Sunday, March 2, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #2: Renaud Dillies

Renaud Dillies' Betty Blues, like his previous Bubbles and Gondola, is a book about the difficulties of being an artist. Whereas the first book was about the crippling fear that can cause writer's block, Betty Blues is about the ways in which being an artist can disrupt one's personal life. At the same time, the book is about the ways in which being in a relationship with an artist can lead to long periods of being neglected, of being a widow to whatever calling obsesses one's lover. Of course, he does this in his trademark ultra-cute, anthropomorphic but densely-rendered style. Certainly, there are comic moments in the book and even a few pages of sight gags and kinetic physical humor, but the tone of the book is immediately downbeat and doesn't resolve in a cliched or expected fashion. To the English-language publisher NBM's credit, this book is published at close to the original album's size, giving the denseness of those pages some room to breathe.

Rice, the jazz trumpeter who's one of the book's protagonists, immediately quits playing when he realizes that his girlfriend, Betty, leaves him at the bar at which he's performing with a rich guy who bought her a case of champagne. The book begins with Betty at her breaking point, as Rice is at the peak of his playing powers and putting on a spectacular performance. For her, it's the culmination of hours of being ignored at the expense of practice and playing. When a smooth-talking man actually pays attention to the already-inebriated Betty, she leaves with him as much as a sign of protest than an actual desire to be with the guy. What follows are a series of adventures for each of them, where a down-and-out Rice drifts as far away from possible from Betty and music while she is seduced by living in luxury. Of course, both realize that neither of these roles suits them or is making them happy. Rice realizes that playing is as necessary to him as breathing (and I'm guessing that this is another autobiographical turn by Dillies) and Betty realizes that luxury is less important than respect and authenticity. The ending is left ambiguous, but the general message is precisely the same as Bubbles and Gondola: beauty hurts, but it's the only thing that matters. Dillies seems incapable of drawing anything less than the cutest of characters on every page; while this was unbearably twee in books he just illustrated (like Abelard), it actually works in this book. One feels for these charming, sad characters in a way that a more realistic depiction would have made impossible to stomach. The cuteness of the drawings dampens the book's more melodramatic and melancholic tendencies, while the downbeat story is lightened by the character work. It's an unstable kind of alchemy, but Dillies' key decision not to slap on a happy ending makes it work.The brevity of the story (just 78 pages, with several of them chapter-bridging illustrations) also goes a long way in letting the intense charm of Dillies' renderings remain pleasant rather than cloying.

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