Milo Manara is someone whose place in comics has become increasingly under attack, ever since he had the temerity to draw Spider-woman’s butt. Suddenly interviews of his were being google translated to an outraged internet, and people were demanding the removal of the offensive art from the cover of their hallowed Marvel superhero comics.
The defense for him wasn’t much better. It generally oriented around “hey, Milo gonna do, what Milo gonna do”—and he was positioned even by his ardent defenders as “merely” a pornographic comic artist(as if there is some kind of difference in whether a comic is good or bad on the basis of whether it is porn or not—this on the heels of what…several years of hipster indie comic zines that were all about making “cool” porn comics). Suddenly, even if you were saying that Manara was one of the greats, you had to slide in, “but he has problems”. And those problems are generally speaking the problem of his rapey porn comics.
And on the one hand, I like using art to draw attention to problematic aspects in our society. If you can break down a Manara comic and illustrate to someone the insidious nature of rape culture—then I think that’s great, and you should. But where it gets problematic for me is when we start moralizing porn. We start telling people what they should and should not be turned on by, as if that is any kind of way of actually addressing anything. The difference between porn comics and reality is that porn comics are just lines on a page, and reality is well, reality. Porn SHOULD explore taboo. The crazy fucked up things that turn us on should see their release somehow somewhere—it’s worthwhile for those spaces to exist.
And Manara, if we are to contextualize him at all, comes of age as a comic artist around the same time as great directors like Jess Franco and Walerian Borowczyk were kicking it in film—making these artsy euro-trash erotica films—of which Manara’s work fits quite easily within. I think Borowczyk is a decent enough comparison for Manara’s erotic work, because both are capable of images and sequences that are among the best their medium has to offer—but both are channeling that genius talent for the express purpose of trying to get off.
I recently read the first of Manara’s Click! stories in the Dark Horse library collection, and it’s really interesting beyond just the technical aspects of Manara’s craft, to examine the complete sexual anarchy that he’s trying to play across his pages. The first volume of Click! follows a woman, Claudia, who has a chip implanted in her against her will by her psychiatrist, Dr. Fez—that causes her to lose all inhibitions and basically try to fuck whatever is nearest to her in that moment. Of course you find out later that chip is a sham, and this is all an elaborate sexual game between Fez and Claudia to try and cure her of her self-hatred. But in the meantime, we see Claudia attack all levels of society—she starts by debasing herself in front of a young salesman at the mall, to the shock and horror of her polite society friend, she then causes an obviously aroused Priest to run in terror from her sexuality, before concluding a series of outrageous episodes by crashing a super rich girl’s sweet 16 party—and there’s a hilarious scene where she has crammed the girl’s diamond birthday present up her ass and all of these rich elite stooges are falling all over themselves to try and get it out. It is pretty good comedy, and it reminds you a little bit of something you might see Bunuel do in one of his films.
Dark Horse apparently didn’t have good digital copies of this book in color either, which is interesting, because Manara tends to be stunning in color—but seeing him this way, with just his line, on pages that are fairly bereft of spotted ink because of their intention for color is really quite something. Manara has that spacial quality here that also draws me to Moebius. His forms seem perfectly weighted and effortless. As with Moebius, Manara is a master of knowing what moment to pick out of a sequence to show. He always seems to capture his characters in these really electric poses—so his panels have the feel of animation, even when they are just singular cells. There’s a great scene where Claudia tries to seduce the one-eyed detective sent to protect her from Dr. Fez where Manara captures this just perfect full bodied gesture Claudia makes with her hands and hips. His characters aren’t just symbols on the page, they have real pathos in behind their lines. Even if it is “only” sex that is on Claudia and the men around her’s mind—Manara knows how to convey that from tiptoe to fingernail.
One of the things that is interesting with Manara is how rarely he will draw penetration in sex. He’s not really interested in sex per se, with these comics—so much as he is interested in the joy of sex, the emotion of sex—so he doesn’t focus on the bodily functions of sex, so much as he focuses on faces. It also keeps things farely tame for what Click! is. Some of what it at play too is that Manara’s audience is also people who are largely not looking to see a penis on the page, or much of a look at a vagina. I always sort of think of these things as half-measures that show the limitations of how far the artist is willing to go, even if the effect is that the story overall isn’t supposed to be inhibited. But I view it the same way as a slasher film that cuts away right at the moment where the blade would hit the skin. You compare this to Guido Crepax, another Italian, who though doesn’t draw as sexy as Manara, also doesn’t blink when it comes to depicting the bodily aspects of sex. I don’t think one approach is more valid than the other—but personally, I like to see when artists just go for it.
A good example of this as well, is the recent comic by Sean T. Collins and Julia Gförer’s Poe adaption, the Hideous Dropping off of the Veil(available here)— in that comic there’s this really great panel showing this crying dude’s dick going into this girl’s vagina—but the perspective is from her vantage point looking across her stomach to the penis that is going inside of her—I really loved that. In some ways that panel is like anti-Manara—and I think it kind of illustrates the space that Manara won’t go with his comics—and that doesn’t make them bad. But it does make them a particular sort of something.
I don’t know what Click! would have read like with those elements included. It probably would have seemed more crass and lewd—whereas rape and child molestation aside, it’s a pretty delirious sexual comedy. Which is a weird sentiment to express. The child molestation is kind of this weird awkward moment where you’re like “hmmm, did they just not know what that was back then?” because the joke is that this unruly boy acts out against his mother, until she jerks him off, then he goes right to sleep—which is played off as a super racey joke—except the punchline is more, well this is what young boys would want—that since it’s a young boy, getting a handjob from an attractive woman(his mother!) that it’s fucked up, but it’s what he really wants. Pretty much all editions of Click! including the Dark Horse one, remove the pages where this actually was drawn, and Manara himself called his decision to draw it “youthful folly”—apparently it wasn’t illegal at that time to draw those kinds of things in comics. Which kind of brings us back to my opening sentiment that porn should be free to go where it needs to—and that here were are confronted with the singular exception in the west. I don’t know how I feel about that in the end. I do think the inclusion of that scene would really darken what is a really light-hearted comic, so I don’t think tonally that would have helped—I mean keeping the mention of it is weird enough in the story. But it’s interesting that the bestiality in the book was kept in. It’s difficult to know what the thoughts back then were on whether boys could be molested by attractive women. Obviously now, it’s a major major thing that we’re all hopefully aware of. It’s also interesting because as I mentioned this is a mother and her son—it’s a pretty fucked up offstage moment in Click! and you can’t just act like that’s not there.
It’s interesting to think about Click! vol. 1 in it’s totality pivoting around these dark horrors of rape, and molestation while maintaining a really light vibe. It gives the work a weird underbelly, that I’m not entirely sure was Manara’s intention. It seems like what Manara was going for was just a no rules, bachanalia, thumbing of the nose at society’s fear of sex. But in the process we trip into some really dark shit that isn’t really dealt with in the book—nor are there strictures within the book to deal with them. If Click! stopped and paused to consider it’s fucked-uppedness—it would completely lose it’s comedic overtone, which is what makes the book memorable. So yeah I dunno. I’m glad those things are in there though. I think the complication is interesting.