Seated against the bracing wood and plaster and stone,
the redolent incense, soaring halls of held air,
sun motes like talc-breathed ideograms.
The doxologies, the guttural antiphons,
rows of soma packed, columns of pews,
crossed legs and folded hands,
circles of light, fixed roods,
glinting from ears, clinging to fingers.
The tower of saints, floodlit,
diffusing porcelain hosannas.
Smiles and sighs and blank looks,
heads bowing left and right,
frowns, stony gazes, hands clasped,
thoughts anchored in repose,
the rumble of forms that rise and fall.
Italian artist Lorenzo Mattotti is probably best known in the U.S. for his 2003 Eisner-winning Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (2003), an adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novella published as an oversize hardcover by ComicsLit. Before the Eisner, there was Fires (1987), a surrealist account of a young naval officer’s attempt to defend an island filled with magical creatures. Mattotti’s art has appeared in everything from Cosmopolitan, Le Monde and The New Yorker to Vanity Fair and Vogue. Comic artist and critic Rob Vollmar describes him 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.”
Chimera — a deeply dark and beautiful work of surrealism — is the sixth installment in publisher Fantagraphics’ Ignatz collection (named after artist George Herriman’s Ignatz, the mouse of Krazy and Ignatz fame). Parts of it originally graced Kitchen Sink’s aborted anthology Mona #1 in 1999, but here it appears complete: 32 pages of two-color, jacketed, saddle-stitched illustrations on thick, cream-colored stock. The cover includes a third color — red — to highlight the title and byline, probably to distinguish it from Mattotti’s thick, concealing line work.
Like the title — a reference to an imaginary creature made from different animal parts, but also an illusive or unattainable thing — what follows is a narrative phantasmagoria, an amorphous collage of line-etched visions and terrors. The cover itself is a swirling lake of lines and scribbles: At the center of the ink-vortex, a coarse black rabbit’s head observes the reader with tiny almond eyes. The page is awash in lines tangling or plunging into each other, breaking along a horizon line of dark hills whipped by cyclonic winds. Is the rabbit’s head emerging from the vortex or subsumed by it? Are those banshee faces in the crazed motion-lines? 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 that text, an overlook dominates a landscape of fields and distant trees. The central tree referenced by the narrator curves up from the tip of the overlook, leaves fanning into a whale’s tail as the narrator lies in repose beneath. Whales symbolize passage (among other things), as in the biblical story of Jonah, the prophet swallowed by a great whale and transported ark-like within its belly, thus Mattotti’s tree may represent a psychogenic nexus, a “border-place” where states of consciousness converge.
As the pastoral landscape begins to change and the dreamer’s dream-images coalesce, Mattotti gradually thickens his line-work, visually signifying the emotional darkening. The opening panels are thin and wisplike, graceful and innocent, but gradually increase in width and iteration until by the end of the book, the light-dark ratio has reversed, the final pages opaque, charcoal-black smears with only jagged slivers of white slicing through.
At the sequence’s almost innocent beginning, a boy and a girl daydream atop a hill, whorls of clouds gradually becoming human forms that reach, godlike, down to earth. A massive humanoid creature suddenly sprints across the terrain, a mirror in its hand, gazing intently at its reflection, the “gaze” itself emanating from the mirror, a catalyst that appears to raise something animate from the landscape.
Next, we shift to the outlines of a man and woman striding beneath a weeping harlequin mask hung in the sky, then sizing each other up before the female turns in terror to flee, her form shifting to something catlike as the sexually aroused male gives chase. When he catches her, the two fuse in the act of consensual copulation, the landscape shifting to reveal their position between the legs of a giant woman. She scoops the product of the male/female coupling from between her legs and deposits it on the ground. Mattotti then pans back, revealing a cradle and a child gazing up at the sky. Soon a cyclopean face emerges, howling, its mouth filled with jagged teeth, perhaps symbolizing loss of innocence or a kind of self-awareness that culminates in rage, destruction and despair.
As the end nears, and after further adventures involving rabbits and giant pelican-like predatory birds, the landscape thickens, a womblike force enveloping hunter and hunted. A stooping humanoid figure enters a black forest and possibly encounters something there — the terrible face that eventually appears from tangles of coal-black floats Cheshire-like in the scrub. Or is it the face of the figure? The human chimera? The monster in its elemental form? And what of the humanoid figure that emerges from a tunnel at the end, stick slung over its shoulder, desiccated fields beyond? (Or was the stick in fact a shovel? What was the figure doing?)
When the final panel arrives, it’s as if we’re awakening from a deep sleep, straddling the border between the unconscious and awareness, grasping for meaning even as it flees from us.