There are not many comics which feature bloated, castrated opera singers as the lead character.
In fact, it’s quite possible that there’s only one: Foligatto, by writer Alexios Tjoyas and artist Nicolas de Crécy, which was recently published by Humanoids. As you might expect, Foligatto is an extremely unusual work. In fact, it’s so unusual that it recalls pretty much nothing else I’ve ever seen done in comics– except perhaps for other works by de Crécy, in particular his thoroughly bizarre masterpiece, The Celestial Bibendum.
The story is set in the city of Eccenihilo, which my half-remembered Latin classes of long ago lead me to roughly translate as “Beholdnothing” (though my grammar is probably ropey). Tjoyas and de Crécy set the mood with a striking wordless sequence in an old cathedral, where a strange trio build a harp from the bones of dead animals, only to flee and hide when a mob arrives to hold a cockfight in the building. A dispute leads to one grotesque little fat man getting his head hacked off. The cops arrive and arrest everybody. Then the mutilated guy picks up his severed head and walks off.
It is about as clear a statement of intent as you can get. And as the story proceeds we see that Eccenihilo is a grotesque, dark, and fantastical city, a place that teems with malformed human beings, and seethes with sickness, violence, and sudden death. Visually it’s magnificent- and magnificently oppressive. De Crécy fills his panels with grandiose buildings, archways, and alleys, but all of them are distorted and twisted. The atmosphere is overwhelmingly heavy and claustrophobic if not downright diabolical: in Eccenihilo the skies are red, or brown or black, if they can be seen at all. Every character is hideously ugly and the city itself, we learn, is suffering from a plague of violence such that the diabetic “chief of security” despairs that anything can be done about it…
But maybe something can be done: his subordinates suggest a carnival, during which the inhabitants of Eccenihilo shall be free to feed their wicked appetites to the utmost, killing with impunity even, the idea being that following this orgy of destructiveness they shall be sated- for a while at least. The idea is duly adopted, and it is at this point that Eccenihilo’s most famous son, Foligatto the castrato, enters the story, having been invited to sing as “king of the carnival.”
Now at this point, you might think that de Crécy and Tjoyas would want to introduce a character with at least a few positive aspects, for relief from the malignant atmosphere if nothing else. But when we meet Foligatto, he is not only physically repulsive — round-eyed, pallid, bloated — but also a thoroughly nasty individual, tossing darts at his mother, spewing bile and hatred, and complaining bitterly when his hosts feed him dead flies. Only live flies are good for his voice, he explains.
Foligatto is admirably relentless in its hopelessness. Tjoyas’ script is excellent, hilarious and dark, drawing upon sources we rarely see reflected in commercial comics: the world of weird opera plots, and bizarre 19th-century tales by the likes of Nikolai Gogol and E.T.A. Hoffman, in which inanimate things come to life, or noses leave their faces and lead a life of their own, or overcoats are haunted by the shades of dead civil servants. It’s the kind of horror you might see in a Jan Svankmajer animation, something like Faust– except even Faust contains the possibility of redemption; it features angels as well as demons after all. In Foligatto, there are only monsters.
As for de Crécy’s artwork, it is simply extraordinary. It’s inconceivable to imagine that Foligatto could have been drawn by anyone else. In particular, de Crécy has an amazing ability to depict decay, not only that of Eccenihilo, but of the human flesh that inhabits it. A bitter, amused misanthropy informs his line. His parade of filthy bourgeoisie, with their sagging, wizened, wrinkled skin seem to be rotting from the inside out; the queasy smoothness of Foligatto makes for a stark contrast, yet he also seems diseased, corrupt. Meanwhile de Crécy’s palate is unique- a blend of cold grey-blue stone and diabolical reds and oranges, with panels frequently lit from below as if by stage lights, or the flickering flames of hell…
It’s amusing to think Foligatto was first published in English in Heavy Metal, and not even in the magazine’s heyday, when it was home to the likes of Bilal and Moebius, but rather in the 1990s when it was …er… not so good. I can’t imagine how it must have felt to read it there, next to all those pictures of tits and monsters.
Well, kudos to Humanoids for bringing it back into print and in such a handsome edition. If you’re even mildly interested in a sustained (and often funny) meditation on human cruelty, rapacity, and general vileness then you should buy this. That Foligatto is currently languishing close to seven figures deep in the sales charts at Amazon is a travesty. Or alternatively, a reflection of the inexplicably small demand in the USA for French comics about bloated, castrated, fly-munching opera singers.