by Matthew Peckham
From the title, a chimera is "an imaginary monster made up of incongruous parts." And indeed that
description fittingly characterizes what follows in Italian artist Lorenzo Mattotti's Chimera,
a kind of black and white narrative phantasmagoria.
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Italian artist Lorenzo Mattotti is probably best known in the United States for his 2003 Eisner-winning Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (2003) an adaptation of the Stevenson story and published as an oversize hardcover by ComicsLit (NBM). Prior to the Eisner, he was associated stateside with Fires (1987), a surreal, supernatural tale of a young naval officer's attempts to defend an island inhabited by daedal creatures. His work has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Le Monde, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Vogue. Comic artist and critic Rob Vollmar describes Mattotti as "a pioneer of a progressive modern strain of 'bande dessinateurs' [who] present their work as an extension of the fine art tradition, as opposed to a rebellion from it."
Sixth in a series of books referred to as the "Ignatz" collection (after artist George Herriman's Ignatz, the mouse of Krazy and Ignatz fame, and published simultaneously in six countries), a portion of Mattotti's standalone Chimera originally graced Kitchen Sink's aborted anthology Mona #1 in 1999. Here it appears complete: thirty-two pages of two-color, jacketed, saddle-stitched illustrations on thick, cream-colored stock. The cover actually adds a third color to drop-shadow the title and Mattotti's name, probably to pull it out from the artist's thick, concealing line work. From the title, a chimera is "an imaginary monster made up of incongruous parts." And indeed that description fittingly characterizes what follows, a kind of black and white narrative phantasmagoria.
The cover is immediately arresting, an inky stew of swirling lines and scribbles: at the center of the vortex, a coarse, black rabbit's head stares improbably at the reader through tiny almond eyes. The page is awash in motion, lines tangling and plunging into each other, breaking along a distant horizon stacked by dense hills, in turn whipped by tornadic winds and the sheer force of Mattotti's strokes. Is the rabbit head emerging from the vortex or subsumed by it? Are those faces in the motion-lines? Such is the nature of much of what follows, figures first emerging, then disappearing into torrents of increasingly dense linear activity.
The only text in the book captions the opening page:
I heard tell of a thinker who lay beneath a tree. Whence he observed the sky and sometimes, the stones as well. Those who passed by saw the light in his eyes and they concluded that he had a secret. The thinker passed on, and people would go lie under the tree as he had, trying to discern his secret. But they would always leave disappointed. Driven by curiosity, I tried my luck as well. I saw the sky, I saw the stones, and I fell asleep.Beneath the text, the top of a hill dominates a spreading landscape of fields and distant trees. The tree in question curves up from the tip of the hill, its leaves fanning like a whale's tail as the narrator reclines beneath. Whales in literature often symbolize passage, as in the biblical myth of Jonah, the prophet swallowed by a whale and transported ark-like within its belly. Mattotti's tree may thus represent a kind of psychogenic passage, the border-place at which states of consciousness converge.
As the dream-images begin, Mattotti applies a gradual "thickening" technique to augment linear tone, thus the opening panels are thin and wisp-like, innocent and breezy but quickly increase in girth and frequency until by the end the light-dark balance has completely reversed, the final page charcoal-black smears with tiny fragments of white poking through.
Color and line density parallel Mattotti's slipshod thematic structure. Two children (male, female) daydream atop the hill, whorls of clouds gradually forming human figures that dip godlike down to earth in a fanfare of peacock and butterfly and lily motifs. A massive form sprints across the terrain with mirror in hand, gazing with increasing fervency at its reflection, the gaze (perhaps representing the catalytic divide between self and ever-deferred "other") bleeding out and sparking something like life from the landscape. Two forms stand beneath a weeping harlequin mask that hovers in the clouds above, male and female appraising each other, the female leaping away in terror and the sexually excited male giving chase (paralleling various Greek myths). When at last the two are one, the entire landscape shifts to reveal the nude form of a massive woman, who scoops the product of their passion from between her legs and deposits it on the ground. The camera pans back revealing a cradle, and a child gazing up at the sky.
From here the story grows dark and symbolically abstruse. At one point a cyclopean face emerges, howling from a mouth full of thousands of jag-teeth, symbolizing violence and brute force, rage and destruction and despair. In the end, the landscape waxes diffuse, a predatory force sheltering hunter and hunted alike. A crooked humanoid figure enters an impenetrable forest with a walking stick and perhaps encounters something there; the terrible face that emerges from the tangled overgrowth midway through this sequence floats Cheshire-like in the scrub. Or is it the face of the figure itself? The human chimera, the monster in its connate form and lair? And what emerges from the vegetation at the end, stick slung over its shoulder (Or was it a shovel? What was the figure doing?), only desiccated empty fields beyond? If indeed we are meant to "awaken," the final panel is like the startled, confused, half-conscious rising state in which we straddle the border between fever dreams and muddled, waking reality.
Chimera is sequential art for meditation, defying the urge to connect panel to panel or to move idea by idea through a more traditional, cumulative narrative. Mattotti's images draw you back to what you think you may have seen again and again, exploring new interpretations, engaging new if fleeting links. For some artists, text in a literal syntactical sense is bolstered by illustrations. Images without words occur in this capacity post-linguistically (that is, they engage us only after we've applied our linguistic strictures to them). Mattotti's Chimera belongs to the reciprocal school, the idea that it is rather the images that animate language. A problem for theory as well as science, the idea is at least tenable: the notion that on some primordial level (perhaps the "secret" referred to by the narrator in the beginning), we respond to (or manifest our own) images in ways that are entirely pre-linguistic.
German director Werner Herzog believes we live in an age starved of new images. Lorenzo Mattotti's Chimera stands, at least in part, as remedy to some of these real (or perceived) deficiencies.
Matt Peckham lives in Iowa City and is currently at work on a non-fiction book. For more about Matt, check out his website, TheoryLog.
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