By Thea von Harbou, illustrated by Michael W. Kaluta (Donning/Starblaze)
People who work in comics adore their earliest influences, and will spout for hours about them. Not only did they initially fire the young imagination and spark the drive to create but they always provide the creative yardstick by which a writer or artist measures their own achievements and worth. Books, comics, posters, even gum cards (which mysteriously mutated into “Trading Cards” in the 1990s) all fed the colossal hungry Art-sponge which was the developing brain of the kids who make comics.
But by the 1970s an odd phenomenon was increasingly apparent. It became clear that new talent coming into the industry was increasingly aware only of comic-books as a source of pictorial fuel. The great illustrators and storytellers who had inspired the likes of Howard Chaykin, Bernie Wrightson, Mike Kaluta, P. Craig Russell, Charles Vess, Mike Grell, and a host of other top professionals were virtually unknown to many youngsters and aspirants. I suspect the reason for this was the decline of illustrated fiction in magazines – and general magazines in general.
Photographs became a cheaper option than artwork in the late 1960s and as a broad rule populations read less and less each year from that time onwards.
In the late 1980s publisher Donning created a line of oversized deluxe editions reprinting “lost” prose classics of fantasy, illustrated by major comics talents who felt an affinity for the selected texts. Charles Vess illustrated Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, P. Craig Russell created magic for The Thief of Bagdad and Mike Grell depicted the word’s greatest archer in The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire.
Arch period stylist Mike Kaluta worked on something a little more exotic; illustrating the original film scenario (a broad shooting script used by movie-makers in the days before dialogue) written by Thea von Harbou after her husband returned from a trip to America.
Herr “von Harbou” was German expressionist genius Fritz Lang, and his account of his fevered impressions, responses and reminiscences became the ultimate social futurist fiction film Metropolis – possibly the most stirring, visually rich and influential movie of the silent era – and officially the most expensive film ever made during the pre-talkies era.
If you haven’t seen the film… Do. Go now, a new re-re-restored version was released in 2010 – the most complete yet. I’ll wait…
The plot – in simple terms – concerns the battle between proletarian workers and the rich, educated elite of a colossal city where workers toil in hellish, conformist subterranean regiments to provide a paradise for the bosses and managers who live like gods in the lofty clouds above.
It would be the perfect life for Freder, son of the grand architect Joh Fredersen, except for the fact that he has become besotted with Maria, an activist girl from the depths. The boy will move Heaven and Earth to have her love him. He even abandons his luxuries to become a worker near her…
Distraught Fredersen renews his tempestuous relationship with the crazed science-wizard Rotwang, once ally and rival for the love of the seductive woman Hel.
Rotwang offers his aid but it is a double-edged sword. He kidnaps Maria and constructs an incredible robotic replacement of her, to derail her passive crusade and exact his own long-deferred revenge…
This “novelisation” – for want of a better word – is as engrossing as the film in many ways but the story is elevated by the incredible illustrations produced by Kaluta -5 full page artworks in evocative chalk-and-pastel colour, two incredible double-page spreads in black line plus 32 assorted monochrome half-frames and full pages rendered in black & white line, grey-tones, charcoal, chalk monotones and pastel tints – an absolute banquet for lovers of art deco in particular and immaculate drawing in general.
Whilst no substitute for the filmic experience, this magnificent book is a spectacular combination of art and story that is the perfect companion to that so-influential fantasy masterpiece beloved by generations of youngsters.
© 1988 by the Donning Company/publishers. Art © 1988 Michael W. Kaluta. All rights reserved.