Review–The comic book adaptation of A Fine and Private Place

Review by C.J. Bunce

When a publisher adapts a work of fiction into comic book or graphic novel form, there should be a reason for it.  How can a visual representation of this work add something to the story for a reader, either new to the story or not?  And timing is relevant.  Why release this adaptation now?  Easy answers that are valid are simply because the work is a classic, because the work is by a noted writer, or because the subject matter is one that resonates with current audiences.

I don’t have an answer as to why now is a good time for an adaptation of Peter S. Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place into comic book form.  But many of the easy answers fit.  Beagle is one of the most beloved authors of all time, and perhaps the most beloved author of classic fantasy of the level of Tolkien and Carroll and White and Lewis still living and still writing.  Issue #1 of IDW Publishing’s adaptation of Beagle’s first novel, A Fine and Private Place, is probably a long time coming.  Published in 1960, eight years before his celebrated The Last Unicorn, A Fine and Private Place is our first window into the thoughtful and introverted characters fans love Beagle for.

We meet the first of his unique characters immediately in the opening scene–a beautiful black raven, stealing food from a grocer, and carrying it and us through the northeastern town to a cemetery where we meet the main character, Jonathan Rebeck, a homeless pharmacist who has actually found a home in a mausoleum at the cemetery.  The raven brings food to the man, and speaks, and it and Rebeck discuss the season and the way of things between them.  Rebeck cannot be found to live in the cemetery and so he sends the bird away and ducks into the shadows when a funeral procession appears.  And then the reader learns Rebeck sees dead people, and they see him.

From Issue #1 you may be more encouraged to buy the original novel than to wait until next month for the next installment and then the next month and so on.  In fact I think A Fine and Private Place would actually benefit from being released entirely as a graphic novel, realizing that these serial releases are a staple in comicdom today.  Issue #1 introduces the reader to a very quaint and likeable world, yet subtly creepy with dark overtones, such as the only passing mention by a new ghostly spirit that he believes he was poisoned by his wife.  A Fine and Private Place also introduces a version of realities of life and death, which seem bittersweet and thoughtful. But we cannot yet tell where this is going–a thoughful reflection of life or a darker view of the world.  What will be in store for these characters, especially a widow who seems to get along brilliantly with Rebeck?

Beyond the obvious place Beagle has in fantasy storytelling and the “it’s about time” factor for its release 52 years after its original publication, A Fine and Private Place the comic fits solidly into a recently established niche of comic book titles.  Its themes go hand in hand with Image Comics’ rural noir Revival, also about strange occurrences involving life and death in a small town, as well as Abstract Studios’ Rachel Rising with its world of the dead unstuck and living out of joint with our reality.  But where those new direct to comic titles cross over into the realm of horror with more overt and disturbing imagery and gore, Beagle’s story is more subtle and reserved.  Each of the three titles has its own place in the current market of this sub-genre.

So what would draw a reader to the comic series instead of moving directly to the classic novel?  It helps that Beagle himself wrote and oversees the adaptation scripted by Peter Gillis–you can be sure this graphic representation reflects the story creator himself.  The artwork is pleasant, the raven in particular provides a great service as visual tour guide, and the renderings of Rebeck make him seem very solidly a doppleganger for the late Ernest Borgnine, a seemingly perfect fit for this character’s strange but likable activities.  Artist Eduardo Francisco creates a clear and comfortable visual path for these characters, who discuss their place in time rather than have much actual action as found in most comics.  Unlike the old Classics Illustrated adaptations of classic novels, this is not a dull rehashing of the original–the visuals definitely create a certain uncertainty to this new world.  In the end I think fans of the original are likely the best audience for this adaptation.  It also is a fine introduction to this story, and so long as readers don’t just skip ahead to the novel, it may stand to serve as a companion to that work.

A Fine and Private Place Issue #1, from IDW Publishing, is in stores now.  The original novel is still in publication, too.

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