VISUAL FRIGHTS: The Poetry of Worms

EDGAR ALLAN POE’S THE CONQUEROR WORM (Dark Horse Comics, November 2012) Adapted by Richard Corben (writer, artist, inker, colorist). Lettering by Nate Piekos of Blambot.

It’s been some time since I’ve been exposed to the poem that serves as the inspiration for this illustrated re-imagining. Richard Corben’s vision of a morbid classic work enhances my appreciation for Poe’s skills, and has burned some vivid horrific images into my memory that I’ll always recall when thinking about “The Conqueror Worm”.

Those who share an interest in illustrated adaptations of classic horror works are already familiar with the extensive catalog of Corben, who has been writing and drawing comics since mid-1960. His most definitive body of work would be found amongst the black-and-white pages of old Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella magazines, and later glorious full color in Heavy Metal magazine. Corben was recently inducted into the Will Eisner Hall Of Fame (at San Diego Comic Con in July 2012), and deservedly so. RAGEMOOR, his recent Dark Horse collaboration with writer Jan Strnad, mines the Lovecraft mythos for its origins with a frightening tale of a living castle nurtured on blood. You may expect to see an extensive review on this site in the future, webmaster permitting.

Utilizing theatre imagery, “The Conqueror Worm” by Poe is a metaphor for limited human existence and the unavoidable death that waits for all. At the time of its first publication in 1843 the common perception was that underground worms would eventually find the buried treasures in wooden cemetery coffins, and would bore and eat and flourish in the forms within without respect for former background or legacy. A meal is a meal.

In the poem, an audience of angels views the play that affirms the tragedy of “Man”, performed by mimes responding to some controlling off-stage puppetry. There is a great interpretation/analysis of this poem by Michael Cummings at this website =

Using this as a framework, Corben elaborates on the theatre setting/ puppet show and adds a background story of arrogance, greed, betrayal, lust, murder and deception. To help us transition between scenes, he adds a narrator in the form of Mag The Hag, a hooded crone of dark nature that reminds of the prophetic witches of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Perhaps not-so-coincidentally the central character, Colonel Mann (ha!), comes across some worm-ridden remains and quotes from Hamlet (with another reference to worms).

Set within the nineteenth century and apparently in the American West (Arizona?) the jealous, greedy and self-centered Colonel Mann meets some actors curiously wandering around in the desert. In the back of his mind he wonders if they were witness to his recent bloody activities. Some deceitful wordplay engages between all parties. Through alluring music and hand puppetry the male-female pair invites him to attend a special performance (“a play upon man’s hopes and fears”) just for the “dear lord” and his “honored guests.” Colonel Mann then gathers his relatives together and suggests they attend the play in order to ease their mind of concern for the whereabouts of some recently missing family members. The commentary of his conservative and staid family members as they view the shocking and ominous performance lends a bit of humor to the otherwise grim proceedings.

Corben pulls lines directly from Poe’s poem and cleverly incorporates them into his story at various points in the narrative. Wisely, the entire text of “The Conqueror Worm” is reprinted in the back pages for reference. Both poem and comics adaptation are worth several reads back and forth to fully appreciate how much Corben has elaborated and enhanced the original work in masterful fashion.

The inclusion of a sketchbook with artist notes and initial drawings also helps reinforce the power of this adaptation. For example, it explains how a condor in the poem appropriately became a turkey vulture in the comic. Looking for the absolute #1 single issue story among the best of 2012’s comics? Look no further than right here. If H. P. Lovecraft were a comic artist, he would have produced something like this. I highly recommend it.

Michael J. Clarke


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