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Graphic Novel Review: The Story of O by Pauline Reage and Guido Crepax

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A notorious work of sado-masochistic erotica originally published in France in the 1950s, The Story of O has had more than its share of variably successful adaptations over the years. Arguably, the most successful attempt to translate Paule Reage’s infamous paean to female subjugation into another medium is Italian comic artist Guido Crepax’s graphic novel version. Originally published in the states by NBM in 1990 (the first title to be released by this publisher), The Story of O has just been reissued in a handsomely mounted shrink-wrapped deluxe hardcover edition – the perfect holiday gift for the submissive in your life.

I kid, but the fact is that unless you’re genuinely titillated by this time of material, both the source novel and its adaptation can be fairly tedious going. The book’s title heroine is a calculated cipher (her name “O” can be read as both a letter and a zero): the only thing we know about her outside the world of dominance-and-submission is that she’s a fashion photographer. Story depicts this leggy vessel's incremental submersion into the role of a submissive with mind-numbing specificity. Crepax is studiously faithful to this process, but after a while all the images of anonymous fondling and whipping grow repetitious.

The Italian erotic artist has a clear love for a certain kind of female form — you see O from all angles — and there are some elegant wordless images within the graphic novel. The book opens with our heroine being taken to Roissy, the sinister chateau where she will be initiated into her new life, where is she first blindfolded, cuffed from behind, fingered by a series of anonymous men and then whipped. “We want to hear her scream,” one of the nameless men of privilege says, and as she’s whipped Crepax provides a lot of tiny panel close-ups of our heroine’s lips and eyes. The visual device emphasizes the way our initiate is both being broken down and objectified, and while the technique is effective, you can’t help wishing that it was being used on a character we cared about.

Yeah, I know: erotica ain't about character. Story of O is mainly about flagellation, submission, sex with animals and bestial men, power and the abrogation of power, labial piercing and branded buttocks, not to mention the eerie power of walking around naked with an owl mask over your head. Crepax is such a masterful comics artist that his treatment of this material results in some truly arresting moments (a one-page portrait of O being led in chains by an ape-like man, the disturbing panels showing the bird-masked protagonist being led through a party of partying aristos), but there’s a lot of ho-hum stuff in between. Like the book on which it’s based, Crepax’s Story takes its transgressive material and makes it a bit of a slog.

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.