Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
The Poe Clan
Edgar and Marybelle Portnell have been children for a very long time. Turned into vampires in their early teens, the two siblings have spent almost a century traveling around England with their adoptive parents, who are also members of the vampiric Poe Clan. But living forever isn't necessarily what Edgar would have chosen for himself and his beloved sister, and their need to prey on humans makes their lives fraught with peril. As the years change and they stay the same, the tragedy of the Poe Clan lives on, catching more and more people in its wake.
There aren't as many books that deal with the tragedy of how endless “forever” really is. Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting (1975) is most people's introduction to the idea, while Lois Duncan's Locked in Time (1986) takes the idea a step farther (and scarier). But neither of these contemporary classics do the job that Moto Hagio does with The Poe Clan, a tale of a boy who will never be a man because of the immortality forced upon him.
The Poe Clan was originally published in five volumes between 1972 and 1976, winning the Shogakukan Manga Award in its last year of serialization. Fantagraphics has divided those original volumes into two large omnibuses, the second of which is forthcoming as of this writing, and while Hagio's art is very much of the period, the story itself – like the Babbitt and Duncan books – holds up impressively well today. The story ranges broadly through time, opening during the 1810s before hopping to the 1860s, then taking a detour back in time to the 1740s – 50s when Edgar and Marybelle were originally born and turned. The latter half of the massive volume mostly takes place in the 1880s and 1959, although we follow a descendant of the character who starred in the 1864 chapter from 1900 to 1959 as a sort of bridge for the story's main plot. What's truly impressive here is the historical detail in everything from conveyances to world events to period trimmings that Hagio puts into each page; if you know enough about historical costume, you can accurately pinpoint the time before it's mentioned to the half-a-decade. Even more fascinating is the way that we can watch characters' attitudes change with the times while still retaining their original personalities. This most obvious with Alan, who comes in during the 1880s section, but we see it with Edgar as well as he becomes more himself with each decade that passes while he remains fourteen. Interestingly, Marybelle is the only character who doesn't evolve very much over the course of her extended lifetime; what's worth thinking about is whether or not this is true or because we're largely seeing her through the memories of Edgar, who cherishes the days when they were alive and/or human as if they're his good luck charm.
The relationship between Edgar and Marybelle forms a central theme of the first three-quarters of the book, and while the chapters set in the 18th century certainly offer us a good explanation as to why that should be, it is also easy to see how Edgar's own feelings have warped his relationship with his younger sister. What began as a desire to protect her from a world that would throw them away became a need to keep her safe from The Poe Clan, a “family” of vampirenellas, the in-world version of vampires. Edgar can't save himself from being forced to join them – they play on his sense of guilt and his desire to protect his sister – and when ultimately he can't save Marybelle from them either, his conscience becomes almost a twisted cloak he wears, at times feeling guilty for having failed to keep her human while at others relieved that now they'll be together forever. This attachment to Marybelle is ultimately what leads him to bring Alan into the fold – Alan's love for Marybelle made them kindred spirits in a piece of Edgar's mind, and between that and an unspoken fear of being alone, he did to Alan essentially what was done to him.
In some ways that's the death knell for Edgar's humanity, and when we pick up his story again in 1959, he's a much crueler person. Elements of the Edgar we knew in the 18th and 19th centuries are still very clearly there – we see them particularly in his interactions with Alan, Matthias, and Killian – but there's also a cold edge that he was lacking in the 1880s, especially when he went to Alan and offered to take him into eternity. Edgar seems to have many fewer scruples now – living two hundred years could have that effect on you – and almost at times appears to be on the verge of creating his own pack of undead teenage boys, like a twisted Peter Pan.
It does feel like Hagio is aware of that potential dark view of J. M. Barrie's unchanging boy (and Edgar and Alan certainly do feel lost), even though the more obvious reference is to the father of the detective story, Edgar Allan Poe. (It's likely that Hagio was seeking to mimic the sadness and darkness of Poe's work in her own, since as an author Poe only made glancing references to vampire bats and didn't author any actual vampire stories.) While Marybelle's name can be read as a variation on Poe's “Annabel Lee” with Edgar and Alan's obsession with Marybelle mimicking the longing tone of Poe's famous poem. Also worth noting is that Marybelle is turned at age thirteen – the age of Poe's wife when he married her.
What's most notable about The Poe Clan, however, is not Hagio's references or even the sweeping grandeur of her art. It's the pervasive air of tragedy that rises from each page like a mist, enshrouding the story and the reader in a veil of sadness. Even when things look happy, there's something about the way Edgar carries himself or the knowledge of time going by and not taking him with it that makes it almost beautifully tragic. It's mono no aware reminiscent of Mark Twain's My Platonic Sweetheart, with the added sadness that of all of the people he's loved, perhaps the worst one for Edgar to lose was himself.
Forever is a long time. Moto Hagio understands that, and The Poe Clan is a masterpiece constructed on the sorrow of that knowledge.
Overall : A
Story : A
Art : A
+ Beautiful art and story enhance the tragedy of the tale. Great period details and a smooth, polished translation.
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