The Manara Library, Vol. 1
Created by: Milo Manara
Published by: Dark Horse
ISBN: 159582782X (Amazon)
Trigger warning: rape, incest, etc. Also, spoilers.
Colour me surprised. And caught off-guard. And maybe a bit ripped-off. Or at least colour me that way three weeks ago when volume one of The Manara Library arrived. I gave myself a cooling-off period before sitting down to untangle exactly what I thought of this initial collection of Milo Manara’s work. But before I get to solving the Manaran knot, here’s how things went down.
A few days before release, I saw Dark Horse had posted a note on Twitter cheering the book’s advent. Curious, I followed the link provided and arrived at their publisher’s destination page for the series. It looked pretty good. The cover was gorgeous and featured a frontier-era couple engaged in some aesthetically pleasing romance. The promotional blurbs were promising: Milo Manara, Italian Comics Legend; comprehensive collection; seminal works; sweeping epic; first comprehensive North American hardcover collection of Manara’s work! Not bad. There was an eight-page preview featuring a hectic struggle between some cabin-bound settlers and a tribal raiding party fraught with some pretty impressive artwork. I was intrigued. And then, what sold me. A quote from Frank Miller: “In the hand of Milo Manara, the Old West is a generous, delicious feast for the eyes.” Wow, that sounded exciting. Even though Miller doesn’t usually impress me or guide my consumer decisions, I was really in the mood for exactly what his words described. I’m not a deep fan of the Western, but I thought it might be a nice opportunity to broaden the scope of my collection a bit further. So I pre-ordered the book.
When it arrived a few days later, I was excited. I squirreled away for an early lunch, holed up in a local coffee joint, and cracked open the book for some good Western excitement. I skimmed the two introductions very quickly because who reads an intro to a comic before they read the actual book? Okay, sometimes I do. But not so much this time. I did, however, glance some comparisons to Sergio Leone in terms of reimagining the American frontier. I was primed.
Then the first story of the book, “Indian Summer,” begins with a rape. A sexy rape.
This is about three pages in or so. The scan is small so you can’t see the manifest glee on the two men’s faces. The scene ends with the woman bent over, presenting vagina to the reader. Joy.
It’s not that I couldn’t imagine a great story or work coming out of such a beginning, but it was a bit surprising. I supposed that despite the intentional sensuality of the scene and its dénouement (that thrilling, romantic cover I liked so much is an in-book scene that takes place on the heels of the woman’s rape), this could turn into some kind of grander commentary a la The Searchers. I continued and there was a lot of nudity, sexual posing, and scenes composed from deep within the territory of the male gaze. The raw ardor and passion of much of what comprises “Indian Summer” took me wholly off-guard. And then of course there’re the multiple instances of rape and tiers of incest and their titillating depictions. I turned the book over to look at the publisher’s recommended shelving tags. Instead of a Western, like I thought I was purchasing, I had apparently procured a book for my new shelf of Historical Fiction | Erotica. And then my eye strayed down to the price tag. $59.99. Even though I had received a fat pre-order discount, I almost died from sticker shock.
I felt abused. Abused by press and packaging. The publisher description little matched what I was reading. I thought I was getting Deerslayer and Last of the Mohicans but found I had been given Cinemax. And that coloured the rest of my reading. Which is why I needed a cooling-off period. I was too mad to write sensibly about the collection. So here we all are.
The Manara Library: Volume One contains two stories, “Indian Summer” and “The Paper Man.” Of the two, “The Paper Man” is unquestionably the better story in nearly every respect. Only in its art does “Indian Summer” show itself superior. “The Paper Man” is a silly, throwaway story following a romance through an absurd and quirky version of the environs surrounding Fort Laramie, Wyoming. It was an amusing romp featuring off-the-wall characters, impossible situations, and a good ol’ barroom brawl. It wasn’t anything special nor was it worth half of thirty dollars, but its charms are inoffensive and I could almost see myself reading the story maybe once more before I die of old age in a spacious undersea palace fifty years from now.
“Indian Summer,” the introductory tale, is where things get murky. After my smouldering subsided, I gave the story a second chance. It fared better on a second read, though honestly, not by much. The art, as mentioned, is impressive. Manara has a fantastic sense of staging (whether you appreciate his subject-matter or not). Whether a quiet scene with a single man posed against a natural backdrop or thirty combatants racing toward and doling out death, Manara shows mastery over his composition. His sense of musculature is robust and his characters exhibit a liveliness that lends to his credibility as an “Italian comics legend.” The cover itself, a blow-up of a small interior panel, demonstrates well the lyricism of his work. I found myself thoroughly impressed—and then I wished that he had spent his abundant talent on more worthy tales. “Indian Summer” is a problematic work on several levels.
It’s never super evident how much of today’s critical eye one should bring to the evaluation of works from another era. Granted, “Indian Summer” was first published only slightly less than thirty years ago, so this isn’t a creation belonging to the Renaissance or the imperialist sensibilities of 19th century Britannia. Still, in the '80s—at least in America—society was still struggling (and I suppose, we still are) with understanding how to treat the sexes. I have to imagine the same could be said in Italy. In any case, “Indian Summer” exhibits many of the challenges to readers that fill the worst examples of comics sexism in the contemporary scene today. Women are depicted presenting for seemingly no reason other than to play on the desires of a presumably male audience (or author). They are objectified in the extreme. After her return to safety, a woman victimized by rape early in the story spends pages wriggling out of her Pilgrim’s clothes in her delirium in front of her male hosts (while a young teen skips around pretending to masturbate to the sight). A woman who has been sore abused, while tending to her wounded father, is commanded by him to disrobe and climb into his bath where they then have wild sex for several pages. It’s all a bit impossible to digest in any believable fashion. And Manara uses his considerable skill to render these scenes each to the best visual advantage of his reader. I felt insulted and I imagine most women would feel similarly (though who am I to speak for most of anybody?). Then again, I pretty clearly was not the target audience for this work.
It would be one thing to be subjected to irony- or subversion-free relishing of sexually objectified women* if the story built up around these things were of any substance or value. This, though, was not the case. “Indian Summer” presents a facile narrative built on a foundation of trite clichés. That’s right: not just clichés, but trite clichés. If you were to pick up a story with the following characters, which would you guess to be the most wretchedly depraved and corrupt: a) the bastard son of an outcast woman, b) the forest witch, c) the tribal chief, d) the chief’s son, d) the Protestant minister, e) the town’s mayor, or f) the head of the town’s militia? Nine bucks you picked out the minister. Probably ever since Nathaniel Hawthorne (or maybe it was The Bible), the biggest sinner on the block is always the holy man. It’s easy. It’s clichéd. It’s boring as hell. And it doesn’t make any statement that hasn’t been better put in better works.
“Indian Summer,” at the end of the day, has nothing to boast save for good art and some well-conceived T&A, if that’s your thing. Despite his evident talent as a visual storyteller, the story is infantile and almost certainly not worth your time.
A note on the production quality for the volume. I was surprised that while the cover and binding and paper are beautifully chosen and produced, the colours and blacks in the book are disappointingly printed. The colours of “Indian Summer” are inconsistent, varying from page to page. A character in the same scene under the same light source will have orange-hued skin on one page and on the next he will be yellow. In “The Paper Man” many of the pages feature blurred inks, washing out details from what otherwise might have been some nice art. It may be that Dark Horse faithfully duplicated the flawed originals and there may have even been some mention of that in one of the two introductions that remain unread. I just feel that sixty dollars is probably a bit much for inconsistent colours and blurry lines.
Until I got to this point, I had imagined that I would give the volume a two-star rating of OK, but after writing all this, I’m not sure I can justify such a high rating. I had thought the whimsical enjoyment of “The Paper Man” combined with Manara’s talent as an artist could give the book a bit of a lift, but in the end, the shallowness of story, repulsive depictions of characters, and textbook use of the male gaze for no reason other than to render women sexualized objects turned me off enough that I really can’t view the book as anything other than Bad. Sorry about that, Italian Legend.
*note: not really it wouldn’t.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
3 Stars = Good
2 Stars = Ok
1 Star = Bad
I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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