The unnamed protagonist of Stigmata is not the sort of man you’d expect God to visit. Big, unruly, alcoholic and prone to violence, he lives on society’s margins, seemingly in need of divine intervention. Yet he has a humble, saintly side as well. When God appears, in the form of desperate-looking dream child,  It leaves curse — the manifestation of stigmata — not blessing.

Stigmata is a disturbingly beautiful novel, both in story and illustration. Italian novelist, screenwriter and director Claudio Piersanti ‘s dark tale revolves around the price of deliverance, not only its moral costs but the responsibility of its charge. The first cost is employment when patrons notice our cursed man is bleeding on the beer glasses he delivers to their tables. The frustration of reprimand leads to violence and the loss of the only job it seems he might hold.

That violence returns just as his life seems to settle. He’s hired by a carnival sideshow to lay hands on those needing favor, a kind of perverted blessing that sometimes delivers the promised healing. He falls in love with a co-worker and marries, an event that helps him accept his charlatan profession even as it makes him uncomfortable. When the bar owner he mauled stumbles into the carnival, his past sin is visited on the wife. Raped and left with a broken arm,  she sees a sort of Catholic Karma at play. “We did something we shouldn’t have…We’re sinners. He was the devil, he was.”

The downward spiral that leads to the God-child’s promise of deliverance can’t come quickly enough. Strangely, the man finds happiness, his  marks of passion tolerated. “Some of us suffer and hope to be cured…But it’s not a physical ailment that ails us, but a hardness in our heart,” he tells a group of men around a barrel fire. “Do you know why they claim I do good? It’s because people realize that they can enjoy the kind of rebirth I did…that nothing is truly ever lost.”

Lorenzo Mattotti ‘s illustrations are at once beautiful and gruesome. Known for his graceful and color-wise covers for The New Yorker, Mattotti’s black-and-white drawing here carries a shadowed foreboding. Tight tangles of swirling, chaotic lines come together in strangely peaceful images. The darkness of the central figure is contrasted with the whiteness of doctors, his love and God-the child itself. Fat, almost squared heads fill portraits. As perspective pulls back, the same heads seem small atop large, squared torsos. Landscapes,  especially the one showing the newlyweds swirling in celebration on a carnival ride, offer symbol, foreshadows and surreality. As he tells his tale around the fier in the last chapter, his face goes from a confused darkness to a distinct, sympathetic clarity.

Familiar with the feminine lines and graceful motion of Mattotti’s color work, it took me some time to get a feel for the line drawings here. But the more I examined his scribbled vision, the more I felt its clarity. Stigmata left me strangely uplifted, despite the bleeding, the imposed violence and the cold regard of its child-like deity. It’s a popular notion, lately; deliverance from duality by death. What suffering it takes to arrive there.–Cabbage Rabbit

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