By Jonathan Edwards
I've spent some time wracking my brain in attempt to figure out who exactly this book is for. If you're unfamiliar, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a German silent horror film from 1920. It's frequently identified as a paramount of the German Expressionist movement in film that had arisen in Germany just before the beginning of World War I. These films (another example being F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu) went on to be highly influential throughout cinema history, including being one of the key aspects in the development of Film Noir. It's a very important film. However, it's also only important as a film. There's no good reason to adapt it into a comic book nearly a hundred years after the film's release. It'd be like giving Citizen Kane the same treatment. Yeah, you could do it, but it'd be an ultimately worthless gesture.
The story concerns the eponymous Dr. Caligari, who arrives in the town of Holstenwall just in time for a fair. The Doctor has a sideshow act involving a somnambulist (read: sleepwalker) named Cesare whom he can control and supposedly sees the future. At the same time, a string of murders begins, and it should be obvious that Caligari is somehow involved. All of this is told from the perspective of Francis, who lived in Holstenwall at the time. But really, that's more of a framing narrative than anything, as we do see multiple events taking place without his presence. It'd been a while since I'd last seen Caligari (the film that is), so I opted to give it another, cursory watch for the sake of comparison.
This issue is a pretty straight adaptation of about the first half of the film. Albeit, everything is truncated, and a couple of the scenes are reorganized in what I assume in attempt at greater clarity. A lot of the dialog is lifted straight from the film, with the only additions serving to convey information that was easily done solely with the moving visuals of the film. I guess it succeeds at that, but at the same time, it fails to do so interestingly. Additional dialog could've been used to give greater depth to the characters and scenes (or at least try to), but instead it's wasted on a whole bunch of blandness. And, I really don't know why this wasn't made into an oversized one-shot. The story already wasn't intended for a serialized format, and it feels weird to end off where they did after only twenty-five pages.
And then, there's the art. Honestly, this is the book's biggest misstep. One of the most noteworthy aspects of the original film was its visuals. They presented a very surreal and subjective view of the world, portraying everything from architecture to shadows as having exceedingly twisted geometry. One of the ways in which this was accomplished practically was to paint both shadows and light streaks on the sets themselves. The book tries to emulate this iconic imagery, but there are two main reasons it fails at this. Firstly, the pencils on the backgrounds are simplistic to the point that there's very little depth on display. Everything looks less like a dark and distorted world and more like swirly nonsense. Of course, this is not at all helped by the color, or lack thereof, which also coincidentally (not really) happens to be the second reason the art falls short. I imagine Olmos went with solely black and white because of when the film was made, but it was a fucking stupid idea. Go look at any screenshot from the original Caligari and you'll see, guess what, shades of grey too. Because, that's how black and white film actually works. You'll also probably notice that, because of that, everything is much nicer and more interesting to look at. Furthermore, the physical film for the title cards and different scenes in Caligari were actually tinted different colors based on context. Yeah, there are plenty of black and white versions that exist, but there are also those that actually made the effort to restore that original colorization. One last thing I have to mention is when Dr. Caligari first awakens Cesare. In the film, we are locked in a close-up for over half a minute, watching the twitches of his face and flutters of his eyes until he finally and definitively awakens. It's one of, if not the, most famous moments in the whole film, and it still succeeds in being unsettling thanks to the expressiveness of actor Conrad Veidt's eyes. Here, we get three panels and Cesare looks flat out bored in all of them. Great. Fucking. Job.
No, you don't need to buy this. I recommend this to no one. Not because it's bad per se. It's just goddamn pointless. At first I thought I might recommend it to anyone who super loved the film or any horror enthusiasts who were particularly interested in the early twentieth century. But then, I realized they would probably just be insulted by it. If you'd never heard of Caligari and the story itself interests you, just go watch the film. It's in the public domain, so the whole thing, color tinting fully restored, is available to watch for free on YouTube.
The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari #1
Writer/Artist: Diego Olmos
Publisher: Amigo Comics