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Year of the Artist, Day 258: Milo Manara, Part 2 – Les Nouvelles Aventures de Giuseppe Bergman

by  in Comic News Comment
Year of the Artist, Day 258: Milo Manara, Part 2 – <i>Les Nouvelles Aventures de Giuseppe Bergman</i>

Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Milo Manara, and the story is Les Nouvelles Aventures de Giuseppe Bergman (published in English as The African Adventures of Giuseppe Bergman, Books 1 and 2), which were published in À Suivre magazine in 1980/1981. These scans are from The Manara Library volume 5, which was published by Dark Horse and is cover dated June 2013. Enjoy! (And yes, there’s nekkid stuff below the cut, so here’s your warning!!!!)

By 1980, Manara had begun using a cleaner line – it wasn’t ligne claire by any means, but it was certainly finer than what we saw yesterday. He started doing this more in the early 1980s – of the Manara comics I’ve read, HP and Giuseppe Bergman (1978) is very much in the style of Lo Scimmiotto, while Paper Man (1982) and Indian Summer (1983) are much more like the Manara style we think of when we think of Manara. The African Adventures of Giuseppe Bergman, which is split into An Author in Search of Six Characters and Dies Irae, seems to be when he really began to use that finer line, so let’s check it out!

These are the first two pages of Book 1, where we get two men beating each other up. For some reason, Manara sets this in Machu Picchu, and he uses a lot of wonderful details that he must have cribbed from a photograph somewhere. We can still see the detailed hatching on the mountains and the buildings of the city, but they’re not as rough as we saw yesterday. The two men are also lined nicely, with Manara giving them folds in their clothing and, in the case of the black man, darker skin that still reflects the light well. Of course, the central images of the pages are the men fighting, which Manara shows in smaller and smaller panels – 32 in all, stretched over the bottom of the first page and the top of the second. The cliché of European comics having more panels is a cliché because it’s usually true, but this is a bit extreme even for European comics. Manara’s fine line, however, keeps everything clear, and he’s very good at moving us around the ruin as the two men stalk each other. When he needs backgrounds – the walls behind which the one man hides – he adds them, but he doesn’t rely on them. This is also a nicely designed fight, as it’s one of those battles that shows how actual people fight – sloppily and crudely, with victory coming in a large part from an ambush rather than absolute superior strength, although the victor does seem to be quicker than the loser. Manara shows the consequences of the fight, too, as the loser isn’t looking too great. Manara is toying with some notions of imperialism and the end of empire in this comic, and it’s interesting that the black man is wearing a ragged hat that resembles a pith helmet – one symbol of British imperialism, especially in Africa, I should think – on the first page, but during the fight, he loses the hat and, in the end, his hair style has been released and he looks much more modern. I’m probably reading far too much into it, but I found it interesting.

Manara uses only lines to create a lot of the lighting in this scene, which is pretty impressive. In Panel 1, he hatches along the tops of the facial features to show that the light source is the dashboard, lighting the lower parts of the characters’ faces. In Panel 2, he leaves white spaces for the headlights, but he uses short lines to fuzz the edges of the light glow. In Panel 4, the truck approaches the castle, and once again Manara leaves the lower part clean, lit by the lights at the base, while at the top, he uses rougher lines to fade it into the darkness of the night. Even in Panel 5, he uses short lines to create an edge to the table that is covered by the cloth. This kind of detailed work helps make Manara’s weirder work (and An Author in Search of Six Characters is pretty weird) more “realistic,” which helps sell the weirder stuff better.

One criticism I’ve read of Manara’s work is that all his women look alike, which, you know, fair enough. But those are his stars, not the ancillary characters, as we see here. The MC and the dancers are beautifully drawn in the first row, and then we get the caricatures in the second and third rows, and Manara does a wonderful job with many different types of people. He’s very good at different body types, as he takes the time to understand how body parts exist in relation to each other, and while he’s a bit exaggerated, he’s never too outlandish. Even the audience shows his range, as the man and woman are a bit odd, but not beyond the realm of reality. Manara uses nice lines on the diaphanous outfit of “Signora XY,” and then thicker lines in Panel 6, where the women are wearing more substantive outfits. He uses wonderful lines in the hair of the ostrich-like lady in Panel 6, while we get a nice sheen on the woman in the audience in Panel 7. There’s a nice range just in these few panels, showing that while many of Manara’s leading ladies look the same, it’s certainly not because he doesn’t know how to draw different-looking people.

The tone of the story shifts as the Africans rise and drive out the whites, and Manara shifts the style of his art a little, with impressive results. Part of this is because the narrator is revealing things from the past, so Manara uses the heavier lines to show the time shift, but part of it is because things are entering a more “realistic” mode, where the white man’s fantasies about Africa are brutally interrupted. Yeah, it’s an interesting comic.

Anyway, once again Manara uses line work to create the lighting on the characters, as the flames flicker below the singer and the tops of his sleeves and the upper parts of his facial features are more heavily lined, while the lower parts are left largely untouched. In the sky, he draws lines getting thicker as we get higher up on the page, implying the fire below and smoke and soot above. Manara uses short vertical lines that get denser and denser to create the pirate ship in Panel 5, while he switches to lighter lines and even simple white paint with no holding lines to show the “ghost ship” in Panel 6. it’s amazing how much light Manara can show coming from different directions simply by varying the weight and number of his lines.

Manara uses racial stereotypes in his work, and while he tends to hit or miss with his portrayals of American Indians, when he examines black stereotypes, it’s to mock those who use them and show how ridiculous they themselves are. The director takes control of the “production” of the comic (it’s quite metatextual) and one of the black ladies decides to play the ridiculous stereotype in Panel 2, changing from a modern woman into the caricature we see in Panel 2. Manara uses all the hallmarks of racist clichés, and when we see these kinds of characters again, we get more subversion of the stereotype. As we get even more meta, Manara adds a backdrop that is drawn very simply, but he also blends that background with the desert around it, taking the action beyond the scope of the set, much like the comic’s action is extending beyond the printed page. Manara’s flexible artwork in this case helps make the racism of earlier cultures ridiculous while also highlighting the more invisible racism of the present day.

Manara even inserts himself into the story, as Lulu is apparently talking to him on the telephone as the story ends. She then, as Paul Pope puts it in his introduction, “masturbates into infinity.” The cheekiness of Manara ending the story with Lulu in an endless loop of pleasuring herself is clever, especially as Lulu herself knocks down the “END” sign that Manara places into the frame. He’s back to finer lines, which indicates that Lulu has come through her strange ordeal and is more self-assured, and his sense of humor remains intact, as the producers of the comic can’t quite believe what she’s doing. This page reminds us of the beginning of the comic, with its small panels, as the comic began with violence and ends with sex and began with two men and ends with a sole woman. An Author in Search of Six Characters is awfully surreal, but Manara does nice work with some of the themes contained therein.

In Dies Irae, Manara became even more metatextual and more interested in the actual artwork, to the extent that I wonder if he was addressing some of the critics of his work. I don’t know if people had begun to criticize Manara for his interest in erotica yet, but it seems like he’s specifically dealing with that kind of criticism in some places in Book 2. But first, he’s just writing about art.

There’s a lot to like on this page (plus a bit), as Manara begins the story by examining how readers respond to art (which is a general theme that will come up again, as we’ll see). Is Chloe ugly, or is she a “bad drawing”? Manara is generally considered to draw beautiful women, but is that because he draws them “cleanly” (with not a lot of hatching) and conforms to a societal agreement of what is attractive? In the first drawing, Chloe’s face is more vacant than in the one where she claims she’s a “more original drawing” – Manara opens her eyes just a little in that drawing, which makes it more expressive, so is she then more attractive? In the final row, he gives her a larger nose and eyes in Panel 2 and makes her hair less shiny and slightly thicker simply by drawing lines in instead of keeping it solid black. Then he uses fewer lines, turning her hair a bit thatchier, until shrinking her nose again and giving her higher cheekbones in Panel 4. These subtle differences change how we view Chloe, and Manara is good enough to make them look natural, challenging the reader to examine his or her ideas about beauty and our relationship with characters who are “beautiful” or “ugly.”

Chloe shows us a man, whom she claims is her tutor even though she calls him “daddy.” She wants us to think he’s evil, so Manara shows him in different ways to manipulate our perceptions. He uses a lot of scratchy hatching in Panel 1, then more basic blacks in Panel 2 before settling on more restrained blacks in Panel 3, even though they’re still far thicker than usual, which leads our perceptions to where he wants them to be. In Panels 5 and 6, Manara uses backgrounds and shading to imply the evil, while he also turns the man’s hands into more simplistic claws, which also creates a different tone to the art. By simply polluting the skies and even drawing a cityscape into Panel 6, Manara is able to shift the way we feel about the man. Pollution is bad, and even in the modern world, where almost everyone is urban-dwelling, there remains nostalgia for the simple, God-fearing rural life, so drawing a menacing city is better at manipulating us than drawing a menacing farm. Then, simply by putting the man in a pith helmet, Manara shifts our perceptions again – he less a creepy bastard and more a stoic imperialist. Perhaps we think of European explorers of Africa as monsters, sure, but there’s a “proper” tone about them that’s much different from a leering tutor/daddy talking to a young girl.

Manara again gives a tutorial on how to change the way we see characters, as Chloe wants to draw a “truly evil man” and gives us tips on how to do that. Manara gives us several facial features, and notice how the way he presents them in Panel 4 even creates some faces, like the goofy dude on the far left and sad hipster the third from the left (although, of course, hipsters didn’t exist in 1981, although their predecessors were still lurking around!). When Manara almost randomly puts the facial features on the “rough outline,” we get a lot of different kinds of faces, including the dude in Panel 7 who has a mustache as eyebrows, which changes the perception of his face immeasurably. Notice, too, that he has the same eyes as the manic dude on the left in Panel 4, but because that dude had the upturned mustache and the dude in Panel 7 doesn’t, it changes the way we look at both “faces.” Manara is quite clever with this little sequence, as he shows how easy it is to change the tone of the artwork.

Once again, Manara changes the tone of the story based on the way he draws things. First of all, in the top row, he’s obviously drawing a bush, but because the line work of a bush is so similar to a lion’s mane, he easily shifts to the lion in the second row. It’s not an optical illusion, of course, because Manara is drawing it, but it’s again a way to show how easily artists can fool the reader. When he changes the lion to a more cartoony one, Chloe points out that the story changes completely, which is true. This is the covenant that creators make with audiences – they will establish a tone and not deviate from it too completely. I’ve written about this before (it’s true!) with regard to violence in movies, but it works in comics in general – people are uncomfortable with severe ton shifts, even though I think they’ve become more accepting of them in this post-modern do-whatever-the-hell-we-want pop culture we’re experiencing right now. Manara’s point is pretty valid, though. Changing the lion into that cartoon would violate some sort of agreement between the creator and reader. But, art-wise, look how easily Manara can shift like that. Dude knows what’s what.

Manara continues to mess with our perceptions, as Chloe points out that she is, after all, just lines on a page. Is she still a lithe sexpot with a longer nose? With bigger boobs? With a pregnant belly? What’s really nice about this sequence is when she bends over to pick the flowers. As she notes, Manara moving a few lines to expose the lines that form her ass completely change how we feel about the drawing. Is the onus on Manara, who is simply drawing lines, or on the reader, for reacting certain ways to different drawings? Manara doesn’t answer an unanswerable question, but it’s a clever way to shine a spotlight on the baggage that we bring to any form of culture. Is Manara responsible for our pre-conceived notions of things? Notice in both the examples above that Giuseppe Bergman is wearing a dress. I don’t want to get into the cross-dressing aspect of this book, but it’s also very interesting.

Of course, most people have an idea of what “Manara art” looks like, but as we’ve seen, he’s very versatile, as we see here, when Bergman goes a bit crazy because he’s no longer sure who he is. Manara uses heavy blacks as he deteriorates in the top row, but then he becomes more precise in the middle even though Bergman has become a cartoon character. He leads us very nicely around the page as Bergman eventually climbs up his own asshole as his identity disintegrates. Manara can do amazing work with the silliness partly because his line is so clean that we can see every little thing he draws on the page, making it more humorous and weird than if it had been sloppier. He blends male and female in the final row, as Bergman continues to wear his dress and Manara gives him breasts as he collapses, but notice that he makes the arrow pointing the way droop and drip, not unlike a post-coital penis. He balances the page between the male/female in a different way – Bergman is still dressed as a woman in the upper left, but in the lower right, he’s back in “male” clothes as his alter ego comes through the gauntlet. Manara toys a lot with the notion of identity in this book, and this page is the climax of that ambivalence.

Let’s not worry about what’s going on here, let’s just appreciate the drawing. Manara does marvelous work with the stippling on the large nude woman, making her more “real” just by adding some texture to her so she’s not a china doll. He also makes sure to use slightly rougher lines and more dotted work on the cliffs, so that the magical landscape where Bergman meets Chloe feels grounded and makes it easier to accept the strangeness of the scene. As we often see with Manara, he doesn’t draw his women with ridiculous proportions – Chloe does not have giant breasts and a tiny waist, and Manara draws her in all sorts of poses, as he makes her nudity far more natural than so many other artists, who use nudity simply to titillate. Obviously, Manara draws a lot of porn so he knows how to titillate, but very often, nudity is his work is there for many different reasons, and he knows how to make sure Chloe looks comfortable with her nudity so that he can make other points about the artwork.

I love pages like this, because it’s not quite a splash page, but Manara still gets an expansive idea across even as he’s able to throw in some smaller panels to show the castle collapsing off the cliff. The details are amazing, of course, but look at how Manara uses the falling columns to direct us across the page, and how he akes the time to show the different ways people would fall. People are grabbing each other, and Manara shows how their clothes would stretch in that situation. He uses more stippling in the four panels that show the castle collapsing so that the bigger panels are starker and more terrifying. This is just an artist who knows how to have an impact with his art.

Manara became more stylized as he kept growing as an artist, and we’ll see some of that tomorrow. I still haven’t made up my mind what to show, but it will be something, I’ll tell you that much! As always, find a lot of nifty comics art in the archives!

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