It’s a sad state of affairs when a man has to travel to Japan before he can be exposed to the beauty of European comics.
While I was in Tokyo for two months on a fellowship, I found myself drawn to similarly bemused outsiders. I felt such a profound sense of culture shock, having never even left the East Coast before then, that I truly needed to vent this sense of strangeness with others who were outside of the fold. I met the perfect fellow expatriate in Béatrice Maréchal — a beautiful, brilliant, chain-smoking Frenchwoman who was putting together a thesis on comics at the University of Tokyo. Béatrice and I would hang out at Manga Kisas (comic cafés) for hours, comparing misunderstood moments, commenting on the utterly uniqueness of Japanese culture, dreaming of the artist who could unite the strengths of each sequestered sequential art form, and sharing wonderful comics.
Béatrice got wind of a shop downtown that was holding an exhibition. She didn’t even tell me the theme until we arrived. When we opened the door, her face lit up as if she were encountering a bevy of old friends. Spread across three tables in the center of the shop were gorgeous French graphic novels.
I had never seen such artistry. Here were finished books. These were not whims an artist serialized and made up as he went. These were projects that clearly took years, designed as a thorough examination of an idea, the way an artist’s show would be — or an author’s novel. I had seen Moebius in the States and been floored, but even that did not prepare for the bulk of these tomes, and the perfect delineations contained within. They were opuses. Completely confident, fully realized, masterful. I plunked down tens of thousands of yen.
Béatrice first pointed me to the work of Nicolas de Crécy, one of her personal favorites. Her taste, as always, was impeccable.
In France, she explained, comics were considered an Art form. As such, their creators could receive funding from their equivalent of the N.E.A. These grants would enable them to devote entire years to seeing the work through in the exact way their visions demanded. There was no need for compromise. No arbitrary deadlines that led to rush jobs or slapdash work. De Crécy clearly earned every cent of the grant that allowed him to make Foligatto, an utter masterpiece. Comic’s openings, in the American mold, are often relatively weak. The artist is still finding his footing or testing the waters. You can see a drive to get past the exposition to the “good stuff.” This is the first four pages of Foligatto:
You can see the careful consideration and planning that went into every line and color and choice of this intro. This functions like the Abstract of a scientific paper, the dumb show of early theater or the overture of an opera: here is the story in miniature, veiled in symbolism, wordless. All the themes are introduced, the tone is set, the aim established.
And with those Hemingway-esque sentences and the previous discussion of ex-pats, I suppose it’s inevitable that I mention The Sun Also Rises.
There is a long history of internal suffering getting its external catharsis via man’s cruelty to animals. The bullfight in Hemingway’s tale of repressed ambitions and unfulfillable love springs immediately to mind. In Hemingway’s deft hands the plunging swords and plunging horns are the sex and violence kept simmering for two-hundred pages exploding in one. As much as I love that book, I think my favorite violence-with-animals-allegorically-playing-out-the-tribulations-of-our-protagonists scene in a novel would in fact be from Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust. Chapter 21 is an absolutely excruciating account of a cock fight. The conclusion is foregone from the start, but the sadistic destruction is so protracted as to become unbearable. West undertook this same mission at a full novel’s length with the Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin in A Cool Million, but that work was a farcical parody. Here, “distanced” by non-human combatants, West allows the tone to be one of merciless annihilation. One bird, belonging to a dwarf, is slowly and literally torn apart while it is time and again made to re-enter the ring for a fight that becomes ever more fruitless. It is not hard to see how Todd Hackett, our East Coast artist adrift in L.A., feels his every day amounts to the same.
De Crécy’s cockfight is equally allegorical and equally suited to its story. But the aim of Foligatto is much different. The tone is just as dark, as can be seen in the deep ink shadows of the linework and the Eliot bone imagery that opens the work. But quickly the bones are assembled into a harp by “children” of indeterminate age. And those shadows are covered with luscious, warm browns that unite the shakey lines and bathe the whole in a beautiful glow. This is not the sepia of nostalgia. There is a dichotomy here of danger and playfulness. As the violence gets racheted up to the extreme of decapitation, the childish glee responds in kind with Family Circle-like cartoony dashes for thrown objects. The reconciliation of these two extremes is only possible in the land of the absurd, and when the severed head happily is carried off as its body lights its cigarette, it is patently clear that is where we are. Foligatto is profoundly bizarre, while being at once bizarrely profound. Nonsense, as it is in Don Quixote, becomes divine art when exalted. Gaze deeply into the perfection of every tone, design, character and mark on these pages and you must admit this art is divine. Pull back to look at the framing of the panels themselves to see there altarpiece shapes, both the curves of the first page and the widened inner panel of his tiers on the third, and you realize De Crécy intends to be exalting this madness. This drastic shifting between these opposing poles keeps the reader constantly on her toes. The absurd, this defiance of all expectations, in a master like De Crécy’s hands, makes the horrors are all the more disturbing and the flights of inventive childish fancy all the more delightful.
This perfectly realized scene, by virtue of being quite different from what follows, is the perfect introduction to a perfectly realized book.