Fires in Mattotti

Lorenzo Mattotti nurtured the passionate relationship between the graphic novel and the art of painting.

Insensity is the very word to enter into Fires. So, let us do so, let us burn ourselves.
The first word, or rather, the first image that comes to mind when I think about Lorenzo Mattotti is color. Yet when he first emerged out of non-existence for me--for we are all gods in our own solipsistic cages - there wasn't any color at all. In 1986, while I was leafing through the French journal Les Cahiers de la Bande Dessinée, three black-and-white reproductions caught my eye. They were evidently from the graphic novel Fires, but at first glance they looked like oil paintings rather than the usual sort of pictures one sees in comics. From the one used for the cover of Fires, I realized that they had in fact been done in pastel. It exuded a silent but powerful energy, the composition was perfect, and I felt compelled to pursue Fires and Mattotti.

Mattotti was mentioned twice in the second edition of Histoire Mondiale de la Bande Dessinée (Pierre Horay, 1989), but only by his surname, which was in any event misspelt as Mattoti or Mottoti. In Henry Filippini's comprehensive Dictionnaire de la Bande Dessinée (1989) he was mentioned only in passing, and his date of birth was incorrect.

Let us pause for a moment, you and I, to examine the treatment Mattotti received in these two encyclopedic works. The authors' perfunctory dismissal of his work was all the more surprising when we realize that by 1989 he had published six graphic novels in France and a book of fashion illustrations. Yet there are even bigger paradoxes in store. Horn's six-volume The World Encyclopedia of Comics (1983), for example, which was a reprint of the two-volume edition published in 1976, makes no mention whatsoever of Mattotti's distinguished teacher José Muñoz. Nevertheless, a number of specialized journals in the countries where Mattotti has been published--France, Italy, England, the Netherlands, the United States and Germany--have devoted more attention to his work.

Lorenzo Mattotti was born in Brescia, northern Italy, in 1954. He studied architecture (like Altan, Crepax, Micheluzzi and various other comic authors), and feels it has taught him a certain intellectual discipline. He started producing graphic novels in the late 1970s, discovering the secrets of the medium not only through his own creative activity, but also through inspiring discussions with friends who were obsessed by the same questions.

Mattotti has always acknowledged his debt to those who once inspired him and whose influence he subsequently abandoned in order to forge ahead. His first important models were José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo, whom he met in 1974. He sought to achieve the standards of Muñoz's graphic art and the poetics he found in both Muñoz and Sampayo. Their expressionism, however, tends to decline into topicality and involvement, resulting in “a fall into the social,” whereas Mattotti is more interested in Expressionism as a stirring of the soul, and in exploring the consequences of inner relationships and psychological content rather than social causality. Even for himself he appeared through the absence of color. Yet he had little to offer in black and white, and his real initiation was marked by his discovery of the world of color.

Lieutenant Absinthe's thoughts, cast overboard and submerged with an anchor.
A second important source of inspiration, Renato Caligaro--not to be confused with Renzo Calegari, one of the draughtsmen of Storie del West, Ken Parker and Welcome to Springville--was an Italian painter who turned his hand to comics and the theory of comics. Caligaro taught Mattotti that the comic can have its own poetics, that it can go further and deeper. Mattotti was influenced more by the ideas of this uncompromising author than by his work as such. Caligaro's views on Herriman's Krazy Kat, on the modalities of atmosphere, his portrayal of characters and the way their moods influence landscapes and compositions, had a marked impact on Mattotti's later work.

In 1983, Mattotti became one of the founders of the Valvoline group, together with Giorgio Carpinteri, Jerry Kramsky (the nom de plume of Mattotti's old friend Fabrizio Ostani), Igor Tuveri, Marcello Jori and Daniel Brolli. Valvoline pursued a number of ambitious, non-canonical ideals: a story should be a discovery rather than a serial or even continual work. The poetics which characterize off-projects in the field of comics. By the second half of the 1980s, however, the members of Valvoline were working as individuals, rather than as a group.

After completing a few early works in the mid-1970s, Mattotti published a number of black-and-white comics, including Alice Brum Brum (1977), with text by Jerry Kramsky, and Huckleberry Finn (1978), an adaptation of Mark Twain's novel by Antonio Tettamanti, with whom Mattotti had produced Tram Tram Rock in 1979. Tram Tram Rock was published in Spain in 1981, while a shorter work appeared in the Greek magazine Vavel. For the next five years (1983-1987), he collaborated with Jerry Kramsky on a children's comic, Barbaverde, for Il corriere dei piccoli.

The year 1982 marked a turning point in Mattotti's career. He produced his first graphic novel in color, Il signor Spartaco, based on his own scenario, and published it in Alter Alter. The colors, he said, were mainly inspired by the German expressionistic film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Il signor Spartaco brought him into cultural circles in France, which has always been the most important European publishing center for the graphic novel. (The album was published by Les Humanoïdes Associés in 1983.) Mattotti's work and career focused increasingly on France. Incidents, his second French album, was published by a small company, Artefact, in 1984, while his masterpiece Fires appeared in an Italian magazine in the same year (Alter Alter).

If Mattotti's conversion to color represented a turning point in 1982, his publication of Fires marked a second watershed in his career in 1984, introducing his work to a wider audience. After its première in an Italian magazine, Fires was published in France (Albin Michel, 1986), the United States (New York, Catalan Communications, a branch of the Spanish publishing house Titan, 1988), and in London (Titan Books, 1988). In 1991 Fires was published by Penguin Books and by Sherpa en Het Raadsel in the Netherlands. Mattotti did not publish a graphic novel in 1987, although he did produce a book of fashion illustrations entitled For Vanity (Albin Michel). The work was published by Vanity, the Italian branch of the Vogue group, to which Mattotti is a frequent contributor. Since then, his illustrations have been published in magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Vogue, The New Yorker, Le Monde and Vanity Fair. In 1988 he again worked on Jerry Kramsky's text to produce Labyrinths, which was followed by Murmur (1989). In 1989, his Doctor Nefasto, written by Jerry Kramsky, was published in France, although it had already been published in Alter Alter in Italy in 1983. A graphic novel, The Man at the Window, appeared in France in 1992 under the title L'homme à la fenêtre and in the Netherlands as De man in het raam (Sherpa/Oog & Blik). In 1994 his Murmur was published in US (Fantagraphics Books).

After Fires Mattotti earned a reputation of being a master of color. The black and white comic The Man at the Window (1992) was kind of surprise. However, there is no some definite direction of his stylistic choice - he constantly tries to use a different style. Caboto (1992), was done in color, inspired by 16th century mannerism, as a commission from the Spanish government for the 500th birthday of Christopher Columbus' discovery of America. Stigmates (1998) was created in black and white again. Mattotti won an Eisner Award in 2003 for his Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde graphic novel. In 2011 Mattotti illustrated The Raven by Lou Reed, published by Fantagraphics. Mattotti's more recent works are well known to Dutch readers mostly thanks to the publishers Sherpa/Oog & Blik (Fluister, Caboto, Labyrinten) and Big Balloon (picture books).

Was it necessary to mention all these publishers? It indeed seems to be, because this comicography in the "diaspora" illustrates the position of comic authors in the 1980s. As an Italian, Mattotti did not have to start out from the publishing centers, but he was disadvantaged in a different way: his style did not correspond to the mainstream of Italian comics and it was only once he had gained entry to Europe's comic publishing center that he was in a position to embark on a worldwide career. At that time, His radical stylization was better suited to the Belgian publisher Castermann or the French Albin Michel, and he was therefore unable to secure a place on the international market before gaining a foothold in the main European publishing center in this field. The world today is a global village, especially as far as the comic medium is concerned. But, as is often the case in a village, the postman sometimes arrives a little late. This is why publishers such as Titan Books in London, Catalan Communications in New York, Carlsen Comics in Hamburg and Sherpa in Amsterdam plaid such an important role. Catalan introduced European comics to the American market, Titan introduced French, Belgian and American comics to England, while Carlsen focused on the German market, nurturing a future generation of authors on French and American fare. Though at first glance they may seem parasitic, all these publishers were helping to bridge the gulf between "pure European" and "pure American" to become important disseminators of a global culture. A completely different question, however, is how, and with how much intensity a given culture will respond to an author's work--in this case, Mattotti's.

Intensity, in fact, is the very word to enter into Fires. So let us do so; let us burn ourselves. Yet the first few pages, we discover, are totally devoid of heat. On the contrary, they are filled with the cold steel of the battleship; the sea is less translucent and the contours of the green island landscape fade from view as the sun goes down. We suddenly find ourselves drawn into the realm of the elements, impelled by the interaction of the motifs before us. Lieutenant Absinthe's thoughts, cast overboard and submerged with an anchor; the lieutenant's back, sunk into the blueness of the sea. That this is more than simply a coloristic background device becomes clear when we see the faraway expression on the man's face. Up to this point we follow, indeed we are, his inner world. The next page shows us what an army is, or at least reveals its utopian projection. The faces and bodies of soldiers disappear in the color of metal; the rhetoric and gestures of a commanding officer suggest identification with this projection, while the empty spaces between the cannon, the cracks in the army machinery, illustrate the incongruity of individual existence in an environment of this nature. In the following page, burning tongues of fire herald the advent of night and nightmare. The island starts to speak. To speak with tongues of flame. To speak the fire which does not consume itself. By day it would be a flame of green, illuminated by the sun. Yet there is a difference between these flames, the fires of day and the fires of night. But I shall return to this point further on.

How would one summarize the story of Fires? The battleship Anselm II arrives at the island of Saint Agatha, a dot of land in the southern hemisphere. A mysterious force has spared the island from the march of modern civilization. Several merchant vessels have been wrecked on its shores, destroyed on arrival. Lieutenant Absinthe, a member of the crew of the Anselm II, is somehow in touch with Saint Agatha: he falls in love with the island. The man who came as an invader emerges as its protector and ally. His friends think him insane. Absinthe destroys his ship in order to save the island. The last page shows his diary, which was later found in a suburban apartment full of totems and ritual objects.

The careful reader should easily spot the passionate relationship between this graphic novel and the art of painting. Indeed, Mattotti himself has often referred to painters such as Pierre Bonnard and Félix Vallotton (both of whom were post-Impressionists and Nabis), or the "realist" Edward Hopper, who captured a De Chirico-like loneliness in small-town America. Critics have also mentioned Monet, the Fauves, Kandinsky and other artists. Their influence on Mattotti's work is indisputable, and indeed many other names could be added to the list. The problem, however, is to explain how all these painters can be found in a single graphic novel and why they are there in the first place--assuming, of course, that it is more than just a flirtation. Here the author faces two problems: to justify approaching a painting as a work of art in its own right, and to bear that burden, respecting the specific requirements and idiom of his own medium. Mattotti emerges as an author who not only takes risks, but who also adopts a methodical approach to those risks.

Lorenzo Mattotti is a highly individualistic eclectic. Fires is a collection of anomalous painting poetics presented methodically as a unique creation. He makes me believe him. The device he uses, which would be extremely difficult if not impossible for a painter, works in the graphic novel. Fires is an eclectic stroll through the history of modern painting, from Impressionism, post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Expressionism to Cubism and the invisible but final borders of Abstraction. He relies less on direct quotation, but rather, initiates a more spontaneous game of association. And though the statements he makes may be implicit, they nevertheless have a systematic basis. It is an adventure of color and light, weaving through the history of modern art.

The story of love and obsession with love, the drama of the lieutenant's fascination with the fire of the island, unfolds in bursts of color and a play of light. Torn between duty, represented by the ship to which he belongs, and his yearning for the island, Absinthe chooses the island. He opts for the sensual, the intuitive, the emotional. And that is precisely the emotional methodology of an Impressionist. He abandons the vessel to vanish into the landscape, while the role of Anselm II is to prevent this. The struggle between the island and the ship is the struggle between the forest and a forest of rust and steel, the struggle of green against lead-grey and cinnamon-rust. The color in Fires becomes a reality in itself, a vital and dynamic creature, the element that fights for--and decides about--human destiny. Cézanne would say that the colors themselves arrange everything, that in the colors is the being who thinks them.

From the morning when the first sunbeams touch the boat that brings Absinthe to the island, to the shores that welcome him in their fresh greenness, Mattotti' treatment becomes impressionistic. He had already used the expressionism of night as the power exerted by the island to attract mariners. The world becomes mysterious and fantastic, the visible hiding the world of mystery and the grotesque. The island defends itself, using fire to conquer. We have already mentioned the two fires--the impressionistic flames of day and the expressionistic flames of night--which burn incessantly on the island. But there is also a third force, the twins, the island's most active defenders. They are its envoys and its children. They change shape (like the background in Herriman's Krazy Kat). When they appear as two plump little figures they are moonlight, a moon cold flame, Nabokov's pale fire. Neither impressionistic nor expressionistic, they belong to the realm of Symbolism. Twin children, from Wilhelm Bush's Max and Moritz to the well-known Katzenjammer Kids, are relatively commonplace in the comic tradition. Mattotti's twins, however, are unrelated to any existing models, unless we see them as Katzenjammer Kids in a metaphysical guise. The same motif can be found in Mattotti's Murmur, but there they are closer to other comic models.

The self-consciousness and methodology of Mattotti's device--we have to remember that his goal is the creation of a comic, not just an excursion into painting, which would put him in the margins of comic idiom--are reflected in his well-defined approach to paradigms from media other than the comic. He says: "I wanted to communicate my fascination for light, for nature. When you see a film by Tarkovsky or Herzog - the green, the leaves, the clouds, you can't believe it. How can you explain these things in a comic? Is it possible? That was the challenge." At the same time, he is aware that it is impossible to learn from the great masters directly, or to quote them directly, whether or not they employ the same medium. For this reason, he does not follow their results blindly, but seeks out the deeper, inner sources of inspiration. Consequently, he does not use Tarkovsky's Orthodox mysticism or Herzog's German mysticism. His connections with Tarkovsky or Herzog are apparent from the device itself, not from copying or quoting particular motifs. And in that oneiric device, we recognize a possible origin. The realistic motivation is replaced by an inner motivation of "images," images which should be understood here as stylistic figures. And yet, if we are intent on finding quotations, whether conscious or not, there is one from Stalker in the 24th plate of Fires, where we see Absinthe in the lighthouse, sitting in a rain of rose petals. Of course one might also think of the influence of the last sequence of Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) on the scene of rain in the room in Stalker (1979).

The influence of German Expressionistic cinema, Fritz Lang's films in particular and Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, which Mattotti himself refers to, show that his expressionistic device is not based exclusively on painting. Eisenstein refers us to the Soviet revolutionary poster which, like Eisenstein himself, is present in the iconography and choreography of Fires.

Mattotti is one of Muñoz's great followers. Yet the qualities which a teacher may possess are wasted if the pupil does not have a talent to match. Muñoz's real students are therefore neither Louis Josse, who adopted his style, nor Renato Queirolo, who developed a more independent manner, nor Keith Griffin, who simply copied complete scenes and panels from Muñoz and who is therefore not even worth mentioning. The true student, by contrast, is Mattotti, who abandoned Muñoz's world of black and white to discover his own world of color. The true student has to leave his master. And both teacher and pupil, despite the love and trust between them, should know this.

Pratt and Milazzo employ watercolor to enhance the expressiveness of comic, while Mattoti uses pastel. But Fires is not pure painting: it draws on the language of the comic medium. The idea that the idiom of comic and film is the complete opposite of literariness (the old, hackneyed debate on the purism of media) reduces the problem, without grounds, until it is no more than a rejection of the slowing down of narrative time. Yet it is not pace as such that is called into question, but the specific articulation of narrative rhythm. Although Fires is mainly in slow motion, Mattotti will unfailingly alter the tempo to suit the demands of the narrative rhythm. The heaviness and sluggish pace he opts for do not affect the rhythm. Some parts of the story are expressive and quick as lightning, reflecting an impeccable feeling for motion and dynamic montage. Indeed, the powerful, compelling narrative rhythm is one of the hallmarks of his work in this medium, the quality that distinguishes his work from seemingly similar, but in fact totally different attempts to use "painting" in comics.

The color of fire is the color of blood, the dominating red which forms a link between Mattotti's Fires and Alan Parker's film Angel Heart. Van Gogh felt that red and green had the capacity to express the most intense of all human passions. Both Angel Heart and Fires build up an increasing tension, an inexorable rhythm which hollow drums beat through the blood stream of the story itself. The game of detection (Harry Angel) and investigation (lieutenant Absinthe) evolves into a more meaningful quest for personal identity. Both stories develop through contrasts: Parker's bitterly cold New York on the one hand, and his steamy New Orleans on the other; Mattotti's fresh, green island and the rust and steel of the battleship. Both characters, Angel and Absinthe, are at the center of a mosaic of events which fall into place as the borders between real life and nightmare grow increasingly vague. Fires might have a kind of "voodoo" mysticism. But are there really elements of voodoo in Fires? To some extent, the answer is undeniably, yes. We witness "secret rites," where effigies are stuck with pins, and a symbolic dog is cast into flames, auguring the death of the real dog, the ship's mascot in the story. Future events are also predicted on a rock daubed with paint and blood, where the twins magically invoke the destruction of the battleship, like the merchant vessels earlier. But unlike the authentic Louisiana voodoo in Angel Heart, the "voodoo" in Fires is postmodern: it deconcretizes and transcends the normal meaning of the word itself. Blood and voodoo symbolize the primeval mud of magic, the realm of mystery which we enter in the footsteps of Angel or Absinthe.

Fires marks a mystical point in the archives of the comic medium. At the same time, there are mystical moments in the book itself, which elevate the story to the level of a meditation on visual expression as an act of magic. One such moment is the scene where Absinthe is sent on a reconnaissance of the island and we read the text: "I am not sending you words but signs." It is unclear whether it is the island speaking to Absinthe, or whether the words are an echo from the diary he kept, which is later found near his paintings. Or, indeed, it may be Mattotti himself, addressing us through the metalanguage of the comic medium. A similar idea is expressed in plate 25: "Look at me. Study my gestures so that I can know that you understand me." Although Mattotti's language has a literary quality, it is above all an idiom of integral comic gesture. Words seem to disappear in the flow of gesture, yet they are no less important. It is precisely the appropriateness of their position within the context that makes them seem hidden. Both text and motion--the latter often glorified in comics--are important modes of expression. Expression is not conveyed in words alone, or merely through the passion which glows in a person's face, or in some sudden, unexpected gesture. It is communicated through the total arrangement of a picture: the figures themselves, the spaces around them, the proportions, all of which have a specific role. (A whispered aside to readers who haven't noticed that the last two sentences are a paraphrase of a passage from Henri Matisse's Notes of a Painter from 1908).

Earlier, we mentioned two other mystical moments in the story. The first was the picture on a rock which gushes real blood. In this scene, the distinction between symbolic and real, between signifier and signified, has disappeared. Mattotti uses his voodoo to mystify the reader. But the most vertiginous moment in the story is the split second in which the reader is confronted with a certain meta-comic dimension. In plate 46 we encounter Mattotti's paintbrush which flashes before our eyes, only to disappear again. For the following scene negates what we have just seen. The brush no longer belongs to Mattotti but to one of the twins, who teaches us that a painting which annihilates something already painted implies the destruction of a world--the world which exists in the reality of the painting.

In order to understand Fires, we need to know who delivers the dialogue, or in other words, who is doing the talking. All the statements in balloons are unambiguous in this respect, whereas those in rectangular boxes can be attributed to a variety speakers. In some cases, it is unclear whether the voice belongs to an impersonal narrator, lieutenant Absinthe, the soldiers, the twins or the island itself. This is not a question posed by critics in retrospect, but a problem the reader is faced with while reading the book. Absinthe is no longer able to distinguish between inner voices and external speech, and Mattotti places the reader in the same position. It is a typically Barthian paradox: in order to understand madness one has to suffer it. It is this blurring of voices that removes the distinction between dream and reality, creating an oneiric density. This uncertainty about the identity of the speaker became a feature of comics in the mid-1980s. In this respect, Fires is not an isolated case. Around the same time, Frank Miller developed his own poetics on the multiplication and interlinking of off-scene voices.

Mattotti also employs synaesthetic effects to achieve oneiric density of narration. To some extent, he transforms a device frequently found in the work of Nabokov, who uses similar effects to enhance the power of words. Mattotti, however, uses words to increase the power of an integral visual-narrative gesture. Different sensations produce one another: colors are not only visible but also tangible; the smell of sea moss can attack the structure of a battleship; Absinthe listens to the smell of memories; the colors of twilight can be touched, and Absinthe inhales them, together with the reader. The light itself, however, one should breathe with one's eyes closed. Absinthe! Beware of the colors. They can burn you, they can consume you!

The reader's heightened awareness of color, the complexity of the narrator's voices and the blending, the fusion and confusion of perception and sensation blur the boundaries between the inner being of the protagonists and the plot, between the experience and the event itself. The annihilation of the objective and the subjective as separate entities immerses our reading into an irrational magma of story. Fires, however, is by no means a story without a foundation. The annihilation of the distinction between inner and outward realities and the devices Mattotti consistently employs create a fascinating whirlwind of a plot. Fires, as Thierry Groensteen points out, is hypnotic. When I first read the book I had a high fever, which I thought increased the intensity of Fires. Yet reading and re-reading the work, from a greater distance, Fires keeps burning with its own flames.

Let us take leave from Fires with just one question to the former lieutenant Absinthe. Why did you choose the island? Why did you choose to become its Nemesis, its avenging angel? And let us try to piece together some of the answers he might give.

"Maybe it was out of love for the colors I hadn't seen for so long [...] I have shivers up my spine. The air and the green all together in this light overwhelm me with joy." There, on the island, "the only thing I felt was a great peace". I did it because of "the colors which sharpen my sight."

Fires is about the adventure of color and light, from the Impressionism of bright day to the Expressionism of night, signed in blood, the night of our soul, the night of our times. Fires is about the play of light and dark. Mattotti paints in chiaroscuro. The echo of his teacher Muñoz can be heard even in color. Pierre Bonnard taught Mattotti to contemplate the mysterious and unknown qualities of everyday objects in the harsh light of day. And in return, Mattotti took him on an imaginary journey which Bonnard never, either in his life or his painting, dared to undertake. H.H. Arnason describes Bonnard's life as peaceful and undisturbed, devoted to the exploration of his own, circumscribed world. The journey was towards Munch and Expressionism, and even beyond... a journey to Guernica. While Absinthe is the personification of that experience, lived through day and night. After confronting the hell of the soul, we need tranquility. Absinthe paints his pictures in the style of Bonnard, and on the back of his self-portrait, writes the following words, a postscript of sorts to his journal: "This is perhaps why I only paint windows and rooms full of light: out of self-defense. I've had enough of that fire.” illuminating the night. In my head I want the daylight."