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In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe
posted May 4, 2003
Jonathon Scott Fuqua, Steven Parke, Stephen John Phillips, Susan Mangan
Comics that choose photographs over cartoon art as the primary visual component tend to have all sorts of interesting problems, not the least of which is a readership that may slip into flashbacks featuring the publication that scarred forever a generation of children and lonely teens, the Marvel Fumetti Book. With improvements in comic book printing and the rise of digital art through the proliferation of programs like Photoshop, problems for photo-driven comics have begun to move out of the unfortunate comparison neighborhood to more common, and more considerable, artistic problems. Complicating matters there are still so few comics that feature this kind of art that the repository of standard solutions that exist for drawn art are still being cobbled together. Photo driven works are as a result almost always wildly uneven, a few exciting panels squeezed between outright jarring and even ugly sequences.
In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe slipped out of Vertigo on scaly, padded feet sometime late last year. While it didn't garner much or any attention in the comic book market, it came with all the standard problems seen in this kind of work to date. In many ways, this is a beautiful book, with sumptuous production design and a high level of attention to craft in its component parts. Writer Fuqua is obviously familiar with writing prose and brings a verbose feeling to the book that the subject matter demands, while all of the artists working on the book show flashes of real ingenuity. This results in several clever, call-someone-over pages, as when a letter from Edgar Allan Poe's mother-in-law is spread out on a giant bed sheet where the writer is depicted sitting with pen and paper, or Poe's first appearance on a hill over a pier in Baltimore, an evocative double-page spread presented with a restrained but effective touch of color. At times like these, you don't notice anything except the harmonious whole of what the creative team has accomplished.
It doesn't last. Frequently the stronger moments are broken up by an uncomfortable, jarring scene or two. The book depends on actors, and they vary greatly in their ability to convey subtle emotion. The lettering -- always an element of great concern when placed over art of this type -- is sometimes spaced by the line to take up more space than is frequently comfortable. One of the typefaces chosen features a flourish or two that read as silly affectations rather than organic representations of Poe's writing. As an overall work, the book often bites off more than it can gnaw. A framing sequence featuring a dissolute professor adds little in the way of depth or complexity. The narrative frequently hints at layered meanings that it avoids exploring in ways more subtle than hashing them out in text. The reader tracks Poe as he struggles with visits by evil spirits, ghosts and goblins that not only act with one voice but work together symbolically to make for a kind of metaphorical catchall. They are Poe's work and his relationship to his work; they stand for his painful past and foreboding future. Like some clingy stereotype, the monstrous collective spends much of its time with Poe talking about their relationship, a good thing because nothing in the story being told or the way the art presents itself shows you these things or aspects of them as they develop. Like the depressed ex-professor, one suspects everything supernatural could have exited stage right in favor of a tighter, eerier meditation on Poe's strange relationship to his work and the two, related women in his life. It is to the credit of everyone trying to make comics this way that In the Shadow of Edgar Allen Poe suffers the same sorts of problems most Vertigo books seem to -- superfluous elements and a story that goes little past what must have been a compelling proposal.