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The Opus list

Opus 31-45


A beautiful cover by Paul Chadwick.

31 The Gift of the Magi, 1990, Marvel/Star*Reach Productions.

In Within Our Reach, a benefit prestige-format comic focusing on AIDS and environment issues.
Available in the collection Isolation and Illusion, 2003, Dark Horse Comics.

An adaptation of a short story by O. Henry, a XIXth century American writer. A Christmas tale where a young but penniless couple shows how much they love each other. Russell gives us a very lyrical interpretation of this famous story.

PCR's comments:

This book was compiled and issued by Star*Reach Productions as a benefit Christmas comic to provide support and assistance to AIDS research and environmental concerns. Included in the volume was P. Craig Russell's adaptation of 0. Henry's "Gift of the Magi." Art and adaptation by P. Craig Russell. Lettering by Bill Pearson. Color by Digital Chameleon.

The Gift of the Magi was one of those stories I carried around in my head for years wanting to adapt but never finding the time for it—until Mike Friedrich approached me with a request to contribute to a Star*Reach Christmas Special charity book. There was no question which story I would do.

I had a young married couple of friends on hand to model (my "Mowgli" model and his new wife). This story was the last in a certain style of drawing before a rather radical shift into a new style. It was also the first in an ongoing collaboration with colorist Lovern Kindzierski. Just as I obsess years later about redrawing certain scenes, so too, do I occasionally on coloring. The last panel on this first collaberation is of an enormous star glowing over a turn of the century New York City. It falls very flat. I know with what he's done since on similar scenes (the starscape in Sandman 50)... I know he would absolutely NAIL this panel if he colored it today. I really hope to see this reprinted somewhere, someday, with just that one new panel. I can almost taste the color.

32 A Voyage to the Moon, 1991, Marvel-Epic.

In A1 Volume 2 issue 1.
Available in the collection Isolation and Illusion, 2003, Dark Horse Comics.

Cyrano de Bergerac is not only the main character of a world-famous play, but also a real life XVIIth century-writer, whose Histoire comique des États et Empires de la Lune is generally considered as a farce. Certainly, Russell, by adapting in a cartoon style De Bergerac's story of his trip the moon and the people he discovered there, does not differ from the usual reading of this story. And yet, this trip to the moon, a couple of centuries before Jules Vernes's, was for the time very much in opposition to the religious orthodoxy. Some people have burnt at the stake for less than that.
But let's return to Russell's work. In a bold departure from his usual style, he used in this story a very cartoony style, for the background as well as for the characters themselves. He would use again this new style in some of the Oscar Wilde fairy tales, and one can only marvel at the way he has managed in few years time to master two such different styles, going as far as to combine them more and more.

PCR's comments:

Based on the story by Cyrano De Bergerac. Art and adaptation by P. Craig Russell. Color by Lovern Kindzierski and Digital Chameleon.

This story was a delight to do from start to finish. And I badly needed some delight in my life at this time. I was about to go through a long, protracted and messy 'divorce' from Eclipse comics over my adaptation of Clive Barker's Age of Desire. (For the whole messy story, see my Comics Journal interview). At any rate, I was feeling boxed in by my own style, becoming too reliant on models and research and wanted to work in a way that utilized a style I sometimes worked in before I even began working in comics: a flat out "cartooning" style. The opportunity came when leafing through a discarded library book (the same way I came across Pelleas and Melisande—libraries throw away the darndest things). The book was The World's Greatest Books and there was an excerpt from Cyrano de Bergerac's A Voyage to the Moon. I sat on the floor, laughing at this wonderfully eccentric story, then got up, went down stairs and began laying it out. Three weeks later it was complete. Things seldom happen this way. Usually I get an idea, perhaps even script and lay out a story and then wait, sometimes years, before finding time to finish it. I have several stories right now sitting in my file drawers from two to six years since conception. Sort of like those frozen embryos you hear about. For some reason I always associate this and the previous three stories as a sort of unit. A little block of four short stories.

33 Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde - The Selfish Giant, 1992, NBM.

In the volume 1, after being published in black and white in Dark Horse Presents 67, 1992.

Oscar Wilde was not only the author of The Picture of Dorian Gray and An Ideal Husband, but also of a series of fairy tales for children, published between 1888 and 1891. These stories are multi-layered tales which can be read and enjoyed by children as well as by adults - and that's not a blurb !
This first story adapted by Russell is about a giant who does not want to let children play in his garden, but his meeting a boy who will reveal himself to be the Christ will make him change his mind. The main visual enjoyment one gets from the story is the way Russell draws kids : they are not little adults, but fully realized children with varied faces. In only a few strokes, he manages to give each boy and girl a personality, even to the youngest ones.
This really is a comic for kids.

34 Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde - The Star Child, 1992, NBM.

In the volume 1.

A child is found by peasants among the rubble of a meteorite - no, their name is not Kent. A handsome child who despises everyone, he will be punished for having rejected his true mother, an old woman. He will become hideous, and to regain his true face, he will have to stand a lot of trials.
Maybe not the most interesting of the Wilde fairy tales, but Russell's art makes it a pleasure to read. He still uses his cartoony style, and the animals remind the readers of the classic Disney style, without the kitsch side of it. Also, Russell begins to constantly adjust his style between cartoony and realist, incorporating both his approaches of the world into one. The effectiveness of this method does enhance his capacity of proposing a depiction of the various scenes he adapts in comics, and probably saves him from the danger of becoming a photo-realist artist - not that he was showing any sign of doing that.

35 Batman - Hothouse, 1992, DC Comics.

In Legends of the Dark Knight 42-43, and also in one of the trade paperbacks of the series.

Probably one of the most beautiful Batman comics ever done, and the story isn't bad either. Pitting (the) Batman against Poison Ivy, this story written by John Francis Moore - a collaborator of Howard Chaykin - gives the reader another look at Jill Thompson, who poses for Ivy, and who had already posed for the Queen of the Night in Opus 28 (see The Comics Journal 147). There's everything in this comic : impeccable storytelling, beautifully-drawn vegetation, fully-realized backgrounds... Russell also uses both his styles here : the background people are drawn in a the cartoony style, while the foreground faces are always very realist. The coherence of it all is very important to such a story, where a costumed man walks the streets of a modern city. Russell's version of Poison Ivy will indeed influence a lot of subsequent artists.

36 The Sandman - Ramadan, 1992, DC Comics - Vertigo.

In The Sandman 50 and the collection Fables & Reflections.

Neil Gaiman wanted to write his own Thousand and One Nights tale, and who better than Craig Russell to illustrate it ? Introducing Morpheus in the world of wonders and cruelty that was the Arabian Nights, this story shows a melancholic Caliph seeking the help of the King of Dreams. On one side an essay on myth-making and the passing of time - with, for example, a nicely put reference to Shelley's Ozymandias and its contemplation of Man's vanity, and on the other a beautiful tale of a lost world. Russell's work is a joy to behold, with the intricate architecture of the city, the decorations of the Palace inspired by the 'real' art of that ancient time, the beauty of the women and boys dedicated to the pleasures of the Caliph. One can only think of the great illustrators of the XIXth century when looking at this comic. Once more, Russell informs his comic work with his aesthetic interests, giving us a comic which is as intelligently written as it is visually satisfying.

37 Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde - The Young King, 1993, NBM.

In the volume 2.

A prince is spending his last night before his crowning dreaming about the price people are paying for his being given all the beautiful things he lives among. A chilling metaphorical sequence involving Death and Avarice makes him understand his responsibility. He then decides to go to the ceremony dressed as a shepherd. The palace people are not happy. The transfiguration at the end of the story is at the same time deeply religious and socially-conscious, which is not a surprise from a writer whose socialist opinions were well-known.
Russell's adaptation makes good use of the contrast between the palace riches and the peoples' poverty. Very effective silent sequences punctuate the story, and the ending is particularly striking : a rose window illustrates the sentence "for it was like the face of an angel". I think it's very faithful to Wilde's imagery who used catholic symbolism, more for its strength than out of deep belief. A good example of the way adaptations can bring new meanings to the original stories.

38 Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde - The Remarkable Rocket, 1993, NBM.

In the volume 2.

A short and darkly funny story about a very vain fireworks. The facial expressions of the fireworks, in his disdain of his colleagues, are especially well-done in a very cartoony style.

39 X - Devils, 1994, Dark Horse Comics.

In X 6, a super-hero comic.
Available in the collection Isolation and Illusion, 2003, Dark Horse Comics.

It's a 3-page dream sequence set in ancient Arabia, quite like Russell's Sandman story. Very nicely drawn, with a winged woman, a bare-chested boy, and lots of beautiful vegetation. A crash course in Russell-style illustration, one might say.

40 Jungle Book - Spring Running, 1996, NBM.

In Jungle Book Stories (see Collections).
First published in black and white in ComicsLit Magazine 6-8, 1995, NBM.

The last, but definitely not the least, of the Kipling stories. Mowgli, having grown older, is about to leave the forest to go back to his people. Leaving your childhood behind is always hard...
Russell's art is totally mind-boggling on this one. Even more than in the previous two stories, the jungle comes alive through his highly detailed art. The great thing is that every character and every background is carefully thought-out. Every beast has a distinct body language, none of them are stiff. As for Mowgli, never has his face been so chiseled, his body language so complex and meaningful.
I know the word "masterwork" is used far too easily nowadays, but for once, I think we might apply it to this nostalgic tale without battling an eyelid. So I do.

41 Elric - Stormbringer, 1993-95, Dark Horse Comics.

Seven comics, collected in a trade paperback including Opus 42.

The last Elric story. Once more, the cartoony style and the realist style mesh perfectly together, the monsters are really neat, and the 'good' guys get what they deserve, if you see what I mean.
One nice touch : each of the seven covers has a different layout. That is very rare in comics, but it works well since each covers is drawn in a 'mood' suiting the particular part of the story.

42 Elric - One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock, 1996 , Topps Comics.

One comic, then included in the Elric : Stormbringer paperback.

Written by Neil Gaiman, this is the story of a boy on the verge of puberty who finds solace in the works of Moorcock. A strange and compelling story, firmly set in the English boarding school where the boy lives and dreams about monsters and albino warriors, while his somewhat more mature schoolmates masturbate and talk about sex. The combination of realist settings and fantasy dreams is a perfect opportunity for such a versatile artist as Russell.

43 Dr. Strange - What is it that disturbs you, Stephen ?, 1996, Marvel.

One 48-page prestige format.

Remember Opus 2 ? This is a new version of that old story. Russell originally wanted to republish that story with added pages and minor changes, but he ended up redrawing 98 % of the art. The story is also heavily reworked by Russell himself : this time, it is not Clea, his beloved, but Wong, his manservant, who is abducted by Electra (Strauss, anyone ?), an evil sorceress from another dimension (I love the sound of that !!). Of course, that comes from a continuity that has changed in twenty years, but it does have some importance. The sorceress wants Strange to becomes her consort, and she has magically imprisoned her young sister, Celeste, who's in love with a very handsome winged man, Galthus. Of course, Electra is jealous of their love. A real tear-jerker. No, seriously, it's a powerful melodrama.
Apart from that, the city of the witch is now called Ditkopolis, a touching homage to the creator of the character of Dr. Strange and one of Russell's favorite artists ; the whole story is framed by the title, a mysterious sentence which will receive no answer. One of my friends thinks that Strange is in fact gay (his being in the closet is what's disturbing him), and his real feelings for Wong are more or less obvious in this story. I think it's a bit far-fetched, but it's an interesting theory. If anyone reading this wants to comment on it...
More seriously, this story is indeed very powerful from an emotional point of view. It feels like one of these tragic operas with the hero and the heroine dying at the end. It's funny to see how much Russell seems to be influenced by operas' strength even when working on something a priori so alien to them.
Russell's art is also quite beautiful : as I've already said, he's redrawn almost everything, and a lot of pages have only been slightly reworked in their layouts, but that is enough to make them far more powerful in their emotional impact. And, of course, Russell's art has improved a little bit in twenty years...

If you're interested in a comparison between a page from the first version and its equivalent in the second one, go to the Articles section.

44 Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde - The Birthday of the Infanta, 1997, NBM.

In volume 3.

A very cruel story, where a young Spanish princess is given a misshapen dwarf boy as a birthday present. The boy is merry and enjoys making the princess laugh, but he will soon realize how ugly she thinks he is, and die from a broken heart. The princess, undaunted, will carry on her birthday.
As everybody knows, children's stories are traditionally not nice stories, and Russell shows us the superficial beauty of the little princess and her court. They live in a world dominated by Inquisition and its stakes, a world where it is not always safe to be different from the majority. I guess that world is not too far from our own...

45 The Clowns, 1997, Dark Horse Comics.

One 32-page comic. Reprinted in The P. Craig Russell Library of Opera Adaptations vol.2 (see Collections).

An adaptation of the opera by Leoncavallo I Pagliacci, it features a group of entertainers in XIXth century Italy . On stage, they play a story in which the woman cheats on her husband. In life... Who said that life often resembles art ? This story will not have a happy end.
With pencils by Galen Showman, and layouts and inking by Russell, this black & white story is a gem. The combination of Showman and Russell's art is very convincing : the faces of the audience are done in a comic, slightly cartoony way, reminding readers of the classic Michael Golden style. The entertainers are drawn in a very realist style, which adds to the poignancy of their tragedy. A very powerful melodrama which Russell staged in solid, very tight layouts.

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