No one does the dance with death, and life, on the page as well as French cartoonist Blutch. He has influenced a generation of cartoonists, including such big names as Paul Pope and Craig Thompson. You can see it in how they create in ink, how they attack the page. But neither Pope nor Thompson can really match the master. The way Blutch brings his pages to life is more mysterious, even dangerous, truly like a tightrope walker without a net. It’s not only ink, for Blutch. It’s one’s own life’s blood. Blutch is well known in France in sort of similar fashion to, say, Robert Crumb is known in the United States. By that, I mean that Blutch has a reputation for artful and provocative work. When the reissue of Peplum first came out a while ago, I was deep in the process of a lot of things, including a big move and so I do a revisit of this book now, Blutch’s first book translated into English. It began as a serialized comic in the magazine, A Suivre, and established Blutch as a serious artist back in 1996, at the age of 28. And it is the book that New York Review Books chose as part of their entry into publishing reprints of classic work in graphic novels.
This is really the sort of work in comics that appeals to me the most: work created by someone who is masterfully pushing the limits of the art form. Peplum is ambitious in scope and highly inventive and original in execution. Having become bored with conventional comics tropes, Blutch needed to pursue comics more as would a painter, filmmaker or novelist. He chose the ancient Roman fable, The Satyricon, as his jumping off point. As this is a satire of Nero’s court, Blutch essentially wished to associate himself with satire on a grand scale. He marries that refined ambition with a low brow reference. Peplum refers to the peplum film genre, the sword-and-sandal Italian B-movie epics of the ’50s and ’60s. With all that in place, Blutch can work as a painter, having created the wash upon which he can structure his canvas.
A good deal of this comic is wordless, so much the better to study Blutch’s work. Often, what you find is a hungry artist feasting upon creating work. He’s set himself up a glorious excuse to paint, as many a painter will tell you. Blutch proves with this early work that he is fully capable of evoking the mystery and energy found in the best work of comics or any other art form. Our story is set shortly after the assassination of Julius Caesar and the focus ends up on the sole survivor of an expedition en route back to Rome. He is a slave who takes on the identity of a nobleman, Publius Cimber. During their ill-fated journey, Cimber’s group had discovered a beautiful regal-like woman encased in a block of ice. What this supernatural entity might mean or be is beyond anyone’s wildest guess. Cimber only knows he must return to Rome with her–and he might be in love with her. Ah, this is a story only Blutch could tell!
Is the lady in ice that Cimber covets nothing more than a MacGuffin, an elaborate plot device? Sure, the reader senses that this is probably the case early on but no matter. It’s the journey that counts for everything. Poor Cimber is well over his head. He isn’t even really Cimber! He has pledged his heart over to the enigmatic frozen maiden but, aside from that, he’s a bit of a loose cannon and a tortured Hamlet. Cimber is a bit of all of us, climbing and grasping for something, not always sure of what he wants. Cimber makes for a perfectly fine present day hero even if his life and struggles take place in ancient Rome. What we find in Peplum are the first significant signs of what was ahead for Blutch as an artist. That same wry energy is found in other work such as the celebrated Mitchum, also from around 1996, and So Long, Silver Screen, from 2011. In Mitchum, among the players is none other than Hollywood legend Robert Mitchum who is there to stand on a young woman’s hair during a pivotal scene. Yet another perfectly surreal Blutch moment! And speaking of Mitchum, New York Review Books will be releasing an English translation of this most dazzling book, set to be released April 7, 2020. It will have an English translation by none other than cartoonist and comics scholar Matt Madden. Below, I present to you the cover to the original French version, published by Cornélius.
Peplum is a 160-page hardcover, published by New York Review Books.