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Madwoman of the Sacred Heart
What a strange, funny, offbeat little book this is. A Mœbius and Jodorowsky collaboration, Madwoman of the Sacred Heart is as beautiful and odd as you would expect, throwing lots of disparate elements into the mix to provide a story that’s part-philosophical rumination, part religious satire, part erotic thriller, and part psychological midlife-crisis drama - all laced with a sense of whimsical absurdity that makes it impossible for the reader to take seriously. And just in case you start to think that the writers are in danger of doing so, it’s also dappled throughout with the lowest, most puerile kind of toilet-humour imaginable.
The tale of a philosophy lecturer at the Sorbonne who is abandoned by his wife and begins an affair with one of his students, the book starts off as a fairly grounded and relatable story before it spirals out of control. Reflecting the trajectory of Alan Mangel’s life, we’re exposed to story ideas that grow more and more unhinged - and a cast of characters that grows more and more cartoonish and outrageous to match - as the book goes on.
At first, the book is relatively ‘straight’, with Mangel trying to control his repressed desires (erotic and otherwise), which appear to him in the form of a spirit that looks like his younger self: essentially a ghostly manifestation of his own id.
It doesn’t take long before Mangel succumbs to his desires, first attempting to consummate his affair with Elisabeth in a church confession booth, in a scene that demonstrates the book is unafraid to deal with some fairly explicit material when it comes to sex (and continues to be throughout the story).
As the affair progresses - and Mangel is able to overcome impotence that we learn is partly related to his inability to father a child in his previous relationship - he helps conceive a child who may or may not be the second coming of John the Baptist. Oh, and he gets involved with a religious fundamentalist who may have murdered two nurses, and the daughter of a Columbian drugs baron who they all believe to be a reincarnation of Mary. Or is she an androgynous Jesus? There’s little time for this bizarre family unit to enjoy a seaside holiday before the gangsters arrive, and embark on a pitched battle with the army, before the whole crew gets swept off to South America to a military compound that quickly turns into a violent religious cult.
If it sounds crazy, it is, and if I’m completely honest it doesn’t always hold together perfectly as a story: some of the shifts in character and setting are jarring, and there’s a slight change in art style for the final third of the story that makes everything feel much more cartoonish.
But in spite of itself, it manages to be a very compelling (and frequently very funny) story that you start to enjoy a lot more once you abandon any hope that it’s really going to make any sense.
As you’d expect, the art is beautiful throughout, whether it’s full-page architectural illustrations like this beautiful shot of the Sacré-Cœur in Paris (which lends the book part of its title)…
…or the more natural settings that we see later in the book, which not only offer Mœbius a bit of variety in terms of landscapes and backdrops, but also provide some of the book’s best examples of visual storytelling, like this scene in which Alan and Elisabeth climb a mountain in the hope of receiving some much-needed medical (and spiritual) guidance at the top of it:
The book never lets you get too used to classy pages like this though - a running gag about Mangel’s diarrhoea makes sure of that (and somehow manages to get funnier every time):
This certainly isn’t The Incal, but it’s equally compelling and crazy in its own way. If you’re a fan of either of these creators, I’d urge you to check it out, as it’s one of those comics that can’t really be done justice by a simple write-up like this. And if you’re not sure about it but you’re curious, the book is available in three separate instalments on Comixology, so you can try the first one before committing to the rest.
One final point that is worth bringing up is that the translated version of this book features lettering that’s much simpler and more uniform than the original, and I wonder whether something of the character and emotion of the story is lost as a result. This comparison shows you the kind of thing I mean (with the original French on the left, and the translation on the right):
Maybe I’ll try and get hold of a version in the original French some day.