Be silent in that solitude
which is not loneliness — for then
the spirits of the dead who stood
in life before thee are again
in death around thee — and their will
shall then overshadow thee: be still. »
— Edgar Allan Poe (1829)
It was on this day, two hundred and ten years ago, that the great writer, poet and posthumous master of all media
Edgar Poe (Jan. 19, 1809 – Oct. 7, 1849) was born in Boston, Massachusetts. I’ll spare you the usual biographical details, widely available elsewhere, and we’ll concentrate on his unflagging ubiquity in the medium of comics.
Poe’s literary reputation was in tatters in America, thanks to a rash of hatchet jobs and dismissals, some of the most vicious from the pen of one
Rufus Griswold, the very worm he’d named his literary executor (!), as well as such notables as Ralph Waldo Emerson and T.S. Eliot… while his renown was undimmed in Europe, particularly in France (in no small part owing to Charles Beaudelaire’s legendary translations), rehabilitation at home slowly came as the 20th century crept along, but it was likely the publication of Arthur Hobson Quinn’s definitive Poe biography, in 1941, that sealed the deal and opened the floodgates.
Top two tiers from page 2 of The Spirit‘s August 22, 1948 episode. Layout by Will Eisner, pencils and inks by Jerry Grandenetti. As Dave Schreiner puts it: « Grandenetti captures the asthenic look of Roderick Usher that Poe described. The man is a decadent waif; insular, fragile, high-strung, possibly in-bred. »
Classics Illustrated publisher
Gilberton was first out of the gate with Poe adaptations, at first tentatively with a pair of poems ( , then Annabel Lee ) The Bells **, then more substantially with , in The Murders in the Rue Morgue Classic Comics no. 21 – (July, 1944), sharing the stage with 3 Famous Mysteries Arthur Conan Doyle and Guy de Maupassant. Read it here. Pictured below is Classics Illustrated no. 84 (June 1951, Gilberton), cover by Alex A. Blum. Read the issue here.
A relevant passage from Simon Singh‘s fascinating (if you’re into that sort of thing… and I hope you are) (1999): « The Code Book: The Secret History of Codes and Code-Breaking On the other side of the Atlantic, Edgar Allan Poe was also developing an interest in cryptanalysis. Writing for Philadelphia’s Alexander Weekly Messenger, he issued a challenge to readers, claiming that he could decipher any monoalphabetic substitution cipher. Hundreds of readers sent in their ciphertexts, and he successfully deciphered them all. Although this required nothing more than frequency analysis, Poe’s readers were astonished by his achievements. One adoring fan proclaimed him ‘the most profound and skilful cryptographer who ever lived’. In 1843, keen to exploit the interest he had generated, Poe wrote a short story about ciphers, which is widely acknowledged by professional cryptographers to be the finest piece of fictional literature on the subject. » The Gold Bug tells the story of William Legrand, who discovers an unusual beetle, the gold bug, and collects it using a scrap of paper lying nearby. That evening he sketches the gold bug upon the same piece of paper, and then holds his drawing up to the light of the fire to check its accuracy. However, his sketch is obliterated by an invisible ink, which has been developed by the heat of the flames. Legrand examines the characters that have emerged and becomes convinced that he has in his hands the encrypted directions for finding Captain Kidd’s treasure.
A page from EC Comics great Reed Crandall‘s exemplary adaptation of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, from Creepy no. 3 (June, 1965). While Crandall’s work is outstanding, scripter-editor Archie Goodwin tried to ‘improve’ upon Poe by tacking on a tacky ending, a nasty habit he would indulge in again on subsequent adaptations, notably issue 6’s The Cask of Amontillado!. Read The Tell-Tale Heart. And don’t miss The Cask…, if only for the artwork.
In the mid-70s, Warren would devote two full issues of Creepy to Poe adaptations; issue 69 (Feb. 1975), featured , The Pit and the Pendulum , The Fall of the House of Usher , The Premature Burial , The Oval Portrait , MS Found in a Bottle! issue 70 (Apr. 1975) comprised Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar; The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Man of the Crowd, The Cask of Amontillado!, Shadow, A Descent into the Maelstrom! and Berenice; All stories were adapted, with far greater respect than Mr. Goodwin seemed capable of, by Rich Margopoulos, and illustrated by a host of artists. The project was edited by Bill DuBay, and the cover painting is by Ken Kelly.
Isidre Monés‘ fabulous opening splash from Creepy no. 70‘s Berenice. Read the story in full here.
« The rays of the moon seemed to search the very bottom of the profound gulf; but still I could make out nothing distinctly, on account of a thick mist in which everything there was enveloped, and over which there hung a magnificent rainbow, like that narrow and tottering bridge which Musselmen say is the only pathway between Time and Eternity. » In 1976, a peak-form Berni Wrightson got out his brushes and paint tubes for a heartfelt portfolio of Poe-inspired oils. A sensitive and subtle sense of colour was among Wrightson’s chief assets; it’s a shame we didn’t see more of it. I opted to feature my favourite piece from the lot, , but by all means feast your eyes A Descent Into the Maelström on the whole shebang.
In 1976, Marvel Comics set out to make their mark on the classics… with dubious, but predictable results. It wasn’t what their zombie readership had clamoured for. Here’s the best page (art by Rudy Mesina) from Marvel Classics Comics no. 28, (1977), featuring three tales adapted by scripter The Pit and the Pendulum Don McGregor, and including future superstar Michael Golden‘s abysmal professional début on yet another helping from The Cask of Amontillado, where he demonstrates how he believes wine is to be drunk just like Pepsi. See what I’m griping about here.
Think Poe’s all about the horror? Think again! You don’t become a household name by putting all your eggs in the same basket. Meet Edgar ‘Eddie’ Allan Poe, romantic leading man. “Based on actual records…” and sanitized beyond recognition. Given that Virginia and Edgar were first cousins and that they married when she was thirteen, you can see how absurd this strip is. Read the full tale of romance and pathos right here. The Beautiful Annabel Lee appeared in Enchanting Love no. 2 (Nov. 1949, Kirby Publishing). Writer unknown, art by Bill Draut and Bruno Premiani.
Kubert School alum Skot Olsen‘s cover illustration for the revised and expanded second edition (July, 2004) of ‘ Poe compendium. Graphic Classics
As with, say, Elvis or H.P. Lovecraft, when both legend and œuvre reach a certain tipping point of iconic fame, one can bend and twist the concepts any which way and they’ll still be recognizable. Here’s a panel from Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder‘s faithful-in-its-fashion take on , from The Raven Mad no. 9 (Feb.-Mar. 1954, EC).
Michael Kupperman strikes again. From Snake ‘n Bacon’s Cartoon Cabaret ( 2000, HarperCollins)
Hot off the presses! It’s Edgar Allan Poe’s Snifter of Terror no. 2 (Nov. 2018, Ahoy), featuring a collaboration between Rachel Pollack and the fabulous Rick Geary. Don’t miss it! Oh, and if the pose looks familiar, you’re thinking of this.
Whew — that’s it for now. In closing, I must bow and salute before the
gargantuan endeavour accomplished by Mr. Henry R. Kujawa on his truly indispensable blog, Professor H’s Wayback Machine. Thanks for all the heavy lifting, Henry. I get exhausted just thinking about it.
Tintinabulate on, Mr. Poe — wherever you are!
*my thanks to Herman Melville for those words of wisdom.
**and thanks to the aforementioned Mr. Kujawa for that precious scrap of arcane lore.