The Manara Library

by

È la nuova collana che la Dark Horse dedica – questo è chiaro – a Milo Manara. Niente di nuovo per il lettore italiano: questo primo volume raccoglie Indian Summer (“Tutto ricominciò con un’estate indiana”; qui una preview), su testi di Hugo Pratt, e The Paper Man (“L’uomo di carta”): storie ormai classiche di cui non si contano più le edizioni. Il secondo volume è in uscita a febbraio 2012 e – incidentalmente – conterrà un articolo davvero bello di Stefano Gaudiano.
Il progetto si basa sulla collana Milo Manara – Le Opere, uscita nel 2008 per Il Sole 24 Ore come “collaterale”, terrificante termine di marketing che indica un allegato a testate periodiche (e che a me evoca vittime civili di blitz di forze speciali).
Vado a memoria, ma credo che la formula “Library”, con cui a un autore prestigioso si intitola una certa serie o collana che ne raccoglie l’opera (più o meno integralmente), in passato sia stata usata per la prima volta per Will Eisner, prima dalla sua storica casa editrice Kitchen Sink, poi dalla DC Comics, che ne ha gestito le opere dal 1999 al 2004. Non ricordo molto altro: certo, un altro pivello come Joe Kubert, poi…?

Questo per dire che l’operazione riveste evidentemente una certa  rilevanza per la casa di Milwaukie, che ripropone la “Italian comics superstar” (cito dalla IV di copertina) con traduzioni e apparati testuali nuovi di trinca, a cura della Senior Editor Diana Schutz (che ha lavorato con Frank Miller, Will Eisner e che oggi è coinvolta nei progetti di maggior prestigio). On top of it, trovo elegante la linea grafica, sobria e “ufficiale” senza essere celebrativa o “polverosa”.

Le traduzioni sono firmate da Kim Thompson della Fantagraphic Books, storicamente legato ad autori di casa nostra “non ovvi”, per così dire; basti pensare al suo lungo sodalizio di editor con Francesca Ghermandi, risalente ai primi anni Novanta, quando questa grande autrice quasi non era pubblicata in Italia.
Gli apparati consistono in un paio di articoli che assolvono alla doppia, doverosa funzione di: a) attirare e incuriosire il lettore; b) fornirgli le coordinate storiche ed editoriali necessarie a inquadrare il lavoro di Manara: un autore ormai classico e dalla carriera ultraquarantennale che sul  mercato USA non è mai stato pubblicato in maniera regolare ed è noto più per cliché riduttivi (“Manara = European erotic comics”) che per l’effettiva produzione a fumetti, abbondantissima e relativamente varia.

Al primo punto provvede una prefazione di Frank Miller, che nella sua prosa mai a rischio di minimalismo e understatement commenta il lavoro di un collega come può fare solo un autore davvero grande (al momento sperduto chissà dove ma che un giorno – chissà – potrebbe anche decidere di tornare tra noi).
Miller conosce bene le difficoltà e i vincoli – tipici di questo linguaggio – con cui il fumettista paga la sconfinata libertà di scelta di ambientazione, personaggi e trama delle storie. Vi accenna in diversi punti, per esempio qui:

Technically, a comic book can be read in a very few minutes. It is a task of the cartoonist to slow the reader down, to seduce the reader into breathing in the story at its intended pace. Here Manara excels.

La seconda funzione è assolta – spero – da una mia introduzione, che gli interessati (molto interessati: è in inglese ed è lunga diverse schermate) possono leggere di seguito o scaricare da qui.

INTRODUCTION
by Andrea Plazzi 

Hark well, O reader, because your ears will not be fed with lies. It was the early Seventeenth Century and it was America. As writers, by the power that is rightfully ours, we will be telling a tale that is much older than our times and much farther away than where we find ourselves now.
On that very day, two men were walking side by side, following the Old Slow River’s dark waters. Hugo Pratt from fabled Venice, and Milo Manara from Verona of romantic fame they were, and they were men of tales, of words and pictures.

This is how Indian Summer is introduced to Italian readers in the early Nineteen Eighties, with a foreword penned by James Fenimore Cooper himself – or maybe, as many suspect, by his greatest Italian admirer, comics writer and artist Hugo Pratt.

By that time, Pratt is already a well-established and revered creator everywhere comics (fumetti, bandes dessinées, historietas, quadrinhos) are sold: his Ballad of the Salt Sea (1967)’s impressive roster of unforgetable characters has won readers’ hearts and Corto Maltese, the Ballad‘s main character, is a world-recognized icon of individual freedom and longing for liberty and adventure (the Ballad ranks 62 in the “100 Books of the Century” list compiled in 1999 by French newspaper Le Monde, where titles like On the Road, The Martian Chronicles, The Catcher in the Rye and The Big Sleep rank 67, 70, 88 and 96, respectively).

A long, fascinating and almost hypnotic tale set on remote Pacific seas on the eve of WWI, and marked by Hugo Pratt’s trademark “camera eye” and stylized linework, drawing both from Milton Caniff’s seminal black & white and the Argentinian scene Pratt had been part of in the Nineteen Fifties, to many the Ballad is the definitive graphic novel.

More than a decade before Will Eisner’s A Contract with God and almost two ahead of Art Spiegelman’s Maus – and way before the somewhat controversial “graphic novel” term came into fashion – the Ballad raises the standard for visual storytelling, succeeding in delivering high-quality entertainment to both the halls of academe and to much wider audiences, dissolving traditional distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow, “sophisticated” and “mainstream”.

An attitude written in its DNA right from the onset: just like 19th and 20th Century feuilletons, the Ballad originates from a series of installments published in youth magazines and is then recognized as a masterwork “for adults” once collected in book form; it celebrates adventure and exoticism (more traditionally related to cheap, or “popular” entertainment) as crucial dimensions of the human spirit; with its discreet but pervasive flood of subtle historical, geographical and literary quotes and references, it is acclaimed as one the most learned and richly scholarly “comic books” ever (hence Umberto Eco’s famous half-joke: “When I want to relax I read Hegel, when I want something challenging I read Corto Maltese”, and the half-joke is on Hegel).

Hugo Pratt is also – literally – a character: in 1978 a very talented 33-year old artist named Milo Manara publishes H.P. and Giuseppe Bergman, a long, surreal and eclectic tale about what adventure is or should be, and what “makes it tick”: there’s little doubt about whom the H.P. character – a middle-aged, inscrutable man tirelessly pursued by Giuseppe Bergman, a younger, obsessed man sharing more than a vague likeness with Manara – stands for.

Since then, the Giuseppe Bergman concept has evolved into a series and stayed with Manara for more than 25 years, with its sixth part published in 2004. The Manara Library will include all these books.

The story is intriguing and unconventional enough, but what makes a difference is the art: the linework is solid and gorgeously rich at the same time, with meticolously traced patterns of finely woven textures defining new ways of hatching. Much of this comes from Manara’s admiration for the French genius Mœbius (comic artist Jean Giraud’s nom de plume), whose revolutionary approach to comics and graphic arts has long been shaping (not only) the printed media, leaving his lasting mark in contemporary imaginative worlds (Mœbius designed for Ridley Scott’s Alien, among other things).

Very simply, Mœbius can express as many different drawing techniques as he needs, effortlessly and mesmerizingly moving from one to another depending on needs or whims. His chameleon-like approach to drawing takes the comic world by storm, starting the “Métal Hurlant revolution”, which in turn a few years later spawns its American counterpart, Heavy Metal.

But while many artists don’t go much beyond mimicking Mœbius at a very skin-deep level, Manara – already an experienced artist on his own – respectfully takes from Mœbius a few graphic ideas, reworking them in what is destined to become his trademark, luscious line-style.

Then Pratt and Manara meet.

They become personal friends and before long – it couldn’t be otherwise, between fellow comic artists – start talking about working together.
Pratt is spellbound by Manara’s flawless technique.
Manara, already a well-known and high-selling artist in Europe, sees Pratt as his Mentor-in-Life-and-Art, not to mention professional reputation, and couldn’t be more motivated.
On these foundations Indian Summer (“Tutto ricominciò con un’estate indiana”) takes shape.

The story, debuted in 1983, draws on Pratt’s love for early America’s history, and writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Zane Grey and James Oliver Curwood. This is explicitly stated at the end of the story, where a very thin fictional veil just emphasizes what Pratt’s original sources are.

Flawlessly in-context and historically grounded facts are a Pratt trademark, as is moody silence as a storytelling device in the long opening sequence, where time-dilation reaches manga-like effects years before manga was commonly known and read in the West. And then there is the irony and unlikely, funny dialogues (Squando’s people must be somehow related to the Ballad‘s Melanesian tribes, speaking Venitian dialect like veteran gondoliers).

Manara’s art for Indian Summer is a story in itself, reaching a new height of quality and showing a more stylized approach coexisting with the high definition and attention to detail Manara is already well-known for.

And then there are the women (which is precisely why Pratt serves torrid eroticism and puritan America’s sordid secrets to Manara on a silver plate).

Manara’s singular, world-renowned trait has always been his stunning ability in portraying young women of all sorts. His control over anatomy goes well beyond mere technique, becoming a style and form of personal expression, conveying a sense of charming, warm sensuality bordering on obsession.

Which regularly exposes Manara to charges of pornography-disguised-as-Art-with-a-capital-A: while some of Manara’s works can easily be classified as “pornographic” under many if not all reasonable definitions, it’s hard to dismiss his depiction en pleine lumière of the female body as devoid of any aesthetic quality, even when ostensibly gratuitous. And with time, constant repetition of the above charges has been fostering a scandalous doubt: Can pornography itself be Art-with-a-capital-A?

Tough question (and if your answer is “yes”, don’t tell Reverend Black).

Believe it or not, there are beautifully drawn and solidly told works by Manara sparing us such a dilemma. The Paper Man (also known as “Quattro dita” / Four Fingers) appears a year before Indian Summer, already displaying Manara at his graphic peak.

And no sex scenes (with a bit of nudity and sexy situations to fill the gap).

The story originates from a challenge of sorts between Manara and Claude Moliterni, then Editor-in-Chief at Dargaud (France’s premier comics publisher) and a key figure in postwar bandes dessinées: Manara wanted to tell a “Western” without a single gunshot from the beginning to the end, except possibly in the very last page. Things changed a bit along the way but he almost did it. And in doing so he did more, telling the slightly unlikely tale of an honest-to-God, good-hearted American young man meeting a gorgeous, Native American Manara-girl and a host of nutty characters.

A second story Manara never did would have revealed the origin of the title character’s alternate name: in saloons he always orders “four fingers’ worth” of whiskey. But while Manara was at work on the first book, Dargaud was sold to a Catholic publishing group which very kindly made Manara understand he wasn’t persona grata anymore. So adieu Paper Man.

The Paper Man is a brilliant comedy with a fable-like tone, filled with humor, adventure, drama, romance and a sprinkle of hellraisin’, with a melancholic vein fully surfacing in its closing scenes.

Still today, thirty years after, it’s viewed as one of Manara’s finest stories and a good example of what its author thinks a “mainstream” comic book should be.

In Manara’s view, comics should never give in to their mainstream vocation, i.e., aiming for large audiences. In order to be as appealing as possible, the work of art should and can display sophistication to a certain degree, while always staying intelligible. From this angle, it’s easy to see how and why the Greats of the Past Manara admittedly considers his models, like Piero della Francesca, Raffaello, Botticelli and Caravaggio, were mainstream: their masterwoks never failed to speak to the general public of their time, as they speak to us today.

Dante’s Commedia itself, defining Italian as a language and regarded as supremely impenetrable by generations of students since, was already immensely popular among people of all venues a few years after its appearance in early 14th Century, with otherwise illiterate peasants across Tuscany learning and declaiming the “Poem Supreme” by heart during long hours of hard work.

Comics are still very young, dating back less than two centuries or a little more than one, depending on which convention you choose to follow. (1896, with Hogan’s Alley‘s first balloon ever to appear in a modern comic strip? 1865, with German satirical cartoonist Wilhelm Busch’s Max und Moritz? The earlier decades of the 19th Century, with Swiss caricaturist Rodolphe Töpffer’s proto-comics?)

Manara’s career started more than 40 years ago: not a small part of the lifetime of comics as a medium. And to this day all of his works are continuously in print around the world.

Which is to say they speak to us today like they used to do in the first place.

Andrea Plazzi
– Bologna, Italy; May 2011

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