Autobiography has been such a defining direction in comics’ new wave of the last 20 years, its innovation so consistent, that it is mystifying still to hear repeated the cliché that most of these new ‘indy’ comics proffer little more than solipsistic tales of melancholy and masturbation. If one considers the work, it is hard to find actual justification for this reactionary attitudeâ€”at best it describes a very brief period in the mid-90s, when the genre was dominated by that Canadian foursome of Julie Doucet, Chester Brown, Seth, and Joe Matt, and it may have served to describe some of their since-forgotten imitators of that time, but it is otherwise almost wholly inaccurate as a characterization.
It makes even less sense in a European context, where autobiography was established early on as a kind of proving ground for innovative cartoonists and continues to be at the forefront of progressive comics. The bar was set high, early in the 90s, by the Association circle, while artists such as David B., Fabrice Neaud and Dominique Goblet in the following decade-and-a-half created with autobiography some of the defining masterworks of recent comics history. Currently, a new generation of cartoonists, notable amongst them Judith Forest, Ulli Lust, and Nina Hemmingsson, are trying their hand at the genre, seeking new ways to adapt comics to suit the special needs of explicating their personal experiences.
Into this lively field steps the Swiss cartoonist Nadia Raviscioni, with what may be the first book fully to meet the challenge set by the previous generation in terms of ambition, complexity and artistic conviction: Vent frais, vent du matin (‘Fresh Breeze, Morning Breeze’). Released earlier this year, the book has been more than a decade in the making. It reclaims for Raviscioniâ€”whose precocious juvenilia was released across a handful of publications in the late 90s by Genevan publishers Atrabile and Drozophileâ€”a place at the center of the new generation of alternative cartoonists. Her last book, La Valise (‘The Suitcase’, 1999) consisted of a number of primitively rendered, but artistically assured vignettes of a familyâ€”mother, father, childâ€”in dissolution. Combining a realist attention to detail with a conspicuously staged, allegorical presentation, her small set pieces became excellent vehicles for the examination of emotions hard to articulate.
In Vent frais, she expands upon this approach to craft a densely woven fabric of nested allegories intercut with scenes of quotidian realism. The narrative hovers around feelings of loss and failure after a draining breakup with a boyfriend. Instead of presenting this in the fashion one might expectâ€”say linearly, with flashbacksâ€”Raviscioni hovers around the same set of emotions, presenting them in a wide variety of ways. Drawing with a chunky brush line, shaded in soft pencil, she alternates between a fairly representative cartoon idiom and broader cartoon sequences displaying her debt to such pioneers of reality-based, occasionally autobiographical comics as Claire Brétecher and Florence Céstac.
The book begins with what will become a Leitmotif of the narrativeâ€”the author in bed with her boyfriend. Sleepless, she wakes him to recount a Zen tale of a man wandering in the wilderness, who decides to lie down in the snow; a monk passes and decides to lie down next to him; the man gets up and leaves. This is visualized in fairly straightforward fashion, but the scene is visited by a number of paired cartoon charactersâ€”white rounded forms with the classic dot-dot-comma-dash abbreviation of facial featuresâ€”there to observe. One senses these to be emanations of the author and her boyfriend, orâ€”perhaps more likelyâ€”her and her idea of her companion. These characters appear throughout the book in different constellations, most conspicuously in the form of two potato-shaped figures alternately resting and frolicking on a beach and visiting a Coney Island-style seaside amusement park, listening in on the author’s internal monologue on their radio.
Occasionally, another pair of cartoon characters gaze out over the troubled sea with their binoculars, where they spot the paired potato folks bouncing happily through the air, playfully poking each other, and occasionally other recurrent characters who are in trouble beneath the waves. Behind them, on the sky, diagrammatic forms suggestive of emotional processes impose themselves, along with constellations of what seem to be more specific visual symbols. This is intercut with other scenes, some clearly allegoricalâ€”the pair depicted as identical, but differently tempered tombstones, conversing and singing (the book’s title is that of a French traditional); the authorâ€”sometimes as a little girlâ€”talking to the boy in a bar; the boy on a balcony, alcoholically lamenting his life as curse; and many more.
The presentation is dense, gaining in intensity as it rolls along into a series of montage sequences that mix up the different characters and scenes. The reader looking for elucidation will experience difficulty, but the emotional tone is clear and gains in resonance through this almost musical accretion of variations on a theme. In the last third of the book, the narrative slows down, offering longer sequences of greater realism. Importantly, we follow the author in her daily life with her small daughter (by another man, not the lost boyfriend) in a number of scenes rich in lived detail. And we encounter a woman who has hovered as a dark form at the edge of the panels since the beginning and turns out to be a friend of the author’s, victim of an abusive, and now also ended, relationship. Her late, full introduction and the stark tale she has to tell, offers a powerful, sobering contrast to the author’s less obviously traumatic story, suggesting that the narrative as a whole is less straight autobiography and more a set of variations upon an emotional theme of varying factual truthfulnessâ€”an emotional self-portrait.
Although occasionally funny, this is a bleak, almost depressed book, and much of its symbology, as well as individual scenes, are obviously so acutely personal that they border on the private. As such it can be hard going, but I am confident that its complex structure of interlocking vignettes and motifs will reward the rereader. Regardless, it is an exhilarating example of how words and pictures, sequential art, can be used to convey emotional reality by force of accretion and interpenetration, as well as through the use of cartoon form. Raviscioni exhibits both tenacity and boldness in her efforts to render truthfully the complex emotions that she is dealing with, making Vent frais, vent du matin not just rarity in comics, but a remarkable and affecting work of art.
Originally published on tcj.com, August 28th 2010.