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In a wordless comic strip, the word or words of the title are still absolutely necessary, if only to allow the work to be referenced in bookshops, libraries or databases. The author’s best move, therefore, is to choose this title — with a sense of playfulness, perhaps — thus avoiding easily-generalised, uncontrolled improvisations.[1]

In the present case, the cover title is Priape (“Priapus”) ; by its presence in the picture, it seems to designate (make legendary, mythify) the huddled character
in the lower right-hand corner.
Is it his name ? The story doesn’t say, of course. The name “Priape” thus keeps its semantic richness, that of an overly well-endowed Greek god, of an erect phallus. One dual meaning among others wherein this tale can anchor and cultivate its multiple ambiguities.

The character whom we follow with our gaze until he loses his eyesight is no god, but a child of men — of a rich couple who, upon his birth, cast him out of the city because of his monstrously adult and hairy sex organs, so out of proportion for so tiny a body. A shepherd and his wife take him in and bring him up, along with their own newborn son. They indeed take note of his outsize genitalia ; but after their initial horror, they quickly accept him ; perhaps because his presence underscores the normality of their own child, a normality treasured in their lowly social status.

That feature which most identified this boy with the Greek god of gardens[2] appears to shrink as the body around this phallus aquires normal adult proportions. What, then, was he before ? An adult vision of a child ? A sign of destiny ?
With the affirmation of his sexual identity, the tragedy begins. Rivalry with the foster brother who shared a mother’s milk, an attraction to the latter, violent jealousy[3] when this brother is surprised with his first love (a physical, heterosexual love revealing by contrast the platonic and homosexual love he feels for the foster brother) ; followed by his flight, and his discovery of the city — from the beggar-haunted streets to the palace of philosophical banquets (Platonic in another sense), where he meets the one who makes a man of him at last : reassured and definitely confident of his sexual orientation.

But the man who enchants his nights is the man who sired him ; and when the love story ends jealousy once more, murderously, takes over. The tale of Oedipus is inverted, ending with the same blinding.[4] It is his foster brother — now a soldier — who arrests him and inflicts this punishment ; not for the sake of justice, but for suddenly showing him once again this grotesque, gigantic, though unerect phallus.
Hiding that which he could never want to see, he cancels his eyesight by erasing that of his adopted brother. The latter had only ever been what the gaze of others made of him (especially in his mute infancy, when adults decide everything). By identifying with their (subconscious ?) vision, by sharing it through love, he once more becomes monstrous– especially in the eyes of the occupying Roman army that grinds Greece into the Earth, an incarnation of crude and direct virility.

Unlike Oedipus, the character has no offspring. His Antigone is a friend who, in love with him, had rescued him from the streets, but who’d never had his love returned due to his physical banality. An open end, then : since appearances mean nothing to the blind man, the other’s unchanged love has its chance to find its reward.[5]

Nicholas Presl draws characters with a compressed Grecian profile, their intense emotions shown by a strict verticality of their necks and heads, a graphic dithyramb embodying the tragic and tragedy. Their eyes are “Greek eyes”, akin to those painted onto hoplite shields or onto actors’ eyelids by Cocteau. The size of these eyes, their pupils’ dilation, are in proportion to their sensitivity ; we can suppose that this fluctuation of appearance corresponds to the ideal world dear to Platonism and to its concept of love. there are also those bovine and ovine (Ovidian) metamorphoses which unveil an underlying compulsive animal nature ; this is made flesh here by a Picassoesque taurine power leading to the chimera (ram/bull) of an unnatural, incestuous love.
Priape is a richly nuanced tale that no re-reading can exhaust, nor can its allusive storytelling weaken it. Via the Ancient world, it queries our present day on this still-essential question of the determinism of sexual identity. A gently scholarly work, emphasising the intelligence and acuteness of the mythical view.


  1. Imagine if Trondheim’s Bleu were described to you thus : “Uh…do you know that wordless, meter-maid-uniform-color Trondheim book ?”
    Note that this description lets us guess that it’s certainly about someone living in Paris and owning a car. A style experiment consisting of naming untitled wordless comics could be an interesting source of information on the latter’s readership, their interpretations, etc.
    Not to mention a source of schoolboy fun for readers, bookshop managers, publishers and one scribbling columnist…
  2. Priapus,god of gardens, symbol of ithyphallic fertility, was also supposed to frighten off thieves with the club of his outsized member. Between scarecrow and garden gnome, his small body size was, perhaps — and this is just my own theory — a way of avoiding that his main argument serve as a perch for birds noting his statuesque immobility.
  3. He kills some of his adoptive parents’ cattle.
  4. Note that in psychoanalysis, the inverted Oedipal complex really does exist, and is part of the child’s so-called Oedipal stage.
  5. Let us add that the main character, in his intuitive quest for love, is also indentifiable with Priapus in that the god is also cursed by his constant erection, become painful as it cannot find the sexual partner (as well as manner) capable of slaking that desire (hence, “priapism”). A paradoxical god, therefore, never using the erect phallus that is his most identifying physical feature. Presl’s character (as far as the author shows us), even if he doesn’t use his phallus (he’s the penetrated partner) differs from the god because he satisfies his desire (pleasure) and through his absence of erection : he merely has a huge phallus, as others see it. Before finding his (paternal) soul-mate, tension arose only within an unconscient (mute) quest of this quenching of a stricly human desire (again, the character of this book is no god) for a physical incline and a sentimental desmise.
Official website Atrabile
Chroniqué par in April 2007