Marvel Books has begun a beautiful and respectful adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand. It is being carefully sectioned into five-issue arcs that, as you read them, draw you deeper and deeper into a dark world where an apocalyptic battle between the good and the very, very bad is about to take place. If reading Marvel’s adaptation of King’s The Dark Tower is like going to hear a hot jazz combo on 10 straight nights riffing differently and brilliantly on the same set, then reading this adaptation of The Stand is like going to hear your favorite rock band perform on a night when they’re on it in every conceivable way. They’re not doing a slavish note-by-note imitation --- you could have stayed at home and listened to them on your iPod if that was what you wanted to hear --- but they’re playing the songs with an energy and love that one associates with hearing them the first time through.
The collection of the first of these arcs --- THE STAND: CAPTAIN TRIPS --- will send the blood rattling through your veins, as the boys in Spoon would say. The team of folks doing it --- Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (Sensational Spider-Man, Marvel Knights, “Big Love”) on scripting, Mike Perkins (Captain America) on art, and Laura Martin (Ultimates 2, Astonishing X-Men) on inks --- has been pitch and letter perfect from the beginning to the end of each issue. Reading CAPTAIN TRIPS is like a Classic Illustrated adaptation of a novel lovingly done by EC Comics (and there are those of you who know what a compliment that is).
And indeed, it is a classic. When The Stand was first published in edited form in 1978, home computers were the stuff of science fiction. Cell phones were a decade away. The Internet was in its infancy, its accessibility limited to a few. Cable television was new. The beta vs. VHS VCR wars were in full swing. And people knew AIDS only as a weight loss supplement rather than as a disease that was beginning to attract uneasy attention from a handful of doctors in a very limited number of urban centers. So when I call The Stand a classic, I mean that it is as timeless and timely today --- right now --- as if it was published yesterday, notwithstanding the 30-odd years that have passed since the original novel first saw the light of day.
The story begins when a very nasty designer viral strain, dubbed “Captain Trips” (a sideways tribute to Jerry Garcia), escapes from a secret government facility and spreads. When Charlie Campion and his family escape from the facility --- or think they escape --- they are doing nothing more than postponing the inevitable and spreading death in their wake. From the moment that their automobile with its extremely ill passengers makes a final stop at Bill Hapscomb’s gas station in Texas, the fate of the nation is sealed. Since the virus is a secret, no one knows what they’re dealing with. Each person who gets it --- and just about everyone gets it --- thinks they have “the flu,” at least at first.
The few who don’t include Frannie Goldsmith, a young pregnant woman who is facing the birth of her unborn child on her own; Larry Underwood, a fledgling rock star unable to deal with the terms of his own success; Nick Andros, a young man with a hearing and speech impairment who lists compassion as among his few remaining assets; Stuart Redman, one of the first to be exposed at Hapscomb’s gas station and who may hold the key to immunity; and Lloyd Henreid, a homicidal killer who awaits what would seem to be an inevitable justice. They are all, to varying degrees, haunted in their dreams by an enigmatic character named Randall Flagg, known by those he meets in the back alleys and the shuttered rooms of America as the Walkin’ Man or the Boogeyman. Flagg welcomes Captain Trips as a harbinger of his ascent to glory, even as he haunts the dreams of the survivors.
CAPTAIN TRIPS adapts wonderfully to the sequential art media, primarily because the team in charge of this wild night’s ride approaches the work the way a groom should approach his bride: with love, respect and, most importantly, unbridled passion. There is plenty of opportunity for shock and awe here, and Perkins and Martin are not above presenting some of the more gruesome scenes in all of their graphic glory. Yet they are more than capable of wringing terror from the most ordinary scenes. Have you ever had your hair stand on end as you witness…a handshake? You will here. Aguirre-Sacasa brings his considerable cinematic narrative talents to the proceedings, infusing even the most benign passages with an atmosphere that hints and whispers that all is not well, even as he moves the narrative along at a perfect pace. And Perkins and Martin are in perfect synch with him, pulling back when appropriate, and getting up close and personal when necessary. One note here: I haven’t always been the biggest fan of Perkins’s work, but I am of this one, where his lines mesh flawlessly with the storyline and Martin’s dark, somber coloring.
THE STAND: CAPTAIN TRIPS is an indispensable take on a much-loved work, a gutsy effort whose reach and grasp are as one. I cannot wait for more. This volume (as well as future ones, presumably) includes reproductions of the alternate covers of each issue, notes from creators, and other contributions to give the reader an over-the-shoulder look at how the sequential art adaptation in their hands came into being. Such lagniappe notwithstanding, however, the meat of the book is the story itself, and what a rich, irresistible feast it is.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011
Stephen King's the Stand, Volume 1: Captain Trips