If you’re an English-speaking comics fan, the chances are, if you have heard of Milo Manara before, it’s most likely in connection with a certain Spider-woman variant cover or his work with Chris Claremont on X-Women. In Europe, however, Manara is a comics legend, mentioned in the same breath as Moebius or Jodorowsky. Caravaggio is perhaps his most personal work. Described in Dark Horse’s promotional material as a ‘love letter’ to the 17th century artist, its first volume chronicles the young artist’s arrival in Rome, his rise to prominence and his escape from the city after a swordfight ends messily. At times erudite and crammed with historical detail, at others bawdy and passionate, this opening volume is utterly engrossing and, as you might expect from an artist of Manara’s skill, at times breathtakingly beautiful.
The book opens with a young Caravaggio, having hitched a ride on the back of a farmer’s vegetable cart, approaching Rome via the Salario Bridge. We’re about to be treated to a typically Manaran moment of cheeky bawdiness, but before we get too carried away it’s worth taking in that opening panel. If, like me, you know Manara mainly through his superhero covers or his erotica, you may be excused for having exactly the same reaction I did – open-mouthed wonder. It really is an amazing piece of art in its own right. The stonework of the bridge and its low tower; the curving roadway leading up to the wooden barrier that obstructs it; the luminous ochres of the early evening sky: all are rendered in exquisite detail, as bold a statement of intent as it is possible to imagine. This tale is going to be beautiful.
What follows is an amusing introduction to the mores and manners of the time. The cart on which Caravaggio is travelling is almost overtaken by a coach and horses and both arrive at the bridge’s gate at the same time. This is bad news for the farmer, because the captain in charge of the bridge only allows one vehicle to pass each day and the farmer’s vegetables will spoil if he has to wait. An altercation between farmer and coach driver inevitably ensues with Caravaggio intervening on behalf of the farmer because, as he later says, he hates “bullies” – a characteristic which will come into play later in the volume. When the captain agrees to see the rather attractive woman from the carriage in his rooms in order to ‘inspect her papers’, things look bleak for the farmer. But Manara has a sly twist in store, as the captain, emerging from the tower wearing only his shirt, announces that it is the farmer – and not the carriage – that can go through. It would seem that the lady’s papers are so interesting the captain wants to look at them again tomorrow morning.
And so we are introduced to Manara’s version of early 17th century Rome, a world of lechery and power, albeit in this case of a relatively benign and playful nature. The artist – and the reader following his journey – will face considerably darker and more tragic moments as the story progresses.
On arriving in Rome, Caravaggio has little difficulty in finding work and space in a studio whose maestro is honest and humble enough to recognise the newcomer’s talent. In no time at all, he is working for the finest painter in Rome who, perhaps inevitably, turns out to be something of a stuck-up twit. In these early pages, Manara gives us a very engaging introduction to not only Caravaggio the artist but also Caravaggio the man; the hints from that opening sequence of pages are developed further. He is confident in his own abilities but falls short of displaying the sort of vanity that makes so many creative types profoundly unlikeable. Indeed, while he is single-minded in his pursuit of beauty (the early scene in which, incensed at having wine tipped on his head from the balcony above him, he confronts the culprit only to be captivated by the way the light highlights the curves of her bare bottom is a good example), that pursuit leads to him being contemptuous of social norms. For Caravaggio, the whore can be a madonna; it is not an either/or issue, despite what the Church might (and here does) say.
Caravaggio’s other defining characteristic is that aforementioned hatred of bullies. I wouldn’t even say that this is a desire for justice per se. It is, rather, an impulsive desire to defend people against cruelty when he sees it. This defines his rather unusual relationship with Annucia, a beautiful redheaded harlot who he first encounters on that bridge in the opening few pages and meets again in one of his not infrequent stays in prison. Initially he paints her as the madonna, an honour that matters a great deal to Anna, but her unwillingness to leave her pimp (and it is portrayed as unwillingness, despite his undeniably tyrannical attitude towards her) prevents her from doing so again, once the Cardinal who is Caravaggio’s patron finds out about her rather dubious background. Caravaggio begs her to join him, but he is unwilling to coerce her in the same way her pimp Ranuccio does.
In the end, what happens to Anna is tragic and it is a tragedy that inspires Caravaggio to produce a painting that confers to Anna in death an honour he was not able to give her in life – portraying her as Mary in his painting ‘The Death of the Virgin’, although the painting is ultimately deemed too scandalous to be displayed in Rome. The final few pages of the book see Caravaggio seek to avenge Anna’s death in a sword fight with Ranuccio that, again, highlights his sheer bloody-mindedness. Despite suffering a pretty unpleasant head wound, Caravaggio refuses to withdraw eventually killing his opponent. He then flees the city never, my history books tell me, to return again.
In Caravaggio: The Palette and the Sword, Manara has embellished and woven the details of history into a compelling narrative that illuminates the intensity, irrationality and inspirations of an exceptional artist. My one (very minor) gripe is that sometimes the historical detail overwhelms the narrative (even Manara cannot resist the occasional venture into the Renaissance equivalent of a training montage), but never for very long. Manara’s skill as an artist is unquestioned here, but his storytelling is impeccable too and there are moments of drama and revelation where this reader at least really felt as if he was being given an insight into just how differently artists see the world and a sense of how determined they are to reveal the truth about it in their art.
It’s been a little while since I’ve updated the blog. This is not, I should point out, because I’ve not been writing. It is simply that I’ve not been writing here. Over at the Weird Science DC Comics site, Jim Werner has been kind enough to allow me to post some indie reviews and has asked me to do some reviews of DC crossover titles too. As Jim is such a nice chap and, consequently, is a man to whom it is remarkably hard to say ‘no’, I’ve been more than happy to oblige. Those reviews will turn up here eventually, but I’ve been a little dilatory in transferring them over, for which failing I can only apologise. In addition, I’ve made my podcasting debut on the Weird Science behemoth of a podcast which can be downloaded here. I appear about eight hours in. (Well, I did warn you.) I’ve also got a slightly longer section on their latest podcast. If you want to hear me discuss the Batman/Shadow and Planet of the Apes/Green Lantern crossovers, that’s the place to go (6 hours and 20 odd minutes in for that one).
Apart from that, I’ve been reading some stuff you might be interested in.
I suppose the big new thing I’ve been reading is comics in translation, specifically European comics. Every now and then Comixology has a sale and I bite. Recently, I finished Raptors which is a four volume series about renegade vampires and the two New York cops that become entangled with them. Written by Belgian creator Jean Dufaux and with art by Enrico Marini, the story starts very well with some wonderfully atmospheric moments. The Raptors are a brother and sister team of vampires determined to wipe out the ‘mainstream’ line of vampires who they believe have become ‘soft’ and ‘corrupted’, trading their predatory nature for the ability to walk in sunlight and, essentially, behave like human beings, albeit horribly selfish ones. This is a pretty good premise and the story is indeed rather entertaining. The final volume suffers from being a bit rushed and, consequently, a bit confusing. Lenore, the main character, makes some decisions that are a little difficult to reconcile with what’s come before but, on the whole, this is stylish stuff. The title does contain some nudity and is really for readers aged 18 and over.
Also on Comixology, I’ve acquired Warren Ellis’ original run on Stormwatch which is a useful touchstone when considering his current run on The Wild Storm for DC. The political sensibility is definitely there, but the early stories are still very much rooted in the gaudy action of the 90s/early 00s superhero genre. They are, arguably, the superhero genre taken to their logical conclusion once you factor in real world politics. Henry Bendix may seem to be well-placed to identify and fix the world’s problems, but his interventions do have unforeseen consequences, particularly his questionable decision to include Rose Tattoo on the team. What’s happening with The Wild Storm at the moment is much more subtle and much more character-based. The ready-made structure of the Stormwatch series just isn’t there and, as a result, relationships between characters and factions are less clearly defined, all of which makes for a more engrossing and enjoyable read. There’ll be a review of issue 3 of The Wild Storm up shortly, incidentally. If you’d prefer, you can see it at the Weird Science site now.
Other stuff I’ve been reading is Tim Shipman’s All Out War which offers a very engaging insight into the shenanigans around Brexit. It is not especially interested in the pro and con arguments for staying in or leaving the EU; what it does do is trace the political manoeuvrings behind the scenes and the (some would argue disastrous) steps Cameron took that ultimately ended his career. I’m only a dozen or so pages in, but already it’s proven to be very enlightening. If the ‘inside story’ of one of the biggest political decisions/catastrophes/upheavals of the last few decades is your cup of tea, this is worth checking out. It’s exceptionally readable, well-researched (Douglas Carswell’s dad was apparently the man on whom the character of Dr Nicholas Garrigan in Giles Foden’s The Last King of Scotland was based. Fancy) and rather fascinating.
Well, that’s me done for now.