Before she had reached her middle thirties, Valentina Roselli had been raped, whipped, quartered, impaled, hung by the thumbs and pursued relentlessly by sadistic Nazis, Seventeenth century pirates and leather booted Czarist Cossacks. Small wonder this Italian comic strip heroine has been seen little of in Britain.
Valentina is, of course, the creation of Italian artists and illustrator Guido Crepax.
Born in Milan in 1933, Crepax had, after high school, attended the school of Architecture in the University of Milan. He graduated in 1958 and went on to support himself by illustrating book covers and record sleeves, and contributing drawings to the medical magazine Tengo Medico. His heroine Valentina, a sophisticated Milanese photographer girlfriend of enigmatic American art critic and criminologist Philip Rembrandt, first appeared in the second issue (May 1965) of Linus, an Italian magazine devoted to the art of comic strip to which friends asked Crepax to contribute. Initially, Valentina played second fiddle to Rembrandt, who was really Neutron, a mutant endowed with super human powers such as the ability to paralyse his enemies with a glance. Valentina accompanied Neutron in his adventures against the subterraneans, a race of extremely intelligent but sightless super humans who tried at different intervals to subjugate the humans of the surface.
Gradually Neutron disappeared from the story, and in 1968, in the short lived magazine Ali Baba, Valentina appeared alone for the first time.
I first encountered Valentina in the pages of the now defunct Continental Film Review — just a few tantalising panels showing a scantily clad Valentina sporting a distinctive Louise Brooks hairstyle and leather whip. I was hooked — in love! Valentina, however, was to remain in Europe. Only Jean–Claude Forest’s Barbarella was to be found on British bookshop shelves, and that other ‘Perils of Pauline’ style sister to Valentina, Phoebe Zeit–Geist, an American creation, was also kept well away from British shores.
Valentina was at this time made into a film, though it didn’t officially surface in the UK until the DVD age. Baba Yaga, based on the Crepax strip of Valentina and a modern witch in Milan was the work of Carrado Farina, and starred Carroll Baker as Baba Yaga, and Isabelle de Funes as Valentina. In 1989, an Italian TV series based on the character was broadcast across Europe (though not, of course, in the UK, despite being a rather sanitized version). Crepax’s strip action has, of course, a cinematic style easily transposed to the big screen. On the printed page, Crepax broke down and completely restructured the old formalised techniques of the strip cartoon.
A very different attitude towards erotic comics is to be found on the continent, and in 1974 I was delighted to find Valentina openly for sale on the “remaindered” stands outside bookshops in Paris. Since then I have found Crepax in bookshops in Italy, Greece and Spain, but only relatively recently in the UK. When Heavy Metal magazine presented Valentina for the first time in 1980, Crepax was little known in the US (and almost unknown in Britain). The publication by Grove Press of his Story Of O (first published in 1978) was soon to change that, with Emmanuelle following swiftly.
The progression from Bianca (1976) and Anita (1979), to ever more sophisticated Valentina, and eventually to ‘O’, Emmanuelle, de Sade’s Justine (1979), Story Of The Eye and Venus In Furs (1984) was inevitable with all the trappings of bondage and pure fantasy, half oneiric and half hallucinatory, already there in the early Valentina. For Crepax, eroticism was instinctive, and though he personally abhorred violence, he found it difficult to separate it from sex: “I think that there’s undoubtedly a certain amount of violence in sex. It’s inevitable…”
Often the violence in Crepax erupts into the storyline as daydream fantasy or nightmare. Valentina is constantly haunted by the subterraneans, pursued by Baba Yaga or seduced by space-suited astronauts. Sometimes her son Matia’s comic books are a starting point for a daydream adventure and often in the ensuing tale Crepax pays homage to the comic characters with which he has had a long love affair, such as the Phantom, Mandrake, Flash Gordon and Dick Tracy. His villains and gangsters owe a lot also to his favoured American films by Howard Hawks, and movies with Bogart, James Cagney et al. He admires French New Wave too, and a little of Godard and Truffaut rubs off into the scheme of things. “From the point of view of eroticism,” Crepax pointed out, “it’s the atmosphere, the situation, which gives the scene its eroticism.” Valentina, Bianca and ‘O’ are victims of the most barbaric treatment, always amidst splendid and baroque backgrounds. Pursued through labyrinthine perils, raped, whipped and entangled in all manner of bizarre Heath–Robinson like torture machines, they always emerge, Phoenix–like, from their ordeals.
Crepax continuously reinvented the layout of his page and in story–board fashion the pictures tell the story almost to the exclusion of traditional balloon–enclosed dialogue (in Magic Lantern, a Valentina story published in 1979, dialogue is in fact dispensed with altogether). Unfortunately, this has led to publishers abridging Crepax’s original work. The first Grove Press paperback edition of The Story Of O had a total of thirty-five pages deleted from the original Jean–Jacques Pauvert edition.
When in 1980 Heavy Metal reproduced Valentina In Reflection it made the grave mistake of reproducing the strip in blue inks — blue on blue! The magic of Crepax, often praised as the ‘Raphael of Comics’ lies in his precise black on white, like a good vintage movie. By his own admission Crepax preferred black and white. His line is everything. Crepax needed no colour and his colour-inked strips such as Valentina Pirata (1978) gain little from their colour washes.
In The Story Of O, Crepax surpassed himself. Nearly every page is a delight (compare it to Emmanuelle, which seems a little rushed). Valentina has become ‘O’, the plaything now of the valets and customers at Roissy and of Sir Stephen, but ultimately the seducer and powerful presence at the end of the story dressed (as in the novel) in a costume representing an owl. “I’m not Picasso but I try to draw well and I hope I never draw anything vulgar,” Crepax once said.
Ultimately, Crepax found cinema disappointing and erotic books hard work: “It’s a personal preference but I think that cinema is too real and words require work of the imagination.” Crepax created his own theatre of pictures. Take a look; you’ll be glad you have shared in his vision and in his art.