Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #360: Stigmata by Claudio Persanti and Lorenzo Mattotti

Traditionally, a lot of Eurocomics appreciation -- on my side of the Atlantic, at least -- has been focused tightly on the art. Whether that's because there was just a lot more interesting art in the European mainstream, or because a lot of that work was only available in the original languages for many years, I don't know. But I come from the opposite end of the comics world, as a guy with an English degree from a semi-snooty school, so my instincts are always to think and write about the story and the story-telling.

(And, obviously, the art is central to storytelling, but I'm more likely to be concerned with panel-to-panel transitions or how information is conveyed than with the details of brushwork and pictoral representation.)

Most of what I've seen about Lorenzo Mattotti over the years seems to come from that other tradition, gushing about the pictures he makes and the things he does to make those pictures. And, as far as I can tell, Stigmata is the first comics work of his [1] I've actually read -- and it's written by someone else, the novelist and screenwriter Claudio Persanti. My sense is that Mattotti, like a lot of European artists, both writes his own works sometimes and works from scripts by others sometimes -- there doesn't seem to be the stigma of being "just" the artist you sometimes see in American comics circles.

So I don't know how characteristic Stigmata is of Mattotti's work; I don't have a good baseline here.

The nameless main character of Stigmata is a shiftless drunk, a man in early middle age with nothing much behind him and nothing to look forward to, just getting by working as a busboy in some cheap cafe. But he has some kind of vision, and develops stigmata -- the traditional wounds on the palms of the hands seen in hysterics who also happen to be Catholic. (Well, in my world, at least -- the world of Stigmata seems to include an actual supernatural force that does random things to people that damages them for life, and which I suppose we're supposed to call God.)

It ruins his life: he loses his job, he's hounded by the creepily devout, his home burns down. So he runs away to join the circus: an odd choice for a man of forty-one, but it wasn't his plan, just the way it happened. He settles down again, finds a wife and a place, and his stigmata go away for long periods of time.

But the moral of Stigmata seems to be that God will screw up your life no matter what you try to do, and so it all goes bad again and again, until our main character gives up entirely on wanting things or having a regular life. (Which, again, I guess is what Persanti is saying God least for this guy.)

The story of Stigmata left me cold: it's steeped in a kind of punitive Christianity that's alien to me, a world I don't want to be part of or concern myself with. But Mattotti's art is amazing -- loose looping whorls of ink, every page with a speed and energy, even though it's usually confined in a four-panel grid.

So I guess I come down with all of those other critics I was talking about to begin with: Mattotti's art is the real draw in Stigmata, unless you already have a substantial cargo of Catholic guilt to bring to the book.

[1] With an asterisk: I did see the version of Hansel & Gretel written by Neil Gaiman and based on a dozen Mattotti paintings. That would too much deform the word "comics" for me; it might not for you.

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