Jon Turner caught up with him to talk about his latest project, the graphic adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s Shadow Our Of Time, released in June by SelfMadeHero, for the comic newspaper Your Days Are Numbered, which the title has kindly given us permission to feature here…
Jon: The Shadow Our Of Time is your fourth Lovecraft adaptation. What made you want to go back to the Chtuhllu mythos?
Ian Culbard: What I loved about adapting The Shadow Out Of Time is that it’s so different to the previous books. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward was very much a horror-detective story, while At The Mountains Of Madness could be described as a science-adventure-thriller.
In many ways, Shadow, which is kind of indirectly and unofficially a sequel to Mountains, was a sort of mix of the two. It has that adventure element but it also has this investigation going on where the main character is really investigating himself. But also, with The Dunwich Horror I’d drawn the same locations that appeared in Mountains.
I was steadily developing my own corner of the Lovecraft mythos so it all had a consistency. Dexter Ward is a story that took us away from Arkham to Providence, so with The Shadow Out of Time I got to go back to Arkham and really develop what I’d established in earlier works.
Jon: Why did you feel the need to adapt Lovecraft for the graphic medium?
Ian: For the same reason we translate poetry. There’s every reason to adapt a work to another medium. If there wasn’t then you likely would never know the story of Beowulf and I’m not talking about the film, I’m talking about the translation of the poem. Or Monkey and the Journey to the West, and again, I’m not talking about the Japanese TV show from the 1970s, I’m talking about the original translations. You are reaching a wider audience, perhaps even an exclusive audience, because they may only read comics. But you’re reaching out and with any luck informing people.
I mean, how many times have you heard someone say “oh, I haven’t read the book, but I saw the film”? The important part is that you know the story, and ultimately, whatever way you look at it, what survives is ‘story’. As for adaptation itself, it is important also that a graphic novel be a work in its own right. And it inevitably is because what you’re getting is really my take on a story, my interpretation. It’s a culmination of what I personally got out of the book when I read it.
Jon: How different is adapting a novel to graphic form, as say original work?
Ian: The more I think about it the more I think there’s not a great deal of difference beyond the obvious, such as starting with an established story. I say that because I’m writing an original work at the moment and the process isn’t enormously different, there’s just one unknown factor when writing my own stuff and that’s ‘story’. A story begins as a formless lump of clay in my mind.
With an adaptation I’m working with clay that has some form. I have two simple rules when adapting a book – stay true to the spirit of the original story and stay true to the medium. It has to work as a graphic novel in its own right, otherwise, there’s no point doing it. I take the story apart and then piece it together again, working with what I’ve got and playing to the strengths of the medium. So, it’s never as straightforward as simply a transcription, a direct lift from text to comic. You don’t open the book and say, ‘right, page one…’ You might want to start elsewhere, and for different reasons.
Jon: Lovecraft tends to describe monsters in abstracts, how do you go about visualising them?
Ian: The challenge with his monsters is to do something new with something that’s been done the same way over and over again since the story was originally written. I’d start drawing, and just when I thought I had a unique angle I’d find someone else had interpreted in, not the same way, but certainly a similar fashion. That’s bound to happen because everybody is singing from the same hymn sheet, and where HPL’s descriptions are so clear you’re kind of bound by that. There’s another race of creatures in the book where their descriptions aren’t so clear so I was able to take greater artistic liberties and therefore, I think, come up with something completely new.
Jon: So, how do you draw the ‘indescribable’?
Ian: Well, so long as it’s not The Colour Out of Space, in which there’s a creature that’s a colour man has never seen before, then its relatively free reign. You can do what you want.
Jon: What’s your favourite part of the Lovecraft mythos?
Ian: There’s so much of it and for so many different reasons. I love the way Lovecraft’s characters seem to be floating through a dream they’ve no control over – a nightmare ride. The way the world looms large and the shadows darken. I like the dreamlands a lot.
Jon: Where do you think Lovecraft places in literary history?
Ian: I think in the broadest sense of ‘literature’ he’s not as recognised as, say, Poe, but within the genre of Horror and Science Fiction he’s inescapable. I think that by demythologising his work as he did with stories like Dreams in the Witch House and At the Mountains of Madness, Lovecraft placed himself firmly at the crossroads of science fiction and horror so that all points would lead to him long after his passing.
Jon: What’s up next for you?
Ian: Right now I’m working on a second series of Brass Sun for 2000AD with Ian Edginton, and I am writing and drawing an original graphic novel called Celeste, which is out Spring 2014. I am also adapting more Lovecraft, which will be out next year, and I am working on a couple of projects with New Deadwardians writer, Dan Abnett.
• This interview first appeared in the London-based independent graphic fiction magazine Your Days Are Numbered Issue 6. Find Your Days Are Numbered online: http://yourdaysarenumberedmag.com
Published four times a year, each issue is a digest of what’s happening in and around the contemporary graphic and comics scene, with Q&A interview-style features that invite the reader to participate in the conversation. The magazine is distributed at graphic stores, comic shops and cafes in London, Brighton, New York and selected other worldwide destinations.