Required Reading is DoomRocket’s love chest, opened twice monthly to champion a book that we adore. This week Arpad recommends ‘A Study in Emerald’, written by Neil Gaiman, Rafael Albuquerque, and Rafael Scavone and illustrated by Rafael Albuquerque, available this Wednesday from Dark Horse Comics.
By Arpad Okay. A Study in Emerald is a murder mystery made more than penny dreadful by its influences and its approach. Rafaels Albuquerque and Scavone have paneled out a book that is a synthesis of three styles, a period piece crafted with contemporary sensibilities. Emerald is a mirror to the first novel of Arthur Conan Doyle’s know-it-all, Sherlock Holmes, reflected as the equally genius but significantly more sinister “detective.”
The cold logic of Doyle is married to the Cthulhu mythos of H. P. Lovecraft. There’s no direct analog for Lovecraft’s work the way Emerald follows Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet; what Lovecraft adds to the story is his legacy. The atmosphere. The tentacles. Lovecraft’s stories hinted at evils older than our world and Emerald expands upon those implications.
The last style is, of course, Neil Gaiman. Gaiman has a deliberate storyteller voice, a measured and recognizable intention of voice. Albuquerque and Scavone keep the chorus intact, giving a modern feel to a classic yarn in the inimitable Dark Horse style. A comic from then made for now.
As the work of Robert E. Howard ran parallel to Lovecraft’s, A Study in Emerald is in many ways in line with Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord’s adaptation of Conan (also colored by Dave Stewart), down to Todd Klein’s use of the typewriter font. Both books aim to prove the timelessness of their sources by modernizing the voice and look without compromising the aesthetic of the setting. A Study in Emerald is pulp subverted, sharpened.
The execution of Emerald is contempo, but the creators’ love for bygone trappings is the foundation on which the tale is built. Costumes, carriages, the city by gaslight from theater to Baker Street to the slums. The theater bit is an exceptionally Gaiman touch: a story within the story, about the larger world.
Rafael Albuquerque and Dave Stewart take us there, sometimes viscerally, sometimes faintly, the light pen of Albuquerque never weighing down our flight through the pages. Stewart textures the book softly, almost exclusively with muted, warm colors, giving Emerald the feel of a weathered, old tome.
The whole book is shown through a mist. Stewart’s colors lose their focus at each page and panel’s border. Albuquerque’s characters are wispy. The cut of a suit carries more weight than the scars on a face. The curtains, the sitting rooms, breakfast, these things have more body than buildings, pavement, walls. What you can touch is corporeal. What you see isn’t.
Albuquerque, in the vein of veteran Gaiman collaborator Charles Vess, knows how to employ a sparse but perfect amount of detail. He is no slouch on drawing the setting, but the draw of Emerald lies in the eyes of its main characters. A Study in Emerald is a book of faces. The detective is lupine. Predatory. The major, his Watson, is timid, a rabbit to Holmes’ wolf. The major serves as the reader’s proxy, shocked by the macabre circumstance we find ourselves in. Being a veteran and man of the world should harden him to a single death, but it isn’t emerald that is the supremely powerful shade of the story. It’s the wide, wild whites of the major’s eyes.
The detective is a deep, dark pool, the bottom obscured from our view. What could be mistaken for smug indifference at the start of A Study in Emerald is revealed to be the otherworldly focus of the detective disappearing into his work. A man neither touched by fear nor joy, always reaching out and consuming the world around him. His gaze, too, tells the tale.
Emerald is not without its obvious monsters. Take the queen: an unmistakable, breathtakingly evil thing. An egg, a china doll draped in crimson, her mouth a flap torn open by amber spines, the cup the egg sits in a living bush of calamari. The paradigm from which A Study in Emerald is portrayed certainly beguiled me. I found myself rejecting what I could plainly see. Faced with a truth that countered my expectations, I rejected it. Until the end.
Dark Horse Comics/$17.99
Written by Neil Gaiman, Rafael Albuquerque, and Rafael Scavone.
Illustrated by Rafael Albuquerque.
Colored by Dave Stewart.
Lettered by Todd Klein.
The hardcover edition of ‘A Study in Emerald’ hits stores Wednesday, June 27.