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Review time! with The Fracture of the Universal Boy

Well, okay. Here’s another one that defies analysis!

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.

6 Comments

May I ask how the Christ symbolism can possibly qualify as “not too obvious” when the kid’s wearing a crown of thorns on the front cover? Also, a man-slaying woman-thing with the body of a big cat is basically the sphinx, who was ultimately defeated by Oedipus. Sounds like the artist has some serious personal issues to work through, which from an outsider’s point of view is usually about as much fun as hearing about someone else’s dreams. However good the artwork is, I don’t think I’ll be buying this.

Zulli’s artwork is always beautiful to look at, which is why I was tempted to contribute to this on Kickstarter. However, knowing he wrote it too was a bit of a concern, as I’m not sure that he’s really written any comics before. (Looking at the GCD, it appears he’s only done a few things like a bit for Roarin’ Rick’s Rarebit Fiends, a story for Taboo, and an issue of TMNT.) I still may pick this up, but I’m not in a rush to do so.

The Diamond code is apparently JUL111105, so if someone’s interested, their local comic shop should be able to order for them from that.

A couple things this brings to mind: I hope DC finally publishes the “Swamp Thing meets Christ” issue that Zulli drew, and someone should collect The Puma Blues. Oh, and Zulli was a character in Cerebus, too. Can’t remember where in the series, though (he’s an artist that Jaka commissions to do some art for her).

Fantomas: The cover is the most blatant use of the Christ symbolism, actually. That image doesn’t appear in the book, nor do any images even close to that, and there’s only one allusion to a Christ-like figure in the book. I know what you’re saying, and I agree with you, but there are some things helping this out: Zulli doesn’t make it too obvious, and he does keep a sense of humor throughout most of the book, so it doesn’t get as tedious as it could.

Travis: Yeah, I find it humorous that some artists don’t trust their art to tell the story and go a bit overboard with the writing. This book would have been just as effective, I think, with about half as many words!

That’s too bad to hear about the writing but the art does look beautiful enough to still make the book worth my time. I’m looking forward to seeing it for myself and I may even have to visit a comic book store to order it (thanks, Travis, for the Diamond code)—it’s been years since I’ve visited my local and most of the clerks I was familiar with are gone. I did hear back from Eidolon and they said that it will be available for online purchase soon.

His ability to create emotions that seem to pour from the paper is derived from more than just the ink he uses. He has dealt with an internal struggle all of his life, and who hasn’t. It is his interpretation of a man finding himself, through defiance,and of course a little inner torment. We all struggle here and there, trying to locate the path we are meant to follow. Well friends… I think it’s safe to say that Michael Zulli has found his path. At this stage in life he is able to depict each character in such detail that they come to life as each page is turned. We are all a Universal Boy/ or girl…

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