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by Lorenzo Mattoti and Claudio Piersanti

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


Stigmata by Lorenzo Mattoti and Claudio Piersanti
© Fantagraphics
Fantagraphics, February 2010

In their graphic novel Stigmata, Lorenzo Mattotti and Claudio Piersanti have created an exceptional example of a successful collaboration of art and text. Stigmata, which tells the story of a man suddenly afflicted with the eponymous phenomenon, is rendered entirely in astonishingly frenetic, swirling line work. Mattotti has hidden a world of grotesqueries under a smokescreen of pen and ink, and through his perfectly restrained, gritty parable, Piersanti shapes that world into a contemplative and captivating read.

The book opens with an abstract series of panels depicting a dreamy spiritual invocation and features a furiously scribbled hirsute man floating through the ether. A childlike, cloud-like being assures him that "soon (his) suffering will be over," but before the reader can achieve any clarity the action smears down, out of frame and back to earth. We next see an overhead view of a small, derelict bedroom; the once-floating burly man is lying across his bed, feet firmly planted on the floor. His arms are stretched the length of his mattress, both hands ending in a whirlwind of inky darkness:
"It wasn't my usual drunken nightmare. My sheets were stained with blood. The palms of my hands were shredded..." Beyond its biblical roots, stigmata has been used countless times in storytelling for ominous effect, but what sets Mattotti and Piersanti's novel apart is how confident and accepting they handle their hero's sudden bleeding. It's with an almost Dostoevskian clarity that the afflicted man understands his stigmata: his fate had been cast and he must decide whether to adapt to his wounds or overcome them.

First, he tries to ignore his palms. Considering them just another burden, the man attempts to resume his life as if nothing had happened to him. There's not much to resume, though: he lives alone and aside from working quietly as a server at a bar and the occasional sex, he maintains very little human interaction. However, his stigmata dramatically changes that lifestyle: nightly, the man returns home to find his doorway adorned with burning candles and religious iconography. At the bar, patrons complain of his presence, resulting in a violent confrontation between him and his boss and eventually the loss of his job. One night, in a drunken, dreamless stupor, his apartment is set ablaze from an unattended devotional candle.
Now homeless, the man falls in with a wandering carnival and poses as an oracle, shilling money from sick patrons desperate to be healed. In one scene, the dishonesty of the "House of Blessings" is overlooked for the sake of an ailing man who needed something to believe in. "Many of the doctors we saw were far less honest... and they sure didn't heal him," the ailing man's son explains to a puzzled onlooker. Pages later in the story, after the carnival has moved on to a new town, the son returns to thank the healer for curing his father's illness. It seems that somehow, either by faith alone or an act of God, the stigmatized man could actually heal.

Although Piersanti writes with an informed understanding of Christianity, it is with an unswayed hand that Stigmata's drama unfolds; Stigmata presents its "acts of God" in such a delicately ambiguous way that leaves readers the choice to interpret these scenes as either signs or coincidences. As these events increase in intensity (culminating in a terribly beautiful deluge), the hero and readers are faced with essentially the same spiritual conundrum: is this a trial of faith, at the hand of God, or is this something more biological, more psychological? The answer, if there even is one, is certainly not obvious. Piersanti and Mattoti have rendered themselves more as presenters than preachers, a truly impressive stance for a novel so rooted in religion.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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