Rightly speaking, the title of this review should read, “Richard Corben’s Edgar Allen Poe’s THE CONQUEROR WORM”, but that seemed particularly wordy for an article header. It introduces the nature of Richard Corben’s latest works, however, to have layers of authorship and titling. Based on Corben’s notes provided in the back of THE CONQUEROR WORM, composing this Edgar Allen Poe adaptation was a process he approached in stages, starting with a kernel of mood and atmosphere drawn from Poe. He then focused on certain evocative words used by Poe, adding layer upon layer of possibility to their meanings until a story developed. This creates an uncannily organic feel between concept and execution. And that is only accounting for the script, much less the earthy, statuesque human figures and well-researched cultural accents of his artwork.
[A warning: spoilers appear below!]
Mining Poe’s poetry rather than his better known prose stories in ingenious, giving Corben room to expound and also playing on less developed expectations from the reader in his recent work for Dark Horse. The one-shot THE CONQUEROR WORM opens with a scene of extreme human cruelty, a double homicide by a stern avenger of sorts. Corben’s “Mag the Hag” chorus figure provides a little grounding in basic commentary, introducing characters and the love-triangle situation which led to the murder. Corben’s artwork and framing also introduces character, however. The reader is presented with a close up of Colonel Mann (and note the name suggesting that Mann=mankind), the murderer, holding up a strange worm that he has found in a corpse. The worm and the man appear face to face, opposing forces with little doubt who will win. Corben’s puppeteer performers, who Mann encounters in the desert, are truly haunting, their red-painted faces mirroring the red mouth of the worms Mann encounters. Their ominous presence induces a vague sense of hope that Mann might get what’s coming to him, but an equal amount of dread and fascination as their puppet show comments on Mann’s recent behavior.
The puppets, and the later “dumb show” the desert-gypsies present, of course, are a hefty borrowing from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but their primitive appearance as “hand puppets” and Punch and Judy tableau strip even Shakespeare’s work down to its basic elements. Corben’s use of Shakespeare, like his use of Poe’s poetry, demonstrates that simplicity is far more frightening than complexity. When Colonel Mann agrees to bring his entire family to the later puppet show, he unwittingly draws them all into his own fate, introducing some ambiguity into the idea of punishment for his deeds. Are they to blame for enabling his domineering behavior? Their staid morality, pleased that Mann’s adulterous wife is gone, contrasts with the wild and chaotic world the puppeteers draw them into, with nudity, extreme violence, and the most basic taboo of humanity: acknowledging bodily decay and death.
The puppet show raises another question, though. To what extent has Mann, by committing a shocking point-blank murder, openly displayed his own connection to the chaotic elements of human existence? It is the murder, after all, that brings him into contact with “The Conqueror Worm”. Let’s note that Corben’s panels are often most beautifully composed when most ominous in content, creating a sense of fascination. His female horn player (later referred to as Nunaka), posed in front of the setting sun (or perhaps rising moon?), masked in white body paint and mummy-like wrappings, seems like a herald of something appropriate and timely, and like Death, she rides a pale horse.
Corben’s layers of storytelling are most pronounced during the puppet play, the third level of story within a story in the comic, and the most simplistic and direct in its message. It tells the Colonel’s life story in the most elemental terms: rebellion and cruel revenge, so shocking to Mann’s relatives that one declares, “I can’t watch this”. Ironically, this is the moment before the story’s most obviously horror elements break out through the sudden explosive invasion of the virulent worms.
What may be the most unexpected event in the story is the female performer’s own destruction by the worms. She had previously seemed almost angelic, even if posing as an Angel of Death, and her own death heightens the sense of catastrophe. Her companion’s grieving statement to her corpse, “You got too close to them”, could as easily refer to the worms as to Colonel Mann’s artificially moral family. The fact that Mann is the last to succumb to the worms means that he can visually experience the horror of grotesque decay all around him, which seems only fitting if, in fact, this is some form of lesson or punishment designed for him specifically. But is it? Mag the Hag doesn’t fully enlighten the reader on the subject by reciting Poe’s final stanza, affirming, like the Angels, that “man” is the subject of the “tragedy” and the “hero” is the worm.
A reader can experience the comic in a profound way by just reading the narrative, and can, by going over the panels once or twice again, find even more striking details that render the story more ominous and more enthralling as a morality tale. But exploring the extra material included at the end of the story unveils greater nuance and may answer a few questions about Corben’s choices. His densely packed “sketchbook” includes commentary on his design process, but since he is both the adapter and the artist of the work, it’s also revealing about his story-telling choices. His puppets range from childrens’ naïve art to sophisticated Native American and African masks. His comments reveal that he explored every type of puppet before realizing that the “simplest”, the “hand puppet” was the best choice. Corben’s “gypsies”, also, are a composite based on research. They have a noticeable Native American influence in clothing, but his comments remind readers that African elements are just as significant, rendering the characters more mythological and universal through their pan-cultural roots.
As revealing as Corben’s sketches and notes are, it is Poe’s poem that’s the final piece of the puzzle. It’s printed last in the book, and it is only after you’ve seen what Corben has created based upon its influence that you can go back and discover the point of origin. Poe’s poem is surprising in the context of the comic both for what it includes and what it does not include. A reader might have expected a full-blown narrative plot, and that’s simply not present in the poem. A closer look, however, reveals a kind of map of basic, resonant elements that do deeply influence the landscape of the comic. The horn-player’s music is recognizable in “the music of the spheres”. “Mimes” equate with the gypsies and their puppet-show, as well as the comparison to “puppets”. The “crowd” who do not understand the play they see correlates with Mann’s family, but at the center of the poem, and the comic, stand the lines “And Much of Madness, and more of Sin, /And Horror the soul of the plot”. One can imagine those lines alone initially arrested Corben’s attention and inspired him. The “madness” could be associated with Mann, the “sin” with the rebellious lovers, and the “horror”, the action and activity of the worms. The question regarding why the female musician must die under the influence of the worms might be answered in the line, “The mimes become its food”. This suggests that those too closely associated with the drama become drawn into it and therefore are not truly safe despite their seemingly authoritative roles.
Stepping back from the poem, and reconsidering Corben’s comic storytelling, the simplicity of the plot becomes apparent again. The comic’s spacious panels often present close-ups on facial features, magnified through the use of a surrounding desert setting, and allow plenty of room for a mythological pace and multiple interpretations. That’s what makes THE CONQUEROR WORM an expansive horror tale. The story is just specific enough for elements of realism and just loose enough to act as a parable for the position of man in the universe. Corben, like Poe, leaves no doubt that his story is a tragedy, but whether the tragedy is Colonel Mann’s, or all humanity’s (a la Poe), is open to interpretation. It’s a question that stays with you. Corben’s THE CONQUEROR WORM is very much his own story, despite the kernel of attitude and atmosphere he draws from Poe’s poem, but that’s good news for comics. Corben shows the strength of the comics medium, particularly in the hands of a master artist like himself, to convey some of humanity’s most basic drives and fears, and suggest visually what even Edgar Allen Poe felt could render “angels, all pallid and wan”.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress
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