The new adult comics revolution

comics guido crepax fantagraphics

At The Comics Journal, Derik Badman writes about Italian comics artist Guido Crepax and his popular character Valentina Rosselli, whose strip was first serialized in a monthly adult-aimed comics magazine called Linus in the mid-1960s. In new oversized hardcover editions that feature notes and essays by contemporary comics creators Katie Skelly, Sarah Horrocks, and more, Seattle publisher Fantagraphics Books is publishing all of Crepax’s work in English for the first time. Badman’s piece is mostly on the fourth volume in this deluxe series—specifically, he writes about the artist’s innovative approach to his pages and argues that the English-speaking world is for the most part only familiar with Crepax’s body of work due to its erotic properties. From Badman at The Comics Journal:

The Complete Crepax 4: Private Life offers an excellent entry point to Valentina’s extended suite of comics; it includes the character’s first appearance, as well as a number of longer, less genre-heavy stories that still feature the mystery, horror, and Surrealism that should make Crepax better known. It is also lighter on the sexuality and s&m elements that might turn off some readers. Valentina (the main focus of this volume) offers so much more than what is implied by the erotic label Crepax is attached to.” 

I haven’t yet picked up The Complete Crepax 4: Private Life, but I have the first volume. Currently out of print, The Complete Crepax: Dracula, Frankenstein, and Other Horror Stories is inclusive of adaptations of canonical horror stories as well as hundreds of pages of comics featuring Valentina. I can’t say anything that wasn’t better argued by Badman in his smart appreciation, but I can say that when I bought the first of the series, I was showing its 400 ten-by-thirteen inch black and white pages off to everyone who would look.

Milan-born Guido “Crepax” Crepas, who died at the age of 70 in 2003, studied architecture and then worked in advertising and drew album cover art before making comics, which began for him in the mid-1960s. Given his refined style and dynamic page layouts, it isn’t surprising that Crepax’s professional background was varied and rich—that it happened to include graphic design work at an agency, and that he illustrated covers for an Italian medical journal to help pay the rent. In the first volume of the Fantagraphics editions, scholar Manuel Espírito Santo writes that Crepax also made board games from scratch. Badman alludes to this part of the artist’s training in his column, asserting that Crepax demonstrates “a sense of design and innovation that seems very different from American comics of the ’60s” (also diverging from US comics’ staples: Valentina is actually permitted to grow older).

comics guido crepax fantagraphics

In Drawn & Dangerous: Italian Comics of the 1970s and 80s, Simone Castaldi writes about Crepax’s having belonged to a school of advanced comics artists whose “new adult comics” proved revolutionary in content and form. Along with Crepax’s work in Linus and later, in other adult-aimed Italian comics magazines, readers found strips by the already-popular and well-established artist Hugo Pratt—creator of Corto Maltese, and who worked with pioneering Argentine comics writer Héctor Germán Oesterheld, co-creator of El Eternauta and Mort Cinder.

Just as Pratt’s adventure comics drew heavily on his own research of world history, Crepax’s early strips looked to historical figures and events—Santo sees the inspiration of Andy Warhol, Sir Francis Drake, and Fritz Lang in an early story. For the Valentina comics, Crepax also found inspiration in Jean-Claude Forest’s Barbarella, a popular and sexually charged new adult science fiction comic in France back then. French readers experienced Valentina stories in Charlie Mensuel, while Barbarella was introduced to Americans in underground literary magazine Evergreen Review. Like the work of Pratt and Crepax, Barbarella was collected and published in books for a sophisticated audience (Forest’s comics were collected for adult customers of bookstores in as early as 1962). While the popularity of Barbarella was exploding/had already exploded in France, Castaldi writes that Crepax’s strips eventually yielded an “elegant erotic saga with Freudian undertones,” and that most readers of Valentina stories were seeing erotica in highbrow strains of the medium for the first time.

The early Crepax comics that star Valentina—mid 1960s-era adventurer/science fiction narratives that meld hazy dream sequences and historical fact—comprise half of The Complete Crepax: Dracula, Frankenstein, and Other Horror Stories. Frequent sexually tinged encounters (as well as BDSM) dot these strips, and lots of svelte nudes are sprawled out across their pages. Everything is drawn cleanly here versus the dense illustrative style and crowded panels that would define his Dracula years later, and both the men and women—conventionally gorgeous and given slim, magazine fashion-model physiques—are prominently sexual beings. While storylines in comics such as “The Subterraneans” or “Valentina in Sovietland” confound me, they’re visually mind-blowing, and teem with loads of finite details.

At The Comics Journal, Badman observes that the “seduction” here isn’t all about sex—a close look reveals “formal beauty” and a distinctive use of space in a “fragmentation of scenes into many panels.” Crepax’s presentation sees time organized in a manner that is still fresh and forward-thinking; it feels urgent but controlled, and is broken-out in an array of wildly varying perspectives. This offers us a lot with respect to absorbing how a sequence plays out and is wholly representative of the artist’s acute graphic design chops. In Drawn & Dangerous, Castaldi also discusses “the fragmentation of the action” that resulted in Crepax’s forward-looking, quick film-cut-style challenging of conventions:

“Crepax’s most important innovation was his reformulation of the comic page grid as a result of his interest in reproducing the kinetic effect of cinematic montage within the static medium of comics. In particular, the intricate constructions of Crepax’s pages replicate the choppy editing and irregular framing of early nouvelle vague films.”

comics guido crepax fantagraphics

The layouts in the Valentina comics see an arrangement of horizontal and vertical panels that span a wealth of different sizes and shapes as a scene unfolds. Floating orbs, blocky type for sound effects that punctuate the scenes, and cascading rubbery squiggles draw on Crepax’s ad agency days and lend a playful, hallucinatory aura to strips that are already barely grounded in what the author called “a dreamlike world.” All textiles, wallpaper, and furnishings are graphically elaborate, and in an intricate half-page montage panel in “The Subterraneans” and elsewhere, Crepax’s women don flashy, mod apparel emblazoned with fanciful patterns and designs.

A photo shoot in the studio beneath Valentina’s apartment sounds dry on paper, but it’s wondrous in Crepax’s hands, with the action having been split at one point into a 24-panel page. Draped in ornate lingerie, Valentina—whose look owes partly to French New Wave, silent film legend Louise Brooks, and to Crepax’s wife, Luisa—and her stringy-haired counterpart slink fluidly through stacks of small square boxes positioned alongside slim landscape panels. Later, our focus bounces from the forms of hostile sea serpents undulating in the backdrops, to the pitch-black bangs that perpetually tumble down and obscure Valentina’s forehead, and of course, to a wealth of sensual closeups—lips, eyes, torsos, everything.

Read Derik Badman’s column on Guido Crepax at The Comics Journal. See more information on the English editions of Crepax’s collected comics at Fantagraphics Books.