Monday 29 August 2016

Written in Water 17b: Adapting the Golden Ass

Note strategically placed sticker on shrinkwrap.

As a postscript to my piece about The Golden Ass, I recently got hold of Milo Manara's comic book adaptation of The Golden Ass, recently reissued in English. Because someone made a comic book version of The Golden Ass. And I like European comics.

It's... disappointing.

In reviewing Manara's book, I'll mention a depiction of a rape, along with objectification and misogyny. If these things upset you in any way, or might bring back things you'd rather not think about, best move on.

The comic is much slimmer than I was expecting, and it leaves out literally all the interesting bits.

But it keeps a lot of the sex. I mean, OK, Apuleius's novel is filthy, right. But that filth is balanced by constant transgressions and reversals, a view of sexuality that isn't limited. And more, the novel goes beyond that by making the sexuality a positive thing, part of the journey, a reaching for a spiritual truth; and in the spiritual is where Apuleius winds up. 

I mean, look, I know this is what Manara is famous for. I'm not stupid. He does sexy comic books. Although super-famous in Europe, this is a man best known in the English-speaking world for drawing Spider-Woman's bum in an offensive fashion after all, and although I've been aware of his stuff for a long time, I've never got round to reading one before, and a lot of the idiom of European comics is that they are generally more open about sex than American ones, but generally this doesn't get in the way of the story. And Manara's supposed to be one of those legendary living comic artists, right? And yeah, there's that sticker that says UNCENSORED VERSION on the cover, but come on, The Golden Ass has at least one pretty extreme sexual act that is central to its plot, and that's something people are going to want to censor, no matter how good it might be. 

Except it's not good. Manara's version of the Golden Ass is bad.

As far as structure goes, Manara leaves out all the inset stories and just sticks to the main plot, and OK, that's a decision that makes a sort of sense in terms of the economy of a comic book (although you don't have to make omissions like that to pace a perfectly decent comic adaptation: take for example Rob Davis's excellent adaptation of Don Quixote, which makes no such concessions, and it is a comic you absolutely should buy). The sexy witch who pees on a man's face is gone, the guy who loses his nose is gone, Cupid and Psyche are gone. I can just about understand that. You want to keep it moving, focus on the main story. That's all right.

When you adapt anything from one medium to another, you inevitably have to change stuff. You do! Things stay, things go. But those changes have to work in the new medium. They have to adapt the spirit of the work. Still, you leave out the stories, you leave out about two thirds of the entire book.

Inevitably, being Manara, he keeps a lot of the sex. I mean, that's why he's here. He makes it about the sex, in fact. But it's not all the sex – he only keeps the straight sex, for one. For example, in Metamorphoses IX. 29, the Ass reveals a woman's adulterous lover by stamping on his foot and making him yell in pain, and the husband takes the lover off to his room and buggers him, and then the following morning switches the lover's butt. Manara's version skips what happens to the lover and just keeps the humiliation of the wife. 

Meanwhile, there's what he adds. In Manara's version, one of the robbers rapes Charite (something that doesn't happen in the source text), and it's presented in an absolutely perfunctory fashion, three panels and done. In front of her husband, who although supposedly being there to rescue her, does nothing. One of the panels immediately following is used as the cover image in fact (her husband is the laughing guy in the middle). Heterosexual rape is nowhere in Apuleius.

Scenes where women have the upper hand (again, thinking about I. 14, where Panthia and Meroe wee on Socrates's face, for example) are gone.  

Inevitably, Manara does include the book's one big transgressive set piece, where the donkified protagonist has sex with a human woman. In the book (X. 21-23) this scene is given explicit detail, but it's the woman who's in control; Lucius is a dumb beast. And yeah, someone finds out, but in the novel they come up with a plan to use Lucius in a horrible way but make a point of telling no one about the lady because she's of a good social standing; in Manara's version, this is only true up to a point when a man comes in while the woman and the donkey are in flagrante and mocks and humiliates the woman – while she orgasms – and explains what's going to happen to the donkey. And it is nasty. It is vile.

What Lucius has to do in both versions, of course, is have public sex with a condemned woman in the arena while they're both being devoured by the lions. In the novel, Lucius, horrified, escapes the night before; in Manara's version he's in the arena and runs from there, and as he goes, the condemned woman, naked bum on display, is given a think bubble that says "So I'm not even worthy of a donkey." This also, this is not good; the artist has made a conscious decision to present the woman as internalising it, and this is made even worse by the fact hardly anyone in the comic even gets a single think bubble.The only time a woman gets an inner monologue, it is to underline her humiliation.

Not only does Manara leave out gay sex and omit moments where women are given an upper hand, but in the most important place in the novel where Apuleius shows a woman fulfilling her (transgressive) desires without retribution (and in fact it's explicitly said that no one tells on her because of their respect of her station, X. 23), Manara punishes the woman. Where the condemned woman is about to be degraded, Manara has her internalise it; where Charite is not degraded, Manara degrades her; where a man is degraded, Manara leaves that out.    

I'm talking about the sex and its depiction, because that's pretty much all there is to talk about. And Apuleius's masterpiece is funny and sad and beautiful and poetic and strange, strange as anything, and yes, it's also filthy, but that isn't all there is! Except in Manara's adaptation, that's all there is.

The man can draw! The linework, the art looks beautiful. No one draws lovely looking men and women having sexy fun like this guy. But I kinda thought he'd make the book interesting. In fact it's just a collection of nicely drawn sex scenes, one after the other; what plot remains is there to get you to the next sexy part. It's just porn. It's not even erotica. And the sexy parts are tainted. Because – and I can guarantee you that Manara would say the opposite, I bet he says he loves women – Milo Manara really doesn't like women at all. Oh, he loves drawing sexy ladies with their kit off in suggestive poses (according to Apuleius, Lucius's human lover in Book X wines and dines him in a dignified, even "chaste" fashion, and makes it all as romantic as she can; in Manara the woman gets her kit off and gives it full porn-star as he comes in the door) but that's not really love, is it? Manara loves women like Burger King loves cattle. To Milo Manara, women are just cows with nice bums.

Here's Manara in his own words, talking about women and the way he draws them.’s not my fault if women are like that. I’m only drawing them. It’s not me who made women that way: is an author much more “important”, for those who believe … For evolutionists, including me, on the other hand, women’s bodies have taken this form over the millennia in order to avoid the extinction of the species, in fact. If women were made exactly as men, with the same shape, I think we would have already been extinct for a long time.
Um. So it's not his fault that he draws women like that. Nope. It's evolution.

And he made one of the greatest works of Western literature into a tool for the one-handed reader.

Why bother writing about it at all? Well. The book as a phenomenon does have an instructive dimension. After all, what is interesting is how you can take a book in its wholeness and by leaving out parts of it, turn it into something completely different without changing all that much in the parts that remain. I mean, Manara doesn't change all that much, he just leaves massive chunks out and adds a little, but what he adds is invariably to its detriment, and pretty much always adds a nasty taste. Hes taken a text from an era of history not known for its respect for women, and actually managed to increase the misogyny! I'm not going to pretend Apuleius is all that great in how he portrays women, because he isn't, no, but Manara makes it worse. Much in Manara's text is authentically part of The Golden Ass, but it is not The Golden Ass. Not remotely.

I spent a day trying to find good things to say about the book, some redeeming feature in this. It's nicely drawn? Manara can draw old women and monstrous looking guys as well as the best of them? The Goddess at the end is really nicely drawn? No, it's no good. I can't. I hate this book too much.