I am an ambivalent reader of graphic novels. I’m of a generation that remembers when Superman was less muscled, and hadn’t yet died or been cloned. “Adult graphic novel” designated the rumored underground works about Fritz the cat. The amazing boom of the last couple decades of literary versions has led me to works such as Persepolis and Maus. Still, I’m not sure I have the critical equipment to get the most out of these works wedding image and text. Actually, it’s been the wordless versions of narratives (from the recently reissued Lynd Ward woodcut novels to Shaun Tan), which intrigue me most. Most graphic novels just read so darn fast.
Yet is there any other place on earth where word meets art in the context of religion/spirituality with greater heritage and pedigree than Italy? This Italian graphic novel has art by Mattotti and words by Piersanti from Bologna, who is a novelist and screenwriter.
The novel opens with a wordless picture of an overweight guy sitting up on the edge of his bed in the underwear he has slept in. Unshaven, with an untrimmed goatee and a mohawk that seems more born from the necessity of hair loss than style, the protagonist who speaks in first person—relating his tale—is clearly a man living on the margins of his society . . . revealed to be a 41-year-old alcoholic who is occasionally employed, living in a boarding house.
The book moves quickly to the dream vision he has had: called into the presence of a looming, cosmic, God-Child who promises the man that his suffering will soon be over, and that he is now to receive a sign of this promise—bleeding from a single wound in each palm without pain or infection. He rejects this ‘gift,’ which propels the protagonist out of his boarding house, where people have taken to leaving votive gifts of candles and flowers and requests for miracles. He tries first for a medical cure, which brings imposed psychiatric attention, then life as an ordinary person hiding his wounds unsuccessfully. He joins a circus, falls in love with a woman who accepts him for who he is, loses her in a flood. Eventually finds some rest and acceptance of his condition working in a convent, tending the dead for burial and the keeping up the cemetery.
His journey to acceptance involves some reading of hard-core medieval writings from saints who themselves had known the curse/blessing of God’s attention. Yet the reader gets the sense that this book is being written not for the person well-steeped in Christian faith, but instead is a modern-day exploration of ‘what-if,’ a fresh introduction to what an encounter with the Holy might be in our own day and time. If you know Fangraphics, you know they are not a religious publishing house; they would not be bringing out a book of dogma or evangelism.
For someone in the biz, this book is like cat-nip. Ah, the story of the one who did not ask to be chosen (OT figures such as Jeremiah, Job, Jonah), yet who by divine coercion encounters the holy and is transformed. Never mind that within the church-defined and controlled the stigmata has been given not to just hands, but feet and wounded side, and only to those holy enough to deserve the sign. This fellow is chosen, but he is not the figure of the exceptional.
For a reader who knows little or nothing about religious tradition outside the caricatures created through self-promoters of the strident and extreme, by those who abuse their faith and others under the cloak of religion, or by the media this story may very well intrigue, horrify, and maybe even move. It is not a doctrinaire work; it is a human one.