Alejandro Jodorowsky is one of the most unique creators in comics, drawing upon a biography, range of interests, and incredibly fertile imagination that makes him truly inimitable. His most famous comics work remains The Incal, created in collaboration with Moebius, and frequently reprinted in ever more expensive iterations by Humanoids. It is justifiably revered, a work of science fictional holy madness spawned from the wreckage of Jodorowsky’s equally outrageous Dune movie.
But as great as The Incal and its various spin-offs are, the Jodorowsky comics I enjoy most are probably those set in the “real” world, especially his religious satire/metaphysical farce Madwoman of the Sacred Heart. Whereas in the fantastical world of The Incal everything is possible, in a book like Madwoman (or ultra-violent incest-packed series like Son of the Gun and Borgia), Jodorowsky is constrained by the need to conform to an at least semi-recognizable reality and is thus forced to contain his berserk inventiveness within a relatively strict set of parameters. This never stops him from ramming in as much violence, sex, blasphemy, deformity, and mysticism as he can, but I find it more fun to watch it all unfold in more realistic surroundings.
Pietrolino, the most recent Jodorowsky release from Humanoids, is one of his “reality” based series. Created with artist O.G. Boiscommun, it is the tale of the titular mime who we first meet in Nazi-occupied Paris, putting on a patriotic show for the customers of a cafe. Nazis enter and Pietrolino is whisked off to a concentration camp, but not before they have crushed his hands, robbing him of the ability to mime. Unable to express himself through his art, Pietrolino succumbs to despair until after the war he finds a pair of boxing gloves. Developing a new, much cruder act, he starts a small circus and is less miserable for a while. But then a huge circus rolls into town, and his protégé, the beautiful mime Alma falls in love with a trapeze artist…
The premise is of course ultra-Jodorowsky. Before he wrote comics and before he became a filmmaker, he trained as a mime and worked with Marcel Marceau, writing some of the French mime’s most famous scenarios, and this time has informed his work ever since. In addition to a carnival performer waving his hands about in the air (also featured prominently in the movie Santa Sangre) numerous other classic Jodorowsky tropes are present: a dwarf (serving as narrator and Pietrolino’s assistant), a virgin, a whore, a maimed hero (whose mutilation serves as a symbolic castration, natch), a complex parent-mentor/child-acolyte relationship, the circus.
Thus Pietrolino abounds in things that Jodorowsky loves. But the book is radically different from all his other comics in its unprecedented levels of restraint and even good taste. There is hardly any violence, precious little sex, no taboo breaking, barely any mystic-religious stuff, the plot is straightforward, and Jodorowsky dials down the symbolism. The tone is wistful, reflective, nostalgic, gentle, and melancholy. Pietrolino suffers, but his suffering is depicted without Jodorowsky’s tendency to abrupt tonal subversion; there are no sudden beheadings or wisecracks, there is no explicit parent-child sex. It’s the kind of Jodorowsky book you could show your mother, or a priest, or even a little girl, his equivalent of The Straight Story, David Lynch’s gentle yarn about an old codger riding a lawn mower to see his estranged brother one last time. And yet as with all—or nearly all—of Jodorowsky’s works, Pietrolino is at its core the tale of a wounded individual seeking healing, so it nevertheless fits neatly into his oeuvre.
Apparently Pietrolino was originally written as a play for Marcel Marceau, whose father died in a Nazi camp. Perhaps this explains the tone of the book. It is the work of an old man, written for an old friend. For a would-be Marceau project there is very little mime on display, although Jodorowsky nevertheless comes up with a neat solution for its depiction in the static medium of comics, which he then deploys very sparingly. As for Boiscommun’s art, well- in comparison to Jodorowsky’s other artistic collaborators such as Moebius, Georges Bess, or Juan Gimenez, it is stunningly mediocre. But even so, Boiscommun does the book no harm. Garish, fluid, and cartoony, his style is appropriate for a tale of the circus. And like most French artists, he puts in effort when drawing buildings.
When I first read Pietrolino I didn’t know what to make of it; when I read it the second time I still wasn’t sure, though I liked it. In that sense, it’s a triumph for Jodorowsky, who so clearly relishes startling his audience: long after you think you have learned what to expect from this octogenarian- dense, violent, scurrilous, heavily compressed books- you discover an entirely new side to his work which is at once sad and light, playful but serious. But it is also, perhaps, a very old side- just one most of us are unfamiliar with.