Gou Tanabe’s At the Mountains of Madness May Enthrall, But Fails to Chill

A group of explorers in jumpsuits are walking across a plane of ice and snow. Mountainous formations tower in the background.

H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, Volume 1

Gou Tanabe (artist & writer)
July 9, 2019
Dark Horse Manga

Continuing the legacy that the Cthulu Mythos has left upon the literary world, Gou Tanabe adapts H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness in manga form. Tanabe adapts the work from a place of knowledge and deep understanding of Lovecraft. The manga is a pretty concise, direct adaptation of the original work, but arguably, this guarded attempt may be its main flaw.

Volume 1 cover for H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness adapted by Gou Tanabe - Monochrome illustration of a man's guarded face above a group of people setting out for a mountain

The original At the Mountains of Madness is told in a first-person account by geologist William Dyer. He details what ends up being a disastrous Antarctic expedition, hoping that the recollection of his harrowing experiences would deter future explorers from setting foot where their trail had led.

From the start, this expedition leads to the discovery of unusual and deeply unnatural phenomena. When things take a bleak turn, Dyer and his team end up discovering things that are beyond human explanation.

A giant ship vessel is entering the frame from right. A group of penguins are loitering and frolicking in the foreground of ice.

Up to this point, there have been no other major creators tackling manga adaptations of Lovecraft’s work. Tanabe seems to see himself as an H. P. Lovecraft aficionado. His portfolio is mostly comprised of adaptions of Lovecraft’s shorter stories compiled in collections such as The Hunter In the Dark and The Hound and Other Stories. These past adaptations have been published in Enterbrain’s Comic Beam seinen manga magazine.

The original text is notoriously heavy and lengthy. Arguably, this prose is fitting for a story narrated through an academic’s point of view. After all, Mountains was rejected by Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright on the grounds of its length. It would end up being serialized in Astounding Stories, one of the longest-running science fiction magazines that now goes under the name Analog Science Fiction and Fact. The story has since been reproduced in numerous other publications.

First and foremost, Tanabe’s art is solid. Characters are drawn in a semi-realistic design that grounds both living and inanimate subjects in a reality that is believable to ours. His heavy use of blacks emphasize a necessary ambiguity when developing a world about the mystery and the unknown. When detail and more fine linework is used on whites, it is done effectively, whether in the form of projecting space in his scenic scapes or to suggest the gross viscerality of the cut up flesh of an unknown creature. Unfortunately, this thoughtfulness didn’t feel like it was just as present in the direct adaptation of the story itself.

Top most panel: a close-up of a hand holding a star-shaped, stone. Bottom right panel: a man pulls his hand, holding the star, closer to his face. He stares at it intensely. Panel, bottom left: close up of a dog barking.

This version of H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness is given the opportunity for a lot of breathing room in how to re-approach the original narrative. It sets the story within a third-person account, putting Dyer at greater length from the reader. The manga is concise and straightforward, and indeed does its job in adapting a recognizable story—but that ends up being its problem. With a greater space it can fill, there were numerous opportunities to flesh out Madness’ world that Tanabe for some reason decided to not to experiment with.

Madness could have been finessed now that it is stretched out in this longer format. Little empathy can be expected for characters that are so quickly introduced and barely fleshed out. In addition, by removing Dyer from his original narrator role, the manga has rendered him a little one-dimensional. Both of these issues glare further with inconsistent pacing across panels. When the book opens up, the group makes it to the Antarctican continent within the first two chapters. If the journey to get there was actually represented, this would have opened up an opportunity to explore the cast and their chemistries.

This sort of inconsistent pacing continues throughout, making it feel like no time has passed at all and removing any sense of urgency that the expedition actually faces. The pacing issues do not call, however, for Tanabe to add additional backstory to characters, nor for the manga to adapt the source material entirely verbatim. Rather, there were so many opportunities for experimentation that have been missed in this new medium, distant from its original.

Panel from H. P. Lovecraft's Mountains of Madness - A person’s backside is turned to the viewer. Another person is walking into the background, towards what appears to be a ravaged campsite.

When translated to a comic form, the medium already must carry the weight to make up for the removed flavor and description of Lovecraft’s prose. In some ways, being a reasonably precise version of the original work makes this manga a watered-down version that removes the elements of what made Madness so distinct.

Ultimately, Tanabe’s At the Mountains of Madness still serves as a substantial literary source to look into when exploring all things Lovecraft. It is one to consider for any huge Lovecraft fan, but probably not one to be strongly dismayed over if you end up missing out.

Elvie Mae Parian

Elvie Mae Parian

Elvie somehow finds bliss in purposefully complicating the art of storytelling and undertaking the painful practice of animation. If you see her on Twitter at @lvmaeparian, she is doing neither of those things.