Thursday, May 9, 2013

THE STORY OF O Graphic Novel Reviewed

In 2009, I reviewed THE STORY OF O hardcover collection of the late Guido Crepax's comic book adaptation of the Pauline Reage's classic of sado-masochistic eroticism.  I just discovered that the out-of-print collection is now available digitally at Comixology. So, I present that link here and reprint my review in full for any who might be curious.  The price for the digital is $9.99 or you can download a 10-page preview version for free.  Here's the link.

Writer: Pauline Reage
Artist: Guido Crepax
Publisher: NBM Comics Lit/Eurotica

O realized that through the medium of her body shared between them…they attained something more mysterious and perhaps more intense than an amorous bond…a union of which the very conception was arduous.”

To review hardcore erotica of the sort like THE STORY OF O is a challenging task, at least for me. It is easy to approach something like this with a flippant adolescent mocking tone. But, as far as I’m concerned, that does a disservice to the artist’s intent in something like this. For those who may be unfamiliar with the story itself, the original prose version of THE STORY OF O was first published in the 1950s and was a shockingly explicit and brutal yet also sensual and erotic examination of sexual submission. The story was so shocking, in fact, that the French government attempted to suppress it. In the most graphic of details, this misogynistic story involves a man’s deliverance of a series of progressively more degrading, painful, and humiliating sexual abuses to his mate. Through these acts of bondage, pain, and shame he breaks her spirit and reduces her to his complete and utter will-less sexual slave….even to the point of having her branded with his initials.

Even in these more “open” times with all forms of pornography available to anyone with access to the internet, the story is still shocking in the extent to which the writer…a woman herself…dove headlong into the deepest parts of the human sexual dark places. It is a dirty thing to read. It is harsh and mean and twisted. After each new level of abuse that O endures, her husband makes her tell him she loves him. If she reaches a point of enjoying the pain or abuse, then the abuse is increased until she breaks again. It is a story of depravity and how such debasement can be twisted into love.

Ultimately, while the original novel itself is a classic of erotic literature because of the times in which it was first published, this graphic adaptation by Guido Crepax is a classic itself even though it was not originally published until the 1970s. Crepax, who passed away in 2003, was an amazing Italian comic artist who tore down barriers in his commitment to using the comic book form to tell truly adult stories. In his attempts to liberate the European world of comic art in the 1960s and 1970s from the emphasis on childish content, he boldly stepped up and tackled sex and pure erotica as his own emphasis. From his own original character Valentina to adapting classics of erotica in graphic form, he established himself as a master of the sexual genre and comic art medium. Crepax’s adaptation of THE STORY OF O is widely considered his magnum opus….and with good reason.

In this review, I’m not going to attempt to give an opinion on the “story” because that would be akin, in my opinion, to reviewing a Classics Illustrated adaptation of…say…A CHRISTMAS CAROL… and actually taking time to talk about Charles Dickens’ efforts in writing the original story. So, I will let the story stand on its own and I’ll let each reader determine his or her own degree of comfortability with it. Instead, let me address what is paramount in this new hardbound complete collection of Crepax’s adaptation…which was originally serialized…and that is Crepax’s efforts here as illustrator of Pauline Reage’s story.

First of all, the Eurotica imprint of NBM Publishing has done a beautiful job of packaging this book together. Crepax’s work is entirely in stark black and white, as befits the story itself, and the book designers have utilized his work in crafting an attractive black cover with a gorgeous small panel of O’s face blindfolded and with a chained collar on her neck. It is perfectly symbolic of the overall theme of the book itself and slyly provocative enough to catch the casual observer’s eye with its placement surrounded by so much blackness…once again the use of black also symbolizing the harsh darkness of the world the reader is about to enter. The subtle and unique circular signature of “Guido Crepax” is also positioned on the cover so that those who know the name also know what they are about to encounter within the pages of this book. The end papers are almost entirely black except for a series of 1” x 1 ½” panels running horizontal from end to end to where they almost look like a series of frames from a film. The panels present O performing graphic sexual acts of submission and guide the reader to turn the page where the next two pages are entirely white except for an ever so subtle profile image of O’s face with her open mouth and extended tongue directing the reader to turn the page and start the story.

Crepax is a master storyteller and he wields a lyrical brush. His style is beautiful with a nouveau tendency towards elongated bodies and necks especially…but not grotesquely so. The smoothness of his brush work just glides across the page in most instances and only in the most intense moments does he allow his work to get rough and scratchy. It usually flows beautifully and sensually…especially in those moments of tenderness usually reserved for moments of woman to woman love-making. When the misogynistic men are raping and abusing O, his work gets harsher and it makes for an interesting contrast in emotional impact.

I found his storytelling in panels to almost be a class in and of itself in how to deliver information to the reader. As graphic as he gets in showing all forms of sex and brutality, what is also fascinating are his artistic choices in what he chooses NOT to show and leave to the reader’s imagination. Such decisions are what make this work so effective from an artistic perspective. This is not a happy work. It is not a joyful work. It is something that should shock the reader’s sense of propriety and what’s right. It should even generate disgust and anger at moments. And yet, the beauty of Crepax’s art somehow makes it palatable and I found it to be something I couldn’t put down…and have gone back to a number of times to look at his approach to presenting progression and movement. Crepax uses minimal line work at times when he wants the reader to feel more sensual and then heavy and harsher linework when he wants the reader to be repulsed and shocked.

He utilizes very little actual dialogue in this adaptation; instead he delivers the narrative primarily through pictures. He takes an approach to the page that never follows the standard comic book panel format but completely shakes it up with utter inconsistency in panel choices. Indicative of the trauma that O is undergoing in her life, the reader is never allowed the reliable precision of the standard 6 panel comic book page. Through it all, however, one thing never changes and is reliable….O is never less than always beautifully sexual. Crepax makes sure that her sexual beauty draws the reader’s eye even when the heart or mind might want to pull away from the events that are unfolding.

Guido Crepax truly was a master storyteller, and while he may have focused his talents in an area that many are afraid to go, if you can handle the content, Crepax’s THE STORY OF O is actually a must-have for those who love graphic storytelling in all its many forms.