CCCBC: Alan Moore’s The Courtyard (Part 2)


Friday, October 15, 2010

For the first part of this discussion, see here.

In his opening essay, “The Comic of Cthulhu: Being a Letter of Reminiscence and Recollection Concerning The Courtyard”, scripter Antony Johnston discusses the problems he faced when retelling Alan Moore’s original prose story in comic-book form:

One of the main challenges is adapting prose to a visual medium such as comics is that in prose, it’s perfectly acceptable to engage the reader with an inner monologue, and often for some length. These are necessary for exposition, feeding the information vital to understand the story, because in prose you can’t simply show something as you would in a film or comic. You must describe it.

There’s just one problem; during such passages it’s also perfectly acceptable for nothing to happen.

Even more so than the task of condensing a narrative, or deliberating over dialogue, this is the biggest challenge in any such adaptation. In a comic, something must always happen. It can be mundane, it can be remarkable, it can be somewhere between the extremes. But something must happen, visually, in order to justify the form’s usage and make the story feel like it belongs in the medium.

With a few exceptions, this wasn’t too hard a task with “The Courtyard.” Where Moore makes leaps to new locations in a single carriage return, the comic can make the same journey at a more leisurely pace, using space and sequence to pace out a relevant monologue over something so ordinary as Sax lighting a cigarette, or donning an overcoat.

This sounds like a somewhat plausible solution in theory, but turns out to be a mostly deadening misstep in practice. Sax’s Harrison Ford-in-Blade Runner voice-over generally doesn’t interact with the visuals (which, as Johnston admits, mostly involve uninteresting stage business, not important narrative information), it simply dominates them. For much of the comic, you could cover up the panels and understand everything that is happening without even looking at the drawings. (Incidentally, setting this comic next to Crumb’s Genesis shows just how wrong-headed those critics who found Crumb’s illustrations too literal really were—any panel of that book puts this entire comic to shame.)

It’s no accident that the four pages Avatar has chosen to offer as an online preview illustrate one of the very few sequences in Moore’s story where something actually happens. Let’s compare.

First, here’s the episode as it appeared in Moore’s original story:

Club Zothique: a strange neon cancer grown out from the crumbling stone of a waterfront church, a cheap dance-hall and immigrant dive since the late 1920s, a toxic and lurid agaric of light bulbs, enduring the centuries.

Straight from the street I plunge into an amphetaminefield of concussive music and light, full of underage heat. A support band from Cleveland, The Yellow Sign, are wrapping up a cacophonous set as I make for the bar.

Joey Face, sitting heaped on his stool as if shoveled there, eyes my approach. thin blonde hair in a ponytail; green-tinted glasses. He’s probably my age, which is to say thirty. I’ve known him a week.

Joey used to deal Ecstasy under the nom-de-guerre “Rex Morgan, M.D.M.A.”, but it’s agony now. Joey suffers from amphetamine psychosis; drinks without getting drunk to keep hallucinations at bay. It’s too bad. I’m informed he was once a great dancer.

I buy him a drink. We scream amicably at each other above “Leng”, The Yellow Sign’s encore. I ask how he rates them. ‘They’re plastic. They’re riding this Ulthar Cats thing, but they’re posing. They’re not using aklo. It’s obvious.’

Aklo. Some new kind of drug, or its streetname? I risk a bluff, sneer at him knowingly. ‘Aklo? These pussies? Where would they get aklo?’ He looks briefly puzzled. ‘Why, same place as everyone else.’ Here, he glances beyond me.

I turn. By the front of the stage where the tired hippy light show is vomiting crayola puddles across the remains of the audience, someone is standing. Hispanic; flamboyantly dressed; seventeen. Joey screams in my ear: ‘His name’s Johnny Carcosa.’

The boy’s hair is huge, piped like slick black ice cream in a towering pompadour. Cold little eyes, and a yellow silk handkerchief hiding his face from the nose down. His forehead is boiling with acne.

To scattered applause from their girlfriends and pets the support band go off and the floor is engulfed by a riptide of puberty casualties, all wearing Ulthar Cats T-shirts or swastika drag. They surge forward, obscuring the undersized spic.

I turn back towards Joey and try not to shout, momentarily thrown by the sharp sonic pressure drop after The Yellow Sign’s set. ‘He looks young. Did you ever get aklo from this kid?’ Joey shakes his head.

‘Fuck, no. I got enough problems already with flashbacks and booze. As for young, someone told me that Carcosa was forty.’ He nods here emphatically. Highlights dance in his green lenses like fire-flies drowning in creme-de-menthe.

Now let’s look at the same sequence as it appeared in the comic:

Setting aside “amphetaminefield” and the overwrought final metaphor—lame puns are Moore’s Achilles heel, and the metaphor can be perhaps excused on his subject matter’s origins in Lovecraft—the prose version is clearly superior to the comic pages. Even physical details such as Johnny Carcosa’s acne and oil-slick pompadour are lost in the drawings, let alone such subtle business as Joey’s confusion when first asked about aklo.

Possibly the biggest mistake Johnston has made is to structure his pages into single, rigid layout of two vertical panels. There’s a reason this particular page layout is uncommon–not only does it lack a visual “center,” it forces the artist to squeeze his figures into unnatural perspectives, and almost unerringly wastes much of each panel in dead space.

Jacen Burrows’s style is reminiscent of Steve Dillon and Frank Quitely, and while his drawings aren’t as expressive or accomplished as that of either of those artists, it is only fair to point out that he has a somewhat thankless job when straightjacketed into this format. It is interesting to compare his work here with that of Neonomicon, where Moore also requests a fairly restrictive layout, but one that has been deployed with more thought and finesse, allowing Burrows to compose his images with far more care and power. (This will probably be worth talking about on Monday—a semi-related post of Frank’s, and its resulting comments thread, might reward revisiting.)

In reality, the entire project is somewhat thankless for Johnston as well: “The Courtyard” is no prose masterpiece, but it was conceived in such a way that adapting it into comics would require a beginning-to-end restructuring to succeed. After all, the climax of the book revolves around words and concepts that are deliberately and explicitly impossible to visualize! But when that moment comes here, we get just a two-page splash full of fairly conventional horror imagery, reminiscent of nothing so much as old Lovecraft cover art.

Johnston’s simple “let’s just use the original story as a voiceover narration” solution was doomed to fail. That being said, on at least once occasion Johnston goes further than this, and actually takes an effect of Moore’s prose story and re-conceives it with his own comic-book purposes in mind. At the beginning of the comic, Aldo Sax is depicted in closeup, face lit up by nearby fireworks, while performing an act just off-panel that the reader does not fully comprehend until the end of the story. These same images are repeated at the end, and it somehow feels as if the comic has temporarily slipped the moorings of time. The feeling replicates the atemporality of Moore’s final sequence perfectly. If only the rest of the story had been adapted with this much ingenuity.

Okay, so that post wasn’t worth waiting a month for! But now at least we’re through with the preliminaries, and the CCBC proper can begin. After Jog’s earlier post, it doesn’t seem like it would make sense to do a full-on review, so Monday will likely be more like a discussion starter than a complete essay. For any of you who would like to participate, please remember your assigned reading. (Bobsy’s comment from last post needs a better response, too.) Until next week.

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4 Responses to “CCCBC: Alan Moore’s The Courtyard (Part 2)”
  1. Hi Tim,

    For what it’s worth, the two-panel layout was Alan’s call, and Avatar requested I use large parts of the text verbatim, to keep Alan’s words as closely as possible. I also suggested a more ambiguous ending, but Alan wanted to go for the full-on reveal.

    I’m not trying to shirk responsibility — I’m still proud of The Courtyard in and of itself, and I think anyone coming to it without having read the short story would get more out of it — but some of the decisions you’ve attributed to me above weren’t actually mine to make.

    • T. Hodler says:

      Thank you for writing in, and for such a gracious reply. I knew that Moore had some level of editorial control, and I suspected that your hands might have been tied in some of the ways you suggest—that probably should have been more clear in my post.

      It seems to me that because of the original story’s nature, this would have been a difficult adaptation to pull off under any conditions. It’s very interesting that Moore dictated the vertical panels—I wonder what the thinking was.

      In any case, I apologize for partially misrepresenting your work, and thank you again for taking the time to clear things up.

  2. Whenever I read Moore’s work, I’m always curious to what degree he’s controlling panel layouts, or even compositions within the panels. His lengthy, detailed scripts are well known, but I saw a script for a “Violator” mini-series (spun-off from Spawn) he wrote where he provided detailed breakdowns of page layouts and panel compositions artist Bart Sears appeared to follow faithfully. Obviously the system of panels in Moore’s comics are important to him, as in “Watchmen.” I wonder if he’s providing Burrows with page and panel breakdowns for “Neonomicon,” and simply provided Antony with edict of the dual, vertical-panel layout, since he wasn’t composing the script. Does it depend on the circumstance of the project? I heard J.H. Williams say that his scripts for “Promethea” started out massive but became shorter as the project progressed and, I guess, as Moore and he developed a working relationship. And what would the scripts for “1969” been like working with Rick Veitch, a long-time collaborator? Did they seek to replicate the Mighty Marvel Method?

    • Going off of the script excerpts Avatar included with its preview book, Moore appears to be providing pretty detailed panel descriptions in his scripts, as he’s generally known to do. I don’t think he’s actually drawing breakdowns to follow here, like manga-style or anything, but his scripts probably indicate pretty clearly how the layouts ought to look, like when the wide panels ought to break open into splashes or partial splashes…

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