I’ve never really been a believer that some comics were “lost in translation.” I’ve always believed that great comics are great comics, no matter where they come from. So I’ve enjoyed plenty of European comics over the years, many of them coming from Coconino’s terrific line of Ignatz graphic novels. The Ignatz books are sumptuously-reproduced 32-page comics from all over the world, given a first class treatment in duotone with full-color dust jackets. Unfortunately, I found myself feeling that much of Baobab was lost on me.
It’s not that Kim Thompson’s translation from the Italian is bad; Far from it; Kim does his usual sterling job of presenting a lively and intelligent translation. The problem lies for me with Igort’s meandering pace in this comic.
I started out this book greatly intrigued by the lives of artists Pilade and Celestino at the dawn of comics. The two men are lifetime friends, who are both on the verge of great success in the comic field. The narration of their story flashes forward and back, sometimes acting as an omniscient narrator, other times simply eavesdropping on the two men’s fascinating conversations. I found myself completely interested in the lives of the two men, much as I am when reading a Will Eisner autobiography. I was tantalized by the excerpts from the two mens’ early strips, intrigued by worlds that I might never be able to explore again.
This aspect of the book is fascinating. It reminds me of what it’s like reading an article about a European comics strip that has never been reprinted in English. The article will often present a short excerpt of the strip, and sometimes that’s enough to hook a new reader. Such is the case here: I found myself wanting to hunt for more stories about Rufus Rollo, Pilade’s great creation, even though I knew that no such stories existed.
But about a dozen pages into the comic, this story takes a bizarre turn that simply makes me feel like there was something that I simply didn’t get. When the artists’ patron Mister Oceano suddenly dies of a heart attack, Celestino plunges into a deep depression. And here the comic takes a completely surrealistic turn. Instead of the charming and clearly drawn story I had been following, the story explodes into an expressionistic and dreamlike tale. Another cast member becomes ill, and the story just flows along, a fever dream of bones and fishes and men with bird’s feet. Three pages are taken up with just the character’s breathing. As this section of the story unfolds, the whole narrative thrust and focus of the story changes and gives readers an ending that simply doesn’t fit the story’s beginning. It’s bizarre and cryptic, as well as frustrating for a reader who has already invested a lot of energy in the characters from the first part of the issue.
Maybe if I knew Igort’s work better, I might have anticipated the odd twists this issue takes. Or maybe if I could read Italian, there would have been a clue that would have helped me understand the story better. But without that, I can’t help but feel that there is something lost in translation here.