By P. Craig Russell
Russell is one of the comic world’s geniuses of illustration, and this is his masterpiece. It is truly a labor of love, a sweeping, two-volume epic that attempts a faithful and musical interpretation of Wagner’s classic mythological opera.
Though the book is accurately translated, richly scripted, and magnificently colored, the highlight is clearly Russell’s linework. Combining stark layout choices with detailed Art Noveau flourishes, Russell succeeds in creating intense drama. As he explains in a foreword illuminating his artistic process (which should have been an afterward), he tried hard to make the artwork musical. Russell can achieve this better than perhaps any other comic artist. His artwork flows musically, and he renders much of the text to reinforce musical themes and repeating motifs. The environment, with its deep streams, dark caverns, high cliffs, broad forests, and especially the stormy atmosphere, becomes a melodic character in itself. Sweeping gusts of wind push the Valkyries into flight or steer Siegfried’s ship swiftly through the sea. Trees loom and drip over scared heroines and hide devious trolls. Each page would hold its own against the best Mucha or Parish.
Russell also excels in his draftsmanship of the figure, and manages to juggle a vast cast with ease. His characters look distinct, showing a range of emotions whether squeezed into a two-inch panel or sketched in a beautiful full-page close-up. His women are gorgeous, especially the three mermaids, and his men are strong and heroic.
So what is the drawback to the book? It’s the source material. Fans of Wagner will hopefully love the book, and fantasy or mythology buffs will appreciate its themes, but it is dense and confusing. Several plot points don’t make much sense, nor does some dialogue. It spans several generations, and some of the characters seem repetitive and unlikable. But it’s still far away the best comic adaptation of any opera, and shows that sequential art does a better job of portraying music and operatic themes than is possible in other media. Prose can’t include the music, and film necessarily abbreviates the story. Ideally this work functions as a link between two seemingly disparate creative forms – introducing comic book fans to opera and vice versa, bridging “low” and “high” art.