The Illuminati Ball – An Adaptation That Should Have Kept Its Brilliance On The Stage

by Richard Bruton

You know when something is trailed as wonderful, has pull quotes by someone whose work you love and respect the opinion of… and then you read it and just can’t see it?
Ladies and gentlemen… welcome to The Illuminati Ball.

Yes, right there on the back cover, you have Neil Gaiman telling you that he was, ‘Seduced by Cynthia’s art. She is a wonder‘.
That’s Cynthia von Buhler, artist, author, playwright, performer, and producer. But, most pertinently here, von Buhler is the writer and artist of The Illuminati Ball graphic novel adaptation of her own performance piece.
There’s also, on that back cover, Forbes telling us she is a ‘Creative genius‘. And Prodigy of Mobb Deep saying, ‘This is not for the weak hearted or the weak minded‘.
Now, in truth, they could all quite easily have been talking about von Buhler’s art in general or referencing her performance art pieces of the Illuminati Ball, which I understand are rather special indeed.
Unfortunately, based on what I read here, I just can’t agree with them if they’re talking about The Illuminati Ball, the graphic novel.
Similarly, I’m at odds with Comicon’s own Hannah Means-Shannon, another comics person I respect who really enjoyed The Illuminati Ball.
So, with all that in mind and with the phrase ringing in my head, ‘it’s just you not getting it me old son’… on we go!

Yes, it’s certainly a book full of really interesting ideas, occupying some of the most fascinating (and frankly quite terrifying) areas of gene science, mixed up with body horror ideas and the lust for power and prestige associated with the mysterious organisation known as the Illuminati.
That ripping of scientific fact (and soon to be fact) from the headlines and transferring it creatively to a gothic horror setting and story, part HP Lovecraft, part Agatha Christie, really does mean it could have been, should have been something as incredibly as the theatrical shows of The Illuminati Ball are meant to be.
Yet, it’s just not. Despite all that promise in the concept, in the ideas, it’s just a book that has no flow, is a real drudge of a read, full of characters badly acting their parts, all accompanied with dialogue that’s just delivered in a dry, monotone style.

Artistically, it’s a strange beast, one that in turns impresses and frustrates me. At its best, it’s really nicely done, images become striking things, moments captured in time. But all too often, you can see right through the images on the page to the static life model poses used throughout the creation of the book.
And that, sadly is symptomatic of the big problem I have with the art here… it’s again all too often just a series of static, often disconnected panels, where it should be something telling that sequential narrative.

In terms of the storyline, it’s all spun out of von Buhler’s performances and interests that create the visually stunning (so I’ve read and seen images of) Illuminati Balls that she regularly puts on as immersive theatre, with her Speakeasy Dollhouse team.
The basic idea comes from the famous Illuminati Ball, the legendary 1972 surrealist masked ball thrown by the Baroness and Baron de Rothschilds and attended by the biggest celebs of the day, including Salvador Dali and Audrey Hepburn. Bizarre costumes met equally strange and lavish dining, a Heston Blumenthal experience before that chef was even born, with dinner plates covered in fur, table settings of taxidermied tortoises, food served on a mannequin corpse, dead fish as forks.

Yet, in the graphic novel, it’s not the famous attending this 2016 version of the Ball, again thrown by the de Rothschilds according to the invites. Instead, it’s five strangers receiving the invitations that promise them entry into the Illuminati. These five want various things, but generally, it’s more of what they have, be it power, fame, influence, or respect.
The affair is hosted by the Pig King, Baron de Rothschild, alongside his heavily pregnant wife. All the hosts, the kinship leaders to guide them, and the candidates themselves are masked, taking on animal personas before who will undergo trials to achieve their new Illuminati status.
But, unbeknownst to the guests, while they seek the finer things craved by the already rich and powerful, the Pig King seeks nothing more than salvation for his kind. What that is, how that comes about, those are things I shan’t go into.
(And I’m not spoilering anything here, all that is pretty much a recap of the back cover blurb, likewise the art is all either from the preview sent to us or the first few pages.)

Now, the ideas are all there, radical, inventive, horrific things ripped from the pages of medical and scientific research and given a body horror spin.
The genetic manipulation involved is pure CRISPR tech, the new gene-editing technology that has rather blown open the biological world. This gene-editing technique is based on an ability to zero in on specific genes and effect changes. Changes such as those that made the spider-goat, where spider silk-making genes are introduced into goat DNA to yield milk proteins that can be extracted and used to spin spider silk. (See here and here for more on that fascinating particular example)
What von Buhler does here is to take those ideas that exist now and extrapolates them, imagines what horrors might be born, what might happen when/if the science goes wrong or when the wrong hands begin manipulating those technologies.
But although the ideas are there, that’s all they are. The story connecting it all together just doesn’t hold together. It’s fragmented, a collection of scenes thrown together, no flow to the piece, no rhythm. And the dialogue just sits on the page, absolutely flat and lifeless, as monotone and lifeless as a bad school play.
It comes down to this, I suppose, a great prose writer can be a great film-maker, but it’s never a given. A great painter may be a wonderful photographer, but equally, it’s just as often not the case. And in the end, to my eye, it’s the case with The Illuminati Ball that von Buhler, capable of putting on lavish, inventive performances in one medium, more than capable of creating great art in another, has simply thrown herself into this comic convinced she has the makings of a comic writer and artist.
Sadly, it’s just not so. At least not with The Illuminati Ball, where all the grand ideas of mixing myth, magic, secrets, and cutting edge science combining with decent imagery, just don’t hold together in comic form.

The Illuminati Ball graphic novel by Cynthia von Buhler, letters by Aditya Bidikar. Published by Titan Comics on October 16, 2019.

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