Hi there and welcome to another week of All Star Recommends, probably the only column in the world stupid enough to attempt to mash classic Roman literature, art house French comics, US publishing history and Japanese pro wrestling into a single piece.
COMIC OF THE WEEK : PEPLUM
Translated by Edward Gauvin
Published By NYRC
"An old passion is just an ulcer." -- Petronius, The Satyricon
Since its English language release a couple of months back by New York Review Comics, Peplum, by French creator Blutch (the pseudonym of Christian Hinckler) has proven to be the year’s most divisive comic. Two critics, both whom I respect, got into an online argument about it that turned quite bitter and more than a little weird. Other reader reviews have conveyed a complete sense of bafflement at the book’s immense stature and the near reverence that surrounds its creator or, contrastingly, total agreement with the book’s stature and further celebrated Blutch's whopping talents.
Obviously, I stand with the latter group or I would not be bothering to blather on about it here, but the criticisms of the haters are largely understandable at a surface level. Peplum, which originally began serialisation in 1996, will not be to every reader’s taste (what book is?) but it is a complicated, endlessly fascinating and beautiful work, rich in re-reading potential and real comics alchemy. It's not pretentious in the slightest and it's packed full of action, drama, stunning character design (those pirates!) and moments of unsettling brilliance. So what exactly is it?
Translator Edward Gauvin, in a terrific introduction, tells us that Peplum is the "European term for the sword-and-sandal subgenre." Blutch's book is generally, mistakenly, regarded as an adaptation of Petronius’ The Satyricon, a book written in first century AD that has survived in fragments. Indeed, as currently arranged in my Penguin Classics edition, it's possible that certain scenes are not even in their original place. Ostensibly the bawdy, offbeat adventures of Encolpius, a man struggling with his own impotence, The Satyricon makes for truly odd reading for the modern reader and not just for its abrupt scene shifts and fractured nature. Gauvin, again in his introduction to Peplum, quotes from Blutch who says that The Satyricon is "...a literary UFO from the fourth dimension, because you don't really get what's going on, people are laughing and you don't really know why, things you find sad, they think are funny...it's like life on another planet." Blutch hits the nail on the head here, it's a quote so apt that the people at Penguin should stick it on the back of the next edition. The Satyricon is a bizarre piece of fiction, with homosexual rape, murder, robbery and drunken debauchery at every turn. It's overloaded with excess - excessive scenes, excessive characters, and even excessive prose. Yet the struggle to survive is real and gap between rich and poor is otherworldly in scope.
Despite this literary debt, however, Blutch's Peplum is about the furthest thing from an adaptation of The Satyricon as you are likely to find. Gauvin, again in his introduction, calls Peplum a “remix” of this piece of classical literature, but this doesn’t even go far enough for my liking. Sticking with a musical analogy, Peplum samples from The Satyricon, lifts a line here and there, an idea here and there, uses original moments and characters and layers entirely new story and sequence over the top, creating something wholly new from one of the world’s oldest (and still oddest) pieces of literature. In stitching together this new "song" Blutch, that literary magpie, has even thieved from Shakespeare and a 1953 ballet called The Lady in the Ice, the influence of which, as we shall see, cannot be overstated. Blutch: he's like The Avalanches of comics.
A group of bandits, led by the exiled Roman knight Puplius Cimber, discover a beautiful woman frozen in a block of ice. Struck by her loveliness, they decide to take her and keep her (mocked by a murder of crows as they haul her free), but disaster strikes and the group is cut down to a conniving sole survivor who may very well be The Satyricon's Encolpius. Taking Puplius Cimber's name, our protagonist becomes obsessed with the woman in the ice and so begins his strange, violent and surreal misadventures in order to possess her and keep her away from all who become similarly smitten with her. In the bowels of a merchant ship that Blutch scratchily, inkily draws as if its the bowels of hell, the sea-scared Encolpius/Cimber faces nightmarish breakdown and pirate raids; in a dusty landscape, he is stalked by chattering, giggling children and a tribe of women with no hands; if his obsession with the lady in ice the will allow it, true love comes his way in the form of a "little brother" who is the companion of a fellow thief our protagonist murders and, like Encolpius in The Satyricon, Cimber struggles with his own impotence. On and on Peplum goes, in wide-open and gorgeous pages, culminating in a visceral, wordless, bloody battle that feels both ancient and yet somehow post-apocalyptic. There's a real tension between past and present in Peplum that's in keeping with the source material. The only other thing remotely like it in comics form is Tardi and Picaret's Polonius (long suffering readers may recall this from my early Heavy Metal recaps) which, although created some two decades earlier than Peplum presents a similarly strange, distinctly, excessively Roman dystopia that's also a literal piece of future SF.
A wonderful Guardian review of Peplum suggests that the woman in the ice has cursed Encolpius/Cimber. My own reading is that he's so besotted that he's unhealthy obsessed. She is his complete, ruinous passion. The destructive memory of and all-consuming desire for her possession thwarts his happiness at every turn and eats away at him both mentally and physically. She has cursed him, bewitched him, but it's a curse of his own making and choosing.
J.P Sullivan, in his translation of The Satyricon, writes, "As we have it now, the text is interpolated, corrupt and fragmentary." In keeping with the original text’s fractured nature, Blutch completely abandons all transitional scenes and sequences. One moment, our protagonist is cast into the ocean after pirates scuttle the ship he’s aboard. The next he’s back on land, being terrorised by a savage tribe of natives. Do we, as readers, need to know how and why he was rescued from the ocean? No. Who cares. By deliberately cutting to the chase in the manner, Blutch not only mimics the fractured nature of his chief “source”material, but also adds an aura of, by turns, dreamy and nightmarish logic to his story and excises any potential superfluous narrative.
And the pages. Oh, the pages. How any comics lover could not find themselves almost transfixed by Blutch’s composition, his beautiful representations of anatomy in motion, the bug-eyed terror in the eyes of Encolpius/Cimber during scenes of horror, the construction of his chopped-up sequences, even the choice of moments left *off* the page, I can’t imagine. Publisher NYRC has given this volume a generous size and some beautifully thick and creamy paper to showcase Blutch’s black, smeary nights and stark days. It’s a beautiful book. A masterclass in comics construction, from both a visual and a written perspective, in its structure and execution, Peplum may prove controversial to some, but to me it’s more than worthy of the praise its admirers have heaped upon it, and hopefully, it’s the start of a lot more translated Blutch work to come.
WEBCOMIC...ERRR...JOURNALISM OF THE WEEK : DARK HORSE COMICS’ SECRET ORIGIN – AS TOLD BY THE PEOPLE WHO WERE THERE 30 YEARS AGO
By Jay Horton
Yes, two weeks straight where the webcomic is not a webcomic at all but, hey, at least I’ve got cool stuff for you to read. This week: an oral history of Dark Horse Comics, as stitched together by Jay Horton in order to celebrate the publisher’s thirtieth anniversary in the game. I love oral histories. The Other Hollywood: An Oral History of The Adult Film Industry is one of my favourite books of all time and the upcoming oral history of Fantagraphics, We Told You So: Comics as Art, is one of the year’s most anticipated projects for me personally.
While this much shorter effort no doubt glosses over some of the publisher’s darker days, it’s nonetheless a terrific look into the genesis and early days of the young upstart publisher from the troops on the ground at the time. It’s a fascinating peek behind the curtain for voyeurs of publishing (like me) and a must read for comics historians.
COMICS VIDEO OF THE WEEK : NHK BEGIN JAPANOLOGY SEASON 6 EPISODE 16: JAPANOPHILES - KENNY OMEGA
Congratulations to Kenny “The Cleaner” Omega, who a little over a week ago became the first non-Japanese wrestler to win the G1 Climax, Japan’s biggest and most prestigious pro wrestling tournament. Seriously – in a country where pro wrestling is reported on by media as if it were a proper sport, winning the G1 is a massive, massive deal. Running over twenty nights this year, the G1 is a long and gruelling tournament that tours all over the country and consumes too much of my time in the process. It’s also extremely physical -- on the final night, Katsuyori Shibata, my fave, headbutted an opponent with such force he legitimately split his own forehead open (it sounded like a coconut being dropped on concrete) and, as the blood streamed down his face, amazingly ended up trending on Twitter. As you can imagine, just making it through this event in more or less one piece is a feat in itself.
In terms of match quality, Omega, a bilingual Canadian residing in Tokyo, had a solid tournament overall but his final two matches (with Tetsuya Naito and Hirooki Goto) to clinch the massively oversized trophy are both remarkable, must-see efforts. Omega’s had a fascinating, genre-stretching career thus far that not only includes bouts with Yoshihiko, a “wrestler” who happens to be nothing more than a blow up sex doll (no, really), and also rather infamously with Haruka, a nine-year-old girl, who he remarkably managed to keep completely safe. Morphing his gimmick from surfer to otaku gamer to clean-up “hitman” for the villainous Bullet Club faction, Kenny Omega has finally hit the top tier of the business. Not merely just now one of the world’s premier pro wrestlers, however, Omega is also a giant, giant nerd. This week’s video is part of Japanology, an NHK documentary series made in 2012, a few years before Omega's ascension through the ranks of the country’s top promotion, New Japan Pro Wrestling, began. Watch Omega converse with the strangely robotic presenter about stealing moves from video games, his fave manga, anime, and pop culture from the weird wonderland of Nippon, as hilarious old footage of him doing bicep curls on the beach, singing karaoke and having astonishing matches with that madman Kota Ibushi,plays over the top. This might feel like a weird inclusion to some readers, but make no mistake – comics changed Omega’s life.
See you next week. Love your comics.