by Andy Wolverton
“I always get what I want.” – The Collector
A man fishes off the bank of a quiet creek in a remote area of northwestern Missouri in 1880. He’s a journalist, taking a break from his work, but still thinking about the man he’s obsessed with interviewing: the mysterious figure known only as the Collector. The Collector — tall and lanky, sporting an odd-looking moustache — seems to drop in from nowhere and agrees to grant the journalist an interview, but only for an exchange of information.
“Let’s get one thing straight,” the Collector says to the journalist. “I only collect things of deep personal meaning to me, things that have ‘lived,’ actors in histories I alone know, from research. Once I obtain them, I set them aside. No one else ever sees them again.” The Collector is seeking such an item in America, and the journalist knows where it is. Thus begins the first of five stories which chronicle the Collector’s passion, ingenuity, intelligence, daring and possibly foolhardiness.
The Collector (first published in Italian in 1984) is the creation of Italian illustrator Sergio Toppi (1932-2012), an artist who worked in advertising early in his career and drew comics from the mid-1960s on. Archaia also published an English translation of Toppi’s Sharaz-De in 2012 and will be presenting a third Toppi book in 2015.
Many of the tales in The Collector involve the protagonist journeying to some remote area where the local peoples and tribes are less than welcoming. Almost always, the Collector either hears of or already knows the backstory of the item he’s seeking. (If you remember Kasper Gutman’s Knight Templars of Malta story from The Maltese Falcon, you’ll know the type of stories I’m talking about.) The trick, then, is in taking the item, which is never easy.
In the deserts of Massawa, while looking for the legendary Abyssinian Obelisk, the Collector is captured by a Danakil tribe. As a foreigner and a white man, the Collector is not welcome. One of the tribal leaders remarks, “The desert does not like those who come with the arrogance of conquerors. The desert protects itself as it protects what it holds: with sun, wind, and deceptive mirage.” Yet the Collector is undeterred. The obstacles in his path — including the mysterious “White-faced Lady,” who appears in two stories — are relentless and unforgiving, yet adhere to a certain code of conduct, as does the Collector…. most of the time.
You might think these stories are formulaic, and I suppose in one sense they are, yet to think of The Collector simply as a series of exotic adventures would be a huge mistake. Toppi has much more on his mind than adventure, touching on themes of race, the supernatural, nineteenth-century colonialism, the dignity of other cultures, and more. One of the more amazing aspects of the book is Toppi’s ability to portray people of various ethnicities in a way that helps define their people and culture without being exploitative. These are not the typical stereotypes we so often see. Underlying each people and culture is a sense of worth that extends beyond the confines of the stories.
And while the stories are good — quite good — the main selling point for The Collector is the art. If you haven’t yet experienced Toppi’s art, prepare to be stunned. Almost all of Toppi’s shading is done through line work, sometimes infinitesimal lines converging to create shading and shadow. This technique is impressive enough in drawings of people, but in Toppi’s landscapes, it’s breathtaking. Toppi’s panel layouts also give us a sense of the story’s progression while never letting us forget the scope and vastness of the country we’re in.
On this page (above), for instance, we see the journalist and the Collector in three small panels along the top of the page. They’re fairly tight panels meant to convey distance. And in the middle and bottom of the page, we see what amounts to a splash page, an enormous slope of a richly-detailed hill that’s so vast it seems to reach into the heavens. Only at the very bottom do we really gain perspective as we see the two men passing by a boulder. In just this one page, Toppi has given us an impressive amount of visual information and context.
Toppi is also a master of textures, facial expressions and sudden, violent action. If you’ve seen any of the old Italian spaghetti Westerns, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. I can’t help but think that director Sergio Leone was a big influence on Toppi. As far as Toppi’s influence, take a look at the work of artists like Walt Simonson and Jim Lee, to name just two. I think The Collector will convince you that Toppi is not only an amazing artist, but also an incredible storyteller.
In a 2008 interview in The Sardinian Connection, Toppi recalled, “The Collector is the only serial character I created. I casually gave him that strange moustache and long legs. I have short ones, so maybe it was a sort of compensation. He is a man with many resources, able to get out from the most complicated situations. He always gets what he wants, has a good sense of humour, sometimes sarcastic, a bit merciless. I like him, he is a bit, just a bit, bad — but I am not exactly like him!” Like the Collector, Toppi was certainly a man of many resources, as is evident from this superb collection.
Check out Toppi’s work as well as other recent releases from BOOM! Studios-Archaia: