Page 45 Review by Stephen
I had four full pages of notes on this, three more than I managed for Chemistry 'O' Level which kind of explains my results back then.
This big, thick softcover contains all four operas in Wagner's Ring sequence: The Rhinegold, The Valkyrie, Siegfried, The Gotterdammerung.
To deliver a truly faithful adaptation - one with even a hope of stirring a reading audience as the original moves a crowd - Craig cannot and does not rely solely on plot and dialogue; a visual interpretation of mere lyrics would omit most of the power and the subtle weave of any opera delivered by the music. 'O Mio Bambino Caro' is, on paper, a fine set of poetry, but when sung so tenderly, so majestically in harmonious concert with music so heart-rendingly poignant (plaintive, aspirational, delicate?), it becomes something extraordinary. And that's just a single aria.
An opera uses many devices to convey ideas and development to cue the audience subconsciously throughout its duration and Russell has thought long and hard about translating these into sequential art. He's taken musical leitmotifs - signatures denoting individual characters, objects and even concepts such as love, regret, power and choice (sometimes combined in a single sequence, hinting at thoughts, informing the action and even able, I'd imagine, to add therefore a level of dramatic irony) - and turned them into visual cues.
One glimpse at the prelude is enough to prove just how accomplished and ingenious an adaptation this is. The opening sequence is 'silent'; it begins quietly with a single finger in blue line and pencil, on which a drop of water swells. It falls into its own ocean to form ripples then waves in an expanding aqueous body, from which a fresh green seedling - the first hint of colour - emerges. By the bottom panel on that first page the tree has grown older than the oak, joined to three shrouded women by twine; and from its roots flows a river, reflecting the aurora above.
That's the creation of the universe on page one. It also sets up three of the four central elements which bind the four operas: water & light, the tree and the sword. Three further pages, reduced to a sandy tone, provide the rest of the background whilst implying consequences for the events to follow. The great god Voton, introduced by his shadow, wanders into picture, stoops to drink then spies, beyond the thread of fate, a woman who will be his wife and goddess of wedlock, Fricka. Three small panels inlayed repeat the earlier sequence, as a drop of water falls from his chin. One of the three hooded women (or Norn) then plucks out Voton's left eye, leaving behind the gift of inner vision, but suddenly her knowing confidence is shattered as Voton reaches up into the tree and breaks off a branch. He fashions it into a spear, takes Frika by the hand and departs, leaving behind him the tree fast falling into autumn then winter. The final four panels close in ominously on the wound inflicted on the tree, until all we can see is the hollow darkness.
Several of these images and refrains will be reprised within the major body as the story unfolds. It's a classic, dynastic tale of love, lust, envy, power, greed, wealth, rejection, duty, treachery, sacrifice and progeny. The dynasty involved is that of the gods of German mythology, and what a familiar pantheon they are! Voton: one-eyed and lustful, as impetuous in love as he is in wrath and for all his supposed wisdom, the perpetual victim of his own stupendously rash promises. He bears the weight of his responsibilities on his own faltering shoulders, and since his wife is goddess of marriage, you just know he's going to be unfaithful. One of his stormy sons wields a hammer, one of his daughters has been sworn as payment to a couple of giants (none of Voton's children receive much in the way of paternal care), and although he doesn't appear to be related as he is in Norse mythology, there's Logé, the flattering trickster.
The Rhinegold is essentially a fable of power versus love, of the choice between them, catalysed by the theft of said gold from the waters of the Rhine. Alberich the troll, cruelly taunted and scorned by three prick-tease mermaids has nothing to lose in love, so rejects it to steal the metal then fashion it into a ring which gives him absolute power over his race. And love must be rejected to wield that power, that's the bargain. But news spreads fast of this new poisoned chalice, and when it reaches the heavens (via Logé, of course) the consequences may prove devastating.
The Valkyrie move some of the action back down to Earth where Voton's been a busy boy. Once more the set up is a combination of familiar themes and plot points: lost siblings, unholy love, the treachery of children, the will of the gods, and the duty of husbands and kings. In the previous opera Voton has been warned about the Twilight of The Gods, the doom that awaits them, and in the sequence which links the two (once more combining water, light, the tree and now the sword, in panels that echo the prelude), Russell shows us Voton's solution, the creation of a sword. This he hopes will be unsheathed from the tree into which he thrust it, by someone worthy, someone over whom he has no direct influence. But he only goes and shags a mortal to sire this someone! And if that weren't enough to raise Frika's ire, that very son soon falls in love with his own twin sister, already married to the man whose house is built round this tree.
None of which is going to go down well with protectress of wedlock. Add in another tragic offspring, Brunhildé, one of the Valkyrie, Voton's daughter once again and the literal embodiment of his will (his actual will, not his stated position), and you've one family circle that'll never be squared. I can't tell you how cleverly it all comes together - the whole sword, fate and progeny thing - because there's a final twist, a ramification of the incest which has yet to be played out, with Craig once more excelling himself in the final panel foreshadowing the next round.
If all of this wasn't enough, it's just occurred to me that there may be many as yet unfamiliar with P. Craig Russell as an artist. On the basis of his work on SANDMAN #50 alone he is justly celebrated.
Other credits include THE FAIRY TALES OF OSCAR WILDE, THE ART OF P. CRAIG RUSSELL and - with Neil Gaiman - MURDER MYSTERIES, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK GRAPHIC NOVEL, CORALINE, SANDMAN: DREAM HUNTERS and the first story in SANDMAN: ENDLESS NIGHTS.
His command of symbolism through design is beautiful to behold, and above all he's just one of the most flat-out attractive neo-classical craftsmen. If you've never seen his pencils you're in for an additional treat, for some of the preliminary sketchwork is reproduced in the back, bursting with a Renaissance homo-eroticism reminiscent of Donatello, Caravaggio and the less burly examples of Michelangelo.
In some ways it's not an easy book - it's only fair to warn you that the language throughout retains the original formality which some may find initially stilted or foreboding - but its appeal is far broader than I initially suspected: we've just sold four copies of this softcover edition on its very first day of publication! I'll probably receive some flack for this comparison, but the combined scenario and linguistic approach is really not far from a cross between Shakespeare and SANDMAN.
Which should shift a few units.