A review of the artbook/graphic novel „Elegia“ by Saverio Tenuta


Dedicated to the memory of Saverio Tenuta (May 14th, 1969-August 3rd, 2023)
Also dedicated to his students; keep the flame alive.

During the 54 years he’d spent on this green Earth, Saverio Tenuta had left behind a massive portfolio of spectacular comic book works, including graphic novels that would get him and his collaborators an Eisner Award nomination. He will most certainly be remembered best by the fictional universe he had created, set in feudal Japan, outlined by the series such as Legends of the Pierced Veils (including The Scarlet Blades, Izuna, and The Mask of Fudo) as well asLegends of the Scarlet Blades. Naturally, all of these pieces were published by the industry giant „Les Humanoïdes Associés“ (and its American counterpat „Humanoids“) and can be purchased both in print and digitally – in fact, you can even buy them in Belgrade bookstores. Highly recommended reading. milestone milestone milestone milestone

Granted, this was Tenuta at the top of his game, a mature artist with a steady hand of a seasoned draftsman, as well as a seasoned storyteller. But these are not the only works that Tenuta had to offer. As close as feudal Japan was to his heart, this maestro had proven his skill level in numerous other fields as well, with the best evidence of that being his first graphic novel Cold Graze – risvegli di ghiaccio (published in his native Italy in 1997, script by Otto Gabos) and his comic book series Dolls and Morrigan (also published in 1997, both written by Lorenzo Bartoli). These are the very pages where Tenuta’s early potential was showing, while he was still in his late twenties. Dolls and Morrigan were also published in the US, while Cold Graze didn’t go past Italy, where it was even honored with a second edition.

It’s interesting to point out that even before Cold Graze, Tenuta was an active comic book creator. However, having a desire to improve his craft, during this time he would enroll in the International School of Comics in Rome, where he would be an active teacher from 1993 to 2010. He continued his teaching efforts by founding an independent studio for illustration, appropriately dubbed Daishō Studio. Still, his period in the International School was slightly more crucial because, even while he was teaching new generations of artists in Rome, Tenuta was honing his craft working on other comic book projects, which inevitably culminated both with his first graphic novel (the aforementioned Cold Graze) and with his breaking into the American comic book market. milestone milestone milestone milestone

Examining Tenuta’s works from the late 90s and the art he would later create for his stint at the Humanoids, we can see a clear delineation, a more-than-evident progress. With that in mind, we are faced with a difficulty in summarizing his artistic opus. Fortunately, there is a work of his that perfectly represents Saverio in nearly all of the key phases of his creative development, from the point where he was still trying to pinpoint his approach to the one where he had established himself as a name that can easily go toe-to-toe with the heavyweights of the 9th Art. That work is a hybrid piece of printed media called Elegia.

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The reason I’m calling Elegia a ‘hybrid piece’ is the fact that, because of how it was conceived, it can’t exactly fit a specific ‘box’. Officially, it is classified as an artbook, but since it actually contains a narrative, a story written by Tenuta himself, it can also fit neatly in the graphic novel category. However, it is by no means a comic book, since it doesn’t follow the conventions of such a piece, despite containing sketches and illustrations related to comics, as well as artwork, cover pages and illustrations that were, indeed, printed as parts of his former comic book efforts.

The publishing of this artbook was handled by the Heavy Metal magazine. Published in 2003, Elegia covers the artwork of Saverio Tenuta created between 1993 and the year this book came out, covering a period a little over a decade long. The introduction to the artbook was provided by none other than Joe Quesada, freshly appointed as the CEO of Marvel. I’ll quote the man himself directly: 

Tenuta’s artwork has such energy, such a visceral rawness that it’s tough to just casually glance at his work. It demands attention, it requires you, orders you to take notice, and I did! I don’t write many forwards to books like these, I generally politely turn down such offers because it’s tough for me to put into words how I feel about a fellow artist’s work. Tenuta’s book was different, I knew exactly what to say because I said it out loud several years ago over espresso. “WOW!”

Much deserved praise, especially when one actually goes over the graphic novel itself. The “story proper” begins with a lonely individual in space, an astronaut, running into cosmic, Lovecraftian beings known as the Dismantlers. In their silvery cripteggs, these timeless beings begin to spin a yarn to this small man about the times past, or times to come, or times that don’t even exist. Of realms that will probably never come into contact with one another, but ones that, each on its own, have a billion stories to offer.

Three major segments in Elegia are divided and narrated by three massive creatures. Rintrah, the first Dismantler (and the name of the first segment) covers the worlds of epic fantasy, mythology, and fiction with medieval elements. In these worlds we will find barbarians, elves, swordsmen, mages, kings and queens, wise women and warrioresses, and all the rawness of warfare that comes with it. Urthona, the following Dismantler (also the following segment) deals with science fiction, guns, and cybernetics, with robots and androids, human aberrations and modified humanoids. All of the fears that the future holds can be found here. The third, though not the last Dismantler (in charge of the third and, technically speaking, the final segment) is Elinittria, the herald of Hell and a storyteller covering horror. Dark corners rule here, beasts straight out of Tartarus, death, blood, and suffering, everything that ends lives is found here.

Within these segments we see how prolific and talented Tenuta is as an author. The majority of visual material here, 32 pieces in total, include previously unpublished illustrations (including the Dismantlers themselves). Among the rest, 5 are illustrations for the movie industry, 11 are both sketches and illustrations meant for other projects, there’s even one illustration for a playbill, then there are 8 covers of various printed editions (comics, books, magazines), two segments taken from comics, 4 commissions (including a distinctly recognizable figure of Hellboy) and 19 card illustrations, including 6 for the trading card game bundled with the Ash comic series and 13 for the so-called Celtic Tarot (in collaboration with Giacinto Gaudenzi). This enormous amount of illustrated works showcases to the reader the capabilities of Tenuta to effectively represent both futuristic worlds, complete with creative firearms, buildings, and equipment, and the worlds of the past mired in myths and legends, with all of the tropes associated with the genre. The horror segment is especially high-tier, even more so when you take into account the level of fear some of Tenuta’s illustrated creatures can instill upon you.

Naturally, there’s also a so-called fourth segment, dubbed Elegia. The Dismantleress herself of the same name that introduces this segment is also the lady adorning the cover of the book, and as she is done with her introduction, a little before the other Dismantlers close the book (and the “story proper” ends), are only a few brief illustrations, all representing the same concept – death.

There isn’t a single segment of Elegia that isn’t teeming with pathos, patina, and peregrination. Not only does it fit thematically, both as an artbook and a proto-graphic novel, within the tone of Heavy Metal, but it also seems, in and of itself, like an ancient tome, cloaking away some hidden arcana unknown to the modern man. I did not evoke the name of Lovecraft near the beginning of this deep dive without a purpose; cosmic horror is the only “being” that can observe, and handle, such a vast amount of knowledge regarding endless worlds so different from one another that a single human being, such as yourself, or even me, would suffer a massive headache if they were to undertake that endeavor themselves. The Dismantlers are presenting the little astronaut with an entire multiverse, but also, somewhat paradoxically, a microcosm – they are representing Tenuta and his creativity, so vast that a single world is nowhere near big enough to contain it.

Of course, by doing this, the Dismantlers act as a form of cosmic teacher to the astronaut, a tutor who knows plenty, and is eager to share said knowledge with future generations. And I can’t help but draw a parallel here (yet again!) with Tenuta himself – after all, such a level of skill, combined with an enormous and unending selflessness, is a recipe for an individual who wants to share their knowledge with others so much that, up until the very end, they will teach new generations of artists. Judging by the works of individuals that have been through Tenuta’s mentorship, his mission was more than successful.

I don’t deny that Elegia is dark (both the Dismantleress and her artbook namesake), and I do not negate the morbidity it’s infused with. But again, it’s worth pointing out that, even with clearly dreary undertones, this book actually celebrates life. Not one, mind you – many. It celebrates the fact that a person can achieve so much in as little as ten years. And considering that Tenuta has created even more monumental pieces of art in the ten plus ten years following the publishing of Elegia, that only serves to prove my original point. With that in mind, Elegia is the ideal introduction into what makes its main author timeless, and his success definitely continues to grow through his successors, the alumni of his school, his dear students and friends forged through art. Henceforth, Elegia should be celebrated as a standout piece of European, and even global cultural heritage.

Ivan Veljković, December 8th, 2023

Elegia © Heavy Metal, Saverio Tenuta
Images by: Saverio Tenuta

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