By Lorenzo Mattotti (Catalan Communications)
Lorenzo Mattotti was born in Brescia 1954, and after studying architecture became a comics storyteller before graduating into a second career as a designer and illustrator. As well as the book under discussion here, his most well-known work is probably his 2003 Eisner award-winning adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His stunning illustrations have graced magazines as varied as Cosmopolitan, Le Monde, Vogue and The New Yorker.
Initially working in a stylish but standard manner he gradually became obsessed with expanding the traditional comics form; capturing the power of light, hue and motion on the page and exploring the inner world of the characters populating it, beginning with the seminal Il Signor Spartaco in 1982.
With all his successive works from Murmur, the semi- autobiographical ‘The Man in the Window’ (where he applied the same creative questioning doctrine to line-drawing as he had to paint, pastel and chalk colour), the historical Caboto and others he pursued a technique of offering multiple meanings and interpretations to the reader…
Fires was released in 1986, and details the experience of a navy officer seduced by the magical nature of a tropical island. Either that or a classic case of a sensitive nature driven to madness by the regimentation of militarism…
When the warship Anselm II drops anchor in the bay of the paradisiacal islet of St. Agatha to investigate the growing loss of merchant shipping, junior officer Lieutenant Absinthe is troubled by the stunning natural beauty of volcanic atoll. The government of the new super-state of Sillantoe has dispatched the dreadnought to explore the place, and if populated, civilise or pacify the natives.
On the night before Absinthe and a landing party are dispatched, blazing fires can be seen brilliantly lighting up the dark and the Lieutenant thinks he sees strange creatures invading the ship. When the away team trudges through the foliage the next morning, he thinks he sees them again, but for some inexplicable reason cannot bring himself to report the sighting.
The officer is increasingly disturbed by the joyous, dancing flickering figures, and even though he says nothing the crew knows something is happening to him. Absinthe only feels happy or at peace on the island, and one night he goes AWOL. Seeing islanders all the time now he goes fully native, reveling in the spectacular blazes that roar and dance every time darkness falls.
Eventually the sailors recapture their “hallucinatory” comrade and the order comes to bombard this isle of the damned until it is razed of all possibility of life.
And now the nightmare truly begins…
This examination of technology vs. nature, freedom challenging duty and man against civilisation is rendered in a euphoric blaze of expressionistic colour and frantic movement reminiscent of Disney’s Fantasia and bolder abstract experimental animations, with forms and actors reduced to primal shapes surging across the landscape of a page. Mattotti’s questing style blends the colour philosophy of Fauvism with the stripped-down forms and perfect structures of Italian Futurist painters such as Giacomo Balla, Carlo Carrà and Umberto Boccioni and Russian Natalia Goncharova whilst the story itself has the brooding, paranoiac, inevitable-descent-into-madness feel of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and its filmic avatar (Coppola’s) Apocalypse Now.
Astounding, compelling and deeply moving this book (there’s also a 1991 British edition from Penguin – ISBN 978-0-14013-889-4 available) is a mesmerising classic and high point of our art-form and one any serious devotee of sequential narrative would be proud to own.
© 1986-1988 by Editions Albin Michel S. A. English language edition © 1988 Catalan Communications. All rights reserved.