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Tag Archives: Manuele Fior

Image result for Manuele Fior Red Ultramarine

If Picasso had drawn comics, they might look like Manuele Fior’s Red Ultramarine. If that sounds like ridiculously high praise, it is. But some caveats: I mean “drawn” not “painted.” Late in his career, Picasso changed to minimalistic line drawings that no art critic has ever, to my knowledge, called “cartoons.” And yet they meet the definition: simplified (no depth-producing cross-hatched shadows, just the fewest pen strokes) and exaggerated (expressively stylized and so distorted contour lines instead of reality-reproducing ones). Look for yourself here:

Nudes in Reverie Pablo Picasso

 

Second caveat: Picasso was a sexual harasser, sexual assaulter, and statutory rapist, but, thankfully, Fior’s art is not infused with that same misogynist energy. I say that despite the two female nudes featured in the first five pages. Though Fior’s artistic eye never lingers so adoringly on any of the male figures in his novel, none of which are ever nude, the opening images take a complex meaning within the surprisingly sprawling (only 150 pages yet such interlocking time periods and plots) scope of the novel.

It’s rare to find a comics creator, or even a pair of writer and artist collaborators, who produce a work that is as equally impressive visually as it is narratively. Fior originally published the novel in 2006 as Rosso Oltremare, which Jamie Richards translated from Italian for the Fantagraphics Books edition released last spring. The publisher also brought Fior’s 5,000 Km Per Second to English readers in 2016. There Fior works in watercolors, an evolution of style that the English publication order reverses, since Fior drew the more minimalistic Red Ultramarine first.

The novel epitomizes artful restraint by using only two colors: black and red. I’m not certain of Fior’s medium (the intentional patchiness of the reds suggest print-making to me, but the blacks tend more toward opaqueness), but it results in thick, expressive lines and shapes that push well beyond mere information-communicating illustration. Much of the novel’s power, and so meaning, is at the level of the brushstroke and the energy it conveys about the story world.

Image result for Manuele Fior Red Ultramarine

The two-tone approach and lack of depth-clarifying crosshatching sometimes turn panels into visual puzzles that must be paused over to decode, especially when motion lines and emanata are rendered in the same gestural style as physical objects. Fior is wise to draw consistent black frames in predictable layouts of two and three rows, each row a page-length panel or divided in half (except for the full-page panels opening half of the eight chapters). The orderly structure offsets the more anarchic panel interiors. Once in a great while I still found an image that I could only partially decode, an indication that its abstract qualities (the directions of the strokes and the complexities of their overlaps) are more important to meaning than what they represent at a literal level. The style slows “reading” by encouraging and rewarding careful attention. While Red Ultramarine is far from abstract expressionism, it is a pleasure to find an artist-writer who regards the art of his images to be equal to the narrative they convey.

Image result for Manuele Fior Red Ultramarine

And those images do tell a hell of a narrative, or two interlocking ones that, like the artwork, are pleasantly difficult to summarize. The back cover would have us believe that this is the tale of a mad architect (inspired, I assume, by Fior’s own degree in architecture) and his girlfriend Silvia’s attempt to save him. And it is that—and yet the first eighteen-page chapter takes place in mythic Greece and features a very different architect, the labyrinth-building Daedalus, and his son Icarus catching fish on the shores of Crete. Fior does not insult his reader’s intelligence with setting-defining captions, but instead lets the father-son dialogue slowly reveal all we need to know. The second chapter then leaps without explanation to a contemporary European city (Paris, Rome, I’m not sure, but Fior includes enough architecturally specific buildings that I suspect a more cosmopolitan reader would identify), and then, because of the vacillating chapter structure, we don’t even meet Silvia’ boyfriend until chapter four—which is also the only chapter he appears in.

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The story centers on what Silvia comes to call a “strange correspondence,” in which characters and time itself are doubled. While Silvia’s boyfriend has an uncanny resemblance to Icarus, the doctor she begs for help in the contemporary setting is identical to King Minos, the villain who throws his imprisoned architect into his own labyrinth in revenge for the death of his son, the monstrous Minotaur. (Most of that action occurs off-page, so readers might want to do a quick brush-up on the original myths.)

The correspondence also extends beyond Greece to the relatively recent folktale of Faust as interpreted by the German poet Goethe, who is quoted twice in the text. Not only is the Doctor/Minos a variation on Mephistopheles, Silvia’s boyfriend is named Fausto. Given the inevitable fate of his twin-self Icarus, not to mention the damned Faust’s, you might assume a bad ending awaits the young architect. But Fior’s blueprints are more complex, preferring suggestive ambiguity over definitive closure.

Image result for Manuele Fior Red Ultramarine

There’s plenty more to pour over—a cryptic birthmark, magic time-travel ointment, an age-changing assistant, even a metaphoric justification for Fior’s artistic style when Deadalus reflects on how he designed the labyrinth, “making any point of reference uncertain, tricking the eye with winding passages.” The art and the story are similarly uncertain, with the reader-viewer’s eye and mind repeatedly tricked as we wander Fior’s own passages. But I’ll end on the cryptic title, since it references not red and black, the novel’s color motif, but red and blue—and so a color that only appears on the novel’s cover.

“Ultramarine” means “beyond the sea,” a reference to Afghanistan where the gemstone lapis lazuli was mined and then imported to Europe to be ground into the blue pigment first used by Renaissance painters. While Fior’s gesture toward a color his visual storytelling does not include could suggest a great many things, I experienced a metaphorical going-beyond of the surface world or worlds of the novel, as its story wandered into ambiguous territory, the undefined spaces beyond Fior’s gutters. It’s a disorienting mental and visual space, more difficult to map than most comics labyrinths, but also more rewarding.

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[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

 

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Manuele Fior’s 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes twenty estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heart breaks and the one-second delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while five thousand kilometers apart.

Fior’s art is cartoonish in its simplistic shapes—noses are triangles, ears half-circles—and his colors can be expressionistically lavish, and yet the overall effect seems oddly naturalistic. Fiore’s storytelling is especially effective in its nuanced use of the comics form. His white gutters are atypically wide, creating a discursive distance that draws attention to the thematic distances at the heart of the novel.

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Jessica Abel and Matt Madden warn graphic novelists in their textbook Drawing Words & Writing Pictures: “Don’t go too wide with gutters, because the panels will tend to visually fall apart from one another and not look like a unified page” (80). Fior’s pages are not as extreme as Abel and Madden’s “too wide” example, but his gutters do subtly suggest the lack of unity between his characters and the falling apart of their relationships.

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That distancing effect is heightened where his unframed panels merge with the white of the page background, especially along speech bubbles, which Fior divides with sharp black lines within panels but leaves open to the gutters along outer edges. As a result the interior of talk balloons share the white of the background page. Though unframed, the panel edges are also sharp, cutting off image content with a precision that contrasts Fior’s watercolors and often thick gestural lines. Drawn content never breaks frame. The effect is paradoxical: a spaciousness that rigidly encloses. Again, the formal style mirrors the novel’s emotional content.

The rigidity is apparent in the layout scheme too. Almost all pages are regular 3-rows, most fluctuating between two and three equally sized panels, punctuated by the occasional full-width panel or, more rarely, an off-centered row as if two panels of an implied three have been combined. The five full-page panels are notable exceptions, as are four other variations, but the overall effect is a rectangular consistency as unbroken as the paradoxically frameless panels.

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. And Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story. The novel opens with a full-page panel of Lucia’s balconied apartment building, followed by a page of three full-width panels as the perspective tightens around interior figures visible through windows as they speak. The third page then offers a close-up an unidentified face—Piero’s—as he bends the slats of his window blinds and stares grinning at the reader. The contrast between the bright yellows and the sudden gray blue communicate the 180-degree change in location, and the white slats partially merge with the gutters—as if Piero is bending them too. Although the tight frame suggests he is alone, the final panel of page four reveals Nicola for the first time as the two vie for the same view.

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The conflict is defining of their friendship, as is Fior’s pleasantly misleading use of framing. Nicola did not newly arrive on the scene, but was always present yet narratively unacknowledged.

The second chapter leaps unexpectedly in both time and location, as Lucia, now a graduate student, arrives in Norway. Fior waits seventeen pages to reveal that she and Piero—who last seen had only barely managed to gasp a love-struck hello to her when they passed each other for the first time—have been dating and now, as Lucia writes a letter to him, are breaking up: “I don’t love you anymore. There, I’ve said it. I realize it’s easier from far away.” Their relationship, the novel’s romantic core, occurs entirely in the gutter between pages.

Chapter three opens with three pages of Egyptian scene-setting before finally revealing Piero, who soon is arguing with an estranged and unnamed girlfriend by phone before plunging into sickness-induced erotic dreams of Lucia.

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A chapter later we leap to Norway again with the now pregnant and unhappily married Lucia as she reads about Peiro’s archeology work in the newspaper and recalls making love with him for the first time to a song on the radio. She soon decides to leave her husband and a chapter later makes the titular phone call to Piero, who has just learned that his own wife is pregnant too. Though their conversation seems warm, Fiore creates an estranging effect for readers by including only Piero’s half of the dialogue, leaving Lucia’s words ambiguously implied.

Concluding the novel’s building rain motif with four pages of gray downpour, Fior offers a final eight-year leap forward as the ex-lovers finally meet in person again.

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Though Piero is returning to Egypt with his family in a week and Lucia we learn later is living with Nicola, the two attempt to have drunken sex in a restaurant bathroom before parting again—now it seems definitively. But Fior, having established the unbreakable and unforgiving nature of time, then draws the novel’s first and only flashback: a five-page scene of the jealous Nicola searching unsuccessfully for his best friend as Piero hides in Lucia’s apartment and Lucia lies to Nicola, culminating in the sex scene Lucia described almost sixty pages earlier. Only Fior does not draw the scene. He concludes the novel just moments earlier as Lucia lies invitingly on her bed and Piero grins—a fitting ending to a novel that so often evokes by avoiding its most central content.

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[The original version of this and my other recent comics reviews appear in the comics section of PopMatters.]

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