Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern

Young Man Writes About Two Recently Translated Comics From Europe


Jim Hepplewhite is Matador's in-house reviewer.

In a previous life, Jim was a music blogger.
In this life, he's a freelance editor. He can be reached on Twitter and Instagram.

Caravaggio Volume 1: The Palette and The Sword

In America there isn’t a market for well-produced chunks of story too big for an issue but too small for a book. There’s the twenty-odd page paper issue and the collection and not much else. In Europe, there is a market. Legendary Italian penciller Milo Manara is somewhat known to American audiences, through an X-Men one shot with Chris Claremont, a Dark Horse Comics series collecting Manara’s work, and a particularly tone-deaf Spider Woman cover.

Pulled from  The Palette and The Sword .

Pulled from The Palette and The Sword.

Manara takes on occasional Western covers for money while he works on his newest opus, an illustrated biography of Renaissance painter Caravaggio, the first album of which arrived on US shores in April. Caravaggio Volume 1: The Palette And The Sword is slightly smaller than the French edition, but even at the reduced size, The Palette And The Sword is still larger than most American collections. Allegedly, the work’s translated into English from a French translation of the original Italian, which explains a certain amount of eyebrow-raising declaratory statements.

But that ignores the attraction, which is reading a master-of-craft draw the adventures of a swashbuckling Italian Master, with perfect coloring (in watercolor!) from Simona Manara and Milo Manara. (Dark Horse Comics didn’t reply to inquiries about Simona Manara, who is only credited as the main colorist. Mr. Manara wrote the story and did pencils.) The team’s detail is sumptuous, and while no one ever draws attention to it, the Manaras make even the ruffle of a shirt sleeve come alive in watercolor.

And what a life! Caravaggio’s story can be summed up as: create amazing art, kill someone in a fight, get out of town and restart the cycle elsewhere. He was a dramatic, hot tempered artist, a man who accepted changes to his work in exchange for permission to carry a sword. He’d later use that permission to kill a man that murdered one of Caravaggio’s models, in The Palette And The Sword’s final scene.

The Manaras invest that drama into every scene they draw. (Well, that and cheekily erotic women. The trouble is, Mr. Manara’s legitimately incredible at it.) Chiaroscuro. Lighting. Drama. The Manaras appropriately make light a major theme of the album. During the day, there’s a wholesome clarity to the proceedings, but the sun must eventually give way to a mythically carnal night. During the day, Caravaggio’s talents are recognized and his patrons discuss the virtues of his vision and technique. During the night, there are no such bloodless conversations. Manara uses the technique that made Caravaggio famous (a hyper-dramatic chiaroscuro) to tell Caravaggio’s story.

Caravaggio and his paintings,  The Palette and The Sword .

Caravaggio and his paintings, The Palette and The Sword.

Surprising no one, the fate of female characters in The Palette And The Sword is almost uniformly grim. Where they aren’t murdered to fuel Caravaggio’s man pain (there’s a particularly incredible panel of Caravaggio carrying his dead lover’s body), they appear and disappear just as quickly. Admittedly, the Manaras can’t get away from the period’s sexism, but significant amounts of this volume appear to be the Manaras’ invention—why not go a bit further?

Curiously, the team also doesn’t choose (yet) to comment on the academia’s big question from five years ago, which is “was Caravaggio queer?” There’s more Caravaggio volumes forthcoming, so perhaps the Manaras will comment further down the line. Given the volume of presumably sincere praise Mr. Manara gives the Italian Master, Mr. Manara must be aware of the discussion.

The Palette And The Sword is $20 for a 60-odd page volume. The quality is opulent. If you’re used to art books of strange sizes, press on. If not, Dark Horse also publishes Mr. Manara’s bibliography in a more affordable paperback series, the first volume of which is out now.

The Egyptian Princesses

Pulled from Baranko's Jihad. (Click to expand)

Most comics are meant to be read quickly. Frictionless fiction’s a noble enough goal in construction. But few of those works linger in my mind. Igor Baranko’s work lingers.

I don’t know when I first bought his work Jihad (no, really it’s called Jihad), but it probably wasn’t sooner than 2013. That comic’s stew of Buddhism, Chechneyan Muslim terrorists and Russian black magic to prop up the former USSR is indelible. Baranko’s an ex-Red Army vet who spent a couple years after his discharge practicing Buddhism in Siberia, so the authenticity of the insanity is never the problem.

Jihad, in one of many jaw dropping pages, suggested Lenin as the reincarnation of not only Genghis Khan but Osiris.

Jihad’s weird.

In late 2014, Humanoids Inc. released Shamanism, an alt-history take on a Lakota tribesman (Four-Winds) turning back time. This one does not have a connection to Osiris, Genghis Khan or Lenin. Vyacheslav Xenofontov colored it, and that color work was some of my favorite that was ever used on Baranko. Admittedly, Shamanism’s story lost me once or twice, but there were a couple scenes I hadn’t seen anywhere else.

But it’s 2017 now and The Egyptian Princesses does absolutely have a connection to Osiris, and that’s where the fun begins. Two Egyptian princesses escape a coup and when the dust settles, their chariot deposited them in a city dedicated to a god everyone wants to forget.

What follows is the princesses learn the story of the dead city, the despised god and the conspiracy against their throne.

Mr. Baranko, like many other authors translated into English and published by Humanoids, loves his surrealism. Jihad reintroduced us to Abraham Lincoln and a deranged Issac Newton. Shamanism included an extended sequence from a conquistador yelling at Four-Winds to read Cervantes. The Egyptian Princesses presents Hercules killing his way through Egyptian priests like he’s the Hulk on a rampage. (And just wait until you meet Moses…)

Unlike Jihad and Shamanism, Mr. Baranko did The Egyptian Princesses in black and white, forgoing color. He previously did Skaggy The Lost (through Slave Labor Graphics) in black and white, so he’s familiar with the choice. I was skeptical because the epic or magical moments in Jihad and Shamanism were aided by a change in color, but the author is dexterous enough to make the extremely limited palette work to his advantage.

I’m most impressed by Mr. Baranko’s water. He captures the stillness in only a few lines and the crushing weight in many spots of black. And unless I missed a panel, no greyscale, either. Just black and white. Mr. Baranko’s choice heightens the starkness of the narrative, but also slyly shields the story’s trickery. Hercules apparently leaps out of his hole from a dead stop, but still gets knocked out when he’s hit over the head with a sufficiently large rock.

The Egyptian Princesses is a weird fucking trip, but I’m here for that. Moses, through the contemporaneous eyes of Mr. Baranko’s Egyptians, is a bugshit crazy leper, a person completely unrecognizable from the serene white man I learned about in Sunday school. 

In regard to the titular characters, they feel like heroines. They’re perceptive and intelligent, though sadly Mr. Baranko does not resist the male gaze when drawing the princesses in their flowing robes. Pity. The Egyptian Princesses is weaker for those choices. (Admittedly, there’s a fair amount of unerect penis, so a losing argument could be made that he’s even handed.)

Mr. Baranko squeezes a lot of narration in near the end of the comic, as if he realized too late in drawing that he ran out of plot-important pages. It slows the story down, but not fatally.

At bottom, The Egyptian Princesses is another one of Mr. Baranko’s delirious epics, and I’m in the tank for those. You might not be. Like The Palette And The SwordThe Egyptian Princesses is also $20 and isn’t a comic you want to read on your commute. But it is an Igor Baranko comic and because of that, I’ll return to it again and again.