Book Review: Hypericum by Manuele Fior

Italian cartoonist Manuele Fior’s latest graphic novel, his sixth picked up for U.S. release by Fantagraphics, follows two distinct stories occurring in different eras. The opening scenes portray the monumental effort taken by Howard Carter’s exploration team that first discovered and unearthed King Tut’s tomb in 1922. Flashing forward roughly 70 years, the other story follows the modern-day struggles of a young museum employee named Teresa who is tasked with setting up the touring exhibition of King Tut’s treasures in Berlin.

Buy Hypericum by Manuele Fior

Most of the book revolves around Teresa, a principled and driven young Italian adult who has landed her Berlin museum gig thanks to a prestigious grant. However, her separation from home results in a bit of culture shock, leading her to fall into a relationship with a flighty young Italian man who probably wouldn’t have been of interest to her back home. The young lovers quickly shack up and explore the sensual aspects of their relationship, a pairing that seems doomed due to their very different goals and attitudes.

The title refers to the scientific name for St. John’s Wort, a plant most often used to treat depression and anxiety, but also used as a sleep aid. Fior inserts the flowers of the plant into his artwork, scattering a wayward bloom at the steps marking King Tut’s tomb, and later showing Teresa’s research into using it to treat her chronic insomnia. It’s utilized as little more than a totem, just like King Tut, to further tie the two disparate stories together, but it does make for a more intriguing title than something alluding to Teresa’s Berlin fling.

Fior takes a lush, painterly approach to Carter’s exploration that is a wonder to behold, perhaps the most visually arresting artwork in any of his books to date. Teresa’s story reverts to a more traditional but still lovely comic look, with standard inked lines and panel borders. His art style remains fluid and lively, with his characters refusing to conform to strictly locked-in dimensions in favor of loose lines that feel more lifelike. The entire book is a visual delight, further enhanced by Fanta’s oversized 9” x 12” hardcover presentation.

As for the writing, Teresa is an interesting character, but her petty modern struggles in love and life pale in comparison to the legendary quest to discover King Tut’s tomb. Unfortunately, Fior’s juxtaposition of stories detracts from Teresa’s tale, almost making her an unwelcome presence in her own book. She can’t sleep, she’s broke, she can’t trust her boyfriend, but meanwhile Carter is scouring the desert and carefully excavating a fabled tomb that has been untouched for longer than most of human history. It’s really just an unfair pairing to Teresa, an innovative idea that didn’t quite connect for me. Fior has basically presented two books in one, but the double feature would likely be more effective as individual titles serving different audiences. While both stories are well-crafted and worth reading, Carter’s fascinating adventure is the true star of the book.

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Steve Geise

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