Review: ‘The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard’
Eddie Campbell has always done comics his way, without worrying about other people’s expectations or preferences — one of his two major series has been a fictionalization of his own life as a comics creator, and the other, a superficially more populist sequence about Greek gods in the modern world, was itself about storytelling more often than not. So it’s no surprise that his latest graphic novel — co-written with Dan Best — is more about telling its story than it is the story being told.
The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard
By Eddie Campbell and Dan Best
First Second, August 2008, $18.95
Monsieur Leotard will be published by First Second — who published Campbell’s last book, The Black Diamond Detective Agency, and have been putting together an impressive list of graphic novels for adults and younger readers for the past few years — in August, and the first thing to note is that it’s not the story the reader expects.
You see, the famous acrobat Jules Leotard lies dying of smallpox on page 12. So, we think, the book will be a series of flashbacks showing his life? No, he’s dead by the bottom of page 13, and the story moves on. So far, so very Campbell.
Leotard has, like many a comics character before him, a ne’er-do-well nephew — his is named Etienne — and the nephew inherits Leotard’s fake mustache and receives the dying man’s blessing: “May nothing occur.”
Etienne takes that to mean that he should continue his uncle’s career as if nothing had happened — which is a plausible interpretation, certainly — and so rushes off to Paris (under siege, since this is 1870 and the Franco-Prussian War) to rejoin Leotard’s troupe of circus performers. He intends for them to break out of the siege, but that plan, like so many in Campbell’s books, doesn’t even get a chance to succeed. But this episode does serve to introduce the reader to the supporting cast: Etienne’s faithful dwarf friend Zany, Lenore the tattooed woman, Ernst the strongman, Captain Jack the lion-tamer, and so on.
I said “episode” above, because The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard is divided into ten chapters, the majority of which are named “The Next Episode,” and all of which are “Episodes” of one kind or another. Thus Monsieur Leotard deconstructs itself in front of us; it doesn’t tell a coherent story, since it spreads over at least fifty years, and each episode is quite short. All of the bits are clever and amusing, with the usual inventive Campbell page layouts (this time with tightrope walkers and trapeze artists high above the pages, among other tricks), but all of those bits, in the end, do not add up to a single story. Each episode sees Etienne and his surviving supporting cast a bit older, a bit more bashed around by life, but still out there putting on their acts — when they’re not on the run from authorities or otherwise living up to all of the stereotypes of theater people.
Campbell has famously had issues with the idea of the “graphic novel” lately, so this book’s refusal to be one should not be surprising. Monsieur Leotard is more diffuse than even the most discursive parts of Bacchus, but it’s a fine Eddie Campbell book, in the style that no one else could replicate, and a joy to read.
At this point I would usually add some commentary on the art, but I’m going to skip out on that responsibility here. The Amazing Monsieur Leotard will be published in full color — and gorgeous, precise watercolor, if the snippets on Campbell’s blog are anything to go by — but the advance copy I read had a slightly muddy black and white reproduction of that art. I can’t judge well from what I have, so it’s not fair to judge at all. But I’ll be getting myself a copy of the real book in August when its published, and I recommend that you do the same.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
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