A part of the dark history of the political nature of the Papacy comes to illustrated light in this non-fiction mini-comic by Fred Noland, featuring well-researched facts with references.
I'll mention early on here that I'm an ex-Catholic*, and that it's really amazing just how hard it is for the Church to square all of this. While it's not common knowledge, if you do any digging (and apparently in the case of one poor, dead Pontiff, the early Church did quite a bit of digging), you find these sad tales of petty jealousy and naked power grabs. So it's not like it's kept in the dark. It's like internet comments you wish you'd never said--they exist if someone cares to look, and everyone has them.
So whenever you stop to wonder just how the same Cardinals that picked Benedict XII can also pick Pope Francis or how it's possible that in the space of three Pontiffs, the stance of the Church can change twice on the nature of other faiths, just remember that this problem isn't new.
It's been an issue in the Church going back to the fight that, sadly, Paul and his ultra-misogynists won. When dealing with religion, there's huge amounts of political power to be reaped, and no matter how much we'd like to think otherwise, religious figures aren't free from that temptation, especially given the vast wealth and power concentrated in Rome.
If you can look on it with your history/political science hat on instead of your faith, the back story of the Papacy is downright fascinating. There's stuff that happened during several reigns that would make J.R.R. Martin blush and cause his editor to tell him it wasn't realistic. Noland takes this fertile material and, presenting it straight with no embellishments, turns in great work.
Opening with with a Pontiff from the 5th Century (who was tossed into Hell by Dante, apparently for heresy), Noland begins with rather tame portraits of the Popes in question, with text boxes explaining their various sins. They are slightly caricatured in nature, with bodies that aren't quite proportional, with a focus on the heads and petering out** to spindly legs. He puts them in detailed, period accurate clothing, giving a strong sense of grounding for the material to come.
Once we get to the years 872-965, things begin to heat up. The illustrations start to show the cruelty of the time period, depicting poisonings, whippings, and, the worst of all, desecration of a corpse.
It's that latter story that takes up the most space of any tale, because it's fascinatingly morbid. During the so-called Cadaver Synod, Pope Formosus's body was exhumed and--get this--actually put on trial--by his successor, who propped the corpse up in a chair and demanded it answer the charges brought against it!
The body was used and abused, all of which is carefully depicted by Noland as he narrates the gruesome story. He never stoops to sensationalism, with flies and retching (both of which make perfect sense) being the only embellishments. Noland lets the horror of the story repel the reader--it doesn't need any help, beyond showing just how awful this all is in ways that a straight textbook never could.
Unfortunately for Formosus, yet another Pope (Sergius III) later dug him up and had his head chopped off, because I guess it wasn't enough to be a Pope who got run out of town once and had an illegitimate child who later became Pope, too--he had to ensure he added borderline necromancy to the deal.
Well, at least he won't be forgotten!
The various misdeeds continue across the pages, with Noland providing illustrations that highlight the worst deeds, all without doing it in such a way that feels like torture porn. His characters remain just a bit too cartoon-like to really sink the knife in, and for some, that might be a problem. It's one thing to draw a man running away from Rome with a bag of money, but a Warner Brothers-like look of pain for a castrated Deacon could rub some the wrong way.
It didn't bother me, because the point here, at least in how I read it, is that Noland wants to illustrate the larger-than-life, truth is stranger than fiction nature of these acts. The best way to do so in a visual medium like a mini-comic is to take the images and give them a bit of punch and edginess. The alternative, drawing in a sober manner with blood flowing across the page might be more accurate, but it's in bad taste. Ironically, making the drawings a bit more light-hearted, Cartoon History of the World-style, is what hooks the reader in and gives the entry point to what's usually presented as dull history.
Infallible ends with a quote about Popes getting to make doctrine for their followers, a hollow comment in light of all that he's shown the reader, allowing the hypocrisy inherent in the idea that one man makes God's Law to really hit home. He also provides references for the details, should anyone care to read more. Overall, it's a great package missing just one thing--Volume 2.
This is not the book for everyone, but I enjoyed it a lot. You can find out more about Noland at his website, where you can also buy a copy of Infallible and read sample pages.
*But not a bitter one, I loved most of the priests I interacted with, actually, and never had an issues despite being a young boy often alone with them. It's just that my faith moved and evolved down a different path. If you're a fervent Catholic, that's great. And maybe, just maybe, this isn't the mini--or review--for you.
**No pun intended. But if you'd like to think I was riffing on the idea of St. Peter, the first Pope, go right ahead.