In today’s Leaving Proof: We do a quick comparison of P. Craig Russell’s The Ring of the Nibelung and Alex Alice’s Siegfried books, two very different comics adaptations of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.
Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung in English), 19th century German composer Richard Wagner‘s cycle of four epic operas, is among the most well-known works of classical musical theater the world over. Written over the course of a quarter of a century (1848–1874)—it took Wagner five years to finish writing the text of all four operas, and he would spend another 21 years rewriting the closing scenes—Der Ring des Nibelungen isn’t just the composer’s magnum opus, with an overarching plot based on an amalgamation of portions of the Icelandic Edda and Völsunga saga, the Scandinavian Thidrekssaga, and the 12th century High German epic poem Nibelungenlied, it can also be described as the definitive distillation of Nordic and German myth and folk tales as viewed through the lens of 19th century German Romanticism.
Even those unfamiliar with the Ring Cycle, as the collection of four operas has come to be popularly called, will probably have heard an excerpt or encountered cultural references to the work at some point. Just about anyone who grew up watching cartoons is familiar with the musical signature of “Walkürenritt” (“Ride of the Valkyries”), an excerpt from Act 3 of the third opera Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), since it forms the basis of the “Kill the Wabbit” song from the 1957 Chuck Jones-directed Merrie Melodies short “What’s Opera, Doc?” featuring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. Hayao Miyazaki’s acclaimed 2008 animated feature film Ponyo not only uses “Walkürenritt” in the score accompanying a major scene, but the film’s plot also borrows certain narrative elements from Die Walküre. Film enthusiasts will also no doubt recognize the excerpt from its use in one of the key scenes in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now. Indeed, it would be an overwhelming task to list just the instances of “Walkürenritt” being used in film, television, video games, and other media (not that it has stopped some folks from trying), never mind those that reference or borrow other parts of the Ring Cycle.
In comics, the presentation of music is a particularly thorny problem because it is a silent medium. We’ve previously discussed in this space the various techniques comics creators have tried over the years to deliver music through comics—everything from incorporating musical notation in the art to the use of flexi disc inserts to embedding QR code links to online music videos—but in terms of actually tying musical structure to sequential art, there is perhaps no work that can compare to P. Craig Russell’s Eisner Award-winning The Ring of the Nibelung in terms of its ambition and craft.
Originally published by Dark Horse Comics in 2000 through 2001 as a 14-issue series and released earlier this year as a deluxe hardcover edition, The Ring of the Nibelung is a culmination of a number of Russell’s career threads. The artist had previously tackled Der Ring des Nibelungen in an excerpt adaptation entitled “Siegfried and the Dragon” that appeared in the second issue of of Marvel’s adult fantasy/science-fiction magazine Epic Illustrated, released in the summer of 1980. He had also adapted a number of operas and opera excerpts for comics including Wagner’s Parsifal, Bellini and Romani’s La sonnambula, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-bleue, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, and Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
Besides the sheer volume of the work—the collected edition clocks in at 448 pages—what stands out from The Ring of the Nibelung is the extent to which the music and staging of the opera influenced the visual composition of the comic. Sweeping, bombastic musical passages from the operas are realized as “widescreen” panels, splash pages, double-page spreads, or decompressed multi-panel sequences. While working within his own distinct brand of naturalistic rendering (Russell avoids the trap of calling on Arthur Rackham’s iconic early 20th century color plates for his character designs), the blocking and the outsized “acting” of the figures still definitely give the impression of events staged for a viewing audience. It’s a rather unique aesthetic and storytelling combination to see in a modern comic.
Russell also interpreted Wagner’s idea of the leitmotif—distinct, recurring “musical phrases” associated with specific characters, themes, props, and settings—as visual motif. As just one example of this technique, there is in Der Ring des Nibelungen the leitmotif that the late musicologist Robert Donington called “the Ring,” which is heard at various points in all four operas. Russell signals this leitmotif and its variations in the appropriate scenes in the comic using juxtaposed visual elements—a stylized rendering of the ring, the ring worn on upward-facing, claw-like hand, among others—suggestive of a common theme. Not only does this reward the reader familiar with the music of the opera with added meaning to the art, but it also gives the work a sense of visual coherence that can nonetheless be appreciated by the reader less familiar with the musical intricacies of the source material. Still, Russell’s adaptation is clearly intended to be a companion to the Ring Cycle rather than a visual substitute. The Ring of the Nibelung is for the fan and student of Der Ring des Nibelungen, first and foremost.
On the opposite end of the adaptation spectrum stand Alex Alice’s Siegfried graphic novels, the first two of which are published in English by BOOM! Studios’ Archaia Entertainment imprint.
Where Russell tried to visually approximate the musical structure of Wagner’s epic and adhered closely to the original text, the French comic creator’s adaptation can be described as a stand-alone high fantasy reimagining of the work somewhat divorced from the stylistic concerns and the 19th century sensibilities of the Ring Cycle. Among the more notable changes are the conflation (or outright removal) of certain characters for the purpose of streamlining the narrative, the reduction of the contents of the first opera (Das Rheingold) to expository background information, and the discarding of the potentially problematic incest issue that is the underlying cause of the central conflict in Die Walküre.
The liberties taken by Alice in his adaptation may rankle the Wagner purists, but the changes are all defensible—welcome, even—when considered from the point of view of an author and fan trying to make the Wagner epic more accessible for those unfamiliar with the work. Are the Siegfried graphic novels, then, only nominally adaptations of Der Ring des Nibelungen? I don’t think so. I personally believe that there is room for reinterpretation and recontextualization when it comes to adaptations of classic works, and that Alice’s approach is in the free-form spirit of the older, oral storytelling tradition, where a tale is sometimes changed in the telling to suit both the storyteller and the audience.
If Russell’s The Ring of the Nibelung is a scholarly, almost literal adaptation of the Ring Cycle, Alice’s Siegfried is more of a personal abstraction, albeit one informed by a hefty amount of research and respect for the source material. The world of comics isn’t so small that both versions can’t co-exist and be appreciated for their respective merits.