The Trap-Door Maker: A Prequel to the Phantom of the Opera (2005)
by Pete Bregman
I have to admit, I have been intrigued by this one for a while. Back in the mists of 2007, when I had just begun this project, I got the second two volumes of this three-volume set and then nearly went out of my mind trying to find the first. It was out of print everywhere, and even its own publisher's website gave me no option to buy it. I finally emailed Bregman himself, in desperation, hoping that he would A) tell me where I could find it, and B) not be mean to me for being an internet nobody contacting him out of the blue. Not only was he not mean to me, he was in fact a perfect gentleman - and a generous gentleman, who explained that the first volume wasn't available anywhere but who sent me a digital copy free of charge for inclusion in the project. Man, what a nice guy!
Of course, when my hard drive died last month it took that digital copy with it - just when I was about to finally get to read it, too! - and I made very cranky sounds. But, luckily, the sparkly omnibus edition of the book you see pictured above had come out, complete with bonus chapter from the original Phantom story, so I was able to scrape together a few bucks and buy that sucker.
Bregman treats us to a short exploration of what clues as to the Phantom's backstory are present in Leroux's original text. He embellishes slightly here and there, but is overall accurate and tells it in an engaging storytelling style, all of which is easy on the eyes for those who are familiar with the story and those who aren't alike. There are a few grammatical bobbles, which we'll see now and then over the course of the book - the odd hyphenation of "one-another", for example, or the fact that The Daroga always features a capitalized "The", even in the middle of a sentence - but it's nothing so jarring that it prevents enjoyment. (Personally, I find The Daroga charmingly overdramatic in an old pulp-movie kind of a way. It's like someone is speaking it with serious business emphasis every time he appears. The Daroga.)
Bregman's series is the first comic book to tackle the idea of Erik's backstory as hinted at by Leroux, and, indeed only the second book of any kind to do so (the first being Kay's 1990 novel) at the time of this review.
The first image of the book is of a large trap-door spider capturing its helpless prey, totally heedless of the human feet running past it. The parallel is obvious - this is called The Trap-Door Maker, after all - and also makes me wonder if this book might owe more than a little of its inspiration to Kay's novel. Both works explore Erik's Persian backstory, and both use a spider as a metaphor for the Phantom himself.
Bregman's art is gritty, energetic, and engaging - in short, it's a treat to look at. It's at its best in the darker moments, though its cartoony style lends itself to the lighter parts of the story well; occasionally it seems a little unpolished in a less stylistically-intended way in some panels, but overall it's perfectly enjoyable. The gritty nature of it seems almost shied away from in some of the more intense moments - even the most violent moments sometimes feel a little too softened for the reader's consumption.
Erik is introduced here as a traveling magician, delighting streetgoers with his sword tricks before a run-in with the Persian police, headed, of course, by The Daroga himself. Interestingly enough, Bregman declines to give The Daroga a proper name, leaving him almost as enigmatic and impersonal as he was in Leroux's book. The reversal of The Daroga lassoing Erik about the neck is entertaining, and while the description of the kid's (while contextual clues tend to suggest him as an adult, Erik seems very young in this story, possibly in his late teens) deformity is phrased surprisingly closely to that in Lloyd Webber's musical, it is accurate in regards to the original novel.
I miss hand-lettering in comics (or, at least, fonts that look like hand-lettering). Maybe I'm just old-fashioned. There's nothing technically wrong with the thin computer scripting used in this book, but it bugged me.
Oddly enough in such a dynamic medium, my biggest problem with the entire book is that Bregman does a great deal too much telling as opposed to showing. Many parts of the book could have done without explanatory headings or titles, and the story often descends into long-winded recaps and explanations that feature precious little in the way of the characters actually doing anything. In a comic format, you would think it'd be easier to keep something visually interesting going on, but all too often the action is bogged down in endless straight-faced exposition. It feels like Bregman scripted a much longer comic series, especially when you consider his better scenes (which fairly pop with vitality), but due to space or time constraints distilled everything down into a very dense, somewhat immobile result.
I'm confused by the characters of the Invisibles, which are the Sultana's personal bodyguards and handlers. They're described variously as "eunuchs" or "hermaphrodites", which is the reason the Shah allows them to spend time with her unguarded, but I find myself confused as to which they are. They're not exactly major characters, but they come up enough that it was a question. (Also, while the H word there is period-appropriate for the time the story is set in, its careless use may be a problem for intersex readers, especially since it doesn't add anything to the story so I have to question whether it needed to be there at all.)
When a conspiracy of anti-Shah dissidents disguise themselves as performers and sneak into the Shah's celebration to attack his family, Erik saves the Sultana by burying her body under a rug and pretending that he has lopped off her exposed head. For this heroic deed, he earns the friendship and high regard of the Shah and his family and the enmity of others who view him as a threat to their influence.
It's hard to pin down which Shah, exactly, we're talking about here; since Leroux's story is placed in roughly 1881 and this would have to happen at least a few years beforehand, it's probably Naser al-Din Shah Qajar. The Shah's many allusions to Europe and its progress seem to bear this out, as do the frequent assassination attempts. He also had several daughters, the oldest of whom, Zi'a es-Saltaneh, would have been the right age to be the Sultana of this story.
My other biggest problem with this book is that Erik himself, ostensibly its subject, doesn't have much of a personality. He's certainly present for everything, but there's little to really map out anything about him; he comes off as a bland, cipher-like protagonist much of the time, which is a shame in a story that should be laying the groundwork for the personality he'll be growing into by the time of Leroux's story. Even when we get information about him, such as his tragic childhood or his dislike of those who might hurt women, they don't feel integrated, leaving him as uninteresting as any other underdeveloped "nice guy" hero. He also has a very finely-developed sense of morals; he doesn't believe in capital punishment or cruelty, and while I had been expecting some of that from Bregman's offhand comment about Erik being "now insane" in Paris, implying that he hadn't been before, I kept waiting for the moment that would spark that change in his personality, and it never came. Even through the darkest of moments, Erik refuses to display any real development, and at the end I'm left mystified, wondering what on earth else could have happened to cause him to turn into the unstable danger to society he is in Leroux's story.
His ingenious inventions, however, are represented charmingly and kinetically, such as the rat trap that hurls the pests off the top of the castle walls by means of a weighted tube. The inventions and magic tricks that dot the comics are possibly the most delightful part about them, an opinion that Bregman seems to share, as they are lovingly and playfully presented in more detail than many other plot elements.
The Daroga's former mentor, a policeman named Shahab, serves as Erik's best friend and confidante, filling a role that The Daroga himself filled in Kay's novel. While the two of them talking does make a good pretext to help introduce their backstories, I was still disappointed in Erik's; it was tragic enough, but overtold and underseen, and somewhat lackluster on top of that. Shahab's story, involving his long trek through the jungle and the hardships he endured before losing his arm, was more vibrant despite his being a much less complex character.
The Shah and Sultana, as well, are much nicer people than you would expect from Bregman's introduction, which lingered on the Sultana's tendency to strangle her handmaidens and the Shah's famed executions and torture sessions. Everyone is extremely civilized. Erik can't believe that the Persians execute pickpockets, while the Shah laughs off Erik's aborted almost-strangling of him as a simple misunderstanding rather than an assault on the royal personage.
In keeping with his nicer persona, Erik is very personally loyal to the Shah and his daughter; in particular, this is illustrated when a gang of street toughs mock him for his employment at the palace and suggest that he probably sleeps with the underage Sultana, prompting him to strangle and burn them to death. It's the only violence he will perpetrate over the course of the story, but it's done out of loyalty and in a moment of heated passion, and thus doesn't interfere with his conscience at all. (It should still interfere with the audience's conscience, considering it's graphic and you don't murder people for being dicks, but the comic glosses past it with the obvious intent to portray it as justified.)
While most traces of Erik's future personality are not yet apparent, he does occasionally refer to himself in the third person, particularly in moments of stress. It's a nice touch and a subtle clue to the more developed concept that lies in store, even if we won't be seeing it in this particular book.
By the time we've reached the execution-by-combat arena, nicknamed the Justice Room, Bregman's doing a good job of showing violence as endorsed by these ostensibly nice people, however, including the Shah and Shahab, who both revel in the sport. Of course, all the opponents we see are dangerous, hardened criminals, so again there's an attempt to avoid a conflict of conscience by implying that those suffering the violence are more "deserving" in some way.
The constant mocking of the Invisibles wears very thin by this point; sure, they're obviously meant to be comedic pseudo-villains, but the continual lampooning of them as over-the-top feminine stereotypes with no brains or ability to make common sense decisions is annoying after a while. Sure, it's a well-documented historical fact that many eunuchs and castrati adopted somewhat feminine personas, but they didn't all do that, and even if that's what's trying to be illustrated here, it didn't actually give the reader that impression and was overplayed besides. Also, the insistence on suggesting that the eunuchs are intersex plays into terrible exorsexist stereotypes about intersex folks that everybody could do without, thanks.
Erik builds the first torture chamber here, and it's a treat for the reader to be able to identify it as based on Shahab's earlier story - the oppressive heat of the jungle, the sounds of indefinable, frightening animals, and the noose with which the policeman tried to hang himself when he had lost all hope. The only odd note is Erik's insistence on stressing that it's a "humane" torture device, not only an oxymoron but also a little too close to obvious author-rationalization to swallow completely. Because overheating people to the point where they become delirious, and then using optical illusions to terrify them until they commit suicide with equipment you provided for that very purpose is so very humane. The comparison is meant to be to the more viscerally brutal executions by beheading or combat that we've seen, but just because there's less blood unfortunately does not mean that the method is somehow polite or merciful. Nevertheless, giving the torture chamber itself a backstory is creative and interesting.
Erik's violin-which-transforms-into-a-crossbow is a little bit snortworthy. It couldn't sound like all that much with all that business in there, and you'd hardly think Erik would be playing a substandard violin. Then again, if anyone in the world could make a violin that was both lethal and still sounded good...
Erik and the Sultana indulge in a pinky-swear. It's the only real incidence of real anachronism and cultural inappropriateness in Bregman's book, but hoo boy it is a doozy. I'm sure the intent is to illustrate something like a pinky-swear that maybe existed then, but in a shorthand way? Alas, it doesn't work.
I'm reminded somewhat of the Siciliano book when it comes to how forward-thinking, modern and unbiased Erik seems to be about things (or at least, his author wants to present him that way), including womens' rights. Not that Erik can't support the worth of the females fair, but I don't know that he is necessarily doing so in such a way in nineteenth-century Persia, and generally he seems to pay lip-service to the concept so that Bregman can point out how good he is as a person without actually ever doing anything to affect any of these oppressive systems or even help individual women strapped in them.
It is at this point that the Shah clocks Erik over the head with a mace and leaves him in the torture chamber to die, since he wants to be sure no one else in the world knows the ins and outs of his secret labyrinth. While the Shah's tearful explanation that he could not kill him on his own because of their friendship kind of explains why he put him in the torture chamber (though, dude, you can't bash his head in but you can consign him to miserable torture? you can hit him over the head a little hard, but not super hard, there's a line there somewhere), it's somewhat at odds with his ruthless determination to kill him, since he says pretty clearly that he would never suspect Erik of betraying him. It's a bit of a trainwreck, motivation-wise; in trying to present the Shah as both ruthless and sympathetic, Bregman overstretches and doesn't quite manage it. Also, I don't know why killing him with his own hands is even an issue; he's the Shah. Doesn't he have people for that?
Though Erik, of course, has a secret exit from the torture chamber and uses it to escape (incidentally, it appears to be the same as the one from Leroux's novel, leading down to the chamber full of gunpowder), the Sultana who has naively followed him into the labyrinth to play does not and ends up dying of exposure when she falls into the torture chamber and can't get out again. Her accidental demise at her father's hands, combined with the fact that she is never, aside from one very veiled reference about torturing her handmaidens which happens offscreen, ever presented as anything but an innocent, fresh-faced and sweet young girl, makes of her an innocent victim, a somewhat different impression than many draw from Leroux's text but one in keeping with Bregman's vision of the characters as all more or less nice people.
The Shah, of course, believes (or at least says) that Erik killed her in revenge when he discovers her body and raises the hue and cry, and Erik's attempts to escape pause when he runs across Shahab accepting a payment and dropping off a huge shipment of barrels of gunpowder (again, a nod to the events of the later story) and realizes that his best friend was the traitor all along, clandestinely trying to kill both him and the Shah. Unfortunately, once The Daroga arrives to save the day and kill Shahab, this is related in a monstrous parade of talking heads with enormous speech bubbles, which is not the most engaging storytelling method to employ in a comic format. The Daroga spares Erik's life and bids him leave the country ("Run. Become a phantom." - a little trite, but cute), and we close things out with a last look at Erik moving into his new domain.
Interestingly, Shahab's (and, one presumes, most of the other insurgents') reasoning for backing the Shah's overthrow is that he believes that the Persian empire is ultimately doomed and will sooner or later be toppled by modern progress, symbolized by Europe; while the political motive is touched on a few times but never fully developed, enough of it is there to strongly remind me of the 1937 Weibang/Sheng film, which also featured a more encompassing and political undercurrent to its interpretation of the Phantom story. Whether or not this is suggesting that Erik is a relic of the old world or a pioneer of the new is not clear, but it's an interesting nugget to ponder.
Erik's face is never fully revealed over the course of the comic, a choice reminiscent of the 1990 Richardson/Dance miniseries; however, where that film version dangled it like a carrot in order to entice its audience, a real unmasking feels unnecessary for Bregman's book, which presents Erik as a character with a deformity rather than a character defined by one. What exactly he looks like is not relevant to the plot, other than as backstory dressing to explain why he ends up in the careers that he does.
Bregman's sketches at the end are a real delight, especially the many masks and facial studies of Erik (some very obviously Leroux-based and others equally obviously inspired by Chaney's famous makeup), and the lovingly complex detail on several of the inventions seen in the comic. It's clearly a story and a character that Bregman has considerable passion for, and his enthusiasm spills over to the reader.
Chapter 1: Is It the Ghost?
Bonus chapter! As a treat for those of us who have the omnibus edition instead of the separate issues, Bregman's thrown in a comic version of the first chapter of Leroux's novel. In contrast to the story above, this one runs much more smoothly; Bregman's art really comes into its own in illustrating Leroux's imagery, and Bregman does a commendable job of suiting his art to Leroux's text, complementing and enhancing it. It's my impression that this chapter was done later than The Trap-Door Maker, and if so there is visible improvement.
In the end, it's not quite the masterpiece I had heard it was from various happy readers, but it's a solid piece with some interesting approaches, and definitely worth picking up out of curiosity or interest.
Also, I didn't mention it, but La Sorelli has a thigh sheath. So that's worth the price of admission alone.