By Derek Royal
Just last month Dark Horse Comics released the second in Richard Corben’s two-part miniseries, The Fall of the House of Usher. This publication is notable for at least a couple of reasons. First, it’s yet another example of Corben’s recent work with Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, following the various stories in Dark Horse Presents in 2012 (“The City in the Sea,” “Berenice,” “The Sleeper,” and “Shadow”) and the one-shot from last November, The Conqueror Worm (also through Dark Horse). But perhaps the more notable aspect of the recent Usher story is the liberties that the artist takes with the original tale. Instead of adhering to a more or less “faithful” version of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Corben blends this narrative with another Poe short story, “The Oval Portrait,” which is about a portrait sapping the life from a model as she is being painted. And the result is curious, one that arguably gives us an entirely new story altogether.
This isn’t the first time that Corben has revisited, or readapted, either “The Fall of the House of Usher” or “The Oval Portrait.” Both of those pieces had been previously adapted in his and Richard Margopoulos’s Edgar Allan Poe: “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Other Tales of Terror (2005, Del Ray Books). And these two works were also previously published elsewhere, “The Oval Portrait” in Creepy #69 (1975) and “Usher” in the 1984 one-shot from Pacific Comics, A Corben Special. Indeed, it isn’t uncommon for Corben to adapt one of Poe’s works in more than one version, as he has done with “The Raven,” “The Sleeper,” “Bernice,” and “The Conquerer Worm.” What makes this latest version so significant is that Corben is consciously mixing stories to see how these two narratives might interact with one another. He admits as much in the sketchbook section that appears at the end of the first issue. He notes the combination of “Usher” with “The Oval Portrait,” and then goes on to say that because “this story [‘Usher’] has been done so many, many times, I felt I had to find ways to increase the intensity of the story’s events.”
The core of Poe’s original “Usher” is still there — a close friend of Roderick Usher’s comes to visit him upon request, Usher is mentally consumed and unbalanced, his sister Madeline is elusive, there are clues that Usher has sexual feelings for his sister, the house comes crashing down at the end, and there is certainly a gothic tone — but unlike the original, and unlike Corben’s earlier 1984 adaptation, the roles that each character plays is slightly different. Roderick Usher’s defining quality isn’t his ill health, nor his abilities at composing verse, but his obsession with painting. Madeline isn’t a wraith-like presence as much as she is a victimized subject of Usher’s art. And the narrator of the story isn’t the unnamed friend that Roderick invites to his mansion. In Corben’s new mashed-up version, the friend actually shares Poe’s middle name — and in the 1984 version, it’s important to note that Corben draws Usher’s friend to look a lot like Edgar Allan Poe. The actual narrator of this recent version of “The Fall of the House of Usher” is a short, mysteriously cloaked figure with a patch over his right eye…apparently the same individual who introduces a couple of the recent Dark Horse Presents stories (“Berenice” and “Shadow”) and the recent The Conqueror Worm. This figure is very much in the tradition of EC’s Crypt-Keeper, Vault-Keeper, and Old Witch, or “Uncle Deadgar” who frames the stories in the Corben’s 2006 miniseries (and subsequent collection) from Marvel, Haunt of Horror: Edgar Allan Poe. The consistent presence of this eye-patched homunculus leads me to think that Corben may soon be collecting all of his Dark Horse adaptations into a single volume.
What we have now, though, is definitely worth reading. The ambiguity may not there — in Poe’s original story, there’s a question at the end as to whether or not the final events actually occur, or if they are the narrator’s fantasy — and whatever sympathy that we may feel for Usher’s condition may be absent (in this version, he’s beyond creepy), but this is definitely a new graphic interpretation of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” And what Corben has done in this new version is not only to show the similar elements found in “Usher” and “The Oval Portrait,” but, and perhaps more significantly, to demonstrate how the gothic features of one narrative bounces off of and even amplifies that of the other.