REVIEWS

Stigmata

On page 70 of Stigmata two top panels advance the story, supported by a large bottom panel depicting a carnival landscape.

This bottom panel contains much of what makes Lorenzo Mattotti’s art so distinctive and rich. Here we have a landscape that, at its base level, communicates information (as any worthwhile comic is supposedly beholden to do): This is the habitat of our story’s characters; this is what their dwellings look like. But Mattotti brings far more to this drawing–a weak assertion of what he’s up to would be ‘drawing expressively.’ But what is being expressed, exactly?

The drawing is a silent beat within a story that expertly leads us through passages and around corners, only to throw us upon this panel: a stylized structure with textured line work surrounding it. If we said that the landscape was merely “despairing” or “unsettling”we’d be doing ourselves, as readers, a disservice. The image represents a lifetime of Mattotti’s art coming to a head and contains a world of thought and heart that can’t be reduced to a single simple feeling. A new emotion is communicated to us here –that of a fully realized Mattotti drawing.

All of this might suggest that Stigmata is hard to parse. But Mattotti is an artist who is equally concerned with complex imagery and  sharp storytelling — attention to that combination leads us to what makes Mattotti so great. Claudio Piersanti wrote a very crisp script for Stigmata, and Mattotti illuminates the story deftly, probably because he has a real appreciation for well told stories. Piersanti’s story centers on a man who has stigmata bleeding from his hands. This stigmata affects those around him positively — minor miracles occur — while his own life becomes more and more chaotic. He falls in with a carnival, which uses his stigmata as an attraction. Eventually, the stigmata blood ceases to come out of his hands and is then artificially bled.

If one’s standard for great cartooning is drawing that tells a story without a shred of vagueness, Mattotti’s work on the events described above is thrilling in its virtuosity. But this is a work of art far more potent than a simple story well-told. Mattotti’s two extremes — that of high level storytelling and drawing that suggests unique emotions — exist side by side without any fuss.

As our main character (unnamed throughout the book) begins working at the carnival, we understand his plight, we know the motivations of those who care for him and those who hate him. And then suddenly, Mattotti gives us that landscape, which cannot be understood but must be seen. Mattotti’s control as an artist is that we accept all this as a whole, instead of admiring the audacity of bringing the two qualities together.

With this we have something of the gray area of life: actions, and the moments of feeling that are removed from these movements, but exist within the same span. On page 85, our main character is savagely kicked in the face. The events that lead up to it are crystal clear — but the actual moment of violence, in just one panel, is a masterstroke of personal drawing. It couldn’t be mistaken for anything other than a kick in the face, but cannot be reduced to that either. Mattotti doesn’t call attention to the contrast, instead developing the skill to pull it all off without telling us he’s doing it.

The way our main character is drawn throughout is part of the drawing statement being made. His body is slumped, anguished, twisted–again, weakly we’d refer to it as expressive. But in our hearts, there’s much more that these poses say to us: I feel pity, fear, disgust, and more when I look at this character. Often, in a comic, if the reader is unsure of how to react to a particular character’s physicality, it’s due to the poverty of the cartooning (or the imaginative breadth of the story). But with Stigmata, the portrayal of the main character is so sophisticated that it defies us to size him up. If we met this man in real life, we’d have some kind of surface reaction to him, but there would be a undertone of knowledge that there was an incomprehensible thorn of feeling and thought we had towards him that we couldn’t quite explain. Here is a story by Mattotti about this man which has that thorn staring back at you every moment. It’s in the drawings.

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14 Responses to Stigmata

  1. RobClough says:

    "It's in the drawings" really sums it up. What knocks me out about Mattotti is the way his figures are made up of those lines that are almost furious in their scribbliness, yet are mastered at times to depict perfect stillness. As a result, there's a constant tension in nearly every drawing. It would be painful to look at if he weren't such a masterful storyteller.

    • AustinEnglish says:

      I guess we see different things in his art.
      "his figures are made up of those lines that are almost furious in their scribbliness, yet are mastered at times to depict perfect stillness." I guess that is too close to the 'expressive' tag that Mattotti gets stuck with that I'm trying (in my own ham fisted way) to edge away from. There's something apart from 'tension,' 'scribbliness' and 'stillness' in those drawings. Something both inhuman and human that seems to exist only in his world of imagery.

  2. RobClough says:

    I'm not sure we're as far apart as you think.

    You ask a key question: "What is being expressed, exactly?" You're right that the phrase "expressionistic" gets thrown around as a shorthand for scribbly or simply non-naturalistic (but not cartoony). However, expressionistic is a term that I think can have value and I think it can be applied to Mattotti without reducing what he's doing.

    Just because a Mattotti drawing can't be reduced to a single feeling doesn't mean that it's not conveying a wide range of feelings, as you yourself note. In that respect, it's a bit like an Abstract Expressionist painting, like Rothko in particular. (continued)

  3. RobClough says:

    With Mattotti, we feel pity, disgust, horror, sympathy and much more based on the images far more than the story qua story (which I found predictable and not especially noteworthy). I think Mattotti was able to achieve that enormous complexity on an image-by-image basis by harnessing the power of that scribble into an easy-to-parse page with frequent moments of stillness. I submit that his scribble is the engine room of his art, creating tension and unease and dread, even when he's leavening those feelings with moments of stillness, happiness and contentment. And he does it, as you suggest, by suggesting a simultaneity of emotions that can't be broken down to a single feeling or even a couple of feelings. (continued)

  4. RobClough says:

    What are those new emotions? They are human in that we can sense them and get a sense of what they are, but the particular way they are displayed by Mattotti is somewhat ineffable; we can talk around them but it's hard to pin them down in a meaningful way. And I'd say they're inhuman in a purely visual sense: this is not naturalistic art and these aren't emotions we see in the real world. the root of what I'm saying is that without his ability to portray stillness, it would be hard for him to get across the full effect of these complex emotions, wherein the reader is given a view of the main character's soul in an entirely non-verbal manner.

  5. AustinEnglish says:

    I agree with a lot of what you're saying, esp that last post. I like discussing this stuff so hopefully my disagreements here don't come across as me contradicting you.
    I think we diverge when you talk about his 'scribbles.' As you say "harnessing the power of that scribble into an easy-to-parse page with frequent moments of stillness." I don't see it as scribbles or being 'a bit like an Abstract Expressionist painting.' I guess those things (scribbles) suggest chance or improvisation (obviously not in all cases but in the general idea of scribbles or abstract painting that I think you're referencing), which I just don't see on the page at all.

    I do see that stillness though—especially in that carnival landscape.

  6. RobClough says:

    I don't see it as contradiction at all, so please feel free to keep going.

    OK, I see what you're saying with regard to scribbles as chance or improvisation. I'm not an expert on Abstract Expressionism (or modern art in general for that manner), but my understanding is that every artist did things slightly differently in terms of intentionality. Someone like Pollock was a guy that used pure chance as a means of expression. Someone like Rauschenberg was far more calculating. From what I understand of Rothko, the horizontal blotches of paint weren't pure chance–the patterns, size, colors all meant something different that couldn't be explained in a meaningful way but could be experienced as the sublime. (continued)

  7. RobClough says:

    Thus, I see Mattotti employing a similar kind of intentionality with his scribble. It's less chance than him harnessing this kind of pure force of nature on the page. It's a wild kind of energy, that scribble, but he has control over it (and I have to wonder how long it took him to develop that style and mastery) and can access that kind of emotional space that you're talking about. It's the amazing thing about his pages–he has total mastery over every single aspect, including that scribble. That's how he can tell a story so clearly and depict those moments of stillness. I say this as someone who frequently has trouble parsing high-density comics art–my eye never "falls off the page" with Mattotti. Mattotti is less interested in making the reader "work" to read his page than he is in forcing the reader to confront the emotions he expresses on the page.

  8. JasonOverby says:

    Could you post some images from the book?

    • tym godek says:

      Fantagraphics has a preview
      But, yeah… It’d be nice to see some images in the context of the review.

    • Michael says:

      I third that request. With a review so focused on the drawings, it’s annoying that none of them (particularly the heavily referenced carnival landscape image) are included here.

      • Austin English says:

        Hey, sorry. The fault rests entirely with me. I misread TCJ’s review requirements guide and assumed posting large images was not allowed. Now I’m looking at all these reviews with beautiful images. I’ll try to add some images here or elsewhere online.

  9. Tim Hodler says:

    Go here for a preview of images from the book.

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