Projects that have complex and circuitous gestation processes and then emerge fully-formed into the world as something entirely other than that which they were originally intended to be are, as you’d expect, a hit-or-miss proposition, but when they hit sometimes they really hit : David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, for instance, famously began on paper as a TV pitch centered around Sherilyn Fenn’s Audrey Horne character from Twin Peaks ditching the Pacific Northwest for the bright lights of Hollywood, while Jack Kirby’s amazingly prescient OMAC evolved from a scuttled re-boot of Captain America that was to be set in the far future. The lesson here being, I suppose, to never let a “course correction” — or even several of them — get you down. If your central conceit is strong enough, it’ll be able to survive many twists and turns before taking its final shape.
Now, we can add to that list of serendipitous reworkings-on-the-fly Italian cartoonist David Genchi’s Castrovalva, a visually and conceptually dense comic presented in an eight-page newspaper broadsheet format by Hollow Press that was initially supposed to be a game that Genchi and his brother William were going to roll out at the 2020 Lucca Comics festival. Then, of course, along came COVID.
The cancellation of more or less every comics festival, convention, and expo last year meant that this particular project was probably going to gather dust for some time, but editor Michele Nirti knew they had something special on their hands and that some sort of re-imagining of it would likely find an appreciative audience, and so here we are. My understanding is that the game itself is still very much a going concern and will more than likely see the light of day at some point, but until then Genchi has thrown the rules he was devising for this game that so far hasn’t materialized out the window and given us, instead, a heady meditation on the creative process itself that forms a kind of closed loop or ouroboros, an infinite recursion that starts and stops but can’t truthfully be said to have anything resembling a beginning, middle, or end.
In that respect, this comic has much in common with the old-school Doctor Who serial with which it shares a name, and there are enough knowing winks and nods to said show interspersed throughout to make me think this is no far-flung coincidence. Having two or more creative works named, say, Blade or Revenge is one thing, but when you’re talking about a title as utterly obscure and entirely invented as Castrovalva? That’s a deliberate hat-tip if ever I’ve seen one — and, as it turns out, it’s also an entirely appropriate one, as that particular Doctor Who adventure (the first featuring Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor) took the same idea of an endlessly recurring closed system, threw some charmingly low-rent M.C. Escher aesthetics, and set it all comfortably within a fairly traditional sci-fi framework. Genchi’s work is no less fantastic (in the strictest sense of the term) than its televised forebear, but the key distinction is that it is more nominally based in reality.
I say “nominally” because of the simple fact that anything that explores the nature of creativity is necessarily going to be about imagination itself, and to the extent that there even is any line between fantasy and reality in these pages, it’s fair to say it’s a blurry one — like Alan Moore, J.H, Williams III, and Mick Gray’s Promethea, the ways in which our individual and collective “actual” and “imagined” worlds inform and reflect off each other are at the heart of what Genchi is grappling with here, and while it’s accurate enough after a fashion to broadly categorize this as an “autobiographical” comic, it’s a pretty damn unique one in that much of what Genchi’s authorial stand-in experiences isn’t set in the real world physically — it’s set in the every-bit-as-real world of his subconscious.
Okay, sure, this entire thing no doubt sounds confusing by now, but there’s an internal logic to both the non-linear flow of Genchi’s narrative and to his outrageously imaginative page layouts that holds together — it would be wrong to call it coherent, I’ll grant you that, but it would be equally wrong to call it confounding. Like its richly-detailed, heavily-saturated art, the comics itself only appears impenetrable, while in reality (whatever that even means) it simply eschews logic in service of truths that run far deeper. You may love it as I did, or you may hate it, but one thing’s for certain : there’s no way you won’t be impressed by it.
Castrovalva is available in both English and Italian versions and sells for the entirely reasonable price of four Euros or its USD equivalent. You can find it at the Hollow Press webstore by following this link : https://hollow-press.net/products/castrovalva
Review wrist check – Formex “Essence” brown dial chronometer model riding a blue Formex leather strap.