Audrey Spiry's En Silence
The end of the year draws near and Awards Season is upon us once again, with the inaugural British Comic Awards announced at Thought Bubble Festival in Leeds last month. They went to John Allison for Bad Machinery, to the excellent Nelson as Best Book (above), Josceline Fenton got Emerging Talent, Luke Pearson’s Hilda and the Midnight Giant was chosen by local children, and Raymond Briggs entered the Hall of Fame. Five worthy winners all, but some curious oversights in their shortlist.
Three days later came the pleasant surprise of two graphic novels, both entered by publishers Jonathan Cape and neither of them picked out by the British Comic Awards, being nominated for the first time in the 2012 Costa Book Awards: Joff Winterhart’s Days of Bagnold Summer (read Rachel Cooke’s commentary for The Observer) for best novel (below), and Mary & Bryan Talbot’s Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes (which I reviewed for the Times Literary Supplement) for best biography. The media has been abuzz about this “arrival” of graphic novels, as another tipping point in the rising literary credibility of the medium in Britain.
Amidst all this bonhomie, one can’t help wondering if some Costa Prize hopefuls who failed to make the grade are grumbling about their voluminous, arduously-crafted, all-prose entries, “proper novels”, being passed over for mere comic books. What will they make of it if one, or both, of these upstart graphic novels wins, when the results are announced on January 3rd 2013? Chatting with French superstar Joann Sfar last weekend, he told me this sort of recognition has yet to really happen within France’s more resistant literary establishment. I wonder if this is because comics in Britain have been underappreciated for so long, that their “new-found” qualities as graphic novels can still be a revelation to many literature lovers and so can be championed by the likes of Zadie Smith, Michel Faber, Philip Pullman, Nick Hornby and other respected writers. The French, on the other hand, have been used to a massive comics culture and industry for decades and, despite the status of comics there as the ‘Ninth Art’, their purist bookish elite balks at the idea of admitting them into their exclusive ranks.
The past week has also revealed the Official Selection for France’s most prestigious awards for comics, the Fauves announced at the 40th Angoulême International Comics Festival in France from January 31 to February 3, 2013. Though a bit shorter and selective this time, it’s still a headspinning hit parade of 32 albums, Francophone and translated, from the more than five thousand new titles published in France, as well as 12 kids’ titles, 10 reprints and 5 crime stories. Not to wave the flag too much, but this year no less than eight British creators (two of them published in French by London’s Nobrow) are among these nominations: Jon McNaught for Dockwood, Mark Buckingham for Fables Volume 16, Glyn Dillon for The Nao of Brown, Charlie Adlard for The Walking Dead, Luke Pearson for Hilda and the Bird Parade, and Sean Phillips for Fatale, as well as H.M. Bateman, vintage cartoonist of silent strips, in the reprints selection. Neither Posy Simmonds nor Eddie Campbell scored before, so we’ll have to see if any of these contenders win this time. That said, our very own Bryan Talbot was awarded the Polar or crime fiction BD prize, sponsored by railway company SNCF and chosen by the train-using public, for Grandville this year (see ceremony below, Bryan is fourth from the left).
Here are the lists of the Angoulême nominations, with some occasional comments:
Aâma Vol 2 by Frederik Peeters (Gallimard) (hopefully SelfMadeHero will translate this SF series once completed)
Alix Senator by Thierry Démarez & Valérie Mangin (Casterman) (sequel to Jacques Martin’s Clear Line Roman classic)
Automne by Jon McNaught (Nobrow)
Big Questions by Anders Nilsen (L’Association) (a guest at the Festival)
Daytripper by Gabriel Bà & Fabio Moon (Urban Comics) (Brazil’s terrible twins at their best)
Demain, demain by Laurent Maffre (Actes sud) (new to me, to be investigated!)
L’enfance d’Alan by Emmanuel Guibert (L’Association)
Fables by Matthew Sturges, Mark Buckingham & Bill Willingham (Urban Comics) (Volume 16 finally gets French attention)
Heureux qui comme by Nicolas Presl (Atrabile)
Hors-zone by Blexbolex (Cornélius) (published by Nobrow here, interviewed by me at ELCAF 2012)
I am a hero by Kengo Hanazawa (Kana) (will Viz Media release this?)
La grande odalisque by Bastien Vivès and Ruppert & Mulot (Dupuis) (an unexpected creative team, one to look out for)
La ruche by Charles Burns (Cornélius) (aka The Hive)
Le Nao de Brown by Glyn Dillon (Akiléos) (SelfMadeHero’s most important original British graphic novel yet)
Le singe de Hartlepool by Wildrid Lupano & Jérémie Moreau (Delcourt) (another in the ‘Revelation’ section, to be discovered )
Le temps est proche by Christopher Hittinger (The Hoochie Coochie) (Love what he’s done before, so will check out this new Medieval project)
Les Folies Bergère by Zidrou & Porcel (Dargaud) (promising gritty WWI drama)
L’or et le sang Vol 3 by Maurin Defrance, Fabien Nury, Merwan Chabane & Fabien Bedouel (12bis)
Lorna by Brüno (13 étrange)
Moi, René Tardi, prisonnier du Stalag II B by Tardi (Casterman) (finally Tardi tells his father’s Second World War experiences)
Monsieur Strip by Yassine & Toma Bletner (Alter comics)
Orbital Vol 5 by Sylvain Runberg & Serge Pellé (Dupuis) (a Cinebook bestseller, one of the best current sci-fi series)
Ovnis à Lahti by Marko Turunen (Frémok) (fine Finnish experimentation with heart)
Pablo Vol 2 by Julie Birmant & Clément Oubrerie (Dargaud) (Picasso’s life story, sure to get translated once it’s finished)
Paolo Pinocchio by Lucas Varela (Tanibis) (from Argentina’s talented cartoonist, a resident at Angoulême’s Maison des Auteurs)
Personne ne me fera de mal by Giacomo Monti (Rackham) (subtle work from this Canicola member)
Quai d’Orsay T2 by Christophe Blain & Abel Lanzac (Dargaud) (big crossover political satire, loved by the French press)
Soil Vol 11 by Atsushi Kaneko (Ankama) (he did that loopy Bambi series in English from Digital Manga, maybe they’ll do this too?)
Thermae Romae Vol 4 by Mari Yamazaki (Sakka) (reading Yen Press’s deluxe translation right now, my manga of the year)
Tu mourras moins bête… Vol 2 by Marion Montaigne (Ankama)
Vingt-trois prostituées by Chester Brown (Cornélius) (French version of Paying For It - he’s coming to Angoulême as well)
Walking Dead Vol 16 by Charlie Adlard & Robert Kirkman (Delcourt)
2001 Night Stories by Hoshino Yukinobu (Glénat) (Viz released these years ago, he also did the British Museum’s manga starring Professor Munakata)
Anjin San by George Akiyama (Lézard noir) (23 short stories from the early 1980s reveal another manga master little known in English)
Anthologie Creepy (Delirium) (Warren’s Sixties Horrors resurrected)
Batman : année un by David Mazzucchelli & Frank Miller (Urban Comics) (still the best Batman graphic novel ever, really)
Intégrale Uderzo Vol.1 by Philippe Cauvin & Alain Duchêne (Hors-collection) (remastered reprint of his pre-Asterix back catalogue)
Krazy Kat T1 by George Herriman (Les Rêveurs) (but how well can you put Herriman’s playful language into French?)
Le bus by Paul Kirchner (Tanibis) (surreal silent strips originally in Heavy Metal magazine)
Mimodrames by H.M Bateman (Actes Sud/L’An 2) (a century later, his pantomime comedies from Punch are impeccably timed)
Pépito T1 by Luciano Bottaro (Cornélius) (lovely pirate series for kids of all ages)
Terry et les pirates 1939-1940 by Milton Caniff (Bdartiste) (based on IDW’s definitive editions)
Ariol, le maître-chien by Guibert & Boutavant (BD Kids) (Papercitz are releasing this series about a donkey in glasses next year)
Billy Bob by Nix (Requins Marteaux) (new from Flemish creator of Kinky & Cosy translated by NBM)
Chi – Une vie de chat Vol 9 by Konami Kanata (Glénat) (out from Vertical Inc.)
Esteban Vol 4 by Matthieu Bonhomme (Dupuis)
Hilda et la parade des oiseaux by Luke Pearson (Nobrow) (yay!)
Jim Curious by Matthias Picard (2024) (underwater romp with free 3D glasses)
La mémoire de l’eau Vol 1 by Mathieu Reynès & Valérie Vernay (Dupuis)
Le Royaume Vol 4 by Benoît Feroumont (Dupuis) (a favourite Spirou series)
Les carnets de Cerise Vol 1 by Aurélie Neyret & Joris Chamblain (Soleil)
Les légendaires : origines Vol 1 de Patrick Sobral (Delcourt) (hugely popular, manga-inspired fantasy series)
Les quatre de Baker Street Vol 4 by Olivier Legrand & Jean-Blaise Djian (Vents d’ouest) (another Holmes-ian homage)
Paola Crusoë Vol 1 by Mathilde Domecq (Glénat)
Castilla Drive by Anthony Pastor (Actes Sud / L’An 2) (keep an eye out for this great, gripping auteur)
Fatale Vol 1 by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips (Delcourt) (noir with tentacles!)
L’assassin qu’elle mérite Vol 2 by Wilfrid Lupano & Corboz (Vents d’ouest)
L’épouvantail d’Olivier Cotte et Jules Stromboni (Casterman) (another in the line of BD adaptations of crime fiction)
Le tueur de la Green River by Jeff Jensen & Jonathan Case (Ankama) (Dark Horse originated this taut true crime case-study)
Another set of French Best-of-the-Year bandes dessinées was also recently announced by the ACBD (Association des Critiques et Journalistes de Bande Dessinée). Interestingly, only one of the ACBD’s Top Five of 2012 shows up on the Angoulême list, Emmanuel Guibert’s L’Enfance d’Alan. What does it say when the four other choices of these experts fail to surface among the Festival’s finalists? Perhaps, that there’s such an abundance of riches being published in France these days, that sometimes genuine gems can slip through the net?
Take for example one of the ACBD’s Grands Prix choices, En silence (“Silently”) by Audrey Spiry from Casterman’s edgier imprint, KSTR. Unlike the others on the ACBD shortlist, En silence is an audacious debut, a 168-page full-colour hardback by a young Angoulêmê graduate with a background both in magic (assisting her magician father as a girl) and in animation. Using an uninhibited, highly painterly approach to colour in a sort of Photoshop-Fauvism approach or like a digital Van Gogh, Spiry avoids all contour outlines in her drawings as well as on her balloons and panel borders, and unleashes her palette with vibrant panache.
Her young heroine is Juliette, a thinly-disguised alter-ego of Audrey herself, and the girlfriend to Luis whose work in film fills up most of his time: “Cinema is my whole life!”. They are on an adventure holiday, their first in three years, canyoning with Yann, their hippy blond guide, and with a married couple who have two young daughters, the younger named Lena. It’s telling when Luis is asked about his and Juliette’s ages, he gets hers wrong: “I’m 33 and Juliette 24” , which she corrects to “25!”. Earlier, Luis has explained, “...Juliette has just finished her studies. Suddenly, right now, it’s not easy, she’s looking around. It’s a time for big decisions!” Spiry highlights the point here by showing Juliette’s hand in the centre of the panel in white, resting on Luis’s shoulder, for the moment.
Colours and the feelings they stir up reign supreme here. The lack of outlines to demarcate and separate human beings from their surroundings - woods, rocks, rapids - perfectly captures the characters’ growing connection to the natural world, even possession by it. Spiry is particularly adept at capturing the living, fluid power of water and its distorting visual effects on those who dive and swim in it and under it. Oscillating between relative realism and amazing, sometimes bizarre caricatural effects of melting and melding, she conveys in faces and figures their transformations and fusions with the waters, from the shock and effort of entering the freezing cold river in wetsuits to Hokusai-like waves sweeping them up like some elemental, humanoid being, nature personified, sometimes with hands or a complete body gripping and engulfing them. I’ve not seen water’s effects so well drawn since Bastien Vivès’s A Taste of Chlorine or Martin Tom Dieck’s One Hundred Views of the Speicherstadt.
On this vacation, pleasures can swiftly shift to fears in the untamed, untameable outdoors. The main thrust of the story follows the guide and his tourist group on their sometimes perilous route downstream, with flashbacks at key points of drama to Juliette’s relationship to Luis. Early on, the first time she loses Luis, she is swept underwater and alone into a tight fissure, only to be miraculously extruded by the current (above).
One challenge Juliette has to face is jumping from a cliff into the river. Lena takes the plunge first and when her father prepares to jump next, Spiry shows Lena looking up at him admiringly, seeing him as if he is posed like some caped superhero. When Juliette’s turn comes, she chickens out and says she needs a bit more time. She gazes down and imagines in one panel a crocodile below, who warns, “There’s never a right moment for this!!” For three panels she changes into Indiana Jones’ outfit, fantasising herself as an adventure heroine, but then backs away again. When she does finally steel herself to jump, her whole body dissolves into an abstracted, scrawled thing, all screaming teeth and tonsils and distended lungs, finally reduced to lines and then a single black dot, before gradually re-forming from splashes, bubbles, ripples, back to her human form (below). She has faced her fear and survived, this time.
Chilling out over a picnic, Juliette and Luis get to know the father and mother, who are older than them but have a similar age-gap and quite naturally decided to have children straight away. The mother explains, “With him, I was the woman I’ve always dreamed of being.” We are also privy to some of Juliette’s private misgivings about Luis: “You take no risks. You talk and talk, but it no longer makes me dream. Worse, it suffocates me!” Yann the guide advises that for the next stage it is safe to just let yourself float down the river. As she drifts off downstream, this triggers in Juliette a memory about having sex with Luis, but she becomes surrounded by him and dragged down within his embrace, and so has to break free and swim upwards to the surface.
Separated from the others once more, Juliette faces a deeper fear when she fails to rescue Lena from the rapids and the two find themselves lost in a deep cavern. Juliette and Lena save each other here and give each other hope and courage. Spiry plays especially well with the wonder and innocent courage of the little girl. When Juliette despairs and cries, Lena inspires her to keep going and to pursue an exit, “a hole that goes to the centre of the earth”, which she has spotted. They each take turns to sink down deep enough to investigate this spot of light. When Juliette finally does reach it, her whole body dissolves again, as earlier, in an extraordinary epiphany, and a final flashback. This results in a third and final blank pair of pages in a single-colour: after red, then yellow, comes black and her life-changing decision. In a clever touch, she resurfaces from the depths with a film covering over her face, as if it is melting, as we’ve seen it do impressionistically before, this time caused by some filmy fish or octopus eggs which she has to wash off. Lena’s mother finally comes to their rescue, endowed with almost Amazonian strength and scale, able to do the incredible, driven by her maternal instincts. In her grip, Juliette shrinks almost as small as Lena.
Following their “hard return to reality”, Luis notices the experience has changed Juliette. As they left the cavern for daylight, the mother said to her, “Finally, freedom!” Juliette leaves behind her wetsuit, like a snake discarding its skin and its past. She swims off alone in her bikini, exultantly leaping over a waterfall. The dark water seems to be alive, forming into a large liquid male figure who sweeps her up in its strong arms. She comes to and finds herself in Luis’s embrace but revealingly her eyes are wide open, staring over his shoulfder, into the distance, into the future. Spiry ends En silence with an understated four-page coda, two years later.
Posted: December 1, 2012
En silence differs from the ACBD critics’ other four choices, which are more directly autobiographical or documentary, and all are exemplary. Judith Vanistendael’s moving memoir of cancer in her family, When David Lost His Voice, has been translated by SelfMadeHero. First Second issued Emmanuel Guibert’s complete Alan’s War, so there’s hope that his first volume of Alan’s Childhood will eventually follow suit. Philippe Squarzoni’s Brown Season and Emmanuel Lepage’s Spring in Chernobyl tackle urgent issues of global warming and the legacy of Chernobyl and equally deserve a wider readership. We will find out on December 10th which of these five is selected as the Critics’ Choice for 2012. If I were a betting man, my money would probably be on Guibert, to be honest. But my heart has been won over by Audrey Spiry’s spirited story of a woman finding independence and taking a leap of faith. En silence is refreshing, elating and literally immersive.
Photograph of Audrey Spiry is © Isabelle Franiosa