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PG Tips No. 33:

After Tintin & The Little Prince...

Sometimes words are not enough. Doug, the protagonist in Charles Burns’ graphic novel X’ed Out, complains to his girlfriend that she doesn’t understand him: “If you could look inside my head, you’d know.” Comics can be an unusually effective medium at conveying states of mind, whether shifting naturally or altered by drugs, delirium, delusion, depression or other factors. Several recent graphic novels literally let us see the inside of another person’s head by harnessing the flexibility of their illustrative styles, their special effects budgets limited only by the author’s imagination, and through the harmonies and dissonances between texts and images. As the sofa bed-ridden, self-medicating youth Doug laments, “...the images slip in… seep down into the back of my head and come up behind my eyes. The same stuff over and over again.” This sensation also seems to describe the way the reader of X’ed Out is gradually enveloped by this recurring nightmare and its looping feedbacks.

The American artist Burns has produced a few colour comics before but he is notorious for his almost inhumanly precise black-and-white artwork on his teen-plague epic Black Hole (1995-2005). Returning now to colour, he fully exploits its potential to form chromatic links both to external references and between elements within the story itself. He is aware that this book as an object, with its large hardback heft, red cloth spine, distinctive title font and curious red-and-white egg on the cover, will prompt memories of Hergé‘s Tintin adventures, specifically the similarly hued giant mushroom from The Shooting Star. The book also has endpapers reminiscent of those in the Tintin books with their gallery of character portraits. In X’ed Out the endpapers plunge us into rows of startling pictures in black and red which foreshadow the tale to come; these are placed between thin panels of solid black blanks, the rows bleeding off the edges. There follows an odd first single right-hand page made up of a grid of three rows of six of these same blanks, grouped in alternating pairs of red or black, devoid of word or picture. Once the story itself begins, it becomes clear that the whole book will be underpinned by the endpaper images and propelled by this template, the graphic equivalent of a steady, pulsing undercurrent, a pumping heartbeat.

As pictorial and patterned structures, comics enable the reader to look back, to look ahead, to look for clues and cues, more easily than within prose-only fiction. Like a composer of sheet music, the astute graphic novelist tries to anticipate how the reader will first encounter, rehearse and eventually perform the story for themselves. One key to this is pattern recognition, verbal and visual. Like Doug on the first page, waking from one dream, or drifting into another, the reader shares his disorientation and his resolve to make sense, as he says to himself, “This is the only part I’ll remember.” With dots for eyes, a button nose and small black quiff, he resembles the boy reporter, but when we meet his (unlucky?) black cat Inky and enter his world, we soon realise this is a disturbed, looking-glass Tintin, with bandages on his head. What arouses Doug is a buzzing, not from an alarm clock, but, as we later discover, a door buzzer, whose sound he and his cat follow through a hole in a brick wall of his room - a nod to another Tintin book, The Black Island. That hole returns over the page in the shape of a cigarette burn on a pink surface, its nature left mysterious by the flat abstract drawing of the background; its pink, the colour of skin, is also the colour of a pickled piglet, a bedspread and a mask later in the story. Things get darker as our ‘anti-Tintin’ is bullied, duped and fails to cope with his alien, vaguely Middle Eastern surroundings.

As he wakes from this, Doug repeats the book’s opening phrase. Now he is the more realistically drawn young man from the book’s cover, recuperating from a head wound, a copy of ‘Nitnit’ on his bed and scattered Polaroids. These transport him back to his last date at a cool art-party, where he performs as ‘Nitnit’, in a creepy Tintin mask. As a would-be William Burroughs, he recites cut-up texts which describe the book’s earlier bizarre events, almost as if we had been watching his performance. Before being cut off by the next act, Doug’s last words are: “Dreaming with eyes open, shuffling images, a mosaic of…”, which again describe our own process of piecing together the mosaic of this narrative. X’ed Out may be incomplete - it is the first in a projected trilogy -  but its associative puzzles, signalled or implied, make reading it a multi-layered, trance-like experience, like that of Doug himself, one that sticks in the mind and compels repetition. Because almost everything here becomes a part to remember.

The logic of dreams, and dreams within dreams, also suffuses Sleepyheads, another graphic novel that is almost a performance on paper, by Randall C., a Flemish illustrator and stand-up comedian. From our first glimpse of their waking lives, we sense an emotional distance between the young couple here, the man expounding, the woman withdrawn or absorbed in her book. Entering their shared reverie, we find that anything can happen as the duo commune with the ever-changing landscapes and creatures. It is the man who spurs them on eastwards and spouts his observations and theories, while the woman remains almost silent. As a result, she is able to hear ‘The End of the World’ speak to her and explain that “In the East lies the West”. Between their meanderings we cut away to Godot-like interludes featuring Igor and Olav, two Russian sailors marooned for ages on an island, running out of conversation, cloudgazing, wordplaying, dreaming of miracles or blow jobs. Meanwhile, en route our voyagers meet a troubled dog, whose ancestor was the pet and familiar of a South American tribal shaman.

After several detours, our party of three wash ashore on the island where they learn how the seamen came to be there. Randall C. first presents this island as early as the second page, back in the ‘real world’, depicting it bobbing above the surface of an overwatered flowerpot. Playing with scale, he adds the Portuguese ship, which will end up running into the island, sailing in from panel-right, presumably from the East. As our characters unite, an enlightened Igor resolves the dog’s perennial quandary, how to decide where his arm ends and his hand begins, by whispering to him in his sleep: “Boundaries are tricks of the mind, you create them yourself. You think something can’t exist until you’ve bound it in a word.” Throughout Sleepyheads, Randall C. contrasts the supposed fixity of words, the quest for definitions, from the man looking for ‘The East’ to the dog’s paradox, with the fluidity of images, clouds swimming in the sky can be whales in the sea. That blurring is also conveyed by his panels, which are left unboxed and fuzzy-edged, his attractively loose, even liquid linework, and by the story’s hypnagogic drifting. By the end, the man has broken free from his rigidity, from “trivial boundaries”, and can see things from more than one perspective. As the distinctions between his falling and his flying towards wakefulness evaporate, he shouts, “Unbelievable!! And yet I DO believe it!”

Another man who has broken free is Brick, the pen name of the British cartoonist John Stuart Clark, who reappropriates the slur ‘depresso’ and transforms this uncomfortable topic into a far from gloomy record of one angry man’s struggle through and triumph over addictive anti-depressant drugs, with their zombiefying side effects and debilitating withdrawal symptoms. Depresso: or How I learned to stop worrying and embrace being bonkers also addresses head on the vagaries of alternative therapies and NHS bureaucracy, as well as the baggage of childhood which weighs down his self-image to this day. Coming to graphic memoir from working at campaigning political cartoons, Brick has a free-wheeling, opinionated and feverishly creative approach which spreads through over 250 dense pages. Clarity and impact are reduced in places by an overdoing of referential visual puns and Photoshop graphic effects, and a few too many typos, yet Brick forceably nails down his experience of depression and the efforts he needed to face up to it on his own terms. Along that journey, he acknowledges its disruptive effects on his relationship with his loving, sometimes baffled or distraught wife. His other companion is a Harvey-like conscience and goad, visible only to him and taking the form of a man-sized White Lizard. But it is Brick’s voice above all, venting his feelings and reflections through his thinly disguised alter ego, Tom Freeman, which makes this “only semi-fictional” account so frank, frequently funny, and ultimately redemptive. No wonder extracts are already being used by mental health trainees and patients.

Some might assume that the Little Prince who miraculously appears to Antoine Saint-Exupéry in his eponymous book was surely a mirage visiting the delusional, heat-stricken lone pilot crashed in the Sahara dessert. For his original account of 1943, the French author added twenty-three of his own light and tender portraits of a curly-haired boy, as if drawn in situ, but he kept the aviator unseen. In his bold reinterpretation of The Little Prince as a 110-page graphic novel, Joann Sfar, the director of the film Gainsbourg, divides each page into six uniform panels and offers us no less than 522 different drawings of the asteroid-child, as well as introducing a representation of the pilot himself. Now we get to see first-hand the intimate bonds that form between them: the man cradling the prince in his arms, the boy’s small comforting hand, the expressions and tears suggested by what we read. While sticking close to the story and the words in this much-loved tale about the acceptance of death, Sfar adds some touching wordless moments, such as the prince running and jumping off the plane, as if flying, and being lifted up by the pilot, and the pair watching a sunset together in silence.

Not everyone, however, will warm immediately to Sfar’s reimagining of the little prince, no longer shown in royal regalia, but dressed all in light green, a scarf flapping round his neck. Instead of Saint-Exupéry’s illustrations with their small, pupil-less blank eyes, like those of Harold Grey’s Little Orphan Annie, Sfar gives the boy saucer-shaped blue eyes, as huge as those in many Japanese comics or those sentimentalised waifs painted by Margaret Keane. This fresh prince may be less pretty, but he is also less remote. While the original was only ever drawn full figure and at a distance, Sfar’s version is a thinking, feeling boy, often seen in close-up, his face full of emotion - apparently based partly on his own son. Some might complain that those big eyes make this Little Prince look like something from outer space, or the childlike aliens in Close Encounters, but then that is actually what he is.

A pure delight in the freedom of drawing by hand comes through the art of the prolific Sfar, who is an admirer of Quentin Blake. All the dialogue and narration appear not inside hard-edged balloons and boxes but in white clouds; the text has been sensitively retranslated by Sarah Ardizzone, although the computerised font lacks the human touch and integration of Sfar’s original hand lettering. The pilot’s reflections which close the book, are accompanied here by an inspired coda showing him flying his plane over the sea at night, the stars sparkling like the Little Prince’s aura. In 1944, Saint-Exupéry’s Lockheed vanished off the coast of Marseilles. Sfar brings him back to the desert, back to the prince, and leaves him falling asleep on the dunes, deep blue by night, which Sfar finally redraws and transforms into the waves that claimed his life.

Posted: December 26, 2010

This article first appeared in The Times Literary Supplement Christmas issue.


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Charles Burns
Joann Sfar
PG Tips
Randall C.

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Featured Books

X’ed Out
by Charles Burns

by Randall C.

by Brick

The Little Prince
by Antoine Saint-Exupery
& Joann Sfar