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.
American Gods: Shadows #2 (Dark Horse)
Hear that? That sound of punches flying, mysteries swirling mysteriously and antagonists finally showing up to throw shade at our (anti)hero? That’s the sound of Dark Horse’s adaptation of American Gods finally hitting its stride, that is. And I, for one, am very relieved. It is, after all, an uncomfortable feeling reviewing the comic version of an iconic story and finding it… underwhelming. That is not, fortunately, the case with this issue. Read on and I’ll explain why.
Issue 2 starts off exactly where the main strip last issue left off. In the john. Mr Wednesday’s repeating his job offer to Shadow, in the process pointing out that the ex-con doesn’t have a job because his best friend died in the same car crash that killed his wife. It takes some written evidence from a local newspaper to convince Shadow, but, eventually and somewhat reluctantly, he agrees to become a bodyguard-cum-chauffer for the extraordinarily charismatic stranger. The two seal the deal over a drink and things begin to get strange. Or, at least, stranger.
Much of the strangeness comes from Mad Sweeney, the self-professed leprechaun who shows up at the restaurant and appears to be, as Shadow says, “about ten feet tall”. Already known to Wednesday, Sweeney provides a fair bit of incident in this first section of the issue. Where Wednesday prefers to sit and make conversation, albeit of the decidedly enigmatic sort, Sweeney likes to provoke Shadow into a fight. Which the Irishman eventually loses. The fight is prompted by both Sweeney and Shadow’s skill with coin tricks and the latter’s desire to know how Sweeney’s managed to pull off a particularly impressive bit of sleight-of-hand. This is rather fitting given how much of this story so far has been concerned with deception and things not quite being as they appear.
After the fight, Shadow celebrates his victory with a drink or seven and wakes up on the highway in Wednesday’s car. Wednesday helpfully informs him that his wife’s body is available to view at a nearby funeral parlour and even more helpfully drops Shadow off there. And it’s here that my earlier suspicions about just what’s been going on between Laura and Richie are confirmed, when Richie’s widow enters and spits on Laura’s face. When Shadow catches up to her, she informs him that Laura’s mouth was wrapped around her husband’s gear stick (this is not quite how she describes it) at the time of the crash. Which would explain why he lost control, I guess.
Not for the first time, I’m somewhat taken aback by Shadow’s muted emotional response here. I can only assume that this is deliberate. More so than his time in prison or his conversations with Wednesday, Shadow’s memories of his wife seem to be idealised and almost dream-like. His ongoing reaction (or lack thereof) to both the death of his wife and subsequent revelation of her betrayal seem like he’s suffering from some sort of dissociation. This may, indeed, be deliberate, but it continues to make empathising with him more difficult than perhaps it should be. That said, the plot is moving now, and it’s well-constructed enough to hold the interest regardless of the slightly flat lead character. (And, to be fair, he’s nowhere near as flat as he was in the first issue.)
The book closes with Shadow being drugged and encountering a deeply unpleasant fat boy in a limo, and it is clear that the boy is much more than he initially seems. The dialogue here is clever, merging the language of computer science with that of religion. The boy has a warning for Mr Wednesday and it is clear that, in taking Wednesday up on his job offer, Shadow has chosen sides in some kind of conflict. Once again, Shadow is dropped off where he needs to go – this time the Motel America – and, with no back up this time round, the issue ends with him heading inside.
Well, this was better. The dialogue between Wednesday, Shadow and Sweeney really crackles and the encounter between Shadow and the fat boy in the limo demonstrates Gaiman’s wit very nicely. There’s a definite sense of impetus now and, although Shadow’s not quite as engaging as you’d expect a main character to be, Wednesday is and I definitely want to see more of him. I also want to find out more about the wider situation Shadow’s got himself into. There’s a genuine sense of intrigue now – and danger. Scott Hampton’s artwork is of pretty much the same standard as last issue, but the bar fight is dynamic and his portrayal of Sweeney as a mercurial, slightly grotesque braggart is very engaging.
All in all, this is a good example of comic book storytelling: the plot is intriguing, the characters fleshed out in interesting ways, the dialogue lively and the art, though still a little on the restrained side, is detailed and clear. Shadow is growing on me and Wednesday is so far the star of the book. There’s certainly enough here to hook the reader into the unfolding larger plot and I’m now very interested to see how this story develops.
This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website. Check them out for some great reviews of DC, Marvel and indie books!
First published in 2001, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is long overdue for a comic adaptation. Presumably spurred by the imminent appearance of a TV adaptation, Dark Horse has decided to release an adaptation across 27 issues constituting 3 distinct story arcs with veteran comics creator P Craig Russell as adapter and co-writer and with Scott Hampton (and, briefly, Lovern Kindzierski) on art. So, does the first issue of American Gods: Shadows succeed in hooking this comics reader (who hasn’t read the novel!)? Let’s find out…
American Gods: Shadows issue 1 comes, as might be expected, with a variety of covers. The standard one is a rather tasty bit of Glenn Fabry art featuring a minotaur character who only briefly appears in the comic. My favourite, though, is the David Mack cover which is more impressionistic and more accurately reflects the slow, thoughtful, atmospheric narrative. (If you’re hankering for something more Sandman-esque and disturbing, though, the Dave McKean cover is probably going to be your bag.)
The story itself introduces the character of Shadow (if you’re writing a tale that is rooted in mythic notions of gods, worship and the supernatural, you might as well go the whole hog and give your main character a name positively brimming over with portentous ambiguity), who, when the story starts, is serving time in a decidedly British-looking prison for, we find out later, aggravated robbery. He is presented as a thoughtful – almost philosophical – man who attempts to stay removed from the kind of violence and pettiness popularized in countless low-budget prison movies over the last few decades. Instead, he works out, practices coin tricks and occasionally has interesting conversations with the improbably-named Low Key Lyesmith, a bearded chap who looks like he should be running the House of Secrets rather than serving time. Despite the fact that Shadow is nearing release and an idyllic reunion with his wife and best friend (I have my suspicions about them, incidentally), he can’t shake the feeling that something is going to go wrong.
And, of course, it duly does. A couple of days before his release date he is informed that his wife and best friend have died in a car accident and he’ll be released early as a result. An understandably numb Shadow endures a circuitous journey back home, but he gets off the plane early largely to get away from the dapperly-dressed but strangely knowledgeable Mr Wednesday with whom he’s been sharing the plane flight. Mr Wednesday has, during the course of their conversation, offered him a job, the details of which are worryingly vague. On leaving the airport, Shadow heads to the nearest diner only to again encounter Mr Wednesday (who should still be on the plane flying north at this point) in the rest room and, again, Mr Wednesday offers him the job. And there we leave Shadow, although the comic continues for another four pages, more of which in a moment.
At this point, the comic is… pretty good. Scott Hampton’s art, the occasional slightly off facial expression notwithstanding, is generally great, although it’s worth pointing out that both it and P Craig Russell’s layouts may appear exceptionally conservative if you’re more used to the action-orientated art of your average big two superhero book. The narrative pace is decidedly slow and deliberate. This comic is in no particular hurry to tell its story and, while that doesn’t necessarily have to be a drawback, here it presents some difficulties. Shadow is too taciturn and self-contained a character to be someone with whom the reader can instantly identify. He’s interesting up to a point, but hardly charismatic. That the other characters around him during the prison sequences never really rise above the level of foil or caricature only adds to the sense of remoteness. Some of the dialogue between Shadow and Lyresmith is witty, for example, but that doesn’t particularly translate into warmth. Shadow’s reaction to the news of his wife’s death is so muted as to be almost non-existent, which makes it even more difficult to feel sympathy for him. It’s noticeable that it’s only when Mr Wednesday appears, that Shadow comes alive. Gaiman and Russell do build up a real sense of intrigue about Wednesday and his reappearance in the rest room of the diner is foreshadowed beautifully and handled well.
Whether there’s enough here to hook the reader thoroughly remains to be seen. We get plenty of hints throughout the issue of a wider supernatural plot, not least the character of Wednesday himself, but the focus is squarely on providing the reader with Shadow’s backstory. At this point, I’m not sure that’s enough. It’s a good thing, then, that we’ve got those last four pages.
The four-page ‘Somewhere In America’ section (I can only assume we’re going to get more of these as the series progresses) features a quite frankly bizarre encounter between a young man and a buxom, dark-skinned woman who turns out to be considerably more than she appears. This sequence works on so many levels it’s breath-taking. Both lyrical and mundane, it balances pretty much perfectly on the dividing line between beauty and horror, sex and death, and deals with the kind of fundamental questions about love, sexuality and divinity that would have any student of Freud or Jung squealing with delight. Lovern Kindzierski’s artwork appears to be fairly straightforward but has a fluidity and creativity that is very appealing. In these four pages, the comic offers the Gaiman-esque weirdness that the rest of the issue has only hinted at and delivers a considerably greater impact in only a fraction of the space.
This isn’t to say that the main story is terrible. It certainly isn’t. It is, however, an incredibly slow burn. The inclusion of the last four pages serves as a reassurance that, yes, the world that Shadow is in the process of entering really is as disturbing and compelling as the Gaiman name on the cover suggests. Taken as a whole, then, this issue (just about) manages to do its job in introducing our main character and giving us a tantalizing look at the wider world in which the story takes place. On that basis, I think it’s worth a look.
NB: This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website. Thanks to the guys for the permission to post it here as well.