The Phantom of the Opera (1991)

     by Mitchell Perkins and Wanda Daughton

From the Coleridge quote at the beginning to the interesting new take on the Don Juan allegory that carries through to the end, this is obviously a well-thought out interpretation by a person with a desire to do the original story justice. Daughton's art style is gorgeous and very complimentary to Perkins' script; it's entirely painted, with a very dreamlike, gothic look and artful use of stippling and evocative color blending. (You will not hear any more about the art style from me. This is because I am an art failure and I wouldn't know technique if it slapped me.)

 

I was initially fooled into thinking that this was based exclusively on Leroux's novel by the beginning here. For one thing, Don Juan Triumphant is claimed to have been written by Mauclair, whom fans of the book may remember as being the guy in charge of the gas lighting (at least, before Erik drugged him unconscious so he could get up to his nefarious plots). I checked, by the way, but this is most definitely the Mauclair mentioned in Leroux's novel; French poet Camille Mauclair, after exhaustive research, appears to have nothing to do with any version of Don Juan (though his poetry is quite lovely; check it out some time). The introduction is a performance of Don Juan Triumphant, though Perkins cleverly allows us to believe that we're viewing some otherworldly occurrence or dream sequence for a couple of pages before clueing us in.

 

The metaphorical significance is very interesting; Perkins has chosen to go in the opposite direction from Leroux. Where Leroux's text implied that Erik was a sort of anti-Don Juan, who achieved redemption from his sins and deprivation rather than being damned for his actions and hubris (who was, in essence, redeemed out of hell by Christine rather than being dragged down into it as a result of a refusal to repent his actions), Perkins looks at things more literally; his Phantom's writing of the opera is as a sort of moral tale starring himself, where he is cursed with a hideous face and mask as a result of his sins and doomed forevermore to wander, seeking the redemption of true love (something generally not associated with the lust-inspired Don Juan). Making Don Juan a metaphorical origin tale instead of an allegory for current events gives the character of Erik a very different psychological spin.

 

This is a very short little volume, only sixty-five pages long (with most of those pages being devoted, naturally, to illustration). In order to tell the story in such short order, some occasionally bewildering liberties were taken with the text, one of the largest being the fact that Christine's imaginary "angel of music" is apparently common knowledge amongst the other performers at the opera. Oddly enough, she brings him up and discusses him during late-night gossiping about the Phantom, even though, like Leroux's heroine, she won't realize that they are one and the same until later in the narrative. It was clumsy, and damaged her credibility, but there wasn't much time for lengthy exposition. Buquet, who appears here briefly, is characterized as a villain right off the bat; he believes that the Phantom is real and states that he intends to find his lair and plunder it of the treasure he imagines is down there, which neatly slots him into a role as a selfish person, if not an outright bad one (a move that helps us not care about his later demise quite as much as we might have). His appearance as a "bad guy" and the fact that Christine is a brunette were the first hints that we might be dealing with quite a bit of influence from the Lloyd Webber stage musical here, as well.

 

Carlotta's last name was given as "Giudicelli" on the very next page, confirming that Perkins was drawing at least some inspiration from Lloyd Webber's musical. The Leroux-based origin of the story, however, is also evident as they're attempting to perform Faust (incidentally, Gounod is misspelt as Goudnod, one of your usual grab-bag of typos in most indie comics). Raoul is introduced with lightning speed, and he has apparently been fast-forwarded in time somewhat; he's already returned from his arctic mission to rescue the D'Artoi expedition, a change which both matures him as a man rather than a boy and gives him a leg up on the whole "rescuing" role. Philippe is also present, in passing, doing his Count de Chagny thing. The Phantom orders Christine to meet him at the graveyard, rather than simply showing up, but again, in this short format Perkins is pressed for time to show Christine's relationship with her "angel".

 

We take a short detour to show the rest of the opera house in its typical tizzy, with Moncharmin and Richard harassing poor Inspector Mifroid for a solution. Mifroid is misspelt throughout the text as Milfroid, which put a slight damper on my enjoyment of his inclusion. The denizens of the opera house, including a new character in the vengeful brother of Joseph Buquet (lifted from the 1925 film version of the story!), seem to be quite convinced that the Phantom is a flesh-and-blood man, which confuses me in light of the rampant superstition we saw a few pages ago; their insistence, not only that he is a real man but that Christine is obviously in cahoots with him, brings to mind the 1943 Lubin/Rains film in which Carlotta was somewhat justifiably convinced that Christine had plotted with the Phantom to get her out of the way. Madame Giry does not make an appearance except where someone mentions her in passing, but she is referred to as "Mother Giry"; in a story that is even more than in Leroux's original version devoid of mother figures, I wonder if the mention is a subconscious reaction on Perkins' part (while Meg does appear briefly in one panel, she is never connected to her mother and the relationship is consequently nonexistent, for all intents and purposes). It's also possible that this is another slight indication of influence from Lloyd Webber's musical, in which Madame Giry plays a mother role for both her own daughter and Christine.

 

In a very cool added scene that once again reminds me of earlier film versions, in a sort of fusion of the 1943 Lubin/Rains film and the 1962 Fisher/Lom film, the Phantom pays Carlotta a visit after she has set the inspectors on his and Christine's trail. He drugs her (again, a move that was used in the 1943 film) and exerts his hypnotic power over her in her addled state, causing her to intentionally damage her own beauty and voice and then to sing naked and disheveled in front of the audience the next night. His ability to control Carlotta's actions through semi-supernatural means increases his mystique and presence exponentially, giving him apparent control over all women, rather than only Christine. The entire scene is viscerally horrifying and extremely well set-up, giving us a very Leroux-reminiscent mystery and suspense while still bringing something new to the table. Carlotta's breakdown seems to be borrowed from film versions as well; both the 1989 Little Englund film and, more spectacularly, the 1990 Richardson/Dance miniseries featured Carlottas driven to madness by the Phantom's persecution. The chandelier crash is more dramatic here and kills twenty-three people, which reminds me of the 1976 Bischoff novel and its heightened interest in that scene as well.

 

Of course, on the next page there's the tragic misspelling "viccomte". Luckily, this one was not repeated.

 

Christine's meeting with Erik at the graveyard is much more immediate and personal; we certainly have the ghostly violin playing, but there is also face to face conversation between the two of them and even minor physical contact. Despite this, the "angel" fiction is maintained well enough to convince us that Christine really does believe it, while keeping the irony fresh for the reader who already knows him to be a villain. Raoul, who overheard the Phantom's instructions and has arrived to eavesdrop in the desperate certainty that she's seeing another man, gets clonked over the head and left unconscious by an unamused Erik. While I do enjoy this extended example of the Phantom's power over pretty much everyone and everything, it does seem a little bit odd that he wouldn't have just killed him and had done with it; unlike her original counterpart, Christine is here unaware of Raoul's presence and Erik could easily have gotten away with it. Probably, this was ignored because of how substantially killing Raoul would have changed the overall plot.

 

The narrator is abruptly revealed as being a character in his own right about halfway through the story: the daroga, of course. The switcheroo was extremely reminiscent of Leroux's own sudden dropping of the daroga into the middle of things, and gave him a nicely grave authority as the teller of the tale. The daroga has a healthy respect for Erik's powers and abilities, another aspect that is quite faithful to Leroux's original portrayal of the character.

 

By this point, the entire opera house is pretty sure that Christine's "angel" is the Phantom, but apparently no one is able to convince her of this, and she heads on down to his house anyway when the time comes. The eventual revelation of Erik's true nature is handled slightly differently in that Christine realizes it at about the same place, but Erik curiously refuses to confirm her sudden shock. The whole thing is a bit glossed over for my taste, but it's interesting to note that this Erik doesn't take responsibility for his fiction; he merely tells Christine to be quiet and to stop thinking of him in "worldly terms", attempting to stretch the lie on as long as possible before she completely catches on. This cements him as a character who knows quite clearly that what he's done is wrong, and one that is unwilling to relinquish any control over his student, both important facets of this Phantom's personality.

 

It's extremely interesting that Perkins inserts some "cellar-dwellers": people who live in the depths below the opera house in exchange for keeping Erik's secrets and doing his bidding from time to time. Not only is it fairly plausible that there might have been a few homeless people taking refuge below the opera house in that time period, much as some do now in the subway tunnels of London and New York, but it enhances the Phantom's position considerably. The presence of even tenuous minions makes him even more the king of his dark domain, taking him from the minotaur role so popular in this literature and making of him more of a Hades figure. I loved this little touch, even though Perkins has no time to do more than mention the idea and move on.

 

Erik drugs the frightened Christine in order to put her to sleep and sings her a lullaby, which is more than a little bit reminiscent of "Music of the Night" from the Lloyd Webber musical. He goes on a lengthy ramble about his mother here, as well, specifically mentioning that he is giving many of her possessions to Christine; this is intended to impress upon us the fact that he is inserting Christine into a mother role as well as a student/wife one, and in this is is successful, though I wish it had been a little more subtle. Christine has an amazing nightmare here in which Daughton's artistic skills are truly give room to work; it's downright terrifying, and the not-so-hidden metaphor of her running to her lover in an attempt to escape a storm is of course analogous to her subconscious fear of the passionate "tumult" that is Erik, and her desire for Raoul to return her to peace.

 

Tellingly, Erik doesn't offer his name to Christine; she has to ask him for it. Unlike Leroux's Phantom, he isn't trying to be loved for himself, perhaps having a little too much self-loathing or understanding of his own sins to expect that to be feasible. Instead, he is attempting almost to become the "angel" he's been pretending to be, desperately wanting to be some different creature that would be worthy of Christine's love, rather than the damned "Don Juan" figure he clearly (as evidenced by his opera) sees himself as. The fact that he states that only Christine, in all the world, will be allowed to hear his Don Juan Triumphant enhances this with its implication that the one truly beautiful thing he can create - his music - will be dedicated solely to winning her love. Interestingly, allowing only her to hear the opera is also a form of passive confession, a subconscious vehicle for him to tell her his sins in the only way that will allow him to still hope that she can love him anyway; Christine is here, as in the original novel, something of a priest and confessor for a man estranged from God.

 

The unmasking scene goes off about as can be expected, with plenty of panic and hurt feelings all around. Erik's deformity is very realistic; not only is he mostly bald due to what looks a bit like a skin condition, but he has a twisted lip and jaw and flattened nose that really do give his face a skull-like appearance without delving too far into the realm of the medically improbable. Daughton's savvy art style lends the unmasking quite a poignant punch, showing his deformed face only in very dark, shadowy colors and at angles, in sharp contrast to the brightly lit panels we had been enjoying earlier and which can still be seen whenever the focus switches back to Christine. The only "light" shot in which Erik is unmasked sees him carefully backlit, so that his face is all but blotted from the image; the visual implication is that Erik does not belong in the light, among the warm colors, and that he is denied them when his true nature is revealed.

 

Unfortunately, in sixty-five pages that are mostly pictures, nobody can really build a solid relationship. Erik springs the idea of marriage on Christine much earlier than he did in Leroux's version, which has the effect of making him seem even more deranged that he already did, and Raoul's sudden declaration of love makes little sense in context (he's only spoken to her once since they were children, and she told him he was a jerk and threw him out of her dressing room). Raoul's character suffers the most from this briefness, which makes him look like he might be more interested in her beauty than in her actual love, but given the length constraints on the story, Perkins is probably doing the best he can.

 

The masquerade features a fantastic Red Death costume, and in an entertaining little aside of a few panels Erik intimidates someone dressed as a jester from becoming too interested. Being the literature nerd that I am, I immediately wrote a long note about how this could be another Poe shoutout, perhaps borrowed from his short story "Hop-Frog", which also took place at a masqued ball with a very singular chandelier, and which had to do with the oppression of the outcast and the ugly (or from a few other Poe pieces, actually - Poe was a big fan of the incongruity of the jester in a horror context). However, I may be reading way too much into that; sometimes a jester is just a jester. After the interlude on the roof, when Erik is presented as more vengeful, he is visually portrayed so as to be more frightening, often shown in menacing silhouette and always apparently eschewing his mask. Daughton manages to impress upon us that Erik is much less stable without speaking a word.

 

The kidnapping of Christine is set up the same way Leroux's was, mostly, but it's extremely confusing, with all the action happening in three smearily indistinct panels; I would have preferred to know exactly what was going on, or at least generally what was going on, but Perkins was scrambling for space again, so the reader is essentially told to be content knowing that Erik has kidnapped Christine and stop getting so hung up on the details. Meanwhile, an angry mob (most likely borrowed from Lloyd Webber's musical, but the idea goes all the way back to the 1925 Julian/Chaney film) led by Buquet's vengeful brother (definitely from the 1925 film) prepares to hunt the Phantom down and beard the lion in his den. Much to my giggling disbelief, they have a map; apparently ol' Joseph left notes for his brother in case of his untimely demise. Off they go, brandishing the amazingly convenient map, chanting for blood.

 

The daroga, still merrily narrating, starts his rescue mission with Raoul. His expositional dialogue with Raoul made me snort here and there - seriously, his reasoning behind saving Erik in Persia? "I was intrigued by evil geniuses."  - but most of the scene went as it did in Leroux's novel, including the encounter with the rat-catcher (the Man in Black was omitted, but as Leroux himself never bothered to explain his purpose or identity, this can probably be forgiven). In a reverse move, rather than flushing the two men out of the torture chamber, Erik pulls a lever and causes a flood which deposits them in there instead, the better to improve his bargaining position with Christine. The use of the water to doom them may also be a slight nod toward inclusion of Philippe's death in the original novel, which is not used here.

 

Erik's attempt to convince Christine that he can live among men, showing her what appear to be "skins" that he can slip over his head to imitate normal faces, reminds me strongly of Erik Destler from the 1989 Little/Englund film, in which the Phantom sews himself faux faces out of skin (and later latex and whatever else have you). It's interesting to ponder why, if he is able to pass as a normal or even handsome man, the Phantom chooses to hang out underground and look like Death's unpopular younger brother; the implication here seems to be that, much like the Englund version of the Phantom, this Erik's deformity is more than skin deep, and he is as much unwilling to behave like a civilized man as he is unable. Erik's sinful, fallen nature is perhaps his biggest feature in this version, and one that he is obviously tragically aware of (as evidenced, again, by the plot of his Don Juan Triumphant).

 

Bizarrely, "daroga" is misspelt as "dagroda" throughout the text. I can't figure out why; upon further research, "dagroda" appears to be a mysterious word in Polish, but this is not relevant. It's difficult to reconcile such basic, critical errors with a story that has obviously been largely based on the original source material. I'm sort of at a loss. (We're so spoiled by the ability to just Google things for confirmation now, y'all. Imagine living in a world where you couldn't fact-check or check on spelling in a few seconds.)

 

When Erik demands that Christine say that she will be his forever, she replies by saying that her soul will be his forever; Erik doesn't seem to notice her wording change, but it's a nice foreshadowing of the ending that is currently approaching the reader at warp speed. Erik confronts the mob, and almost exactly reenacts my favorite scene from the 1925 film, in which he holds off a gang of ravening people with only the power of his mystique and one upraised hand. This scene, unlike that one, does not end in the Phantom's demise, since Erik decides to make his escape rather than committing suicide by mob, but it seems like obvious homage to a very powerful moment in that film.

 

Erik does not achieve his redemption via Christine in this version; rather, when it becomes clear that the approaching mob is going to set off his booby-traps and bury them all in rubble (as an aside, I was baffled by this. why booby-trap your home so that you die as well as the intruders? doesn't that seem like a construction flaw?), he lets Christine, Raoul, and the daroga escape while he goes off to deal with the encroaching rioters. His refusal to abandon his domain, even when Christine hysterically demands that he escape with them, reinforces his character as the lord of his "kingdom". It is also, in a strange way, an example of him taking responsibility for his actions, however belatedly.

 

Erik does in fact die when the mob sets off his traps and much of the cellar caves in on top of him, the same method of death that was used in the 1943 film and again in the 1987 animated feature. Before his demise, in the most poignant moment of the entire book, Erik goes to his room full of faces and chooses a beautiful one to wear, saying, "If there is a God, let him view me wearing the face of a Galahad." His final moment, eyes turned to the heavens in his perfect and beautiful faux-face, has a powerful effect on the reader; Daughton's so-hideous Phantom suddenly seems to be a fallen angel indeed, trapped in the underworld but with his eyes always fixed on the sky, until he is suddenly lost to our view. Erik's desire to be a "Galahad" is exactly the same as his desire to lose himself in the "angel" role that he constructed for Christine; Galahad, the son of Lancelot in the Arthurian legends, is the paragon of innocence and spiritual worthiness, the only knight never to know sin and to be permitted to find the holy grail of Christ himself. He is diametrically opposed to Erik as the dark, sin-mired Don Juan, and Erik's piteous, mute request to the heavens tugs all the more strongly at our heartstrings because of how far the Phantom has fallen from the grace he so desires.

 

Erik's redemption, therefore, does not come from love as it does in Leroux's original novel; Perkins has, essentially, cut out the middleman. Where Christine originally functioned as the Christ character, through whose love Erik was redeemed, here the Phantom offers his repentence in a very private plea for grace between himself and God. It is left ambiguous as to whether he achieves that grace, but the tragic, sympathetic note that Perkins leaves the story on suggests that he does receive a sort of redemption, if only in our pity for his destitute condition and his final, desperate act that sets right his misdeeds (sort of. I presume a lot of the mob, not to mention the people who were living underground already, died in the explosion, too, but we don't hear about them so that Perkins can handwave away the multiple murders occurring during this redemption arc). The final image of the book is a full-page painting of Erik kneeling in prayer, his hands clasped and his hideous face raised toward the only tiny shafts of light in the darkness of his surroundings.

 

While Leroux's original novel contained more than just a passing hello to several spiritual and religious themes, most later interpretations eschew them in favor of romance or horror (and possibly out of a desire to remain politically correct). I was definitely not expecting this interpretation to take that direction, but once it did I found that it was very well-handled, evocative and thought-provoking without being preachy or sanctimonious. The decision to pursue a more religious direction in the Phantom's final fate may throw some readers for a loop, but one needn't be religious to enjoy this - it's good storytelling, and the themes underlying it can be appreciated by readers of any faith or philosophy.

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