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A 240-page graphic novel, Atrabile, 2006.
Buy on Amazon France.

Category: coming-out, fantasy, french.

Author(s): Nicolas Presl.
Website: no website 0 comment - add a comment.

Priape meets a man

I've written about only a few French graphic novels on this site, mainly because I think that most of you don't read that language. But Nicolas Presl's book has an advantage over the other ones: it's absolutely wordless. The only word I'll have to translate for you is Priape, the title, which is simply the French name of the Roman god Priapus.

In an indeterminate Roman antiquity, a child is born with an enormous penis, a deformity which drives his despairing parents to leave him in the wilderness outside the city. The baby is taken in by a shepherd, and raised alongside the man's son. But things don't go well between Priape and the shepherd's son, and years later, Priape leaves for the city.
Here, he will meet a man who'll take him to what looks like a gay bar. An encounter with his first lover will lead to a tragedy of mythological proportions.

Priape is a very interesting character: a naive young man who doesn't understand his attraction to men, he can be very violent. He also sees men turning into beasts when he sexualizes them - the page I'm showing you has an example of that. That is the only fantasy element of the book, and we're not even sure if it's reality or illusion. I think having that shepherd boy seeing bulls or goats, instead of men, having sex is a very good psychological idea, and of course, it's coherent with the mythological elements.
In fact, contrary to what the title might make you think, the main myth referenced in this book isn't Priapus's (see here for more about that god). It's another, far better known one, which the author turns on its head. It would be a pity to reveal which one it is, but you shouldn't have any problem recognizing it.

I must say I'm impressed by the way Presl has managed to create believable and engaging characters, with their qualities and shortcomings, while not using one word and integrating mythological elements. Of course, his Roman antiquity is rather bogus, which he himself admits. We see the Parthenon in a Roman environment, Priape goes to a "gay bar", and the publisher's text says it's about "a young man in search of his sexual identity", which is totally anachronistic. But not out of ignorance: Presl has done his research, but then he didn't want his book to feel too historically grounded. It's more a fairy tale than a gay I, Claudius.

His art is among the more striking I've recently seen, especially since this is his first published work - he's only done a few pages in anthologies, which I haven't seen. Nicolas Presl was a stone-cutter, and his art is at the same time hieratic, very sensual, as well as illustrative. He's chosen a stylisation of human faces and body language which gives a timeless quality to the book. It does feel like we're reading an ancient, but still relevant, tragedy.

While I can't help smiling at the irony of protraying a gay man with a donkey dick (not that this element is used for humor, far from it), I must command Nicolas Presl for creating this unique tale of love and vengeance.

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