Adapted by P. Craig Russell, translated by Patrick Mason, with Lovern Kindzierski & Galen Showman (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-401-9 (HB) eISBN 978-1-63008-154-6
Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Classical Comic Perfection… 10/10
P. Craig Russell began his illustrious career in comics during the early 1970s and came to fame early with a groundbreaking run on science fiction adventure series Killraven, Warrior of the Worlds. His fanciful, meticulous classicist style was derived from the great illustrators of Victorian and Edwardian heroic fantasy and was greatly at odds with the sausage-factory deadlines and sensibilities of the mainstream comicbook industry.
By the 1980s he had largely retired from the merciless daily grind, preferring to work on his own projects (mostly adapting operas and plays into sequential narratives) whilst undertaking occasional high-profile Special Projects for the majors – such as Dr. Strange Annual 1976 (totally reworked and re-released as the magnificent Dr. Strange: What Is It that Disturbs You, Stephen? in 1996) or Batman: Robin 3000.
As the industry grew up and a fantasy boom began, he returned to comics with Marvel Graphic Novel: Elric (1982), further adapting Michael Moorcock’s iconic sword-&-sorcery star in the magazine Epic Illustrated and elsewhere.
Russell’s stage-arts adaptations had begun appearing in 1978: firstly in groundbreaking independent Star*Reach specials Night Music and Parsifal and then, from 1984, at Eclipse Comics where the revived Night Music became an anthological series showcasing his earlier experimental adaptations: not just operatic dramas but also tales from Kipling’s Jungle Books and others.
As mainstream comics matured, his stylings could be seen in Vertigo titles such as The Sandman or Mike Mignola’s Hellboy titles. He never, however, abandoned his love of operatic drama. In 2003 Canadian publisher NBM began a prodigious program to collect all those music-based masterpieces into The P. Craig Russell Library of Opera Adaptations, but just before that, the artist took a couple of years (2000 and 2001) to complete a passion project. Originally released as a succession of linked miniseries – The Ring of the Nibelung: The Rhinegold #1-4, The Ring of the Nibelung: The Valkyrie#1-3, The Ring of the Nibelung: Siegfried #1-3 and The Ring of the Nibelung: Götterdämmerung #1-4, Russell and his regular collaborators Lovern Kindzierski adapted Richard Wagner’s masterpiece to comics. His wasn’t the first, but it’s most certainly the best.
Collected in a stunning hardback volume (also available digitally) the Teutonic saga is augmented by a Preface from music critic and scholar Michael Kennedy, an Introduction by comics star Matt (no relation)Wagner, and is followed by Russell’s fascinating, heavily-illustrated essay ‘What is an Adaptation?’ describing his thinking, creative process and philosophy in the crafting of this epic, offering an intimate peek into how the magic was made along with as a range of pencil, ink and/or fully-coloured sketches and art studies as well as the entire gallery of covers from the original comics.
The four operas Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung (or Twilight of the Gods if you’re less pompous or well-travelled than me) is a classic distillation of Germano-Norse myth and the classic poems collected as the Icelandic Eddas. Over 26 years the master of German music distilled them into a cycle of staggering power, which people either love or hate. Great tunes, too.
Doesn’t absolutely everybody love the brilliant animated tribute-come-distillation starring Bugs Bunny entitled “What’s Opera, Doc?” They probably refer to it as “Kill the Wabbit!”, though.
Joking aside, the Ring Cycle is a true masterpiece of Western Culture and an immortal inspiration to purveyors of drama and historic fiction. In 1989 and 1990 long-time fans and comics superstars Roy Thomas (who had already integrated the plot into the canon of Marvel’s Mighty Thor) and Gil Kane produced a 4-part, prestige-format miniseries that adapted the events into comic strip form and it’s superbly impressive, but trust me Russell’s is in a league of its own.
Bold, bright, glittering and tightly adhering to the rhythms and staging of the theatre version – thanks to translator Patrick Mason’s deft contribution – it begins with the creation of the world
Alberich the Nibelung is a dwarf shunned by all, but still manages to outwit the three Rhine Maidens. Commanded to guard an accursed treasure horde t even the Gods cannot tame, the river nymphs reveal the secret to the glib intruder. Whoever casts The Rhinegold into a ring will have all the wealth and power of the world, but must forever forswear love and joy. Never having known either, greedy Alberich readily forsakes these joys and seizes the treasure even All-Father Voton feared to touch.
Meanwhile, wily Logé has convinced Voton to promise giants Fasolt and Fafnir anything they wish if they build the great castle Valhalla to house the world’s heroes. Assured that the trickster god can free him from his promise to the giants, the all-father and Preserver of Oaths accepts their price, but on completion the giants want Freia; goddess of the apples of immortality.
Bound by their Lord’s sworn oath the gods must surrender Freia, but malicious Logé suggests that Alberich’s stolen gold – now reshaped into a finger-ring – can be used by any other possessor without abandoning love. The brothers demand the world-conquering trinket as a replacement fee and no god can sway or deter them. The course is set to disaster…
Second miniseries The Valkyrie sees an earthly warrior who calls himself “Woeful” as the sole survivor of a blood-feud. Fleeing, he claims Right of Hospitality from a beautiful woman in a remote cottage. But when her husband Hundingreturns, they discover that he belongs to the clan Woeful recently slaughtered so many of.
Secure for the night in the holy bond of Hospitality, Woeful realises he must fight for his life in the morning when the sacred truce expires. Without weapons, he thinks little of his chances until the woman reveals to him a magic sword embedded in the giant Ash tree that supports the house. Sadly, the gods have decreed there can be no happy ending to be won, only further sin and shame and the fall of Voton’s most beloved servant Brunhildé…
Sixteen years later, Siegfried is the child of an illicit union, raised by malicious, cunning Mime, a blacksmith who knows the secrets of the Nibelung. No loving parent, the smith wants the indomitable wild boy to kill the dragon Fafnir – who was once a giant – and steal the magical golden horde the monster so jealously guards.
But the young hero has his own heroic dreams and wishes to wake an otherworldly maiden who slumbers eternally behind a wall of fire…
Years of plotting and treachery and inescapable burden culminate in Götterdämmerung, as all the machinations, faithlessness and oath-breaking of the flawed divinities lead to ultimate destruction. Siegfried has won his beauteous Brunhildé from the flames but their happiness is not to be. False friends Hagen and Gunther drug him to steal his beloved, and betroth the befuddled hero to a woman he does not love. Final betrayal by a comrade whose father was Alberich leads to his death and the inevitable fall of all that is…
If you know the operas you know how much more remains to enjoy in this quartet of tales, and the scintillating passion and glowing beauty the art magnificently captures the grandeur and tragedy of it all. This primal epic is visual poetry and no fan should be without it.
© 2000, 2001, 2014 P. Craig Russell. All rights reserved.