Review by El Santo
Reproduced with persmission from WebcomicOverlook.com, as published on June 29, 2010
I became a comic fan in the early 90′s during the debut of Jim Lee’s X-Men. Thanks to my nerdy, obsessive nature, I ended up taking a strong interest in the history of comics. I used to hope up at the Detroit Public Library, head up the stairs to the second floor (which had some fantastic Diego Rivera murals that I didn’t appreciate at the time), and pored through various books about comic book history. I learned about obscure, now-forgotten heroes, reveled in pages devoted to Will Eisner’s The Spirit, and took a passing interest in the Kitchen Sink Comix movement of the 1970′s.
When the book got to the 80′s, a couple of names stood out prominently: the husband and wife team Wendy and Richard Pini. Their comic, Elfquest, was the standard bearer for indie comics of the 1980′s. It was THE sterling and unassailable example that creators didn’t need to sell their souls to the Big Two to create a comic book hit.
However, I never got into Elfquest much. I tried reading the books, which were also available in hardcover at the library, but they weren’t for me. I think the books were successful because they pursued the female comic reader market before manga proved to everyone that they were commercial viable. While a noble pursuit, these delicate fantasy comics filled with dewy-eyed pretty boys were definitely not for me, who longed for nothing more than to read page after page of muscly guys punching each other.
Still, I was filled with giddy excitement when, one day while browsing through the “webcomic” entry of Wikipedia, I ran across Wendy Pini’s name attached to an online adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. Ah, I thought, the perfect gateway into the world of Wendy Pini! I loved Poe’s original short story, and I was excited to see how that would translate to comics.
Imagine my surprise when the webcomic bore less resemblance to Poe’s Masque of the Red Death and more similarities to Anne Rice’s The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty. That is to say that Rice, writing under the name A.N. Roquelaure, mainly used a well known story as a framework for erotic literature about bondage, domination, and sadomasochism.
In case it hadn’t bee quite clear to you yet, Wendy Pini’s Masque of the Red Death is similarly and adults-only affair. The review itself doesn’t really go overboard into NSFW territory, but, still, proceed at your own caution.
So what IS so adults-only about Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, anyway? Besides the violently graphic nature of the deaths, which cause “sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores.” The ball held by Prince Prospero has always been depicted as rather prurient, even if the particulars are not spelled out in the story itself. Check out this ribald illustration from 1894, for example, which depicts the lascivious revelry in Prospero’s castellated abbey. Wendy Pini takes the wanton celebration further than perhaps what Poe imagined and dollops a heavy scoop of gay erotica.
Now, I know what you’re saying. “El Santo,” you say, “I remember reading this story in junior high. I’m pretty sure this was a creepy tale of the inevitability of death. Unless I blocked it out of my memory, I don’t remember two dudes macking on each other.”
And I’m like, “What, didn’t you read the line where it says, ‘And there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company’? And what about ‘The tastes of the duke were peculiar’? It’s right there, people!”
So yes, Masque of the Red Death has some rather extended and graphic scenes where our two principal characters, the amoral and devilish “Prince” Anton Prosper and the genetically-enhanced-to-be-the-most-beautiful-man-in-the-world Steffan, totally get it on. Now, I’m no yaoi fan, so perhaps I’m not the best person in the world to comment on whether or not these scenes of two guys cuddling and, uh, playing erotic baseball were any good or not. However, if I remember my Yaoi 101, fangirls prefer the scenes of two men being bitchy to one another (which thus increases their eroti-meters) over the actual sex scenes. There’s plenty of that, too. In my opinion, they’re kinda cheesy, overly melodramatic, and far too reminiscent of a bad soap opera… but, again, not the best judge.
It did reveal a bit of a double standard at play. Steffan is depicted to be below the legal age at 16. [Author’s note: it turns out I was wrong about the age. In the comments below, Wendy Pini informs me that Steffan was actually 23. Steffan was 16 at some point in the story, but apparently not when the incident I’m referring to takes place. My sincere apologies for the confusion.] Anton also treats Steffan rather roughly. Now, if the role of Steffan was recast as a girl (which is not too difficult given his generally androgynous look) this sequence would be kinda sketchy. But, well, Steffan’s male, so dude’s supposed to take his sodomy … like a man.
But that’s not the only change. Pini brushes off the setting, which always struck me as something from Medici-era Italy, into the future. It’s a world of blueskinned people and flying cars that look like running shoes. However, despite the trappings, is not too different from the present day. Shallow personalities from an entertainment show gossip and dish about celebrities 24/7. Powerful corporations jostle for the next hot product with little regard for the consequences. And technologies are pretty much geared toward how to look beautiful forever.
Anton Prosper inherits the family fortune and the family castle, “Penumbra.” He’s also a bit of a geneticist He’s been working on a project that makes him immune to mortal injuries, and he doesn’t really plan on sharing it. To complete it, though, he needs the help of Madame Kabala, a brilliant geneticist who has an agenda of her own, and her son Steffan, who she schemes into seducing Anton and stealing the secrets.
Steffan is highly emotional. He seems devoted to his mother at first. But when he senses that he’s in love with Anton, he abandons her when Anton banishes her from the island. Still, his loyalty to Anton is just as shaky. They crumble at the slightest flash of jealousy. These feelings become dangerous when Daryel Mirrin enters the scene, a humanitarian salt-of-the-earthy guy whose honesty Anton admires and who Steffan mistakes for a romantic rival.
Using Flash, Pini employs a method that can best be described as “click-through” animation. Pini explains her intentions in an interview with Brigid Alverson at Digital Strips:
… we are going to invent ours from scratch and we are going to take a different approach from what’s up there so far and we are going to take the opportunity to add a little actual animation to it. What you’ll see is more an atmospheric type of approach. For example, if we have two characters in middle of a misty fog, you might see the fog billowing around them even though the characters stay still. We’ll use it very judiciously. It’s all about mood, especially in a story like this.
Press the forward button, and we get the next frame of animation, simulating movement. There’s even an option to have the pages click forward automatically, which turns Masque of the Red Death into a motion comic.
Does this feature enhance the comic, or is it little more than gimmicky? I personally lean toward the latter. There are times when the motion enhances the mood. Early on, one of the flying cars lands and you get a distinct sense of being blinded by the landing lights. In another long scene, we’re treated to a costume ball where we watch a seemingly endless dance. I thought it successfully depicted how Penumbra had become both like a dream and like a prison at the same time.
Most “animations” felt unnecessary and, worse, incredibly cheesy. I snorted during a scene toward the beginning where Madame Kabala chastises her audience by wagging her finger in the “oh no, you din’t” sense. Later, Pini animates Anton and Steffan’s first kiss, which ridiculously comes off as two guys rubbing their noses together.
The absolute goofiest moment, though, comes when Anton kicks off the masquerade ball. It’s already pretty ridiculous, something like a Cirque du Soleil show doing a Vegas dancing girls theme. Steffan and Anton sashay down the stairs in big feathery outfits. As you click through, we zoom in on Steffan. Then we zoom in on Anton. Then we zoom out. We zoom in on Steffan again, and then we zoom in on Anton again… only this time, Pini has animated a very fey wink. The sound of my palm hitting my forehead could be heard in three counties.
Pini seems to want to write a comic where there are no heroes. Anton, for example, is definitely selfish and cold, and yet we, the readers, easily identify with his disgust at the abhorrent shallowness of the world he lives in. Steffan, seemingly the sympathetic one, manages to cause a lot of trouble just because his emotions cause him to put faith in the wrong people.
Pini mentioned in her interview that “by the end of the story you are not going to know who the hero or the villain is.” Oh, there are actual villains. It’s a shame that Madame Kabala and Tono Trankule don’t have mustaches, because their motivations are so one-dimensional that they were clearly made to twirl them. The two conspire to steal Anton’s youth juice to corner the market on beauty products. And, of course, things go bad. (I mean, we are talking about an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, here.) I’m not sure if Pini is leaning on a lazy literary device or if she’s actually making a statement about unchecked capitalism here. Still, I find it hard to believe that a utopian society like the one depicted in the comic got this far without some equivalent of the Food and Drug Administration.
Sill, despite my reservations about an erotic Poe motion comic set in the future, Wendy Pini is such a professional that she almost manages to pull off a decent adaptation. Her art is quite attractive. The character designs are quite clean, resembling a mix of Japanese and European styles. (Tellingly, some of her most lovingly rendered illustrations are focused on the naked male buttock.) She’s got a keen eye for detail, which are on full display with the elaborate costumes presented at the masquerade. Colors are Ms. Pini’s specialty, which pop when she takes a lavish tour through the castle’s color-themed ballrooms.
Remember how Titanic was rather boring soap opera until the moment the ship hit the iceberg? The same thing happens to Masque of the Red Death, which hits the ground running once the Red Death hits. Complacent characters start panicking, society crumbles, and major characters bite it. Pini is at least correct when she claims that “everybody in the story has a side and you’re going to feel sorry for all of them, even the worst of them.” She’s defined her characters well, and when they begin to die, you don’t care if they were the good guys or the bad guys. You do feel like the death that visits them — whether as a victim to the Red Death or a result of the imprisonment within Penumbra — was totally undeserved.
Now, I mentioned that she almost pulled off a decent adaptation. So, what ruined this webcomic for me? I already pointed out the supreme cheesiness of the “click-through” animations. Yet, the corniness of that feature pales in comparison to the awful-as-hell dialogue. Every single line sounds like it came out of a trashy romance novel.
There are awkward attempts to mix melodrama with high-concept future-speak:
“Addicted to their holo-screens, they know too much … yet know nothing! They graze through the mall paths like docile, pretty cows, clueless about what it is to truly live!”
“The science of life extension, plus ever-improving insights into the quality of man’s mental and material well-being — can manifest on our planet what the ancients who knelt before idols childishly called ‘Heaven.’”
“Great Hoob, no! My equilibrium doesn’t hinge on what that boy does or doesn’t do.”
“Trankule… you snake-fucking son of a bitch!”
OK… so admittedly that last one would look cool on my epitaph.
And there’s the “romantic” talk, made worse by some of the ultra-dramatic poses the characters take while uttering the damn lines. Seriously, these are groan-inducing at an epic level:
“Beautiful Eyes… no one’s ever done something for you with no strings attached, have they?”
“You’re hungry.” “I could devour this island and everything on it!” “Yes, hungry — but not just for food.”
“Something bigger than us … I wonder … if there is something … is it the power of love?”
“Then we’re right back where we started … here, in this room … with you trying to force my neck into your yoke. It chokes… It stifles!”
As you can tell by the dialogue, everything is so goddamn melodramatic. A simple tour through the different rooms turns into a entire chapter filled with daffy lines, pregnant pauses, and histrionic gestures. And, just in case this isn’t campy enough, how about we include some ominous thunder and lightning to punctuate the mood? You know, there is such a thing as being too theatrical.
So there you go: Wendy Pini’s Masque of the Red Death has its moments, but it’s ultimately undermined by its own campiness. It’s like that mysterious visitor in the flamboyant costume that comes to the party at your hermetically sealed manor. Sure, he’s nice to look at. You might be caught off guard by all the pretty colors and the nifty moving doodads on his suit. You feel some unease the closer he gets, though, and once you whisk that mask off, you soon realize that you’re staring face to face with a really hammy webcomic.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)