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.