Graphic Novel Review: 'J.N. Williamson's Illustrated Masques'


In 1984, the first of legendary editor J.N. Williamson's five Masques anthologies presented "All New Works of Horror and the Supernatural."  Williamson's "principal critical standard for any work included in Masques [was]: ‘Scare me!'"  Masques never disappointed.  As the series progressed, the contents pages read like a guest list at the Stoker Awards: Robert B. McCammon, Richard Matheson, Richard Christian Matheson, Gahan Wilson, William Nolan, Ramsey Campbell, Thomas F. Monteleone, Dan Simmons, Ray Bradbury, and Stephen King (among many others) all contributed original short works.  It was the first place to read horror high water marks like "Recall," by Ray Garton, "Splatter," by Douglas Winter, and "The New Season," by Psycho author Robert Bloch.

In 1992, Williamson – along with writer and editor Mort Castle and co-founder of Innovation Publishing, David Campiti – branched out, looking for different, exciting ways to deliver quality horror.  In the tradition of classic horror comics like Tales from the Crypt, The Haunt of Fear, Eerie, Creepy, and even the Stephen King/Berni Wrightson one-off Creepshow, Innovation Publishing's An Anthology of Elegant Evil adapted some of the best Masques stories in graphic form: Wayne Allen Sallee's "Rail Rider," Robert Weinberg's "Crushing Death," Mort Castle's short-short "A Billion Monstrosities," and Robert McCammon's excellent "Nightcrawlers."  A follow-up, Book Two, appeared later in the year, this one boasting Stephen King's name (and an adaptation of his vampire story "Popsy"), as well as Paul Dale Anderson's "Better Than One" and  "If You Take My Hand, My Son," by Pulitzer Prize-nominated Mort Castle. 

Neither Anthology was an immediate hit.  Not many copies were printed, and not many of those copies sold.  In 1992, the concept of graphic novels was still a new one, and was still struggling to gain legitimacy.  While important comics work had been going on for some time – notably Alan Moore's and Dave Gibbons's immensely important Watchmen, Art Spiegelman's Maus, and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns – so-called "illustrated fiction" was seen as a secondary art form, just as horror had long been seen as a secondary literary form.  Eventually, however, the collected versions of these books – as well as Alan Moore's seminal take on horror comic Swamp Thing – helped to validate comics as an art form, and give rise to the term graphic novel.  In 2009, The New York Times finally relented to the popular and critical response to comics, and introduced their "Graphic Books Bestseller List." 

Maybe more importantly, interest in horror comics is again on the rise.  Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead is a wildly successful ongoing zombie story.  Scott Snyder's popular American Vampire returned bloodsuckers to their horror roots.  Even a "maxi-series" adaptation of Stephen King's The Stand has piqued public interest.  There has never been a better climate in which to return to J.N. Williamson's graphic – often very graphic – horror adaptations. 

J.N. Williamson's Illustrated Masques, a 112-page hardcover produced by Gauntlet Press is impressive by any standard.  All the stories in the two previous Masques graphic collection appear here, with all art digitally restored for this collection.  Clive Barker's "Skull Tree" illustration – which had originally appeared on the cover of the final text-only Masques collection – returns on the cover here, making an explicit connection between prose and graphic fiction, even before one opens the book.  This volume is also a showcase for terrific new art by Andy B. Clarkson, Daniel Indro, and especially Cristina de Lara Stockler (who presents not only a vengeful undead Marie Antoinette, but also an amazing horror-comic interpretation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' Evil Queen).  There are also new prose pieces by Masques alumni Mort Castle, David Campiti, and publisher John Maclay, as well as a reprint of late editor Williamson's introduction to the first Anthology of Elegant Evil.

Most of the stories work well.  Stephen King's child abduction/vampire tale "Popsy" is a vivid, visual story, even in prose form, and its simple structure (bad guy doing bad thing and getting his comeuppance) lends itself to an artistic interpretation.  Adapted by writer Mark Valadez (Vampire Girls 1969) and illustrator Matt Thompson (Banzai Girls), "Popsy" is tense and claustrophobic.  Valadez never tells where Thompson shows, and the funny/creepy Ninja Turtles conversation at the end even enhances King's original words by being more specific about the Turtles' names.  However, while the big splash-page of Popsy's first appearance (he swoops in, dwarfing the bad guy's van with his immense size and wingspan) is impressive, a later shot of him as a giant bat wearing a tie comes off as silly.  The final scene, of Popsy giving the boy a drink from Sheridan's throat, is as dark and unsettling as that in the prose story.

Unfortunately, the final scene of Paul Dale Anderson and José Pimentel's "Better Than One" serves to undercut the manic terror built throughout the story.  While Williamson argues in his initial essay that he doesn't "believe all the surprises and shocks left to us will be discovered exclusively in the depths of the human psyche," this visual presentation of "Better Than One" seems to work better as a vehicle for psychological horror.  The final splash-page, which thrusts this story of mental instability and the looming, unseen horror of cancer into the realm of the supernatural, deflates the mood somewhat.

Cancer-horror defines three of the stories here, actually.  The aforementioned "Better Than One," Mort Castle and Tim Vigil's disturbing short-short "A Billion Monstrosities," and the only original story to Illustrated Masques, F. Paul Wilson and Apriyadi Kusbiantoro's "Soft."  Drawing from two classic Vault of Horror stories – Jack Davis's "The Jellyfish" (in which a man drinks a poison that dissolves his bones, turning him into a human jellyfish), and George Evans's "Strictly from Hunger" (in which a man is granted immortality, but is then ravaged by cancer from which he cannot die) – "Soft" is a disturbing masterpiece of words and images.  A virus that makes bones soft ravages the world.  We meet two people, a father and daughter, who are partially immune, and hear of a friend and neighbor who is totally immune.  The quiet tragedy of their story turns instantly and effectively grotesque in the last couple pages.  This is one of those stories in which people believe they have adjusted to the worst horror imaginable … and realize that there are worse horrors yet.

Like "Soft," Mort Castle and Mark Evans's "If You Take My Hand, My Son" and Robert R. McCammon and Ted Naifeh's "Nightcrawlers" are brilliantly dark pieces of the highest order.  "My Son" gives us a view of the afterlife of a man whose bad upbringing led to bad choices … but it's really about the hell of forgiveness.  The shocking final page holds up on repeated readings: you gasp in terror the first time, but the terror deepens to a feeling of dread and tragic inevitability.  "Nightcrawlers" is in some ways more straightforward, its art more in line with traditional horror comics, but its impact is huge.  The spectre of Vietnam and the theme of survivor guilt are potent horror tropes, and McCammon and Naifeh combine them to singular effect.  It's the lengthiest story in Illustrated Masques, allowing for deeper characterizations and a more heightened sense of place than in any of the other tales here.  The art is particularly effective, very much in the E.C. style, providing visual shorthand for readers; even before the real terror begins, that visceral, emotional connection to those classic stories already puts readers on edge, preparing them for what's to come.

J.N. Williamson was a brilliant editor, and J.N. Williamson's Illustrated Masques serves as a love letter to his legacy, showcasing the intent and execution of Williamson's original graphic novels and enhancing them.  It's also a sumptuous treat for horror fans that, like Williamson, have a passion and an eye for quality horror.