Appollo and Lewis Trondheim, Bourbon Island 1730 (FirstSecond, 2008), $17.95, paperback; Chris Blain, Gus and His Gang (FirstSecond, 2008), $16.95, paperback.
By Jared Gardner
One of the highlights of the fall season around my house has become the new titles from FirstSecond, whose praises we have not been shy about singing in these virtual pages over the past couple of years. Of the many reasons for so singing has been FirstSecond’s commitment to bringing a fuller range of the remarkable and unique world of French comics to American readers. And this fall, it is the two titles from France that stand out among the increasingly diverse range of books that First Second is publishing.
Bourbon Island is illustrated and co-written by Lewis Trondheim, arguably the most productive guy in comics in any corner of the universe. Trondheim collaborates here with Appollo, who is a force in the world of French comics but entirely unknown in my house. Part of Trondheim’s genius and the secret to his success, aside from his idiosyncratic and effortless line, has been his collaborators, and Appollo’s contribution to the novelistic integrity of Bourbon Island is clear from early on (Trondheim can wander in blissful and delightful ways, but this is not a wandering affair but a very tightly constructed book). Set in the early 18th century, Bourbon Island uses Trondheim’s unique touch with anthropomorphized animals to tell the story of a world between—between the anarchy of pirates and buccanneers and the cold cruelty of governors and laws; between colony and empire; between slavery and freedom. The book focuses on several protagonists, but we are first introduced to Raphael Pommeroy, who has come to the island as an assistant to an ornithologist in search of the lost dodo. Pommeroy, however, has fallen under the spell of the pirate tales he has consumed and continues to consume on ship, and as soon as he is on the island he declares his independence from the professor and sets out to be a pirate. Such an ambition might have been meaningful a half-century earlier, but all the pirates we meet in this book are domesticated—nostalgic perhaps for the old ways, but aware that their time has past.
The closest to the romantic life of the pirates Pommeroy can find on the island, although he is too blind to realize it, are the maroons, runaway slaves who have headed off into the heights of the islands cliffs and set up their own communities from which they continue to taunt the colonial authorities. The daughter of the wealthy landowners appreciates the romance of the maroons, and the difference in their fantasies makes for a great deal of friction between the two. Of course, in both cases, they are fantasizing and romanticizing from position of white privilege, and never to the benefit of the objects of their romances. In its own quiet and extremely smart way, Bourbon Island serves as one of the great historical novels about the cusp of history between the Dark Ages and Enlightenment and about those who were aggressively shut out of sharing the benefits or the spoils of imperial history. Told in prose, the book would be captivating, but in graphic form with humanoid animals representing all the characters—and with no discernable “racial markers” to tell us slave from planter from pirate—the absurdity of human history becomes doubly and hysterically tragic. This is an impressive book, and, I suspect, an important one—arguably one of Trondheim’s best and most lasting works.
The second French work FirstSecond has published this fall is from an artist I know much less well, Chris Blain. But now I want to know everything I can about the man responsible for Gus and His Gang (all the more so since he has become something of a whipping boy in French comics criticism of late). Gus tells the story of three outlaws of the old west, living in a surreal western landscape (as opposed to the “realistic” one we know from John Wayne movies?) where banks and trains give up their loot but the women are as complex, challenging and tough as the safes at Fort Knox. In fact, the time given to the actual heists that keep Gus and his gang in the pink could be reduced to a few pages, leaving the rest of this book to the struggles of trying to make sense of love. When, about 2/3 of the way through the book, Gus, our gunslinging titular hero, disappears entirely, we don’t know if it was a heist or a love affair gone wrong that finally got him—but the evidence thus far suggests the latter. The rest of the book focuses primarily on Clem, his seemingly reluctant sidekick, a gunslinger with a couple of shocks of red hair and a family back home to cramp the style of his single partners. If Gus is a free-wheeling, sharp-shooting neurotic, Clem is a much more complex animal. And when he rides off with what remains of the gang in fancy dress announcing himself to be “a handsome outlaw,” he remains as hard to get a fix on as when we first encounter him in Gus’s hideout at the book’s beginning.
The art is frenetic without every being out of control, witty without ever losing sight of its pathos. The writing is somehow simultaneously tender and brutal, expressing a deep sense of affection for these arrested developments and a harsh microscope on their failings. One cannot help but suspect that there is more than a little bit of Blain himself (at least on the level of fantasy-life) in these man-boys and their lifestyle, but he is too mature an artist not to see the humor and the shame in the fantasy. And it is a comics-lovers book, not caught up in being the next great American (or French) Novel, but fully enjoying each and every sequential moment of the dance between the panels.
There is no doubt that there is something different about French comics, there is no doubt. There is a lightness of touch that Americans somehow seem to be faking when they put it on, and a sense of joy with the form that does not come natural to those of us on this side of the Pond. But there is often a glibness, a slightness that prevents many of their best creators from rising to the challenge of the Great Book. These two books meet that challenge without ever losing sight of the grace and pleasures uniquely—aw heck, I’m gonna say it—French!