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Nicolas de Crécy:

Prosopopus

You can read a lot, maybe too much, into this genre mash-up of gritty crime thriller and cartoon craziness. You have to read a lot, actually, as this fully painted, large format, 96-page bande dessinée hardback has no dialogues, captions, even sound effects, only silent illustrations. For all its puzzles and bafflements, this book revolves around the forgery of an abstract painter’s valuable masterpiece - whose rust-red textures resemble the spatterings of dried blood - and more importantly about the theft of its artist’s most unique mark, her own thumbprint, with which she signs her works. Physically that means first stealing a wax impression of the print to legitimate the fake, but ultimately, terribly, it means cutting of her hand and disposing of her drugged body off a cliff in a faked car accident. And the worst of it is that it’s her lover who does all this to her for cold cash.

Knowing subsequently what motivates this lover’s assassination of the mob boss which opens the book, you might reassess his killing of a heartless gangster as an act of justifiable, even laudable vengeance, but, like the doomed figure in a classic noir, it does our anti-hero no good. It’s this murder which brings into existence the titular entity but is Prosopopus a saviour or monster? Whose side is he on? Traces of blood, semen, cigar smoke, guilty residues of his crime and his bodily excretions, trail and fuse into this creature, like some spirit of vengeance, an embodiment of lingering, telltale stains, which cannot be washed clean or destroyed. A gross, ugly giant, like a child’s doodle, with two protruding front teeth and swollen blubbery lips, this yellowish bear is as impossibly indestructible as any animated funny animal and stands naked in tooth and claw except for an extra-large pinned-up diaper. A strain of mockery of and revulsion at fat people seems to preoccupy de Crécy in much of his work. The creature is like a smothering, overweight, nightmare wife/mother/infant. Or perhaps, despite its red lips and long eyelashes, its gender never being specified, it could well be male, its outbursts of savagery, decapitating and devouring humans, may suggest this. If it is a "he", then he resembles a straight, macho man’s phobia of being trapped and ravished by an obese, overbearing, clownish "queer".

Prosopopus seems to love, if not adore, this heartless killer, as glowing hearts waft around and envelope him. Protective and possessive, it sets out to help him by retrieving the incriminating evidence from the FBI’s offices - his bullet which killed the mobster and the severed hand found in the mobster’s briefcase. But the terrifying, bizarre climax, like some feverish Cronenberg dream, sees the man become pregnant from being fed too much yoghurt and the creature deliver out of him a dead baby-sized version of the dead boss, sever its tiny hand and sew on the painter’s adult hand, and then film on a video camera as it clumsily uses this newborn Frankenstein to dawb its own canvas. The monster proudly shows off the result with his characteristic, chirpy "Thumb’s up", but of course it has come out as a hideous mess.

Like the bodily fluids and smoke, De Crécy also hints at another linking network or channelling of elements. The water pipes from the killer’s shower, the bathroom radiator (a nod to Eraserhead?), and an odd, cream-coloured tile shift from the killer’s bathroom to the FBI’s morgue. Those same pipes penetrate the corpse’s mouth and chestwound, sucking up his body and siphoning it into the system, and reappear as the umbilical cords when the body is reborn foetus-like from the killer’s extended stomach.

Reading between the lines, and between the panels, to me what this book seems to really be about, more or less obliquely, is an allegory, a venting, maybe an exorcism of de Crécy’s break-up with his creative partner Sylvain Chomet, his sense of betrayal, his perception of the theft of his identity and his mixed feelings about how and whether to seek retribution.

Here’s some context. Chomet and de Crécy met in the 1980s when they were studying at the Angoulême art school. The two of them went on to collaborate regularly for several years, for example on the scurrilously satirical graphic novel trilogy Léon La Came from Casterman between 1995 and 1998 (written by Chomet, illustrated by de Crécy), and short animated films, notably The Old Lady And The Pigeons, a 40-minute French-Canadian comedy, completed in 1996 and Oscar nominated, which Chomet wrote and directed with, apparently, de Crécy much involved as Art Director in all but name, although his on-screen credit was confined to the background designs.

Out of this came Chomet’s opportunity to go solo and direct and animate over five years the hit feature film Belleville Rendezvous, released in 2003, the same year as Prosopopus. It seems it was not that easy a separation and transition and de Crécy, for whatever reasons, was left behind. It must have been hard for him to see a former collaborator and friend soar to such international success. To anyone who is familiar with or examines afresh Chomet and de Crécy’s prior work together, it’s hard to believe that they were not both involved in the movie as well. I remember the surprise, after marveling at what I believed were some of de Crécy’s distinctive, glorious decors, palettes and characters, when I saw from the closing credits that de Crécy had not contributed to it at all. His thumbprint was nowhere to be seen. Others noticed and a debate, a furore erupted, accusations flying about of injustice and plagiarism.

Regardless of the wrongs or rights in this, de Crécy knows what it feels like to have, as he might have viewed it, your artistic integrity and identity allegedly stolen, to feel betrayed by someone you trusted and were close to. So he would probably identify with the woman painter in his story, whose oeuvre is kidnapped, meticulously copied and finally crudely travestied. How can you read this? Perhaps the crime boss represents Chomet’s big-time film producers bent on making a convincing forgery, but however meticulous their plagiarising, to do this accurately they finally need to get their hands on de Crécy’s signature hand. But owning the hand without the body and the brain, and all its expertise and experience, can only produce a travesty. Could the killer be a fanciful version of Chomet, his services and scruples bought for money, his efforts to redeem himself and turn the tables on the criminals who murdered his painter-lover coming too late to avert his fate? And what can the Prosopopus itself represent? Could it be an implausible, grotesque manifestation of de Crécy’s conflicting desires for extreme retribution and a return to, and rejection of, the security and togetherness he misses, when the two of them were creating their stories and worlds together?

There’s a further twist or two in this tale. The killer is also a two-timing womaniser, with another lover on the side. It’s her voluptuous body which the Prosopopus replaces, in the midst of a visceral sequence of their passionate love-making, intercutting their probings and gropings with the CSI-style, hands-on autopsy of the boss’s corpse. Though we don’t see what becomes of her, she never reappears. It’s her apartment which becomes their awful prison-like lovenest. And it’s her pudgy, sausage-shaped lapdog, dressed in a big pink bow, which becomes the creature’s faithful sidekick. Or so it seems until a further twist-upon-a-twist in which the little pooch turns on his weird master, perhaps seeking vengeance for his mistress being removed. All these piled-up vendettas, toppling domino-style, suggest that ultimately revenge is fruitless and will more than likely backfire on you. Maybe these interpretatons are reading too much into it, but I can’t help noticing that so much of what comics creators produce, one way or another, turns out to be autobiographical, as a way of confronting emotions, reshaping personal traumas, playing with impossibilities. However you read it, Prosopopus stands as an unsettling, warped urban fairytale, a rich, strange fantastical chiller of rare quality.

To bring the duo up-to-date, Chomet’s long-awaited sequel, The Illusionist, based on an unfilmed Jacques Tati screenplay, nears completion in Edinburgh, possibly for 2009. It should be a delight. Meanwhile, de Crécy has been developing an animated movie of his own for several years, L’Orgue de Barbarie ("The Barrel Organ"), and after some setbacks he’s launched into it again since 2006 with help from Raphaël Meltz on the story. While we wait for the big screen results, an illustrated storybook giving a taster of the film came out last year from Futuropolis.

For non-French readers eager to read more comics by de Crécy, NBM published in somewhat reduced format Glacial Period, his imaginative response to the Louvre’s commission to craft a story related to their museum and its collections. José Villarrubia and I had the chance to go to the launch for this, meeting de Crécy by a catering table of trays of fat, fleshy dog-shaped confectionaries to accompany the drinks. What’s more, Fanfare/Ponent Mon’s fine black-and-white anthology Japan includes a great entry by him (which he enlarged in 2007 to the 224-page Futuropolis album, Journal d’un fantôme or "Ghost’s Diary"). And dig out the March 1992 issue of Heavy Metal magazine and you’ll find the whole of his 1991 Foligatto album, written by Alexios Tjoyas, in English.

Posted: December 21, 2008

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de Crécy at NBM
de Crécy at Futuropolis
de Crécy at Kujoyama

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Nicolas de Crecy

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Prosopopus
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