Who is an iconoclast? The dictionary reads: “Destroyer of sacred images” and, figuratively, “unscrupulous and irreverent critic of principles and beliefs traditionally accepted as indisputable”. With Iconoclasthis latest comic published by Star Comics with the label Astra, Paul Martinello declines both concepts: physically starts from the first and psychologically enters the second in a book played on antitheses. Iconoclast it is in fact at the same time light and deep, funny and critical, ironic and dramatic, linear and stratified, cynical and emotional, predictable and unpredictable. It is a debate between iconoclasm and idolatry, less philosophical and more adventurous than two terms that are not exactly in common use might suggest.
A hooded man vandalizes a statue in a church. The tragicomic adventures of Laslo, a sexton who finds himself, despite himself, at the center of a mysterious prophecy and tossed here and there in more or less grotesque situations by depressed priests, inflexible perpetuals, new and old saints.
Before talking about Laslo, however, it is necessary to deal with the setting of the story, introduced with a prologue based on holy cards. Right through the small votive images of Catholic saints Martinello presents a reality halfway between uchronia and dystopia, in which the ranks of traditional Catholic saints have been joined by new ones, more modern and in line with needs, such as the patron saint of gamers and cosplayers, Saint Haruko. But despite the attempt at modernization, people have stopped believing in the power of images and with the so-called “Purga di Brigliadoro”, the statues present in the churches are covered, darkened and nobody is interested in them anymore. Among these statues there is a precious Madonna in the church of Santa Jennifer, where Laslo works: after the initial inconoclastic act, he is called to investigate the crime.
But Laslo is a sexton sui generis: a listless and faithless man, vicious and intolerant who has a difficult relationship with Don Ardito, the priest of Santa Jennifer who seems to helplessly witness the collapse of the values in which he believes. Furthermore, the protagonist is tormented in a dream by the three of the last newly elected saints of the church, who seek his help in resolving a question of “boundaries” between the world and the afterlife. Even with a personality in stark contrast to the role of savior of the world they want to give him, Laslo – who seems to possess a particular gift – is forced to evolve, but always in his own way. The sexton’s psychology initially appears simple, based on primary needs such as idleness and sex, but is destined to develop throughout the story until it returns, in the end, a protagonist if not profoundly different, at least open to change.
Alongside Laslo, Martinello arranges a rich cast of improbable and extravagant supporting actors, each of which carves out a functional role as history progresses, with relationships that continue to change and intersect. In addition to the three new saints and Don Ardito, stand out, for example, the perpetual Nadia, custodian of a knowledge unknown to most, her friend Giorgio, suffering from the syndrome of apparent alcoholic death, an elderly smoker and some know-it-all and unbearable cubs (i.e. young boy scouts), engaged in investigations into the changes that are affecting the Catholic Church. The role of antagonist is entrusted to Valdo Brigliadoro, proponent of the homonymous purge of the images of the saints.
In such a dense seething of characters, vampires could not be missing, even if they were Christians and belong to a group of cosplayers who want to obtain canonization by the church of Rome. Just two of them, Claudio and Giulia – who are going through a delicate marriage crisis accentuated by Laslo’s interest in the girl – play a central role and a twist revolves around them which introduces the book’s ending.
Noel manage the large number of characters of IconoclastMartinello succeeds in the difficult task of properly masking the archetypal components: the roles are confused, sometimes mixed and it is difficult, as well as useless, to try to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys.
Even the plot, which at first glance may appear linear even if chaotic, is set up around an organized narrative confusion, with not immediately recognizable flash-forwards and flashbacks that insert themselves into the narrative in present time with Laslo as the protagonist. The main narrative line also exploits interludes dedicated, for example, to the history of Christian vampires while the division into chapters (nine in addition to the prologue) facilitates the reading of a comic full of situations, contents and concepts to be assimilated. The result is that certain events seem to occur almost randomly around the protagonist, but in reality they gradually compose a pre-established plot that mixes a little reality, a little dream and a little madness, up to an ending traits poetic and vaguely “smiling”.
The improbable situations, sometimes grotesque and surrealallow Martinello to lightly approach various themes: from the evolution of faith and the faithful with original concepts such as that of the “harmonic void” applied to religion to spiritual matters, from sex to musical criticism, up to the meaning of life (in some ways similar to the 1983 film Monty Python – The meaning of life by Terry Jones).
The author also manages to bypass some passages that could easily have resulted in the caption: for example the need to explain technically the doctrine iconoclast is used as a narrative tool, with the thankless task of schoolteachers entrusted to the boy scouts who must be introduced into the story. Instead, the ironic thrust is powerful and omnipresent – always structured for a multi-level reading that allows reflections on our habits and on the society – which runs through everything Iconoclast with absurdities, paradoxes, puns and short purely comic sequences: jokes about the compilation of 730, irreverent gags like the one that closes plate 127 with a nun’s speech, opium suppositories, the Vatican that makes religion spectacular as if it were a carnival , the sequence of the football match (which begins at table 53) played by invalids addicted to vodka and glazed pork jaws.
For Iconoclast Martinello generally chooses a grid of three, four or five strips with regular vignettes, in which some sequences appear particularly incisive, especially in the finale, structured around the use of double vignettes in sequence. The sign tends towards the realistic and even, in some situations, takes it to the extreme, as in the super-realistic depiction of Jesus at table 181 or in an evocative sequence on page 292 (in this case, as reported by the author in the acknowledgments final, with the help of the designer Ariadne Farricella).
To underline the gloomy atmosphere that pervades the book, it is essential, in the total absence of solid blacks, the use of grays, which add volume to the characters and depth to the backgrounds. The physiognomies, postures and above all the faces of the characters are very detailed, while the new saints can boast almost iconographic presentations as in the case of Dolly Ramirez, visualized as a kind of Valkyrie riding a rabbit in the fresco of a church. Action scenes appear dynamic thanks to the acting intensity and kinetic lines. Martinello also confirms his ability as an illustrator in some quadruple vignettes or, as in the case of plate 107, full-page.
Iconoclast it is an authentic work, unbound by constraints, in which the author is free to give vent to his personality and to develop themes that evidently fascinate him and prompted him to ask himself a series of questions. The high pace, the constant tension and the high level of the drawings make reading a full-bodied book pleasant both in terms of foliation and in content and which requires, to return to the initial antitheses, to be read in one go and at the same time calmly and with concentration.
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Star Comics, 2022
304 pages, paperback, black and white – €20.00