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El Gaucho a highlight of Dark Horse’s second volume of collected Manara work

Manara Library Volume Two published by Dark Horse Comics
A panel from El Gaucho. Milo Manara art.

Graphic novel review—The Manara Library Volume Two

The second volume in a series by the Italian master from Dark Horse includes the graphic novel El Gaucho

Erotic comics don’t get much better than those drawn by Milo Manara. However, what some casual readers might not realize is that the Italian master can be just as fetishistic about period costumes and wooden ships as he can be over a lovely young woman’s state of dishabille.

Volume 2 of Dark Horse’s proposed nine-book series of Manara’s collected works emphasizes the former obsessions over the latter, although the first half, the graphic novel El Gaucho, certainly has some explicit depictions of the female form that will appeal to prurient interests. (Ahem.).

The second half though is comprised of stories he drew early in the mid-seventies, early in his career, for an Italian boys’ magazine. Surprisingly philosophical, these eight short “Trial by Jury” stories attempt to judge and explain the actions of historical figures such as Atilla the Hun, Helen of Troy, Nero and Robert Oppenheimer. Crucial scenes from their lives in comics form are book-ended by text, specifically the charges leveled at them and closing arguments. It’s a nifty gimmick, one that – along with Manara’s finely detailed art – brings these histories to life.

Manara’s style isn’t quite fully formed in the Trial by Jury stories, which sometimes feel more workmanlike than inspired. But in El Gaucho – first published in 1991 – he’s in full control of the sensual line and vivid imagination that has made him one of the most revered comics artists in the world. Written by his friend and fellow cartoonist Hugo Pratt, El Gaucho is about the British invasion of Argentina in the early 1800s (Pratt spent most of his twenties in Buenos Aires).

There are some exposition-heavy spells in the telling, but for the most part Pratt – aided and abetted by Manara’s sure line, whether of a well-turned ankle or a ship’s masts – keeps the tragic tale moving along through engaging, unpredictable but all-too-human characters.

Unfortunately, El Gaucho is over too soon; it’s abrupt ending will leave most readers wanting more. Rumour has it that Pratt was going to return to the story with a sequel, and the story’s set-up certainly hints at this. But his death a few years after the publication of the first part scuttled those plans. It’s a pity, because El Gaucho is a powerful piece of graphic storytelling that cries out for further exploration.

That’s no reason not to pick up – if you have the $65 for these beautiful editions – a copy of The Manara Library Volume Two or, for that matter, Volume One (which features Manara’s other major collaboration with Pratt, Indian Summer). Dark Horse is promising Volume Three, featuring the artist’s collaborations with filmmaker Federico Fellini, in August; it will be glorious. And sexy.

Manara Library Volume 2 book cover

A few weeks ago I was fortunate to receive, in a box from Dark Horse Comics, a copy of Volume Two of their Manara Library editions. The publisher is collecting most if not all of the Italian comics artist’s works in nine books; the second (above) came out earlier this year, and the first in the fall of 2011. Volume Three, featuring Milo Manara‘s collaborations with filmmaker Federico Fellini, will be published in August.

Manara is best known for drawing naked girls, to put it bluntly. (He’s also crossed over into the North American mainstream with a Sandman story that appeared in an anthology and an X-Men comic (featuring the women of the X-Men) for Marvel.) But, while Volume Two‘s first story “El Gaucho” certainly features some typically gorgeous Manara females in lewd dishabille, it’s also a ripping good historical tale (written by cartoonist Hugo Pratt) about the early 1800s British invasion of Argentina. And the second half of the book isn’t dirty at all; it’s a series of eight brief stories that attempts to look at both sides of cases against historical figures such as Helen of Troy, Attila the Hun and Robert Oppenheimer. Though a little on the didactic side, these “Trial by Jury” stories are surprisingly readable and informative. And, of course, impeccably drawn by the master, even though they’re from early in his career.

My full review is on The Snipe News:

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