Posted by Loa Shelley
Edgar Allen Poe’s work is a cornerstone of American literature, taking us into the depths of our own inhuman horrors. Known during his lifetime mainly as a literary critic, it was only long after his death in 1849 that his works of fiction grew in popularity. In May of 1842, he published the short story “The Mask of The Red Death” in Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine. The story was republished three years later in another journal as “The Masque of the Red Death,” the title change emphasizing the masquerade ball in which its main character appears.
It is from that ball as well that Wendy Pini’s epic webcomic based on the Poe piece seems to draw inspiration. She takes us to Sivarsi Nine, a mega-city on a world not so unfamiliar in its inhabitants’ lust for glamour and riches. The story tells of two young visionary opposites, Anton Prosper and Steffan Kabala, both born into privilege, both blessed with ambition, looks and intelligence. They seek to use their talents to cheat death and achieve immortality, forever preserving their youth, like living statues.
As they work together on their medical breakthrough, the two find passion for each other, though the bliss is ever-so-dangerously tainted with the possibility of betrayal and mistrust. Their own looks and wealth make them into celebrities, their visibility heightened by the onset of the grand ball at Prosper’s exclusive residence.
Though at first “Masque” appears to be a simple tale of extravagance, the danger lurks underneath. Like an eerie specter feeding on degradation, the Red Death stalks our fond introductions to the characters. One suspects that the end for them will not be pretty, especially in view of their greed, their ignorance and their narcissism.
“Masque” isn’t just about the future, it’s talking about The Now: how people need to be smart with their own health. It’s about finding the ethical and sensible way to one’s own well-being, as opposed to taking the easy or reactionary way to self-preservation, via promised immortality. Both H1N1 and Health Care Reform have been in the news for over a year. Growing worry about pollutants in the air and water, and concerns about global temperature, are expressed in credible news sources. Technology pushes forward, promising “nanobots” that can doctor the human body from the inside. Immortality seems a few steps away, but is it really just a mask of the Red Death?
Furthermore, the webcomic story raises questions about whether such advances should be viewed as intellectual property to be owned by a few, or the salvation of the race; or whether those whose opulence rules their lives deserve to be saved, perhaps forever, while others who work toward their goals honestly are no more than sacrificial lambs, disposable.
In short, while embracing Poe’s story, Wendy Pini has crafted a brilliant “masque” of her own, a moral allegory on societal vanity mingled into an illustrated novel that looks at the humanity, or perhaps the inhumanity of medical technology and asks: Should such technology be allowed to achieve its ultimate goal in eradicating Death at any price? In either format, web comic or graphic novel, “Masque of the Red Death” uses its contemporary questions to dazzle the contemporary reader.
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