A boy wanders through the alleys of a dark city. The starry sky appears only every now and then over the buildings. The boy has a tear drawn upon his face, he wears a cloak and a cone-shaped hat. The soil where he is walking is now flooded by water. “What now?”, the boy asks. An invisible presence is in some way leading him. “Now close your eyes”, is the answer, echoing on an entirely black panel. We – the readers – turn the page only to find another black panel and the voice saying: “Now you can look”. This is how we enter inside Celestia (Fantagraphics, 2021), the new book by Manuele Fior, with a mechanism only possible in comics. “This is the most cartoonish comic I’ve ever done”, Fior says as soon as we start talking about his new work. “I really tried to do all the things you can do with comics, things that with other media are more difficult, more laborious”.
Manuele Fior is among the new generation of artists who are bringing new life to the Italian (and European) comics scene. In 2011, with 5,000 km Per Second (Fantagraphics, 2016), he won the Fauve d’Or – the prize for the best book – at the Angoulême Festival, the most important event in Europe for comics. From the watercolors of his first books, Fior has gone through the black and white of The Interview (Fantagraphics, 2017) to finally adopt gouache as his technique of choice. Fior’s stories have always had an elegant and delicate touch, but a taste for the fantastic has gradually made its way in them. As in Celestia: a city that seems just like Venice, but it isn’t. We could be in a next future or maybe in another dimension. In the alleys of Celestia, we meet again Dora, a young telepath, the lead character from The Interview. But it’s never really clear if we are in the same world of The Interview – “It’s not a sequel!”, Fior says – maybe we are just seeing another incarnation of Dora: “It’s a comfort to deal with the same character, this means a lot especially in the drawing because you need to know the character you are drawing”.
It’s maybe unusual, for a graphic novel, to use a recurring character, and, in a way, Celestia is a homecoming to the kind of comics Fior used to read as a kid. “I started reading comics massively with American comics, superhero comics, and Celestia has clearly a great debt to the X-Men: a team of telepaths, a professor… Igort, my Italian editor, caught this right away: ‘Who is this professor? Xavier?’, he said to me. The idea at the base of the X-Men is so beautiful that I decided to use it to do something very different”.
While in The Interview Dora is a young girl in contact with extraterrestrials, in Celestia she is part of a team of telepaths, but, unable to control her powers, she runs away from the group. Looking for help, she mentally reaches Pierrot, the boy we met in the first pages of the book. “In the beginning, Pierrot just had to introduce us in the story,” says Fior. “He had to open the door and enter into the house of this Venetian gentleman (Dr. Vivaldi). I liked the fact that he was so stubborn, a bit punk but very smart too. From the very first lines, it was clear that Pierrot had potential, he conveyed to me strong feelings. So he became almost the main character. This is the great privilege of being a comic artist: you choose a cast of characters and later you can transform an extra in the main character.”
The team of telepaths put together by Dr. Vivaldi should have the task of building a new civilization, but it sounds more like a projection of an old man on the new generation. Pierrot surely isn’t buying it, and Dora is too busy dealing with her powers. The relationship between them introduces a topic dear to Fior: “I am very interested in the dialogue between generations. In The Interview, I had the idea to compare two characters of different ages. The story was set in the near future so I could imagine how the next generation will live. When I started working on Celestia I didn’t know that Dr. Vivaldi was Pierrot’s father, then I understood it, so I had to go back and change some dialogues, some scenes… I didn’t expect this to be a comic about the relationship between a father and a son”.
These kinds of twists and surprises are essential in Fior’s creation process: “I improvise a lot, I don’t follow a storyboard so I discover along with the characters their disposition, their behavior. It’s a process. At first, I just receive a lot of inputs – from what I’m reading or drawing – then I feel like a click and I say ‘Ok, let’s begin’. I can’t think without images, it is exhausting to me talking and writing and reading as the screenwriters do. I need images to understand, even one single image can say so much about a story”.
A great source of images is of course the city itself: Venice. How to deal though with a city that has been portrayed by so many artists? “I lived in Venice years ago, and recently I came back to live here. It wasn’t a matter of aesthetics to me, it was functional to the story: I was interested in its isolation”. During the centuries Venice has lived many lives, and Fior chose a specific one to set his story. “John Ruskin’s The Stones Of Venice takes a beautiful portrait of Byzantine Venice, very dark, very non-white, quite different from what it became after the Renaissance, with the Rialto Bridge and St.Mark’s Square. I wanted to go back to this Venice that glows in the dark, with its mosaics and its gold. I wanted my Venice to be credible, but I didn’t care about it being realistic. It was a pleasure to me, in the final stages of the work, to be able to draw a made-up Venice, to create views that don’t exist in the reality but that still seems like Venice”. The readers are taken in an incessant walk between reality and fiction, between Venice and Celestia: “Anyone can realize that it’s Venice since the very first pages, but I decided to call it Celestia because a new name can allow you to see the city in a new way. It makes you think about what an incredible place this is”.
As always with Fior, in Celestia, the art is leading the story. Especially in the second half of the book, the colors lead the reader through a whole set of different emotions. Fior’s gouaches are wonderful and they do much of the narrative work. A lot of elements here are only suggested, and it is up to the reader to fill the gaps, to put together the relationships between the characters, their past, their motivations, to build his own Celestia. One could say that this is a specific of Fior’s storytelling: Celestia is his 6th graphic novel and it’s a step forward in this direction.
It takes some guts to set a science-fiction story (sort of) in a timeless place like Venice, and Fior succeeds in it. But the real reason why you should read it, beyond the art, beyond the narratives, is Fior’s ability to imagine a future and a future with a lot of hope in it. And when was the last time we have been able to look at the future with a positive feeling? In these times, we all need to imagine our Celestia.