guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

September 2006

Phillipe Dupuy and Charles Berberian, Get a Life (Drawn and Quarterly, 2006), 144 pp. (hardcover) $19.95 and Maybe Later (Drawn and Quarterly, 2006), 120 pp. (hardcover) $16.95.

by Jared Gardner

Like many of my kind (myopic, poorly educated, mono-lingual American comic readers), I had my first opportunity to finally read Dupuy and Berberian’s Monsieur Jean in the pages of Drawn and Quarterly (vol. 3, 2000), which featured the first full-length Monsieur Jean story. The story was published in France in 1998 as the fourth Monsieur Jean book, Vivons heureux sans en avoir l'air. The novella described the struggles of Jean, now in his early 30s, as he wrestles with new responsibilities thrust upon him by his irresponsible and adorable best friend Felix (including a new child, whom Felix has essentially adopted and then abandoned to Jean’s care) and by Cathy, the love of Jean’s life, whose own life-choices finally force Jean to confront what is most important to him. In 2003, Drawn and Quarterly featured another full-length Jean story, this time following Jean as he focuses on loose ends in Paris with Felix and Eugene. In both novellas, Jean struggles with his own endlessly-regenerating demons, nightmares of staggering beauty and power, and slapstick, physical comedy as only European comic artists can pull it off in our enlightened times.  If all of this sounds like the male, Francophile version of Sex in the City, it ain’t. But why it ain’t is hard to pin down. In truth, there is little in Jean that should make him such a compelling, believable and multi-dimensional character. A moderately successful novelist who struggles with commitment issues, procrastination, and a particularly unsavory concierge: all of it sounds more like the stuff of a Cathy strip than the most engaging serial comic narrative since Love and Rockets. That it is the latter and not the former is one of the great mysteries of contemporary comics.

For years, those of us lazy Americans struggling with this mystery were left to ponder our two issues of
D&Q and await the long-promised volumes we were assured by the publisher we would receive in 2004. Two years later, they finally arrived, and while the mysteries are far from completely explained, there is more than enough in these two books to convince this particular reader that the comparison to Los Bros Hernandez (who began their own collaborative work only a couple of years before Dupey and Berberian) is extremely apt. Get a Life shifts back in time to the early 1990s, translating the third Monsieur Jean book. It is a good place for D&Q to start, as this is in many ways the moment at which Jean developed from a fairly two-dimensional swinging bachelor—star of a light comedy—to a fully realized thirty-something star of his own dark “dramedy.” Indeed, the switch in gears seems to happen about halfway through this volume, as Jean struggles with this thirtieth birthday and the predictable sense of the diminishment in his own future prospects.

But even as the series takes a more mature and thoughtful turn, Dupuy and Berberian never lose their pleasure in slapstick energy and surreal fantasy, and their ability to alternate easily between such playful pleasures and adult concerns is part of what makes this book (and indeed all their subsequent work) so rewarding. The adventures of this moderately successful and ultimately quite ordinary man are moving without ever becoming maudlin and meaningful without ever straying from the mundane meter of the everyday.

I hope that D&Q will release further collections of Jean’s adventures, allowing readers to follow the hero into his increasingly complicated midlife. And because of this hope, I was initially disappointed when I saw that they had published as a companion to
Get a Life not further chapters in Jean’s life, but instead a graphic journal that Dupuy and Berberian had published with L’Association in 1994 as journal d’un album, an account of the creation of the French edition of Get a Life (Les femmes et les enfants d’abord). After luxuriating in the vibrant colors and polished lines of Get a Life, the sketchy black-and-white of Maybe Later is a disappointment. And for the reader unfamiliar with Dupuy’s and Berberian’s career and fame in Europe, the concept of a book-length journal of the “making of” a graphic novel is likely to come off as a tad pretentious.

The primary promise of the book is its insight into the strange collaboration between these two cartoonists. Charles Berberian was born in Iraq and went to Paris to study art. He met Phillippe Berberian in 1983, and the two have been collaborating ever since—first on the “Henriette” series and then, for almost twenty years now, on Monsieur Jean, which made them household names in France. What marks this collaboration as unique in the world of comics is that both share equally the responsibilities of artist and writer. Unfortunately,
Maybe Later does not deliver answers to the formulas whereby they have made this unlikely creative marriage work. Writing and drawing separately for this journal, their work is a decidedly diminished thing, and not only because of the more improvisatory nature of the sketchbook journal. There is a certain heavy-handedness to their meditations and creative struggles when they write individually, a heaviness that is leavened and energized when they collaborate. Indeed, by the end of the journal the strange alchemy of their achievement together with Jean seems only more mysterious.

Maybe Later does have its rewards. We gain insights into the threads of the personal lives and struggles of the two married men that are woven into the life of  the bachelor Jean, and the insights into the world of French comics publishing are particularly entertaining. Still, in the end, Maybe Later is a book that might have waited until American readers had more time with Jean, and the risk in bringing it out now is that it will cause confusion on the part of first-time readers looking for the colorful and polished work they had heard much about. What they’ll find instead is a fairly self-indulgent, if pleasurable, sketchbook journal. The risk for those who have fallen for Jean is that Drawn and Quarterly will lose faith in the ongoing interest on the part of their North American readers in following Jean’s stories into the new century (the seventh Monsieur Jean book was released in Paris in 2005). If my fears on that score prove unfounded, then I for one am very happy to have Maybe Later sitting beside Get a Life—both for the insights it provides and, perhaps even more, for the mysteries it fails to explain.