Talk about setting yourself up for failure. It wasn’t enough for Pat McGreal and Dave Rawson to create a comic book without a single superhero in it, one without even a hint of magic or of fantasy. Not enough to set it in historical Europe, without a single nightclub, or joint of pot in sight. And make it a biography. It had to be about Leondardo da Vinci, one of those boring old artists whose paintings you had to look at in Art Appreciation class. Would anyone actually buy it?

And in case anyone did, they focused the story on a character (not the artist) who can most charitably be described as a selfish asshole, and the famous artist wasn’t all that much nicer. And to top it all off, they had the narrative skip all around, forward and back in time, willy-nilly. Would anyone stick around to finish it?

Anyone who didn’t, missed a fine story.

OK, to be honest, I did stop reading the series, about 2/3 through it. But this wasn’t because I’d had enough; I was just getting a little lost, trying to follow it from one month to the next. They tried some “story so far” paragraphs on the opening pages, but those were a truly lost cause. The story was too complex (and too non-linear) for that to work. So I just kept buying it, allowing me to sit down months later, and read the whole thing in one day. This worked much better.

The story focuses largely on Salai, an historical figure about whom very little is known, even to scholars. We know that he lived with Leonardo for many years, was considerably younger than “the maestro”, and that Leonardo described Salai’s character in rather scathing terms. So why did Leonardo keep him around? And why is there so little about him in Leonardo’s copious journals?

Chiaroscuro is an attempt to find (or at least guess at) some answers. McGreal and Rawson provide some very plausible answers, painting a picture (obvious artistic metaphor unintended) of a complex and conflicted relationship between the two. (You did know that Leonardo da Vinci is on most lists of “historical figures who were homosexual”, didn’t you?) It’s further complicated by da Vinci’s strained relationship with his father, a certain run-in with the morals police as a young man, and his competitive attitude toward his fellow men of the arts and the sciences.

The series was meticulously researched, both by artist Chas Truog (who originally conceived this series, by the way) and the writers. Both the visuals and story jibe with what I already knew about the life and times of Leonardo, which makes this story rather credible. About the only thing that strains that credibility are the cameos (obvious artistic pun unintended) by famous works of art. For example, a certain well-known portrait figures into the plot at one point, and there are a couple other moderately-strained tie-ins. But since my suspension of disbelief isn’t being tasked by heroes tossing planets around {grin}, this isn’t too hard to accept.

In fact, one of the most difficult aspects of reading Chiaroscuro (after keeping the chronology straight) is remembering that this is merely a work of fiction “based on a true story”, and not actual historical biography. While it’s consistent with the facts as they are known, most of what we read here is fabricated from whole cloth (whew! avoided an overtly artistic metaphor there) by McGreal and Rawson. I guess it’s a retcon of sorts.

The art, while far less exquisite than Leonardo’s, is well-suited to this story. The Great Works are all recognisable (even the foreshadowings thereof), as are the characters (even when shown at very different ages). The pictures don’t just illustrate the story; they illuminate it, conveying emotions, attitude, and other facets that the text does not. And the evocation of a bygone era is impressive to say the least.

If the creators of Chiaroscuro were trying to fail with this challenge, they failed. That is, it succeeds.

ASIDE: Leondardo’s 500-year-old dream has been realised. With the financial backing of Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA businessman Fred Meijer, a full-scale 24-foot recreation of Leonardo’s Horse has been created by scultor Nina Akamu, with twin castings of it now on display, one in Milan, the other in Grand Rapids. I’m a little biased by provincialism, but I recommend seeing the American horse at Frederik Meijer Gardens, as it’s mounted on a flat plaza where viewers can walk between its massive legs, rather than placed out of reach on a pedestal as the Italian horse is. There’s also a smaller 8-foot version of the sculpture, accessible for the blind, and just a different perspective on the figure. For more information about the project (and both horses), visit the Leonardo da Vinci’s Horse site.

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