Reviews from the past: Jekyll & Hyde

This review originally dates from 2003 and is another of the many I wrote for The Alien Online. Robert Louis Stevenson, a fellow dweller of Edinburgh, has long been one of my very favourite writers and it delights me no end that I can walk around some of his old haunts here. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is also a landmark tale, dating from the late 19th century it is a horror tale which is a splendid example of early internalised horror (the body itself becomes the source of the horror) and of the use of the then fairly new science/art of psychology. Its a tale which, like its near contemporary Dracula, has infected the cultural bloodstream of humanity ever since, to the extent that even people who have never read the tale will use the phrase Jekyll and Hyde personality to describe someone who switches from one extreme to the other.

And if you haven’t read the original I highly recommend it as one of the finest tales every spun and a story which has far more layers and meaning than the simplistic versions seen in movies and TV which usually opt for simple good versus evil motif, while the book is far more nuanced and subtle, a tale of warring desires within a man’s soul. Most adaptations in other media I have found miss the point of Stevenson’s tale, but Kramsky and Mattotti clearly understood the way vice and virtue, shame and desire were intertwined in Jekyll and Hyde, not separated. And this was also my first real exposure to Lorenzo Mattotti, a remarkable European comics artist who has since become one of my favourites:

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
By Jerry Kramsky and Lorenzo Mattotti,
Published by NBM

dr jekyll mr hyde mattotti kramsy

A gorgeously painted incarnation of Stevenson’s tale

Lorenzo Mattotti and Jerry Kramsky have collaborated to create a beautifully painted take on Stevenson’s tale of fractured humanity. Obviously somewhat shorter than the original novel, this is really more of an adaptation than an abridgement. As with Stevenson’s original classic, Doctor Henry Jekyll is not a complete saint, depraved and corrupted by Edward Hyde’s malevolent spirit. Rather Jekyll is the embodiment of his own theories on the duality of human nature. By all public appearances he is the distinguished and respected scientist, well known in society. However, Jekyll feels the tug of his darker desires. He sees the depravity around him in drinking dens, dark dancing halls and shady alleyways where ladies of the night ply their trade. And he wants it so much… Ah, but the shame of it all! Despairing of having his darker nature revealed and yet increasingly desirous of releasing his animal wants and needs to be satisfied Jekyll uses his scientific genius to free himself.

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At first the transformation is reasonably controlled. Hyde is a distillation of all of Jekyll’s dark impulses, unfettered by conscience – but it is Jekyll’s fantasies that he is living out. Like a masque in long-ago Venice he has found a way to move through the shadows of night and desire without ruining his public persona. The trouble comes as Hyde’s violent nature asserts itself and Jekyll is left with the remorse, shaking and shuddering like a junkie on withdrawal and guilt. The transformation back to Jekyll is increasingly difficult as Hyde beings to assert his own existence, preying on the darkest fringes of human iniquity and sexual deviance… Playing on Jekyll’s darkest dreams, his most sordid fantasies made flesh with no restraint.

Mattotti and Kramsky have created a most unusual graphic version of this tale. The painted artwork is alive with unusual angles, distorted images of people and buildings, echoing the out-of-control spiral of Jekyll and his alter ego Hyde. The colours and shapes eschew realism and embrace a style that draws heavily on the Surrealist painters of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. The colours remind me of a Kandinsky painting while the grotesque images of people owe much to Picasso and even Edvard Munch. The warped angles of the city’s architecture echo the Expressionist films of the same period, such as the Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. Appropriately, the tale has been moved from the Victorian era to sometime in the 20s or 30s. All flappers and Weimar-era decadence – hidden by day, seeping out at night to parade its sinful flesh, just as Hyde does. The old social order crumbling at the seams while the new one emerges from it’s straight-laced and barely restrained desires, an illegitimate offspring born in darkness.

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The tale is wonderfully told, ignoring the simplicity of most film adaptations, where Jekyll is a saintly character and Hyde a devil. Instead, as Stevenson intended, it dwells more on humanity’s inherent duplicity of desires, between our goodness and our darkness, something we all have deep within. What happens when a man tries to act out those desires by freeing himself of the consequences by becoming someone else? This is no accident – Jekyll wants, at least in the beginning, to free himself to enjoy these depravities this decadent new age offer. This is an unusual and often disturbing take on Stevenson – who wanted it do disturb after all – but wonderfully crafted and painted in the most gorgeous manner. It is almost worth buying simply for the fantastic artwork alone and NBM (who brought us Far, Far West and Boneyard amongst others – see earlier reviews) have employed their normal larger scale book, allowing the artwork more room to breathe. Deep, dark, disturbing – nightmare images to haunt you in the night, lying alone with your desires.

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