Outside of the stories Eclipse Comics adapted from Clive Barker’s seminal short story collection Books of Blood, there weren’t a lot of straight adaptations of the author’s prose work being attempted in comics. The Hellraiser stuff From Marvel was a continuation and expansion of the world created in Barker’s novella The Hellbound Heart, and other comics (like Marvel’s Razorline imprint) were created especially for the medium.
That changed in 2005 when publisher IDW released an adaptation of The Thief of Always, a “children’s fable” Barker published in 1992. The release of the book was perhaps the first sign that Barker was going to stretch beyond his blood-stained, adults-only reputation to reach out to young readers with his work (something he continues to do now with the Abarat series), and the author himself acknowledged that it was a big gamble for HarperCollins. In fact, he claims to have sold the book to the publisher for a silver dollar to help get it out to audiences.
The book proved to be quite popular, and evidently caught IDW’s eye as a great way to test the waters of Barker adaptations. They brought Kris Oprisko on board to adapt the book into a three-part series (later released in hardcover and softcover collections), and drafted Gabriel Hernandez to handle the artwork.
Released in 2005, IDW’s The Thief of Always was an all-around creative success. Oprisko did a solid job of adapting Barker’s story; having three big issues to fill (over 130 pages in its collected form) left him plenty of breathing room to work with. It’s got the same sense of wonder and underlying menace that the novel has; like all good fables, it’s a candy-coated exterior with a rotten core.
Hernandez had the most difficult job, but he pulls it off with apparent ease. His work has a blocky, almost woodcut-style feel to it, which makes it perfect for the source material. However, Hernandez never forgets that he’s not illustrating a novel – he’s drawing a comic, and he maintains a sense of movement and narrative push that keeps the eye (and the story) going forward. Barker himself illustrated the novel, but Hernandez wasn’t intimidated – he brings his own style to the characters with designs that work just as well as Barker’s own. Hernandez’s Harvey Swick is an all-American kid with his blonde flattop and wide-eyed gaze; his Rictus, meanwhile, is every inch the villain, with his narrow face, sharp features and over-sized mouth full of shark-like teeth. The centerpiece of both book and comic is Holiday House, which both Barker and Hernandez imagine as an endlessly rambling Victorian structure, stuffed to the gills with every kind of treasure a child can imagine – and filled with dark corners populated by those same children’s nightmares.
Barker has one of the most unique voices and visions out there, which makes adapting his work tricky business. Stick too close to his style and you’re making a poor imitations; stray too far and you lose the magic that makes it work. IDW struck just the right balance with The Thief of Always, which no doubt gave them the courage to jump on one of Barker’s most ambitious works a few years later: The Great and Secret Show. We’ll take a look at that one next time we get together.
Purchase The Thief of Always by Clive Barker, Adapted for Comics by Kris Oprisko and Gabriel Hernandez
Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He covers horror fiction at his blog, October Country, and contributes interviews to the Horror World website. Follow him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.