and Révélations posthumes (1980), a collection of Rivière and Andreas’ biographical comics from À Suivre.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).