Back in 2009, I learned about Jack Vance by way of Carlo Rotella’s wonderful New York Times Magazine tribute “The Genre Artist”; intrigued and also somewhat guilty about arriving very late to this particular party, I immediately located and consumed Tales Of the Dying Earth (and accidentally left it on a plane; I hope whoever found it got as much enjoyment out of it as I did). Rotella’s piece appears in Humayoun Ibrahim’s comic book adaptation of “The Moon Moth” as a kind of foreword. If you’re new to Jack Vance, Rotella’s interview combined with Ibrahim’s adaptation should interest you enough to seek out more of his work, and longtime fans will find much to enjoy as well.
Vance’s short story “The Moon Moth” was first published in 1961 in Galaxy magazine* and tells the story of Edwer Thissell, a fledgling consular representative on the planet Sirene. Sirene is an exceptionally high-context society: every Sirenese wears a mask indicative of his or her status, all speech is accompanied by a musical instrument suitable to the status of the person being spoken to, and severe breaches of etiquette are summarily punished by death. There is no money; the only currency is strakh, a Sirenese concept which encompasses status, face, reputation, prestige, and honor. The greater one’s strakh, the better the goods and services to which one has access.
*Viewers of Mad Men take note; as you can see, our man Ken Cosgrove was keeping excellent company in his literary career.
As a minor diplomat, Thissell’s strakh is very low indeed—his mask is that of a humble moon-moth (“Does this mask signify any degree of prestige?” “Not a great deal.”), and his houseboat is small and shabby. Navigating the byzantine complexities of Sirenese culture is incredibly difficult for him, and his fellow Earth expatriates are only helpful insofar as their lessons have kept him from getting killed. His unalloyed misery and culture shock are interrupted by the arrival of the notorious criminal Haxo Angmark, who Thissell is tasked with apprehending. Matters only get worse from there, and it takes an ironic, classically Vance-ian twist to bring the Angmark affair to a satisfactory conclusion.
Ibrahim’s adaptation of Vance’s story is witty and respectful of its source; he stays true to the spirit and letter of the original while contributing some lovely visual flourishes. Thissell’s moon-moth mask is particularly effective; its downturned mouth and droopy eyes underline Thissell’s constant routine of humiliation and fumbling. Ibrahim’s designs for the different Sirenese musical instruments are beautiful, and he has devised an elegant lettering style that depicts which instrument is being played and what it sounds like. For example, here are the jagged shapes that reflect the percussive tones of the humerkin, “used only for slaves or to express utter contempt”:
By contrast, the sound of the electric gomapard (“an oboe-like tone for ceremonials”) is rendered in elegant purple curves that echo the highly stylized Sirenese speech:
What the linework and composition lacks in detail is made up in expressiveness, and Hilary Sycamore’s coloring work is gorgeous throughout. Sometimes the visual narrative is not entirely clear; as in an attempt to render Thissell’s reaction to seeing unmasked one of the dolphin-like animals that pulls his houseboat. In Vance’s original, Thissell feels a slight shock at seeing a bare face—even an animal’s, and reflects that maybe he’s acclimating to Sirene after all. In the comic, the shock is there, but Thissell’s inner thoughts are less evident. On the whole, however, Ibrahim’s adaptation is a success; it stands very well on its own, and hopefully will provide a gateway to more of Vance to those who have yet to discover him for themselves.