borgias  Borgia: the name is nearly synonymous with deceit and debauchery, a family whose infamy, deserved or not, has become entrenched in Western cultural memory for over 500 years. A tangled web of power, religion, sex, and violence, the Borgias have been considered by many to be the first true Mafia family, and certainly the legends of their depravity have kept their memory flourishing for centuries. Now, in brilliant graphic form, two creative legends, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Milo Manara, offer a new look at this infamous story. The Borgias is a fictionalized interpretation of the people, the place, and the politics of Borgia Italy in a way that subtly reminds the astute reader of more contemporary people and politics.

Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia is ruthless and ambitious, a man poised to seize power in a time when lawlessness and chaos seems to rule the Italian city states. Pope Innocent VIII lies dying in the papal palace, and his death will be Rodrigo’s chance at the power of the Holy See, if he can convince his fellow cardinals to support his ascension to the papal throne. Jodorowsky weaves the tale of Rodrigo’s quest, his merciless pursuit of his goal from his rise to the papacy until his brutal death at the hands of a rival. The holy men of the Church are easily swayed to his position, some by bribes financial or carnal, others by violence or threats of violence, but the more power gained, the more enemies gained as well. The newly anointed Pope Alexander VI quickly begins a new quest: one to destroy those who oppose him and to unite Italy under the Borgia banner. His children—Cesare, Lucrezia, Giovanni, and Gioffre—will join their father’s drive for power until their depravity equals or surpasses his own. It is a family’s rise to power and descent into madness, a cautionary fable that reminds the reader of Lord Acton’s admonition that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Milo Manara’s art brings the Borgias to life on the page; their characters captured in moments of horror and glory. As beautiful as the Renaissance art that inspired the Borgias themselves, Manara’s illustrations are lush and sensual, delicate details adding to the vividness of each page. Lucrezia is a voluptuous and stunning young goddess. Cesare embodies masculine strength and determination with the body of a soldier and the face of angel. The dying Innocent VIII and later the old and weakened Alexander VI are monstrous and frail, their bodies twisted and warped by their soulless degeneracy. But in Manara’s deft hands, there is beauty even in the grotesque. Indeed, the juxtaposition of magnificence with extreme acts of horrible brutality gives The Borgias much of its enthralling power. Like the Borgias themselves, lovers and supporters of the arts even as they murdered, schemed, and pillaged, the combination of Manara’s art and Jodorowsky’s script is an intriguing mystery that demands thoughtful reflection and exploration rather than an immediate rush to judgment.

The Borgias, though, is not history, but historical fiction. Though he draws heavily on the Borgia figures of history and legend, Jodorowsky takes abundant liberties with the historical timelines, and indeed his storytelling creates monsters even more perverse than those the legends of the Borgias offer. But the violence and degeneracy never seems gratuitous, but rather each horrid act is a warning of the potential depths of human depravity and the seductive dangers of unchecked power and affluence. Even the numerous scenes of lovemaking are not titillating, even though the bodies are wonderfully rendered. Instead, the reader sees merely another example of how even bodies, and the people who inhabit them, are commoditized when life is cheaply spent in the pursuit of wealth and power.

It is important to note that The Borgias is an adult work, one that Dark Horse labels as erotica, as well as historical fiction. It’s impossible to list all of the potentially problematic elements of the work. Full frontal nudity (primarily female), sexual situations, rape, masturbation, homosexuality, incest, and abortion are merely a beginning. The Borgias is also unflinchingly violent, including a scene of the monk Savonarola being anally raped on a bed of nails by the Borgia pope. Devout Catholics and others of faith may also find the numerous examples of both blasphemy and heresy offensive; Jodorowsky’s characterizations of not only the popes, but the cardinals and other members of the church hierarchy, are universally harsh. Arguably God has no place in this story, because the only God worshiped here is earthly power and carnal glory.

The Borgias is a brilliant, beautiful, and brutal work of art. This deluxe hardcover collects the original four volumes of the Borgia saga into one beautiful volume. The collection also includes an introduction by Jororowsky himself on his work and an introduction to Milo Manara’s art by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba, whose own work has been influenced by Manara. While it is definitely not for the easily offended or the faint of heart, for mature readers who enjoy exploring outside the comics mainstream, The Borgias is a superlative example of graphic art and storytelling.

The Borgias
by Alejandro Jodorowsky
Art by Milo Manara
ISBN: 9781616555429
Dark Horse, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: 18+

  • Beth Rogers

    Past Reviewer

    This reviewer is not longer actively working on our site, but we would not be here if not for our many dedicated contributors over the years. We thank all of them for their reviews, features, and support! Beth Rogers is Coordinator of Reference, Instruction, and Outreach at the Annie Merner Pfeiffer Library at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where she has worked to introduce and develop the library’s graphic novel collection. Also a part-time lecturer in English, Beth has taught courses on graphic novels for college students, lead book discussions on graphic novels including Watchmen and American-Born Chinese, and guest lectured on superheroes in American culture. She also maintains a book review blog, Do I Wanna Read THAT?!?!? When she’s not working, Beth enjoys action movies, knitting wee Avengers, and spoiling her dog.

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