Petra Dierkes-Thrun: Salomé in the Comics: P. Craig Russell’s Intertextual Adaptation from Strauss and Wilde

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Fig. 1

Wilde’s play Salomé has had a long and colorful history of adaptations in the 20th century, from Richard Strauss’ avant-garde modernist music drama to literature, music hall, dance, film, musical (Sunset Boulevard), literature, and popular culture.  Among those popular culture versions that stand out from the crowd is a little-known but wonderful comic book adaptation from 1986, by P. Craig Russell (*1951), an American graphic artist and writer whose distinguished career includes collaborations with authors such as Neil Gaiman and some of the highest honors of the comic book industry (the Eisner, Harvey, and Inkpot Award for Career Achievement).  For his comic version of Salomé, Russell took his inspiration from both Strauss’s opera and Wilde’s play, as well as from cinema, Symbolist theater and art nouveau, putting his own creative stamp on Wilde’s and Strauss’s work.

First published in Eclipse Comics’ Night Music series, Salomé (1986) is part of an interesting cycle of opera adaptations Russell began with Wagner’s Parsifal in 1976.[i]  Parsifal marked Russell’s break as an independent graphic artist after an early career in mainstream comics publishing (where he worked on Killraven and Dr. Strange for Marvel).  Opera adaptations presented an entirely new genre within the comic book industry, and Russell would keep coming back to this type of adaptation for the next few decades.  Salomé was Russell’s third opera comic, completed only one year after he had adapted Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande (1985), which was based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1893 Symbolist play that had fascinated Russell.  He would compose more operatic comic book adaptations, including Mozart’s The Magic Flute (1989-90), Wagner’s Ring der Nibelungen (2000-1), and Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana (retitled The Godfather’s Code in additional reference to Francis Ford Coppola’s cinematic masterpiece, 2004).[ii]

Coming directly from Pelléas and Mélisande, Russell was keenly aware of the Symbolist context for both literary plays when he began Salomé. At the same time, however, his first approach to Wilde’s text was channeled through Strauss’s music and Hedwig Lachmann’s libretto, which—due to the severe space limitations of his contract for a 32-page comic—he had to edit heavily while interpreting and translating into his own visual medium.  The result was a very interesting textual palimpsest that freely blends and mixes Strauss, Wilde, and P. Craig Russell to form an independent, intertextual adaptation.  In a long 1991 interview with The Comics Journal, Russell offered detailed insights into his creative process.  He started with the libretto (which already cut about 50% of Wilde’s text) and edited this down even further; but “[t]hen I went into the play and put back in a few things from Wilde that I figured could be put in and I cut out a lot more from the opera. […] I had to be really lean and tight. I cut out a lot of really gorgeous Oscar Wilde writing.”[iii]  Ultimately, however, “the story benefits from the concision,” Russell stated later.[iv]  And despite the changes, Salomé was one of the few of Russell’s operatic comics that had “a real connection to the opera, where [Strauss’s] music in places influenced my adaptation of the play [by Wilde].  In a sense, there are places where my version of Salome is an interpretation of an interpretation” (Comics Journal, 48).[v]

One poignant example of such an intertextual moment (where Strauss’s music directly shaped Russell’s interpretation of Wilde’s play in addition to illustrating his creative process) is Russell’s appropriation of cinematic technique as he pictures Salomé’s first look down into the pitch-dark cistern to make out the unknown Jokanaan whose voice attracted her.  Russell’s graphic adaptation tries capture the sense of “blackness” in Strauss’s music and thus indirectly the gaping existential abyss Wilde associates with Salomé’s burning desire for the unavailable spiritual figure Jokanaan (and the modernist features of the play in general).  Russell tells his interviewer:

There’s a point where Salome is standing over the cistern that John the Baptist is kept in and she’s saying how dark it is down there.  In the play she simply says how dark it is, but in the opera when she says that the music goes absolutely black for maybe 15 seconds while she’s looking down in the cistern. […] it was Strauss’s way of indicating blackness.  He made a black sound.  In cinema or in comics you can actually show her looking down—almost as if the viewer was a camera to go down into the cistern through the bars until the panel is solid black, turning the eye around and looking back up through them at Salome looking down into the cistern.  It was a point that I was inspired or gained insight form [sic] the musical adaptation.  If I had just been working from the play I might not have grasped that […]. (Comics Journal, 56) 

In the corresponding picture sequence, Strauss’s black sound is introduced by Salome saying, “How black it is down there. … It is like a tomb.”  Then zooming in through the grid, the next picture consists of utter blackness.  After that, the quasi-cinematic reverse shot from the cistern back up at Salomé isolates her in the frame of the black grid pattern, thus connecting her to the darkness below:

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Fig. 2

In two other, closely following visual sequences, P. Craig Russell then further develops his framing and close-up techniques to visually transpose and highlight Wilde’s original theme of the dangerous gaze, where “looking” means a dangerous infatuation, and “something terrible” may happen.  In the first, Salomé has bribed Narraboth and waits impatiently for Jokanaan to be brought from the depths. Again, she is shown from below and framed by the iron grid that functions as the cistern lid, but this time, the picture zooms in on her wide-open eyes, staring back at the viewer (Jokanaan by proxy) as if transfixed, indicating that she is hooked by seeing him.

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Fig. 3

Another sequence uses the framing and close-up techniques associating fatality, the gaze, and the cistern.  Here, Salomé has just been rejected by Jokanaan, who descends back down below after insulting her:

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Fig. 4

The reverse shot back at Salome’s eye in extreme close-up shows a reflection of the grid pattern (which looks like crosses, another reference to death) on her pupil, thus completing this particular circle of visual metaphors that was inspired, in equal parts, by Strauss’s “black sound,” Wilde’s theme of dangerous looking, and cinematic technique.  With regard to some of these visual choices one wonders, too, how much Russell may have been influenced by popular, widely available filmed opera versions of Salome (he is known to thoroughly research his subjects). For example, in one famous version with Teresa Stratas in the title role, Salome directs her dance at the cistern, which of course holds Jokanaan.  Like in Russell’s comic, the cistern is represented as a deep, black hole in the ground, topped by an iron lattice and chains that become a strong focus.[vi]

Along with the theme of the gaze, Russell highlights the play’s and the opera’s most prominent leitmotif, the moon, which recurs as a visual metaphor throughout the comic (spanning the textual range from chaste princess to reeling drunk or dead woman).  The first page’s title panel dominated by it:

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Fig. 5

Russell explained some of the ideas and designs regarding the first page of Salomé in his graphic storytelling teaching (DVD) project (available online at www.artofpcraigrussell.com/?page_id=186).

The Dance of the Seven Veils is another example of Russell’s interpretive grappling with both Wilde’s play and Strauss’s opera.  At first, the dance—a non-verbal, drawn-out, yet crucial moment in the action—presented a true problem for his visual translation.  “Now, how do you show this in comics? It had to be a purely visual moment.  It couldn’t just be pictures and throwing off veils” (Comics Journal, 56). Working with Strauss’s detailed notes for the opera’s dance scenario, Russell decided to “use[] the dropping of each veil as a chance to comment on or advance the action.” For example, as Salomé throws off of her veils, Russell inserts a sequence (interspersed with her dance) in which the soldiers carry and then throw the body of the dead Narraboth over a steep cliff (Fig. 6). “Instead of seeing the body bang against the rocks we see [Salomé’s] veil lightly fall on the floor.  That’s neither in the play nor the opera.  That’s what I played with, moving back and forth between the characters and the actions.  And keeping it silent.  I planned to have it work as a visual element in the story and make it almost a visual dance, not a literal dance of drawing her dancing.”  Russell also interspersed the sequence with pictures in which Salomé is shown dancing in Narraboth’s blood, symbolically linking Salomé’s sensuality with the death of her first victim, and using it the dance as a foreshadowing of her next victim (Jokanaan).

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Fig. 6

The last veils symbolically fall on the executioner’s axe (Fig.6) and in the following panel (Fig. 7), there is another close-up of Salomé from below through the grid, this time as a naked silhouette dropping the last veil) right in front of Jokanaan’s cistern.  As she throws up her last but one veil to the moon, it forms a question mark, and as she takes off the very last veil, Salomé is fully framed by the cistern grid (in front) and the large, full moon (from behind), affirming Wilde’s and Strauss’s connection between moon, femininity, and fatality one last time.

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Fig. 7

Here Salomé is at her most powerful visually, a commanding presence who, we know, is already plotting her ultimate triumph and revenge.  Even though Russell agreed with Wilde’s and Strauss’s initial presentation of the princess as an innocent, pure creature, he also gave his own interpretation of her relationship with Jokanaan a unique, surprisingly conservative twist.  Russell, who calls himself a libertarian, thought of Salomé in terms of Ayn Rand:

I was looking at her from the perspective of an Ayn Randian viewpoint of sexuality: one responds sexually to what one holds as their highest ideal.  I don’t think that’s necessarily true, but it’s an interesting take.  You can understand a person’s moral basis by what they find sexually exciting.  […]The tragedy of it, of course, is that her highest ideal rejects her. […] John the Baptist has seen a dichotomy between the mind and the body—that the mind is pure and the body is vile—which Salome doesn’t at all.  Her body only responds to what her mind sees as pure.  […] she then has his head severed from his body.  She projects onto him the dichotomy he’s projecting onto both her and the world.  Of course, Ayn Rand is turning over in her grave at the idea that Salome could be seen as an Ayn Randian heroine or a projection of her rather strange view of sexuality. (Comics Journal, 56-57)

Some other, visual influences for Salomé (and other works) may have come from Aubrey Beardsley, whose work Russell knows very well, and to whom his flowing art nouveau style lines have often been compared.[vii]  In some pictures focusing on Salome and Jokanaan, Russell may have been inspired by Beardsley’s “The Climax” of 1893 (the revised, published version of “J’Ai Baisé Ta Bouche” that won Beardsley the commission to illustrate Wilde’s Salomé, Fig. 8).  He isolates and entwines the princess and the prophet in profile with swirling lines and pearl-like bubbles in the left-hand background in one (Fig. 9), and lets Salomé float in space with the severed head in another (Fig. 10).  While the pictures obviously look different than Beardsley’s and do not present a direct imitation of “The Climax,” they contain very similar conceptual ideas and seem to allude to the original history of visual representation of Wilde’s Salome and Jokanaan.[viii]

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Fig. 8

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Fig. 9

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Fig. 10

Although his figures are generally not as androgynous as Beardsley’s or the Pre-Raphaelites’ (another major influence for his work), P. Craig Russell’s Salomé silently restores some of the original homoerotic moments of Wilde’s play which had been excised by Strauss.[ix]  Most importantly, the Page of Herodias (whom Strauss had made female, sung by an alto) became a man again, reintroducing the homoerotic closeness between the Page and Narraboth at the opening.  Secondly, P. Craig Russell is known for the beauty of his male characters, many of whom in Salomé (in this quasi-Biblical, oriental setting) show a lot of skin and muscle.  Asked about his eye for male beauty, Russell joked, “Well, I suppose it’s because I’m gay.  It’s easier to see that.  To draw beefcake instead of cheesecake” (Comics Journal, 66).

To my knowledge, P. Craig Russell has not publicly commented on Wilde’s homosexuality as one of his own personal points of contact with Wilde’s work, but it is clear that Wilde holds a special place in Russell’s own literary interest as an adapter (as do Neil Gaiman’s works).  Even before and along with Salomé, Russell started a parallel project of illustrating Wilde’s fairy tales, which is ongoing.  Volume 5 (The Happy Prince), and with it, the sixth fairy tale is now complete, and it appears that we can therefore look forward to at least three more beautiful adaptations of Wilde’s works by P. Craig Russell.  In a 2001 video interview, Russell said that out of all his works to date, he preferred his treatments of Wilde’s fairy tales: “I have a real soft spot in my heart for the Oscar Wilde fairy tale cycle . . . they are just such wonderful stories.”[x]  Let’s hope that Russell decides to tackle Wilde’s only novel as well some day, and gives Marvel and other mainstream comic book publishers’ versions of The Picture of Dorian Gray a run for their money.


[i] P. Craig Russell, Salomé (Guerneville, CA: Eclipse Comics, 1986).  Eclipse Comics is now a defunct publisher, but Salomé was republished in The P. Craig Russell Library of Opera Adaptations, vol. 3 (Pelleas & Melisande, Salome, Ein Heldentraum, Cavalleria Rusticana) (New York: Nantier, Beall, Minoustchine Publishing Inc., 2004), 107-40.

[ii] Russell also adapted non-operatic music pieces, such as Hugo Wolf’s German lied “Ein Heldentraum” (1985, right before Pelléas and Mélisande and Salomé).

[iii] Interview with P. Craig Russell, The Comics Journal 147 (December 1991): 54-56.

[iv] P. Craig Russell quoted in Joe Pruett (ed.), The Art of P. Craig Russell: A Retrospective (Norcross, GA: Desperado Publishing, 2007), 129.

[v] As an adapter who is effectively also a creator, and as someone who often collaborates with writers such as Neil Gaiman (author of the award-winning novels such as The Graveyard Book, Coraline, The Sandman, and others) on comic adaptations of literary works, Russell professed he finds it easier to deal with works from other eras: “In working with adaptations [from the past] the advantage is the piece already exists and you can handle it in any way you want. You’re responsible for making the decisions. […] I’ve always said that I prefer my writers dead. [laughter]” (Comics Journal, 53).

[vi] For the relevant clip of Teresa Stratas dancing by the cistern, see the second half of http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yS_Z68XpB-o.  At the end of the Dance of the Seven Veils, Stratas’ Salome, like Russell’s, prostrates herself naked at Herod’s feet (although her nudity has been strategically edited out of the youtube video).  Alla Nazimova’s dance, in her 1922 silent film version of Oscar Wilde’s play, ends similarly (by Salome prostrating herself before the Tetrarch, minus the nudity); see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=44OmwMoGWfs.

[vii] Asked how much he was influenced by Beardsley’s work in general, Russell said, “I must have absorbed a lot of it because people seem to see a lot more of his work in me than I do.  I think it must be almost unconscious, maybe because I see other artists as being more influential.  Maybe in black-and-white design, the art nouveau curves.  Art nouveau curves don’t just come from Beardsley, but that’s who most people think of when they see that influence.  It’s hard for me to say exactly how big of an influence his work has had on me” (Comics Journal, 66).

[viii] Russell comments on the third picture as follows: “Salome is at that final breaking point when she is going to kiss the severed head.  There’s no way I could capture what Strauss did in the music at that point but I tried to take a clue from it, which is this total disillusion of everything in this romantic sense.  I basically just have the floor drop from under her and she’s floating in space with this spiraling motion under her.  She’s transported at that point so I didn’t want her in a literal setting. And because of the nature of the story I hoped visually it would work.  That the reader would understand that […] we’re seeing just the visual approximation of her emotional state” (Comics Journal, 56).

[ix] Strauss had plenty of reasons to fear censorship of his opera, putting it on so shortly after Wilde’s infamous “gross indecency” trials just ten years earlier, and despite his careful excisions of the potentially most offensive material, the early history of his avant-garde Salome in many cities proved him right.  For a discussion of some of the most egregious press coverage and censorship instances, such as in London, New York, and Berlin, see my chapter 2 in Salome’s Modernity: Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Transgression (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011), 78-81.  Of course, the opera still became a resounding success all over the world, more helped than marred by the scandalous publicity.

[x] Kate Kotler, interview with P. Craig Russell, “Geek Girl on the Street presents: Coffee Talk with P. Craig Russell,” 2001.  Online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dagy7q_Kpr0&feature=relmfu.  Retrieved August 25, 2012.

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