Review: Three Petits Livres
Comics come in all sizes. Some are big books, massive “ultimate” or “essential” or “indispensable” or “your friends will say you have a small penis if you don’t buy this” editions, with fancy foil and trim to make the stories of people punching each other seem that much more serious.
But there are also little books: ones that tell their own stories in a small compass, that don’t rely on bombast or hype. Ones that might actually be good.
Like these three books, the most recent entries in the fine Montreal publisher Drawn & Quarterly’s “[[[Petits Livres]]]” series – fine comics by fine creators in a small, affordable format.
By Pascal Girard
Drawn & Quarterly, February 2009, $9.95
In a series of short vignettes, Girard circles around the death of his brother, [[[Nicolas]]], of lactic acidosis at the age of five – when Girard himself was only a few years older. Girard grows through childhood into a young man as this short book goes on, but he never forgets his brother – he never “moves on,” and it never stops being painful.
The scenes run into each other, as Girard gets older, but Nicolas’s death – which takes place before the bulk of the book; we see him healthy in two bookending scenes and in photographs – never goes away; his lost brother is always present in Girard’s life. Girard’s careful, sparse art – like a simplified Feiffer or a marginal drawing – sits unbordered, one or two drawings to the page, floating outward and connected to everything.
This is a beautiful, moving book, devastatingly precise in its catalog of continuing moments of grief and longing and sorrow. I’m not ashamed to say that I can hardly look at it without crying.
By Diane Obomsawin
Drawn & Quarterly, January 2009, $12.95Kaspar Hauser appeared mysteriously at the age of about sixteen in Nuremberg on May 28th, 1828, speaking only a few words and knowing almost nothing about the world. He claimed to have been raised in a dark basement, with no contact with other people beside the “man in black” who fed him and taught him a few things. Five years later, after the initial interest in his case had waned, his relationships with wealthy patrons had begun to sour, and he was working as a law clerk, Hauser was stabbed under mysterious circumstances in the Ansbach Court garden, staggered home, and died three days later.
Those are the bare facts; Diane Obomsawin turned them into a story. Drawing primarily from Hauser’s own writings – which, it should be noted, are not considered to be truthful by all authorities – she tells Hauser’s story, in his own words and from his point of view, from that time in the basement through his death. He’s tossed out into the world with a letter claiming him to be the son of a cavalryman, he’s taken in by a local Professor, and he gradually learns about the world. Obomsawin doesn’t go outside of Hauser’s writings to provide any theories or opinions; she just lets Hauser tell his story.
Of course, Hauser might have been a hoaxer, or just mentally ill; there’s no way to be sure now, a century and a half later. But it’s still a fascinating story, which is all that we ask of a graphic novel: to tell us a story, to keep us interested for a while with things we didn’t already know or expect.
Obowsawin’s primitivist art, with its elongated figures, adds a distancing effect – [[[Kaspar]]] looks less human, so we don’t feel as bad for him, in his basement. And so we’re led to focus on the mystery – the essential question of who Kaspar Hauser was and what really happened to him.
By Pascal Blanchet
Drawn & Quarterly, February 2009, $16.95
And this is something entirely different; the subtitle is “[[[A Tale in 3 Symphonic Acts]]],” and it is a high tragedy told in a highly stylized way (both art and storytelling), reminiscent of an opera or a ballet, with a list of musical accompaniment afterward.
[[[Baloney]]] is the nickname of a butcher in a small, poor town high on a daunting mountain, somewhere bleak and Slavic. He has a daughter, whom a string of bad luck has left with one arm, one leg, and blind eyes. And his town is ruled by the cruel Duke of Shostakov, who also owns the only heating company in town and uses it to squeeze every cent from the poor locals.
In typical operatic fashion, a young man enters the picture in act two to serve as Baloney’s daughter’s tutor, falls in love with her, and probably sings a duet or two. They discover the Duke’s secret of power, but – as is typical in a stylized tragedy like this – knowing doesn’t actually help them, since the Duke holds all the power and always will. So it all ends badly for the characters we like, and the curtain comes down on scenes of bleakness and despair.
Blanchet’s art – entirely in black and white and red, the latter not symbolizing blood, as one might expect – is evocative and old-fashioned, with a cut-out look reminiscent of the UPA cartoons of mid-century. Baloney isn’t exactly a fun story, or one that’s particularly believable, but it wasn’t meant to be. And it’s quite striking as it is.
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.
Publishers who would like to submit books for review should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.