Sex and Violence – Milo Manara
A small disclaimer: I originally started writing a review of Dark Horse’s The Manara Library Volume 1, but the more I thought about what I had read, the more I wanted to say. As a result, what follows is a think piece on what Milo Manara and Hugo Pratt produced with their story Indian Summer, the first of two stories collected in this volume, with translation into English courtesy Kim Thomson. It is not intended to be exhaustive, as I do not feel up to matching the ability of Colin Smith to conclusively investigate a book. Instead, this will be a compromise between my original review and a longer essay on Manara and the work presented here.
I would also like to commend Dark Horse once again for adding to our understanding of the history and development of comic books as a medium with these archive volumes. They are doing comic scholars a fantastic service. A further volume of Manara’s work is due to be published by Dark Horse in the near future.
Indian Summer is a tragedy surrounding a family living in Colonial America caught in the middle of an escalating conflict between European soldiers and an Indian tribe. The trigger for the events that follow is a brutal rape on a beach of a girl from the settlement of New Canaan at the hands of two Indians. Manara is given nine pages to outline the assault without dialogue. The silence is suddenly interrupted by two loud ‘Craks’ the sound of rifle shots that takes the lives of the rapists. Abner Lewis rescues the girl having witnessed the rape and takes her home to his family, informing his mother – who is introduced with a noticeable brand mark on her cheek – that he has killed the nephew of the local tribe’s Chief Squando, as well as the ‘Dutchman’.
What is interesting to note is how in Pratt’s story the Indians and the settlers are living in harmony. It is the Lewis family who are outsiders, their mother regarded as a witch by the settlers. While we never find out who the Dutchman was, the suggestion is that he in turn was a colonist who ‘went native’ and joined Squando’s tribe. Before the assault, there is even a panel that hints it was he, and not the nephew, who was the instigator. When the bodies of the two rapists are found by the Indians, they are met by soldiers from New Canaan searching for the girl. There is a tension to their exchange, but also a formal degree of respect. The significance of the original title Tutto ricominciò con un’estate Indiana becomes clear. Before the events of this story, the respective communities existed in a state of balance.
The Lewis family tend to the young girl’s injuries. It turns out she is the niece of the local pastor, Reverend Pilgrim Black, who has mobilized the forces of Captain Brewster from the settlement to search for her. The Indians, learning that Abner is responsible for the deaths of their brothers, converge on the household and the conflict between the two sides breaks out in earnest.
As the deaths mount, we learn the reasons for the exile of the Lewises and their connection to Black. Scenes of mass slaughter are intermingled with a further sex scene, with Manara depicting incest on top of rape (and according to Pratt’s dialogue, it is not the only instance of that in the story). But the final reveal of the story is that everything that has happened, the death and suffering that has enveloped the lives of Europeans and Indians alike, has all been staged in order to provide some perverse pleasure to a single depraved man.
Visual clues are dropped from the very first pages of this story as to what is really happening. This is not some New England sack of Troy that is being shown, but meaningless and cynical destruction for its own sake. In effect what enfolds is staged as much for the enjoyment of the Machiavellian monster at the heart of the story, as it is for the reader. The youngest Lewis child, Jeremiah, is repeatedly shown by Manara to become sexually aroused by any hint of violence or sex. Even the prone Sheva Black, whimpering from her injuries, excites him. Jeremiah seems like an avatar for Manara’s own readers, whose work is routinely cited for its ‘eroticism’. In Frank Miller’s foreword to the story he writes:
“Technically, a comic book can be read in a very few minutes. It is a task of the cartoonist to slow the reader down, to seduce the reader into breathing in the story at its intended pace. Here Manara excels.“
As always, there is a difficulty here in trying to tell whether Miller is aware of the double entendre in his words, especially when it comes to Manara’s titillating art. What I find disturbing is the thought that Jeremiah Lewis and the excitement he expresses at the sight of naked flesh, or physical violence, prefigures the corrupt figure of Pilgrim Black himself. So the debauched cleric doubles as a criticism of the hypocritical Church, as well as exposing the true face of the reader who enjoys Manara’s exact detailing of sexual violence and gratuitous slaughter. Pratt’s script attempts to escape the exploitation of Manara’s illustrations by establishing that these events actually inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, but it is a conceit that does little to defend the preceding story.
Manara’s influence is unquestioned. His feminised men for example with their delicate features have found their way into the stylings of Moebius, Frank Quitely and latterly Nick Pitarra. But as a work Indian Summer fails to entertain or edify. Instead it is a suffocating dirge on the rot of human desire.