Madwoman of the Sacred Heart by Jodorowsky and Mœbius

Posted by on February 22nd, 2011 at 4:00 PM

Madwoman of the Sacred Heart; Alexandro Jodorowsy and Mœbius; Humanoids Inc., 192 pp., $29.95; ISBN: 978-1594650987

There is a revealing story that Mœbius tells about his infamous collaboration with Alexandro Jodorowsky on Dune. When trying to decide on the costumes for the Harkonnens, the director blindly plucked a volume of Titian’s paintings from his shelf, pointed to a random page and said, “That’s it!”  That Mœbius came around to this method of working sowed the seeds of their future collaborations in comics.  For Jodorowsky, anything can be a starting point, and this chaotic Dadaist working method is part of what gives his work its unique voice.

While radically different from his work in cinema, Jodorowsky’s comics are still a weird amalgam of genres and influences.  His first collaboration with Mœbius, The Incal, was essentially the fool’s journey of the Tarot, written as a pseudo-religious space opera.  There is an even stranger turnaround here, as Madwoman of the Sacred Heart takes the gospels and turns them into an erotic noir thriller.

Stranger still is the level on which we find Mœbius working.  The Incal let us his see his grand visions of the fantastic — the mode for which he has become renowned — but here, we get to see him draw the mundane, the earthly and the visceral, which is arguably an even greater spectacle.

The plot of Madwoman of the Sacred Heart centers on Alan Mangel, a professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne who has built something of a cult around his lectures.  His devoted pupils dress in purple in imitation of him and treat his ideas like the words of a prophet.  However, his relationship with one student, Elizabeth, goes too far and she becomes pregnant by him, convinced that their child will be the reincarnation of John the Baptist.  Taken in by Elizabeth’s revelation, Mangel elopes with her and is led into a life on the wrong side of the law with two Columbian criminals who are convinced they are the Joseph and Virgin Mary of the new era.  All the time, Mangel is haunted by a vision of his younger self that chides his behavior and prompts him into further lustful exploits.

Madwoman is thematically very similar to Jodorowsky’s sci-fi work.  His preoccupation with androgyny (which was manifest in The Incal’s conjoined-twin “emperoress”) is rendered here in a divine embodiment when the neo-Virgin Mary subsumes the infant Christ within her, and also in a carnal manner in the transvestite prostitutes that Mangel’s alter-ego fixates upon.  It is symbolic of the erasure of certainty that occurs throughout the work.

Lines between fantasy and reality; credulity and cynicism are blurred dramatically in an act of literary sfumato. Through the narrative focus, we’re inclined to believe in Elizabeth’s Biblical revelations, but yet when a homeless woman on the steps of the Sacre-Coeur declares herself divine, our reaction tends to the bathetic.  It speaks to an underlying motif that beauty and the divine go hand-in-hand, but so too does madness.  The deliberately ambiguous title of the work embodies this most succinctly — whether the “madwoman” is Elizabeth, who seduces Mangel in the church, or the beggar on its steps is continually called into question.

The original French title was Le Cœur couronné — “The Crowned Heart” —which instead brings attention to matters of faith and devotion.  In a work that so deeply rooted in the Bible, these are inevitable, but Jodorowsky applies them in a wider sense.  That Mangel clings to his learning in philosophy (he spouts Heidegger and Kant like Holy Scripture) becomes his undoing, manifest in the spectral vision of his younger self.  It is at once the lascivious id and shadow-self, and while it is monstrous and irrational, it is no different to the holy delusions of his compatriots.  Not until the book’s conclusion do we find which visions and prophecies are actually true.

As confounding and stimulating as the plot and concept is, Jodorowsky suffers for it in the end and, trying to hew together an ending in the third act, much of the previous subtlety is lost.  This is perhaps due to the lengthy creative hiatus between the second and third chapters.  That the final page was drawn seven years after the first means that we also witness a dramatic change in Mœbius’ art.  The first chapters have a delicate, unfinished line to them (possibly the erotic content prompted inspiration from Manara) — it feels dark, seedy and pulpy, while the last chapter is much cleaner and clearer, almost Tardi-esque in its line.  From that perspective, the book is also an interesting document of the artist’s development.

That this volume brings more of Mœbius’ work into English is also significant.  With all but a scant few stories out-of-print, it has been almost impossible for American readers to experience the work of one of Europe’s most important and influential creators.  It’s to Humanoids’ credit that they are rectifying this and ensuring that the original coloring is restored, but it is a pity that the production is so mechanical.  Mœbius is a phenomenal letterer and much of the emotion that he brings out in speech is lost through the very uniform font used here.  It is a minor quibble, but one that calls attention to the fact that we are reading him at one remove.

Click for a larger image comparing the original and translated lettering

While neither as psychedelic, nor as visionary as The Incal, Madwoman of the Sacred Heart is nevertheless an incredibly powerful work by two true iconoclasts.  It fiercely resists categorization, both in its writing and art, and manages to turn its seemingly exploitative treatment of sex and religion into something thought-provoking, life-affirming and frequently downright hilarious.  The two creators have a strange synergy that feeds off the pair’s particular creative powers — it’s hard to imagine any other artist striking quite the right tone in Jodorowsky’s hallucinatory visions as Mœbius.  It is only to be hoped that the re-invigorated Humanoids Inc. will bring the rest of the duo’s work back into English.

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