I. True Story. Back before Neil Gaiman became a brand, he complimented my wife’s evening dress at a gathering of bookish nerds being held at the Marriott Fort Lauderdale Airport. The dress featured cutouts which brought to Mr. Gaiman’s mind, “something out of Star Trek,” a high bar of ‘nerd’ praise for sure. The remainder of the evening went unremarked, its apex having been reached.
II. This is the third time Only the End of the World Again—yet another of Neil Gaiman’s riffs on H.P. Lovecraft—has found purchase. Call this current iteration, the latest entry into Dark Horse’s ‘Neil Gaiman Library,’ what it is: a beautifully designed cash grab.
Such a flip assessment should not (and does not) extend to those creators who, rightfully so, find their names lower on the marquee. Comic pros have to pay rent too. So Bravo indeed to Messrs. Russell, Nixey, Hollingsworth and Konot. Now, before toppling off too high of a horse, let’s acknowledge that this is Dark Horse Comics Books, a smallish fish swimming in the mid-sized pool of the pop culture landscape called Comics, a dense—and if the multiplexes are any arbiter of taste—nutrient rich stew stocked to the gills with many intellectual properties ripe for (re)adaptation.
Only the End of the World Again was first released in black and white by Oni Press in 1998's Ōni Double Feature #6 through #8. Oni also put out a subsequent edition--thin as gruel. So thank the elder Gods then Dark Horse coughed up the cash for Hollingsworth to add his jaundiced shades of bluish-greens and greenish-blues to a story set in the lonesome old town of Innsmouth, Massachusetts. Yes, yes as if this thrice-told-tale needed to swap in one more sorta’ new lamp for old, OtEotWA firmly resides in that particular corner of the prima shared fictional universe, the Cthulhu Mythos.
The fact that such a benign piece of ephemera exists—and is on its third go round no less—says more about the power of Gaiman’s brand than perhaps anything else. To go further and devolve like an upstanding Innsmouth-ian into downright nihilism, readers are being asked to, once again, buy something they already love that’s been cobbled together from other stuff they also love too. Reprints gonna reprint!
So where does that leave the consumer reader? New work from Hollingsworth that’s easier got for far less filthy lucre in a recently published pamphlet? Yes and no. Only the End of the World Again represents a study in what it means to be a comics pro. Like some Ghost of Christmas Present, Gaiman et al. swish aside their Dickensian robe to reveal the sins of competency and consistency. Everyone wants to pose as punk and ragged—especially in the august ones and zeroes of ‘TCJ.’ Gaiman wanted the same thing when he was poolside in his black motorcycle jacket in the Florida heat. True Story. Whiter the professional, the ace, the old hand? When did professionalism turn uncool?
III. Gaiman is perhaps the best bricoleur, certainly one of the most popular, working today; a writer who made his bones with equal parts innovation and inheritance. When it comes to improving and improvising on other people’s ideas, he's Shakespearian . Everyone does it and Gaiman does it better than most.
In Only the End of the World Again he brings an insurance adjustor (get it?, adjustor?) by day and a werewolf by night to Lovecraft’s Innsmouth. Lawrence Talbot—Gaiman borrows the name from Lon Chaney Jr.’s character in ‘The Wolf Man’ which in doing so nips a clever conceit from Gaiman’s spiritual mentor Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October—is in town, and apparently has gone so far as to set up a business there, for reasons … because [shouting] THIS! IS! INNSMOUTH! A lycanthrope … in Cthulhu’s BAE town ... what else do you need or want? Torches will blaze, ancient chants praised and there will be tentacles, teeth and all that deep, dark, dank water and (yes) at least one underwater eldritch edifice, preferably green, will be, at least, glimpsed.
Gaiman never overthinks or questions. Aside from demonstrating the ingrained xenophobia common to all Innsmouth inhabitants, Gaiman is not in town to praise or raze Lovecraft’s odious personal politics. Like his protagonist, Gaiman has been sent to do a job, he does it competently and completely with enough wit to set Lovecraft lovers swooning with the use of words like “Dagon” and “Manuxet.” Only the End of the World Again blows your hair back in its efficiency and skill, not because Gaiman had some ‘woke’ take twenty years ago on the O.G. MAGA schlockmeister. If he had, maybe this IP wouldn’t have been only refreshed three times in twenty years or worse, not at all. If he had or if others since had done more to call out Lovecraft’s racism maybe we wouldn’t still have to talk about why Mythos flagbearers don’t deal with Lovecraft’s racism.
IV. Think of the creators of Only the End of the World Again as the crew in a heist movie, something slick, professional, possibly French or with some 70s ersatz grit. Like if the ex-cons of ‘Rififi’ or ‘The Sting’ got together and made a comic book. If so P. Craig Russell would play the safe cracker extraordinaire Cesar in ‘Rififi’ or Paul Newman’s Gondoff in ‘The Sting.’ Whatever constitutes adaptation and layouts in OtEotWA, Russell’s pedigree has him punching below his weight class. Besides having won enough comics industry awards to choke a kraken, Russell is adaptor rex having lent his talents to works by Moorcock, Bradbury, Wilde, Kipling and previously with Gaiman.
To pad out a fifty plus page story Dark Horse includes said layouts alongside high res scans Troy Nixey’s finished pages and therefore triples the story’s original page count to justify (?) this edition. Again, that’s too cynical by half. This isn’t sausage making or navel gazing, it’s an exemplar of how work gets done. Adaptation makes for a tricky business, if successful the praise goes to the source material—well, you should read the book!—if done poorly or so slavishly as to leave itself a flaccid glop of blah—well, you should read the book! There’s little to be won (or lost) with adaptations for those who do the adapting. What makes the difference here is one word: ‘Gaiman.’ It’s a near guarantee Only the End of the World Again gets read or better yet, set in a place of prominence in a bookstore or LCS. With the exception of accountants and collectors, Comics is synonymous for disposable. In spite of his longtime collaboration and shared success with Gaiman, Russell will never receive the same credit or be as well remembered as Gaiman. It’s a shame, but it’s all in the game. The simple fact this werewolf by way of Lovecraftian horror obscura has any viability in the marketplace is because it bears Gaiman’s name.
Take time to pore over what Russell lays out, how the eye tracks from one panel to the next and on to the next. Even at this rudimentary stage, the realization hits that you are in thrall to a master craftsmen. Little details like how staircases end at the bottom right side of a page or spiral about foreshadowing the mad tentacle terrors to come. Russell makes it all feel like the reader is simply following a character as he crosses from one threshold, one page to the next.
If casting determines a film’s success than Russell and Gaiman chose wisely recruiting Troy Nixey to the team. There’s a built-in squishiness to all things Lovecraft that is both cliche and endemic. So too is the case with Nixey’s art. He draws Talbot’s face as if someone tried to pull the eyes down closer to the mouth, but lost their nerve halfway through which leaves him with more forehead than chin. Talbot’s nose alone approaches the sublime, an illustration of some arcane knot that’s been mashed into a child’s drawing of a sideways bird. Nixey's cartooning has a caricaturist style sans the goofiness that comes with the trade. Again, think professional. Think of Hirschfeld and Herblock having a baby.
But faces aren’t what grab eyeballs in Lovecraft-inspired yarns—not, you know, artistically speaking. Nixey’s ‘Deep Ones’ are vulgar without being extravagant and repulsive without being romantic. The word rasp-like comes to mind. Besides being blatantly racist, Lovecraft wrote the book on how words fail to describe the ancient horrors of deep space or deep water. So it’s been left to the artists to render where HPL demurred. Like Gaiman and Russell do with the words and story, Nixey chooses to make his waterlogged abominables above average, but not nightmare fuel—pleasing taste, some monster-ism.
The same goes for Talbot’s hairier and toothier half. Nixey drafts a wolfish werewolf without going too far in either direction, neither beast-man nor man-beast. This balanced approach appears in full when the baddies have slipped back beneath the waves and all that’s left is the wolf and a witness. Nixey draws a perfect canine head, textbook, and fills the full top third of the page with it. Tucked below, Russell lays out two panels that allows Nixey to push the wolfman into the foreground as it leans its head out over its humanoid trapezius towards its interlocutor. In the adjoining panel the perspective changes, the view is now from above, as if this leaning lupus has already taken the reader over the edge of the cliff it and its human counterpart stand upon below the primeval pitch blackness and all that Nixey-ian inky night.
V. My anecdote about Neil Gaiman complimenting my wife at a hotel conference center near an airport in Florida isn’t the kind of story one dines out on. When it’s remembered and remarked upon it’s met with the sort of politeness that’s shown to most stories about brushes with celebrity. Charming. Inoffensive. The same two words describe the merits and essence of Only the End of the World Again. Gaiman, Russell, Nixey, Hollingsworth and Konot don’t break barriers or upend expectations, instead they deliver on their promises because they’re professionals. If you do spend either time or coin on these past masters, no worries, it’s not like it’s the end of the world … again.