Penelope Bagieu’s ‘Exquisite Corpse’ is an Exquisite Comic
One of the peculiarities of the North American comics industry is its Bizarro-esque usage of words like "mainstream" and "genre." In other media industries, like publishing or film, "genre" is used to denote a particular type of story with particular conventions and signifiers --- you know, horror, westersn, science-fiction, fantasy, and so on --- while everything else tends to be considered "mainstream."
Not so in American comics, where the superhero genre has so warped the industry that the weekly offerings of Marvel and DC tend to be considered the most mainstream, while the more literary material, the stuff about regular people leading more or less regular lives, gets pushed in to the corners, published and championed by venues more or less outside the direct market.
I was thinking about this the other week when I picked up Exquisite Corpse, the English language debut of French cartoonist and hyphenate Pénélope Bagieu, a blogger, editorial illustrator, rock and roll drummer and honest-to-goodness knight (Well, a Chevalier des arts et des lettre; I don't think she carries a sword or anything).
Originally published in 2010 as Cadavre exquis, it's come to America courtesy First Second. It tells the story of Zoe, a twenty-something product rep at sales shows --- which mainly entails dressing up and posing in photos with handsy jerks in front of cars and suchlike --- who goes home to an unemployed loser boyfriend. A chance encounter with an older, reclusive author with a very weird secret (and even weirder publishing plan) introduces her to an odd new lifestyle that's better in many respects, although a loser boyfriend is a loser boyfriend, whether he's an uneducated, uncouth soccer fan or a wealthy narcissist.
If you found the book in your local comic shop as I did, it would have been an outlier. Out of curiosity, I counted, and that week's direct market releases included 62 superhero books, 12 horror books, 13 based on TV shows, seven based on vide ogames, six based on movies, and three based on toy lines. Were you to assign a genre to Exquisite Corpse, you might come up with "literary," or a portmanteau like "romantic dramedy"; in other words, it's a mainstream graphic novel, albeit in the traditional use of that term, outside the walls of direct market comic shops.
I hope that's not considered a strike against it, as Exquisite Corpse is a great book, and Bagieu is at least as interesting a comics talent as her resume suggests.
The title is, of course, a literary reference to a French surrealist method of story creation, in which different authors or artists each add something of their own to a work in succession. It's also an allusion to the secret of the reclusive author character Thomas, which it's probably best not to spoil, as it is one of several surprise turns in the novel that drive it... at least until the next surprise turn.
Our protagonist Zoe, the aforementioned twentysomething sales rep, goes through a life-changing experience when she happens to meet Thomas, a panicky, unshaven, bespectacled man who keeps peeping at her from behind drawn curtains while she eats her lunch on a bench in front of his apartment. When she asks to use his bathroom, he's shocked to learn that not only did she not come there to find him, but that she doesn't recognize his name (he's apparently a pretty famous author), nor does she seem to know the first thing about the literary world, or books in general.
When Thomas compares himself to Balzac, and notes that the critics have called his novels "modern-day fables," Zoe wanders towards the couch, saying over her shoulder, "Oh, fables. Like for kids. Cool." Her ignorance is his bliss.
After a strained and strange courtship, they eventually begin a romantic relationship, and Zoe proves the perfect muse for Thomas, inspiring him to break through his writer's block, and her ignorance of almost every element of his world suits his curious self-obsession perfectly.
The first turn comes when Zoe meets Agatha, Thomas' ex-wife/editor/lifeline to the outside world. Another comes when she learns Thomas' secret, and another still comes when she gets to know him better --- after the trio form a little family unit of sorts --- and realizes she'll never be as important to Thomas as his writing and his career.
The climax and conclusion are a little abrupt, or, at least, one element of it is, but then, perhaps Bagieu is putting the reader in Thomas' head-space, so that we don't notice things developing because we too are so obsessed with his story.
Bagieu's character-designs are excellent, to the point that the images go a long way toward defining the characters. Zoe resembles the big-headed, saucer-eyed, curvy waifs that American artist Katie Skelly excels at drawing; the puffier, hairy author Thomas recalls the character designs of Michel Rabagliati; and Agnes is your prototypical, stereotypical French woman --- slim, ageless, pale and full of points and sharp edges.
The flat-ish, cartoony figures occupy a more fully-rendered, but not too fully-rendered, cartoon Paris for the length of the extremely economical story, one in which no page or panel is wasted in driving the story from its twist middle to twist ending. (Maybe too economical, given that abruptness I mentioned earlier.)
"Oh, I have no use for such puerile and reductive classifications," Thomas says when Zoe first asks him what kinds of books he writes. "You might say that, though my work obviously defies labeling, I strive to be a keen observer of my contemporaries..." and blah blah blah. Given the laughs she finds at Thomas' expense, I'm sure Bagieu wouldn't think that labeling her work iis necessarily "puerile and reductive," although it does defy classification, at least as we usually classify comics in the our local comic shops. Whatever genre one might want to assign it to -- "True mainstream literary dramedy"? "Character-driven comical semi-satire?" --- perhaps it's best to refer to it by adjective rather than genre.
What kind of comic is Exquisite Corpse? It's a very good one.