This short, classic Italian graphic novel of 1986 is more like a poem than anything else. It takes a fairly familiar topic—the colonial encounter between a mechanized imperial civilization and a civilization without a state and without complex technological development—and performs a colorful fantasia, less narrative than lyric.
It concerns a Colonel Absinthe who serves on the ship Anselm II. This warship is on a mission to assess and possibly to destroy the natives of the island of Saint Agatha, which is about to be annexed by the “new state of Sillantoe.”
Already, these names suggest some allegory: according to the Internet, Saint Agatha is the patron saint of fire and is renowned for her resistance to the Roman Empire; Anselm II was a medieval pope who defended the rights of the church, as against the state, to appoint figures who combined temporal and spiritual authority, such as bishops and abbots (thus, unlike Agatha, he represents a commingling of spiritual power with political power); and Absinthe conjures up bohemia and the lives of garret-bound artists, or, to put it another way, that part of the middle and upper classes in modernity that rejects their class position to pursue spiritual ends, what the sociologist of art Pierre Bourdieu calls “the dominated fraction of the dominant class.” (I have no idea what “Sillantoe” is supposed to evoke, however.)
The story in Fires is simple: Colonel Absinthe defects from his mission and follows a pair of mysterious twins into the fiery island, where he, in the old colonial phrase, “goes native.” He fights to “preserve the mystery of Saint Agatha…this island which has set his mind on fire.” This leads to his imprisonment by his shipmates and a final battle between the naval force and the natives of the island. Mattotti’s poetic narration tells us that the colonizers “would soon vomit out a torrent of fire to defend themselves against other fires they couldn’t manage to understand.” In other words, machine civilization is based on a rationalization of fire, which word we can take to signify passion, desire, and the unconscious, as well as the literal flames of industry and weaponry. For this reason, it must put out the rival and unrationalized fires of other places and ways of life.
For most of my reading of this comic, I found it a bit too pat, if pleasingly lyrical. But the ending, which reveals the entire text to be the work of a painter who lives in “a suburban apartment…full of totems and ritual objects” redeems the narrative. This is not a neat denunciation of colonialism, but an allegory for the various fires—rationalized and unnationalized—that war in the soul of the artist, the figure in modernity who is least cut off from the knowledge of those other fires that modernity has put out. “Absinthe” turns out to be the key word—it names the artist’s passport to the psychedelia that would interfere with any attempt to “civilize” the world. But the story ends with the painter renouncing the fires: “I’ve had enough of that fire illuminating the night. In my head I want the daylight.” Relocating the conflict, and its cessation, from history to the inner life of the artist allows this work to be more honest about its own place in the history it evokes; it would be too simple for the modern western artist to denounce imperialism and technology, since he is in so many ways their beneficiary if not their product, even as his subjectivity both resists and adorns them. This is scrupulous writing.
Fires is justly celebrated for its art, which combines various currents of modernism (Expressionism, Fauvism, Cubism and more) with an almost Disney-like expressivity and simplification of character. And Mattotti’s use of color—gray and blue for the battleship; black and red for the fiery island, until they swirl together in their conflict—creates an atmosphere that communicates the themes almost through visuals alone. And the modulation to a soft yellowish Impressionist’s palette at the end is a welcome shock. His storytelling—simple in its use of a six-panel grid—mostly gets out of the way to let the prose-poetry of the narration and the vigor of the color and design set the reader’s own mind on fire.