Written by Bruce Brown and Dwight L MacPherson
Art by Thomas Boatwright
As I mentioned in last week’s What Are You Reading? (where I incorrectly referred to it as Howard Lovecraft and the Ice Kingdom), I didn’t care for Bruce Brown and Renzo Podesta’s Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom. I liked Podesta’s art for the most part, but some of his choices bothered me. Like, when a character sees a city of ice for the first time and marvels at how glorious and beautiful it is, maybe the audience should be able to see it too instead of just taking the character’s word for it. The greater problem though was that it was that it was too clunky about the way it tried to balance Lovecraftian horror with a kids comics sensibility.
There were some cool, creepy moments, but they were ruined by simplistic characterization and actions that just didn’t feel real. That’s most clearly illustrated in the scene where young Howard Lovecraft meets C’thulhu for the first time. I’m not a Lovecraft scholar (hell, I’m barely even a fan), but I know that the elder gods are supposed to be huge and terrifying; that just looking at them drives people insane. But when Howard meets this monster, he runs away and beats the Deep One by stopping short at a cliff so that the pursuing Wile E. C’thulhu flies right over. Howard then saves the repentant beast and names him “Spot,” a nickname the elder god gratefully accepts from his new master. The whole scene struck me as ridiculous and I wasn’t sure how anyone could salvage Frozen Kingdom to make a better second volume. But Brown (with the help of new co-writer Dwight MacPherson) does.
Howard Lovecraft and the Undersea Kingdom picks up where Frozen Kingdom leaves off in the story, but the tone is all different. This is a flawed comparison, but I kept thinking of Edward Gorey as I read it. Frozen Kingdom tried to be all-ages by throwing in things for both adults and kids, but failed because it was too easy to draw circles around its parts and say, “This is for kids” and “This is for grownups.” Undersea’s approach is the kind that Neil Gaiman’s always advocating for: that it’s okay to tell a story for children and make it good and scary. Kids will recognize themselves in Howard Lovecraft and think it’s pretty cool that he has a monster for a friend (Howard doesn’t treat him like a puppy in Undersea), a humorously loony dad (who was genuinely disturbing in the first book), and a dauntlessly resourceful cop as a mentor (a new and very welcome character). There’s also a pretty awesome cat. And while readers are enjoying all that, they’re encouraged to be good and creeped out by the world.
Renzo Podesta is replaced in this volume by Thomas Boatwright and as much as I enjoyed the look of Podesta’s version, I like Boatwright’s even more. It’s still cartoonish and childlike, but it’s “childlike” as drawn by Ben Templesmith or Mike Huddleston. It’s fun, but it’s weird, dark fun. I’m sure that’s what made me think of Gorey. Well, that and the macabre humor.
Like I said, in Frozen, Howard’s dad is a genuinely disturbing, insane person. He’s seen the elder gods and they’ve left their scar on him in a horrifying way. Especially for a young son forced to visit his crazy dad on the holidays. In Frozen, Howard’s dad is the Hannibal Lector to Howard’s Clarice. He stays in his cell and offers strange and cloudy advice that Howard’s not sure whether or not he should follow. In Undersea, Howard’s dad is more like Whitmore from Atlantis: The Lost Empire. He’s cracked, but not completely broken. He’s still got enough going on that he’s useful, both to the family (and possibly the Earth) that he and Howard are trying to save from the elder gods, and to Howard as a dad (though an extremely unconventional one to be sure).
Howard’s father is just one example of how Brown and MacPherson have nailed the tone of the Howard Lovecraft series. It’s dark and funny and creepy and joyful all the way through. After Frozen, I was nervous about reading Undersea, but they and Boatwright have figured out a direction for the series that makes me excited to experience whatever’s coming next.