With the recent release of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s Lovecraftian loveletter Heart of Ice, it seems appropriate to revisit some of the more enigmatic and daring adaptations of Lovecraft’s work into the comic medium–and that is to say the adaptations done by the Argentine comic legend Alberto Breccia which are collected in the book Los Mitos de Cthulu.
Alberto Breccia is an important artist in comic history with an almost incalculable amount of influence upon the trajectory of the medium through the 70s and 80s. In the 70s you couldn’t throw a horror anthology two feet without nailing one of his style’s offspring. His stylistic scions were all over the pages of books like Vampirella, Creepy, and Eerie. You can draw a direct line between him to Jose Munoz to the style that would make Frank Miller extremely rich in hollywood. Between him and his Panamerican School of Art co-founder Hugo Pratt–you can go six degrees on just about any artistic style in european and european influenced comics. And while his most famous work is probably his Mort Cinder with Hector Oesterheld(a man whose writing was so beautiful and powerful, that the argentine government made him and large swaths of his family part of the disappeared)–for me the work that most impacted me the first time I saw it was Breccia’s work on Lovecraft.
His Lovecraft adaptations appear almost as if from another dimension. My spanish is not very good, so I mostly am only able to read them through the images themselves–which even in that limited capacity these pages are absolutely revelatory, and something I am constantly returning to. The things that Breccia does with texture, shape, and composition on these pages are incredible. There is a dimensionality and suggestibility inherent to these images is without peer in the medium.
I mean these are horror rorschach tests if there has ever been. Contrast this approach to the madness driving unexplainable ultra-dimensional horror that Lovecraft is describing–with the more clean and literal work by O’Neill on Heat of Ice and with all due respect to O’Neill, who makes beautiful art–there is no comparison. THIS is horror. This is monster making drawing from backwater brain mud in a way that is fresh, and still to this day awe-inspiringly original.
It presages somewhat the work mixed media horror work of Sienkiewicz and Dave McKean did in the 80s and early 90s–which I think for similar mechanical reasons, produced similarly ineffable results. But because the Breccia images are in black and white, there is more primacy to the ink and texture on the page itself. Even though on this page he is collaging elements into the page–because of the black and white nature–you aren’t losing track of that dirty ink spewing up in the third panel. Whereas in the colored mixed media work, the ink work can sometimes kind of fade in the face of everything else going on at the moment. Which isn’t better or worse–but it’s the right approach with Breccia because his work with ink is a big part of the show. Similar to someone like Paul Pope, where the brush strokes themselves take on a kind of self-reflexive importance within the work–they exist more than simply to show light and shadow–they exist simply because they exist–each line it’s own decision laid naked upon the page. The difference between Breccia’s approach here and Pope’s approach is that because of all of the other elements being pulled into play, even though they retain their importance on the page, and as with Pope’s work–retain their cohesiveness with their surroundings; they do all of these things within a radically shifting geography even from panel to panel. Which is an impressive trick. That one page of just inking techniques could sit easily across from a page cobbled together from ripped up paper and visually retain it’s identity as a whole–is impressive. Compare that to what Sienkiewicz had to do in Stray Toasters and Elektra Assassin–he almost had to concede the dissonance between his techniques and make that part of the story. There is no such concession from Breccia here.
The result of these techniques is to create an almost hypnotic quality to reading the pages. The panels become almost rorschach blots in their horrible suggestibility. It makes me sad that I can’t read spanish much better, because it is a style basically built for the potency of how words can work on a comic page. This approach is stitched in the very fabric of one of horror’s core tricks–which is that the audience’s imagination will always be more horrifying than anything you can realistically produce. This is borne out when you think about how sort of boring and mundane Heart of Ice was in it’s depiction of the climactic moments of horror. The approach there was so ill equipped to adapt true horror that it was almost comedic. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t pretty. Just that as horror, it failed by a considerable nature. You would really want to see a writer like Moore paired up with an artist like Breccia–because the way Breccia makes comics is perfectly fit for the purpleness of Moore’s prose. It’s also obviously why this decision by Breccia in adapting Lovecraft is so apt. This is how you kind of have to do Lovecraft to do him justice. To capture the atmosphere on which his work is powered–you need to be able to create the inexplicable on the page. It is somewhat strange that so much in horror comics have run fast in the opposite direction. When you consider how powerful the approach here of Breccia is. Or how powerful the approach of McKean with his Sandman covers was–that so many artists working in horror would choose a realist approach is strange. I mean, I think some of it comes from reading comics from Richard Corben and Bernie Wrightson and thinking that the reason their work was so powerful was because of it’s nearness to realism–but neither of those artists are working in realism. They use realist techniques–but they are both hyper surrealists, who are masters at staging mood and emotion. Which when you read the some of the wooden faux-realist approaches in contemporary horror comics–it’s really quite an insane misstep.
It would be interesting to see more horror done in this way. Breccia has so many styles that he mastered in his career–and there is so much in any one of his books we can learn from him–but I think his Lovecraft stuff is particularly deserving of re-examination. There hasn’t been much of a follow up from this work–even Breccia himself shifted into other styles after this work. These stories exist almost on an island right now. Which is a shame because they are utterly stunning and I think speak well to comic’s potential in creating horror.