Fierce cross-hatching; etch-like swirls and sword-slashes of ink which seem to score the page, engraving their dark mark; chapter-opening solitary images akin to relief decorations on fine Roman pottery. So strikes Blutch’s Peplum, beginning with the Ides-of-March conspirators rounding on Caesar, backstabbing him Brutus-ly—just after a few men, in a cave in the coldest reaches of the Empire, find a woman entombed in ice. One of them is Publius Cimber, banished from Rome (Caesar’s decree motivated brother Metellus to join the gang of assassins), but he’s soon slain and his identity stolen by a young man bent on making the ice-goddess his alone . . .
The French cartoonist’s signal 1996 work, only now published in English, offers an Ancient Rome daubed in blood and darkness—it’s dingy, brutal, primal. This cradle of Western civilization is re-envisioned as a shadow-realm of frenzied madness, torment, and desire. Characters are shadowed by Blutch’s lines as if all men are marked by sin and degradation. According to translator Edward Gauvin in his introduction, Blutch (Christian Hincker)—inspired here by the notion of a quasi-sequel to Petronius’ Satyricon—has felt increasingly disinterested in too-expository images and connect-the-plot work. You can sense his eagerness in these pages to let the purposely purple-prose dialogue-balloons drift away and leap into comix-imagery alone, rendered down to movement and form: flashes of merchants and animals below-deck; the vast, wave-brimming sea; a tumult of boarding pirates. There are moments of iconic stillness: tableaus of men; some of Blutch’s stricken figures seem to metamorphose into statuary.
Words can be stilted, as though mortals are mere mouthpieces for sententious statements, with the plot dancing along a bit disjointedly before sputtering out strangely in the end. Crude and brutal passions course on—the imposter-vagabond takes up with a beautiful lad but must surrender him to a besotted general in return for the ice-woman still captivating him. (The obvious refusal in this bawdy story to show male nudity confounds.) But Peplum’s faults as story seem pettily beside the point—this book isn’t so much a book as a procession of images to be beheld, a sensual spectacle to be felt. It’s the fervour and rush, seething and surging off Blutch’s pages, which leaves the most savage impression.