Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Two From Conundrum: Alex Fellows and Jimmy Beaulieu

My Neighbour's Bikini, by Jimmy Beaulieu. Originally published by French press Les 400 Coups, this is part of Conundrums BDANG series that translates European comics into English. This is a novella that's about slowing down and looking at one's surroundings; as such, Beaulieu's art is such that almost every panel and page is one that almost demands that the reader linger on it. It looks like the book was shot directly from his soft pencils with no inks. The lively, spontaneous line is given some weight and depth with pencil shading and subtle greyscaling effects. The book's concept is simple: a power outage in Montreal leads a young man to screw up the courage to talk to the young woman who lives across the street from him, as both of them decide to spend time together since the power outage has effectively ended their days.

For the man, slowing down means being less frantic about his writing and need to work. For the woman, it's about calming down and helping others. Their "meet cute" is highly awkward, as he squawks out a series of dumb remarks, but the woman sees enough in his character to tell him some surprisingly intimate stories. When they decide to head to the swimming pool, the story slows down even further, in such a way where one gets the sense that both parties know where this is going and are happy that it's going to happen. The predictability of the story is beside the point; its essence is in freezing that moment, including a reverie the man has where he hopes that this is going to be a great relationship. Beaulieu's affection for the young woman is obvious by the loving way he draws her as a beacon of beauty but especially grace. At the same time, the story is rooted in simple desire, as several sex scenes indicate. It's an easygoing story about slowing down, taking chances, getting off the treadmill of work and really looking around and seeing the world. The book is a feathery trifle, to be sure, but it's a beautiful looking trifle.

Spain And Morocco, by Alex Fellows. This is a crazy book that shifts its gears several times, to ever-more bewildering effect. It's about two guys in their early 20s who decide to blow a bunch of money and go to Spain for a vacation. Walt is a slender, homely and bespectacled artist who loves stealing art supplies from his job who is sexually frustrated but wary of come-ons from women he's not interested. He's the proverbial "nice guy" who in reality has a sleazy and almost predatory quality. Dan is a portly schlub who doesn't have much going on, and Walt has to talk him into going. From the very beginning of the book, both of these characters fully capture the desperation of horny young men in all its unpleasantness. Their behavior is never portrayed as cute or excused as just boys being boys, and there are consequences for their actions. They also don't understand that their lives, tedious though they may be, were at least insulated by a certain set of rules.

On vacation, those rules go out the window when they consort with fellow Americans who are similarly out to ditch their moorings. Once Walt & Dan hit Spain, they meet two young women who seem to be a perfect opportunity to get laid. Things very quickly bizarre when the four go to a restaurant and the owner/waiter/chef starts hitting on one of the women (who happens to be married), while the other, her sister Delphine, sees right through Walt's "nice guy" persona. The waiter disappears, makes Dan chop onions and abandons the party to make time with the woman on the roof. That strange scene devolves into Dan leaving, getting drunk and falling in with a couple of scoundrels on a beach, and Walt going home with Delphine.

Delphine has her own agenda, however, and it involves stringing Walt along as much as possible and including him in a shoplifting scam. She tires of his constant advances, slapping him away when he tries to force himself on her in an inept manner. This leads Walt and Dan to go to Morocco, and that's when the book gets really weird. A woman who takes a shine to Dan is blown up by a bomb mere hours after entering the country. Walt dreams that the Devil has told him that he wants him to suffer because it creates better art and believes this is real. When Dan thinks Walt has gone crazy, the Devil shows up in their hotel room and offers them a deal. He will get them laid if they write down a humiliating memory for him to feast upon.

The next thing they know, they're on a bus and meet two willing American women who astoundingly invite them to stay at their villa. A woman named Trisha has sex with Dan pretty much right away, in a manner almost precisely like how Dan told the Devil he wanted (a minimum of complication and conversation); after he orgasms, she appears to him to be the Devil, all pink and flesh, squirming on top of him. Of course, Dan himself turns into the Devil after devouring a particularly awful memory of high school that Walt illustrated in a totally over-the-top bit of ridiculousness that transforms their experiences from a possible shared hallucination into out-and-out madness. That madness is entirely in thematic keeping with the rest of the book however, so when it happens, it's shocking but logical. The trip brought to the fore a lifetime's worth of embarrassing moments, awkward and painful memories and the naked realization that Dan and Walt weren't much more than pathetic creatures with frustrated desires.

Visually, Spain and Morocco is a demented feast. Fellows' line reminds me a lot of Tim Krieder's: lots of long faces, angular jaws and brows and squinty eyes. There's a fine level of detail here whose purpose is to disgust and never to titillate. Compare this to the loving, lush pencils of Beaulieu that celebrate and objectify bodies: here, the bodies are nothing but objects that look more like pieces of flesh than actual human beings at times. Fellows' use of color is almost always given over to create a contrast between the mostly black and white and fine-line character design. That contrast is meant to evoke the bewildering effect of being in a foreign country; all natives have their skin color depicted but all English-speaking characters are given an ashen appearance. The grotesqueness of the character design mimics the banally debased nature of the characters, as they really give a resigned Devil very little to work with. In the end, the characters don't learn lessons; instead, they simply survive their experiences in a scarred manner that clearly gives them pause. They gave the Devil what he wanted, after all, and it's unclear what their fate is after this.

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