11 May 2012

Claire Bretécher

Comic books are just that – books. And a lot of people read them the way they would read books: some read them the way one enjoys a novel, for pleasure. Others read them in a more academic way, analysing them critically as though they were tokens of the concerns and desires of a certain period of time, a certain demographic, etc. Basically, comic books and cartoons, like any other art form, can be found to capture the atmosphere of a time as conceived by their author, and their graphic aesthetics convey this to the reader often more clearly than words.

At this point I would like to pay a tiny tribute to a graphic artist and something of a sociologist in her own right: Claire Bretécher. Her cartoons have been around since the early '70s and have kept their wit and intelligence, paired with knobbly yet instantly likeable graphics, as they entered the '90s and became a part of my (finally somewhat literate) childhood. My parents had those cartoons lying around in the bathroom, the living room, and they appeared in a weekly newspaper that came to our house regularly. The humour is more or less deadpan, the characters are angry, frustrated, sometimes naive, and though she never allows them to look completely despicable, Bretécher does not take anyone's side and makes them fight their own battles. The setting is French-parisian middle-class society. The topics are, well, pretty much everything. I tend to separate Bretécher's work into two main categories, and I do this based solely on my concept of her work:

The first is "Agrippine", a character created and expanded throughout the late '80s, '90s and 2000s, and thus most relevant to me as she accompanied me through childhood and puberty. Conveniently enough, the eponymous main character is a parisian teenage girl, angry and cynical throughout the series, but with oddly nonchalant insight into the douchebaggery that surrounds her. Her daily feat consists of dealing with her peers at school, whom she finds alternately fascinating and ridiculously short-sighted, fighting her parents by throwing comically distorted fits of rage or frustrating them with unshakeable teenage logic, and finally, dealing with body image and the tragic realisation that she will probably never be famous. Sounds like a generic '90s teen, doesn't it? What is striking here, though, is the humour. The relationships between characters are overdrawn, and yet they never seem to veer too far from the possible. Another thing that is worth noting is that Agrippine is not pretty. Or maybe she is, but we can't tell because none of the characters in Bretécher's universe are drawn in a way that would make physical beauty easily discernible. After a while, we forget to ask ourselves what these characters would look like as real people and move on. This is similar to the aesthetic introduced by the Simpsons: physical appearance becomes secondary to the character's personality and his interaction with the world. And this interaction, in Agrippine especially, relies heavily on language. While the language in all of Bretécher's work is worth noting for its precise emulation of the actual language and expressions used by the group of people she is portraying, her parody of "teen speech" is remarkable, and I for one tremendously enjoy reading it. It's like code, and it takes you a while to figure out what the expressions Bretécher invents to put into her teen protagonists' mouthes. Though they sound like slang that could actually be in use, and you can find the occasional clue as to the logic behind its construction, it is still almost like a foreign language; it's a kind of mutant language, inspired by the real thing and then modified. If you've seen Clueless, or read/seen A Clockwork Orange, you'll know what I mean.
At this point I should probably say that I'm not sure whether Bretécher's comics are well-known, or indeed available, in the English-speaking world. If they are, I hope the translation does justice to the linguistic humour. If they are not, and you happen to speak French, I warmly recommend you give them a try.

The second category is "Les Frustrés", which is a collection of comics that deal mainly with sociological topics such as feminism, sexism, snobbism and the desperate attempts of the middle-class bourgeois to seem more bohemian. Occasionally, we are also privy to the frustrations that go with raising snotty-nosed brats who will not abide by one's idealistic standarts and just read Tintin or hit you over the head with a toy instead. And we get an insight into how hard it is to be those brats and to have parents who'd rather dump you into the arms of various clubs and activities rather than actually spend time raising you. We have secretaries enjoying everything about their job except the actual work, doctors with nervous breakdowns, and just generally intellectuals lounging on beanbags making their upcoming summer vacation sound less futile by boasting to their friends that they plan on re-reading all of Proust, because it just has to be done. The problem with Bretécher's humour is that to describe it like this makes it sound contrived and angry. I assure you, it is none of those things. Ultimately, she treats all of her characters, and the very human causes they represent, pretty much equally: with a lot of irony and perceptiveness, but also with a tenderness that hides between the roughness of her drawings, telling us that even though she sees through our bullshit, Bretécher hasn't lost faith in human beings. 

No comments:

Post a Comment