My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is my third visit to Franco-Belgian creators Schuiten and Peeters’s Cités obscures. The series of graphic novels is currently difficult or impossible to read completely in English, as it has passed between several different publishers, leaving many of the volumes out of print and prohibitively expensive. (Only my rather scattered academic employment and my urban living situation, which together give me access to three good library systems, has allowed me to get this far into the series!)
Brüsel is the volume that introduces both the character of Constant Abeels, a genial and quietly romantic florist, and the titular Brussels-like city, both of which will later feature in The Theory of the Grain of Sand, my favorite entry in the series so far (I also wrote a very brief review of the first volume, Samaris, at Goodreads). This volume is a fantastical polemic against the modernization of urban centers, an activity it depicts as driven by crass profiteers, on the one hand, and starry-eyed speculators who have lost touch with human needs, on the other.
As the old Brüsel is demolished and replaced with ultra-modern skyscrapers, the city begins to sink under the weight of this misguided utopia. Meanwhile, Constant hopes to join the modernization process by turning his business to the sale of plastic rather than organic flowers on the principle that the former will not decay and die. But, harassed by unreliable municipal services and suffering from a tuberculosis-like illness, he goes on the journey that structures the novel through the bureaucratic and medical apparatuses of both the old and new Brüsel.
Both versions of the city are shown to be flawed, particularly through the depiction of two hospitals: the lazar-house-like Catholic hospital run on medieval principles of bloodletting and its modernist replacement staffed by bickering and absent-minded “projectors” out of Swift’s Lagado. The real principle of health, Schuiten and Peeters imply, is to be found in love and fellowship, embodied in Constant’s amorous encounters with the Luddite-like rebel, Tina (a character admittedly undeveloped, except for her rather flippantly-portrayed porn-scenario sexuality).
Comics has a privileged relationship to the modern city: it is an art form whose modern development, whether in Europe, Asia, or North America, grew in tandem with the urban masses the first newspaper strips and comic books were made to entertain. That makes it a thematically rich topic for graphic novels to explore, and Schuiten and Peeters’s ambivalence about urban development is ideal for the medium, whose own formal features often resemble architecture as much as any other form of art.
Artistically, Schuiten’s detailed work here is superb, especially when he transitions to more vertical page layouts with the transformation of the city; likewise, the two authors’ depiction of various social spaces is a droll use of near-fantasy or magical realism to revivify familiar urban experiences. But the characterization is very thin and the polemical point made a bit simplistically; the craft and artistry of the creators aside, I prefer the subtler mysteries of Samaris and The Theory of the Grain of Sand.
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