Manuele Fior | Hypericum (Fantagraphics)

144 pgs. color | $29.99 hardcover | Writer & Artist: Manuele Fior; Translator: Matt Madden

Today hypericum, whose common names include St. John’s Wort and Rose of Sharon, is often regarded as a noxious weed and an invasive species. It was not always so: the ancient Egyptians believed it had the power to repel demons, and similar beliefs persisted in parts of Europe into the Middle Ages. In ancient Celtic tradition hypericum, which has bright yellow flowers and is at peak bloom around the time of the summer solstice, represented the sun. And in traditional medicine, hypericum has long been used to treat depression (and there’s scientific evidence to support it).

It’s useful to know something about the plant hypericum because this flower ties together the two stories told in parallel in Manuele Fior’s graphic novel Hypericum. The first regards Howard Carter’s famous1922 expedition which led to the discovery of the intact tomb of Tutankhamun, a.k.a. “King Tut.” Carter’s explorations were financed by Lord Carnarvon (whose country house, Highclere Castle, was featured in Downton Abbey), an English aristocrat who became rich by a marriage settlement provided by the banker Alfred de Rothschild (Carnarvon’s wife was alleged to be Rothschild’s illegitimate daughter).

By 1922, most of the Valley of the Kings had been thoroughly explored, and Carnarvon was reluctant to keep paying for expeditions that resulted in only minor finds at best. Egyptian exploration in those days was a bit like treasure hunting, and the pressure was on Carter to turn up something really big. He pinned his final hopes on one triangular area that remained unexplored, and which at the surface contained only a few workmen’s huts. But beneath one of those huts was a stairway leading underground to a tomb with unbroken seals. The rest, as they say, is history.

The cover to Hypericum. Click to enlarge.

In the modern day, a young Italian scholar named Teresa wins a scholarship to come to Berlin and work on an exhibition of the treasures recovered from the tomb. She’s a straight arrow who works hard and keeps her focus determinedly on the task at hand, which is probably why she was selected for the scholarship in the first place. But travel has a way of throwing curves at you, and Teresa’s troubles start when the hotel room she booked turns out not to be available for as long as she thought.

By chance she meets a brash young man named Ruben who is her exact opposite: he pretends to be an artist but seldom works at it, and he lives like a hippie in a squat while being supported by his father. There are no straight lines in Ruben’s life, as Teresa quickly discovers, but she falls under his spell and soon they become lovers.

I’m not a huge fan of the trope of a successful, hardworking woman needing a privileged slacker man to teach her how to enjoy life, but Fior’s telling makes that story line as palatable as anyone could. One reason it’s bearable is because Ruben also learns from Teresa and grows up a bit, so you could say that each provided an influence that helped the other become whole.

Fior’s art would sell Hypericum to me even if I wasn’t already interested in Egyptology. He uses a painterly style and lots of earth tones in the Carter section, as well as large cells without borders, sometimes only two per page, in a large-format (9.3” by 12.1”) book. There’s little dialogue in this section, and the story is narrated by modified excerpts from Carter’s diary (if you know anything about the discovery, you can probably guess one bit of dialogue that is included). The modern-day section uses more realistic art, smaller cells, lots of dialogue, and a more varied color scheme. One result of these choices is that the Carter section seems timeless, while the modern story is very much of our times. The exhibition itself is narrated by more selections from Carter’s diary, which helps tie the two stories together. | Sarah Boslaugh

You can see a preview of Hypericum here. Word of warning: there are images of an explicit sexual nature in this graphic novel, so it may not be appropriate for all readers.

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