Author: Neil Gaiman, Rafael Albuquerque
Title: A Study in Emerald
Right in time for October spookiness, Gaiman’s cheeky and heartfelt tribute to both Arthur Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft is a lovingly crafted mystery clad in horror. Gaiman’s short story won 2004 Hugo Award for Best Short Story and the 2005 Locus Award for Best Novelette, and had been adapted to the comic book medium by Rafael Albuquerque, Rafael Scavone, and Dave Stewart over a decade later.
I must admit I did read the short story back in the time, but the comic book adaptation somehow made a much greater impression on me. Maybe it’s the Lovecraftian vibes, which so greatly lend themselves to the dark, shadowy frames filled with menacing tentacles and splotches of vivid green, or maybe it’s the structure of the story, beautifully misleading the readers, throwing red (or rather emerald) herrings left and right, only to reveal its true nature to the careful reader (and indeed, half the pleasure from reading Gaiman’s take on the world’s best detective stems from knowing all necessary facts about Sherlock Holmes ;))
Ad rem, however. A Study in Emerald is set in an alternate reality, in which Lovecraftian Great Old Ones have conquered the humans seven hundred years ago and now rule them with an iron… tentacle and the fear of madness. The world’s only consulting detective has just met his faithful and fated friend, a former soldier from Afghanistan prone to writing memoirs, and they both have now a mysterious murder to solve, involving the crowned families of Europe. A certain Austrian prince, a favorite of Queen Victoria, had been brutally disposed of in the shabbier part of London, and his emerald ichor was used to write the word “Rache” on the wall. Inspector Lestrade seems at a loss, coming to 221b Baker Street with hat in his hands and fear for his life written all over his face. Murdering the progeny of the Great Old Ones is something that is simply not done – if everyone knew that it could be done, well, the world would certainly be a different place.
As the detective and his friend delve deep into the underbelly of London, they discover the links between the deceased prince and a travelling troupe, playing seemingly innocuous shows all over Europe. The leader of the troupe, Sherry Vernet, and their playwright, a former military doctor with a way with words, soon become the main suspects in the detective’s investigation.
I really enjoyed this absolutely crazy tale. For once, Gaiman delivered a very satisfying conclusion to a wonderfully nuanced, insanely creative and compelling narrative. The online version of the short story already includes the Victorian-era gems of newspaper ads, from a slew of well-known characters such as the professional exsanguinator Vlad Tepes, shoemaker Jack with Spring in his heels, or the infamous V. von F., the maker of electrical fluid Victor’s Vitae, which “will bring life where life has long been lost”, but the graphic novel took them to another level entirely, creating artistic miniatures of each advertisement and putting them at the beginning of each chapter.
The graphic novel format works perfectly for this particular story, adding several dimensions to the already intriguing narrative. The art craftily refines the mood of Gaiman’s tale, keeping the palette to predominantly dark hues: greys, sepias and greens. Victorian London is a dark, dark place, and it shows. The splotches of scarlet and emerald, judiciously applied here and there, create a nice contrast with the muted backgrounds, emphasizing the danger and adding certain quality of unreality to the world. While the main characteristic of the Albuquerque’s art is simplicity, and the facial close-ups especially seem nearly devoid of detail, it all works surprisingly well, all things considered. The clear outlines and silhouettes among the shadows draw eye to details in the background, which are carefully positioned where – and when – they’re needed, and serve as clues thrown here and there through the narrative to delight the careful reader. While the Great Old Ones are not as terrifying as Lovecraft would have liked them to be, there is certain creepiness in the domestication of their presence, in the new “norm” they enforced by their ascendance. It may be a far cry from what Lovecraft envisioned as the future of the world subdued by the Great Old Ones – no orgies, no overt bloody revelry and indiscriminate killings – but these themes run pervasively in the background, repressed but not eradicated. The Great Old Ones are no longer presenting themselves as ancient bloodthirsty monsters towering over the horrified human masses – they are instead acting as enlightened tyrants, living in human palaces, wearing human clothing and graciously accepting human companionship. What they do in the shadows, however, is another matter entirely.
I can imagine this comic made by an artist more leaning toward the horror and gore; the end result could have been much creepier and nightmarish, but at the same time less approachable. Instead, Albuquerque’s style remains resolutely in the background, creating an easily readable environment which allows Gaiman’s storyline to shine.
Additionally, I cannot substantiate that claim in any way, but I have a strong hunch Gaiman is not overly fond of Queen Victoria – at least in her old age. In A Study in Emerald the British Queen bears the full weight of scrutiny from Gaiman, and is found wanting 😉 I must admit, her tentacly mass writhing under that eerie mask is an image I will keep in mind for a long time 😉
It is clear that this story had been a source of delight for Gaiman – as it has been for me. The innumerable references to the work of Arthur Conan Doyle, the gleeful play with the reader’s expectations, and the underhanded declaration of inherently moral stance framed in the neatly arranged and absolutely bookish conclusion all make A Study in Emerald a superbly entertaining and addictive tribute to Sherlock Holmes, H.P. Lovecraft, and the unbelievable reality and the many competing unrealities of Victorian era. No wonder it has already spawned a well-received boardgame… 😉