Everybody knows by now the story of Caligula or at least parts of the story. In a nutshell he was a bit of a crazy and got stabbed up by his own guards. This graphic novel is a slightly different retelling of this historic figure. Just to let you know there will be spoilers, huge massive spoilers so be warned. Also some images in this article are quite extreme so put the children to bed before reading this review okay.
Our story starts off with the young Junius, an olive oil seller who comes home to find his family murdered and raped (and not in that order) by Caligula and his two perverted friends Nera and Marcus. Junius heads off to Rome to kill Caligula. But after a failed attempt he ends up becoming Caligula’s ward. From here Junius (now renamed Felix which means luck) must debase himself in a variety of different ways which leads to him committing unspeakable acts, all so he can figure out a way to kill the seemingly unstoppable killer.
Writer David Lapham (Deadpool Max) has created what can only be described as a grotesque and disturbing look into the psyche of the insane. This book reads like a visual version of a car wreck. You don’t want to look but something keeps making you sneak a peek even though you know it’s not good for you. Even more disturbing is it’s not just a book about discarded female entrails it also has an engaging story which you will want to see the end of.
Artist German Nobile (Crossed) gives us a set of truly vile characters, beautiful to look at but soulless inside. The way he makes attractive faces sneer into a face to be feared is superb. His dark style actual becomes beautiful because of the way he presents the scenes. He also seems to be a dab hand at drawing acts of violence, of which there are a lot. In fact you are hard pressed to not read two or three pages before someone has been debased sexually or having their head stuck onto a spike. Now I’m no prude when it comes to this but some scenes even made me wince a bit. Here is a small example of the blood shed on show.
Still with us? Good lets crack on with the characters in this book. There are really only two which stand out. Junius / Felix story arc start’s out very similar to the story arc in the orange booker prize winner novel Song of Achilles. Both titles focus on a lead that has everything taken away from them and their life changes when they meet a historical figure. Both have sex and violence aplenty but Caligula wins hands down in the violence department. Junius is a man filled with rage which he cannot dissipate. His killing of Caligula fails (though he does jam a knife through his head so he tried) and he gets seduced by the darkness of this character very quickly because he cannot find an outlet for these feelings of pain. He does not have a great time anyway what with Incitatus, Caligula’s horse having some private time with him and Caligula’s constant testing of Junius limits. The ending is to be expected really with him becoming like the murder he hated so much.
The other lead character is Caligula himself, a warped and messed up entity which is the best visual description of chaos on Earth. He is interesting because you don’t know what he will do next. He is the catalyst for the events in the book, to all the characters to and like an agent of chaos does not care either way. All life is his; all life is a plaything for him. He is the pervertor of the innocent and it is through him we mostly see and feel all the sex and violence.
Other characters of note are Incitatus the evil horse that spews killer maggots when cut and likes to have a good time with pretty much any one with an orifice, is there just to be a horrid creature and to give the next character someone to fight with later. Enter Laurentius Aquilinis one of the old guard of Rome who is not chuffed about how things are going. He is there to remind us that innocence and values are not completely lost in Rome and it’s a nice change from all the slashing and sexing to have someone just say its wrong. Alas he is not in it that much so you don’t get much of a breather.
Aside from the main plot to kill Caligula there is another slightly thinner plot which involves the reason he cannot be killed. There is talk of the crucifixion which has caused demons to rise from the earth. It is here that Caligula has got his powers. He has made a deal with the devil and every innocent he kills he retrieves a small gem from them which he puts in a box. He then swallows the box to feed the demon. When this is removed Caligula can die.
Caligula has always been an interesting example of how power corrupts and what horrors the human mind is capable of. I’m not sure how accurate some of the rumours are and I’m pretty sure he was not possessed by a demon but that does not stop this from been a pretty good read if you don’t mind all the sex and violence and just general depressive feel of the book. The interesting thing about this book is the excessive use of violence. You would think it would become comical after you have seen the sixth chest get sliced open or at least you would become desensitized to it. But actually it is so relenting it just seems to get worse and worse with even greater acts of violence building to the quite mundane act of stabbing Caligula to death which does come as a relief as you know he is dead so no more bodies. That’s until the twist ending turns up and basically says it’s never going to be over!
Publisher Avatar have been accused in the past of putting out titles that essentially just glorify violence. In some cases I guess this is true. I stopped reading their Night of the Living Dead series because I was sick to my back teeth of seeing zombies eating ladies brain cases out in equally messed up ways, not before the zombies have decided to rip off the ladies tops first. Do zombies even care about breasts? They cannot be as much fun as say eating a leg can they? I’m not a cannibal so I don’t have the answers but I do know that those books just seem to be repeated elements of the original story. This books violent elements work better because you expect this character to do these things because he is a psycho.
When I was growing up there was a film called Caligula. It was a notorious movie which has come out in several different versions each with different degrees of sex and violence. All of these versions are uncomfortable to sit through. This book is much the same. Much like the film there is a sense of satisfaction to be had in actually making it to the end and seeing how it all plays out no matter how disturbed you may feel. Entertainment is there to shock and surprise and in some cases disgust and not just be there to make us all feel warm inside. So in this sense this book is a great tester of wills. There is soon to be a sequel but I don’t know if I’m quite ready to go down that road quite yet. All I know for sure is that when I do I’ll need to take a shower after it as this book makes you feel slightly grimy!