I picked up the first volume of Dark Horse’s new Manara Library because the cover caught my eye (I’m generally fond of books in which swashbuckling young men share lingering kisses with pretty young women). The dust jacket blurb informed me that Milo Manara is a famous Italian comic book artist. From the arresting quality of the cover image, that was no surprise. After I’d read the book, I starting poking around online for some more information about Mr. Manara. It turns out he’s mostly famous for his erotic comic books, and considering the work I’d just read, that was no surprise, either.
This volume collects two stories. “Indian Summer” was written by Hugo Pratt and originally published in 1983. “The Paper Man” was both written and drawn by Manara and was originally published in 1982. Neither could be called erotica, but both are full of sensual and evocative art by someone who clearly enjoys depicting the female form.
“Indian Summer” is set in early colonial Massachusetts. Pratt ties the story to a few historical figures and presents it as the real-life inspiration behind The Scarlet Letter, but the tale is largely fictional. Like Hester Prynne, “the Lewis woman” (whose first name is never given) has been rejected by society over accusations of sex out of wedlock. While Prynne was forced to wear a letter on her clothing, Lewis has had a letter branded onto her face. Her punishment is far more visceral and brutal, indicative of the differences between Hawthorne and Pratt’s stories. While Hawthorne built his novel around a single infidelity, Pratt’s story is a snarl of sexual abuse, rape, and incest. All the Lewis family secrets are dragged into the light when they’re caught up in a conflict between the colonists who shunned Lewis and the Native Americans who helped her survive her banishment.
Pratt’s script is full of interesting ideas and compelling conflict, but it sometimes falls short on style. The dialogue is often clunky and declarative, which may be a translation issue or an attempt to capture some sense of archaic diction. The sexual politics of the story are interestingly complex but Pratt ladles the depravity on pretty thick and a few scenes end up feeling gratuitous and exploitative rather than frank and shocking.
“The Paper Man” is a much shorter and lighter piece. Set in the Old West, it’s the story of a cowboy and a Sioux woman who fall in love. In contrast to “Indian Summer”’s grim tone, “Paper Man” infuses the Old West with an air of absurdity. Coincidence throws the story’s lovers together with an elderly British infantryman intent on single-handedly retaking the colonies, a preacher who becomes a violent and irrational hulk whenever it rains, and a “backwards Indian” (he rides his horse backwards and slaps people as a friendly greeting — judging by the other characters’ reactions this isn’t uncommon). The group wanders around a bit before happening upon the plot and trying to save the Sioux tribe from the American soldiers. It’s an odd story. The intended massacre of an entire tribe is at odds with the whimsical nature of what precedes it. Luckily, Manara doesn’t seem to take it too seriously. It may not hold together as a narrative, but it’s full of fun moments and excuses to draw cool cowboys and pretty ladies.
Ultimately, this whole book hinges on the art and it is wonderful. Above all, Manara excels at people. His faces are interesting and expressive, he’s got a good eye for poses and gestures, and his strong, supple lines and skillful shading give a great sense of weight and strength. While the most memorable images of the book are of individual people, he also pulls off some impressive crowds and battles. In these scenes each person is as carefully rendered as the next and the whole panel is a treasure trove of thoughtful details to be pored over. His settings share this attention to detail. Whether he’s depicting the beaches and forests of coastal Massachusetts or the deserts of Wyoming, Manara makes his landscapes are tangible and inviting. The interiors show an obvious technical expertise and attention to historical decoration and construction.
It bears repeating that, while these stories aren’t erotica or pornography, they do contain a lot of nudity and sexual content. If the plot involves nudity, Manara depicts it fully. If the plot is slightly open to the possibility of nudity, Manara throws some in there, too. This will probably alienate some readers, which is a shame as this book has a lot to offer.