The word "visionary" is sometimes thrown around too liberally in the arts. I often find myself using the term to describe a creator whose work is just a bit different from the mainstream, innovative in small but interesting ways that move their medium ahead, or to the side, or at a distinct angle, but still within comfortable confines. It takes a certain kind of artist to reveal to me what it means to be a true visionary in the comics field.
Sergio Toppi is a true visionary, and his Sharaz-De: Tales from the Arabian Nights is a true visionary work. In all my years reading comics I've never read something quite as unique, odd and intriguing as this book.
Sharaz-De: Tales from the Arabian Nights is, on one level, a simple recitation of several classic tales from the Arabian Nights. These parables and life lessons have been around for millennia, educating both children and adults from all over the world. But these stories have never been told quite like this. Because they've never been told by Sergio Toppi.
Toppi's art defies easy description, which is why I'm sharing so many pages of it in this review. As you can see, Toppi's style is beguilingly complex and elegant, quite beautiful in its layouts and quite intricate in its execution. His style seems to be constructed in a different way from the work of most other artists, built in this sort of empathetic, organic, quite specifically unique manner that conveys passion and energy and an almost otherworldly feel.
This material reminds me of nothing as much as it does classic Heavy Metal stories from the 1970s, work by those odd European cartoonists who seem to be living in a different universe than we Americans; a world where comic art was something to be labored over like so much fine art. It's a world where the artist has an obligation to bring unknown and unseen worlds to glorious life, to convey a story not just with storytelling and smart character rendering but a kind of impressionistic, subjective beauty that conveys much more than we can even articulate in words.
This isn't art that merely tells a story. This is art that is the story, that tells a story on a deeper level; a story that is built for legends and impressions, parables and thoughtfulness. It plays not just on the part of your brain that processes speech and articulate thought. It plays on the part of your brain that processes emotion, that responds empathetically to images presented to it. Toppi's art works on that special alchemical part of your brain that makes comics work not just as pictures or as words, but as a magical, amazing, thoroughly unique artform that transcends both to become a true form of art in its own very specific terms.
As Walter Simonson points out in his introduction to this book, Toppi is a master at the basic skills of cartooning. Toppi is a genius at creating images that fill the space well, that smartly manage negative space, that construct moving and memorable characters and that is alive on every page. But as Simonsn also says, Toppi is a master at using that two-dimensional space to create images that stick in the mind and feel thoroughly unique and intriguing.
Those looking for standard, boring, all-American storytelling are advised to not try this book. But those who want something different – something that speaks to you on a completely different level – are advised to seek this book out. It could change the way you look at the comics page.