Review by Frank Plowright
Comics have very few master stylists who arrived fully formed. Even Bill Sienkiewicz, who provides an admiring introduction to this collection, went through a phase of developing his work until it moved beyond his influences. However, every volume of Italian maestro Sergio Toppi’s work translated into English displays an artist who was comfortable with an utterly unique style from the mid-1970s onward.
If looking at his art in terms of the components, it often appears something that shouldn’t work. His impressionistic cross-hatching in small blocks of lines in different directions on faces should result in a mess, but they don’t. Unlike the given procedure taught in comic art classes, you can’t make out what most of Toppi’s stories are about from looking at the art alone, yet with the words they make perfect sense. Toppi chooses to highlight moments in the continuity, not panel to panel movement. The intensity of his detail is in places overwhelming. It’s easy to become lost in the fracturing he renders on rocks, or the lichen patterns he applies, yet that detail can be appreciated as the story is told without distracting from it. The page compositions show great consideration, yet the filling of them is intuitive. Toppi breaks so many cardinal rules, yet the results are still magnificent. Still not convinced? Consider this: how many of his contemporary comic artists do you think Bill Sienkiewicz genuinely admires?
Before comics Toppi was an illustrator, and the fine art influences can be spotted. The two sample pages both originate from the same story. There’s the celestial splendour of Gustave Doré on the left, while several pages appear influenced by Gustav Klimt. Imagine the right hand sample overlaid with plenty of gold and a few gems picked out in red. The absence of colour helps, but there’s no way on Earth combining those vastly different influences should result in coherence, yet it does. Strangely, the version of the diver on the back cover adds muted colour, disguising the influence.
Besides detail, Toppi loves nature, adventure, myth, legend and history. They’re all combined in ‘Black & Tans’, set during the Irish conflicts of the early 1900s. The story is simple enough, something that could have appeared in any number of US mystery anthologies over the years, but with the portraiture, bizarre designs (it opens with a crucifixion engraved on a celtic cross) and ornate stonework and clothing, it’s elevated to beauty.
Short stories contributed to anthologies were Toppi’s preferred form, not shackled by a lead character (although The Collector does have one), and the editors of these collections have arranged them in loose categories. Everything featured in The Enchanted World has a mystical or fairytale element, although the content spans the globe, and the moods are as many as the stones in a Toppi tower. The tales are poignant, funny, wry, heartbreaking, wistful, terrifying, horrific, allegorical, and very, very, pleasing.
Later collections are broadly grouped by the location of the people featured, with North America next.
It’s nice to see a commitment to keeping these volumes in print, with this now on its third English language edition. As amazing as the art is the cost. For a list price of $25 you’re getting a beautifully produced album-sized hardcover (love the rounded corners) and over 150 pages of phenomenal art. Double that price and it’ll get you the first ten issues of She-Hulk in hardback.