Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Terrible Pope 1-3

As he was finishing the 2004-2011 "Borgia" series with Milo Manara, Alejandro Jodorowsky was already preparing the follow-up. It's probably due to scheduling that the first volume of "Terrible Pope" actually came out two years before the Italian artist finished drawing the preceding series, but the two  books can still be read separately.

"Della Rovere", published in 2009 by Delcourt pairs Jodorowsky with Theo Caneschi to present the papacy of Borgia's successor on the throne of Saint Peter. Gulliano della Rovere was a character in the Manara-drawn historical epic, but the writer goes to great lengths to make the new series accessible.

This is paramount considering the early 16th century setting could easily lead to the reader getting lost in the historical facts. Just like with "Borgia", Jodorowsky is careful to treat the material as a genre work full of intrigues and sexual debauchery. The protagonist's homosexuality quickly comes to define the work, coupled with his blood lust.

To put it kindly, the creative team present the major historical figure as a depraved raving lunatic and compel the reader to follow his machinations in a late Renaissance setting. The first volume starts with a story relating the events leading to della Rovere becoming the pope and follows it up with his revenge on the Borgia family that kept him from achieving the position at an earlier age.

Once again, the reader is given a primer regarding the events from the previous series and is in no way penalized from not reading the Manara illustrated story. Della Rovere is given a lover that helps humanize him and gives the protagonist someone to confere his thoughts to. The many sex scenes and intrigues prevents beautiful Aldosi from being a mere plot device. Instead, by pairing him with a black slave not only completes the menage a trois, but gives della Rovere a pair of servants devoted to carrying out his schemes.

All of this is very graphically illustrated by Theo, who lacks the precision of Manara's ethereal work, but instills a vulgarity and passion to the sinful Vatican depicted in the series. His work is gorgeously colored in browns and reds and helps to instill the series with its own identity. Par for the course of the historical fiction, the artist is burdened with historical references missing from his previous fantasy work, but the external details do support the unique balance of the work.

"The Terrible Pope" is at once a comic book biography that deftly manages to cohere the complicated political landscape of sixteenth century Italy and crafts it into a narrative about power similar to "Borgia". It is in the succeeding two volumes that Jodorowky's collaboration with Theo further crystallizes into a work with its own identity.

Ironically it does it by calling attention to one of the previous' work's major themes, that of the family. By bringing together a bevy of his own cousins, Gulliano at first seems to follow in his predecessor's footsteps, but his megalomania quickly spins out of control and the bizarre combination of freaks is quickly and unceremoniously dispatched.

Thus "Julius II" follows the first volume by essentially splitting into two stories, that feed into one another, and more importantly, continue fanning the political flames of della Rovere's insanity. The readers are instructed not to attach themselves to the supporting cast, as the major historical figures seem to be the only ones to escape the grisly treatment.

This is not to say that the creative team treats them with any kind of dignity, but that as the series goes on della Rovere's interest in lovers turns to the famous artist that he patronized. This is especially true when it comes to Michelangelo Buonarroti.

Theo struggles somewhat when it comes to the famous artist's character design, but his role in the story is much more controversial. Simply put, the antics that go in the relationship he has with the pope, and later on Raphael are sure to prove divisive to a portion of the audience. Yet, it's difficult to think that any of the purists would have remained with the work long enough to witness the plot twists.

The second are third volumes are framed in Machiavelli's narration, with the philosopher's treatment stylistically in keeping with the rest of "The Terrible Pope". Thus, the writer of "The Prince" relates the story a quarter of obese prostitutes, with whom he enacts his fantasies of unified Italy.

Yet the the third volume is not completely devoted to the artistic legacy of Gulliano's time in the papal seat. The intrigues, always laced with depravity keep up as the ailing Holy Father fights fever and his usurpers. It's clear that his rule will not last much longer but the series leaves room for one final installment, even if it hasn't been formally announced. The last year's volume is otherwise just as brutal as the previous ones and maintains some of their flaws.

It's easy to see the series as simply a way for the venerable writer to amuse himself and imbue the facts with a sinister reading, which robs the series from some of its impact. Theo's work likewise maintains the visual identity and dedicates itself to the storytelling in such manner that it's difficult to look at it as something more than competent European-styled genre work.

Due to its over the top imagery "The Terrible Pope" is unlikely to find the success of "Borgia" and will likely be remembered as a spin-off that is no more than a footnote in Jodorowsky's bibliography. Nevertheless, the series has its own identity and presents Gulliano della Rovere's tale in a very compelling manner. Hopefully, the creators and Delcourt will find it feasible to finish their story with the fourth and final volume, that closes the door on their retelling of a particularly bloody time in Italian history and the rise and fall of the controversial man that was in front of it.

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