Comic Book Review: “Carnival of Souls” (Malibu Comics, Festival of Dread Special)

Welcome back to the Festival of Dread, The Splintering’s month-long celebration of all things haunting and hair-raising.

Today we’re going to take a look at Carnival of Souls, written by Michael H. Price, illustrated by Todd Camp, and published by Malibu Comics in 1991. The 50-page comic is a retelling of the 1962 film by director Harold “Herk” Harvey, which has a developed a cult status among horror film enthusiasts in the decades since its release. 

The story follows a young woman named Mary Henry, who is the lone survivor or a deadly car crash. Despite still being out of sorts due to the accident, Mary is eager to escape her immediate environs and start a new life as a church organist in another town. Mary’s skills as a musician are highly regarded by her new employer, but Mary secretly hides the fact that she is not a believer in the Christian faith causing friction with the church minister. 

To make matters worse, Mary is starting to see things. Ghastly things. Whether driving on the road, out on the town, and even just outside her own home, a strange, spectral man continues to appear – saying nothing, doing nothing – just intently watching Mary with fixated eyes. Mary is understandably upset by these visions, particularly because others around her aren’t able to see “The Man.” 

Mary tries to maintain a semblance of normal life, consulting a doctor for counseling, and even going on a date with her neighbor. Predictably, none of these efforts go particularly well. Before long, these visions start becoming more intrusive. Mary begins to see other dreadful looking people, and there are times when she can’t hear anything, and those around her can’t can’t hear or even see her, either. 

You just can’t trust… The Man

On the outskirts of town lies an abandoned carnival, which Mary comes to believe is a centrally connected to her visions… 

I must leave it at that without spoiling the whole story, and it is a story worth experiencing. Though I’m not sure that I’d recommend the comic book as the ideal way to do so. That isn’t to say that the comic has nothing more to offer, though. Like the movie, the Carnival of Souls comic is still presented in black and white, though the book is not at all a shot-for-shot remake of the movie in illustrated form, after all. Some of the angles and imagery of the book are disconcerting (in a good, horrific way), and there is a good use of blacks to sculpt the world from shadows. 

Now that’s a traced photograph.

The artwork is mostly constructed from a combination of hatching and stippling, which sometimes results in some nicely detailed images (i.e. the organ). Why only “sometimes?” Because the artwork is wildly inconsistent, particularly when it comes to the characters. Sometimes they look great – unrealistic but expressive – other times they’re clearly traced photographs, and at the worst times, they’re ugly as sin, with baffling proportions such as ill-formed mouths and eyes spaced much to close together. If there is a narrative reason for illustrating the faces this way, then I missed it. Camp clearly shows an ability to do better throughout the book, and these moments look nothing but sloppy to me.

Some of the panels are far too crowded for what they’re trying to convey, and I expect that at least one or two instances of this were done to maintain overly restrictive page layouts. There were also a few moments where the word balloon reading order wasn’t clear, but this wasn’t too disruptive to the overall experience. 

The organ? Awesome. That face at the bottom is the real nightmare.

The Best Worst Carnival Ever

Yes, the movie is still the superior way to experience Carnival of Souls. The comic book by Price and Camp is still a worthwhile read, but I recommend it more for those who have already seen the movie. It’s been a while since I watched it, but it seems as though most of the movie’s major plot points are present in the comic – just condensed. There’s also some great black and white artwork peppered throughout the book, too, though it’s unfortunate that it’s marbled with some really wonky character art. 

Holy #$%&! Fix your face!

Separately, one of the selling points of the Malibu comic was the forward written by Michael H. Price, which gives a comprehensive history of the Carnival of Souls movie. Sure, much of this information could probably be found on the internet these days, but it was a satisfying read to have at hand, and reinforces my point that fans of the movie are the primary audience for the book. It was also interesting to catch up with where the film’s creators are now – well, where they were in the early 90s anyway. Most have passed on in the decades since the comic was published (director Herk Harvey died in 1996), but the lead actress Candace Hilligoss (Mary Henry) is still alive and kicking at the time of this writing. 

In any case, it great to get a background on the movie, and see how Carnival of Souls went from being an unremarkable flop that provided zero financial returns for its creators to a respected horror movie with a dedicated audience. It is often credited as being inspirational to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and fans can often find special screenings of Carnival of Souls at local movie theaters around Halloween. The Malibu comic book adaptation can certainly be enjoyed as a testament to the longevity of the film and a celebration of its creators, but maybe not too much else. 

They just want you to fix your face, lady!

Thanks for reading!

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