Late nite posting.

*Edited from before!

Heavy Metal Vol. XXX No. 3 (July 2006)

(most pertinently containing therein)

Borgia #2 (of 3): Power and Incest

Many strange omens in this particular issue of Heavy Metal, the newest one. Constant readers of this site know well that I’ve recently gotten on a kick of reading 1970's issues of that reliable newsstand comics presence, still easily the most visible showcase for European comics available in the US, and probably in possession of one of the meatier circulations among comics periodicals in general - if I walk into a chain bookstore, I know I’ll find a smattering of major Marvel/DC superhero pamphlets, I can count on spotting a little Archie here and there, and I’ll place a bet upon on bumping into Heavy Metal, helpfully sealed in plastic and set back amongst the upper-deck stroke slicks. And it just so happens that this newest issue features a letter in regards to a very old short piece, the correspondent wondering what issue the work first appeared it - it was one of the ‘70s issues I’d just happened to recently read myself. A sign!

Funny that I should even see such a letter; I don’t read contemporary issues of Heavy Metal unless the feature presentation (usually consisting of a single comics album, often part of a serial, though there’s two of them stuffed into the recurring Specials) looks good, as the supporting content generally can’t be counted on for counterbalancing quality, not from my experience. And even if said feature looks nice, there’s always the possibility of content editing to deal with - as fate would again have it, publisher/editor-in-chief Kevin Eastman confronts this topic directly in this very issue’s letters column, positioning the magazine’s occasional use of after-the-fact visual obstacles as insurance against its Canadian readership being denied entire issues via customs trouble. “We very rarely censor anything we publish and try not to at all costs,” says Eastman, and merely from perusing this single issue one is inclined to at least accept that the limits are set rather far out to sea; there’s male and female nudity aplenty, baroque gore and grotesqueries up and down, religious and social taboos smashed left and right, and all sorts of heterosexual and homosexual (male and female) acts either implied, depicted in a prudent (as far as these things go) manner, or glimpsed full-on in longshot. No, that never removes the gentle scratching sensation in the back of the concerned reader’s brain, wondering if they’re really seeing what they’re supposed to be seeing, though certainly the magazine isn’t trying to hammer adults only content into stuff appropriate for teens. Presumably, material directly depicting sexual penetration/stimulation in medium to close-up is what’s problematic, simply by virtue of it being conspicuously absent, though that’s not what was edited out in the last issue of Heavy Metal I read - that was a scene of purely excessive violence (or, rather, the aftermath of said violence) done to certain portions of the male anatomy.

The edited story I refer to was Borgia: Blood for the Pope, from writer Alejandro Jodorowsky and artist Milo Manara; it was recently released unedited in hardcover album format. The 52-page feature story in this issue is the second chapter of what is now revealed to be an eventual Jodorowsky/Manara trilogy, all of it concerning the atrocious exploits of authentic 15th-16th century personage Rodrigo Borgia and his wicked, debauched family, as they strive to maintain control over church and state in Rome (one and the same, pretty much) whilst indulging as many of their Earthly desires as possible. Obviously I liked the first spin enough to specifically purchase this new installment, and it’s really quite simple why - every chapter in the Borgia saga is pretty much a lavish historical exploitation film on paper, presenting itself as a cultured, deeply ironic look at Renaissance corruption and maneuvering, while utterly soaking in vivid depictions of excessive behavior. The trick is, the excess doesn’t destroy the culture or irony, but merely makes them into helpful servants, much like Rodrigo himself utilizing the costume of piety to attain his every immediate lust. There’s also genuine wit, and some very lovely art from Manara (soon to be providing X-Men visuals for the European market). But this is exploitation, and ‘70s-style Eurosleaze exploitation at that, leaving nothing to the imagination. It stands in fairly sharp contrast to some of the magazine’s other pages, like a David Michael Beck art gallery that wouldn’t seem out of place in Wizard, heavy on scantly-clad babes and superheroic figures, and a text accompaniment that assures us that Mr. Beck’s wife is “voluptuous.” To say nothing of the constant advertisements for (mostly) pornographic anime, heavy on the rape/torture/humiliation with touches of other fetishes (breast milk, anyone?).

No, Borgia is secure enough to be vulgar, but does appear to be in possession of a working brain, a sense of humor, and a certain visual aplomb. The initial outing concluded with Rodrigo being named Pope Alexander VI (the actual election having taken place in 1492), and it’s probably possible to just boil down this chapter’s theme to ‘Rodrigo Borgia - Nastiest Pope Ever.” But it’s not easy being Pope! Few of the common folk care to respect their new spiritual leader, so they’ve turned en mass to debauchery in the streets. King Charles VIII of France is itching to march into the ‘country’ (really more a mass of city-states at the time) and replace Borgia with the ambitious Cardinal Della Rovere. The really quite mad Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola of Florence (of Bonfire of the Vanities infamy) is preaching Papal overthrow. And successors and decedents are still needed to carry on the Borgia tradition.

Fortunately, the Pope has with him four loyal children to aid in his quest for total power, and family sticking together is what’s most important to Rodrigo. Which is why he encourages son Cesare and daughter Lucrezia to have plenty of sex, so their hearts will always belong to one another - His Holiness beatifically gives the Sign of the Cross as the two young ones consummate their union, as additional sons Giovanni (“Even though the female sex disgusts me, I’ll do as you say, father!”) and Jofre (“I’m no longer a child, I’m almost thirteen. My pubic hair is growing and I can’t wait to start fornicating...”) look on in wonder. Rodrigo also has the aid of some trusted servants, like Niccolò Machiavelli, who traffics in both sage advice and slaves (the actual Machiavelli would base much of his famous tome The Prince on the actual intrigues of Cesare Borgia) - I’m hoping for Leonardo da Vinci to pop up in the final chapter, as he briefly served as Cesare’s military engineer/architect, an incident I’m sure Jodorowsky won’t be able to resist.

After all, if Borgia is ‘about’ anything beyond killing and fucking in high style, it’s about the base human desires at the bottom of such lofty things as religious legend, political rhetoric, and historic lecture. “Anna, my dear, make Mary’s bosom bigger. The men like to get excited when they look at Our Lady!” remarks an icon maker to his wife, neatly summing it all up. In Jodorowsky’s version of events, religion clads itself in only the finest but is never anything more than a tool to herd uneducated people around, though the rich and poor are united anyway through common yearnings and hungers; even the true believers are political animals, just without the benefit of sanity. Cesare aches to unite Italy into a strong nation, but it's all so much masculine posturing and his increasingly jealous desire for his blissfully amoral sister (upon receiving a new slave she notes “Hmmm... I hope you know how to use your tongue better than a dog...”), betrothed to the slobbish, boorish, and entirely gay Giovanni Sforza, Milan’s hottest political player, much to the bitchy delight of Giovanni Borgia - students of historical rumor already know how that little sibling rivalry will resolve itself in Chapter 3. Juat enough of this stuff is true (or at least viable rumor seriously considered) that Jodorowsky needs merely present things one after another, amping it up through sheer cumulative force to pry beneath the surface of cherished tradition and dry noble subterfuge. We'll forgive him all the bits he probably made up.

Through it all, there’s Manara, that popular star of erotic comics, providing sumptuously straightforward vistas and decoration, oft idealized bodies and scrupulously referenced faces (whether from historical materials or perhaps simply contemporary photos) remaining expressive under their heavy realism - a great, funny bit with the already hugely vain Lucrezia gazing into a mirror for the first time is sold as much through her facial expression as her “Ooh! I’m just like I was in my dreams!” exclamation, not to mention the fine comedy of Machiavelli snuggling up to a pair of slaves and smirking (“The rhythm of the music helps me!” - did I mention there’s one character introduced early on for the specific purpose of standing around in later bits playing a guitar?). But when there’s time for visions, armored horses ripping through the skies and St. Anne weeping tears of blood, the work attains a necessary temporary depth of devotion, hallucination sold alongside sensual congress as a genuine product of humanity. Such bombastic sights manage to fit right in with the crucifixions and flesh-eating dogs and Where’s Waldo? type orgies.

There’s actually a few worthy short pieces included in this issue as well. Marcelo Sosa’s The Ladies and the Knight taps into the same brand of bawdy fun as the feature, and Jean-Pierre Autheman provides a chatty, attractive little slice-of-life. Other works by popular names fall shorter, like a Luis Royo-drawn piece that sports only a few panels of slightly memorable visual surrealism to its credit, or a pretty dire Paul Jenkins-written short about a woman who makes a deal with doom for the sake of love. But as I said before, everything is but seasoning for the main course in this magazine for me - this time, I was filled nicely.