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 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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François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, Brüsel

Brüsel (Les Cités obscures, #5)Brüsel by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

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!)

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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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François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, The Theory of the Grain of Sand

The Theory of the Grain of SandThe Theory of the Grain of Sand by Benoît Peeters and François Schuiten

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Theory of the Grain of Sand (2016; originally published in 2007-2008 in France) is the 13th entry in Franco-Belgian collaborators Schuiten and Peeters’s series of graphic novels, Les Cités obscures. It is the first I’ve read, so there is much that is still, appropriately, obscure to me. Even so, this book impressed me as a thoughtful, subtle, charming narrative, with stunning art in a mode that may be unfamiliar to newer American comics readers used to the more cartoonish style favored by “literary” graphic novelists like Ware, Satrapi, Clowes, Bechdel, or Drnaso.

As the Calvino-esque title of the series implies, The Obscure Cities offers a kind of catalogue of distinct and quasi-fantastical urban spaces that are nonetheless refractions of this-worldly realities. As Wikipedia summarizes, “In this fictional world, humans live in independent city-states, each of which has developed a distinct civilization, each characterized by a distinctive architectural style.”

The architectural emphasis suits artist François Schuiten’s graphic approach: a style of remarkable grace and precision, not only in building design and backgrounds, but even in figure drawing, a beautifully rendered ink-swept romantic realism so evocative of the old cities that the march of  universally leveling commerce are removing from the world. On this theme, Wikipedia elaborates: “An important motif is the process of what [Schuiten] calls Bruxellisation, the destruction of this historic Brussels in favor of anonymous, low-quality modernist office and business buildings.” Lovers of the urban romanticism, whether in its utopian or dystopian guises, that characterizes certain older European literature from Balzac and Baudelaire to Woolf and Benjamin will admire this book.

The Theory of the Grain of Sand tells the story of Brüsel, a fantastical city much like Brussels, that undergoes an escalating series of strange events: rocks, each weighing exactly the same, begin appearing in an old man’s apartment; a single mother’s apartment is slowly filling with sand; a chef weighs less and less each day until he levitates into the air.

These odd happenings coincide with the appearance in the city of a warrior from the Bugti, a desert people, who attempts to sell a religious artifact captured from the chief of his tribe’s rivals, the Moktar. His prospective buyer is a woman who lives in the Horta House, an Art Nouveau marvel, and she too is drawn, this time by guilt rather than happenstance, into the mysterious plot.

Mary von Rathen, apparently a recurring character in the series, comes to the city to investigate. With the help of the afflicted citizens (and the man who runs the Gallery of Distant Worlds), she helps to solve the mystery while warning that not everything can be explained. The conclusion involves a journey out of Brüsel and into the desert, there to replace the Moktars’ plundered artifact and end the chaos.

While the above summary makes the book sound a mystery or adventure, even a colonial adventure, the pace is leisured, like a stroll through a walkable urban core of Old Europe, and the tone, characterized mostly by gentle and precise dialogue, is droll, even when the city is literally being crushed under the weight of sand and stone.

Thematically, Schuiten and Peeters implicitly criticize imperial blowback for destroying the irreplaceable aesthetic of the European city: the wars fought between Bugti and Moktar in the desert are revealed to have been escalated and goaded by arms trading from Brüsel, so that the metropole’s own partial destruction via magic from the periphery is logical and even just.

Moreover, the book’s writer, Benoît Peeters, is also the biographer of deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida, so we can expect that a point is also being made about the permeability of all boundaries. The damage wrought in the city by sand and stone even inspires a spirit of collectivity and produces some changes in the citizens’ lives that are not all bad. Inside and outside interpenetrate, like speech and writing, like self and other.

But Peeters leaves behind his deconstructionist commitment to inherent alterity when his narrative sets out from his fanciful Europe for the frontier. At the graphic novel’s denouement, the replacement of the Moktar’s stolen artifact in the center of a desert citadel restores peace. Not all centers are as arbitrary as Derrida famously suggested, apparently. In a more cynical mood, we might accuse Peeters of upholding a typical patronizing postcolonial penitence that is not so different from the colonialism it purports to supplant: deconstruction for me, stasis for you. An enliveningly dangerous supplement for the citizen is the immobile totality of the natural order for the native.

Let’s saunter over the quaint cobbles to a happier subject, then: Schuiten’s extraordinary artwork, which I have already mentioned. It is very different from what we see these days in the most acclaimed graphic novels. Literary aspiration or even just the aspiration toward a mainstream audience in the Anglophone graphic novel has come to be associated with a cartoonish style relying heavily on abstraction and, often, cuteness.

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We can trace this fact to a number of influences: the roots of the non-superhero American comics tradition in the great comic strips like Krazy Kat, Pogo, and Peanuts; the increasing importance of manga, a national aesthetic often reduced in loving stereotype to a cutesy style; the hyper-canonization, especially by those outside the superhero tradition, of Jack Kirby as almost the only artist in that mode worth discussing; the belief, derived from Scott McCloud’s theories, that an iconic style of facial and figure drawing enables reader identification; and the desire to appeal both to non-comics-reading audiences who are familiar with cartoons and to critics who have absorbed the art world’s century-long loathing of mimesis.

A style aiming at precision, a gift for realism, however heightened or stylized, becomes associated merely with the superhero slums. The idolators of Kirby barely ever even mention Wally Wood or John Buscema or Neal Adams; the stylistic effect of sad economic necessity, the need to churn out pages in a hurry, is unjustly elevated to the dignity of an aesthetic principle; and work that looks like it was produced by Charles Schulz on quaaludes is up for literary prizes in England.

Another factor at work in the demotion of styles like Schuiten’s is the belief that detailed art slows the reader down. But what is wrong with that? Comics is not cinema or animation, not meant to be read like a flipbook. The whole advantage of comics over cinema is that it provides a visual narrative whose pace is controlled by each audience member rather than passing at a fixed rate. Artists or even writers who make us linger by favoring the high style are not betraying the medium but exploiting one of its greatest potentials. My point is not that only work like Schuiten’s should be celebrated, but that such work deserves higher esteem in general than it usually ever receives from serious critics. Even in crude economic terms, you might think that a fast-paced style would sell better, but, as I see it, artists who give us more to look at are offering better value for our money.

In The Theory of the Grain of Sand, Schuiten creates a city and citizens so detailed and solid I felt like an authentic flâneur, and Peeters’s script gave me much to think about as I meandered over the stone flags. The book’s titular theory, by the way, holds that one grain of sand, one tiny detail, added or subtracted, is enough to change everything: a daring proposition for a book so rich with details as to resemble the vast and rolling desert where it comes to its climax.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!