Not-So-Ordinary Victories

To my surprise, Manu Larcenet was nominated for last year’s Eisners (“Best US edition of Foreign Material”). He did not win, since Sfar did, but that was a reliable signal that Larcenet had acquired both visibility and some amount of respectability on the international scene.

It was a surprise, because in spite of the praise he has been receiving lately, I still associate him with his early series, in Fluide Glacial, in the late 90s, which you could probably describe as punk-cartoonish parodies of popular culture. Not exactly the best genre from which to develop a career as a respected artist in comics. Of course, I also remember liking them a lot. Fluide Glacial, a monthly comic anthology, has been a starting ground for many of the most deservedly acclaimed French artists, from Blutch to Goosens to Dupuy and Berberian. The main problem with Fluide is that it relies mostly on referential works, a style you could probably trace back to its founder, Marcel Gotlib, who was deeply influenced by Kurtzman’s Mad. This isn’t a defect in itself, but it does lead to the publication a lot of second rate works, best forgotten as soon as they are read. Larcenet’s stories never belonged in that category, though, mostly because he displayed a deep fondness for the material he used. He never went for a generic parody, but instead tried to focus on tiny but extremely evocative details. Satisfying parody hinges on details and style, not on narratives (see, once more, Kurtzman’s Mad for a clear demonstration), and Larcenet’s story made a fine use of this rule, building an entire story on the theme song of a children’ TV show, for instance.

Flash forward by a few years. Larcenet is now one of the most widely acclaimed (and widely sold) BD creators in France. If you happen to walk into a bookstore when one of his albums comes out, you’re likely to face extensive publicity, giant cut-out characters and all the things you associate with mainstream entertainment. Yet, strangely enough, this reputation has been built not on his easily accessed punk-pop ephemera, but on a much more ambitious and difficult work : Le combat ordinaire, (mis)translated as Ordinary Victories.

Ordinary Victories belongs to the fascinating genre of near-autobiography. The series, three volumes of which have been published so far, with a fourth and last already announced, focuses on the life of Marco, a professional photographer. At the beginning of the series, Marco finds himself unable to shoot any photograph and riddled with anxiety crises. To avoid a complete breakdown, he exiles himself to the countryside, along with his cat. Though he will find a lovely girlfriend and some peace of mind, this is only the beginning of a long process of self-reconstruction. He will notably have to deal with his own reluctance to get involved in a real relationship, clinging to an adolescent dream of independence, while his girlfriend expects him to take her seriously and behave as an adult. This process of self-examination, which is the whole drive of the series, will also lead Marco to question what he knows about his father, to reflect about his inherited political conceptions when faced with a childhood friend who has gone to the far-right, to dwell on the conflicts between fame and ethics, and finally to question his own relation to parenthood and commitment in general. This may sound like an awfully ambitious program for roughly 200 pages of comics, dense as those may be. Indeed, while the accumulation itself is not really problematic, there are issues with the timing : everything in the series happens over a fairly short span of time, or at least it seems so to the reader. How improbable is it that Marco should have to face all the major crises of adulthood at the same time? At the beginning of the story, we know his father is ill, and a few sharply written scenes convey Marco’s uneasiness, and in fact, inability to accept the fact, while his parents try to keep up appearances. So far, so good. However, we soon discover that there may be a dark secret lurking in the father’s past : through a series of coincidences, Marco realises that his father might have been complicit in the use of torture during the war in Algeria.[1] Then, he dies, which leads to yet more sharply written scenes between the bereaved mother and her son. But wait, even more dark secrets are discovered, as Marco finds a notebook kept by his father, from which he and his brother are conspicuously absent. While struggling to understand why his father left them both out of this account of his life, Marco comes to re-evaluate his own objections to becoming a father. This would probably be enough for a whole book, yet a lot of other things happen at the same time, and no matter how well-written each scene may be, they do lose some of their effectiveness after a while. Even the use of numerous pauses, with huge silent frames and moments of quite introspection, do not completely succeed in establishing an appropriate rhythm.

While the form of Ordinary Victories is not immediately striking, Larcenet actually uses quite an elaborate language to tell his story. The page layout is classical : blank gutter, four strips, one to three frames on average in each strip, with occasional splash panels. Roughly what you will find in a Tintin or Asterix or thousands of other mainstream bande dessinées. The main graphical style used throughout the series is the same Larcenet has been using for years : cartoony characters, somewhat resembling a cross between Greg’s Achille Talon and Reiser’s characters. A reviewer once noticed that Marco’s nose is bigger than his torso, and that’s actually true in most frames. That cartoony style certainly has its advantages, and it may even be a necessity, in a book that seeks to achieve maximum intensity in very brief scenes, while saving enough comic space to offer full pages of its main character wandering or dozing off in the country. Together with the fairly small frames, this calls for immediately understandable facial expressions on characters usually framed in middle-shots or close-ups. Whenever he can do away with those narrative necessities, though, Larcenet resorts to a much more realistic and detailed rendering of landscapes and places. There is a fascinating passage in McCloud’s Understanding Comics about the extensive use of “masks” in mangas, where the same object will either be extremely stylised or extremely detailed depending on its function in a given shot. There is a lot of this in Ordinary Victories. Besides these two main types of representations, a third style occurs on occasion : monochromatic and realistic, it translates Marco’s work as a photographer in comic book equivalents. There are a few troubling moments, in the beginning of the story, where this creates some uncertainty as to the status of what is represented (these are after all realistic objects from a mostly cartoony universe), but pretty quickly, the device blends in the narrative.

A more discreet yet probably more crucial device is the extensive use of silences : whole sequences flow without a single word. Complementing this, a psychological spill-over occurs on several occasions, with Marco’s feelings reflected on the visual universe, notably when he has to deal with his recurrent anxiety crises. This is however, a pretty common device.

All in all, the visual grammar in Ordinary Victories is pretty subtle, but it is worth stressing that it stops right at that point where it could become unsettling or ambiguous. Larcenet’s many styles cohere into a complex but regular system, which flirts with the limit of conventional representations, but almost never go against the narrative. The colouring (by Larcenet’s brother) contributes a lot the feeling of unity, since it smoothes away any feeling of rupture between the different styles. The one disturbing element here is also the most obvious : Larcenet’s style and reputation points towards humour, while this book is for the most part extremely serious (the funny moments are extremely well done, though). This central contrast is also what makes the book such a compelling read, for all its defect : the inner conflict between this graphical style and the story itself mirrors Marco’s struggle to deal with adult problems from his adolescent perspective. The conspicuous introduction of “realistic” photographs in the narrative is actually a clumsier re-statement of this fundamental divide.

So far, only the first two volumes of the series have been translated in English, in a single 128-page book. The overcharge problem I mentioned earlier is hardly felt in those two, and while I cannot vouch for the translations, none of the reviews I have read seem to have found problems with it. The second French volume loses some its appeal when read for the second time, because of some simplistic moral judgments, but it remains a strong work, well worth the read. The third and yet untranslated volume, Ce qui est précieux, has been a disappointment to me, though, for a number of reasons : not only does it feel somewhat forced, but it also introduces a very distinct visual break. The characters become more realistic, less cartoony, and while this has been praised by some French reviewers, I feel it weakens the dynamic of the book. It is not a terrible book, but still vastly inferior to the previous two. While I was writing this piece, I realised that most of my bitterness towards the series can be attributed to that third volume.

Ordinary Victories is not the best contemporary French bande dessinée, but outside of Sfar’s work, this is definitely the most intriguing best-selling work of the last few years. And that is probably at once the explanation and the limits of its appeal. It definitely belongs in the mainstream. Its most personal and convincing moments are somewhat spoiled, for instance, by the (roughly) standard album format : the narrative breaks, after 64 pages, feel forced and unnecessary in this type of narrative. In the third volume, especially, you sometimes get the feeling that some of the silent panels are added just to allow the book to reach that critical 64th page. Larcenet’s refusal to use the full extent of the visual grammar he’s developed also becomes frustrating after a while. It may be complex, but being totally subservient to the storyline, it is also strictly functional. It does not take any risk, and thus, deprives itself of the possibility of greatness. After the first hundred pages, the slickness of the book starts to work against the authenticity of the narrative. On the other hand, this very professionalism, this immediate accessibility also makes this the perfect introduction to serious BDs. It is intelligent, it is well done, and its defects only appear to the attentive reader, in the long run.

It belongs in the mainstream, but it does shine there.

[1] A decolonization war and a traumatic event in recent French history, 1954-1962.

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Hi, I'm French. While completing my Ph.D, I've also done a lot of work in and about comics over the last few years, including a published BD, illustrated by my talented sister and an ongoing personal project. This is all in French, though.

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