Sharaz-De: Tales from the Arabian Nights
Created by: Sergio Toppi
Published by: Archaia
ISBN: 2908551330 (Amazon)
I’m an artist and the son of an artist. I don’t have a lot of work to show for the title—being mostly employed in web design, I only have a little bit of illustration work for online magazines still extant. But my father, he was a career artist in the real sense—in the sense that he produced physical objects of art. Ceramics and Chinese brush painting. The point is: we’re both all about the aesthetic value of human creations, no matter the medium. He likes my work and I like his and whenever one of us runs into something sublime, we Facebook each other and say: “Hey. Look at this. It is worth your time.”
So minutes after cracking open and flipping through my edition of Sergio Toppi’s Sharazde: Tales from the Arabian Nights, I had placed an order for a second copy—this one to ship to Europe where my father lives. I didn’t want him to see scans of Toppi’s work online. I didn’t want to message him photographs of these drawings (though I couldn’t resist an Instagram in his honour). No, he needed to behold this gorgeous collection of art in person and I would not wait for him and my mother to fly out to visit in the summer. I needed to share this now. Or as close to now as shipping to Europe could approximate.
And I wasn’t disappointed. His reaction very much mirrored my own. He was just as blown away and gob-smacked as I was. Being a genuine surfer hippie from the genuine surfer hippie days, the word “stoked” might have held some play as well. There was joy, there was adulation, and there was awe. In short, Toppi’s work received from my father (and from myself) exactly the reaction his work deserves.
Because, oh man.11I’m trying hard here not to open the book for reference because I’ll lose way too much time falling again into Toppi’s illustrations. It’s really an amazing world he’s created.
The only other comics reviewer I actively read remarked on the fittingness of having Walter Simonson introduce the book. Simonson’s best work is clearly influenced by Toppi—much of his Mighty Thor seems a marriage between Toppi’s visual topography and Kirby’s brute dynamism. But while Simonson is all about the excitement of the actions in which his characters revel, Toppi is quiet and reserved. His work (at least here represented) is reflective and considerate. His drawings are mysteries and evoke the sacred even more deeply than Craig Thompson’s attempts in Blankets.
I’ve been describing Sharaz-De in terms of its art and even think of it primarily as an art book—something to display for guests—rather than as a comic book or graphic novel. It has a story and it has writing, but those things really seem mostly in place to provoke Toppi to draw something interesting and amazing and earth-shatteringly beautiful. Honestly, I may never read the book’s story ever again. And that’s fine and I don’t mind. I certainly don’t feel slighted. This is an amazing book and worth every penny I spent on it.
Part of my ambivalence toward the book’s narrative aspect may be that it’s an adaptation of a kind of literature I generally avoid: the fable. Toppi is adapting some of the stories of Scheherazade, the ken of which have long filtered into our societal consciousness. Even if one is unfamiliar with the tales of the Arabian nights, the structure and morals are ubiquitous. Characters who are dishonest, ungrateful, and oath-breakers meet untimely and often terrible ends. If you make a promise to a strange being who gives you wonderful fortune with a single stipulation, whatever you do, don’t blow it where that stipulation is concerned. These fables are common across cultures—so if you’ve read European or Asian fables, you know the drill as well. Just desserts figure prominently.
Toppi doesn’t do any astounding narrative acrobatics with these fables. They are told in rather straightforward tone. They are there and they are faithful and not much more. But as I said, who cares when they were the genesis for such wild visual imaginations. I’ve included some scans with this review (as is my wont), but please don’t imagine these do anything near to approximating what you’ll see in Sharaz-De. It’d be like a guy carrying a faxed photo of his girlfriend in his wallet. These scans are merely sad facsimiles of the crisp printing that inhabits the paperscape of Archaia’s lush, large book.
I’ve read that Archaia is using Sharaz-De as a test case to prove whether or not there’s an American market for more of Toppi’s work. I hope, almost desperately, they’ll sell well enough to merit future editions. I can guarantee that if I still have a discretionary income, then I will own each and every one of these.
Because, oh man.
A Note on the Political
As with any transmission of an ancient Arab work by a European’s pen, there will be questions with regard to the looming spectres of Orientalism and appropriation. The concerns are valid so far as they go, and Toppi does lean somewhat on Orientalist trappings, but not nearly so much as we might expect from a work that came out of the 1970s. More, the mystery and foreign grandeur of his work in Sharaz-De seems to mirror his own penchant for making every story mysterious and foreign. Even a cursory survey of his work shows that Sharaz-De is not unique in its wild landscapes, wandering attires, and exotic figures—these are common traits across his oeuvre. While not perfect in its portrayal of these people and their culture—more because of wild reinvention than misrepresentation—I felt that Toppi acquits himself pretty well on Sharaz-De.
This reinvention does bring up the question of appropriation and the right of appropriation. And here’s where I say that I’m torn on the whole appropriation issue. And here’s where I begin a big ol’ excursis. Good thing the review’s over and this is just an end note, huh?
While I’m never happy for people to feel they’ve been wronged and I like to sympathize and do what I can to show them my compassion, I believe reappropriation is not only intimate to the human experience but actually Good. Reappropriation is one of the ways that members of humanity and human communities naturally interact. I visit your house and I see something I really like in the way you decorate the walls in your living room and I go home and incorporate some of those ideas into my own visual landscape. This is how cultural expression naturally works, regardless of power balance. I’ll incorporate your good ideas into my creative expression whether you’re my boss or I’m yours.
I don’t have any problem with this on the face of it. Sharing culture is good and builds community. I think, though, that with the rise of concepts of intellectual property, people and cultures have more and more grasped onto the idea that they own “their” practices and visual markers. Because I don’t actually believe in intellectual property,22It’s complicated and I’m still working out for myself what that even means. it’s a hard sell for me. I also think it’s hubris and naivete to believe that what you or your culture has produced is all yours—as if it wasn’t created through the appropriation of other cultures’ intellectual/visual products.
Rather, I see three responsible ways for Good People to deal with reappropriation.
1) Be compassionately invested in world community. The big problem (as I see it) with exocultural appropriation is when it’s done by nationalists, people wholly invested in their own community with no interest in the community of others. This is even worse when the appropriating community is oppressing the appropriated culture. The problem then isn’t primarily the appropriation but oppression. Evidence: I’ve yet to find an Asian who was angry at Avatar the Last Airbender's use of distinctly Asian cultural cues, 33Which doesn’t mean there aren’t any, but I think the general thought is that ATLA gets appropriation right. even though the show was forged by a couple of white American males. Why? Because the show and the creators were as respectful as anything.
2) Recognize cheesiness when you see it—and then avoid. Hot Topic is (or was… do they still exist?) the modern American youth’s highly commercialized reappropriation of punk cultural cues. They’ve branded and marketed particular aesthetics that punk culture once used (and may still use, I don’t know) to distinguish itself. Hot Topic is so very not punk. And it’s obvious to anyone who’d care to notice.
3) When you encounter an individual who is upset by your appropriation of some of their cultural cues, dialogue with them. Discover what you can do to mollify their concerns. Explain that you realize that what you’ve appropriated doesn’t mean the same thing to you as it does to them and explain (not excuse) why you’ve done the thing you’ve done. Listen to their complaints and reasons why they’re uncomfortable. Learn from each other. Foster community.
That’s my off-the-top-of-my-head response. And goes some way toward describing why I don’t think we should be bothered by Sergio Toppi’s version of the Scheherazade.
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:
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