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BARS Blog

News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Romantic Reimaginings: Adaptation and Convergence in Poe (Part 2 of 3)

Romantic Reimaginings is a BARS blog series which seeks to explore the ways in which texts of the Romantic era continue to resonate. The blog is curated by Eleanor Bryan. If you would like to publish an article in the series, please email ebryan@lincoln.ac.uk.

Today on the blog our article is Part 2 in a 3 part series in which Jeff L. Wright (University of Arkansas) discusses adaptations of the works of Edgar Allen Poe. His first article (link below) examined Poe’s The Raven in the context of Halloween. Parts 2 and 3 examine Richard Corben’s comic book adaptations of Poe, tracing the evolution of these adaptations from the cultural ‘memeplex’ to the individual ‘selfplex’.

Part 1: bars.ac.uk/blog/?p=2721

Part 2:

My childhood fascination with horror comics would eventually come full circle as I conducted my research in grad school where, amongst many other interdisciplinary interests, the Dawkins/Bartolotti/Hutcheon evolutionary concepts of memes became a prime ingredient in most of my research. In terms of Romantic Reimaginings, I would like to take a look at the ways in which the bio-evolutionary theory of memes and adaptation work using adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven”, in the comic books of Richard Corben.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary/Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore… tapping… on my tablet I came across some contemporary horror comics I had been meaning to get around to reading. There has always been a place in comics for good ole fashioned worm-and-guts horror, and famed underground comic book artist, Richard Corben, is probably one of the most creative Eisner Inductees to ever put pen to paper in this genre. In the days of Marvel’s “adult” label, Max, Corben penned several issues for the Haunt of Horror series that adapted stories and poems to great effect. Haunt of Horror: Edgar Allen Poe #1 (2006) featured one of Corben’s earlier adaptations of “The Raven” and “The Conqueror Worm,” both of which are re-imagined again by Corben in later works.

In my work, I prefer Susan Blackmore’s terms from The Meme Machine in referring to the world where art and literature live in our culture (memes) as the memeplex, and when those memes enter our minds it is entering the selfplex. The concept is simple. Memes from the memeplex, such as the poem “The Raven”, are absorbed into the mind/selfplex, via visual transmission of signs and images that represent the thoughts contained in the brain cells of someone else. Once absorbed into our brains, those signs are interpreted and become transmissions between our own brain cells, and if we deem it worthy, or if it is just too memorable to forget, or too forgettable to remember, it may get stored in our own selfplex/brain as memory. Following this bio-evolutionary model of memes, the meme/thoughts, can either stay relatively fidelitous to the original meme or it can mutate, either by accident because human memory is very fallible, or because we consciously mutate it. The meme is then regurgitated back into the memeplex where it will undergo a sort of survival of the fittest test, being accepted or rejected by the culture as a whole, or some degree in between, where it can then go through the whole process again as it enters and is regurgitated by numerous other selfplexes. This is an evolutionary process that can take place in a matter of seconds, rather than hundreds of thousands of years of biological evolution.

As someone focused on visual rhetoric/theories in adaptation studies and convergence culture, I am always either enamored or repulsed by another person’s idea of what a character looks like. It used to drive me bonkers the way an artist would render Frodo to look like a cherub with pants or made Strider look too clean-cut in the Tolkien calendars. In visual adaptations of “The Raven”, we often see a Poe-like caricature portraying the narrator, who we are never given any description of by Poe whatsoever. I think this is partly to blame for why so many people think Poe himself was an alcoholic and drug addict. We know the character is tired and lonely and that’s about it. So, any visual elements added to this poetic story are going to be coming mostly from the mind of the artist.

Figure 1

In this case, Corben is taking the poem from the memeplex, rolling it around in his own brain, Corben’s selfplex, and then he draws the comic book and puts it back out into the memeplex as a new adaptation, which is also a prime example of aspects of Convergence Culture phenomenon. We get to see a visual representation of his thoughts manifested into a material reality.

Corben’s artwork in this story is painterly, using what appears to be ink-and-paper in a more watercolor-styled fashion. You can see that the protagonist is fairly generic, while details abound in material objects like the revolver the character carries (fig. 1). It’s almost as if Corben doesn’t want to give too much detail to the character, instead creating the impression of the character, while the room around him and material objects are detailed. There is really only one controversial element of this poem’s imagery; what does the guy look like? We’re less likely to get hung up on what the room and objects should look like. Even an artistic expression of a raven would still be relatively fidelitous so long as we recognize it as the raven. But the protagonist’s appearance is the only element our minds are likely to find debatable. If you try to substitute a Pomeranian for a St. Bernard in Cujo, our minds are going to reject it. But changing the car in that story from a Ford Pinto to a Ford Fiesta; they are almost the same economy car, so who cares.

From a Convergence Culture standpoint, analysis such as this becomes a useful tool in looking at the adaptation process. Richard Corben’s work is a great piece of data, because as I mentioned before, he creates other renditions of this and other Poe stories, so one could analyze his visual adaptations of Poe on a specific textual meme in the same way art critics have analyzed Monet’s numerous water lily paintings. In Part 3, I will continue discussing Corben with one of his more recent adaptations of “The Raven”, where we see a shift in his visual style and color, as well as how he is approaching the written adaptations of Poe, specifically what elements are being added to this otherwise sparse story from one of Poe’s most famous poems.

Jeff L. Wright is currently working on PhD in Cultural Studies and as a writing instructor at the University of Arkansas. He has a BA and MA in interdisciplinary studies in the fields of Anthropology, Rhetoric-Composition, Gender Studies, Film Studies, and Theatre. Jeff’s writing ranges from academic research to playwrighting, and he is currently working as one of the official bloggers for the Sam Walton College of Business. His current research is focused on “Bitch-Rhetoric” in comic books and tattoos.