By Joseph Conrad, Adapted by David Zane Mairowitz, Art by Catherine Anyango
Heart Of Darkness is one of those works of fiction that everyone knows – or at least they’ve heard of. The story of a journey into the heart of the Congo, of a man’s journey into the darkness of colonial Africa, and of the darkness of the human spirit.
Whether you know of it from Conrad’s original or from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or simple from some collective memory, there’s little argument that Heart Of Darkness is a genuine masterpiece of atmosphere and claustrophobic darkness of all kinds – a road movie on a river, concerned primarily, not with the destination, but with the experience of the journey. Similarly, any review of Hearts Of Darkness has to concentrate on the adaptation, on the themes, assuming that the reader is familiar with the story itself.
And adapting Hearts Of Darkness, something so well known, something so dense and dark into comics is a huge task, but Mairwitz and Anyango have done the masterpiece absolute justice. This is quite wonderful work.
(Marlow hears of Kurtz and his importance to the company at the beginning of his odyssey. From Heart Of Darkness, by Conrad, Anyango and Mairowitz, published by SelfMadeHero.)
From the moment it starts, Anyango’s artwork and Mairowitz’s carefully chosen words capture every bit of the novel’s sense of oppressive atmosphere, the claustrophobic, unrelenting inevitbility and threat that builds and builds as Marlow travels slowly, inexorably towards his destination, towards Ivory trader Kurtz.
128 pages just isn’t that many to adapt a prose novel of this depth and Maurowitz deserves immense praise for the bravery he’s shown in leaving so much of the narrative out, choosing instead to rely on his perfect selection of words to tell his story. Indeed, he even adds to the work by incorporating extracts of Conrad’s diary entries from his 1890 experiences of working the Congo River.
The words; Marlow’s clipped, sparse and haunting first person narration, are mostly conveyed through captions, all the better to reinforce the separation, from the jungle, from Africa, from reality itself, that Conrad’s novella relies upon. And as Conrad’s words fly past, the opppresive nature of the work builds and builds. Much of this is through the stark beauty of the words, but like any great graphic novel a large proportion of the work is carried by the art.
(Anyango’s artwork shifts throughout Heart Of Darkness, from detailed pencil work to more abstracted pieces that tell us so much of the colonial Africa Marlow is venturing into. From Heart Of Darkness, by Conrad, Anyango and Mairowitz, published by SelfMadeHero.)
Anyango’s artwork not only tells a complex narrative, not only sets the mood and the tone of the work, but it also throws a spotlight on those elements of the story that Mairowitz has deliberately merely touched upon. Where Mairowitz could have spent many pages describing the horrors of colonial Africa for the indigenous population, it’s far more effective, far more shocking and visceral to see Anyango’s abstracted artwork summarise it in a few horrifically beautiful pages.
And her pencilled sepia toned linework is stunning; detailed when delinating Marlow and his boat but touching on ethereal abstraction when necessary to further convey the sense of alienation of Marlow and the otherworldliness of the setting.
(Beautiful, ethereal artwork that perfectly captures the sense of alienation Conrad captured in his work. From Heart Of Darkness, by Conrad, Anyango and Mairowitz, published by SelfMadeHero.)
But Anyango’s art is most effective at capturing the nightmarish otherworliness of the Congo; it’s people, the incredibly oppresive jungle, the misery of the slave trade, the opppresive nature of the geography – Anyango’s visuals do these justice and more.
The nature of her pencilled sepia work gives a heightened organic feel to everything (almost Giger-esque at crucial moments) creating nightmarish jungle scenes where the foliage appears to be reaching out, clinging, seeking. Or in the disturbing scenes at Kurtz’ compound where we see mountains of ivory, testament to the slaughter that’s gone on deep in the Congo. But this ivory is no mere background, it towers over everything, an organic series of tendril like structures, that seem to reach out for the men below.
All told, Heart Of Darkness is spectacular, doing the unthinkable and not only capturing the essence of a great work of prose, but actually adding another dimension to the experience. It doesn’t improve upon Conrad’s original – that would be near impossible. But it does add to it, beautifully and hauntingly, to create a graphic novel worthy of Conrad’s name.