by Philippe Dupuy. Drawn and Quarterly, 2008. $24.95.
Think back five years, to 2003. That's when I first read Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian's Comme s'il en Pleuvait /As If It Were Raining (2001), the fifth graphic novel in their Monsieur Jean series. Raining was translated into English and bundled into the 2003 (and so far, most recent) issue of the oversized, softcover Drawn and Quarterly anthology, and though I'd read other M. Jean stories in previous D&Qs, I was floored by Raining. I loved the way the book opened with breathtaking vistas of New York City (colored in vibrant wedges of solid blue, orange and red), and I loved how Dupuy and Berberian deepened their characters, as Jean and Cathy adjusted to being parents and Felix, Jean's ne'er-do-well friend, made a moral choice at great personal sacrifice. That 2003 issue of D&Q also featured a Yoshihiro Tatsumi tale, a Michel Rabagliati "Paul" short story, an R. Sikoryak literary adaptation (this time a collision of EC-era Jack Davis with Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights), some cute sketches about death (!) by Harry Mayerovitch, a story by Rutu Modan, and a retrospective of the art of French Canadian cartoonist Albert Chartier. It took me several hours to read this D&Q, making it well worth the $29.95 price (American retail).
Now jump forward to 2006, when Drawn and Quarterly simultaneously published two Dupuy/Berberian books, Get a Life and Maybe Later.
Get a Life is a hardcover collection of the first three M. Jean albums (L'Amour, la Concierge / Love and the Concierge , Les Nuits les Plus Blanches / Whiter Nights  and Les Femmes et les Enfants d'Abord / Women and Children First ), twenty-five stories that represent some of the high points of 1990s Euro-Comics. Get a Life costs $19.99 (American retail) and took me several hours to read. Maybe Later is a translation of Journal d'un Album (1994), a memoir that charts the artistic collaboration of Dupuy and Berberian on Women and Children First and the vicissitudes of their individual personal lives during the Women project. Although Maybe Later is more stripped-down than Get a Life--it's in black-and-white, with rougher art than the M. Jean books--the narrative is thickened by self-reflexivity and by the fact that Dupuy and Berberian work alone on individual chapters throughout the Journal. (It's fun to compare their slightly different art styles.) Maybe Later costs $16.95 (American retail) and took me at least a couple of hours to read.
Now it's 2008, and Drawn and Quarterly offers Haunted, a solo graphic novel by Dupuy. Haunted is a hardcover book that runs 204 pages long, in black-and-white, and looks very different from the M. Jean books. Dupuy shifts away his claire ligne-esque style and now draws in a raw, unfinished, sketchy style that vibrates with furious pen lines. Page layout is different too, as Dupuy abandons the density of the M. Jean comics (where a page typically has ten or more panels) and designs his Haunted pages so that small illustrations are surrounded by oceans of white space (click the thumbnail for a better view):
Haunted costs $24.95--these days, the same price in both the US and Canada--and took me 30 minutes to read. Is it gauche to talk about the price of a graphic novel, and whether or not you get your money's worth when you read it? (And is it especially gauche when you're reviewing a comp copy?)
The rise of comics in mainstream bookstores in the last five years or so has led to a remarkable windfall of books--this is the best of times for a comics reader--but gentrification comes with negative side effects too. I hate those paperbacks billed as "graphic novels" that are really a shoddy repackaging of floppies that didn't find an audience (and didn't deserve to) when originally in comics shops. An affiliated problem is the "over-production" of comics, the release of interesting but slight material in extravagantly designed full-color hardcover editions with an expensive price tag.(One egregious example is Michael Ogilvie's hugs: bloodpond, an odd little book that would've made a nifty mini, but is instead a $11.95, 32-page hardcover with a bookmark ribbon sewn into the binding.) I respect Dupuy as an artist, adore his cartooning, and recommend the M. Jean books without hesitation, but I can't shake the feeling that Haunted is over-produced, an ambitious but failed experiment that would've benefited from the lower expectations that come with the softcover or floppy formats.
Haunted is a series of improvisations built around seven chapters labeled "Run Movies," jogs that Dupuy takes every morning for a week. The Run Movies alternate with various fables--about a dog who bites off his leg to escape from a trap, about a painter emptied of hope before he can understand negative space, about a minotaur who has his genitals stolen while lost in a labyrinth--that echo and address the thoughts and encounters Dupuy has while jogging. (Actually, Haunted is a textbook example of the "tiny fragments/mosaic" method that Charles and I have discussed to death in other posts.) One central theme in almost every story in Haunted is Dupuy's fear of physical decay, mutilation and death. On the very first page, Dupuy recounts a dream of looking at "portraits without eyes," paintings where the eye sockets of their subjects were nothing but "scarred emptiness." In Haunted's second next story, a dog gnaws off his leg to escape from a trap, staggers up to a mountaintop, and dies. Then a bird plucks out the dead dog's eye, and we're given another empty eye socket, a convulsing sphere in an empty void (click):
In numerous other places in the book, Dupuy obsesses about missing limbs. The dog loses his leg. Dupuy remembers a school classmate who had no hands, and reproduces sketches by fellow cartoonist Blutch of beautiful women with stumps for hands. In Haunted's best stand-alone tale, a group of anthropomorphic "Forest Friends" (a moose, a rabbit and a dog) worry about a buddy who loses one of his arms and then wanders off, presumably straight into a film noir, Lost Weekend scenario (click):
Hands, legs, arms, eyes: Dupuy takes death personally, as a decimation of everything that makes his cartooning physically possible. To be fair, there are moments when Dupuy (or at least his cartoon avatar) gets out of his funk and begins to look for ways to transcend his fears. In "Run Movie #4: The Old Lady and the Turtle," Dupuy talks with a blind old woman (with a face like the eyeless portraits at the beginning of the book) who transports him (as he shuts his eyes, to mimic her blindness) to a cafe, a mountain range that "looks like skin," and finally a giant, womb-like stomach. This fantastic voyage through the surreal topography of a body (possibly his own, but possibly that of the old lady's turtle!) teaches Dupuy to "lose himself," to stop obsessing about physical decay and simply live more fully, moment to moment, in his own body, his own meat.
Yet this advice doesn't really take. "Run Movie #4" is immediately followed by "The Rats," a harrowing fable that begins as Dupuy inadvertently swallows a rat--which functions, I think as a metaphor for the fatigue and contagion that plague his (and any) middle-age body. Dupuy recovers, and remains fit enough to work on his house and rake his lawn, but every night he goes to sleep with a stomach ache, and the rats breed inside him, inhabiting every organ and muscle (click):
Clearly Dupuy has failed to "lose himself" and abandon his fear of mortality. "The Rats" concludes with an appropriately stomach-churning sequence where Dupuy vomits the rats out of his body, leaves his house and drives away. It's tempting to read this story in simplistic allegorical terms--Dupuy's body is his "home," and the rats force him to leave--though that metaphor seems too obvious, too pat.
I have three central problems with Haunted. First, it's too quick a read to justify the price, and any reader expecting the density and tightly-constructed storytelling of a M. Jean book will be disappointed. Second, I had trouble identifying with Dupuy's relentless fear of mutilation and death, even though we're both roughly the same age and thus prone, perhaps, to mid-life crises. The allegorical, dream-like narrative strategies of the book prevented me from fully understanding the specific reasons why Dupuy was so angst-ridden; too much is left unsaid, and we're lacking key information to connect the pieces of the mosaic. Finally, when Dupuy does his comics as a form of automatic writing, he ditches a lot of the conventions that help to build connections between an artist and an audience. Dupuy doesn't bother, for instance, to produce an ending for Haunted. He instead finishes with the following lines, designed to shut down both his jogging regimen and the book itself:
How far to run? There's always the temptation to test your limits. To cross the line so you know you've found it. To feel the moment when things shift and you realize you've gone too far. I could keep running like this for a long time...sooner or later, you've got to know when to stop.
And then the book just stops, after a silent curtain call featuring its main characters. If the ending feels arbitrary and rushed, that's because it is. I've heard that Dupuy's most recent solo book, Une election americaine / The American Election (2006), is drawn and told in Haunted's scribbled, spontaneous style, and I'm curious enough about Dupuy's new direction to check it out. But for me, Haunted is too arbitrary in its structure, too much of Dupuy solipstically obsessing about his fears. Now that he's found the line and gone too far, maybe he'll return to us.
[A complimentary review copy of this book was provided by Drawn & Quarterly.]