Wednesday, July 3, 2013

NBM Spotlight: Abelard, An Enchantment, The Initiates

Abelard, by Renaud Dillies and Regis Hautierre.  This is a deeply problematic story about the quest of an innocent and the tragedies that pile up along the way. It follows an anthropomorphic chick named Abelard who happens to spy a beautiful girl named Eppily. When he fails to woo her with a flower, a fox sardonically suggests that he try to give her the moon or the stars. From there, the astoundingly naive Abelard goes on a series of adventures in order to go to America and get a flying machine so as to go to the moon. How much one enjoys the story depends on how long one can stay sympathetic toward Abelard, who is really a walking punching bag of a character. Guided by little other than the aphorisms that pop out of his calculatedly cute oversize hat, he makes friends in some quarters (including gypsies straight out of central casting), enemies in others, and eventually a reluctant friend in a bear who was in love with Eppily as a younger man.

Let's go over some of the problems I have with the book. The nature of the attraction between Abelard and Eppily is infantile and on the surface. Building a book's worth of agency on that alone was a bit much to swallow, because Abelard had very little presence or agency as a character other than that single desire, which reduced her to a simple objectification. Indeed, several characters talk about her (in a mostly disparaging fashion), but we never really have a clue as to who she is or why she does what she does, which is the fate of all the women in this book. Even though the artist comment on the absence of women in the marsh were Abelard was born and poke fun at the misogyny of the characters there, their representation in the book isn't much better. Dillies is an incredibly talented artist who makes the most of the material here, but even he turns up the cute a bit too much in the face of increasingly-cliched sentimentality that begins to build up as Abelard's quest becomes increasingly doomed. Indeed, the "magic" of the ending depended entirely on how sad one was to see Abelard meet his eventual fate, and the only thing I was sad about was how he couldn't find comfort in the moment (a running theme in the book) and be satisfied with that. He let himself be battered by fate, and his outcome was inevitable. As a result, I found him an entirely unsympathetic character, and worse still, an incredibly dull one to pin a whole narrative around. Hautiere and Dillies were going for a fairy tale and lost all sense of restraint as storytellers, and the ensuing mix of cruelty and sentiment was difficult to swallow.

An Enchantment, by Christian Durieux. Labeled "a graphic poem" by the author, this book is the latest in a series of comics set in Paris' Louvre. The plot, such as it is, is simple. The director of the museum is ill and a party is held in his honor to celebrate his retirement. The cantankerous old man has other plans, slipping out of the party with a couple of bottles of red wine and a secret plan to perhaps kill himself and cause all sorts of mischief in that manner. In the halls of his beloved Louvre, he encounters a beautiful young woman who seems invisible to the guards, and they run off and engage in all sorts of hijinks. At the end of the book, she leads him into her home: a painting by Antoine Watteau, where they will forever embark on a journey to Aphrodite's island. It was not hard to see this coming, as the nameless young woman was clearly either part of a painting or else an angel of death; it may well be that she was both.
The story is not the thing, here, though. This is a love-letter to the Louvre, a dance between a man who loves it more than anyone and the only one who could be a proper partner: a subject from one of the paintings personifying youth. Durieux is an astonishing craftsman, but it's his ability to make his characters come alive that makes this such a deeply affecting book. The reader can't help but feel for the old man, surrounded by beauty but with so little time to go. The presence of the woman is a kind of elixir vitae, a powerful but temporary reprieve from the ravages of age. She's playful and flirty but also enigmatic and unpredictable, all qualities the old man didn't know he needed to experience until the end. As they progress through the museum and trade pithy quotes, the pair celebrates what is great about the Louvre and art in general. The panels where famous poses from paintings are recreated are funny and clever. Indeed, the lightness of this book's mood in the face of potentially maudlin storytelling decisions is to its credit. The book is the best kind of party, celebrated by a man looking to go out his way and the ghosts of a building that treasured him as much as he treasured the works themselves. This is a beautiful and even lyrical tribute to those who go above and beyond the call of duty with regard to art.

The Initiates, by .Etienne Davodeau. This is an extended process project that takes its time delving into its two subjects, attempting to connect the two and expounding upon the philosophy of each subject. In this case, the two subjects are wine-making and comics. Davodeau is a French cartoonist who approached the vintner Richard Leroy with a proposition: he would spend time with him in order to understand everything that went into making wine, and in return Davodeau would teach him about the world of comics. This is an inside baseball kind of book, the sort that only a reader who is fascinated by arcane details and the arguments related to them could love. Davodeau spends a full year with Leroy, a vintner whose philosophy of wine-making gives him a surprising amount in common with the cartoonist.

That's because he favors biodynamic farming, an approach based on the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner. The philosopher and educator's theory informs Waldorf school education today, and its heart lies in the idea that in order to thrive, develop and learn, we must be as close to the earth and its processes as possible. For Leroy, this means pruning his grape vines by hand over a period of three months. It means spraying with very light manure and silica sprays instead of using chemical sprays. It means using almost no sulfur in fermenting his wines. Above all else, it means that his communion with the soil, the plants and the wine-making process gives his wines his own personal signature: the wines are his expression. It's a level of individual craftsmanship not unlike a cartoonist going to a drawing board and spending long, lonely months and deven years drawing stories. The results in both cases are enjoyed by a relatively select few, but the devotees are truly devoted.

For the most part, I thought the sections of the book that focused on wine-making to be far superior to the sections where Davodeau takes Leroy to meet a cartoonist or attend a comics festival. The fact is that, especially in the beginning, Leroy is not an especially adventurous or bold reader. Some of Davodeau's choices seemed a bit odd as well (giving Watchmen to someone with no experience of reading superhero comics was ill-advised). I did enjoy little touches like Leroy wondering why Lewis Trondheim drew himself as a bird with a beak rather than as a person, only to have Davodeau have Trondheim draw a one-page comic answering that very question! What was clear was that Leroy respected the passion and dedication of the cartoonist, especially since he came to wine-making late in life. Like making comics, it's less a profession than a calling; one realizes that it's what one must do. Davodeau's drawing is conventional and realistic with the slightly cartoony quality of most French cartoonists. The grey wash gives it a neutral quality that places the emphasis of the book on the content rather than the drawings themselves, which almost entirely eschew any sense of decorative quality. It's an interesting book that draws some intriguing connections, but it stops short of really delving into any of these ideas at length. Instead, the focus is on what the two men do, how they do it, and some thoughts on why they do it. It's up to the reader to draw any further conclusions.

No comments:

Post a Comment