Sunday, February 22, 2009

Lives Worth Living: Nicolas, Kaspar and Baloney

Rob reviews the three latest releases from Drawn & Quarterly: Pascal Girard's NICOLAS, Diane Obomsawin's KASPAR and Pascal Blanchet's BALONEY.

A trio of smallish books were just published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they range from minimalist to highly stylized. All three are concerned with capturing important moments of the human experience. Pascal Girard's NICOLAS is concerned with how we deal with grief and loss when we aren't ready to process it. Diane Obomsawin's KASPAR is about a young man in 19th century Europe who was left in a town after being raised in a cellar without human contact. This book is all about the line between individual and society and how this creates identity. Finally, Pascal Blanchet's BALONEY seeks to examine misfortune, exploitation and despair through aggressively quirky and angular design.

NICOLAS is the most powerful of the three works, in larger part because of its restraint. It's about the relationship Girard has with the death of his brother, who passed away at a young age at a time when Girard was also a child. The book unfolds as a series of vignettes as Girard takes an unflinching view of how he tried to cope (or not cope) with the experience, explain the experience, exploit the experience and then finally come to terms with his grief. It's at times hilarious, like when Girard is in high school and relates his loss to a girl so as to get over with her--his grin when he realizes his sneaky plan worked made me laugh out loud.

What NICOLAS gets to the heart of is the experience of grief as a child and the ways children try to process it. The process of grieving is as much a physical one as it is an emotional one, and the ritual of funerals (prevalent in every culture) is a way of expunging the visceral power of those feelings. Children aren't really capable of processing these emotions in the same way that an adult can, and as the anecdotes in this book reveal, the nature of that processing often doesn't come until many years later--often in random or inappropriate ways. This book could have easy been mawkish or scored points with easy sympathy; instead, Girard goes out of the way to demonstrate the less flattering ways in which he went through this experience. He did this not so much as a deliberate act of self-deprecation, I believe, but rather as the only way he knew of relating what he actually felt at a given time, rather than what people expected he should feel.

His minimalist line and barest backgrounds recall John Porcellino's work a bit, especially in the way they evoke a certain kind of emotional shorthand. It's another way of avoiding sentimentality, so that at the end of the book when he talks about missing his brother every day, it's a moment that's been earned in the eyes of the reader. NICOLAS is a modestly ambitious but perfectly executed book.

Obomsawin's KASPAR is similarly drawn with a very spare line. In this case, it's a way of mimicking the childlike state of its subject. Obomsawin chooses to tell the story as a first-person narrative from Kaspar Hauser's point of view, making this a sort of children's narrative where the main character is writing his own story as he goes along. It's an interesting strategy, because it speaks to Kaspar himself being interested in spinning his own story and becoming a character in the new world he was thrust into; it seems very clear that he was quite aware of what his eventual status in society meant. We get a sense of Kaspar the showman with the story told this way. Second, it's a way of hinting at but not getting bogged down in the greater philosophical questions his existence raised. Nature vs nurture, the individual vs society, language vs cognition are all running arguments in this comic, and none of them are resolved. She also hints that Kaspar developed some interesting sensory tics, like synesthesia.

Instead, we have Kaspar narrating his own death scene, almost detaching himself from what passed for reality and phasing into the world of fiction. It's a great story, both in terms of the reader following his life and seeing how and what he learns as well as how the world treats him. He went from being pitied to studied to celebrated to being an object of suspicion. "Object" is a key descriptor of this comic, because the world saw Kaspar as an object of study, while Kaspar saw others as objects related to his own simple ends and happiness. It's not a story about emotional connection or emotions at all other than those directly related to survival. The simplicity of the art (and Kaspar's own narrative) is both funny and sad and becomes more poignant as one begins to realize that Kaspar will never be able to fit in in this world.

The most visually striking of the three books is Blanchet's BALONEY, "a tale in 3 symphonic acts". There's a lot of ambition in this book, as Blanchet seeks to translate the swelling emotions felt while listening to a symphony's performance into comics form. He wants the reader to feel music crashing as they go from image to image and page to page, getting across the immense sadness and despair related to this story of oppression.

It's not an entirely successful mix. The formal elements of this book, while stunningly beautiful, interfere with any attempt at grounding the characters emotionally and letting the reader hook into them. They're caricatures that are part of a larger morality tale, not characters. As such, it was hard to work up much interest in the travails of a doomed little mountain town plagued by a vicious autocrat and the over-the-top woes of the butcher and his daughter. The book is not a tragedy in the Greek sense, but rather a story of oppression, a brief ray of hope, and then that hope mercilessly snuffed out at the hands of a brutal authority figure. It's opera-as-polemic, writ larger-than-life, but ultimately a bit too simplistic and on-the-nose.

It also doesn't feel like a comic. There are swaths of beautiful, sharply-rendered illustration that cleverly mix black, white & red in all their contrasts. Blanchet's character design is wickedly clever, especially with one bicycle wheel subbing as a missing leg for a crippled girl. Problems come when we see an image and then a long, clunky chunk of text explaining what we're seeing and what everyone feels. I couldn't help thinking while reading this that this comic seemed to want to be an animated feature with sound rather than a comic. Blanchet had specific pieces of music in mind all along when drawing this comic, and it would have been a much more subtle way of getting across emotion and relating information while still retaining that slightly bombastic operatic feel.

It was jarring to read BALONEY after reading NICOLAS, given the restraint the latter displayed in the depiction of the same sort of emotional trauma. The two authors obviously had different ends in mind while writing these comics and certainly different motivations, but the restraint of NICOLAS made it all the more powerful, whereas BALONEY is a book more to be appreciated for its formal qualities than experienced as a coherent work of art.

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