Following on from last month’s post on the lighter side of urban fantasy, I will now turn to that sub-genre of fantasy whose protagonists initially believe themselves to inhabit a world of consensual mundane reality then to their terror learn otherwise – the Dark Fantastic. In what follows the term dark fantasy is used to describe that particular sort of urban fantasy which standardly consists of a series of thrillers/detective stories that are set in, and whose plots are determined by, a mundane world entirely, but not always visibly, permeated by the worlds of faerie or the supernatural. A product of the 1980s and authors such as Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman, Dark fantasy could in a sense be regarded more as an evolution of horror than of fantasy. It also includes what is in many ways a sub-sub-genre within Urban fantasy, Paranormal Romance, which dilutes the peril of the undead with romantic, vampiric anti-heroes. The protagonist of standard dark fantasy makes the discovery of the real, non-mundane nature of the world as an existential crisis, and thereafter learns more in the course of solving puzzles, or acquiring refinements of technique for living in such worlds. Whether these protagonists are wizards, like Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden, or exorcists, like Mike Carey’s Felix Castor, they are cousins to Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and inhabit the same mean streets, even if they do so alongside vampires, ghouls and the more sinister denizens of faerie.
As a lifelong comics fan I can’t help pinching myself at the flood of graphic novel adaptations that we’re being treated to in this current golden age of comic book movies. Quite apart from the Marvel and DC superhero features which are unsurprisingly garnering most of the headlines, there are quite a few adaptations of lesser known properties, both on television and on the silver screen, which their legions of fans might be surprised to know were ever comics in the first place e.g. The Walking Dead, 300, A History of Violence, Road to Perdition, Sin City etc. Whilst I love seeing spandex-clad superheroes and villains going at it as much as the next person, it’s particularly gratifying to see that film-makers are also appreciative of the wide range of more eclectic comic books out there and that the lesser known properties are also getting their chance. Of course, there are plenty of excellent graphic novels that haven’t yet been treated to film or TV makeovers, e.g. Sandman, Fables, The Books of Magic, Preacher and The Unwritten, to name just a few, but almost all of the ones that come to mind immediately are either in development or are likely to be adapted at some point in the near future. This may well be because of their links to one of the big two – Marvel and DC – express or otherwise, as much as for any other reason. But there are in my view other comic book publishers out there whose properties are just as worthy of adaptation in my view, and of these the universe of Top Cow appears to have several that appear particularly suited to the big screen.
Carnivàle was a little-watched, little-remembered TV gem from the early part of the last decade. It was set in the American Dust Bowl during the Great Depression and concerned two disparate groups, one of them a travelling troupe of performing ‘freaks and geeks’ – hence the name of the series – the other centred around the at first benevolent-seeming preacher Justin. Varying hugely in tone and content, the episodes covered a wide range of themes and featured both superb, cinematic acting and groundbreaking storytelling. On one level Carnivàle could simply be viewed as a historical piece (in much the same way as Boardwalk Empire is today). However, what really made it stand out was the fact that its overarching story also depicted the battle between good and evil and the struggle between free will and destiny. A complex, layered tale, the full story of Carnivàle and in particular its many undercurrents were never really explained on screen. In some ways the show suffered for treating its audience as intelligent adults and making them figure things out for themselves – Carnivàle was cancelled after just two 13-episode seasons and never got anywhere near completing its creators’ intended 6 year story arc. Even many of the show’s most ardent viewers are surprised today to hear that its storyline mixed Christian theology with gnosticism and Masonic lore, particularly that of the Knights Templar. However, as I hope to demonstrate, plenty of hints as to the true nature of the ‘hidden’ story of Carnivàle were dropped in the course of its two-year run.