A familiar story. One could call this book an epic, a saga, a quest, a spiritual voyage, a family drama, an ode to the reenchantment of the world, a research into freedom. But at the end of the day, the purpose of Guirlanda is to present us with a familiar story.
A hefty tome with almost 400 pages, with soft cardboard covers and what feels like an embossed title, Guirlanda promises from the start an uncommon experience. On the surface, it may seem that this is quite a straightforward story, and it is so, to a certain extent. The time signature is linear, there’s a very conservative page composition approach, and despite the sub-division of the reader’s attention on two or three parallel storylines, they all diverge from the same point and end up united. But the path that the book invites us to traverse is found, as the cliché goes, in the journey itself.
Guirlanda is the name of the landscape where the story starts, a place filled with soft plains and meadows and beautiful, huge flowers that are found near lakes, and that act as the birth-beds of the newly-arrived. The name is derived from the guirs, peaceful, laid-back anthropomorphic creatures that remind one of, at one time, caricatures of primitive people, hippies in a lovely commune, but also apes or sea lions. In a fantastical mixture, guirs have a world and a worldview of their own, apparently separated from everything else. There are also flying guirs, it seems, but they’re always looked at from a distance. If the title means clearly “The Land of the Guirs,” it is also possible to read it as a slight transformation of the French guirlande or the Italian ghirlànda, that is to say, garland, a flower wreath. So there are two basic meanings from the get go. On the one hand, the idea of celebration and the contribution of the most beautiful nature: flowers, as colorful and scented as it can be. Filled with the promise of life, of seeds, of rebirth. And the guirs seem to occupy most of their time in the contemplation and pleasures afforded by nature (which is not something external to them). On the other hand is the idea of a circle, a dance, a journey.
It is quite possible that an attempt to reduce the story to a brief synopsis will probably sound a little silly and simple-minded. The story of the guir Hyppolite and his quest to rejoin his wife, Cochenille, and their just-born daughter, Albine. Hyppolite is the son of the tribe’s shaman, Zacharie, whose visions and magic are not much help in the two crisis that start the adventure. The wrath of the mountain (called “Hoarse”), awaken by Hypollite when he was trying to reach Cochenille and their baby daughter, and the fact that Albine may have wonderful, newfangled powers that will change guir society forever, something that is not accepted by all.
What starts as a normal, calm day turns guir society on its head, pulling the shaman away, opening a power void filled by an external creature, and pushing Hyppolite, on the one hand, and Cochenille, Albine and the shaman-father, on the other, in a long-winded odyssey. But beyond the apparently straightforward synopsis, Guirlanda hides an actually dense plot, filled with possible symbolism and an initiatic quality. In fact, it is quite difficult not to find in this narrative a myriad of elements that would connect it to an ages-old literary European tradition, some of which with occultist tones. Guirlanda could be described as a treasure trove of classical tropes, which makes Hyppolyte’s travels and travails akin to those of Ulysses, Dante, Parzival, Gargantua, Quijote, Christian and Alice, not to mention some of the popular culture versions of the katabasis structure (the descent into Hell), like Tolkien´s Frodo or Sendak’s Max. It’s not difficult at all to imagine that despite the superficial events of Guirlanda, an esoteric interpretation is quite possible, and perhaps even easy, of the several steps, places and dialogs that take place along its pages. Such a reading would reinforce this framework of references and perhaps expand it.
Hyppolite will meet a number of momentary guides and helpers, he will come across both benign and malevolent kings and hunters, he will descend to hell, and he will be bestowed with particular visions, both natural and mystical, each of which will expand the social and natural landscape of Guirlanda and beyond. Apart from the very narrative structure, that makes it almost a picture-perfect case for the study of the mentioned classical tropes of initiation stories, it associates itself also with fantastic travel stories. We can think of the moralistic tales of Gulliver or of John de Mandeville, to start with, but the focus is more on the sheer pleasure of exploring the diversity of the landscapes and creatures, dispensing with comparisons, satire or judgment values altogether.
The menagerie is astonishing. We have the guirs themselves (the walking, talking ones and the distant flying ones). But we also have all the other creatures with which Hyppolite crosses paths: from the Wind Whales to the Rain Monkeys, from the Leopard-Bird to the Bird of Fate, the Zirbec, the small giant Sea Snail, the Petal-Heads and the Hoarse Mountain. These may remind one of the magical, eccentric Surrealist travelogues of Henri Michaux (In the Land of Magic, A Barbarian in Asia, and so on), in which subtle, swift and impressive anecdotes contribute in a much more effective manner to the emergence of a strong emotional response from the reader instead of a full-fledged description and contextualization. But this bestiary is not disconcerting at all. It is its very creative research that welcomes the reader to its discovery. For the cliché about the pleasure in the journey is not only expressed at the level of the story – despite Hyppolite’s and his family anxiety to come together once again – but particularly at the level of the telling.
It is my belief that the whimsical landscape of Guirlanda was born out of Mattotti’s own need to make a world flourish out of the very nature of his free drawing. Despite his many years of collaboration with Kramsky, and having no information to back this up, this seems to be a book less guided by a coherent “writer’s” vision than something that emerges from the sheer pleasure of scribbling and doodling. In the many moments when magic happens in the plot, brief sequences of metamorphosis take place, with shapes of smoke and light and sound and matter turning and twisting. And although they’re subsumed to the actual events of the story, one can’t shake the feeling that there’s a slight abandonment to the utter pleasure of drawing, as if it’s on the verge of taking over everything else. It never makes it towards total abstraction or non-narrativity, to be sure, but it’s close. It opens up enough space to imagine that these magical forces are tapping into that mythical sphere where things have not taken form yet, where everything is shapeless yet, and from which everything stems, a place which Goethe called the “Realm of the Mothers.”
It should come as no surprise then, that the book is dedicated to French-Belgian “bande dessiné” master artists Moebius and Fred, inventors of the similar world-crossing sagas of, respectively, John Difool (The Incal, with Jodorowsky) and Philémon, but more importantly, artists whose ideas were born out of an insistent manual-graphic practice, more than an intellectual, planned effort (one is reminded of Moebius’ free-flowing, unplanned first chapters of Le Garage Hermétique). Point in fact, the volume is bookended by a collection of loose, non-diegetic drawings by Mattotti, some of which share characters or even apparent scenes with the story within. But not all. This makes me imagine that the storyworld, its characters and even specific concepts were born out of the acts of drawing, over which Kramsky leaned, and then molded and snapped together into a coherent whole.
Tove Jansson’s Moomins are also cited in the epigraph. But in this case it’s the work, not the author. Perhaps what is being underlined in relation to the Moomins are the stylistic choices (the guir look like grown and mustachioed moomins) and the general ambient, instead of the stories themselves. I may be wrong.
I don’t think that it is necessary to dig that much to understand which artistic traditions Mattotti is responding to. This is an artist that wears proudly and flamboyantly his graphic heritages on his sleeve. In this particular case, Mattotti’s loose, fluid, yet meticulous, not to mention self-demanding line work harks back to 19th century masters such as Daumier (in his most caricatural), T.S. Sullivant, A. B. Frost and, above all, Heinrich Kley. However, one could also think of people as distinct as Harry Clarke or Odilon Redon for the non-realist, oneiric approach to the construction of these worlds and the creatures that inhabit them.
Of course, the Italian graphic arts has an incredible roster of drawing artists whose non-naturalistic, high stylization was employed in similar worldbuilding fields, whether or not associated with comics, from Sergio Tofano and Antonio Rubino to Luciano Bottaro. Let’s not start mentioning names from the visual arts, or we wouldn’t stop. Suffice it to say that when Mattotti entered the scene, with the Valvoline group, along the likes of Igort, he made quite a splash thanks to his distorted figures, the bombastic narrative approach, the whimsical imagination and, above all, the swirling, shiny, and almost unruly pastel colors.
Mattotti was heralded as a master of “direct color” in the late 1980s, when the fireworks of his books – whether solo (Il Signor Spartaco, Fires) or collaboration projects, of which Fabrizio “Jerry Kramsky” Ostani is the most prominent (Labyrinthes, Doctor Nefasto, and Murmure), – suddenly exploded into the pages of Italian, French and Brazilian magazines. However, one must not be eluded by his overwhelming output as a comics artist and illustrator specialized in kaleidoscopic whirlpools of color to the point of forgetting his works with a vibrant, frantic black line on white paper. L’uomo alla finestra, written by Lilia Ambrosi came out as early as 1992, the tour de force Stigmate, written by Claudio Piersanti, in 1998, and two smaller, independent European houses put out his short, yet delirious L’arbre du penseur and Chimère. More recently, his outstanding, stark and intricate drawings for Hansel and Gretel were put together in a book with an English version of the folktale by Neil Gaiman. All of them star these wonderful, almost impenetrable filigreed crossed lines that cluster into a myriad of moving forms or, on the contrary, the subtlest, intangible trace that seems on the verge of disappearing into nothingness. Quite often, it is the tension of these two forces of the line that make up Mattotti’s real strengths as an artist’s artist.
Nevertheless, in comparison to that whole output, Guirlanda seems to reach a lighter note, even in the sense of the ligne claire tradition. At the forefront, legibility. But expression is not put aside. Quite the contrary. Thanks to the use of a fine pen to draw the lines Mattotti, following Saul Steinberg’s advice, takes the lines for a walk. And what a walk.
(a thank you note to Casterman for the review copy)