Paolo Eleuteri Serpieri’s Morbus Gravis I is an erotic horror science fiction graphic novel. Split into two volumes, Morbus Gravis I introduces Serpieri’s recurring heroine, Druuna, and lays the framework for her further saga of trans-dimensional cosmic horror adventures. Druuna lives many lives on many planes. Her story is one of terror and strangeness, with boundaries as fluid as they are vast. Her story is one of extremes, with captured moments of love and tenderness matched tenfold by eras of darkness, violence, and uncertainty. An unlikely heroine, she persists through both instinct and compassion. Serpieri scores his tale of tragedy with both sweeping vistas and fleeting moments of pleasure and pain. A masterwork of both art and world-building, Druuna’s adventures confine readers in a dank and fascinating abyss of beauty, horror, and the strange mutations in-between.
Morbus Gravis I begins in the dormitory of a young woman name Druuna. The first page divided into three panels, readers are guided around Druuna’s body, viewing it from the front, rear, and portrait as she lies in bed, reading a book. The intimacy garnered in this opening scene does not rest solely on Druuna’s attire (or lack thereof). The panels are claustrophobic, each pane revealing clues as to how she lives, as well as the broader implications of a world which propagates such poverty.
The world of Morbus Gravis I is introduced via Druuna’s thoughts rather than omnipotent narration. We follow Druuna, dependent on her monologue to gather information, contrasting it with snapshots of the environment around her. As she mulls over the passage, “A thick and luxuriant vegetation covered the hills and mountains…”, one is spurred to wonder exactly what kind of place she lives in, with Druuna’s comprehension of the scene proving so difficult.
Her thoughts are soon interrupted by a cry radiating up from the hatch beside her bed. Reluctantly, she undoes the lock, letting a monstrous creature named Shastar (later spelled Schastar) free into her room. Soon after, Druuna agrees to go out and retrieve him some medication – having seemingly only communicated with beast through one-sided dialog. Slipping on a pair of blue jeans and shoes, Druuna steps out the vault door, and we are introduced to the terrible world she calls home.
The first four pages of Morbus Gravis I showcase Serpieri’s mastery over not only the human form, but his skill in visual storytelling through body language and posturing. Druuna lazily strolls about her apartment, every move natural and weighted. We first meet her in near undress, watching as she slides on her jeans and fastens a shawl before taking leave. This short scene of Druuna dressing herself not only further cements Serpieri’s hold on both drapery and the female form, it introduces us to Druuna in the plainest (at least to her) of circumstances: home life.
Outside, the view is no less grim. Sun-bleached stone and metal ruins cast heavy shadows throughout the toxic landscape. The City is in a state of decomposition, with throngs of pipes and wire weaving over the skyline, retarding sight any more than a few dozen meters ahead. Gas and steam waft up from sinkholes and pits, further polluting the streets. The sudden change in colour is striking, with Serpieri utilizing putrid, flat tones to colour the outside landscape. It’s warm, but not healthy, with a grotesque mixture of yellows and brown staining the page. Druuna navigates with hesitation, seeming to know her way through the labyrinth, and the dangers housed within.
Just around the bend from her dwelling, Druuna witnesses the desperation of “the sickness” – the ailment which has claimed hold of much of The City’s population, Schastar included. A man accused of being infected is apprehended by a group of soldiers under the watchful eye of a Priest – a gatekeeper of information and master of control. While we were given short glimpses of Schastar in Druuna’s home, the full effect of the mutation has not yet been displayed. Druuna is questioned shortly thereafter, and forced to disrobe in front of the company to prove she is free of infection. Her hesitation to leave home, as well as her general fatigue and depressive state, become quickly understandable.
The abuse she meets just outside her home is not unique, and things only get worse as she continues on her journey. Taken off track by a stout, homely man (the Gnome), Druuna is pushed to disrobe once again. Told to swim through the dangerous waters of the lower levels, the Gnome states someone is waiting to meet Druuna on the other side. Here in sewers, mutants run amok. The Gnome, not yet clearly defined as friend or foe, warns Druuna to make haste. Druuna heeds his advice, pushing through the swamp and emerging on the other side with a frantic gasp for air.
Here, we get our first real look at the mutants. The buildup thus far may have led one to expect the worst, the only glimpses of the sickness being long, razor-like tentacles and allusions to their insatiable hunger. Instead, we see a crowd of stout, deformed humanoids, rushing the shallows to greet Druuna; their cheerful welcome situated not so much on Druuna’s well-being as it is her willingness to breed. Luckily, the group is called off, saving Druuna from further molestation. A tall, hermaphroditic being enters the scene, excusing the behavior of her wives (and daughters, as she admits she cannot fully differentiate the lot), introducing herself by the apt title of The Mutant.
The Mutant reveals Schastar had been working with her, searching for information of possible routes out from The City. Apparently, he had discovered something of the utmost importance, though she had not yet heard his report. Druuna is blindsided by the revelation, having had no notion of her lover’s revolutionary activities.
The Mutant’s chamber holds a curious sculpture, apparently representing “the Master”. Here, we begin to see threads of Serpieri’s organic influence of industrial materials. A mess of pipes intertwine, coiling to form a humanoid face. Life is given to the environment, contrasting with the organic play of the mutants’ builds, while also planting seeds for the broader plot.
Emerging back onto the main level with a little help from the Gnome, Druuna continues on to the clinic. This supposed haven holds little relief. Masses line up outside while armed guards patrol the area with paranoid enthusiasm. Druuna stands out from the lot, her colouring illuminated among a crowd of scowling faces, drenched in grey. Moving into the lineup, Druuna looks about the scene with mourning, reminded of her father’s struggle to obtain serum, and how it cost him his life.
As the lineup moves inside of the clinic, colour begins to dissipate. The mood sinks and the suspense rises while Druuna engages in (captive) conversation with another woman in line. Soon, the woman reveals she is in fact a mutant, and attacks a guard. Colour returns to the scene, though only in the woman’s mutating appendages and spilling of blood before she is killed.
In the office, Druuna negotiates an early does of extra serum with Doctor Ottonegger. He agrees, Druuna having disrobed and agreed preemptively to the doctor’s request of anal sex.
Her exchange with Ottonegger spied by other medical staff, Druuna leaves, serum in hand, only to fall into a trap. A nurse and his goon intercept Druuna outside, stealing the serum back. Druuna pleads for her life, offering herself in exchange. The goon accepts, changing his mind once finishing. Druuna again makes a plea, telling the men she has more serum at her home. They agree to keep her alive, if just to steal more of her supposed reserve. Upon returning home, Druuna cries out for Schastar’s help. He intervenes, tearing her attackers limb from limb.
Safe, Druuna injects Schastar with all eight vials, only to discover they had been diluted. Schastar returns to human form, but only partially – his arm remaining a collection of tentacles, and sores covering his skin. Knowing his time is limited, Schastar dons an overcoat to hide his infection. He takes Druuna back into The City, eager to share the truth he has learned.
On their way, Druuna and Schastar witness one of the book’s most terrifying scenes. A husband and wife are separated by a security gate locking down a dangerous sector. The man pleads for the guards to open the gate and let his wife through. They refuse, much to the delight of a crowd of onlookers. Shortly thereafter, a mutant pounces, raping and devouring her while the crowd watches on with rapt fascination. The violence itself is cut short, Serpieri opting instead to focus on the crowd’s faces – the more disturbing part of the ordeal.
Schastar guides Druuna to an abandoned zone. Much to Druuna’s horror, a Priest seemingly lies in wait. As Schastar approaches, Druuna pleads for him to stop, reminding him it is forbidden to touch them. Reaching out, Schastar grabs hold of the Priest’s cloak and tears it free, revealing it to be nothing more than a cyborg.
Entering the pristine white confines of an elevator, Schastar reveals they have reached to the Upper Levels – a supposed paradise for those deemed biologically pure. However, before the elevator reaches its destination, Schastar’s mutation returns and Druuna is forced to take his life.
Druuna’s allusions of the Upper Levels soon disintegrate, furthering her despair. All she had feared, and known, about The City having been destroyed, her mourning is soon interrupted by a voice identifying himself as Lewis.
Conversing with Druuna telepathically, Lewis reveals the entombed bodies before her, supposedly the most healthy and worthy of ascension, were actually just manners of control for the Priests. Furthermore, The City lay not in the hands of men, but Delta, an ancient computer. Delta’s calculations perverted over centuries, leaving The City to fall into a natural – and now elevated – path of self-destruction. Druuna protests, asking Lewis (no more than a head in a jar) why they can’t simply leave. Here, Lewis comes to realize that in his centuries segregated from the population he has been forgotten, as has the greater predicament. In a stunning last page revelation, Lewis open the massive shutter behind him to reveal an abyss of stars. The City is in fact a space ship, lost in the cosmos. Its mission forgotten, the ship aimlessly coasts through the universe, its human occupants rotting their vessel from the inside out.
Serpieri adheres to a detailed, almost hyper realistic, fine art style. Character faces and builds are entirely unique and painstakingly consistent, closer in composition to classical drawing than comic book art. Details like drapery, hair, and splashing water all give the book a continuous sense of movement and dramatic prose. It’s as though Serpieri used models for each and every scene, having them play the story out frame by frame.
Serpieri embraces and emboldens every wrinkle, tear, and fold of a person’s skin and attire. The City’s population is tattered, beaten, and filthy – with the exception, of course, being Druuna. Ottonegger mentions in (lustful) passing how perfect Druuna’s skin is (a prelude of developments to come). Her attire not only serves to excite, but also highlight this truth. Druuna wears a simple shall, torn jeans, runners, and white top, which remains curiously clean (while it’s on). Both her skin and clothing remain largely undamaged, despite the trials of her adventure. If anything, Druuna’s armor seems to be her unharmed skin more than the thin fabrics adorning it.
Many of the books’ most notable scenes are not framed around Druuna’s face, but rather her rear. In Serpieri’s own words,
“Of course, a woman’s face is important, but my obsession is to view her from behind…”Serpieri 2002, 6
Tilted from a ground level ¾ view, Druuna is at both her most vulnerable and intimate when displayed at this angle. Eroticism and compromise clash, not only exciting the reader, but showcasing her character; Lustful, but not shameful; willing, but not always with delight.
While sex is core theme throughout, the sex scenes in Morbus Gravis I are surprisingly muted, at least in comparison to subsequent volumes. Full frontal nudity is commonplace. However, actual intercourse is reserved or censored by vantage or speech bubbles. Morbus Gravis I is undeniably erotica, but story never takes a back seat to skin, with the two sensibly intertwined.
Colour is an integral part of Morbus Gravis I’s storytelling. As mentioned with the opening sequence, when Druuna first leaves her home, Serpieri uses a hot, sickly palette to convey The City’s polluted state. Ambient colour also sets the tone, with stark greys and hot reds furthering the desolate, and often hellish, reality of The City. Though heavy hatching and dark clouds often surround characters during dramatic scenes, backdrops are always in frame, lending the comic a cinematic continuity.
The wild mutant builds stand in contrast to Serpieri’s life-like humans – a balance he would refine over the course of the series. Many of the mutants are only teased, their slithering tentacles or eerie shadows orbiting panel frames. Others, like the Mutant’s wives/daughters, look as comical as they do animalistic, with their builds being anything but intimidating.
The woman in the clinic mutates over the course of several panels, showcasing a transformation of muscle stretching and contorting in wholly believable ways to creating a monster which was undeniably human minutes earlier, despite bearing no direct resemblance now.
The Mutant too is an extraordinary play of masculine and feminine forms intertwined. Later in the series, human characters would adopt something of a more animated, comic book exaggeration, while mutant builds would become more complex and realistic – the hyper-realism seen in this and the subsequent three volumes rebalancing in the series’ second half.
Morbus Gravis I was originally published in 1985 (1986 in Heavy Metal Magazine), with translations following thereafter. The dialog may have stiffened in translation, though with Kubert’s expert lettering and readable flow of panels, the story is never hard to follow. Matter of fact, one could easily enjoy the work in their non-native tongue – which, seeing as how scarce English versions of the books can be, may be a necessity.
One nitpick one could make about Serpieri’s first volume is the somewhat mistimed tonal shifts between drama and comedy. While the Gnome is an interesting character – and one whose role only grows over the course of the series – his introduction is awkward, with readers still digesting the Priest’s brutal display of power from a page earlier. Serpieri is wickedly funny when he wants to be, but his first attempt at shoehorning humor into the plot misses its mark – a pacing issue he would quickly better.
Experiencing nearly the entire story right alongside Druuna, Serpieri introduces not only the world as it physically exists, but delves deeper into everyday life of its inhabitants. Instead of exploring it through the eyes of Schastar, the Mutant, or even the Gnome, we see it through the eyes of one of its most vulnerable citizens. This attachment is furthered by the fact Serpieri does not use narrative bubbles. While not quite first-person, readers are closely attached to Druuna throughout her journey both in physical proximity and via access to her internal monologue.
Druuna’s debut tour of The City comes off as somewhat disjointed, but ultimately educational in preparing the reader for future volumes. The last page reveal is horror genius, and would have been memorable even if Serpieri had decided to stop the saga there.
A pawn queened, Druuna now must retrace her steps across The City in order to save it. Morbus Gravis II begins shortly thereafter, with Druuna having fallen into a shock-induced slumber upon hearing Lewis’ revelation.
Serpieri, Paolo Eleuteri. 2002. Serpieri Sketchbook 2. New York: Heavy Metal.
Serpieri, Paolo Eleuteri. 1993. Morbus Gravis 1. New York: Heavy Metal.