Review time! with The Fracture of the Universal Boy
Michael Zulli’s The Fracture of the Universal Boy (with lettering by Ryan Graff) is a bizarre masterpiece. It costs $27.99 and is published by Eidolon Fine Arts. Noted commenter Seth T. Hahne wondered when this arrived at my comic book store (on 16 November) where he could get this comic, as it doesn’t appear to be on Eidolon’s web site and it’s not at Amazon. Well, Seth, I still don’t know how you might acquire it. It’s still not on Amazon. I pre-ordered it (twice!) from Previews, and it just showed up at my comic book store. Perhaps you can still order it through Diamond?
Anyway, I don’t have much to say about The Fracture of the Universal Boy. Zulli himself, in the back matter, claims that the narrative doesn’t really mean anything. The narrative is basically this: A man wanders around for a while, confronts various versions of himself (perhaps), confronts various creatures from myth and religion, confronts his own insecurities about his life, and finds some peace about it all. Exeunt. Is it happening to a man on his deathbed? Is the man Zulli (something Zulli denies in his afterword, but as artists are inveterate liars, can we really trust him?)? Which of these characters are supposed to be aspects of the man, and which are supposed to be external figures tormenting him? Hell, based on a few panels, this could be just an artist trying to figure out a drawing, nothing more. Does any of it matter?
Well, not really. The man is Everyman (the “universal” boy), the journey he takes is Everyjourney, and the things he faces might be parts of his unconscious, but they’re also creatures that torment him. He’s on a trip that many people take, and they sort things out to their own satisfaction. Zulli isn’t quite a good enough writer to make this suitably subtle – despite the lack of definitiveness in the story, it’s fairly blatant in places – and so we get harpies harrying our hero, an angel whom the hero thinks is fooling him, a naked Satan, a prophet, a cheetah with the head of a woman, a boy, a girl, and a bull terrier. Women don’t fare particularly well in this comic – the harpies are, well, harpies; the cheetah-woman tries to seduce our hero and rips the face off an old lover; our hero treats the angel really, really shabbily; the woman who leaves our hero later in the book is a metaphorical harpy. Is this something that the narrative wants us to consider – is the hero so emotionally stunted that he can’t relate to adult women? He ends in a state of innocence, so perhaps this is a second chance for him to grow up. Who knows? Zulli quotes Rumi twice in the book, and this is definitely feels like a poetic meditation, where answers are elusive and, as Zulli puts it, the questions are all that matters.
What isn’t in doubt is that Universal Boy is, artistically, superb. Zulli’s precise brushstrokes create a delicate yet harsh world, as if this landscape will destroy you but also dissolve at a touch. He immerses us fully in this world, from the glorious fields of flowers at the end to the blasted rocky hills early in the comic. His characters are wonderfully rendered – the harpies and sphinx look like real creatures, not mythic nightmares, so when the cheetah woman rips into her old lover, her Cheshire cat smile is all the more horrifying. Zulli takes his time, leading us slowly through the book, never overdoing the visual metaphors (his hero is Christ-like at one point, but Zulli makes sure it’s not too obvious). It’s an interesting contrast between the art and writing – like a lot of writers who aren’t confident in their abilities yet (Zulli has been working in comics for a long time, but hasn’t written very much), there’s a bit too much writing in this, and it veers into the pretentious too easily. This is tempered by Zulli’s remarkable artwork, which is powerful and moving. He makes sure the details are magnificent, so when our hero is moving through his fantasy world and then is unexpectedly jerked into the real world, it’s odd in the right ways … and easily shifts back to the fantasy world when we’re not ready for it, providing one of the book’s powerful visual images. The dimensions of the book and the size of the panels makes the artwork stand out even more – Zulli’s work breathes and relaxes, so that we can forgive the overwriting a bit. Zulli might not want to provide any answers in the book, but he doesn’t answer questions beautifully, I can say that much.
While The Fracture of the Universal Boy is a bit weak, not because it’s not a standard narrative (I have no problem with that), but because it feels like Zulli wants it to be IMPORTANT and therefore indulges a bit too much in somewhat trite tropes, it’s still a fascinating comic book. It’s gorgeous, for one thing, and Zulli doesn’t get to show off as much artistically as he should. Plus, a meditation on childhood, growing up, and coming to terms with failure is far more interesting even if Zulli doesn’t pull it off, and it’s nice that this comic, at least, tries to raise questions in our minds about what being a good person even means. Zulli doesn’t take the easy way out, and that’s a worthy pursuit.