The works of HP Lovecraft have been milled over, studied and meditated upon in excelsis, due in large part to the fact that Lovecraft is a terrifying genius. Unequivocally psychotic, racist and insane -- but still, a genius. So it's with slight concern and trepidation that his fans approach projects adapting one of his works into another format. That, however, is not an issue with writer/artist I.N.J. Culbard's take on "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward."
Released this week through SelfMadeHero, Culbard's "Ward" is a true testament to the cartoonist's understanding of Lovecraft. The horror and the pacing and the build up is all captured with subtlety, bringing the classic horror to a more personal level. Having adapted "At the Mountains of Madness" for Self Made Hero in 2010, Culbard already had a creative relationship with Lovecraft's works, so it was with interest that fans awaited this latest turn on the author's work. CBR spoke with Culbard about the "detective work" involved in developing the book, and his familiarity with the Father of the Great Old Ones.
CBR News: Ian, you're no stranger to adapting great works of fiction, but what do you find necessary when adapting Lovecraft?
I.N.J. Culbard: Detective work. When I adapt a book, I write a detailed synopsis of it and then break it apart before rebuilding it scene by scene. For quite a few weeks, my studio looked like I was investigating a murder, especially for "Charles Dexter Ward," because I'd have post-it notes all over the place with scene break downs and chronological maps telling me who was where and when and who again. So yes, a lot like detective work.
How did you get involved in the book? And what's the experience been like compared to working on your own stuff like "The New Deadwardians"?
I'd already adapted "At the Mountains of Madness" for SelfMadeHero, and I really wanted to do more. I pitched them "Charles Dexter Ward" because it's a very different book to "Mountains." "Mountains" begins as a sort of travelogue that becomes this sci-fi terror story with horror on a cosmic scale. In contrast to that, "Charles Dexter Ward" brings that cosmic horror down to a very personal level. I really wanted to explore that.
As for how it compares to working on "New Deadwardians," well, [with] Deadwardians I was working with a writer (Dan Abnett), and a colorist (Patricia Mulvihill), and a letterer (Travis Lanham). That's really the biggest and most immediate difference I can think of. I love and am very fortunate to do both -- work solo and work with a team.
When designing the characters and the world of "Charles Dexter Ward," what were the key aspects -- the feel -- that you wanted to capture? What was essential?
Lots of atmosphere and lots of character, because of the human aspects of the story. Lovecraft once wrote in a letter to Fritz Leiber that his weakest point was characterization. Often, his characters aren't there for you to invest in them; they're there to guide you through a nightmare because the horror is often so much bigger than the individual. But this is partly why I think Lovecraft's work lends itself so well to a visual medium like comics, because the minute you draw a face, you're entering into characterization. Really, to some degree, Lovecraft provides you with a blank slate. The trick is really determining what you show. Quite often, Lovecraft would only really give you a glimpse of the horror, because to see it in its entirety would be too much for the mind to comprehend.
Did you look at other adapted works of Lovecraft, or stories meant to fall in that universe? Alan Moore's "Neonomicon," for example?
No. Working on "Mountains of Madness" pretty much set me on my own course. I wanted "Mountains" to look like it could be a 'Ripping Yarn' adventure novel because the original starts out as this travelogue that turns nasty. I wanted there to be a false sense of what you were reading, and then you turn the page and see horror in a book where you'd not normally expect it. Like, imagine reading "Tintin," and you turn the page and Captain Haddock and Snowy have been hacked up and spliced together. It's not about seeing all the crazy all the time. It's about seeing something, not quite knowing what it is, and later finding out that that crazy messed up thing was just the toenail of the bigger scarier thing you didn't quite see. Sometimes, the best approach is really to capture the human reaction, because that's the thing we can all relate to.
I find the eponymous character intriguing. I think it's because he's quite insane, but then again, so was Lovecraft. And that's what drew me to the story -- and all of Lovecraft's stories -- the insanity. What about you?
What intrigued me, as a father, was the relationship between Theodore and Charles, between father and son. It's the horror of change of a loved one. For all the cosmological horror and how small we are compared to the universe, it's this isolating horror that really hits home, because its something we can all relate to on some level because people change. It's real.
The story deals with necromancy and alchemy, so what did your research material look like? Did you look at anything outside of Lovecraft to get a better sense of the esoteric?
I did. Lot of occult reading and historical research regarding the Salem Witch trials. But I never went quite as far as Charles Dexter Ward does in his research.
Marinus Bicknell Willett is another fantastic character who I feel, more often than not, he's the story's lead. What's your take?
Very much so. He's the detective, the one who pieces the whole thing together, the family physician who takes it upon himself to investigate whether Charles Dexter Ward is mad or not.
As you were developing the graphic novel, did you ever get a sense that if you messed up an Old One might come to visit?
Is this your favorite Lovecraft story, or do you have another one you hope to adapt in the future?
They are very different works, each and every one. I love them and adapt them for different reasons, and so I find that a really hard question to answer. I can remember, before I started adapting Lovecraft, I had my favorites as a reader, but the process of adapting, the detective work, opens up levels of appreciation I hadn't previously been aware of.