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A Comic Book Character Seeks Sexual Empowerment in Postwar Italy

Excerpt from Anita, Una Storia Possibile, cover to first Italian edition, Milan, 1974
Excerpt from ‘Anita, Una Storia Possibile’ (1974), cover to first Italian edition (all photos courtesy Scott Eder Gallery unless otherwise noted)

We’ve entered Valentina’s life so many times. In her room, glancing at her sensual frame as she carelessly lays on an undone bed, aloof, wrapped in a heavy haze of thoughts. We’ve seen her in a washroom, skeptically peeking at her own reflection in the mirror, loose words and feelings filling the air around her. We’ve tried reading her enigmatic expression while lingering on her curves, and witnessed her aging graciously in the dream-like dimension she inhabits, immersed in a 1960s industrial Milan that has been dwarfed by the bigotry of the middle class.

Inspired by American silent screen star Louise Brooks, Valentina Rosselli is the heroine of illustrious Italian comic book artist and graphic novelist Guido Crepax, who started drawing the famous character in 1965. Through his outstanding technique, cinematic compositions, and subtle use of ink and line, Crepax created an introspective and consciously sensual character, a photographer living in the midst of a feminist revolution, that would become his trademark. Through Valentina, Crepax unhinged the sexual taboos of Italian society dominated by the doctrine of the Catholic Church.

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Installation view of ‘Guido Crepax: Valentina e Amici’ at Scott Eder Gallery, New York (photo by Daniela Croci)

The exhibit Guido Crepax: Valentina e Amici at the Scott Eder Gallery in New York is the first to bring the artist’s works to the public in the United States. The space, which has been involved in comic book art for two decades, showcases approximately 50 of his drawings along with works by 10 international artists in homage to his legacy. And in conjunction, Fantagraphics published the deluxe collection The Complete Crepax: Dracula, Frankenstein, and Other Horror Stories, the first of 10 forthcoming volumes.

Displayed in three rooms, the exhibit presents Crepax’s work over the years, with Valentina’s adventures from the ’60s and ’70s, and excerpts from the comic book L’Uomo di Harlem (The Man from Harlem), Crepax’s first attempt with the noir genre, where the story of an Afro-American jazz musician unintentionally involved in a gangster’s plot addresses topics such as race, love, revenge, criminality, and music.

Excerpt from Valentina Jeans, created as advertising poster, first published in Le Portrait Fragmenté, Aedena Editions, Dargaud, Paris, 1986 
Excerpt from ‘Valentina Jeans,’ created as advertising poster, first published in ‘Le Portrait Fragmenté’ (Aedena Editions, Dargaud, Paris, 1986) (click to enlarge)

In Alla Ricerca dei Vestiti Perduti di Krizia (In Search of the Lost Dresses by Krizia) (1995), a detective helps an unclothed Valentina find the dresses she has been robbed of. A tribute to the Italian fashion designer Krizia, the story takes place in a dream-like version of New York. The drawing of a half-naked Valentina chasing two statuary models and reclaiming her clothes — with the Empire State building and the Chrysler as a backdrop — was chosen for the poster advertising the exhibition.

Another drawing shows Valentina taking photos of a criminal gang in action, then surreally being identified as the villain herself by the police, chased by the officers for wearing a miniskirt. In his own way, Crepax satirizes the contradictions of a postwar Italian society that claims to be modern (represented by the industrialized Milan and the feminist revolution, in part symbolized by the miniskirt) while condemning acts of freedom and independence.

Surely, Valentina needs to be read in the bigger picture of an Italian society that was split between a sense of modernism and freedom that arose from the Italian economic miracle of the ’50s and ’60s and the blossoming of avant-garde artistic movements in design and advertising, and the rigor and austerity imposed by religious and political institutions, including the Christian Democracy party, a Roman Catholic party that has played a central role in Italian politics for 50 years.

Advertising poster of Guido Crepax’s retrospective Guido Crepax: Valentina e Amici on view at the Scott Eder Gallery in Dumbo, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Advertising poster of ‘Guido Crepax: Valentina e Amici’ (click to enlarge)

Through the impulses, doubts, and moods that Valentina often expresses, Crepax represents the real psychological struggle of many women, divided between the authenticity and power of their desires — carnal, emotional, and rational — and a society that still judges and curbs them.

Among the artists invited to pay homage to Valentina is painter and photographer Jude Harzer, who has long explored the idea of womanhood and found common ground with Crepax’s imaginary. “I was always impressed by the rawness and forwardness of a woman as a dominant character. I was inspired by the sensuality of Crepax’s work and in particular the sexuality and force of Valentina as a protagonist. Her strength as a heroine lay in her intellect, femininity, eroticism and talent rather than in a contrived super heroic ability,” Harzer wrote in an email to Hyperallergic. For her portrait of Valentina, Harzer used herself as a model, transforming her hair to mimic Valentina’s cropped bob and drawing a camera into Valentina’s hand, leaving the other free to play mischievously with the viewer’s attention, expressing the character’s flirtatious side as she challenges the observer to come closer and play, Harzer observed.

In another homage, the artist Benjamin Marra was captivated by Crepax’s use of contours. “The way his line described Valentina’s face, her three-quarter profile from the cheekbone down to the jaw . . . I can see it in my mind,” Marra says. He was amused by Crepax’s freedom: “I really loved the vision he had and the confidence not to follow his own interpretation of reality rather than trying to mimic reality,” he says. Drawing his version of Valentina, Marra employed an economy of lines to describe the sensuality of her long limbs and long torso, keeping in mind Valentina’s duality between self-awareness and eternal innocence.

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‘The Complete Crepax: Dracula, Frankenstein, and Other Horror Stories’ published by Fantagraphics (photo by Daniela Croci)

As illustrator Danielle Otrakji points out, this celebration of womanhood and sexuality is often absent in the American comic panorama. “The Valentina that I drew is soft, erotic and submissive while confident and comfortable in her own skin,” Otrakji says. She drew a Valentina that resembles Otrakji’s own facial expression because while reading Crepax’s stories, Otrakji explained, the artist found herself relating to Valentina’s character and growth as a woman. “She embraces herself and that part of her sexuality, and as a reader, I embrace that about Valentina’s character, as well as certain things about myself. It’s important for women to recognize the idea of being sexual and submissive while remaining strong and powerful,” Otrakji said. “[Valentina] never does anything she does not want to do, and that is what makes her and her message so empowering.”

Valentina Nessuno 1
Valentina Rosselli in ‘Nessuno’

Guido Crepax: Valentina e Amici continues Scott Eder Gallery (18 Bridge St #2i, Dumbo, Brooklyn) through June 10.

The Complete Crepax: Dracula, Frankenstein, and Other Horror Stories, out from Fantagraphics, and is available on Amazon and other online booksellers. 

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