Erma Jaguar – Alex Varenne (Catalan Communications)
Ah, readers of Dark Horse’s deluxe Manara Libraries, come visit the past, a time when your cents would stretch to a 10 dollar softcover of 56 pages B&W line work by the likes of Varenne, Giardino or Manara himself. Soon Eros would come and give more bang for the buck with Levis and Lopez but before then click and Erma Jaguar were where onanistic pleasures resided.
Both volumes of Erma follow the same path with our libertine lead driving around nighttime Paris and beyond led by the vicissitudes of her sex. Book One sees her pick up a young couple of hitchikers, only to dump the male and seduce the female via a series of venues plucked from 70s arthouse cinema. Book two sees Erma enroll a classic platinum blonde playmate to ruin the wedding night of the same hitchhiker. In the final page of each book the relationship between Erma and the strawberry blonde innocent hiker, Charlotte, becomes clarified in a manner not dissimilar to Little Ego and it’s precursor.
Jaguar’s decadent travelogue seems terribly unlikely but in many ways the scenarios and perversities of 70s France are neatly encapsulated in the decedent mansions and corpulent ensemble cast that Erma and Charlotte encounter. Fellini and Bunuel’s meets Millets’ Secret Diary in Varenne’s erotic night flights and the delight comes from his depictions of the obese and ugly cavorting in bacchanalian excess as much as it does from Erma’s own fleshy depiction. Varenne’s characters, most notably the two central females, are at their least interesting visually when depicted head-on, his style minimising detail and Charlotte in particular looks less real than a overdressed teenage poupee gonflable as she stares at the reader. However when the books enter the over-fed orgies or the dangers of the truck-stop the supporting cast leer joyously at the ladies and Varenne’s ability as a character artist shines with as much ability as that recorder of a similar cast, Tardi. It may be a slight flaw in an erotic book for the artist to be at his best when drawing repugnant bodies rather than idealised ones.
Varenne is also fond of that increasingly rare device in a modern comic, the fixed position frame, with a sequential action carried out in a triptych of panels keeping the readers gaze focused on the precise differences in the characters positioning and actions. It’s a device at home in the erotic comic where the voyeurs gaze revels in holding the moment and Varenne deploys it numerous times as instances of precision in an otherwise wandering tale.
The females in the two volumes display a range of character types, the ingenue Charlotte, the wasted starlet Niki and the possessed composed Erma herself, although all operate firmly within a landscape determined by male power and act thoroughly as the male readers wish. Charlotte’s request for ‘perfume, fashion magazines and graphic novels‘ makes the latter point hilariously clear. In this respect the narrative reveal at the end of each book, that Erma is a bourgeoise housewife awoken by her monied husband leaving for work, strips Erma herself of her feminist credentials. A bisexual provocateur she may be but only in her, and your, dreams.
Erma is the rare foray of the many erotic works of Varene into English. That the third volume of Erma never made it to print with Catalan suggests his style never found the favour of other European artists. However with a rich back catalogue, including work with the icon of Alpha France’s erotic movies Brigitte laHaie, Varenne is overdue a reassessment and once the precision of Manara has run dry the thicker strokes of this Parisian recorder should be ripe for a deluxe edition. 2010 saw a French ‘complete’ reprint of Erma but for those English patrons to whom the words matter the original Catalan two thirds of the series can be picked up for around the original cost. At 56 pages that’s still a steep price for fleshy genetilia.