This review was written for The Comics Journal in July 2010 before it was revealed that Judith Forest was a hoax, a clever ploy by cartoonist William Henne and 5e Couche’s publisher/provocateur Xavier LÃ¶wenthal to subvert people’s expectations and understanding of confessional autobiography — and more broadly the representation of “truth” — in comics. For more, please read Bart Beaty’s 2011 examination of the state of comics autobiography at the Journal. As is obvious from the review, I completely fell for it. It’s a good book!
It’s taken a while, but a new generation of European cartoonists building upon what the new wave of the 90s created is slowly, but surely coming into its own. Unsurprisingly, the genre that arguably defined those trailblazers more than any other, autobiography, still occupies a central place in the repertoire of today’s up-and-comers, along with other reality-based approaches, such as biography and documentary. In the last couple of years, we have thus seen strong work along these lines from remarkable new talents such as Ulli Lust (Heute ist der letzte Tag vom Rest deines Lebens), Lisa Mandel (HP), Mathias Picard (“Jeanine”, in the Lapin anthology), and Nadia Raviscioni (Vent frais vent du matin).
With 1h25, published in the fall of 2009, 27-year old French cartoonist Judith Forest joins this heterogenic, but uniformly exciting constellation with an ambitious autobiographical essay. Organized like a drawn diary, it details a few months in the recent life of its creator, from her graduation from the Beaux-Arts in Paris through her move to Brussels, an hour and twenty-five minutes away on the trainâ€”hence the titleâ€”in search of her future. Though clearly, and self-avowedly, influenced by the work of seminal autobio cartoonist Fabrice Neaud, Forest eschews his broader, more political perspectives to concentrate on her relationships with others. She is frank about her sexual encountersâ€”casual and romanticâ€”and inquisitive in her attempts to understand and loyally represent her friends and acquaintances.
Forest’s diaristic narration is straightforward and unpretentious, not to mention strikingly economical in its description of her life and thoughts as well as her impressions of others. The book is almost invariably laid out with two images per page, offering mostly single illustrations that compliment and expand upon the text, only occasionally dipping into tighter panel-to-panel storytelling. Her sketchy delineation, mostly in soft pencil but occasionally in pen, is in part based on photographs, but mostly for location detail rather than people, and loose enough to feel spontaneous. Cecilia dos Santos’ judiciously applied off-green second color adds depth and a crucial sense of finish without losing the drawings’ natural feel; only a suite of chalk tableaux that intersperse the narrative seem a little too premeditated and slightly vain.
Forest has a gift for the telling phrase and for zeroing in on revealing behavior, sensitively capturing especially gesture. Her command of facial expression is somewhat limited, the characters occasionally appearing a little too non-descript to match the insights conveyed in the text. Nevertheless, she conveys convincingly personalities and attractiveness of two very different short-term boyfriends: the physically alluring, slightly distant David and the more intense, slightly nervous-seeming Christophe. Her skill in this regard becomes obvious to this reader in her portraits of people I’ve met: her account of meeting and getting to know her publisher, the cartoonist Xavier LÃ¶wenthalâ€”which in her case characteristically starts with a seductionâ€”is full of life and fully consonant with the animated and shamelessly charming man I’ve encountered; and her first impression of the cartooning duo Jérôme Mulot and Florent Ruppert pretty much exactly matches mine.
Most powerful, however, is her account of her relationship with her parents. She communicates occasionally with her estranged father via awkward emails that are reproduced as screen dumps in punctuation of the narrative. And toward the end she describes a troubled visit with her mother, where words of hurt overshadow affection in ways that will surely be familiar to most.
Less convincing, unfortunately, are her attempts at conveying her own feelings of insecurity and self-loathing, which are supposed to constitute the central strand of the narrative. She for example tells us that she has suffered from bulimia, but does little to demonstrate what it has meant to her, and even more jarring is her sudden descent into an account of past substance abuse, which ends as quickly as it started, without conveying much sense of what it has meant to the rest of her life. She dips in, but retracts almost immediately, with the result that this clearly formative experience remains an alienating postulate of seriousness in an otherwise compelling account of more mundane everyday life.
It is as if Forest isn’t quite ready to talk about these darker parts of her life, but what she does show us in this precocious first book makes one confident that she may well be soon, and in any case promises great things with further maturation.