How Blutch’s graphic novel Peplum shatters the Satyricon.
In an interview after Peplum’s first publication in book form, Blutch tells of a reader who asked him why he was such a difficult author. “But I don’t feel like I’m difficult at all!” he exclaimed. “I don’t understand why I get asked that. What I do is fairly simple, and not at all intellectual. In my stories, I try to favor action.” And in action, Blutch’s book abounds: stabbing, stoning, amputation, eye-gouging, sex, seafaring, Attic dance, pirate attacks. Yet these sequences are as artificial as they are visceral, feral, and formal at once. Taking as its title the European term for the sword-and-sandal cinematic subgenre, Peplum offers a decidedly different take on the toga epic—one of aporia and ambiguity, a fractured tale of antiquity in all its alien majesty.
Part of this may be traced to the book’s origins. When he began serializing Peplum in 1996, Blutch was a talent to watch, a twenty-eight-year-old admired for his expressiveness of line and his experiments with dream logic and surrealism (“half Jacques Demy and half Buñuel,” he called them), but he was not yet a hero to a generation of cartoonists, and more than a decade from taking top prize at Angoulême, France’s largest comics festival. He had already shown himself to be a stylistic virtuoso, but still wore his influences—Will Eisner, Daniel Goossens, Morris (creator of Lucky Luke), Jean-Claude Forest (creator of Barbarella)—on his sleeve. Fresh off a successful run at the satirical revue Fluide glaciale, he turned to another publication instrumental in making Franco-Belgian comics the art form it is today: the aptly named À suivre (Stay tuned), which in its heyday had hosted the talents of Moebius, Jacques Tardi, Hugo Pratt, Muñoz and Sampayo, Peeters and Schuiten.
“I’d had enough of parodies, the constant nods to this and that, the innuendo and authorial winks,” Blutch remarked, “all the mental crockery and referential baggage, the byzantine architecture of humor. I needed to do something pure, stripped down, fresher and more direct.” What better source than antiquity? Blutch set out to create the sequel to a beloved book he’d “never wanted to end”: the Satyricon. Already a motley tonal medley—prose and verse, comedy and tragedy, romance and satire—Petronius’s novel has survived only in fragments, a condition Blutch found conducive to leaving his artistic mark. “The people were all naked; all I had to draw was bodies moving through space. Peplum paved the way to a kind of musical physicality for me, a path I’ve been following ever since.”
What began as investigative and imaginative reconstruction soon became free improvisation: Satyricon remixed, if you will. Names are changed or dropped. Lines are plucked from context—what was once narration becomes the characters’ commentary on their own actions. Petronius compares a city without culture to a pestilential field; Blutch turns it into an actual physical setting. Of Petronius’s most famous set piece, Trimalchio’s feast, only a single late episode is kept, a suitor’s sexual embarrassment before his mistress, and even there the classes are upended: instead of a patrician mistress and a slave, Blutch serves up a would-be nobleman and a lowly actress. The very era is shifted from the fiendish decadence of Nero’s Rome to the Second Triumvirate, allowing Blutch to open with his take on a scene that the peplum genre, if not drama itself, has fetishized: the assassination of Julius Caesar.
Continuing his freewheeling collage, Blutch cribbed the central conceit of a young man in love with a mysteriously frozen woman from Roland Petit’s 1953 ballet, The Lady in the Ice. He gave his own frozen woman the head of the Lady of Auxerre, a Cretan sculpture in the Louvre, and an Egyptian body, and lends the hero’s other paramour, an androgynous youth, the face of the Boy with Thorn, a Hellenistic bronze in Rome’s Palazzo dei Conservatori. “When I see something I can use,” he says, “I take it. Wonderful things make you want to steal them.” Blutch would not read other Romans until later, but striking impressions of light and rock from a trip to Sicily snuck into the book.
Blutch has explored, in art and interviews, his own love-hate relationship with movies and their persistent influence on comics. He has deplored a tendency toward storyboarding in comics that to his mind restrains their reach, suggesting that comics are capable of “larger, richer” narration—“more elliptical, mysterious, and poetic.” Over the years, he has variously attributed Peplum’s cinematic inspirations to Pier Paolo Pasolini, whom he found close in spirit to Petronius (Accattone, The Hawks and the Sparrows, especially Medea); Orson Welles, whose low-budget-Shakespeare look he liked (Welles also filmed Petit’s ballet); Joseph Mankiewicz; and Italian B movies. If Peplum avoided Hollywoodian flamboyance, it was also a response to the venerable, slightly musty peplum tradition in Franco-Belgian comics—say, The Adventures of Alix, an educational, sensational staple of Blutch’s childhood. But the elephant in the room, whose importance Blutch has alternately avowed and denied, praised and repudiated, is Federico Fellini. Indeed, Fellini’s description of his intentions and process in making his 1969 Fellini Satyricon is surprisingly apt for Peplum:
Sparse fragments, in large part repressed and forgotten, made whole by what might be called a dream. Not by a historical epic reconstructed philologically from documents and positively verified but by a great dream galaxy sunken in the darkness and now rising up to us amid glowing bursts of light. I think I was seduced by the possibility of reconstructing this dream with its puzzling transparency, its unreadable clarity.
Fellini’s spectacle focused on the baroque and debauched. Blutch’s vision, without sparing any barbarity or hedonism, is ultimately less cynical, more fantastical, darker and starker. Blutch has called the Satyricon as exciting and estranging as science fiction:
a literary UFO from the fourth dimension, because you don’t really get what’s going on, people are laughing but you don’t know why, things you’d find sad they think are funny … The incredible thing is they don’t have any of the same norms, it’s like life on another planet.
At the same time, they’re so distant from us they’re almost prehistoric: in the boat scene, they’re living with animals. Back then animals were still very much with us, beside us; we were almost on an equal footing. I wanted to depict a world completely foreign to our own. These are human beings, and at the same time there’s nothing human about them.
This reading reflects his desire, from Peplum onward, to do away with psychology: “I can’t stand that kind of romanticism, that idea of literature.” Events are presented, but motivations remain obscure. As he journeys from savagery at the far edges of empire to disappointment at the heart of Rome, Peplum’s impostor protagonist somehow retains a certain innocence, at the mercy of the ferocity and vice around him, and Blutch withholds judgment.
This potentially alienating aspect of Blutch’s storytelling is at odds with the oft-remarked immediacy of his art. Blutch conveys the hero’s experience of his ordeals more through posture than dialogue. In calm and combat, rest and movement, his characters have a gracefulness to them, as of poses in dance, organic and vulnerable—expressionist outlines lent volume by fine, dense, even furious hatching, emerging from broad swaths of darkness or, in one violent instance, spouting inkblots of blood. However detailed these figures, their faces remain simpler, cartoons with dotted pupils; often only the speaker’s features are clear, lending focus to a scene. If now and again he cribs profiles from classical repertory—as in the pirates with their round shields and plumed helmets—it is less for historical context than evocative impact. From panel to panel, the level of stylization can shift sharply, subject to the intensity of emotion. Blutch is an artist for whom drawing is not only thinking but feeling, forever in search of moments; a drawing is an attempt to capture and share the impulse of wonder that prompted it. “When you’re little and you love something, you want to draw it,” he reminds us.
However, as he grows older, he finds himself increasingly less inclined to draw “what I call ‘transitional images,’ which don’t convey much. A comic consists of memorable scenes, the ones you really want to draw. You have to draw the others so readers can follow along, but … there’s something mechanical and frustrating about it. It’s not sensual enough.” Already evident in Peplum, this itch to omit might seem at odds with what originally drew Blutch to the Satyricon: “the fact that parts are missing lets you reconstruct the missing passages yourself.” Perhaps it is that he asks of readers no more than he would of artists: an immersion in moments of vivid sentiment that moves toward the completion of an imagined universe.
Peplum took Blutch two years, during which time he also sidelined in projects for other publishers in France’s budding nineties alternative comics scene. By the time it was done, À suivre was on its last legs. Peplum was unceremoniously dumped in its pages as essentially a studio cut, butchering Blutch’s work—eliminating, among other things, any page without words. Casterman, the publishing house behind À suivre, promised to restore these in a later publication, but that never happened. The handsome edition that eventually came out from the influential comics publisher Cornélius in 1998 and has since become a modern classic owed much, by Blutch’s own admission, to founding editor Jean-Louis Gauthey. Gauthey commissioned an epilogue from Blutch and devised the book’s structure: ten chapters prefaced with new vignettes and chapter heads. The result maintains a special place in the heart and oeuvre of an artist always guided by feeling, restlessly in search of the new.
Edward Gauvin has translated more than a hundred and fifty graphic novels and is a two-time winner of the John Dryden Translation Competition. He is the contributing editor for Francophone comics at Words Without Borders.