|Review by Lily Fierro|
In Manuel Espírito Santos’s opening to The Complete Crepax: Dracula, Frankenstein, and Other Horror Stories, the editor of the collection prepares new audiences for what to expect from the king of erotic comics.
More than even sensuality, Guido Crepax’s work is distinctive for its motion. Crepax’s figures move. Crepax’s settings move. Crepax’s sense of plot, history, reality, and dreamscapes move…and never in a predictable or straightforward direction.
Everything in the Crepax universe oscillates, and as a result nothing ever feels stagnant, even if the plot lines in his work somewhat fail.
Crepax’s work perfectly suits how Fantagraphics intends to market it: a coffee table book with outstanding images that will impress your friends about how you appreciate “progressive” comics of Europe in the late 1960s.
It also has enough fantastical eroticism with dashes of BDSM that never gets too vulgar, which is perfect for the politically correct intelligentsia who would not dare to be caught with pulp comics or pornography but still does have certain proclivities toward observing deviant sexual behavior. Alas, The Complete Crepax: Dracula, Frankenstein, and Other Horror Stories is made for the bourgeois creative class that Crepax features in his signature series Valentina, which appropriately opens up the collection.
It is not to say that if you are outside of said class that you will not enjoy The Complete Crepax: Dracula, Frankenstein, and Other Horror Stories; I certainly did.
Before I discuss Crepax’s comics themselves, I must address the collection organization, which is odd. The volume fails to present an essential item for readers to understand Crepax’s work as they navigate through the stories: a timeline.
Valentina ages as the series continues, so exact dates of the appearance of each story included in the volume should exist before the presentation of each, but instead, the dates are not revealed until the essays at the end of the book.
Similarly, Crepax’s adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein close the inaugural volume, but it is not mentioned that the Frankenstein adaptation was completed toward the end of Crepax’s life until the essays at the very end of the book. Including the dates before the story would give the audience a better sense of Crepax’s progress as you read it from front to back, but I guess this book is supposed to be a coffee table book, and who really reads a coffee table book from front to back (not to mention at all)?
With the chronology complaint aside, anyone looking at or reading The Complete Crepax: Dracula, Frankenstein, and Other Horror Stories will gravitate toward one thing: its visuals.
Inspired clearly by film, Valentina captures the cinema aesthetic of the 1960s in comics form. In his work, you see influences from Richard Lester, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Jean Luc-Godard. Everything is bold and beautiful sometimes even severely so with touches of the psychedelic and extravagant, which of course come from Federico Fellini.
Unfortunately, Crepax does not manage to take cues from these cinema greats to succeed with his narrative storytelling.
While the lines between reality, dream, and imagination do not explicitly exist in the Valentina series, the transitions between them are either too jarring or completely undetectable, making the pacing of the narrative clumsy at times. You somewhat forgive this as you read the comics, but if you think of any 60s film (I personally have The Knack…and How to Get It in mind) that plays with the surreal, you will realize that consistency in transitions are crucial to pulling the film together.
Sadly, this sensibility of timing did not carry over to the stories of Valentina included in The Complete Crepax: Dracula, Frankenstein, and Other Horror Stories, and as a result, reading this book can get disorienting at times.
And as part of this review, I would be remiss in my duties if I did not discuss the key feature that people identify in Crepax’s work: sensuality and eroticism.
While Crepax was somewhat ahead of his time in his depiction of sexuality in comics, the eroticism and sensuality of his work is wrapped in shrouds of surrealism, lessening the effect overall. Consequently, sexuality presented in Crepax’s work does not feel any more innovative than Henry Miller’s writing or the Marquis de Sade’s Libertine novels.
Perhaps the only difference is that sexuality is explored from Valentina’s perspective as a trendy, cosmopolitan woman, but then again, she is written by a male author, so she may not be so different from earlier writings after all.
The Complete Crepax: Dracula, Frankenstein, and Other Horror Stories kicks off the beginning of a comprehensive publication of Crepax’s work translated from Italian to English, and while I am somewhat curious to see how Valentina changes over the course of the series, I will, in the meantime, prefer to get my doses of filth in comics from Robert Crumb, Howard Chaykin, or Milo Manara. Valentina in ornate and revealing costumes posed in BDSM contraptions will pique Puritan interests, especially those of the creative class who do not want to look at sex without a layer of fantasy, but I’ll always prefer an interpretation of sexuality that is less delicate and more honest to the base parts of who we are as humans because, after all, like Freud has always reminded us, sexuality is a complex and sometimes ugly beast.