Arabson and James Robinson Make an Infernal Bargain in The Terrible Elisabeth Dumn Against the Devils in Suits
November 14, 2018 | By Tobias Carroll
The Brazilian cartoonist and veteran scribe weave a gothic tale of devils, the blues, and women who refuse to give in.
The Terrible Elisabeth Dumn Against the Devils in Suits opens with an archetypal conversation: a man who once bargained with the devil must finally pay his debt to his infernal lender. The electric one-shot comic—written and illustrated by Brazilian cartoonist Arabson and translated by James Robinson with colors from Anderson Cabral—abounds with classic Faustian imagery: a Satanic adversary with sinister emissaries, a legendary vagrant musician with endless secrets, and a hidden child among them. But many of the joys of this tautly plotted story emerge from how it eludes tropes while honoring them.
Elisabeth Dumn first debuted in Brazil in 2016. The book begins with the devil arriving to claim Dumn’s brother; an elegant panel depicts a series of hoofprints approaching a door, the trail ebbing into shoe imprints. The father offers his daughter, an insubordinate teen in boarding school, instead, and Elisabeth finds herself hunted by suit-clad hellhounds: giant, nearly unstoppable creatures whose posh veneers give way to sheer physical menace.
For this project, Arabson was inspired by the local story of a man whose sins came to haunt his family. “As incredible as it seems, something similar was told and taken as truth by many in my hometown,” Arabson recalls. “[I] didn’t remember that when I wrote [it]. It just came to my mind [at] times later.” He also cites a pair of films from the mid-2000s, O Homem Que Desafiou o Diabo (The Man Who Challenged the Devil) and A Máquina (The Machine), as influencing the graphic novel’s story.
The look of Elisabeth Dumn strikes a unique aesthetic: Elisabeth and a musician who becomes her traveling companion vibrate with movement, while Elisabeth’s father is laced with wrinkles, consumed by age and regret; the devil looks suitably devious and manipulative without being physically monstrous. “Some characters you develop after a long study,” Arabson recalls. “I had a vision of how I wanted them to look, but they got closer to their final look after a long process that involves drawing and letting go, to forget, seeing other stuff and resuming. Others came quickly, others never get done—not even after the last page.”
After Robinson joined the creative process, he viewed his role in the project as a particularly delicate one. “I was very keen to remain true to the intent of the dialogue, while adding the flow and naturalistic cadence that English dialogue has, that is sometimes lost in a very word-for-word translation,” he says. “However, I found the story so utterly compelling in its original form. It reminds me as much of a dark, twisted fairytale as a horror story.”
While the aftermath of the diabolic deal—which sends the titular teen careening against religious forces—sets this story into motion, the metaphysics of Elisabeth Dumn venture into surprising directions. “Narratives about pacts with metaphysical entities generate interest by themselves, as we find in classic literature and mythology along the centuries and people’s imaginations all around the world,” Arabson says. “It’s interesting to think that, somehow, forces so antagonistic are more united than they look like, working together for the sake of this reality.”
The narrative plants its bold metaphysical speculation into a more grounded, pastoral road trip that ventures through the Brazilian countryside. Arabson recalls drawing from familiar landscapes in his hometown as he created the book. “All the background was familiar,” he recalls. “I could almost see the characters moving through there. My father has a pickup truck just like the one in the comic—old—that belonged to my grandfather.”
While Elisabeth Dumn arrives at a thorough conclusion, Arabson and Robinson leave the door open for other stories told in this world—possibly pairing the title character with one of the sinister emissaries sent to pursue her. “I like the characters. When you like them, sometimes you see yourself thinking in ways to come back to them,” Arabson says. “I think Elisabeth and the big devil make an interesting team. An irascible girl with a powerful being under her command. She has the guts and the will to do the right thing, but I also see her as a teenager with a gun. The outcome can be unpredictable in the hands of someone untimely.”
Following this project, the two collaborators abound with admiration for one another. “My relation with my own art is awful. I am hardly in peace with it,” Arabson notes and refers to it as “a torment with some very ephemeral pleasures.”
“So you can imagine how it is to draw this comic with James, someone who I was a huge fan from a long time, and never had imagined something like this to happen,” he adds. Robinson has an equal level of excitement for the project. “I adore Arabson's framing and his incredible pacing with both his action scenes and dialogue scenes.”
It’s interesting to think that, somehow, forces so antagonistic are more united than they look, working together for the sake of this reality.