Smorgas-Borgia

Just how many books about ruthless Italian nobles can the comics market sustain? Two came out this week, Borgia: Blood for the Pope (Heavy Metal) and the second volume of Cantarella (Go! Comi). I bought both, but I’m obsessed.

They’re very different animals, obviously, with Borgia taking a more strictly historical approach, cheerfully emphasizing the lurid details. It’s a little odd, as the physical object reminds me of a children’s book, oversized, hardback, and brightly colored.

Of course, I can’t remember any children’s book covers that had a buxom noblewoman sneering out at me with her dress hanging off her shoulders, but this is Heavy Metal, not Little Golden Books.

And the cover is perfect, mingling sex (the aforementioned noblewoman), violence (a black-clad assassin drawing his dagger, which come to think of it probably connotes sex as well), politics, and religion (tonsured Cardinals evoke both). The illustration is laced with cracks, suggesting a timeworn mural. It’s lurid, but those cracks try and lend it just a smidgen of dignity.

And that’s the consistent approach of the book. It’s got an introductory piece by Antoni Guiral, providing background on the historical period and the book’s creators (writer and “psycho magician” Alejandro Jodorowsky and illustrator Milo Manara, “one of the ‘princes’ of sensual and erotic comic books”). It’s informative enough, particularly in filling in some of the details of the events that follow, but it isn’t essential if the reader just wants to get to the beheadings and boobs.

Both are in ample supply in the lushly illustrated pages that follow. While Jodorowsky’s script does present a reasonably comprehensive look at Rodrigo Borgia’s rise to the Papacy (and the adolescences of his passel of quasi-legitimate offspring), it leans heavily on the juicy bits. There’s scandal, scheming, madness, and murder on virtually every page. The Borgias demonstrate a breathtaking range of venal behaviors, and Jodorowsky is scrupulous in including them.

It would sound weird to describe Manara’s illustrations as restrained, given the subject matter, but that’s my impression. The images are carefully rendered, rich in sense of place and detail. Faces are expressive, and body types and language are varied. It’s also beautifully colored. And while Manara doesn’t shy away from anything lusty or violent, it rarely seems particularly voyeuristic. (The exception to that is a protracted schoolgirl catfight towards the end that concludes with lusty kisses and nuns with whips. Don’t they all?)

The production team made a rather irritating choice with the lettering. Every bit of dialogue is printed in bold italics, no matter what the tone of the conversation. It essentially puts everything at the same volume, loud and urgent. With so much sensational material splashing across the page, a little nuance to the text would have been welcome.

Ultimately, though, Borgia is what it is – a lusty history lesson. It’s perfectly content being both informative and titillating, and it somehow manages to balance both pretty well. With this clan, I guess that shouldn’t be entirely surprising.

You Higuri’s Cantarella is what it is, too. Higuri uses the Borgias as a starting point to explore her own themes, and it works very well. In the second installment, young Cesare sinks further into his dark, supernatural destiny, but finds comfort in the companionship of conflicted assassin Michelotto. It’s not as tightly paced as the first, but Higuri has less ground to cover, focusing more on character than set-up.

She also ramps up the shônen-ai elements. Michelotto’s kiss-him-or-kill-him dilemma is compelling, and Cesare’s battle with his darker impulses plays off of it nicely. Higuri has managed to present these characters in a way that’s sympathetic but not naïve. There’s a nice mix of melodrama and unexpected emotional delicacy. And it’s just so pretty, with plenty of historical detail rendered through a shôjo aesthetic.

If I had to choose between the two, I’d almost certainly go with Cantarella. Borgia is an entertaining oddity, but I prefer the emotional urgency of Higuri’s fictionalization to the tawdry accuracy of Jodorowsky and Manara.

2 Responses to Smorgas-Borgia

  1. Jog says:

    Hmmm… I read Borgia when it was presented as part of Heavy Metal itself… I liked it. I was wondering if the album version in uncensored? Which is to say, when somebody dumps out the contents of a certain sack of materials to intimidate a certain character, is the image carefully shadowed, or do we see the bag’s contents? Just curious…

  2. David Welsh says:

    Oh, it’s uncensored. The bag’s contents are quite clear.

    That was a busy weekend for old Rodrigo.

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