Review by Frank Plowright
Pauline Reage’s The Story of O was the Fifty Shades of Grey of its day, a sexually explicit journey of one woman’s complete and willing submission. Disturbing and provocative, it remains a divisive work, being portrayed as the ultimate unpleasant objectification of women by its detractors, and as the ultimate personification of personal freedom via that willing reduction to a sexual object. A difficult book, therefore, to adapt as a graphic novel with any degree of sensitivity, and despite his formidable reputation, it’s not a fine line that Guido Crepax manages to straddle.
That’s largely due to the limitations of the original text, as there can be no complaints about the art. It’s Crepax near his absolute best, a luxuriously illustrated fantasy in which Crepax lovingly laboured over every brush stroke. To take one example, whipping scenes are so frequent the horror is almost removed, yet Crepax draws them differently on every occasion, sometimes with multiple small panels, sometimes in almost full pages, using different angles, and with the whips themselves differentiated. When a cat o’ nine tails is used, Crepax has the cords swirling wildly, and others are taut. To anyone uncomfortable with sexual violence, no matter how willing the participants, Crepax’s lingering, though beautiful, illustrations ingrain the pain far more effectively than the original prose.
Refinement is a characteristic of the adaptation. Crepax’s women are slim, languid, with high cheek bones, and pouting expressions, and his art consistently reflects the fashions of the 1920s to provide an evocative visual setting,
A reason the original story is so disturbing is the placidity of O as she endures what to most would be abuse of the worst kind, mental and physical, and Crepax accentuates this. There are long wordless sequences, and we never really know O’s true feelings. She’s consistently acquiescent, but the reasons for her devotion are never clarified, so she remains a beautiful and complaint enigma.
For anyone whose sexual inclinations involve BDSM, whether voyeuristic or participatory, it’s difficult to image there’s a more lush or ornate graphic novel depiction of its intricacies. Alternatively, in these days of Suicide Girls, it may be seen as altogether too tame.
There have been several English language editions of Crepax’s The Story of O over the years. The original 1970s Grove Press version is to be avoided for both a lazy translation and lopping out over thirty pages, seemingly more due to cost than fear of censorship. The 2009 edition from NBM’s Eurotica imprint is the version of choice, with quality binding and pristine white paper. Latterly, it’s combined with Crepax’s other erotica Justine in a single volume.