P. Craig Russell:
Craig Russell is the only artist I know of who gives each of his different comics an ‘Opus’ number (currently 50 plus) to catalogue them like musical compositions. It’s appropriate, since he specialises in adapting seemingly unadaptable operas into accessible, lavishly illustrated graphic novels. And it’s not pretension, because he sees every pencilling project as part of his whole personal output, whether they are his commercial gigs on Batman, Sandman or Buffy or his labours of love adapting his chosen composers and authors.
It was on his 1970s Marvel series Killraven that Russell refined his sumptuous illustration and heroic male motifs. He was converted to opera in 1976 by his colleague Patrick Mason, who had scripted one scene from Richard Wagner’s Parsifal and half jokingly suggested that Russell try breaking it down into panels and pages. From this grew a 31-page full colour comic book published by Mike Friedrich’s ‘groundlevel’ imprint Star*Reach. This in turn led him to discover the musical and storytelling wonders of further operatic masterpieces, adapting Mozart’s The Magic Flute for Eclipse and Leoncavallo’s The Clowns for Dark Horse among others.
In 2003 he concluded his magnum opus, a 400-page adaptation of the four operas (Rheingold, Valkyrie, Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung) that make up Wagner’s revered, revolutionary Ring Of The Nibelung cycle. Compiled into two Dark Horse trade paperbacks and a single hardback, this mammoth achievement earned him two Eisner Awards, the profession’s Oscars. This is no pared-down plot synopsis, no anaemic ‘Classics Castrated’, and nothing like Roy Thomas and Gil Kane’s plodding, portentous ‘Siegfried the Barbarian’-style attempt at The Ring for DC in 1989-90. Russell unleashes a bold, bravura performance that uses the full orchestra of the comics medium to maximum effect, employing stunning silent sequences, lettering and balloon styles, varying panel layouts and colour schemes, finished ink and subtle pencil drawings and all the secrets of symbolism, surrealism and expressionism.
On top of illustrating the dialogue and scenes that advance the drama, Russell also faced the challenge of translating into comics the operas’ intense, purely musical moments, some of the most exciting and essential points in this epic tale, where no words are sung, no actions acted and nothing is ‘happening’. He solves this brilliantly by inventing visual structures to convey the same dramatic charges as Wagner’s music, from Voton’s first conception of his spear told in wordless sepia pencils, to the spear’s shattering, no more than a second on stage. Russell explains "Showing only the action in a single panel would not provide the necessary wallop at that point, so I stretched it for several pages to allow the reader to more fully anticipate and participate in the action." Comics will inevitably fall short of capturing pure music, but Russell’s unlocking of the medium’s expressive powers can truly make his pages sing.
Many of the finest realistic comics illustrators, from Alex Raymond to Alex Ross, have made extensive use of photographed models; Russell does this too, to add vivid immediacy to his characters, though he is no slave to photo reference. Since 1992, however, his acclaimed adaptations of The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde have motivated him to cut loose with a more playful and cartoony approach, reminiscent of Disney animation and Uncle Walt’s own influences from Arthur Rackham and other children’s book illustrators. If, like me, you have overlooked these as light, slight kiddie fare, look again, because they are surprisingly arch, bittersweet and provocative, as only Oscar can be.
Among the other fantasy storytellers Russell has selected are past masters Rudyard Kipling on The Jungle Book, a world away from Disney’s sweetness, and Edgar Allen Poe’s mysteries, as well as contemporary British novelists Clive Barker, Michael Moorcock and Neil Gaiman. In the Dark Horse collection of his baroque vision of Stormbringer, Russell also adapts One Life Furnished In Early Moorcock, Gaiman’s affectionate, almost autobiographical schooolboy revelations from the Elric saga.
Murder Mysteries, another Gaiman short story, is a 64-page hardback from Dark Horse/Titan. It subtly interweaves two murders, one in today’s Los Angeles, the other in heaven at the dawn of creation. Investigating this first murder among angels, Raguel uncovers the first love affair and as God’s Vengeance punishes the killer. Now old and without wings, Raguel shares his tale and his gift with a stranded English writer. An openly gay artist, Russell luxuriates here in the angels’ male physiques, as perfect as a Michelangelo statue or a Bruce Weber photo, while he builds the subtle tension of the earthbound killer.
Russell continues to prove how sensitively and sensuously his comics can take us deeper into the worlds of music and words.Posted: November 6, 2005
The original version of this article appeared in 2003 in the pages of Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics.