Thursday, May 17, 2007

Art for Art's Sake

When it comes to comic books I am pretty much a traditionalist. Usually I want stories of heroes versus villains with lots of action. As a kid I seldom read so called funny animal comics or Archie-style comics. It was superheroes all the way.
But, I have always loved the comic strip medium and appreciated the art of comics itself. When I was eight or ten I used to check out these massive volumes of comic strip reprints from the library and lose myself in the strange world of the American comic strip. Here I discovered not only strips that would be familiar to the average reader, strips like Barney Google, L'il Abner, Little Orphan Annie, etc, but also strips such as The Gumps, Polly and her Pals, Mutt and Jeff, and other strips most folks today have never heard of. I have a great respect for the medium and the art of comics.
So, I'm always interested to see someone do something new and different with the comic form. Nick Bertozzi has reminded me once again that comics can be used to tell almost any kind of story and to tell some stories better than any other medium possibly could. His new graphic novel, The Salon, is one of those amazing creations that just seems to pop up from nowhere and tell a kind of story that no one else has told before.
Set in Paris in the 1920s, The Salon involves the circle of artists and hangers on that surrounded Gertrude Stein's famous Salon nights in a strange adventure of mystery and horror. Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Alice B. Toklas, Erik Satie, and Guillaume Apollinaire wander through these pages, tracking a supernatural, seemingly unstoppable killer. A further weird element is a added by the discovery of a strange, blue, absinthe, which when imbibed, allows a person to enter the world of a painting, making for some of the comic's most surreal scenes. During all of this we watch Braque and Picasso struggling to redefine art . Their discussions of painting are some of the best moments in the book. My synopsis doesn't do the comic justice. Reportedly, artist-writer Bertozzi went to great lengths researching the characters and tried to present them as accurately as possible, just as any good historical novelist would. He made me want to read more about the artists and their times. More history reading for me. The more fantastic elements of the story only serve to move the plot along. The real stars here are the artists and the art themselves. Picasso in particular is a great character, a pint size dynamo, obsessed with sex, fighting, and the Katzenjammer Kids.
Bertozzi's art is perfect for the book, not too realistic and not too cartoony. His inkline is fluid and powerful in a way that perhaps only a fellow cartoonist can fully appreciate. His backgrounds invoke both the time period and the techniques of the artists involved in the plot. After I finished reading The Salon I spent a good deal of time just flipping back through the pages and admiring the drawing.
This isn't it comic for kids by a long shot. There's a considerable amount of sex and some fairly graphic scenes of violence, just like you'd get in a real novel. Basically this is one of the few works that really does strike me as a 'graphic novel' and not just an overblown and over extended regular comic book. Of course, in many ways, I am the perfect audience for The Salon. It involves mystery, art, comic strips, and great period detail. It also merges fiction and reality and has a cast formed of real historical figures. All of these things fascinate me. But mostly The Salon is just a really good story, told in an art style that is reminiscent of the glory days of the comic strip and at the same time a tribute to the emergence of modern art. Heady stuff for a funny book. Visit Bertozzi's website and learn more.

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