Emmanuel Civiello’s A Bit of Madness is a dizzying fantasy epic, gorgeously illustrated and sumptuously produced. Unfortunately, it’s often rather hard to understand what happens in the graphic novel.
Let’s start with what is easily the best part of this book: the amazingly sumptuous painted artwork. Civiello paints each page of this book, and nearly each image could stand on its own as a wonderful fantasy painting. From the very first page, a wonderfully stark image of a dying tree, straight to the dramatic final confrontation between good and evil, Civiello delivers artwork that is thoughtful, evocative, and plush.
There are some scenes in this book that are simply breathtaking. In the middle of the first chapter, there’s a scene where a fairy goes flitting around in a deep forest. Civiello creates an image of bright, seductive light flitting against a dark and mysterious forest in a way that’s both seductive and very pleasing to the eye.
At the same time, he does a great job of presenting the details of the fairy in the scene. We never lose her face in the midst of her flittering about, nor do we miss the pure joy the fairy seems to feel with her sense of freedom.
Chapter Two has a spectacular scene of the heroes descending underwater in a funny sort of hand-made submarine. In this scene, Civiello does a great job of creating a whole fantasy world in just a few panels. I don’t remember ever seeing a more gorgeously illustrated underwater scene in comics.
There’s magic in the way Civiello illustrates water and fish, with bubbles fluttering up to the surface and water always seeming to slosh all around the reader. This scene is a real tour de force.
Civiello’s artwork is ideally well suited to both the many epic scenes in this book and the scenes of small emotion. His characters seem to pulse with life and energy, and often seem to have a three-dimensional look to them. If his ornate style sometimes backfires, with Civiello delivering a confusing scene, the work is still interesting and thoughtfully created.
The real problem came with the actual story in this book–or, perhaps more to the point, the translation of the story. As I mentioned, the story is sometimes difficult to follow, and much of that reason lurks with what seems to be stilted and confusing narration.
Yes, this is a fantasy book, and readers may certainly expect a bit of stilted dialogue. However, this book chokes on stiltedness. The words suck some of the life out of the wonderful pictures. At times, there seems to be too many words for the artwork; at other times, the art seems to cry out for some thoughtful expository text.
There’s also a problem with the pace of this story. Scenes seem to start and end without reason. Battles seem to mass and then dissipate right in front of the reader’s eyes. Characters sidestep the fighting for other adventures–and while that may serve the larger story that Civiello is telling, it also gives the story an odd sort of stop-start rhythm that caused me to feel a bit exasperated.
There often seemed to be little payoff to a moment that Civiello had spent a substantial amount of time setting up. Such scenes caused me to feel “a bit of madness” indeed.
There’s one other quirk of this story that I found distracting. One character is fond of uttering the phrase “a thousand elves” as an exclamation, much as Superman used to often exclaim “Great Rao.” However, nowhere in the story is that phrase explained; in fact, the phrase t just sits out there on the page as a thoroughly bizarre sort of eccentricity. Each time the phrase was uttered, I found myself momentarily distracted, wondering what in the world was meant by that phrase.
I can’t help but think that this book wasn’t as well translated from Italian as it could have been. A more thoughtful translator might have helped smooth out more of the book’s rough spots. Unfortunately, A Bit of Madness is a beautifully illustrated but ultimately empty comics experience.