The fifth volume in artist P. Craig Russell’s hardbound adaptations of Oscar Wilde’s fairy stories, The Happy Prince (NBM), is a visual delight, capturing the writer’s blend of wit and sentimentality with Russell’s usual fine-lined grace. As apt today as it was when Wilde first crafted it in the Victorian Era, The Happy Prince is a lovingly depicted parable of Christian charity that deserves to be revived in this era of celebrated selfishness.
For those unfamiliar with Wilde’s original children’s story, the tale concerns the statue of a young prince that towers over an unnamed European city. The prince passed away while living a carefree existence in the aptly named palace of Sans-Souci “where sorrow is not allowed to enter,” though his spirit appears to have lived on in his ornate statue. Having been shielded from the poverty of those who live outside the palace, the prince now has a clear view of “all the ugliness and all the misery of my city.” Enlisting the aid of a traveling swallow, the statue instructs the bird to strip its jewels and gold leaf to bring to the city’s paupers. In so doing, both statue and swallow wind up sacrificing themselves.
It’s a simple story, though the heart of the piece is the budding friendship between the prince and the swallow, not that easy to depict visually when one of the figures is an immobile statue, though Craig unsurprisingly proves himself up to the challenge. Russell leaves the writer’s crystalline prose intact, and though it is a fairy story, he doesn’t shy away from the work’s grimmer details (the knotted hands of a hard-working seamstress, for instance). Russell also captures both the satiric and whimsical aspects of the tale—the pontificating villagers’ reactions to both the bejeweled statue and its plainer version, the migrating swallow’s unrequited courtship of a river reed and unfulfilled dreams of flying down to Africa—and if the story has any flaw it’s in the author’s reliance on the last act arrival of a rewarding deity. It’s not anything that the Victorian audience would have any problem with, even if it may come off a bit contrived to more modern readers.
Russell’s elegant line work and eye for detail would be suited for the plates in a 19th century picture book, though his comic book artist’s facility with movement adds an element that make the images more contemporary. This was my first exposure to the former Marvel artist’s work with Wilde, but you better believe I intend to go back and check out the earlier four adaptations. As both classic fantasy and a model of 21st century graphic storytelling, Wilde and Russell’s The Happy Prince deserves a place in any family library.