On the surface, Italian cartoonist Manuele Fior’s early-2000s graphic novel Red Ultramarine — just, and finally, released in a handsome, hardbound English translation by Fantagraphics — is a deceptively simple rumination on the dangers of ambition and obsession, creatively expressed by means of a dual-track narrative that juxtaposes a modern (I think, at any rate) Faust-derived cautionary tale revolving around a woman trying to save her architect love interest from his own OCD excess with a rather novel mash-up of the Greek myths of Daedalus/Icarus and Theseus/The Minotaur. Both stories are written in brisk and concise fashion, hitting just the right “beats” at just the right points to make the parallels between them obvious without belaboring matters, but Fior’s never been about “surface level” readings — and this is not only no exception, it’s the work that well and truly got the whole ball rolling in that regard.
You needn’t be “on the lookout” for the titular shade of red in this comic — on the contrary, it leaps right out at you — but you would do well to be mindful of its usage, its placement, its gradients. Scratchy black lines of various thicknesses outline all the characters in both tales, but it’s the reds that breathe life into them — where they turn up, where and how they migrate from panel to panel, what they accentuate and, more crucially, what they signify.
The reddish tones can mean heat, and they can mean cool. They can mean calculated control or its loss. They can mean intimidation or the refusal to buckle to it. Puzzling it all out is one the book’s great mysteries and, it must be said, great pleasures — provided you’re one of those readers who doesn’t mind coming into a work prepared to do some work yourself. Fior’s taken care of the heavy lifting, it’s true — and done it magnificently, evocatively, seemingly even intuitively — but where and how the object of his labor lands is going to vary quite a bit for each individual self-tasked with making head or tail of its considerably-more-subtle-than-first-glance-would-suggest marvels.
Often, the reds move “outside the lines” of the elegantly rough-hewn figures themselves, overlapping the “borders” of their own physicality and suggesting forces or feelings apart from, unable to be controlled by, the people in question. Pictures are worth a thousand words under normal circumstances, sure — but in this case, you may as well up that figure to 10,000 for, in a manner akin to the results achieved, if not the methods employed, by fellow master visual storyteller David Mazzuchelli, Fior hedges a good chunk of his work’s impact on an assumption that the reader is fairly fluent in the nuts-and-bolts “language” of sequential storytelling — and yet for those who aren’t, there’s nothing especially impenetrable on offer here, as long as you prepare yourself for a clinic that runs commensurate with the narrative and literally teaches you about the conventions of comics (and the value inherent in strategically breaking or ignoring them) as you turn the pages.
Yup, this is ambitious stuff, especially considering how early on in Fior’s ouevre it falls. But no one ever accused him of being a cartoonist who trades in half-measures or scales his vision down for the sake of making it more easily palatable to mass audiences. The revelations one arrives at when considering this book are earned — as is its author’s reputation.
Eventually, I’m pleased to report, our lovers are freed of the red that haunts, that oppresses, that defines them — while our father and son in Crete meet a distinctly different, yet no less resonant, fate — but you’ll find Red Ultramarine, both the color and the book, lingering in your mind long after you close the covers of Fior’s first true masterwork.
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