François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, The Leaning Girl

The Leaning Girl (Les Cités Obscures, #6)The Leaning Girl by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My fourth visit to artist Schuiten and writer Peeters’s Cités obscures; I have previously reviewed The Theory of the Grain of Sand and Brüsel at some length and Samaris more briefly.

I will keep this one brief: The Leaning Girl is the story of Mary von Rathen, daughter of the ruling family of Mylos, who begins mysteriously to lean after a strangely cosmic roller-coaster ride in an amusement park in the city of Alaxis. Her leaning leads this child of privilege to find herself an outcast, first at the cruel boarding school to which her family exiles her, and then professionally, with a crass circus she joins after desperate wandering through the snowbound city of Sodrovni. Eventually, she hears of a scientist named Wappendorf and seeks him out to cure her leaning; Wappendorf, in the meantime, has been trying to persuade his fellow scientists to help him in his quest to discover an invisible anti-planet. Running parallel to these two stories is the tale of Desombres, a fin de siècle painter from our own reality who takes to the High Plains of Aubrac to work in solitude and finds an abandoned mansion where he is compelled to paint pictures that resemble the world of the obscure cities.

This is the most formally interesting and beautiful of Schuiten and Peeters’s collaborations that I’ve read: Schuiten’s art combines intricacy and grandeur so immersively that it’s no wonder comics librarian Karen Green, in her introduction, begins by comparing him to Winsor McCay but eventually likens him to Gustave Doré. This is some of the most finely rendered and also imaginative art I’ve ever seen in the comics medium. Added to Schuiten’s work is the experiment of giving Desombres story in the form of a photographic narrative, with pictures by Marie-Françoise Lisart, to make vivid the narrative’s insistence on different but porous levels of reality, a gesture that widens the scope of serious comics art even further beyond the cartooniness so in favor in American literary graphic novels today.

Speaking of literature, however, the story of The Leaning Girl is not nearly as fascinating as the art, as it relies on a mix of conventions and bafflements that do not add up to the feeling of Borgesian mystery I imagine the authors were seeking. Two climactic elements are Jules Verne as part of a strange deus ex machina and the teenaged heroine’s sexual ensorcellment and initiation by the middle-aged Desombres: I could have done without both developments.

Still, for students of comics art qua art, The Leaning Girl should not be missed.


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