Though an historical narrative, Jodorowsky and Manara's "Borgia: Flames from Hell," which was published in the July 2009 issue of Heavy Metal, has more in common with the writer's science-fiction epics of the Incal universe than his other, non-science-fiction comics. The story opens with a masked orgy on Easter 1494 and concerns events in the lives of Rodrigo de Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, and two of his children, Lucrezia and the legendary schemer Cesare.
This similarity is more or less superficial, however, because unlike the late filmmaker, whose more or less deterministic films emphasize the utter powerlessness of humans to effect the doomed circumstances in which they find themselves, Jodorowsky, who at the same time has a sympathy and love for his human subjects that is notably absent from Kubrick's films, clearly believes that insofar as humans find themselves in dire straits, it is result of their own actions. Moreover, Jodorowsky has faith in the ability of humans to better their circumstances--witness John DiFool and his fellows in the Incal stories.
"Flames from Hell," like the stories in the Incal cycle, is concerned with what happens when people are not forced to expend much of their time and energy toward the business of survival. In his science-fiction stories, these circumstances come about as a result of technological advancement and in this latter story, they are a function of one family's accumulation of enormous wealth and power.
Jodorowsky's billionaires are most certainly not renaissance versions of Bill and Melinda Gates. Rather than committing their wealth to legitimate civic or philanthropic ventures, the Borgias concern themselves solely with the consolidation of power. Rodrigo de Borgia expended enormous sums to secure his election to the papacy and his reign is noted for its decadence.
The story of Alexander VI's papacy is summed up brilliantly in the sequence that opens with the masked orgy. The pope is presented masked in a king's costume and is engaged in the business of searching for his ideal queen. When a beautiful woman approaches, masked and in queen's garb, the "king" wastes no time in dragging her across the hall to an altar, which he summarily clears with a sweep of his royal arm, setting her upon it and mounting her as the object of his carnal worship.
This sequence highlights the subtle splendor of Manara's illustrations. The king's mask is represented more or less consistently--open faced, with lips parted. However, as the action changes from panel to panel, subtle shifts in Manara's illustrations reflect Rodrigo's state: determination as he drags his queen across the hall, bemused wonder as he lovingly removes his queen's stockings and finally culminating in the couple's post-coital embrace. Manara's rendering of the king's mask in this panel brilliantly expresses that look of confused disbelief--the "what the fuck have i just done" face--that many have felt in the moments just after sexual release. That Rodrigo discovers in the following panels that the woman he has just bedded is his own daughter Lucretia is almost anticlimactic in the wake of this brilliant rendering.
Unlike many contemporary skeptics, however, Jodorowsky recognizes the beauty in religion and even the potential good of spiritual traditions. In stories such as Megalex, mankind's way out of the mind-deadening drudgery of a wholly artificial world is depicted in part through pagan spirituality and in "Flames from Hell," the greatest potential challenge to the tyranny of the Borgias is represented by religious reformers such as Savonarola. Jodorowsky never entirely relinquishes his stance as an ironist, however, and even these reformers are shown in all their folly. In one sequence in "Flames from Hell," the monk Savonarola is portrayed leading a purifying demonstration outside the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. One of the gathered penitents is the great renaissance painter Botticelli, who throws his painting "Three Nymphs Trying to Awaken Eros from his Sleep" into the raging fire, vowing never to "let perverted genitals guide my brushes again!"
I discovered, unsurprisingly, that any panel which might have depicted penetration or even mere genitalia had been somewhat sloppily edited to censor out this apparently offensive material. Some of the examples are as ridiculous as that mentioned above, including a rotund woman who is wearing what contemporaries might refer to as "granny panties" even while she is obviously being fucked by her oldster husband.
I am going to fess up and say this is the first "new" issue of Heavy Metal I have purchased since becoming a comics reader about 18 months ago. Be that as it may, I do know that the magazine is typically sold with protective shrink-wrap and that in the older issues in my collection, the editors did not seem to have balked at sexually explicit material in the same way. I don't know if this is indicative of a permanent shift in the magazine's presentation, but it seems that for a magazine whose only draw anymore seems to be that the comics published in its pages tend to be sexually explicit, this is a legendarily stupid marketing decision. It also perpetuates a sort of characterization of American comics readers as prudish bumpkins who cannot be trusted with intellectually or sexually sophisticated material.
Whatever the significance of this nanny-ish censorship, it is a genuinely good thing to see that at 80 years old, Alejandro Jodorowsky can still write great comics and that somebody in this country can drum up the enthusiasm to publish them. With the newly minted publishing arrangement between Devil's Due Press and Les Humanoïdes Associés, American readers can hopefully look forward to more of Jodorowsky's books appearing on our shores. The translations may be shoddy and the images censored, but this is an artist whose work deserves to be read in whatever form we can get it.