Painted sets and askew architecture have Holstenwall housing a carnival in the silent horror classic, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920). Part of the German expressionist movement, fake shadows and angled windows mirror Francis’ state of mind in the film, as he recounts the series of murders that began with Doctor Caligari’s arrival.
On learning Amigo Comics was releasing a comic series based on the movie, there was no small rush of excitement wondering how said comic would take form. Prequel opportunities, exploring how Doctor Caligari met the somnambulist, Cesare, at the asylum, or trial runs of their act before Holstenwall, seemed fruitful with possibility. The first disappointment would be realizing the comic wasn’t an extension of the story but an adaptation of the movie’s exact plot.
The second disappointment came in finding out the art was strictly black and white. None of the color tinting used in the film carries over. That also means some of the recognizable visuals from the movie aren’t possible without the use of shading. In the film a black curtain conspicuously covers the flap to Doctor Caligari’s tent, masking his activities, but in the comic, filling-in the entrance with ink doesn’t look like a curtain but a gaping hole.
That the sets were obviously fake helped provide the film with its dreamlike haze but black and white pushes realism. Maybe it’s because comics don’t have a budget or imagination restraints, but fantasy loses its bizarreness with the change in medium. You can’t tell that the star pattern on the sidewalk isn’t lighting but painted, and its less impressive when its real.
Writer and artist, Diego Olmos, has forced his comic to be its own thing. By limiting how much he can rely on replicating scenes exactly as they appear in the movie, he has to invent new ways of telling the story and lands on some creative choices, including replacing title cards with dialogue. When Cesare makes his pronouncement on Alan’s future his higher stance, hand outstretched, recalls the authority of a higher power. The ink is already swallowing Alan up.
Jane is written as more of a cipher, and shadows are interchangeable with the humans that cast them during a murder scene. Olmos’ Doctor Caligari is particularly spot-on. Tipping his hat by way of greeting, an identical hat tip on the following page gives the flourish that practiced insincerity of a showman. His sinister nature is barely restrained to say ‘hello.’
Alternate covers by different artists in a closing gallery make Olmos’ choices more patent. Doctor Caligari isn’t a replacement to watching the movie it’s based on, but a thoughtful example of art inspiring art.
Available 2/22 to purchase HERE.