Le Monstre (1998)

     by Lovern Kindzierski and Vincent Roucher

This book has a lot going for it, don't get me wrong. The art is phenomenal, and the scenes that take place in France are particularly stunning (according to internet scuttlebutt, Roucher is a native of Paris, which explains the intimate knowledge of the streets and ability to faithfully reproduce some really stunning backgrounds and scenery). But, while the writing doesn't outright irk me (it's not bad... just not particularly good, either), the plotting is a royal mess. This was made to appeal to a Tarzan fan audience, and it shows; it's pretty awful as far as an interpretation of Leroux's story goes.

 

The time period has been jumped forward a few decades to 1909; as was done in most of the Sherlock Holmes crossovers, this is so that the two stories can exist in overlapping time periods to facilitate interaction. It's actually not too surprising that Leroux's story is always the one that gets moved to accommodate the other; both the Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan characters have very involved and complicated histories, complete with dates, which makes them much more impractical to re-set than the largely self-contained single novel.

 

At any rate, we start out with our Raoul character, for some reason renamed Paul D'Arnot, the definitely not nobleman member of the French Navy, and Tarzan, the Duke of Greystoke (amusingly, Tarzan wasn't a duke in Burroughs' originals, but a viscount. Kindzierski must have something against the viscount/vicomte title in general), hanging out at the Moulin Rouge. Of course, the Moulin Rouge hadn't actually been built yet at the time during which Leroux's novel was set (it was built in 1889), but since we've jumped forward to 1909, it is technically possible for them to be there. While the Moulin Rouge is certainly a perfectly historically valid setting for things going on in Paris, it doesn't seem to have much of a purpose here, except to help set Paul up as kind of a douchebag by making sure that we see that several of the professional ladies are on very friendly terms with him despite his professed love for Christine. There is also some peripheral nonsense involving Picasso (who, yes, was in Paris at the time, though his inclusion doesn't seem to have any purpose in the story whatsoever). But all this does help give us a nice sense of 1909 Parisian color, and helps establish Tarzan as the sort of innocent and noble dude who not only isn't interested in women other than his Jane, but is actually sort of oblivious to their advances.

 

So once we finally get over to the opera house (there are more ladies that Paul apparently knows, possibly in the biblical sense, around here, in case you were not yet convinced that he's No Good), Paul manages to walk in on Christine in some totally not period pink underwear, and then hang around in her dressing room despite the total impropriety of the entire situation. His insistence that she marry him and come away, abandoning her career, coupled with his almost overwhelmingly evil grin (seriously, go find this book and see it... he looks like he's going to eat her spleen), combine with his earlier behavior to let us know that he may not be the most pure and noble of souls out there. Christine, by contrast, is painted as much more intelligent and rational, almost worldly, than usual; this handling of the character doesn't exactly sync up with Leroux's little Swede, but it's a refreshing change from the wilting flowers we often see in later interpretations. She shows obvious reluctance to abandon her career at Paul's insistence, which makes me like her, at least.

 

Unfortunately, she's about to become a cardboard damsel in distress again when the Phantom suddenly charges out of nowhere and attacks Paul, screaming about how he'll never take her. It's... bizarre. There's fist and sword-fighting in Christine's dressing room, and the machismo nearly drowns the reader, especially the reader who is expecting some more subtlety, a la the original novel. Wham, bam, they're punching each other! There isn't even any setup! While the Phantom's mask is full-faced (it looks a bit like the mask from the Richardson/Dance miniseries), it is also white, and the curled, deformed lip visible under it, combined with the fact that it seems obvious that the other side of his face and the rest of his body are unmarked, makes it quite clear that the artists are drawing much more inspiration from the Lloyd Webber musical than from the original source material. The Phantom is also enormous, shown as quite a bit taller than everyone except for Tarzan, and a little bit on the pudgy side. He's built like a football linebacker. A football linebacker with a fabulous lion-headed cane (I don't know why he has it, but hell, doesn't everyone wish they had a fabulous lion cane?).

 

At any rate, the Phantom is obviously shown here as a rescuer (or at least, someone who believes himself to be a rescuer), saving Christine from Paul, his innocence-destroying lust, and his career-destroying expectations. Unfortunately, in the tussle, Paul falls over and lands on Christine, who in turn falls over and cracks the back of her head on a table, rendering her unconscious. The Phantom's panic over this further cements him as a sympathetic character trying to do good as he sees it, while his subsequent kidnapping of her unconscious body has nothing to do with a desire to make her his eternal companion in darkness and a whole lot more to do with not wanting to leave her there while an enraged, ape-like Tarzan is growling and tearing his way in through the solid oak door (to rescue his friend, Paul, but the Phantom has no way of knowing that).

 

The normal panic occurs among the opera house's management, with several key differences. For one thing, the manager doing most of the talking is Debienne, meaning that for some reason Lovern has chosen not to allow the switchover of managers to occur. For another, while Paul is named differently and has no older brother, one of the guards they bring in to deal with the situation is named Phillipe, which did give me a bit of a laugh. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. To add urgency to the situation, Christine is apparently the prima donna of the opera already, with no understudy (Carlotta is mentioned only in passing as being "out of town"), so everyone is running around trying to find her before the audience, which is already seated and awaiting some Donizetti action, gets fed up and leaves. And, of course, everyone decides that the wisest course of action is not to call the police, or to set up a search party, but rather for everyone to cool their heels while Tarzan, the bizarrely feral English lord, "tracks" Christine by scent through the rafters. Yes. That seemed like the most logical plan to me, too.

 

But maybe they are wise not to marshal a search party, since the Phantom appears to be running with an unconscious woman over his shoulder past a number of stagehands who seem not to care a truly astonishing amount. "Man, another Phantom chase? Don't these people know I'm on a carpentry deadline?" The Phantom thwarts Tarzan a few times by dropping backdrops in front of him to slow him down, which leads to the extremely entertaining moment when, confronted by a backdrop of a jungle (modeled, I am told, on an actual backdrop from the Paris opera that is still in existence), Tarzan stops, stares, and says, "Home?"

 

Now, I understand the symbolism of this - Tarzan longs to return to his real home and doesn't understand or really like this "civilized" world, blah blah your normal Tarzan theme - and it's reinforced when Tarzan goes carefully under this backdrop but tears right through the next one (a city scene, naturally), but really. I have trouble swallowing the idea that a stylized, painted representation of a jungle, created by Europeans who almost certainly never really set foot there, would have enough accuracy and power to give him pause.

 

But who cares what I think? Things are about to get zanier, which always entertains the masses. Between the Phantom snarling generic villainisms ("Ha ha, you'll never catch me now!") and Tarzan ripping his shirt dramatically off and swinging through the flies on ropes (which, seriously... most of those are for balancing things and are connected to drops, sandbags, machinery, etc., not just tied to a rafter for no reason. Tarzan's gonna end up on his ass on the stage if he doesn't cut that out), I was finally giving up on the retention of any semblance of Leroux's novel's themes or points. When Tarzan does manage to briefly corner the Phantom, snarling and slavering and generally being Jungle Boy, the extremely humanized Phantom cries out in frustration and fury, "How can you do these things? What are you?" This is a profoundly odd question for a creature like Leroux's Erik, who believed that he, himself, was outside humanity by virtue of his hideous appearance and unnatural genius. This is just some dude in a mask, and one who's kind of less than impressive, at that. He manages to evade Tarzan in the end, though, and lug Christine (who is still unconscious... has anyone checked for concussion yet?!) down to his lair while Tarzan stands on the roof and mopes about how much Paris looks like a city and not a jungle.

 

The second chapter opens with a nice introduction regarding the "second world" beneath the streets of Paris, which plays into the idea that the Phantom's domain is an entirely separate world; further, it makes several poetic statements such as describing the place as a repository of "all the detritus and refuse of the glowing world above[,] washed away...", which are certainly applicable to Leroux's idea of the waste of uncaring society coming back to haunt it. The Phantom's lair itself is artistically gorgeous, featuring a very detailed array of props and previous theatre architecture, and a large grand piano in place of an organ (which, as I've noted in other reviews, is kind of impractical for dank underground living). The large candle chandelier is very picturesque, though it seriously stretches credulity that he'd be lowering and lighting and hoisting that bad boy all the time. This is why Leroux's Erik just had gas lamps. Christine awakens and sees the Phantom's hideous face (though the audience doesn't see it yet), which is unmasked because... he likes to play the piano unmasked, apparently.

 

Meanwhile, above ground, Paul is inspecting the boobs of various other ladies while his supposed true love is missing, and nobody in 1909 upper-crust Paris seems to care that Tarzan is running around shirtless, barefoot, and snarling like a rabid dog. When Tarzan does catch up to the masked man, said Phantom busts out not just a sword but a gun, too. I believe that there hasn't been any previous version that gave the Phantom a firearm, that usually being the province of Raoul and the various police officers attempting to handle the disturbances; it's an interesting power dynamic change, since the addition of the gun makes the Phantom a great deal more human and implies weakness that requires the use of a ranged weapon, a vast change from the near-mythical original character. Carrying on with this rampant humanization (there is not even an ounce of supernaturalism to this guy; the opera house didn't even know he existed before he jumped out of nowhere and kidnapped Christine, apparently), Tarzan catches the Phantom, who is hysterically shouting about the monster chasing him, and chokes him until Christine intercedes to stop her kidnapper from getting murdered by the ape-man. In fact, the title, "Le Monstre", refers to Tarzan, not to the Phantom at all, despite what a reader (like me) might have assumed.

 

And now the wrap-up, which happens at approximately the speed of light, in which the Phantom's disfigurement is revealed (he looks a lot like he was scarred with acid or something, and, like Lloyd Webber's also-unnamed Phantom, it's only on one side of his face) and, as in the child-friendly Spencer musical, nobody really seems to care. Everyone exhorts him to stop being so emo and come hang out with people on the surface, because society didn't really reject him, see, he's just being oversensitive. Ever the angst-monger, he says this stunningly immortal line: "If it was only the scars... then maybe this mask would defeat them, but the truth is that I have never really belonged, because of the way I am... in my heart."

 

I am absolutely certain that Lovern wasn't trying to make me go, "Wait... is the Phantom taking this opportunity to come out of the closet?" But that's totally what I said. If I may be tangential, I would love to see a version of the story in which the Phantom is LGBTQ+ - that would be a fantastic way to explore Leroux's themes of society's rejection and stigmatization of non-mainstream elements within itself. But nobody has written me that book yet, as far as I know. Which is a damn shame, really.

 

The only thing I like about this ending is that Christine abruptly reasserts her spine, and not only tells Paul to piss off because she's not abandoning her career just because he wants her to make babies, she also tells the Phantom to hit the road if he think she's going to let him run her life at the opera. I've always loved the fact that Christine was the character with the most growth and the ultimate power of choice in Leroux's novel, and this is one of very few versions to paint her in a light that shows some strength of character. Of course, after all the encouragement for the Phantom to come back up and join the rest of the world, she remembers that hey, her audience has been sitting there for two hours, and she decides she'll go sing now and the Phantom will be her teacher and give her lessons and she'll keep on dating Paul (and why not? As in the 1962 Fisher/Lom film, this Phantom actually has no romantic interest whatsoever in Christine, being concerned only with her voice), and everyone will live mediocrely ever after, free from the tyranny of social messages and metaphorical ideas.

 

So that's it, then. Clear influence from both Leroux and Lloyd Webber, but there's only the barest smidgen of a plot and a totally unsatisfactory resolution to things. This isn't bad as a Tarzan story, especially since it focuses much more on using the Phantom's situation to emphasize certain qualities in the jungle-man's internal struggle, but as a Phantom interpretation, it's dreck.

 

The other two stories in this anthology, for those interested, are crossovers with Shelley's Frankenstein and Stevenson's Jekyll & Hyde. They are similar thematic trainwrecks, though I think the Phantom story got the worst of it.

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