Writing a description of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kaddath, a recent release from Selfmade Hero by INJ Culbard, is difficult because it is such a total sensory experience. It’s an adaptation of a story by H.P. Lovecraft, and while some creators have delved into and even co-opted Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythology, few have approached Lovecraft’s other works without trepidation. This is partly because Lovecraft is a master of suggestion, hints of description without complete revelation of the horrors and heights he’s conveying in his prose.
Culbard has already produced a tour-de-force Lovecraft adaptation, among others, in The Shadow Out of Time, but that is a very different story to approach aesthetically than Dream-Quest. In The Shadow Out of Time, Culbard handles aesthetics in various ingenious ways, pursuing the psychology of a man who believes his soul has been taken away into other times and places and his body has been periodically possessed by the soul of an ancient alien, giving him vistas onto cosmically ancient and future places and times. Dream-Quest could be defined as more purely a work of fantasy, where a central character moves from the “real” world of the 1920’s into dream-states where he explores haunting lands and goes on a quest to find a “sunset-city”, Kaddath, the visions of which have consumed his waking life. Ian Edginton, a collaborator with Culbard on many works, recently commented in an interview that Culbard is particularly at home when presenting large, sweeping vistas, as can be seen in the pair’s 2000AD series Brass Sun, and Dream-Quest certainly confirms that. In fact, Culbard’s talents are perfectly suited to presenting vast, imagined landscapes that give the reader a visionary feeling of having experienced other places and other times.
Culbard’s grasp on pacing is remarkable, as he moves the reader through a rapidly transforming series of settings while central character Randolph Carter ventures further and further into the dream-realm pursuing clues as to the location of the city of Kaddath. Approaching the location is nigh-impossible, since it is forbidden and protected by old gods who are even higher, more mysterious, and even more dreadful than the ordinary gods of mortal men. Lovecraft’s ability to hint at vast, cosmic, and even terrifying levels of consciousness is brought home in a surprisingly concrete way by Culbard’s presentation of the tortuous, frustrating, and often cyclical journeys of Carter’s relentless pursuit. Along the way, we encounter strange beings, of course, such as the flying, slightly vampirical Night Gaunts, and the binary of good and evil breaks down since even the high gods are in some sense, hellish. Carter’s story is counterbalanced by the melancholy pursuits of another real-world friend, an artist, who has pursued some of these paths before him, and some of the mysteries regarding his experience remain unexplained in typical Lovecraftian vein, keeping you guessing about the dangers Carter faces.
Here we have forests, ocean travel by ships, mountains, menacing merchants, and even more menacing beings who seek to halt or redirect Carter’s pursuits. Another way in which the narrative retains a sense of apprehension is that Culbard also presents Carter’s mentality without a driving sense of judgement. Carter is certainly bold, perhaps foolhardy, and he is a candidate for being “lost” in his journeys by losing touch with the “real” world. The graphic novel acts therefore as a very focused fantasy, adventure story, and not some kind of moral handbook for heroic development. We don’t expect Carter to emerge “older and wiser” in any typical way, though no doubt his experiences will be transformative, whether for good or ill.
The reason I say that The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kaddath bodes well for the future of comics is because Culbard has taken absolutely challenging prose source material and rendered visual things that most Lovecraft readers feel are simply unrepresentable. Culbard takes us on his own dream-quest as an artist, and the experience of his strange visionary lands, ranging from the glorious to the hellish, containing things almost beyond imagination, is quite simply breathtaking. Culbard’s operational freedom as an artist in doing so, the unfettered sense the book conveys visually, speaks to development in comics that allow artists to dive into purely personal interpretations, pushing the boundaries of what readers have seen in comics before. There are very few typical tropes of fantasy art to be seen in Dream-Quest. Each image feels unique and experimental, plugging into potential reader responses on an almost psychological level.
One of Culbard’s most powerful tools is his color palette. We encounter worlds flooded with unusual color and light, more vibrant and less twilit than you might expect in a dream-realm, and yet he uses darkness, and starlight to great effect. Another way in which Culbard affects the reader is through the use of shape and architecture, presenting point-of-view angles following Carter, and creates at least a hint of paranoia, and certainly a sense that Carter is overwhelmed and flooded by new impressions on a regular basis. Clearly Culbard has given some thought to how to keep the reader just grounded enough in the familiar to be able to follow the story while rendering their impressions as new and fresh as possible when they encounter the worlds that Carter traverses.
We get the sense that without handling it in a distracting fashion, Culbard has broken down many of the expectations that we have traditionally held about what fantasy adventure stories need to contain, and how they are represented, and though this is no doubt helped along by the unconventional writing of Lovecraft, Dream-Quest is a book that makes a strong final statement about the potential of comics to render visual imaginative possibilities that simply haven’t been attempted yet. It’s an innovative graphic novel in many ways, and for many comics readers, finding the truly “new” is a kind of quest of their own. This is one such book, and as long as creators continue to pioneer new ways of storytelling, the comics medium remains vital and exciting, rather than simply turning back to recycling and nostalgia to appeal to readers on a less challenging level. The former represents an aspirational, upward movement in comics, and the latter a path toward gradual decline. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kaddath reassures me that comics are indeed, still pursing an aspirational trend.
Hannah Means-Shannon is EIC at Bleeding Cool and @hannahmenzies on Twitter