This isn’t a comic, it feels like an art catalog in format and size, one vertical image per page, or two landscape formats above each other. The technique used for the drawings is lithographic pencils on some sort of plastic foil, and the surfaces are rough, veiling the image with a curtain of stains and scratches that speaks of a soiled-hands craftsmanship while the ground remains a transparent carrier medium like film, with the shots sometimes carelessly gluestripped together. The duotone reproduction is gorgeous, full of thick and earthy detail. By The Furrows, the book is called in English, and it seems to be about the earth, a portrait of the land deepened by some local lore. So the term graphic novel used in the imprint makes sense even though there is not much of a narrative, for the book has a novelistic approach to time, where we silently move through the ages in fragments of storylines that do seem like we’ve heard them before.
We start from a lone post in a broken wire fence somewhere in pockmarked country. We dig deeper into the marshy landscape, into waters, zooming up close to a fish, then somebody in a boat, heavy rainclouds, water glasses on a table (yes, some of these connections do appear awkwardly literal), men searching for something in the bog. There is a general feeling of reference to 19th-century French art, people look like an old Cézanne or Gauguin, they sit at the table like maybe in Courbet (no, wait, it’s different), and does this head float through the grass like a Redon . . . though the face is more like Vallotton’s? I don’t think there are too many one-on-one references in here, there is rather that general vibe of history, both of the earth itself and the way it has been portrayed in art before.
The fish make way for close-ups of a new generation of tadpoles, whose movements are echoed by leaves floating through the pages, all markers of time, of its changes and perpetuity. This becomes very like a silent movie, think maybe of Kirsanoff’s Brumes de automne, where leaves, rain etc. are presented with an insistence that seems to lend them symbolic weight even where the context is not so heavy and one might prefer a more formal reading of corresponding natural shapes. The story here also starts like in a silent film: the outline of a factory, a woman on a bike, her desk, a portrait of the typewriter revealing she works as a secretary. Then a siren in mid-bellow, everybody goes home, and then the bombs fall. Soldiers bury somebody in the burrows. Time. A lone figure returns home, fighting his way through thick nervous curtains of scratches and stains that are the surface of the graphic and the depth of the earth.
Somebody comes home, so the last chicken has to die, the reunited couple embrace—this is Munch now, right? Markers of time: a cigarette in an ashtray, landscape, flies fucking. Symbols and signifiers, most of them latching onto well-established tropes, amplified by the durational aspects of the artist’s markmaking. There seem to me many possibilities offered by this approach to the narrative. The pages have a very real gravity that marries artistic process, the layers of references, and the well-worn story outlines . . . add to that the effect that obsolete technique (scratchy jerky b/w film for silents or down-to-earth graphic artistry c. 1900 for this book) automatically seems to take on some sense of authenticity, or at least a knowledge of the past. Although the silent close-ups sometimes are sequenced after borderline cutish formal analogy, as when the woman dives over the handlebars of her bicycle, then on the next spread follow three drawings of floating feathers floating , and right at the close of the book (spoiler warning!) birds sitting on the arc of a bough morph into the outlines of leaves falling, falling. (Und langsam frisst und frisst die Zeit / und frisst sich durch die Ewigkeit.)
So my excitement about the possibilities opened up here, about situation and mood telling the story, is tempered by the simplistic narrative strategies. It might be that the drawings were made as series of graphic works grouped into a narrative only afterwards (and indeed the sheets had been exhibited in a gallery before they were made into a book). It does not help that the book feels like an art catalog so exactly. This adds one more remove: a catalog is supposed to document artworks, to be true to the reproduced art objects as far as possible, and it does not offer windows onto a narrative like panels in a comic. The drawings lose their immediacy, and while the pages are wonderful in their nuances and gritty in the sometimes rough or awkward way especially the human form is treated, the book itself could be much grittier, instead of so cleverly designed. And indeed, that seems what the artist intended, since in the imprint it reads: “This book can be read with dirty hands.” But no, it wouldn’t work, it’s too proper a publication.
But if Vincent Fortemps might next throw out the narrative conventions of other old media and print the thing himself, the results might be spectacular . . . It’s a book full of promise, and I’m more than glad to have it.