Retronomicon: Ray Bradbury Comic Specials

Review by J. Keith Haney

Zimmerman, Howard; The Illustrated Man; Topps Comics, 1994; 30 pages.
Zimmerman, Howard; Tales of Terror; Topps Comics, 1994, 30 pages.

When the history of fantastic fiction is written sometime later this century, I have every confidence that Ray Bradbury will be hailed as its most original master. Indeed, he has done for the fields of fantasy, science fiction and horror what William Shakespeare did for drama. The evidence supports this grand claim: The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes and Fahrenheit 451. More remarkable is the fact that this is the proverbial tip of the iceberg of the man’s total output. At the start of the 2000s, a collection of 500(!) of his short stories was assembled for the general public to peruse. The man, by his own account, has written every day of his career and that, more than any other talent in his repertoire, is the reason why even people who usually turn their noses up at the fantastic have, at least, heard of Bradbury. Small wonder, then, that this lifelong lover of comics would have his work adapted for comics, as well. Today, we’ll be looking at two such entries, created by Topps Comics in the early ‘90s: The Illustrated Man and Tales of Terror.

When it comes to adapting Bradbury, there is very little work that the adaptor needs to do. Sam Peckinpah once famously said that the way he would shoot a film based on Bradbury’s work is to just rip out the pages of the book and stuff them into the camera. Having read most of the stories adapted here in their original form, I can safely say that the creators involved in this project used Peckinpah’s approach. This is no slight against their efforts. If anything, everyone involved deserves credit on two fronts: 1) for adapting Bradbury’s work in a way that is true to its source material and 2) bringing his stories to a medium where someone who would never pick up one of his books can discover him.

“The Illustrated Man” may be a name you recognise as one of Bradbury’s best-known anthologies. It has the framing device of a young man taking a tour of Wisconsin in the 1950s when he runs into an unusual tattooed man. His illustrations are beautiful, placed on him by a witch from the future, and because of them, he can no longer hold a job. You see, at night, the illustrations move with a mind and life of their own. The pictures have stories to tell through a single bare patch on the Illustrated Man’s back and our young man has the dubious honour of being its audience. It is enough to make one wonder if Clive Barker took this basic conceit for his “Books of Blood” collection. Guy Davis handles the scripting and art honours of the framing sequence here, bringing his usual nuanced view of the human body to the Illustrated Man and his host. The final panels of the sequence once again demonstrate Davis’ flair for horror and Bradbury’s gift for the unexpected.

Sadly, this being a 30-page comic special, you don’t get to see the “twenty or so” stories that flash across the Illustrated Man’s back in the actual book. But you do get a couple of doozies. P. Craig Russell and Michael Lark tackle “The Visitor”. A colony of men, afflicted with a terminal condition called “blood rust” and exiled to Mars, get a visit from a young man named ‘Mark’. He has the ability to create illusions so convincing that you swear they are real. The desire of each man to possess Mark’s ability for himself is both predictable and ugly. Russell and Lark’s artwork does an excellent job in conveying the sense of Mars’ cold, alien environment and the now-equally cold and alien men who walk its surface. It makes the scenes where New York City suddenly appears, in all its mid-20th-century glory, the more startling. The other story is a reprint of an EC classic called “Zero Hour”, adapted by Jack Kamen and illustrated by Rodney Dunn. In an undefined future, Mrs. Morris watches her seven-year-old girl, Mink, play an exciting new game with her friends. It’s called “Invasion” and 5 o’clock has been designated “Zero Hour”. They’re all helping a Martian by the name of ‘Drill’ get to Earth. Mrs. Morris is inclined to think that there is nothing to this…except Mink and her friends are using words no seven-year-old should know…and her friend, Helen, has a son the same age who is playing the exact same game. Dunn’s artwork is typical for the period in which the story was produced, clean to the point of antiseptic and cheery in the manner of a 1950s TV ad. Of course, the bright, cheery storefront of the art serves as excellent cover for the nasty surprise that the script serves up at the end.

However, it is hard to think any nastier surprises outside of the end of “Skeleton”, the lead-off story for the Tales of Terror special. Meet Mr. Harris, a hypochondriac who wants to figure out why his bones ache. He goes to see a particular bone specialist named ‘Munginat’ who says he can only help Harris when he is in the proper mood psychologically. Harris then develops a nasty phobia about the skeleton inside his body, taking extreme steps to get the upper hand against it. Munginat deems him ready…too bad for Harris. Cornell’s script takes the additional step of portraying Harris as talking to advertisements about his dilemma to illustrate his already-unstable frame of mind. Anthony Williams’ artwork is fairly realistic but off-kilter, similar to the artwork of Kelley Jones but lighter in shading. It is an excellent match for this story.

The other two stories in this collection are not, per se, terrifying, but they are good stories, nonetheless. “Uncle Einar” is a charming fairy tale of a man with wings who can no longer fly at night. The tale follows his memories as he flies through the air to dry his wife’s clothes, recalling the fateful day he met her and lost the night sky in the same incident. I really can’t say any more without ruining it, but rest assured, it is a charming tale that is worth the reading. Lars Hakansen and Frances Cichetti even illustrated in the manner of an old Grimm’s fairy tale, complete with some modern touches. The final story, illustrated by legendary comic illustrator Wally Wood, is “Home To Stay”, a straight-up science fiction tale that is yet another EC reprint. Young Jimmy Fawcett waits for his father alongside his mother on a clear night. Seeing a falling star, Mrs. Fawcett tells Jimmy to make a wish. Then we see the story of Jimmy’s dad, Dan, a rocket pilot who places his job over his family. He keeps losing time with his family that he can never get back every time he goes to space for three year stretches. The story ends with a final irony that I’ll again not ruin. Honestly, I’m not being coy. It’s just that Bradbury cannot be talked about so much as experienced.

As of this writing, Ray Bradbury is still very much alive, one of the few of his contemporaries to actually survive into the 21st century. He has much to be proud of, much to point out in the way of accomplishment. May these comics guide some comic kid straight to the awe and mystery that is his life’s work.