Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Cronenberg Fan: Ryan Carey Reviews Michel Fiffe’s PANORAMA

You know you’ve made it as a cartoonist when publishers begin taking an interest in your back catalog, and following Fantagraphics’ release of Zegas a couple of years back, Panorama now becomes the second comics from Michel Fiffe’s formative years to be collected in a single volume, this time with Dark Horse doing the honors. Originally serialized in what is now nostalgically referred to as the “early aughts” on the act-i-vate website, it did see print in 2007 as part of the short-lived Image Comics series Brawl, where it “split time” with Dean Haspiel’s Billy Dogma strip, but this 2020 trade paperback marks the first occasion it’s stood on its own two feet — not that standing is exactly an appropriate term given the book’s subject matter.

No, there’s more oozing, congealing, slithering, and metamorphosing going on here than anything else. While it’s as rough around the edges as one might expect given it was Fiffe’s first attempt at a long-form narrative, it nevertheless bears all the hallmarks of a work conceived and executed with both vision and purpose. On a purely aesthetic level, an artist who hasn’t quite “figured it all out yet” may, in fact, be better suited to drawing a book featuring characters going through any number of unexpected physical transformations. Separate and apart from the visual, though, this story also offers a bit of a taste of things to come given that its core concerns of identity and genre homage/subversion are still playing out to this very day in the pages of Fiffe’s long-running superhero series Copra, but there are no capes n’ tights to be found in these pages — even though abilities that I’ll politely refer to as “extra-normal” do, in fact, abound.

Alright, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that I’m trying to be delicate, but that’s probably not going to be possible, so I’ll just dispense with the pleasantries and give you the rundown: young runaway Augustus — newly arrived in a city called, go figure, Copra, after fleeing his family and their plans to institutionalize him over a “skin condition” — gets in a brawl with some local hoodlums, which’ll happen, and then beats them silly with his amorphous, mutating, Play-Doh blob of a body, which generally isn’t something that’ll happen. This special ability, most generally described as an absolute inability to control his physical form, sees him nearly sold off as a sex slave to a lecherous old creep, but soon after his girlfriend from back home, Kim, turns up — and that’s when things get really weird.

Obviously, then, body horror is the order of the day with this one, but despite things becoming increasingly disturbing on a physical level, there is a real warmth to the relationship between Kim and Augustus that serves to anchor everything that transpires — and hey, they’d better get along, because another loss of bodily control on his part, this time while the two of them are having sex, leads to him — uhhmmm — ending up inside of her. As in, all on him. Literally and completely. Please don’t make me spell out how this occurs, just let your imagination run wild — and rest assured that Fiffe did very much the same.

The influence of David Cronenberg is pretty out in the open here, particularly that of films such as Videodrome, Shivers, and The Brood (it eventually transpires that Kim is, in fact, pregnant, although it may not be what you’re thinking unless you’re especially depraved, creative, or both), and both the title of the work, the lurid nature of the subject matter, and some of the choices Fiffe makes artistically seem, at least to this critic, to be fairly direct nods to Hideshi Hino’s classic gross-out manga Panorama Of Hell, but there’s also a unique perspective and sensibility on offer here that is recognizable as Fiffe’s alone, even if it was only in its nascent stages of development at the time. His line is more angular here, but no less energetic than we’ve become accustomed to in his contemporary work; his penchant for formal experimentation, particularly when it comes to his panel sizes and page layouts becomes more pronounced as events progress (look for other flourishes here and there as well, though, including a sequence rendered in white inks against a black background); his ability to lend a light and humorous touch to even the most bizarre situations is as natural in these pages as it remains to this day. He’s refined and sharpened his abilities over the years, no question about that, but the tone and character of Fiffe’s storytelling are all very much in evidence, even in this “salad days” project — in fact, he’s even referred to this as perhaps his “most personal” work.

Again, though, what is perhaps of most interest is that while Panorama is, on the surface, a pretty damn visceral horror story, once you go beneath that surface (which is where a good chunk of the “action” takes place anyway), it’s not so utterly horrifying after all. Clearly, the situation of Augustus living inside Kim is ultimately going to be an untenable one, but it’s dealt with in such a way that they become as close and intertwined emotionally as they are physically, and the resolution to it all is — well, I think I’ll just call it “unexpected,” and leave it at that, but with the added caveat that it’s also not entirely unpleasant. Which actually isn’t an altogether bad way of summarizing the entirety of the book — gross, even stomach-churning, but only in the purely physical sense, this is by no means an entirely polished comic, but it’s an exceptionally creative and even humane one. Yes, the idea of a genre mash-up that combines body horror with relationship drama sounds as unnatural as many of the forms Augustus warps and molds into, but somehow Fiffe makes both aspects of his narrative work, and ultimately births a curiously effective, as well as affecting, monster.

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