- Posted by Ed Sizemore on November 8, 2009 at 11:23 am
- Category: Graphic Novel Reviews
- CREDITS: story by Bruce Brown; art by Renzo Podesta
- PUBLISHER: Arcana Studio; $14.95 US
Review by Ed and Christopher Sizemore
Howard Lovecraft is not having a great Christmas. His father has been committed to a sanitarium. Understandably, his mother isn’t handling it well. However, there is one bright spot. On Christmas Eve, Howard’s mother gives him a book written by his father. Howard settles in to read and is immediately fascinated by the stories his dad tells. Then something unbelievable happens; a small teardrop-shaped hole opens in midair beside Howard’s bed. Someone is calling for help from inside the opening. Howard moves closer to investigate and is sucked through the hole. Suddenly, he finds himself standing on an icy plain with something charging toward him. Thus begins Howard’s adventures in the Frozen Kingdom.
Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom is meant to be an all-ages book based on the tales of H. P. Lovecraft. Through this book, young readers are introduced to some of the themes, places, and beings found in Lovecraft’s writing. Brown also blends into the story facts from Lovecraft’s life. Since this book is aimed at younger readers, I decided to have my eight-year-old nephew, Christopher, help with this review.
Frozen Kingdom is a good primer for the Lovecraft mythos. You get a feel for the environment the real Lovecraft grew up in. Lovecraft’s father did go insane when he was young and was committed to the local sanitarium. The book also successfully creates an atmosphere similar to a Lovecraft tale. This story has books of forbidden knowledge, seemly omnipotent beings from another dimension, and an ancient corrupt kingdom. Since this is aimed at younger readers, the story is less cerebral and more quickly paced than the standard Lovecraft tale. It feels less like a horror story and more like an adventure story as a result.
As an adult fan of Lovecraft, I think Brown and Podesta do the best job you can presenting Lovecraft’s fiction to children in comic form. However, some of the most fundamental elements of Lovecraft’s writing are sacrificed because of the audience and format. Almost half of the enjoyment of a Lovecraft story is his use of antiquated language. Obviously, a comic can’t capture that without being so text-heavy that it becomes an illustrated story. Also, for young readers, that would mean having to look up a lot of unfamiliar words. (Adults new to Lovecraft have to do the same.) Brown and Podesta compromise by placing the events of the book in the past, to create a historic feel.
The other major element lost is the cerebral nature of so much of Lovecraft’s horror. Lovecraft’s heroes are often well-educated men with some standing in society, men who aren’t to suppose to come undone, even in the most harrowing of circumstances. As they encounter the Old Ones and their dimension, we watch these men slowly descend into madness. They are confronted with beings too great for human comprehension and non-Euclidian cities and buildings. Worse, they come to realize how insignificant and powerless humans truly are in the universe. The only cosmic order is the will of the most powerful beings, and those beings have no regard for humans or their continued existence. Even those heroes that maintain their sanity are never the same. All their sureties have been violently stripped away, and they are left as shadows of their former selves.
Comic books can’t effectively communicate such interior horrors and transformations. Brown and Podesta instead chose to make the horror more visceral. Howard encounters several life-threatening situations. This works better for young readers, who are more likely to be scared by physical injury. The threat of insanity is a little too abstract for most children to truly comprehend. Certainly, cosmic dread that breaks one’s spirit is beyond the grasp of preteen children.
Help From an 8-Year-Old
Let me preface Christopher’s remarks by explaining that I was provided with a .pdf file instead of an actual book for this review. My nephew has never read a book on the computer before, and he didn’t like the experience. Like any true bibliophile, he prefers to have a physical book in his hands so he can flip the pages back and forth. (Proof that Christopher is being raised right.) Also, to make the text readable, you couldn’t display the entire page on the scene. The best you could do was display half of a page at a time. Not being able to see the entire page at once influenced his impressions of the book. So some of his remarks come from his negative reaction to the format of the book and not necessary from the book itself.
Christopher is a huge fan of Goosebumps and so used that series as his basis of comparison. He liked Frozen Kingdom, but not as much as Goosebumps. For Christopher, the plot was hard to follow at times, especially all of King Abdul’s scheming. Also, he didn’t understand what Howard did at the end in the sanitarium. Howard he found very likable because he was a quick thinker and able to come up with such good ideas. He really liked the artwork; particularly scary were Howard’s father’s hands. Christopher thought the part where Howard was about to get sacrificed was shocking and more like Goosebumps. Overall, he would recommend it to his friends that like horror stories. He does want a copy of the book to so he can re-read it.
I’m not completely happy with the character design of Howard himself. His wide eyes, red nose, and rounded cheeks at times make him goofy looking. I know this is slightly unfair, but at times I was reminded of the Warner Brother character Egghead. There are panels where Howard’s features aren’t exaggerated, and those are most effective visually. I hope in subsequent books, they will modify the character design to be more realistic.
I like the overall look of the art. The use of a watercolor palette gives helps create the historical atmosphere. Particularly in the beginning, it feels like you’re looking at sepia-toned photos from the early part of the 20th century. The soft, muted colors evoke the feel of a Lovecraft story. Where I complained earlier about Howard’s look, the character designs for the rest of the cast are well-done, especially Thu Thu Hmong (Spot). Also the book flows well. The page layouts are structured for young readers who might not be familiar with comics. The splash pages are gorgeous. They capture the dramatic tension and emotional impact of the moment perfectly.
Let’s be honest, fans of Lovecraft are going to be disappointed with Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom. That is intrinsic to any writer’s fandom. Taken on its own merits, Frozen Kingdom is an enjoyable tale and a fine addition to Lovecraft-inspired fiction. I wouldn’t list this as an all-ages book, but rather for readers 12 and up. Frozen Kingdom is a great way for Lovecraft fans to begin indoctrinating their spawn into the cult of the Old Ones. Lovecraft for kids may seem like madness at first, but Brown and Podesta show that it can be done, it just takes an imagination warped by non-Euclidean visions.
Arcana has a Frozen Kingdom book page on their website. I should note that I couldn’t get this page to load in Internet Explorer for some reason. However, Google Chrome had no problems with the page. If your browser loads, the first five pages of the book are available for preview. (The publisher provided an advance PDF copy for review.)