Sharaz-De: Tales from the Arabian Nights
By Sergio Toppi
In his foreword to Sharaz-De, Walt Simonson describes picking up Sergio Toppi comics in their original Italian during the ‘70s. Though Simonson doesn’t read Italian, he was attracted to the art, and it’s easy to see why. Every page invites the reader to stop and study. Toppi is a master at cross-hatching. He gives people, animals, and settings layers and layers of detail through thousands of short lines, all directing the eye to exactly the place he wants it to go. He pulls me in not just panel after panel, but figure after figure. Fortunately, Sharaz-De has large pages with lots of room, and as adept as Toppi is at filling those pages with ink, he’s equally skilled at using negative space to balance out compositions and give the eye a break.
I empathize with Simonson’s being so pulled into this stuff even though he didn’t understand the text. I’ve often been tempted to pick up European comics that I couldn’t read simply because they were beautiful. I’ve always resisted though, because I’m too interested in story to be able to enjoy comics purely for their visuals. That’s why I get excited when publishers like Archaia translate these books for English readers.
I read Toppi’s Sharaz-De back-to-back with another graphic novel, A Flight of Angels by Rebecca Guay and Friends. There’s a line in Guay’s book that was written by Holly Black: “Tricksters tell the truth in a way that makes it lies.” That stuck with me, because I think the opposite is true of great storytellers, who tell lies in a way that makes them truth. That’s an appropriate description of what’s going on in Sharaz-De. It’s not only what Toppi is doing, but his main character as well.
The back cover of the book describes it as “inspired by 1001 Arabian Nights.” That’s important because Sharaz-De isn’t a strict adaptation of these stories. The framing sequence is similar and the individual stories all feel like they could come from the Arabian Nights tales, but though you will find genies in Sharaz-De, you won’t find Aladdin. There are thieves, but no Ali-Baba; adventuresome sailors, but no Sinbad. This isn’t a book for people who just want to revisit familiar tales. It’s for readers who want something more than that; who want to discover truth wrapped in beautiful, fantastic lies.
The first huge difference between Sharaz-De and Arabian Nights is the framing story. It’s very similar to the tale of Scheherazade, but the biggest change is that Sharaz-De comes not from the kingdom in which the ruler is bedding and murdering a succession of victims, but from a distant land. She’s completely safe until she hears about what’s going on and heroically inserts herself into the drama. Toppi draws her as a beautiful woman, but what’s most stunning about her is her willingness to get involved and put her own life at risk in order to stop what the king is doing to his people.
Another major modification to Arabian Nights has to do with the stories themselves. In the original version, Scheherazade ends each night on a cliffhanger, making the king keep her alive until the following evening to hear the rest of the story. Sharaz-De is more confident. She tells a complete story and ends the evening with some (much more artful) variation of, “It’s almost morning; too bad I won’t live out the day.” To which the king responds that he wants more stories like the one he just heard and will keep her alive.
I love a cliffhanger as much as anyone, but if we’re being honest, they’re a pretty cheap, easy way to get people to turn the page or come back for more. It’s much more difficult to tell a complete story that’s so satisfying that the audience craves another that’s told as well. And then to deliver a succession of those over and over again is nearly impossible. But that’s what Sharaz-De the character does.
Another tough thing to do in a story is to talk about a great piece of art that exists within that story, and then have that piece of art live up to the hype once you show it. I see this all the times in fiction stories about popular musicians. If the storyteller offers lyrics or – even more challenging – an entire song by the musician, it’s usually the case that the song isn’t as awesome as the people in the story think it is. Sharaz-De the graphic novel wouldn’t work if Sharaz-De the character’s stories weren’t engrossing and compelling. That they are is another testiment to Toppi’s skill as a storyteller. I absolutely get why the king wants more of them, night after night.
One could argue that Toppi may not be crafting these stories totally from the ground up. I wouldn’t be able to refute that. I’m not familiar with the ten stories in Sharaz-De, but that could be because he simply found a few out of 1001 that I didn’t know. Not that tough a feat. Even if these are adaptations though and not Toppi’s purely original creations, there would still be some curating that went on in their selection, and of course Toppi had to turn them into comics. It’s still a remarkable achievement that they’re all so gripping and profound. Of course the art plays a huge part in that, but beyond the way they look, the subject matter and morals of these tales will continue to challenge me for a long time; making me think about things like compassion, loyalty, and the hunger for knowledge. That’s not just an enjoyable experience; it also feels important and, like the evil king, I don’t want Sharaz-De – the character or the graphic novel – to stop.