Red Ultramarine

Red Ultramarine

Everyone knows that the story or Icarus is a story about hubris, but Manuele Fior reminds us that it is also a story of of grief. Daedalus, Icarus’ father, famous for constructing the labyrinth that holds the minotaur, builds a pair of wings so that he and his son may escape some cruel fate. In different versions of the myth, the specifics vary. Daedalus poses a threat or has fallen out of favor, and so he is shut away in a tower or, as in Fior’s telling, he is thrown into the labyrinth. In all variations, their survival is at stake, so they run for their lives. And, in every version, the episode concludes in the same famously tragic way: Icarus flies too close to the sun. His wings melt. He falls to his death. And what remains is a father, forced to live with the grief of a dead child.  

This brief mythological footnote is the centerpiece of Fior’s Red Ultramarine—originally published in 2006, and recently translated for the first time—but it is put to perplexing use. The book opens with a quote from Goethe’s Faust, which reads, in part, “Two souls, alas, exist in my breast,” and it is precisely this bifurcated soul upon which the narrative turns, alternating between the story of Daedalus and a contemporary story about a young architect, Fausto, who has sunken into a state both manic and depressive. Fausto—who resembles the young Icarus, may even be Icarus—has become obsessed with Daedalus’ labyrinth, but “the drawings on these papers,” as Fausto calls them, is merely “the form” of “the most disturbing question: “How much of us is thought, reason, intellect… And how much delirium, hallucination, madness… And how much is a monster. The failure of every plan. A path with no way out.”

We are to understand that the dramatic heft of the book is Fausto’s story, but it is difficult to know what to make of it. He fears a madness with “no way out… no way out…,” but it is unclear how we are to understand this madness. It reads like a kind of anxiety—the dread and anticipation of some congenital disorder that could strike at any moment—but, as Fausto’s partner Silvia suggests in an early scene, this anxiety was itself provoked by the labyrinth. Again, it is unclear whether we are to understand that provocation literally or figuratively. The book introduces it as though it some sort of job, commissioned by a figure called only “The Doctor.” The Doctor bears a striking resemblance to the book’s King Minos, and so it would make sense for the Minos parallel to have similarly commissioned the Daedalus parallel. But it is Silvia who winds up most closely parallels Daedalus, and Fausto who parallels Icarus. Matters are made even more confusing by the way Silvia interacts with The Doctor. At the outset, she approaches him as though he is not just a doctor, but Fausto’s doctor. This cannot be the case, however—or, rather, we should hope that it is not, as The Doctor describes Fausto as a “fanatical, impertinent dilettante.” “I couldn’t care less,” he tells Silvia. “Does he think he is special?”

The book makes no effort to clarify the relationship between characters, though this is not itself an issue. Rather, it piles on the confusion at the expense of its own emotional gravity. In the mythic story, Daedalus is the focus and the life of his son is at stake. Likewise, in the contemporary story, Silvia is the focus and it is the life of Fausto at stake. Her fear, which we are made to share, is that Fausto might harm himself. This differs significantly from the danger threatening Icarus, and so the parallels between them are limited. This fact is compounded by the vast differences between the narratives themselves, though the characters do occupy similar positions in their respective stories. What’s more, they look identical, so much so that, in a brief interlude, Silvia travels into the Daedalus narrative to encounter Icarus on a beach. She is struck by the similarity he shares with Fausto, and it is only after being warned of his fate that she begins to fear for Fausto’s. Fior presents the relationship between the two figures as though it were something crucial—crucial for the reader, but also crucial for the characters themselves. Yet there is little effort done to make it sensible. In its too neat conclusion, it is Silvia’s love—or so we are meant to intuit from the brief, wordless scene—that saves Fausto, and it is here, most acutely, where the parallels between the characters breakdown. Did Daedalus not love his son? Is that why Icarus dies? Fior does not give the impression that this is what he means, but the problem is precisely that it is unclear what it is he did mean. Rather than being given room to breathe, the characters are suffocated by these tenuous parallels and unclear connections. The ideas fail to meaningfully develop, so they cannot support their weighty pretensions. They cave in on their own hollow center. And, as a result, the story feels rushed, abrupt, confusing, slight.

And this is to say absolutely nothing of the allusions to Faust, a quote from which opens the book, a passage from which is read aloud by a character, and from which the character of Fausto obviously takes his name. Like much of the book’s details and brief moments, it hangs there as, announcing itself as somehow significant while refusing to connect to anything else around it.

But maybe this is not the best way to engage with Red Ultramarine. After all, it is a comic—a primarily visual medium—and its success or failure should depend on its visuals.

Considered this way, the book is not without its merits. As readers of Fior’s more recent work can attest, the Italian cartoonist is one of the most impressive artists working in the medium today. Adapting his aesthetic to each new project, Fior has demonstrated a felicity with a variety of styles and tools, and Red Ultramarine does not disappoint in this regard. As the title suggests, the color red features prominently here, and Fior utilizes it to contrast complexions, highlight the patterns of clothes, make a fish pop against a white background, limn the shadows of a stone building at night. The limited color palette creates a sharp contrast, which keeps shapes clearly defined and action clear. Red, specifically, pops brightly against both the black and the white—catching the eye to exude a sense of foreboding and menace. 

The aesthetic of the book is not merely eye-catching, though; it is compelling, too. In one scene, Silvia runs through the city—the white sun drenching the scene, the red beaming off cars, the black contouring everything and everyone. The cars vrOOm and screech and pound and zoom and REEE and wail and dingdingding along the street, the sound effects as big and as loud as the cars themselves, with their own weight, their own heft, their own red glimmer and black contours. The page is cacophonous and chaotic. And Fior’s style—minimalist and heavily-cartooned, with details simplified and exaggerated—carries a palpable sense of movement and strong sense of space. Few lines are made to do a lot of work, and the sound of the cars, the tightness of the buildings packed so close together, and the movement of crowds packing the streets is not just striking to look at but compelling to move through. There is a pull here, as much a sense of urgency and confusion in the urban scenes as there is a sense of calm, placidity in the quieter, slower, more meditative moments of the Crete-set Daedalus story. Fior demonstrates an adeptness with sequencing images, not just illustrating a pretty picture but of generating a flow between them. The images stack nicely atop one another, accumulating, pushing against one another. Rhythms generate here and there, slowing and speeding up, accreting powerful senses of time and place and mood. The cartooning prowess that has earned Fior his reputation is glaring even in this nascent work.

While there is more polish in more recent books, like The Interview, there is no less pizzazz. Until, that is, you think about the scenes for a brief moment. The experience of reading them is, admittedly, captivating. But that sensation doesn’t linger, because they are not made to connect in a meaningful way. Too many scenes feel rushed, the connections between them opaque, the ending abrupt. And because the narrative’s themes are unclear and emotional stakes underdeveloped, the book’s climax—according to the book’s backcover copy, a paean to the power of love—feels vaporous, like it would melt if you tried to grasp at it. The book is fun to read, but there is a sense of dissatisfaction that nags at you long after you closed the book’s cover, as though there were some potential something that was not allowed the time or space to bloom properly.  

In this way, the book feels like the work of a mature artist but a still maturing cartoonist. Fior knows his way around figures and colors, brushes and paints, but the writing here evinces someone less adept at characters, storytelling, or the development of themes. The book has style and ambition—it is certainly worth spending time with—but it lacks the grace and finesse to polish it into something truly satisfying. In this way, Red Ultramarine is itself a lot like Icarus. For a few brief moments, it hits dazzling heights, but it cannot sustain itself and crashes into the sea. Unlike Icarus’, however, this fall is not something worth grieving.