Adieu to Summer and to Childhood: Ray Bradbury’s “The Lake”

« And by the time they reached the shore of the quiet lake the sun was clouding over and fog moved in across the water so swiftly and completely that it frightened Doug to see it move, as if a great storm cloud from the autumn sky had been cut loose and sank to engulf the shore, the town, the thumping, happy brass band. » — Ray Bradbury, Farewell Summer (1980)

With summer on the wane — never mind the heat and humidity! — it seems fitting to feature, on the one hundred and second anniversary of Ray Bradbury’s birth, what’s possibly my very favourite EC comics adaptation of his work, Al Feldstein and Joe Orlando‘s ‘The Lake’. The other contenders jockeying for the top spot would be Johnny Craig‘s ‘Touch and Go!‘ (from the story ‘The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl‘) and Bernie Krigstein‘s ‘The Flying Machine‘. This mournful coming-of-age story was a speck of maturity in a boundless hinterland of juvenilia. I was agreeably surprised to find that there are some who concur with me on that point:

« It is hard for me to imagine how the 1953 comic book reader must have reacted when they picked up Vault of Horror #31 and read “The Lake” (adapted by Feldstein and Joe Orlando). The same month, Batman was fighting a crime predicting robot and Superman was helping to peel potatoes for Lois Lane during her stint in the Women’s Army Corps. So to go from that to this, a hauntingly sophisticated tale of a young boy obsessed with the death of his childhood sweetheart, must have been mind-blowing. »

(Do check out Brian Cronin’s solid picks for the 8 Greatest Ray Bradbury Adaptations by EC Comics)

Now, I trust I don’t have to school you about the life and times of Mr. Bradbury (1920-2012). Were it the case, I’d still skip the lesson, thanks to this 1953 summary, which will suit our current purposes just fine:

The good folks at EC comics, namely those in charge — proprietor William Maxwell Gaines and his loyal acolyte and second-worst artist, Al Feldstein — decided to adapt the works of young Ray… without bothering to first secure his blessing. After a few (splendid) adaptations, Bradbury shrewdly wrote: « Just a note to remind you of an oversight. You have not as yet sent on the check for $50.00 to cover the use of secondary rights on my two stories ‘The Rocket Man’ and ‘Kaleidoscope.’ . . . I feel this was probably overlooked in the general confusion of office work, and look forward to your payment in the near future. ». By 1953, the collaboration was well established, and so…

Bless her soul and all that, but I found Marie Severin‘s latter-day recolouring for Fantagraphics’ ‘definitive’ edition to be on the garish side, so I’ve toned it down somewhat. Computers aren’t for everyone.
Russ Cochran‘s stunningly ambitious and still-definitive The Complete EC Library featured John Benson, Bill Mason and Bhob Stewart‘s insightful and in-depth interviews and notes. Here’s what Benson wrote about The Lake:

« One of the few serious errors in the EC Bradbury adaptations is Joe Orlando’s imagery in ‘The Lake‘. Ignoring the many clues in the text (the long beach, the sand, the incoming waves) and taking his cue only from the title, Orlando drew a mountain lake, with pines and rushes, and a lodge in the background. But Bradbury’s lake was Lake Michigan, and this is a story that draws on the special poignance of the first autumn days at a large tidal beach. Had Orlando drawn on his undoubted experiences of the Atlantic seashore, he would have come much closer to the spirit of the original.

Readers who compare the dialogue in the EC version with the full version of the story in The October Country will find some seemingly inexplicable differences. The explanation is not that Feldstein cavalierly tampered with Bradbury’s text but quite the opposite. Feldstein was faithful to the story as it appeared in the May 1944 Weird Tales and in Bradbury’s first book anthology Dark Carnival (now long out of print). It was Bradbury himself who rewrote passages for this and other stories in The October Country, published after the EC adaptations. »

Orlando’s a funny guy. Like Harry Harrison, he started out as a friend, collaborator and friendly competitor of Wally Wood‘s. Unlike Harrison, who left the comics field to become a successful SF writer, Orlando was briefly able to more-or-less keep pace with Wood. It must have been nerve-wracking and of course quite unsustainable. While I hold that Orlando’s most aesthetically accomplished art job is ‘A Rottin’ Trick!‘ from Tales from the Crypt no. 29 (Apr.-May 1952, EC) and his most significant has to be anti-racist parable ‘Judgment Day!‘, from Weird Fantasy no. 18 (Mar.-Apr. 1953, EC), ‘The Lake‘ triumphs, thanks to its writing. After his peak of ’52-’53, Orlando’s art deteriorated fast. He made a bit of comeback in the mid-60s (the ‘Adam Link‘ stories at Warren were highlights) but… that’s when he was more often than not signing his name to Jerry Grandenetti‘s work. He found his niche as an editor at DC, and whatever artwork he produced thereafter seemed, to me, rushed and half-hearted. But he was a pretty good editor!

It’s a bit incongruous that what must be EC Comics’ quietest, most ruminative horror story should appear under one of its most violent (‘hard hitting’ comes to mind… literally) covers. Johnny Craig’s work could be — and generally was — quite understated, but on days when he wasn’t in that particular restrained frame of mind… look out! This is the original cover art from Vault of Horror no. 31 (June-July 1953, EC).

In closing, a word of warning: you’ll be seeing precious little of us in the coming month of September, as we’re preparing ourselves for a major change of domicile. We’ll be living in boxes for a spell, but I’m hoping to be back in time for the annual Hallowe’en Countdown. The show must go on!

-RG

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