Tuesday, October 4, 2011

NBM Spotlight: Yslaire/Carriere, Nix, De Crecy, Geary

Let's run through a number of recent releases from NBM.
The Sky Over The Louvre, by Bernar Yslaire & Jean-Claude Carriere. This is the latest volume of NBM's series done in conjunction with the Louvre and French publisher Futuropolis. It's also the biggest and flashiest, with the script written by legendary French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere and art by hugely popular Belgian cartoonist Bernar Yslaire. Carrier wrote most of the scripts for surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel as well as scripts for Milos Forman and Louis Malle, among others. This was his first comic, and what was surprising was how relatively spare the text was. That was partly illusory, as there are several text sections, but the creators found a way to emphasize image above all else. Yslaire is a scratchy and scribbly penciler whose line reminds
me of MAD's Mort Drucker, believe it or not. His characters have long, narrow faces, prominent and pointy noses, puckered-up lips and retain a lively naturalism even when their actions are cartoony. He wisely uses a highly muted palette so as to make the actual paintings depicted in this book really pop off the page.

That's a fitting treatment, considering that the book is about the earliest days of the Louvre right before Robespierre's Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. Its main protagonists are the famous painter David (founder of the Louvre) and Robespierre himself. As a narrative, The Sky Over The Louvre is simple, as it follows the two friends as their relationship fractures in light of The Terror and Robespierre's obsession with David depicting the Supreme Being in a painting. The through-line of the narrative focuses on a mysterious young boy named Jules Stern, whose presence becomes the catalyst for the conflict between the book's protagonists.

Thematically, this book is complex. The precise relationship between Jules and David is unclear, though the homoeroticism surrounding the aesthetics of the Revolution is quite evident. The intersection between art and politics is another major theme, as David is happy to act as official portrait propagandist for the Revolution (painting portraits of martyrs and training
future generations of artists). Robespierre is portrayed as a somewhat sympathetic figure despite the paranoia of the Terror; he's an idealist given absolute power. Still, David is willing to along with this until Robespierre becomes obsessed with depicting the new Supreme Being, reintroducing the specter of religion back into the culture. Once the guillotine caught up with
Robespierre, it didn't take long for David to glom on to his true model for Supreme Being: the "handsome like antiquity" likeness of Napoleon.

The book is filled with people facing a vacuum of morality, as the Committee For Public safety's reliance on "reason" becomes just as capricious and merciless for the people of France as the old monarchy. As a result, it's easy for Committee members to attempt to justify their actions in the interest of rooting out traitors and protecting the Republic, a story that doesn't have to be presented as a history lesson for it to become instantly familiar to a modern reader. At the same time, David's willingness to sell out the revolution and Robespierre's absolute devotion to his principles (no matter how insane) muddies the waters as for whom the reader should feel sympathy. At just 66 pages, The Sky Over The Louvre moves along at an economical clip, quickly & efficiently setting up its protagonists and their conflicts. That efficiency allows for long looks at historical paintings, while the oversized album size provides a proper format for appreciating the sumptuous art.

Salvatore Volume I, by Nicolas De Crecy. This compendium of the first two translated volumes from De Crecy is slyly charming both in terms of its narrative and its aesthetic appeal. The story follows a dog mechanic named Salvatore who surreptitiously steals parts from his customers in order to build a strange vehicle to take him to his true love, half a world away. De Crecy uses an anthropomorphic style that's both cute and slightly disturbing. The character design is disturbing because De Crecy clearly finds it funnier to draw his characters closer to animal than human, and as a result his choices of pig, bull and cow lead to hilariously grotesque and bloated figures. The narrator of the story is frequently harshly judgmental, so much so that even the characters comment on the narrator from time to time when it explores and sometimes condemns their questionable moral decisions.

What I like best about this comic is the way De Crecy slips between whimsical flights of fancy and harsh naturalism. One of the main characters in the book is a myopic pig named Amondine. Her husband worked at a slaughterhouse until he was downsized--and the form that this downsizing took was his being turned into meat! It's one of many quietly grim gags in this book, like a piglet of Amondine's being captured and strapped to a cross by a group of goths before he's rescued by a teenage anthropomorphic cat. While there's a definite narrative to follow in this book, what makes it delightful is De Crecy's willingness to follow a tangent for a long time. There's an extended sequence where the half-blind Amondine drives her car off a cliff but doesn't realize she's in great peril as the car bounces on an airplane, soars off a ski lift, and crashes on a roof. This is one of many such sequences in the book, and that incidental character material winds up being the true meat of the book. The rich colors by Ruby & Walter mesh perfectly with De Crecy's scribbly line, complementing the relaxed energy of the pencils without overwhelming them.

The Lives of Sacco and Venzetti, by Rick Geary. This is the latest in Geary's "Treasury of XXth Century Murder" series, and each volume tends to have a different theme depending on the historical event he chooses to cover. Famous Players was about the ways in which the magic of Hollywood was truly founded on lies and illusions that in many ways poison the art that proceeds out of it. The Terrible Axe-Man Of New Orleans was about the ways in which fear can spin out of control, take on a life of its own, and wound the psyche of a city. Sacco & Vanzetti is the rare Geary book that's more about the trial than it is about the crime (though there's certainly a great deal of detail about that as well). As always, Geary editorializes as little as possible, but this case was considered worldwide to be a matter of red-scare blaming and a railroading of two innocent men.

Geary does acknowledge that there's at least the possibility that the gun that killed one of the victims of the crime could have belonged to Sacco (thanks to advanced ballistics techniques), but the fact that the judge was quoted as delighting in punishing the two Italian anarchists and the legal system made it impossible for any appeal to have a chance of success certainly demonstrates that the prosecution lacked anything near the sort of proof necessary to earn a conviction. The case was a simple matter of xenophobia and a fear of the anarchist movement driving the legal system and derailing justice, and there is an obvious resonance between this story and the current xenophobia in the US. As always, Geary's pencils are incredibly tight, as he's the master of hatching. The detail on suits alone makes this book a visual feast, but it's the way he brings people alive that's truly impressive. The facial expressions and body language of the men and women in court is what secretly tells the story; a sneer from the judge, a raised eyebrow from a lawyer tell much more than their actual words. I'm eager to see what he intends to tackle next.

Kinky & Cosy, by Nix. This translated collection of gags about marauding teenage sisters is billed as "shocking! disgusting!" as well as "darkly subversive". It's certainly mild in comparison to actual shock humor, and the gags themselves are more hit than miss. That said, there's a certain self-possessed weirdness about the whole enterprise. The hardback cover has cut-outs for the googly-eyes that pop out from underneath it. There are bizarre, entirely self-indulgent fumetti segments in the book featuring various men dressing up as Kinky, Cosy or their parents. There's an entire section devoted to "Brain Teasers": mazes, matching images, and assorted counting games featuring the strip's cast. Of course, they do things like throw anvils at the teacher, so it's not quite a typical activity page.

Nix's work reminds me a little of Joe Daly, only without the existential ruminations and level of detail in his art. The best way to read it is not to expect shock or killer gags, but instead to settle in and enjoy the strange rhythms of this book. As silly and absurd as this world is, it's clear that Nix has a great deal of genuine affection and enthusiasm for it. He seems to enjoy dropping in on these characters to see what odd thing they're up to with little concern as to either traditional comedic set-ups or lock-solid punchlines. Instead, we get strips about the mother's various forms of vibrator (including buying one from a roaming vibrator truck and finding a miniature alien space probe) as well as her falling in love with a recycling bin. Kinky & Cosy is a singularly odd entry in an increasingly crowded market of edgy humor books, one that's gentler in nature than one might think at first but is not distinctive for its actual jokes.

1 comment:

  1. I really liked that slapstick sequence with the car in Salvatore; I immediately reread it a couple of times out of sheer pleasure.