Eurocomics Spotlight : “Red Ultramarine”

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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Eurocomics Spotlight : Manuele Fior’s “Blackbird Days”

Italian cartoonist Manuele Fior now calls Paris home, but his publishing home is clearly Fantagraphics, who released his breakthrough graphic novels 5,000 KM Per Second and its equally stunning follow-up, The Interview, in 2016 and 2017, respectively, and are now making it three books in three years with their collection of a decade’s worth of his best short strips, Blackbird Days, which is at the very least a showcase for Fior’s incredible artistic and authorial versatility, but at its best is something altogether more.

Case in point : the volume’s longest (and titular) piece bears no direct narrative connection to The Interview, but is clearly set in the same just-slightly-askew world and uses the story of its troubled protagonist — an engineer on the precipice of getting busted for a “white-collar” crime — to set the stage for an intriguingly oblique mini-mystery, but also to lend weight, breadth, and depth to Fior’s earlier graphic novel. Illustrated in a fluid style that is eminently functional at its core but makes plenty of allowances for expressionism, it’s a fast read that nevertheless conveys a tremendous amount of visual information with a minimal amount of fuss and muss. Once you’ve read it you’ll want to read it again — and it’s on second pass-through that the full scope of everything Fior’s achieved so apparently-effortlessly (as if!) really shines through.

Other strips, on the other hand, grab you right away — “Grandma And Grandson” juxtaposes the story of one woman’s harrowing exodus from war-torn Laos in the 1960s with her adult grandchild’s ruminations on his dual cultural identities, delineated by Fior in lush grayscale tones and washes (or a digital approximation thereof?); “Class Trip” utilizes a Krigstein-esque series of inventive page layouts to tell the tale of a teacher in the midst of a vaguely-outlined personal crisis who overhears what her students really think of her, prompting a surprising and possibly life-changing decision; “The Story Of Gabriel C.” is a poignant look at a French solider in World War I and his (very) great loss made all the more direct and painful by means of Fior’s expert use of watercolor; a man’s frenetic search for his missing child is imbued with a palpable sense of panic and desperation through the contrast of less-defined people against intricately-detailed buildings and locales in “Help! Hilfe!”

The mood of many of these stories is decidedly somber, at times even wistful, but in no way morose — Fior excels at expressing the mature viewpoint of a sympathetic, but perhaps world-weary, observer, even his first-person narratives having a kind of resigned-to-reality tone to them that certainly doesn’t communicate anything so dull and cliched as “everything’s going to be alright,” but does seem to have achieved a kind of tentative peace with the idea that “everything’s going to be what it is.” Until we get to the end, that is —

“Gare De L’Est” comes out of nowhere and is absolutely nuts in the best possible way : a father and son get an up-close-and-personal look at two Gigantor-style battling robots as they sock the living shit out of each other (not that they’ve living, mind you, and therefore presumably have no need to shit — but I digress) over the space of ten near-wordless pages. Dynamic, exciting, straightforward, utterly devoid of irony or pretense, there’s something very nearly sweet or even innocent about this sci-fi absurdist punch-up that stands in such stark contrast to all that has come before that it makes for the perfect outro to the collection as well as a borderline-joyously batshit romp in its own right. If the previous stories in the book left you wondering “Jesus, is there anything this guy can’t do?,” then it is “Gare De L’est” that answers, emphatically, “No, there isn’t.”

My one quibble with Blackbird Days is economic : certainly the book’s generous physical dimensions, thick paper, and quality hardback covers lend it an appropriate “Eurocomics Album” look, but at the end of the day, when we subtract all the title pages and their blank “B-sides,” what we’ve got here is 62 pages of art and story — for $22.99. Is it worth it? I think so, as you’ll return to it again and again — but there would be no doubt whatsoever about its value for money if it were published as a “one-shot” in standard comic book format (you could even do cardstock covers) for, say, eight or nine bucks. I still recommend that you buy this collection, absolutely, but if it were released in a more scaled-down and consumer-friendly format, I’d recommend you buy a couple extra copies to give to your friends.