Arsène Schrauwen tells the tale of Belgian cartoonist Olivier Schrauwen’s titular grandfather as he goes on a very strange trip to an island. The story involves a forbidden love affair, themes of isolation and madness, and a truly nightmarish scene involving were-leopards. But is it good?
Arsène Schrauwen (Fantagraphics Publishing)
There is absolutely no way that Arsène Schrauwen is based 100% on fact. Let’s just get that out of the way. What kind of grandfather would tell his grandchild about the first time he masturbated? Even if the real Arsène Schrauwen was that unnecessarily honest with his grandchildren there’s no way that he could have told Olivier this story with the amount of detail and precision that Olivier recounts it, unless Olivier is working from old journals or diaries or something. And even if that was the case, there is no way that you could convince me that were-leopards exist. For the sake of my own sanity, I must continue to deny their existence.
Because seriously guys, this may be a high-brow European art comic (albeit a frequently funny one), but that were-leopard scene is scarier than anything I have ever read from a straight-up horror comic. You have been warned.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Without giving too much away, Arsène Schrauwen tells the story of Arsène during a time in his twenties when he took a trip to visit an island where his eccentric cousin, Roger, lives. Roger has been preoccupied with his new venture, the founding of “Freedom Town,” which Arsène finds himself getting caught up in almost as fast as he finds himself falling in love with Roger’s wife, Marieke. There’s a lot more going on than that, but the story evolves so much throughout the volume that I don’t want to give anything else away.
It’s an interesting story, but definitely one that stands out more for its style than substance. Arsène Schrauwen is weird. Not weird in the way that most weird comics are weird, in which the events and characters within the comic are weird. I mean, yes, there are plenty of weird events and characters within the comic—I was dead serious about those were-leopards—but even without that, Schrauwen’s way of telling this story is strange.
Even when done poorly, strange is usually interesting, but Schrauwen does it well. He does a lot of interesting things with visual iconography. For example, an open fly is represented by a bird sticking out of a character’s zipper, and when the narration text reads “A big, brilliant moon shone above him like an enormous, revelatory lightbulb,” we see in the sky a huge moon shaped by a lightbulb. It’s a great example of something that can only be done through comics.
The manner in which the comic is written may be even stranger. Few panels are without narration, and the narration usually correlates so directly with the images presented that the story could probably be easily understood by just reading the text. You know that thing in Golden Age superhero comics where the text will read “THE BATMAN THREW A MIGHTY PUNCH” and, indeed, the panel will display Batman punching a guy? It’s kind of like that, but with more nuance. That’s not to say that the illustrations don’t enhance the story, because they certainly do, but are they necessary? Not… really?
That’s not to diminish Schrauwen’s skills as a visual artist. His figures are simple, yet every character looks distinctive with as few lines as possible. Somewhat baffling, though, is his use of color. I wouldn’t call them colors so much as tints that are draped over each page, so it still feels fairly monochromatic. There are some inventive page layouts, too, which I’m sure will be much more impressive (and easy to read) in print than the digital review copy that I was reading from.
There are some dull moments, especially during a long stretch that Arsène spends in isolation, but even during those moments the experience of reading it is so unique that it should be difficult to forget. Every few chapters, there is a page that requests that you wait a week or two before proceeding further, presumably to help replicate the comic’s original serialization. I tried hard to follow the instructions, but it was hard to resist the urge to read further. I think you’ll have a similar problem.
Though not consistently engaging, Arsène Schrauwen is so unlike any other comic out there that it’s absolutely worth a read.