A clown, a storyteller and a philosopher: Three French comic book writers
By Sam Buchanan
In Harum Scarum and The Hoodoodad, from the series titled The Spiffy Adventures of McConey, Lewis Trondheim writes comics that are proud to be silly. His characters, a rabbit and a cat, blunder through their adventures guided by a logic and recklessness that stems more from laziness than intelligence or courage. They demonstrate that, as a survival mechanism, stupidity is hugely underrated.
Trondheim often collaborates with other writers – with Manu Larcenet (see below) on the madcap Astronauts of the Future – and with Olivier Appollodorus on Bourbon Island 1730. More historical fiction than comedy, it’s a tale of an ornithologists (who is a duck) coming into contact with the last few embers of piracy on the Indian Ocean island of Réunion while searching for a live dodo. The setting is a fascinating society of slaves, plantation owners and former pirates whom isolation is slowly forcing together, while the communities of escaped slaves in the mountains are hunted down and massacred.
It’s hard to write about French comics without referencing Hergé’s Tintin and Trondheim’s drawings owe a great deal to Hergé in their style. The famous Oriental-inspired clarity of line is there, but in a kind of wobbly way, and the characters are anthropomorphic animals.
The great storyteller is Joann Sfar, a French Jew of Algerian and Polish descent, he crafts perfect magic realist stories and draws them in a detailed, scratchy way. There’s no clarity of line here. His drawings are brilliant, atmospheric and evocative and look like they were dashed off in minutes.
His best known piece – The Rabbi’s Cat – set in 1930s Algiers, follows the life of a (mostly) cheerful rabbi as seen through the eyes of his loyal, cynical cat. The cat prides himself as a sensible pragmatist amongst the turmoil of emotional and hypocritical human characters, prone to romantic dreams and becoming embroiled in pointless religious disputes. Though the cat is no stranger to involving himself in angry debate – after gaining the power of speech, he’s happy to indulge in a lengthy argument with his rabbi’s rabbi as to what Jewish theology has to say about bar mitzvahs for cats.
In the second volume the characters set off on an inspired/lunatic expedition across Africa to seek out a lost Jewish city in Ethiopia. Along the way they meet an insufferable young know-it-all named Tintin and are delighted to leave him behind. Like Bourbon Island 1730, there’s an intriguing history lesson amid the humour and tragedy – what other comic is going to educate you about Algerian Jewish snack foods in the days of French colonial rule?
And lastly, the sheer unbounded genius that is Manu Larcenet’s Ordinary Victories. A chronicler of the human condition of the 21st century man, at least that of the western, reasonably well-off, lost and unsure of himself man (the women are handled pretty well – but it’s really all focused on the central male character). Life is loud, cluttered, often unjust, occasionally deeply beautiful, open-ended and randomly tragic and refuses all efforts to show some pattern or sense.
The lead character is a photographer, fed up with photographing suffering in developing countries; he rents a house in the country, throws his photos in rubbish sacks, visits his brother and parents and kills time with his cat. Inevitably, and against his own intentions, he begins to rebuild his life amid the rising racism and class struggles of present day France.
Ordinary Victories is the richest, most realistic record of our times I’ve seen in any medium – a Down and Out in Paris and London or Sea of Fertility for the average dogsbody worker who’s been fooled into believing they are middle-class. It deserves to be sealed in a lead cabinet somewhere for future archaeologists to pore over and sent into space to warn off visiting aliens. The drawing is closer to Asterix than Tintin, but neither Hergé nor Albert Uderzo ever drew anything as real as Larcenet.
OK I could be over-selling Ordinary Victories. I identify with the post-youth, post-punk, grumbling hero asking “So what do I do now?” and I happened to discover the first volume on a day when I felt low and stressed and it impacted on me like a gas torch to an ice cube, the grim mood melted off me as I read, ran down my legs and sat in a puddle on the floor. I admit that my fanatical devotion to this comic is rather personal.
But it’s a gem nonetheless. Even if it only does half as much for you as it did for me, you won’t have wasted your time reading Larcenet’s masterpiece.
Marco screws things up (again) in Ordinary Victories.
Sam Buchanan is a Wellington writer and activist.
His last piece for the SRB was Five Books About Anarchism