REVIEWS

Peplum

Peplum_revised_logo_2048x2048Trying to survive the after-effects of an encounter with sublime beauty is the madness that permeates Blutch’s Peplum. The question of how to negotiate desire in the face of the thing which destroys all other desires; how to live after seeing death--this is the panic that terrifies Peplum’s central protagonist.

Peplum starts at the far reaches of the Roman empire, following an exiled squad of adventurers descending into a cave to find a goddess rumored to be imprisoned there. Finding her neither alive nor dead, they remove her from the cave, and are immediately cursed with the cravenness her visage induces in them. One dies of fever. Another finds his face eaten away by strange pustules. Madness overtakes the group, and in the end a lone figure stands atop a blood pile of murderous death. This man, goddess in tow, and bearing a resemblance to Martin Potter from Fellini’s Satyricon (1969), proceeds to go on a series of adventures throughout Ancient Rome that remix and refigure Petronius’ original work.

The effect is as alien as the original text, but in many ways much more brutal and violent. If Fellini’s adaption used the romantic cocksmanship at the heart of the original novel to depict a dreamlike bacchanalia of science fiction-like excess, Blutch blunts those ambitions into wild-eyed madness, interrogating the crippling obsession that the sublime experience induces within its possessed. If Fellini is the ecstasy of the high, Blutch’s Peplum is the hunger of purgatory. Ravenous, Blutch’s Encolpius loses his name to the Roman knight he murders. He becomes Publius Cimber, and vanishes into spiraling cycles of obsession and punished infidelities.

As Blutch’s Giton says about this snakeskin-fiend version of Encolpius: “The nostalgia for purity, the ghost of perfect love—these are a drunkard’s despair.” This existential despair in the face of sublime confrontation with the divine is the baseline mast that Peplum binds itself to.

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One of the notable things about Blutch, which is also evident in his book So Long, Silver Screen, is that his compositions are suffused with a textural psychological expressiveness that borders on the feral. His figures carry with them a mad interiority that makes their violence intensely explicable. In the panel below, Publius Cimber has strayed from his ice goddess, renouncing her to the actress whom he has just met; and for his troubles he has been rendered impotent. In a society where, more than anything, the ability to penetrate another denotes the sacrosanct value of the masculine member, his devastation is mortal. The violent foregrounding of the actress and her alarm at his failure to perform—her pupils shrunkenly encased within violent shadow boxes, and her hair snaking out invoking the Medusa who turns men to stone with her visage—is placed against this background figure of a man, consumed in black dry brush shadow; his expression blotted out except for the tears fleeing his face, mingling with the sweat of his failed endeavor. His limbs are made to form a empty vaginal triangle, within which Blutch bubbles his jab at this newly found male void: “Mute he remains.”

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It is a panel that testifies to the power of the medium's immediacy and the potency of image balanced against the hypertextual precision of multi-contexted narrative information. With Blutch, the images are not placeholders that exist solely because you need panel B to get from A to C. Rather, each panel speaks to its own sublime ecstasy and value as an image, even as it builds upon and refracts preceding (and following) panels. He mixes the poetry and convoluted intentions of the prose writer with the ineffable inexplicableness of the image-maker—existing both within words and beyond them.

On the page below, in the first panel, Publius Cimber hovers over a man he has just killed. Publius hunches over him, devolved and swallowed by the darkness of this cave and his own mind, accusing the dead man, part of a neanderthal-like group he met earlier, of being a brute. Publius then turns away from reader and looks out of the cave as two small birds fly by. Across his back Blutch has drawn beautiful parallel brush strokes, shrouding his violent human insanity; and juxtaposed against these two violent marks are two peaceful tiny ones floating in a serene white space outside of the cave. This image reflects both Publius’ paranoid closed world that he fills up too much with self, and the serene swimming of the distant in the infinite. Publius repeats his accusation, but now it reads like a self-caption.

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Blutch reverses the shot once again, and pulls us out onto a large complex of caverns where we see in this skull-knotted tapestry of early human culture, a peaceful complexity being pitted against Publius “modern” human violence. His evolved features are a product not of his ability to coexist, but of his maddening gift for violence. Again he says, “A real brute,” but now it is clear that the accusation is impotent, and ironically self-reflexive.

The baseline surreality of Blutch’s vision of Satyricon is fueled by this spell of alienated madness. Over and over, Publius makes one flawed choice after another. He rejects lovers in favor of the goddess, but sometimes he rejects the goddess in favor of lovers. His ideology, like the violence in Blutch’s comics, is scattered, panicked, and reaches out to scratch and strangle at the flesh that encases being. We are constantly assured by outside figures that in all of these transactions Publius does not suffer, because, after all, he loves another.

But Publius Cimber is all suffering. The love that he desires is beyond desire, and the desire that he loves is not love. His decisions lose him everything. We see him beaten, tortured, but we also see him beat and murder others—he is like a man flailing in an empty room with only his own eyes to scratch out. He has seen part of God’s face, and been driven mad by her. His desire within life has been completely warped, and the only way to re-integrate himself within the society of living is to abrogate his sanity to an afflicted journey through hell. When finally his goddess abandons the mortal plane and assumes her shape as abject corpse, Encolpius has been deranged into this dark strange howl of a man who answers humor with horror. If in the presence of the divine he was rendered into infantile psychopathy, in its absence he has become the demonic knowing man, suffused with the horror of living.

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12 Responses to Peplum

  1. Ryan Holmberg says:

    NRYC kindly sent me a copy of this book. It was the first thing by Blutch that I have read. The art is beautiful, but I simply could not get into the story. More than that, I couldn’t understand or feel why the artist was into the story. None of the themes in the story seem very relevant to life today. Yet the fantasy is so non-transporting. Feels very decorative, on the movie set, like the title suggests. But then, it doesn’t feel ironic. So I don’t get it. Your review is more of a synopsis, not a review. So I don’t really understand why you are into it. But I think it’s that kind of book, like really elaborate doodling in the margins of some student’s classical history class notes.

  2. R.Fiore says:

    I don’t see how you can expect a work of art to be “relevant to life today” when it’s transporting you into an entirely different time, with entirely different ways of thinking and being.

  3. Ryan Holmberg says:

    I wasn’t transported into a different time. The weakness of the fantasy left me very much on the page. What exactly were the “entirely different ways of thinking and being” that were presented in the book? It seemed to me very much like someone’s naughty idea of what he thinks the ancient world is like, it seemed like it was his world not the ancient world. I didn’t find his world very interesting: a little bit of a love for young boys, some idolatry, some savage Amazon type women, human relations before humanism, slavery as an existential state taken for granted, the fundamental violence of the world. It felt like skimming across the surface of cliches of “edginess,” accentuated with moody brushwork and smudges, without taking anything too far too any extreme to break with good taste. I don’t know. I am not trying to sound snarky, but I really didn’t get the appeal of this book or why it makes Blutch one of the best.

  4. Ryan Holmberg says:

    Sorry, I meant to respond directly to your “relevant today” question. I think strong fantasy, however transporting it may be, still deals with questions that are relevant to daily life as a human being. I don’t mean it helps me think about life in an age of terror or global warming, but more basic things about humanity and society (from as small as my daily relations to the way the world is) that reverberate with today, ten years ago, ten years from now. I got none of that from the book. Maybe because the characters are constructed purely negatively around desire and self-interest, they had no dimension, nor were they powerful in their own flat way, flat but not sharp.

  5. I have a different take than Ryan, who says this “review is more of a synopsis, not a review.” I would definitely call Sarah’s piece a review — it does more than just recount the plot or summarize/outline key aspects of the book.

    It frequently moves beyond synopsis to a higher level, one of observation, synthesis, and analysis: she compares the book to Fellini’s Satyricon, Petronius’ work, and to other Blutch books; she talks in general about violence and drawing style in his work; she talks in detail about some of the drawings and their textures; she talks about the effects the work has; she describes things as “beautiful.”

    Ryan also says “So I don’t really understand why you are into it.”

    When Sarah describes things as beautiful and writes carefully about specific moments, it seems clear to me that these kinds of things are the reasons why she appreciates the book.

  6. Sarah Horrocks says:

    Blutch’s interest is in the sublime image, and if that is not relevant to modern society, then that is more a problem with modern society. Tarkovsky wrote that art should help prepare us for death. Blutch is within that genre. Of course I wrote all of this already. Your categories for what art can be or should be, are the worst. I could not care less about even one of them. It’s fine if that’s how your brain works and decides what it likes, but who cares? So you don’t like something.

    Also who cares if what I wrote is a “synopsis” or a “review”. It’s neither of those things. I wrote about the what I’m passionate about writing about with respect to the text of this work. More critics should do the same. I should hope you don’t need me to do something as base as give something a thumbs up at the end, or tell you to go support this or that. For me, I want to talk about the text, and what interests me within that text. But I have absolutely no interest in what you do with that. If it resonates with you, fine. If it doesn’t, IDGAF. Who cares if you like this book or not, Ryan? I don’t even care what you ate for breakfast. That kind of thing does not matter to me, and it should matter less to critics. People can read what I wrote, and decide if it interests them to explore further or discuss further. Past that, it’s not important.

  7. Ryan Holmberg says:

    Tarkovsky lived through World War II and Stalin. If he thought art should prepare us for death, it is because he lived in a world where that surrounded him daily. It makes sense he would identify with the sublime. I don’t know anything about Blutch (who is definitely no Tarkovsky in his depth of thinking or scale of effects or originality), but I assume his world is one in which death is not sublime. It comes quietly in old age, or unromantically in the form of cancer, other slow painful illness, or murder or traffic accident. That, anyway, is what death is in my immediate world, as it is for most other people who might be Blutch’s readers. I am not sure how the “sublime” is meaningful in that kind of world. Blutch does not make death and violence meaningful to me as a reader. Having grown up on novels, movies, and comics, his negative brand of the human condition seems utterly conventional. I think this graphic novel participates in that common move, where representations of evil are automatically taken as more authentic than representations of good, where death and violence are seen as more real, where shock is used (or attempted to be used) as a substitute for more subtle thinking about a subject. Where your review didn’t work well as a review for me, is that you fall for those cliches. I don’t recognize adequate distance from the book in your writing, nor do I understand the reasons for why you identify with what to me is a pile of romantic cliches.

  8. Sarah Horrocks says:

    It is ridiculous to place your understanding of art on the shaky ground of your at best warped and incomplete knowledge of an artist’s biography and how that may or may not have influenced their choices. You have no idea what role anything played in anything when it comes to Tarkovsky. It is unknowable. All we have is the text and our eyes.

    Also I never said that Blutch made death meaningful in Peplum. I said he was concerned with the sublime image, which is a concept that you can read about more in depth in my review, or in Tarkovsky’s Sculpting Time. A good follow up reading would also be Julia Kristeva’s writings on the abject, or her more recent essay on Medusa, which I made oblique reference to in my essay.

    I’m not sure how I can have a conversation with you when your responses both to my article and the book itself are so bizarre. I find your perspective uninteresting. It’s patronizing for you to act like the methods I chose to evaluate this work were done because I had never considered the idea of contextualizing work within an artist’s biography. You might also consider adding Ways of Seeing to your summer reading list.

    I don’t know if these things will make you like Blutch more (again, I don’t care), but they should at least give you enough of an intellectual understanding to leave me alone.

  9. Anthony Thorne says:

    “Having grown up on novels, movies, and comics, his negative brand of the human condition seems utterly conventional.”

    Blutch grew up with those things too, I gather.

  10. Giancarlo Roman says:

    Ryan:
    I understand where you’re coming from. Something similar happened to me when I started reading it many years ago. I left it on the side and came back to it after reading some of his other books and found it much more appealing. I would agree it’s not something I would recommed as a first reading of his work since it can keep the reader at a distance. It’s a shame the following books are not available in English since I believe they can provide what you desire in a more embracing narrative:

    – Modern Velocity: A writer proposes a dancer to become the main character in a novel she’s writing. She accepts and suddenly they find themselves surrounded by a cult, a sociopathic father figure, a giant spider and Omar Sharif.

    – Little Christian: They day to day life of a little kid (Christian) who’s becoming a teenager and who likes to flirt with girls, read comics his parents disapprove and play pretend he’s either Steve McQueen, John Wayne or Charlton Heston. (this one specially is very endearing)

    – Voluptuosity: An ape has escaped from the zoo and somehow manages to enter family homes in a voyeuristic fashion. Men and women react differently to his presence and eventually they all surrender to their most primitive instincts.

    On a side note, does anyone have any idea how come other European authors don’t get published in the states? I’m from South America and it’s a very popular notion down here and in Europe that American audiences tend to cosume mainly American produced books (and manga of course). I know some guys like Sfar and even Christophe Blain get published but they seem to be more the exception than the rule. Peplum is a great book but now I fear it may be Blutch’s last translated book for a long while.

    The same thing happened to Bastien Vives and a Taste of Chlorine (I’m not counting Last Man because of its manga influence). Also to Edmond Baudoin and his Dali book. It’s insane the man only has one translated book! But what about Baru? or Gipi? or Winshluss? Or Killoffer? These guys are masters of the medium. Is there an audience for them in the states? Would someone else besides Kim Thompson fight for their art to be introduced to an American public?

  11. Wendy says:

    Are you a fan of Morrissey, by any chance? The writing style of this review really reminds me of his novel, “List of the Lost”.

  12. Rich Tommaso says:

    It should be also noted that the beautiful hand lettering for this English language edition was penned by the late, great Jess Johnson. He captured the look and feel of Blutch’s hand letters so well.

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