The reign of Nero, the mad emperor who fiddled while Rome burned, the archetype of the biblical antichrist, the sexual voluptuary who debauched his own mother, has intrigued artists and writers for centuries.
In Murena, Nero is presented as a young man quickly learning the requirements of his role as emperor. A role he soon learns is an uneasy mix of absolute power and unsteady alliances. It is a portrait of the Emperor as a Dorian Gray figure, the slow corruption of goodness hidden beneath the panopy of power.
Jean Dufaux and Philippe Delaby
Murena is a band-desinee (French/Belgian comic book). It was published between 1997 and 2013.
The script writer Jean Dufaux has his first break in TinTin magazine, but his work has taken a more mature route. He is most famous work is the series Jessica Blandy which over 24 volumes told the story of the eponymous beautiful blonde bisexual who goes on various violent adventures under the Californian sun. He also worked on a volume of Blake and Mortimer following the death of Edgar P. Jacobs.
Dufaux’s first outing in the Rome of Nero was Lucius: Le sourire de la murène or Lucius: The Smile of the Moray Eel. The Moray Eel was a popular pet of the period. Brightly coloured with sharp teeth, they were the playthings of the superrich. One story told how a rich Roman senator threw his slave into his fishponds, where he was ate by his pet lampreys.
The art has a gritty feel. The first scene is set in an empty amphitheatre, where exhausted gladiators kill each. The sand and squalor of the theatre is palpable in the muted tones. The uneven penning used for shading or textures create visceral settings and lend to the characters a psychological depth (which is perhaps missing in the narrative itself). Philippe Dalaby is an unassuming draughtsman who can bring the exquisite detail demanded of historical fiction with a few select lines.
Many reviews of the comic draw parallels with Game of Thones, the tedious HBO series with its lazy stories, world view and writing. The comparisons are lazy. Yes it’s about politics and there’s sex and violence, but so is Shakespeare. A good review, that can be read along with mine is TV Trope’s.
Murena is a richly allusive story with nods to both history and later literature. The most obvious is Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis. Murena spends a little time in the comic at the villa of Petronius Arbiter enjoying the consensual (?) fanservice of Petronius’ slave.
So far so similar to Quo Vadis which sees the brutal tribune M. Vincius fall in love with Lygia and asks Petronius to have her legally taken by Nero and given to him. All goes awry. In both stories Petronius is wry, a cynical but wise advisor to friends and emperors.
In a literate European circle, Sienkiewicz’s is the most famous vision of Roman indulgence (along with The Last Days of Pompeii by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, which is little read in Anglophone countries but still popular in Europe, but I digress). In Britain, the most obvious exemplar of the reign of Nero is Robert Graves’ I, Claudius and Claudius the God. Dufaux’s characterisations of historical figures seem written as much to contrast with Graves, as they are to refer to historical precedents. The Nero of Graves was a spoilt brat, a dullard and dunce, played to excellent effect by Christopher Biggins in the TV series. In Murena, he is a little more canny even if he seems to have a strange fascination for fire!
Nero was Claudius’ adopted son through his final marriage to Agrippina, a marriage which may have come about through her guile or possibly her importance as the natural leader of a rival faction of the ruling Julian-Claudian dynasty. Suetonius reported that she murdered Claudius, poisoning his favourite dish of mushrooms.
She went on to be killed by Nero, possibly because he mistrusted her power. He tried to sink her in a small boat, but she swan ashore so he ordered some soldiers to kill her. She bore her womb and said “stab this womb that bore such a monster as a son”.
Jean Dufaux imagines Aggripina as a schemer, who uses her sexual allure to get men to follow her whim. A reader soon becomes weary of the scenes in which she torments various slaves in states of undress.
A well considered book, it nevertheless simplifies some of the complex history of the period choosing instead the version that might most appeal to white, heterosexual males.