Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Secret Acres: Michiel Budel's Francine

Francine is a continuation of Michiel Budel's Wayward Girls series, focusing on the titular character and her friends. It's hard to pin down. It's got underage sex and nudity, but it's not at all erotic. Indeed, despite the scores of panty shots, its surreal quality and the intense agency of its female characters disrupt the male gaze. Katie Skelly compared Budel to the Russian artist Balthus and others have compared him to Henry Darger in his use of pubescent girls in fantasy, dreamlike scenarios. Somehow, Budel's work is even less prurient despite its more explicit nature, owing in part to obliterating the mystery of sexuality and removing its fantasy aspects. Indeed, sex and female friendships are the only truly "real" thing in these comics, which go in some odd directions as social and political commentary.

Mostly, the strips (originally published as "Franzine" minis) are comedy pieces; absurd, over-the-top satires of family life and the "dangers" of having strong-willed children. Much of the book centers around the swimming pool she builds out of spare parts, the sleazy pool boy who's fucking her mom, her various friends (each of a different faith), and assorted schemes she concocts to get out of doing school work. Francine's adversarial relationship with her young mother (who pretty much looks almost as young as Francine does) is another important aspect of the book, as Francine steals her boyfriend in one sequence. She does it more to piss her off than because she wants to have sex with him. That pales in comparison to what she does to Bully Girl, who was mean to her Muslim friend Gishlaine: she follows her home, caves her head in with a baseball bat and buries her in her front yard! It only gets weirder from there as she has to move the body (with the help of Gish), confront Bully Girl's mother) and then discover that Bully Girl is somehow still alive but missing her memories.

Francine later fakes her own death in order to avoid an art history test, only to find that her friends can no longer see her. She sacrifices the pool boy to Satan (but not the real Satan!) in another strip. The pool boy and another boy fight over her pool while Fran is paralyzed, ejaculating on a sandwich as a way of settling who gets in first. My favorite story was "Generation French Fries", in which an anthropology project leads to Francine, Githlaine and the waspy girl next door, Annet, all switching identities. Fran becomes Annet, who gets excited because she her mom gives her money to eat food at the snack bar near the house (because her mom was fooling around with Pool Boy again). After Fran/Annet has sex with Pool Boy on camera, she's excited because it generates more snack bar money. Annet becomes Gish, who is delighted that she's in for an arranged marriage with a nice boy who likes her instead of her crazy life with her "borderline" mother. Gish becomes Fran and starts sucking off the rabbi and a nice boy intended for her as well. The end of the story finds all of them switching back, alarming nearly everyone; it's not every day you hear a line like "By the blue balls of Jahweh!".

Perversion seeks to shock when it presents itself as out of the norms and mores of society. That's how it becomes prurient content, content designed to draw the male gaze in particular. It provides shock and dismay when at the same time the "offended" person is really turned on, as anger and desire blend into each other and demand accountability. What Budel does here is reverse the polarity of this interaction. Perversion becomes the defacto language of his characters, a language spoken in such direct defiance of mores that they shatter them. The girls are in complete control of their situations. Men and boys are mostly annoyances or there to be used. Sex is a means to an end, and Fran in particular knows what she wants. This isn't soft-focus porn; it's more like in-your-face, girl-gang action. Francine couldn't care less if you're looking at her or not, and if you piss her off, she will deal with you. Of course, the whole book is designed and drawn in a way that's meant to be off-putting and challenging. Budel's simple linework and thin line weights are the opposite of erotic artists like Guido Crepax or Milo Manera (the latter being an all-time male gaze renderer). The way Budel crams as many as 16 panels onto a page also lessens the visual impact of particular images, especially when he goes extra cartoony and gives his characters dots for eyes or distorts their forms in amusing ways. Perversion is just one of many options from his toolbox, but they all have the goal of making the reader laugh, even if it's a nervous one.

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