Pictures of Dorian Gray, Images of Oscar Wilde; Part Two: The Cartoons of Dorian Gray

Posted by on May 18th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Previously: Part One.

The last couple years have given us four comics adaptations of The Picture of Dorian Gray.  The first is a French volume, Le Portrait de Dorian Gray, d’Oscar Wilde, adapted by Stanislas Gros and published by Delcourt in June 2008.  The second, the Marvel Illustrated edition, scripted by Roy Thomas and drawn by Sebastian Fiumara, appeared in hardcover later that year.  The third, adapted by Ian Edginton and illustrated by I.N.J. Culbard, was published by Sterling just a few weeks after the Marvel edition.  The fourth, appearing in a Graphic Classics collection of Wilde stories, was scripted by Alex Burrows with art by Lisa K. Weber.  It was published by Eureka in early 2009. My half-remembered high-school French is sadly inadequate for the task of evaluating Stanislas Gros’ adaptation of Wilde’s prose, and in any case, I have only seen the portion of the book available as an online preview.  But judging by first impressions, the Delcourt edition may be the most interesting of the set, at least artistically. The characters are portrayed with simple, somewhat delicate lines, and the backgrounds shown rather selectively — exactly enough to create a compelling setting, without becoming distracting or appearing cluttered.  Some frames display entire rooms in careful, extensive, wonderful detail, while others simply show the characters, with no discernible image behind them.  The portrait, in contrast to everything around it, appears as a gently sketched pencil drawing, entirely in blue.  It is, in some ways, more naturalistic than the images of the characters proper, and yet it is also more clearly presented as an artistic creation.

As for the American comics, all three stay reasonably close to the original in terms of plot, character, tone and outlook.  The Marvel edition did a particularly good job abridging Lord Henry’s philosophical monologues without altering the feel of them, and without cheating on the ideas.  In his introduction, Thomas expresses his anxiety about adding dialogue where it is necessary — for example, converting Wilde’s generalizations about theater performances into specific lines from specific plays.  In the execution, however, he did quite well.  The details he and Fiumara added were well chosen and do genuinely enhance the effect of the novel, rather than diminishing or detracting from it.  The Marvel edition features classic, almost conservative illustrations, well suited to the Victorian setting.   Like Dorian himself, the art moves effortlessly between the worlds of staid gentlemanly propriety, indulgent and poetic dandyism, and the seedy and dangerous poverty of industrial Britain.

 />> <p> The Sterling adaptation is also, in most respects, a fine piece of work.  It stays true to the original story, and the art is a joy.  Its style is striking: Though the settings are sometimes rich with detail, the people themselves are simplified — composed of few lines, plain features, stark blacks.  Dorian's painting is more impressionistic, with full textures and gently faded grays.  Visually speaking, the painting surpasses the man in depth and beauty — thus reflecting both Wilde's metaphysics and his idea that it is art that teaches us to see the world.</p> <p><img src=

The Sterling adaptation is also, in most respects, a fine piece of work. It stays true to the original story, and the art is a joy. Its style is striking: though the settings are sometimes rich with detail, the people themselves are simplified — composed of a few lines, plain features, stark blacks. Dorian’s painting is more impressionistic, with full textures and gently faded grays. Visually speaking, the painting surpasses the man in depth and beauty — thus reflecting both Wilde’s metaphysics and his idea that it is art that teaches us to see the world. Dorian does not recognize his own beauty until he sees it represented; and in Culbard’s drawings, neither do we.  Dorian, the man, appears rather plain, with a large moon-like face and a slightly unruly mop of hair.  But the painting is lovely.  And because the man is drawn so simply, the painting allows us to imagine a real person behind the cartoon image.  It is the painting that suggests the beauty that the man must represent, if only symbolically.  It is, to say the least, a very clever solution to the problem of representation.  And as the story progresses, as Dorian grows increasingly corrupt, the simplicity of the drawing acquires another meaning as well.  For we know that the “real” Dorian is in the painting, and that the man is only a symbolic reminder of a beauty that has been lost.  The changes in the painting are subtle at first, but during a lapse of years they become quite dramatic.  Dorian appears balding, spotted, a grimace on his face.  And his corruption infects the world around him.  His clothes are tattered; they look to be rotting.  The landscape behind him is in flames. It is bad luck for Edginton and Culbard that their book was released so soon after the Marvel version.  For theirs is a very good adaptation, but it is inferior to that of the more prominent publisher.  More has been pruned from the dialogue, and so Lord Henry Wotton’s philosophy is reduced to a series of clever inversions and bold affronts to common sense.  Likewise, the art, while very good, cannot but clash with the Victorian setting.  Anachronism of style need not always be a problem, but in a work so manifestly of its time and so infatuated with the finest points of aestheticism, it really is possible for an adaptation to be too modern, and lose something of the mood as a consequence. In contrast, Burrows and Weber take greater liberties with the Graphics Classics edition, and to poor effect.  Compressing the novel into a mere 45 pages, they necessarily simplify Wilde’s story.  While the changes in plot are minor and unimportant, the philosophical underpinnings of the novel suffer greatly.  The struggle for Dorian’s soul — or perhaps, better to say, his struggle against his soul — is reduced to a couple pangs of conscience and a violent argument; and Lord Henry’s aestheticism, which ought to supply the philosophical foundation for the entire story, barely puts in an appearance. The saving grace for this version of Dorian Gray is the collection of which it is a part.  The book also includes adaptations of The Canterville Ghost, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Salomé, as well as an illustrated quotation from The Ballad of Reading Gaol and a cartoon portrait of Wilde alongside his Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young. Both The Canterville Ghost and Lord Arthur Savile do extremely well as comics.  The adaptations are well paced and play to the strengths of the comics medium while remaining very close to the original in terms of action, tone and perspective.  And the illustrations, by Nick Miller and Stan Shaw respectively, amplify the comedic absurdity and the sense of social satire implicit in Wilde’s stories. The collection ends on a darker note with Salomé, in which a young princess entices her stepfather with a sensual dance and orders the beheading of the prophet Jokanaan.  Molly Kiely’s art is simple and striking, though perhaps too cheerful for the subject at hand.  The climactic scene, in which Salomé kisses the prophet’s severed head, is lovely, but not at all grisly or macabre; the horror of the event is somehow missing.  The art does, however, do an excellent job conveying the action of the play and rounding out the characters.  Tom Pomplun’s scripting, likewise, removes the most tedious elements of the dialogue but preserves “the refrains whose recurring motifs” make it, as Wilde said, “so like a piece of music.”

Next:  Salomé

all art ©2010 its respective copyright holders

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