Friday, October 9, 2009

Friday's Forgotten Books: FATAL RENDEZVOUS by Milo Manara (Heavy Metal Books, US edition)

I first read Milo Manara's comics when, as a periodicals clerk at a Borders Book Shop, I was brushing up on my Italian by looking at Panorama, the newsmagazine of sorts (Panorama's sort of news included the early nude photography studies of Alyssa Milano, much to the dismay of my colleagues the receiving clerks, raised on Who's the Boss). The magazine also included a serialized comics supplement given the Italian title "The Invisible Man" (the characters in the comic smear a liquid on themselves to become invisble which, the eventual English translators decided, smells like Butterscotch, hence the title of the Anglophone edition). Manara toned down the unsavory aspects of his work for the highly-public forum, but it involved a woman improbably willing to reconcile with the Invisible Guy, after a combination of both of their foolishness led to her being all but assaulted, as well as seriously harassed, by various lowlifes.

He has an excellent design sense, and a clean line of rendering that has been highly influential (and he has worked with any number of impressive folk, including Frederico Fellini), but as one passes onto the majority of his work, the pass he's given for being "playful" and "merely naughty" starts being hard to take unless one has drunk the Polanski Kool-Aid. Fatal Rendezvous, the first book of Manara's I picked up after the Panorama booklets, is far more typical of the usual run of his work. It begins with a young political man and his attractive "trophy" wife leaving a dull party and engaging in some sexual play in his car on the way home. He's soon called to the carpet by a loan shark he's borrowed from, and the thug demands that the young woman deliver something her husband might need to the loan shark's house. The loan shark then decrees that until the young man's debt is paid, that his wife will be anally raped by one of the shark's goons on a daily basis. The rest of the comic is about this happening, and the woman recounting these experiences to the mentor of the young man, an older "senator" who hosts her on his yacht, to which she eventually flees to escape the goon after apparently at least several weeks of daily encounters. (After a certain period, the goon begins vaginally raping her, instead, at her prompting.)

It turns out, and this is a spoiler of sorts, that the goon and the shark were under the sway of the senior senator, who at one point tries "playfully" to pull the young woman's pants off as she's recounting the abuse she's survived...something she doesn't learn till the goon attempts to perform his daily attack on the yacht, only to be captured by his fellow employees and castrated. He survives this, and finds the young woman and tells her the story of how the senator set all this in motion presumably to soften her up for his own depredations. The goon, who has never spoken a word to her before this during his various attacks, then professes his love for her, and shoots himself in the head, leaving her to treat with this information as best she might.

So, this, like much of Manara's work, features an obsession with heterosexual anal sex, rape, and women who are (to say the least) much put upon by the men in their lives yet always seem to forgive them (and often are childish, selfish, and at least as likely to abuse each other and the men and children in their lives as the men are, yet somehow the men are more justified...somehow...or at least seem in Manara's compass to be less capricious). Much as with the inept philosophical and political commentary that his characters often spout, he likes to play it all ways at once. His rapists are usually Good Guys at Heart. Unlike, say, "Pauline Reage" or "Alison Tyler" (so few want their real names on such work), who give their characters at least some depth in their S&M erotica, Manara's are just goofy...which doesn't mean he doesn't mean his work to be taken seriously...goofiness, as the cable "news" channels demonstrate daily, is no sign that the goofy are kidding. And yet the party line on Manara is that he's a grand old man of kicky fun, rather than an idiot savant.

And, of course, perhaps Manara's celebrants have a bit of a point, given the perfervid visions of such colleagues as those who also do Italian and other European comics, including those highlighted occasionally at Curt Purcell's The Groovy Age of Horror (where Finnish contributor Jaako particularly presents some of his favorites among the most insane stories, which usually include a berserk anti-American bias along with the misogyny and sometimes as virulent misandry), or the kind of web comics inspired by the example of the Metal Hurlant/Heavy Metal artists and their more underground colleagues, such as those highlighted at Alicia Kinomoto's Alicia in Comix Land blog, where the idly curious can get more than their fill. (Things being what they are, there are even more insanely violent and hate-filled comics devoted to slaughter and torture that can be engine-searched without difficulty.)

Not a recommended (more or less out of print) book, mind you, but nonetheless, given some of the discussions on some of the adjacent blogs about materials that leave one cold or depressed about the state of humanity, it is easy to see these cousins to the shudder pulps and to exploitation films as further sadness, even as their creators seem to suggest that those who enjoy them most are sad creatures themselves. Happily, as far as I know, Manara has committed no crime, unlike certain artists much in the news of late...and his revenge comic under discussion here isn't too far in appeal and content from much better work, in his and other media--the film Martyrs comes to mind, as one that takes the violence done to its characters seriously and does so for a serious end, much as does Reage's Story of O or that other grim, controversial film Irreversible; conversely, something like "John Norman"'s Gor novels, while attempting to be serious (and inspiring their own subculture) manage only to be goofy, much as Anne Rice's work in the same vein does. I don't know what all that means, ultimately, but it's best not to wallow too's always tricky to sort the wheat from the merely chafed, as it were.


sonny said...

there's no post. just the book title, author and publisher. is this a mistake?

Todd Mason said...

All quickly-scrawled things come to those who wait till the blogger gets some time to put some of his thoughts down. I will return to actually good books in the future, but a complex of events that I've meant to at least touch upon, including the Polanski fracas and Richard Wheeler's postings on unsympathetic characters and their overuse, put me in mind of this topic.

K. A. Laity said...

I can forgive everything but the pun at the end.

Kidding aside, there is a difficult line between consensual BDSM scenarios (where the "bottom" is actually the person in charge, not the one wielding the whip) and oh, let's say, forced anal rape. It's hard to say how seriously to take Manara's images which -- like Crepax's stories has a lot to do with frustrated images of very strong misogyny tied up (forgive the phrase) with abject desire. Men who desire women and resent them for the power over them that desire creates (illusory and temporary as that power might be) can't really seem to see their own reaction as anything but a compliment. It might help to say "how would you feel in that situation?" but they would be unable to imagine themselves in such a situation.

As for your comment that it "starts being hard to take unless one has drunk the Polanski Kool-Aid" -- well, yeah.

Alicia Kinomoto said...

It's just fantasy. "Fatal Rendez-vous" is my favorite Manara's comix at the moment.
Of course I admire his whole art, but that story is particularily dense and exciting, without sense of humor, with permanent tension... and just is fantasy.
Thank you for mention my Comix Land blog.