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Broken Genius

A coven of Baltimore artists creates a book about Poe that's as twisted as the man himself

In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe

Author:Jonathon Scott Fuqua, Steven Parke and Stephen John Phillips
Publisher:Vertigo
Genre:Graphic Novel

By Benn Ray | Posted 10/30/2002

If there ever was a time of year to read Edgar Allan Poe, this is it. The longer nights, colder weather, falling leaves, and, well, Halloween constitute a custom-made backdrop for revisiting the writer whom many consider to be the father of literary horror. So it is no coincidence that In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe, a new graphic novel from DC Comics' Vertigo imprint, has hit the shelves.

The book, set mostly in Baltimore, is the result of a collaboration of Baltimore residents Jonathon Scott Fuqua (writer), Steven Parke (digital illustrator), and Stephen John Phillips (photographer).

You may already be scratching your head. A graphic novel? As in comic book? About Poe? Does he don tights and fight supervillains and solve crimes? And aren't comic books usually drawn?

Well, there are many aspects of In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe that make the book unique--and in some cases revolutionary.

The story itself concerns a fallen Poe scholar who comes upon a journal that may or may not be Poe's authentic diary. In it, Poe describes the demons that he struggles with as he writes. According to the diary, these demons are very much literal, serving as a sort of collective vampiric muse, feeding off of his misery while enabling him to create. But also, the diary reveals a twisted, incestuous love triangle between Poe, his aunt, and his cousin.

While Poe's relationship with his cousin Virginia Clemm Poe, whom he married, is common knowledge, the claim that he also had an affair with his aunt Maria Clemm, is less so. In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe is a dark work of fiction, but, according to writer Jonathon Scott Fuqua, "most everything was based upon . . . glancing scholarship. Meaning, at one time or another, certain scholars wondered about Poe's relationship with his aunt. It was I who wondered about the strains that would be inherent in a love affair shared by a mother and a daughter. As for the other stuff, it follows roughly his history, while skipping the more complex details, as well as a few of his 10 million relocations."

As Poe struggles with his perverse love triangle and his demons, the scholar who finds the diary meanwhile realizes some more figurative demons of his own. And through it all, Fuqua manages to create a tale that is very similar to something Poe himself could have written, while focusing on the writer as the center of the action.

The original story concept sprung from the mind of Steven Parke. "I had an idea that perhaps Poe's demons were real--sort of," he says. "What if muses were not the light little creatures one usually thinks of, but somewhat vampiric in nature, exacting a toll from the soul of the genius that they haunt? It seems a lot of geniuses end up mad or screwed up in some way.

"Of course, I'm not a writer, and so I approached my friend Scott [Fuqua] to do it. I love his style and fluidity when he writes, and I really wanted to work on something with him. Of course he said no."

Fuqua says his initial reluctance was primarily practical, "because I was so busy and because Steve has so many ideas." But Parke's persistence won out. "He bugged me relentlessly, showed up at breakfast, at dinner, and called a few times during the day, until I finally sat down and wrote a few things, had a few ideas, figured out how a story like that could work, and got excited," Fuqua says. "After that, I just sort of let my imagination fly. I took some of Steve's ideas and a lot of things that just came to me, and I constructed the story."

While the subject matter of the hardcover graphic novel is itself somewhat unique, the media used to tell the story are even more extraordinary. Comics themselves are usually hand-illustrated with pencils and ink, but In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe uses photographs as its primary art source.

Stephen John Phillips had worked on a similar sort of graphic novel, 2001's I, Paparazzi, with Parke before. "I am basically a fine-art photographer whose work is very narrative," he says. "In 1995 I approached DC Comics-Vertigo for work. They liked my style, and I have been working for them as a freelancer ever since. . . . This time I used a digital camera, and Steve Parke and I acted as a tag team. When I was modeling, he would shoot and vice versa." Phillips modeled for the character Sterling Tuttle, the professor who discovers the diary; Parke had a cameo as Poe's portrait photographer. "Then [Steve] dropped them into backgrounds digitally," Phillips says.

Parke's role as digital illustrator required his work to be almost imperceptible to the reader. "Scott and I storyboarded the book. We were trying to use the best of what paneled art could do, but break it up a little," he says. "The models are shot in a studio and placed into their respective backgrounds. Of course, the point is that the reader doesn't notice what I did."

The backgrounds themselves were a special challenge, calling on the team to reconstruct 19th-century Baltimore, Richmond, Va., and New York. "Scott and I scoured Baltimore for locations to shoot," Parke explains. "We used local exteriors to represent not only Baltimore but Richmond and New York as well. That's what I love about this city. Of course, I had to remove air conditioners and flags from people's windows."

And unlike an illustrator's interpretation of characters, In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe, like a film, had to be cast. "We primarily cast nonprofessional actors," Phillips notes. "I prefer artists, dancers, and friends. However, I did spend many hours finding [people] who I felt had the right look."

Casting the roles of Poe and his aunt Maria, Parke says, was just a process of keeping an eye out. "I happened to notice that Damon Norko, when I was over at Key Roasters, really looked like Poe if he was sporting a moustache," he says. "I knew Alice Adler [Maria] from working the Renaissance Festival, where she plays the fishmonger."

So is In the Shadow a photographic narrative, or a graphic novel? Phillips says, "I hope it stands on its own."

Fuqua agrees. "It's just different. It's nearly a different form, or at least a splinter form," he says. "I hope that comic artists don't see it as a challenge to their craft, because it's not. What they do is amazing and different. What Steve and Stephen have done is equally so, but it is not the same."

Parke finds special meaning in the mixture of media the book draws from. "It is a departure because it taps into the realism of computer gaming, movies, and things that our society is specifically into these days simply because of technological advances," he explains. "I like hand-drawn art, digital work, photography, sculpture, filmmaking--they are all art forms. Poe uses digital tools to tell a good story. That is the key to any good book."

The result is a graphic novel that's not really a comic, telling a Poe tale that isn't really Poe's, and featuring a hero who is not really a hero. Maybe it's the time of the year, maybe it's the unique fusion of techniques, maybe it's all of In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe's idiosyncrasies, but the book works.

And it could be because of Poe himself. "He created the literary-horror genre and was himself an enigma," Fuqua explains. "When people think of Poe, they instantly think of the broken genius. He fits perfectly into our stereotype of an artist, especially one who writes about the darker edges of our world."

Or, as Parke puts it, "Dark enigmas tend to stick around."

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