Donny reviews Poe. He also quotes Scott McCloud, who is awesome.
Sometimes I think Jason Asala stole my life. You see, I had a plan. I was going to get a job as a teacher (which I did) so that I could have my summers free to hit the Bristol board and self-publish independent comics (which I never quite got around to). Asala, however, has been effectively putting my plan into action since the mid-90’s, beginning with Poe, one of the most unique and original books to come out of that decade.
Poe is one of those “best comic you’ve never heard of” books. The first six issues were put out by Cheese Publishing in ’96 and ‘97, and then Sirius picked up the book for 24 issues from 1997 to 2000. Sirius also printed a trade in 1998 collecting the six issue Cheese run and a one-shot color special (the rest are in black-and-white).
The set-up goes like this: Edgar Allan Poe (based on the real author) is mourning his late Lenoir when an angel appears and tells him he can be reunited with her if he defeats 13 earth-bound demons. He sets out on this quest, a melancholy Orpheus on a journey to be reunited with his beloved (but dead) Lenoir. The best part is that the adventures he experiences along the way are inspired by the tales and poems of the real Edgar Allan Poe. Sort of a strange premise for a comic book, isn’t it?
The real Edgar Allan Poe, when he was in school, drew as well as wrote stories, and it was uncertain then whether he was going to become a writer or an artist. Too bad they didn’t have comic books at the time. Edgar Allan Poe might have been remembered as America’s greatest early comics artist.
The real Poe’s life was, famously, beset by the premature deaths of his loved ones, and Poe longed for some kind of contact with the afterlife. He famously married his 12-year-old first cousin. (Her name was not actually Lenoir, but Virginia.) She died after five difficult years of suffering. He was so poor that, despite working 16-hour days he couldn’t even feed his sick wife. Poe wrote his most famous poem, “The Raven,” while his wife was in the next room slowly wasting away. He was projecting ahead to his time of mourning: “When will I see my lost Lenoir again?” and the Raven croaks, “Nevermore!” After Virginia dies, as in the poem “Annabelle Lee,” Poe would go to the cemetery at all hours and lie on her grave. Later, he proposed to his third fiancé in a cemetery… They soon broke-up.
Asala’s concept for Poe is one of those brilliant, “Damn, I wish I thought of that” ideas – but nobody other than Asala could have drawn this book. He has a very idiosyncratic cartooning style that I really love. I remember a phase I went through in the late-90’s when I was drawing a daily strip for a newspaper, and I trying to mimic Asala’s style.
His execution is a bit wonky (especially in the early issues) but the concept is brilliantly odd and the stories are usually fun. You can really see the artwork improve over the first six (Cheese) issues, particularly at issue six when he switches from brush to pens, and the art continues to get better in the Sirius comics. There are some “armature” mistakes along the way. Caption boxes sometimes switch from Edgar’s thoughts to an omnipotent narrator without any visual distinction made, which can be pretty annoying. Sometimes the framing of his “shots” is weird: he occasionally zooms in too much and draws the figures too large for the panel or he crops their heads out of the frame… almost like he’s trying to do the comic book equivalent of a hand-held shaky cam. Asala is also sometimes bad with establishing shots (i.e. the wide shot that shows you the environment and all the characters, usually at the start of a new scene). Issue 18, for example, opens with a scene in which Pippin comes over to a table where Edgar is sitting with some men, but Asala doesn’t show us all the men at the table for two more pages. Sometimes the historical anachronisms are deliberate and funny, but a few times they seem accidental and annoying: for instance, an issue where they are decorating a Christmas tree and talking about Santa bringing presents – not something that would happen in 1831! And why is the Franciscan monk named Finster Habersham? Don’t all monks take new, Biblical names when they take their vows?
Nit-picks aside, this is a fun book. It has Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre notes, but it also has a healthy chunk of silly humor in it as well. Defeating foes via an atypical application of origami, for instance, or the running gag in which every time Edgar stops at a tavern something bad happens. The supporting cast is pretty good: Finster, Patrick, and Pippin… and later Meg and Dupin… and, of course, Pluto the Cat. They make an enjoyable band of unlikely heroes. A lot of the fun in this book is that it’s highly relatable protagonists aren’t action heroes (with the exception of the gun-slinging super-sleuth, Dupin); they just muddle through by their wits or (often) dumb luck. Edgar even pees himself when he lays eyes on his first demon. There’s something you’ll never see from a Marvel superhero.
I should explain that Asala’s tales are not adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, rather they are original adventure yarns inspired by Poe’s work, often taking only one or two ideas or images from the source material. One thing I like about this comic is that it’s such a fun way to explore the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Since all of Poe’s stories and poems are in the public domain you can find them all online, and most are audiobooks on Youtube. The first time I read Asala’s Poe, as the books were coming out in the 90’s, I read the corresponding E. A. Poe tales from my hardcover collection as I went, but this time I enjoyed listening to the stories on Youtube as I came to each new chapter in Asala’s comic (starting off with Vincent Price performing “The Raven” – it’s wonderful, go watch it). Poe was such a fantastic short story writer that even if this comic amounts to nothing more than an excuse for you to (re)discover his works then it will be worth it. The stories covered in Asala’s Poe are:
- The Raven (Vol. 1, #1)
- The Black Cat (#2)
- The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Feather (#3)
- The Bells (#4-5)
- The Fall of the House of Usher (Vol. 2, #2-5)
- Von Kempel and his Discovery (#11-12)
- The Balloon Hoax (#18-24)
As you can see from the outline above, not all of Asala’s stories are inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. That’s too bad because, with little exception, I like the Poe-inspired stories better than the completely original ones. In particular, “Lead into Gold” (loosely inspired by “Von Kempel and his Discovery”) is one of my favorites because, when Edgar, Finster and Patrick are exploring the Alchemist’s mill house it has the feel of a classic Dungeons & Dragons adventure… and it has this hilarious false ending where it looks like the heroes are about to beat the villain, but then they roll a critical failure and screw it up. I’ll also mention issue #17 as a fun experiment: it’s 22 one-page short stories.
Poe was outlined to be a three act story. Act I wrapped up in issue #18 (the 25th issue published). Act II was to comprise issues 19 through 36, and the plan was to get back to doing “translations” of Edgar Allan Poe stories from which the comic had wandered. These were going to be set in Europe and include “The Balloon Hoax” (the last story he actually completed), “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Act III would return to America to complete the story and run to about issue 56 or 60. He was even going to have young Abe Lincoln appear as a demon hunter which would have not only been hilarious but would have anticipated the “Vampire Hunter” book by ten years. He put out 31 of the planed 60-something issues, so he was right about halfway through his planned epic when he had to call it quits. So if you demand your stories have an ending, you may not want to start this series… although you’ll really be missing out on something.
In 2000, around issue #18 when Act I wrapped, because “Poe wasn’t paying the bills” and Asala and his wife had their first baby, Asala took a job as an elementary school teacher. In the six issues of Act II he completed, Asala had clearly gotten much better at facial expressions, details and clothing while maintaining and refining his uniquely odd cartooning style. However, in an interview with CBR, Asala explained that after about 20 issues of the Sirius run, sales were steady but not increasing. Poe was having trouble finding new readers, despite Asala having “worked the con circuit like a dog from 1996 to 2000.” He sold a good number of books at comic cons, and he says he’d get calls from comic shop owners who were selling 10 or 15 copies of Poe (which is great for an indy comic) – but it was hard to get many stores to carry the book. This was the problem indy publishers had always faced: it was just too damn hard to compete for shelf space with Marvel and DC (and then Image and Dark Horse). Few retailers with limited shelf space are going to give up Thor or Green Lantern to make room for a book like Poe which might be a much better book but few people have heard of. (In this case, it probably didn’t help that the cover art on Poe was usually not very good.) However, this is a perfect illustration of how comic shops in America have so consistently slit their own throats. Allow me a moment to pontificate…
Actually, I’ll let Scott McCloud pontificate: “If you’re a retailer with 26 slots on your wall you can sell every type of comic from “A to Z” (as, in fact, the comics market once did). [i.e. A to Z Comics] But if you’re paying an arm and a leg for every inch of that store, and you find that “A” through “C” sells five times as many copies it’s only a matter of time before you’ll want to – or have to – make some changes. [i.e. ABC Comics] Your reader base may go down as a result, but your profit per inch will go up, and day to day that may be all you can afford to think about. Once the process is complete, and the “B-Z” reading masses are long gone (nearly all of the top 100 selling titles in October 1999 were superhero comics) diversifying again will be difficult. [i.e. A Comics] You can try putting a few “B” comics back on the shelf but only “A” buyers will see them.” (McCloud, Reinventing Comics, 2000) You’ve niche-marketed to one tiny slice of the pie where the vast majority of potential readers are now not going to even consider coming into your store and picking up a book. Contrast this to other countries like Japan or France where everybody reads comics because you can walk into a normal, mainstream bookstore (not a “Boys Only” bat cave) and buy a comic in any genre of your choice: horror, romance, sports, domestic comedy, history, detective fiction, etc. In those places, the comic book is a medium like a TV show or movie or novel. Here in the U.S. we allowed the comic book to become misconstrued as a genre – superheroes – and both the industry and the art suffered. McCloud one more time: “Superhero comics are like chocolate cake. I love eating chocolate cake, but I sure don’t want to eat nothing but chocolate cake all the time.”
The worst part was, by 2000 there wasn’t even much diversity even within the superhero genre. Pursuing “what’s hot,” publishers had marketed themselves into a niche within a niche: rather misogynistic, Image-like books with dark-n-gritty anti-heroes and lots of T & A. In the final issue of Poe that was published, Jason Asala wrote: “The numbers on POE are mediocre at best… The comic book industry nowadays is a very tough market. I don’t know what the industry at large wants. The books that are popular that aren’t T & A books vary in composition and category. There isn’t a magic equation as to what will stick and what won’t.”
And so Poe came to a premature end. However, Jason Asala is still working as a 4th and 5th grade school teacher and laboring over the summers to produce a few other oddball comics like Nantucket Brown Roasters (2002) and a couple of prose novels: The Bone Witch (2013) and The Ten Stones (2015). Yeah, he definitely stole my life…