Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always
Kris Oprisko, writer
Gabriel Hernandez, artist
adapted from the novel The Thief of Always by Clive Barker
Given the standard weakness of comics adaptations of non-City of Glass prose material and the standard cheesiness of American horror-comic art, any project that entails adapting a prose horror novel would normally already have two strikes against it. But Clive Barker has gotten lucky on that score a few times during his career, from the impressively atmospheric Books of Blood-based anthology series Tapping the Vein back in the day to this little number based on Barker’s first all-ages book. While you can see the rough edges in the edits quite frequently–most notably during the beginning and ending, which are rushed enough to feel like they happen how they do because they must, not because that’s what springs from the events that befall the characters and emotions they experience as those events take place–it’s a surprisingly evocative, beautifully illustrated little graphic novel about a childhood lost.
The story concerns a schoolkid named Harvey Swick who, bored to tears by a dreary February, is approached by a magical being with a beyond-ear-to-ear grin, named Rictus. (Already a good sign, right?) Rictus offers Harvey a vacation to a place called the Holiday House, whose mysterious proprietor Mister Hood offers “special” children an eternity of carefree carousing, with each day in the place comprising all four seasons of the year. (Every morning is springtime, while it’s Halloween every evening and Christmas every night.) Needless to say things aren’t what they seem, and before long Harvey and the friends he makes at Holiday House try to escape this lotus-eating interval to return to the outside world, which turns out to be tougher than it looks.
While the book tends now to be compared to Harry Potter, it has a lot more in common with other stories of childhood voyage and return to a dangerous land of fantasy: Oz, Wonderland, Never-Never Land, and Barker’s own Abarat. The idea of the haunted house–since that’s obviously what we’re dealing with–also hits notes resonant with everything from Hansel & Gretel to The Shining, not to mention Candyman director Bernard Rose’s Paperhouse, a more-or-less contemporary product of the British dark fantasy scene, iirc. Aside from the obviously truncated start and finish to the story, Oprisko does a solid job of preserving as much of Barker’s weird whimsy as possible, making sure to include moments that stand out from the fairy-tale norm–Harvey’s phone calls home to his parents to make sure they’re okay with his vacation, for example.
The real star of the adaptation, though, is Gabriel Hernandez and his absolutely lovely art. It appears to have been done in pencil, then given a soft bath in muted color washes by Sulaco Studios. The contrast between Hernandez’s off-kilter, frequently angular character designs and Sulaco’s gauzy palette is pretty much perfect for Barker’s kids’ fantasy work, which itself introduces elements of the horrific into a storytelling mode we’re frequently quite cozy with. Hernandez is as attentive to detail as he is to design–for example, quietly filling the Holiday House with everything a boy could wish for, from suits of armor to Egyptian sarcophagi to preserved pterodactyls, despite this never being referred to in the dialogue. It’s the art that will keep me coming back to this one, and makes it worth at least a first look.