Milo Manara can draw the heck out of a naked lady. In fact, he’s widely regarded as one of the premier erotic artists of our time, and with good reason, for both talent and sheer quantity. Manara has other, more varied sides to him, however, like making a comic that isn’t exclusively about naked ladies. For this book, he instead has created the first chapter of a biography of famed Italian painter Caravaggio. Starting as the young painter began his career as an apprentice in Rome, it follows his early days of finding his artistic voice.
Writer/Artist: Milo Manara
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Manara certainly earns his reputation with this. His luscious, painterly approach is a great fit for this period piece. With a style that feels somewhat antique, Manara is able to depict the world, lifestyle, and even the clothing of the time in such a way as to feel authentic. There’s something about how Manara renders tunics that make them feel like we’re looking at the real deal somehow. And yes, his naked ladies are just as… carefully rendered.
But another thing that feels antique about this book is its storytelling. While we are watching him grow as an artist, we also see Caravaggio wrestle with being attracted to a prostitute and how hard that is for him. Which feels… dated. Now, I know that this is a story about a time where women didn’t get the same respect as men, there were a lot of social mores that he would have had to navigate, and sex workers were treated then even worse than they are today. But just because the story takes place in 1592, doesn’t stop the fact that it was written in 2017. So to have the main emotional thrust of the piece feel like a Renaissance riff on Pretty Woman makes it hard to really get into.
This romantic plot line becomes increasingly more important to the core of the story, as most other parts of Caravaggio’s life get somewhat glossed over. Though he occasionally comments on his thought process and certainly appreciates the lighting on women’s’ butts regularly, his growth as an artist feels rushed and oddly uncommented on. Considering this is ostensibly a biography, it’s odd that the balance is so much more weighted to his romantic endeavors rather than, you know, that thing that we all remember him for.
Consequently, the story feels somewhat objectifying. While there is nothing wrong with a story about a man and his muse, this felt just too one-sided in its depiction of their relationship. It was exclusively about Caravaggio and his thoughts, feelings, and actions, and the woman only got moderate attention, mostly for an excuse to have Manara show off how good he is at drawing nipples. Even the first scene includes an act of sex, which, hey, I am all about. But the scene was about him trying to get into town and as he does, he meets the woman he would soon be enamored by. It’s a perfectly solid scene, and a somewhat funny little gag, but it reads as off the bat excessive when the same story beats could have happened without a lady bribing a guard with sex explicitly.