Robert Louis Stevenson's "Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde translates beautifully into a few of its adaptations, particularly in its Stone Arch Books' graphic novel. That is, if one considers compelling, essentialist storytelling, vibrancy of colors, generally expressive art direction, and narrative unity beautiful. To all delighted with such elements in literature, Stone Arch's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, retold by Carl Bowen, may very well present a surprising masterpiece.
The story of man perilously close to destruction in his search for new knowledge is one as old as the ages. For instance, in the early ages of human history, that a hunter-gatherer ventured outside his homestead to find better food and a new life for him and his family is what we can understand as a story of the founding of cities. Along the journey, no doubt, the hunter-gatherer encounters the element, beasts, other humans, sickness, perhaps even paranoia, all of which threatens to take his life. Yet the hunter-gatherer carries on in hope of gaining knowledge of some opportunity untapped, hitherto unmanifested. It is a story, in various forms, we keep telling over and over.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is just one of these stories. Occupations are different and so are technologies. Therefore it should come as no large surprise that the means of the journey and the implements which populate the journey, the ostensible veneer, are also different. In Stevenson's England, there are doctors now with tools and potions which can cure a number of ailments and lawyers with their laws and documentary bookkeeping which bring order to social relations. Horse and buggies dominate the streets, as ships and trains shrink the earth and allow the importation and exportation of materials which themselves allow cities to be built with unparalleled ease (rapidity and endurance). Specification has allowed a focal shift from physical exertions for humans, as technology has been given the bulk of that responsibility. This is a world where a particular man is associated with a particular occupation and that occupation a particular instrument.
It is such specialization which gives opportunity to Dr. Jekyll’s investigations into human nature, whereby he realizes and exclaims, “Every man has two minds within a single body. One mind, the high mind, seeks only beauty and goodness in life. The other, the low mind, is vain and greedy, seeking only what’s best for itself” (pages 40-41). From this revelation Dr. Jekyll projects a plan which ultimately begets his double destruction.
The colors of Stone Arch's graphic novel immediately pop at the readers and succinctly establish the dualism at the heart of the story. On the front cover is a portrait of both incarnations of the protagonist, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, luminously silhouetted by light and darkness. As strange as it is to describe anything as "luminously silhouetted," it is an apt description to ascribe to the portrait, and so rare is the dynamic attempted and accomplished. It is indeed a strange phenomenon: to be "liminously silhouetted" something would have to possess a very complex, near tenuous play between light and darkness. This is just the case. On the front cover, we observe the face, chest and hands of Dr. Jekyll grafted into those of Mr. Hyde and are disturbed by the seemlessness and lingering disharmony. Visually the only thing dividing them is the sinuous smoke of a chemical cocktail. But how the cocktail works, inducing as it does their complete divide. In the end there can be no question as to the most preferable incarnation, no question of with whom you would like to spend your evening if you could push the other aside and were allowed to fully enter his world.
Luminously silhouetted is a description that may be applied to the rest of the graphic novel as well. It is an aesthetic register that itself begins to build, with the addition of each page, its own dualism, and therefore its own tensions. One notes from these movements that there are sharp contrasts juxtaposed, blends of transition and recurring motifs. Nevertheless the reader reads with the feeling that these particular movements are very congenial to the particular moments within the narrative. For instance, in the beginning the murkiness corresponds to the fact that the narrative is still clouded in mystery. In the following movement, as Utterson consults the documents within his care to learn more about Mr. Hyde, the reader still observes the murkiness, but witnesses it now become disturbed by the investigation. If we would allow the earth to have a consciousness, the consciousness of the earth would be atmosphere. Under this allowance we would know that a place or an event exhibited any number of combinations indicating the earth's intimate aesthetic involvement or that is to say the earth's being and knowing.
The lines of the graphic novel are true compliments to the colors. By this it is meant that they are sharp (they pop) and that they truly are on the same plane of sophistication as the vibrant colors. Looking closely one notices that minute lights and shadows are thrown off nearly every line.
The Full Circle
The graphic novel gives the impression it could just as well have been a film, even more so a television show--in the beginning introducing the cast of characters striking poses as if in a soap opera. This impression is built and maintained from beginning to end, in a certain circularity. Pizza was the answer.
After the table of contents which clearly assigns the work its narrative or novel elements, "Introducing . . ." sits at the top of the first page. Utterson and Lanyon are just off center with Poole, as would be expected by his station as servant (central though in the shadows) of the narrative, all loomed over by the shadowed facade of capital buildings, instructively accenting the sense of place. This is no light story, no dalliance, the prospect says, but a story weighted down by forces unseen, though forces present enough to cause obstruction to the true clarity of one's face. Here also Utterson intimates his eagerness (looking up into the skies, his left hand clamped into a fist); Poole his willed steadiness (his eyes staring forward, his arms presumably directly down by his side); and Lanyon his slightly uneasy and disinterested indignace (his eyes up but looking away, coming from the side, askew, and his arms folded over as if to protect himself).
Flanking these are Jekyll and Hyde, who both nearly blot out the stretch of sky which evidence their placement in the scene. Nonetheless they are there and surround the drama of the scene, so that the story is not so much of Jekyll and Hyde but of Utterson (whose name suggests he should be one talking, that he has always something to say), of Poole (whose name evokes the ability to wade through whatever life brings in its vicissitudes), of Lanyon (whose name evokes a curious admixture of stability and fragility, of lands falling into canyons). Jekyll looks to and holds in his hands a tube out of which a green spumescence springs, which itself circles Hyde, green, forward leaning, almost grinning.
What are we to make of this? That there is drama to which Utterson, Poole and Lanyon are participants, though the drama is shaped by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Thus is the beginning.
Elements of the soap opera continue with the proper first scenes. Here we have quick cuts through scenes eerily or mistily lighted, especially accented in the transition between the last two frames of the chapter (page 13) with the aid of a dash in Utterson's speech bubble. Also backgrounds, just as in soap operas, seem to be either intensely silent or bustling with noise and activity.
The first scene ostensibly begins in silence with no ambient activity, and through narrative flashbacks directed by Enfield, we witness swift violence, a return to the present, and finally the villain, the perpetrator surrounded by enemies hurling their castigating indictments (7-8). Only then does the flashback fully cease, and we are back to the initial moody, silent scene to which is attached, in famously soap opera fashion, a cliffhanger. Making an unexpected connection between themselves and Jekyll and Hyde, Enfield declares, "I see. If he's a client, we should speak no more of this." To which Utterson responds: "Agreed. The less said the better. Now, please excuse me, Enfield," upon which Utterson prompts his exit with an caring though dominating power gesture, a confusing gesture, and is off to investigate (10).
Soap opera affinities are further established by the apparent eery comfort of the succeding scene (11). Utterson is in this plush home office, plush because of the chairs and curtains, warmly lit enough to allow comfort, though infused with a light mist indicating some sterility and slight discomfort. Certainly it is not a place one would like to be extensively, despite whatever the room's designed intentions. And so Utterson is there on the most serious business, as his entrance into the safe on the wall corroborates. He is of course looking for the document which will scandalize the entire situation. And it does: Utterson finds the "Last Will and Testament of Doctor Henry Jekyll" stipulating "In the event of my death or disappearance, I, Doctor Henry Jekyll, leave all my money and property to . . . " Well, of course none other than Mr. Hyde. Scandal. So in discovering this scandal, Utterson is set out in the very different, very next scene (loud and bustling as it is) to find the particulars.
The rest of the graphic novel employs these same elements, these same patterns, these same scenes, all devoted to the unveiling of this drama's particulars. Enter stage Hyde (page 13), Poole (18), and Lanyon (22) to play out this drama initiated by one Henry Jekyll (M. D., D. C. L., LL. D., F. R. S.--according to the short novel.) As, again, it is their story, the story of witnessing a man driven to destruction in attempting to understand his character and command his fate. Heraclitus explains our character is our fate. In each of us there resides the elements of Jekyll's character to use our knowledge and physical opportunities to destroy what appears bad and evil in ourselves. Destruction is destruction. So too is death our fate. The horrors! the horrors!