When Herge-style artwork meets one of Lovecraft's most popular works, the result is going to be notable - either as a resounding failure or a genius success. Fortunately for the reader, INJ Culbard's ballsy re-interpretation of At the Mountains of Madness is definitely the latter.
In his adaptation, Culbard successfully surmounts two critical challenges.
First, he's forced to condense one of Lovecraft's longest works into a graphic novel. "At the Mountains of Madness" is a big short story (actually, serialized novella). As well as the adventure component, the heart of "Mountains" is an entire history of Lovecraftian Earth. Imagine the task when it comes to converting this eons-spanning, immensely detailed info-dumping into a readable graphic novel. Keeping Herge in mind, it would be the equivalent of a Tintin adventure in which the intrepid reporter stumbles into a pyramid and finds the whole of Egyptian cosmology written on the walls...
As the writer, Culbard avoids the trap of making his interpretation all about the Mythos. The pseudo-history is an enticing sub-section of the graphic novel, but where he succeeds (and, arguably, Lovecraft failed) is with the encompassing adventure story. Lovecraft couldn't write an empathetic character if his tortured life depending on it, and even the 'action' of "Mountains" is little more than a lacklustre framing device. Culbard manages to start from Lovecraft's sketchy character outlines and populate his book with a proper cast.
Artistically, Culbard's style is also a surprisingly suitable fit. Lovecraft toyed with the reader. He believed that horror was about the "scratching of black wings", a tone and a tenor, but never an actual description. Lovecraft teased with the monster, but then generally obfuscated it behind his cryptic vocabulary and dramatic ellipses. Too often, the artistic decision in comics is to attempt to pin the monster's hideous glory to the printed page, which then invariably falls short of the reader's imagination. Culbard's indicative style is a welcome change from the melodramatic over-detail of most Lovecraftian adaptations. He cues the monster, but his (strangely adorable) style lets us fill in the lines ourselves.
That's not to say that At the Mountains of Madness is either stark or minimalist. This graphic novel has one of the most-thoughtful designs I've ever seen - each double-page spread is essentially a massive landscape splash page, with the action taking place in smaller, inset boxes. Culbard's adaptation is surprisingly, deceptively, easy to read - all the more impressive, given the complexity and density of the source material. This is the rare beast: an adaptation that both credits the original and elevates it, with Culbard bringing new life and energy to Lovecraft's work.
An earlier version of this review first appeared at Pornokitsch (November 2010)