The Phantom of the Opera (1988)

     by Alan Hewetson, Jesus Duran & Jesus Suso Rego

This comic book is only 18 pages long. That's pretty short even for a print story, and even shorter if you have images in there, too. Yet, I seem to have kind of loved it a little bit. It's got some heart.

 

Like many comics versions, this one is plagued with technical errors: "vicomte" is misspelt as "vicompte" on the first page and "operetta" as "operatta" on the next, while later hits include the exciting new word "comanding" and sentences missing critical words, as in "the unhappy and sublime of men". My personal favorite was the mention of Erik's "mysery". Some of these kinds of small mistakes in published comics are probably a function of the different production and publication processes; I know jack-all about how or if copy-editing goes on in the comics industry, so I can't speculate too much, but I can definitely see how it's harder to correct a spelling error when you have someone hand-lettering it than it would be to just retype something for a traditional print novel.

 

The greatest feature of the text here is not a mistake, really, but a bewildering style choice: rampant ellipsis abuse. Seriously, and I am not at all kidding, EVERY SINGLE SENTENCE in this comic ends with an ellipsis. Some start with them, too. I'm pretty sure it's meant to give the text a sense of mystery and suspense, as the reader wonders what hasn't been said and the many, many little dots provide little breaths or pauses in the midst of the action. But, seriously... it is too much. When I can count more ellipses than WORDS in your comic, and the comic is not itself a Phantom Tollbooth-esque journey into the function of language and punctuation, you have erred.

 

Despite the disorienting profusion of marching trails of dots, however, the text is quite a pleasant surprise; it's heavily redacted to fit into these few pages, but what there is of it is almost directly borrowed or closely adapted from the text of Leroux's novel, and whomever was doing the borrowing clearly knew which lines had the most impact and carried the intended ideas most succinctly. The story, pressed for time in a big way, begins with the masked ball and thus avoids all that time-consuming buildup from the beginning of the novel. Much to my surprise, this works surprisingly well - again, the person editing the story down to this format did a very good job of keeping those elements that were most important to the understanding and flow of the story. A few things are slightly changed to avoid having to insert lengthy explanation, such as the glib assertion that Madame Valerius is Christine's mother - but, hell, look! Madame Valerius made it into an adaptation! We've got to take our wins where we can get them.

 

The art style is your standard black and white comics fare, very gritty and inky; it's at its most fluent in the horrific scenes, where it does an outstanding job of showing the frightening physicality of the Phantom and produces some very effective shots to frighten the reader. The less suspense-laden portions of the story have a slightly flat, cartoony feel to them, but this is very much your classic schlock comic, and the creators weren't trying for the realism or envelope-pushing that the artform began to embrace in the mid-nineties.

 

The story's broken down into two "chapters" of nine pages each, both of them focused on one horrific event in the fine tradition of horror comics. The first chapter's climactic moment is the unmasking of Erik and the subsequent horror of his face and violence, while the second chapter's apex is at the abduction of Christine and the near-demise of her would-be rescuers. Despite the breakneck pace at which the narrative moves, the scenes are surprisingly effective; the unmasking is without question the highlight of the piece, doing an excellent job of showing off Erik's hideous and violent nature while also giving us a good sense of his pitiably deprived side, allowing us to pity him and sympathize with him at least a little bit. Surprisingly, the torture chamber is included exactly as Leroux wrote it, a wall of mirrors creating the mirage of an "African forest", faithfully reproducing all the mystical (and somewhat patently impossible) power of the original. While most adaptations change the torture chamber in order to make it more plausible to the modern reader, this is a pulp horror comic; it's postively gleeful in its suspension of realism, and that free assertion that nothing here is meant to be overly realistic is very liberating for the reader.

 

The ending scene suffers from the speed of the piece, especially in that Raoul's and the daroga's (who, for ease of insertion, is presented as an ex-servant of Erik's in spite of the HUGE change in dynamics that would bring with it if there had been time to look at it at all) escape from the torture chamber appears to be a divine miracle since no time is wasted explaining it before they burst into Erik's chambers demanding Christine's release. Erik's redemption is delayed so long that I thought it wasn't going to occur - he attempts to drown the two men and almost does before pulling them out at Christine's behest, all after the torture chamber shenanigans - but he does get the Leroux ending, which in light of the truly icky appearance he has in this comic is all the more touching and sympathetic. His final line, "I am so very wretched," as he sags in his chair and watches Christine leave with Raoul, is as poignant as any more carefully wrought version of the story's sign-off.

 

For those hankering for more delightfully pulpy gothic comics, this comes with a bonus five-page short story in the back entitled "The Thing in the Black Dress", which is a cute little moral tale about vampires, superstition, and social climbing .

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