The GeeksverseREVIEW | Sharaz-De: Tales from the Arabian Nights HC (Archaia Entertainment)

REVIEW | Sharaz-De: Tales from the Arabian Nights HC (Archaia Entertainment)
Published on Friday, December 28, 2012 by
Archaia Entertainment introduces English-language readers to the absolutely astounding work of the late comics master illustrator Sergio Toppi in their hardcover repackaging of Sharaz-De: Tales from the Arabian Nights.

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Key Review Points

Pros:

  • A rare English translation of a seminal work by one of Europe’s most influential artists.
  • Features absolutely gorgeous line art and radical storytelling techniques that any serious student of comics and sequential art with the means should view and study.
  • Classic tales are allowed to retain their simple charm.
  • Informative, entertaining foreword by Walt Simonson is almost a brief art lesson on its own.

Cons:

  • None of note.

Publication Details

  • Publisher: Archaia Entertainment
  • Publication Date: May 2012
  • Written and illustrated by: Sergio Toppi
  • English edition translation by: Edward Gauvin
  • English edition lettering by: Deron Bennett
  • Format: 208 page, partially-colored, hardcover. Reprints Sharaz-De, originally published in France in 2005 by Editions Mosquito.
  • List Price: $29.99 (digital review copy provided free-of-charge by the publisher)
  • Availability: On sale on 19 December, 2012 (comic book shops); 22 December, 2012–01 January, 2013 (book stores)

Page Previews (Click on images to view in larger size)

Sharaz-De Cover Sharaz-De Preview-PG1 Sharaz-De Preview-PG2

For more preview images and the publisher-provided summary, check out our Sharaz-De: Tales from the Arabian Nights preview.

Full Review

The legendary Italian artist Sergio Toppi passed away in August of this year at the age of 79. Unlike that of Moebius—who died some five months prior—Toppi’s work has only very rarely appeared in English-language publications and never, as far as I know, as English editions, although French editions of his work have found a large international audience. This probably explains why the news of Toppi’s passing did not generate the same amount of discussion in the North American comic book community as did that of his more famous French peer.

Archaia Entertainment’s English-language reissue of Toppi’s Sharaz-De, a 2005 graphic album originally published by French firm Mosquito, should be the first step in filling in the Toppi-shaped hole in our knowledge of European comics. The book opens with an excellent foreword by Walt Simonson of Marvel’s The Mighty Thor and Fantastic Four fame, who recounts his personal discovery of Toppi’s work in the early 1970s at a New York comic convention. After reading the book and going over the various samples of Toppi’s work posted by his fans online, it is now plain to me just how much Toppi influenced Simonson’s line work. (I wouldn’t at all be surprised too if artists such as Travis Charest and Jae Lee count him as a particularly strong influence on their work.) Simonson’s foreword provides a succinct but comprehensive analysis of Toppi’s three primary strengths as an artist: His mastery of draftsmanship, his facility with drawing distinct faces and evoking emotion through facial expressions, and finally, a thoughtful storytelling style that is deceptively simple. Paired with the illustrations in the book, Simonson’s foreword almost serves as an art lesson in itself.

The stories included in the book are drawn from the West and South Asian folk tales that make up the Arabic classic One Thousand and One Nights that we are all familiar with—if not the individual stories, at least the basic premise of a captive concubine entertaining her king with stories to keep away the executioner’s blade. These stories are presented in what can be considered a faithful manner to their folk tale origins, allowing them to retain their simple charm. There is a thread of sly and occasionally droll humor running through the book, though, which makes the re-telling of such well-worn stories quite entertaining.

It is Toppi’s art of course, that should demand most of the reader’s attention. Toppi employed a wide variety of line art techniques, using hatching, cross-hatching, solid blacks, and areas of white space to great effect, creating ornate suits of armor, highly detailed robes, lush vistas, soaring mountain ranges, panoramic deserts, and dreamlike cityscapes that draw the reader in. In addition, Toppi combines flawless draftsmanship with a maverick’s flair for experimentation and stylization, creating images that engage the reader on multiple levels. In a way, his work reminds me of Alex Niño‘s late 1970s/early 1980s horror/fantasy comics magazine art, although it is probably more likely that it was Toppi who influenced Niño and not the other way around given their age difference.

As Simonson noted in the foreword, Toppi’s talent for drawing faces and facial expressions is superlative. The framing narrative’s beautifully rendered protagonist Sharaz-De is by turns adorable, somber, and clever. And while the source material is West and South Asian in origin, Toppi does not limit his depictions and designs of the stories’ characters to the expected types. One story, for instance, seems to take its costume and character design cues from a Mesoamerican background. Another story looks like it takes place in Northern Africa. Yet another features what looks like a Mediterranean setting. And so on and so forth. What is surprising is that this doesn’t make the book look disjointed at all. Rather, the multiplicity of venues and character designs gives the whole affair a more exotic, fairy tale-like feel that reinforces the notion that Sharaz-De is indeed telling tales from faraway lands and distant territories.

To give a quick overview of Toppi’s rendering style to readers unfamiliar with his work and those readers who feel like the previews above are an insufficient indicator of his abilities as an artist, I’ve gone ahead and compiled a small gallery of his non-Sharaz-De work:

What the single images above do not capture, however, is Toppi’s able storytelling. He frequently breaks away from the conventions of what experienced readers would normally consider functional visual storytelling, but it is always in the service of some grand page design idea, and never at the cost of clarity. As with his “noodling,” Toppi’s use of unconventional panel construction and staging is never gratuitous, falling within a clearly established aesthetic that still revolves around conveying a linear narrative through sequential imagery: It is style and substance, not style at the cost of substance.

Sharaz-De: Tales from the Arabian Nights should be at the top of every comic book art fan and student’s post-Christmas shopping list.  Very highly recommended.

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