Italian Comics Maestro
Sometimes dreams can come true. Bringing together Milo Manara and Marvel Comics seemed like an almost impossible fantasy. But in 2009 it happened in Italy and 2010 saw the American publication of an extraordinary X-Men tale written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by Manara himself. For many readers of superhero comics, the X-Women one-shot was probably their first exposure to the stunning draughtsmanship of Italy’s most successful and widely translated comics creator. Here were your favourite mutant maidens, Storm, Psylocke, Shadowcat, Marvel Girl and Rogue, not only saving the world but looking fabulous doing it!
There is much more to Manara, who has built up a long, prestigious career creating literary and erotic graphic novels of his own, as well as collaborating with superstar scriptwriters, from film director Federico Fellini to Sandman scribe Neil Gaiman. This year, the English-speaking public will be able to discover nine of Manara’s masterpieces as Dark Horse Comics instigate a line of newly translated editions.
Last November, I was lucky enough to meet Manara at the first Rio de Janeiro Comic Con in Brazil, where he was guest of honour and spotlighted artist in an impressive if slightly toned-down exhibition of his originals, including the front cover painting for X-Women. Famed for his female figurework, he explained to me how he came to comics from a highly classical training. “After going to art school, I attended the Academy of Fine Arts and started as a painter and illustrator. My first job was in the office of Spanish sculptor Miguel Berrocal, where I drew sketches of his works. It was at his house that I discovered comics, especially French adult comics.” This was in the Swinging Sixties, when Jean-Claude Forest unveiled Barbarella, quickly adapted by Roger Vadim into a movie starring Jane Fonda, while Belgian Guy Peellaert was devising his brash, Pop Art heroines Jodelle and Pravda.
As well as being inspired by them, Manara remembers being swept up in a similar revolution underway in Italy, as their first comics for adults caught on, led by Diabolik, a body-suited master criminal created by the Giussani sisters Angela and Luciana in 1962. Soon the newsstands started filling up with compact, black-and-white paperbacks, almost graphic novellas, such as Kriminal and Satanik by Magnus and Bunker in 1964. These became notorious as ‘fumetti neri’, or black comics, named after their dark contents. Then in 1965, Linus magazine introduced Guido Crepax‘s character Valentina with his striking Freudian themes and avant-garde designs. Manara recalls, “From French comics, and Magnus and Crepax, I realised that this medium could be the form of art and expression that most interests me. Comics can engage with more people than a painting, which is unique and can be enjoyed by only a limited number of people. These were the days of the 1968 protests, which were also directed at the art word. I took part in a protest myself at the Venice Biennale. Quitting painting for comics seemed the best step to take.”
In his early twenties and eager to break into the industry, Manara began drawing for the new genre of fumetti ‘vietati ai minori’ or forbidden to minors (under 16). Starting in 1966, over 100 of these adult comics would erupt in Italy with the emphasis more or less on sex, from the suggestive to the explicit. “I went to Milan with my drawings under my arm to find work, and that’s how I was hired to draw for the publisher Furio Viano, who entrusted me with the comic Genius.” As well as drawing the first 22 issues, sometimes with help from his studio mates, the young Manara also worked on Jolanda de Almaviva from 1971 about a comely countess-turned-pirate. “I was lucky because it was a golden period for that type of comics, so I had plenty of work. This gave me some economic independence and the chance to try some more personal projects that interested me more.”
Manara’s ambitions were growing, as he experimented with writer Silverio Pisú on Lo Scimmiotto (The Ape), a re-telling of the ancient Monkey King legend as an allegorical biography of Chinese leader Mao Tze Tung. Manara’s big break into the more lucrative and respected French market came in 1978. “Thanks to Hugo Pratt [creator of the enigmatic seafarer Corto Maltese], I was introduced to his publisher Casterman. I remember at a meeting in a restaurant, Pratt was praising my work so much that the publisher asked if I had a story ready for France. Before I could say no, I got a big kick under the table from Pratt, and so I said ‘Yes!’. And that’s how I came to write and draw the first story of HP & Guiseppe Bergman.”
A youthful thrill-seeker drawn to exotic locales, Bergman bears an unmistakeable resemblance to Manara. As for HP, “his initials came to me from Pratt’s name. The Bergman character represents me and many of the adventures came from my experiences. I drew one story during a trip to Asia in my camper van. Others arose from long talks with Pratt.” Serialised in Casterman’s new comics monthly, À Suivre (To be continued), and sprinkled with literary references to Pirandello, Borges and others, the Bergman series marked Manara’s arrival in French comics. “This definitely enabled me to develop as a complete auteur. Only in France can we really work with dignity on our own creations.”
His growing international success was cemented in 1983 with the erotically charged series Click!, initially published in Italy in Playmen and in France in L’Écho des Savanes. Manara has enormous fun here with a secret male fantasy of being able to control a woman’s sexual appetite. He has a scientist implant a remote-controlled device into the brain of Claudia Cristiani, a beautiful but dissatisfied young wife of an older millionaire. Now that her desires can be switched on and off at the ‘click’ of a dial, he can make her veer between frigid and insatiable. Thanks to Manara’s elegant drawings of his ravishing leading lady, even the hottest scenes avoid becoming too explicit and Click! remains playful, absurd and hugely popular titillation.
So where, I wonder, does the ‘Manara woman’, impossibly gorgeous and available, come from? “She doesn’t correspond to a precise type”, Manara smiles. “She is more the result of a mixture of all the women I have met, a sort of compendium of all the characteristics of female beauty, an archetype. My women represent what were once the ‘types’ in the old Commedia dell’Arte plays, whose masks represent different aspects of life.” Click! ran for four albums and has been adapted into a French movie and a television series, but Manara agrees that there is something unique and captivating about their illustrated originals. “Unlike filmed images of reality, drawings always leave something to be interpreted by our imagination, which lets us make it closer our own reality. I think that is the absolute power of comics, and erotica too. We we must never forget that the most important sex organ is still the brain!”
Manara applied his brain next to Butterscotch in 1986, another ridiculous concept of a magic skin cream which enables its geeky inventor to turn into a naked ‘Invisible Man’ to get closer to Honey, the woman of his dreams. The only drawback is that she can smell his cream’s giveaway butterscotch scent and decides to shame him in increasingly hilarious set-ups. For the reader, it’s what we can’t see but have to imagine that makes his escalating embarrassments so amusing and arousing. Manara wants to expose our hypocrisies and satirise our repressed desires and inhibitions. “It is clear that in most cases we are talking about pure entertainment, but for me comics have always been first and foremost a form of expression and I have always tried to deal with some important subjects and convey some messages through my stories.”
This was certainly true of his two brilliant collaborations with his fellow fumetti genius, the late, great Hugo Pratt (1927-1995), eighteen years older than him. Looking back fondly, Manara describes Pratt as “...a colleague, a mentor, a friend, all these things, and much more. Working with him was an honour. I am the only artist ever to draw Pratt’s scripts, apart from himself. I am particularly fond of Indian Summer, not only for my relationship with Pratt, but also because with this story I finally abandoned a style that no longer suited me.”
In 1983, Manara’s transformed drawing captured life in 17th century New England and charted the fraught relationships and growing tensions over one hot summer between the so-called ‘savage’ Native Americans and upstanding Puritan settlers led by the zealous Reverend Pilgrim Black. Faithful to American colonial history and literature, Pratt researched the massacre of settlers in the village of New Canaan to write a gripping and sophisticated period drama of betrayal, intolerance and passion for Manara to illuminate with vivid realism and shimmering colours. Their partnership continued in 1991 on the equally splendid El Gaucho, another historically rooted melodrama this time set in Argentina, where Pratt had lived and worked during his formative years.
One controversial scene in Indian Summer, showing the corrupt Reverend Black taking advantage of one of his young female flock, resulted in it being censored in some editions. When I ask Manara whether he has any issues with the censoring of his comics, he tells me that, “Despite everything, censorship has never been that frequent, and I don’t have a big issue with it. I understand the needs of publishers so we can find a balance. For example, at the moment in the United States, there’s a real phobia about religion, so some details must be softened in some of my stories. The only serious censorship I suffered was of my Bergman stories in South Africa during the apartheid years, and politically I’m rather proud of that.”
Manara’s next major collaborations were with the celebrated film director Federico Fellini (1920-1993) in his final years. “I first met Fellini in 1985 after he called me and told me how much he liked my short story Untitled, which I had dedicated to him. Like Hugo Pratt, Fellini was another truly extraordinary man on the human and personal level, both were key teachers for me, for my life and my work.” Fellini had always loved comics and drew his own, and this informed how they developed the fanciful graphic novel Viaggio a Tulum (Trip to Tulum) together in 1986. “With Fellini I worked in a very direct way, we met often and he gave me lots of detailed storyboards for each page (he really enjoyed drawing), with shots, dialogue, etc. Throughout he remained the director and I was only his cameraman.”
Their sequel in 1992, Il viaggio di G. Mastorna (The Voyage of G. Mastorna), was based on the film which Fellini had famously tried to make through most of his career, even referring to it in ‘Eight and a Half’, but never succeeded. Instead, he and Manara began converting it into comics. Unfortunately, when the first part was compiled into a book, a printing error put the word ‘End’ on the last page. His leading man Mastorna had died in the first part, but Fellini planned to chronicle his journeys after death in the next two parts. But in these circumstances, the superstitious Fellini, in poor health and near death himself, decided to stop his story right there. So, tantalisingly, one the world’s most famous unfilmed movies was also left unfinished as a graphic novel.
Manara has worked with another visionary director, the Chilean-born maverick Alejandro Jodorowsky, notably on a bawdy historical saga on the Borgia family of poisoners. The fourth and final album has just been published in impressive full colour. Manara admits to me, “I have hardly ever met Jodorowsky, maybe only twice in six years! His scripts are as detailed as Fellini’s but he leaves me a lot of artistic freedom.” Manara has also illustrated Le feu aux entrailles (Fire in the Entrails), the French edition of a 1982 novel written by provocative Spanish film director Pedro Almódovar.
Manara has been equally active in the field of literature, both classic and contemporary. From the past, he has transformed Jonathan Swift’s giant Gulliver into a woman as Gullvera, adapted the 1896 novel Aphrodite by French writer Pierre Louÿs, and interpreted such ancients texts as The Golden Ass by Apuleius and love-making manua The Kama Sutra. One of the most notable living authors he has worked with is Neil Gaiman, initially in 1990 on a short piece for the anthology Breakthrough, dealing with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and then in 2004 in The Sandman: Endless Nights, in which he was a perfect choice to visualise that most alluring member of The Endless, Desire.
There have been attempts to turn Manara’s drawings into animation. In 2006 he designed the characters for the Argentinian television series City Hunters. Combining animation with CGI, this ‘branded entertainment’ of nine 11-minute episodes was co-produced by Unilver to promote their male grooming products in Latin America. Another much more interesting animation opportunity is keeping Manara busy at the moment. “I’m now working on a big 3D-HD animation project, the life story of Adriano Celentano, a well-known Italian singer and performer, in 26 half-hour episodes produced by the Murdoch satellite station Sky, the only real competitor for Berlusconi’s channels in Italy.” Among those involved in Il ragazzo della via Gluck (The Boy from Gluck Street) is novelist and screenwriter Vincenzo Cerami, who was also an assistant director to Pasolini in the Sixties. Cerami and Manara have previously worked together on a graphic novel thriller, Pandora’s Eyes in 2007, which is coming out at last in English.
And what future solo projects does Manara have in mind? “As soon as possible, I’d finally like to devote myself to a project I care about a lot: the biography of the painter Caravaggio, told through the eyes of one of his models, Fillide.” Before he has to leave, I ask the Italian maestro how he found his experience at Marvel. “Despite having to fully immerse myself to produce the X-Women project, I am not a passionate reader of American comic books, so I had no precise idea about the market. The concept of superheroes has never really interested me. I have always preferred European comics.” Still, having illustrated some superheroines, I wondered if there were any others he might be interested in drawing? I started imagining his voluptuous visualisations of maybe Elektra, Sheena, Red Sonja, Modesty Blaise? “I don’t know… perhaps Modesty Blaise, probably because she already has a sexy side to her personality. I am not averse to challenges, so who knows, one day I might find myself working on a story about Wonder Woman, why not?”
Now that’s a revamp of the Amazon princess many would dearly love to see someday! DC Comics, are you listening?Posted: March 6, 2011
This Article originally appeared in the March issue of Comic Heroes magazine.
With thanks to Roberto Ribeiro of Rio Comicon and Claudio Curcio and Alessandro of Napoli Comicon.