Sunday, May 1, 2011

Comics Review: Lucille, Ludovic Debeurme

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

This expansive graphic novel about a teenage love affair is an astonishingly executed piece of cartooning.

Ludovic Debeurme is a master cartoon dramatist. In his 2006 graphic novel Lucille, just published in English, he works wonders with a minimalist approach. From a North American perspective, it’s as if he combined the most eloquent aspects of the styles of Chester Brown and John Porcellino. His drawing captures highly specific locales, forceful action, and complex character attitudes with so little fuss that it seems all but miraculous. His visual skill makes this love story between two teenage misfits one of the more vividly realized comics in recent memory.

A more apt title for Lucille would probably be Lucille and Vladimir, as the story is about them both, and neither takes precedence over the other. Lucille is 16 when the story opens, and one immediately sees that she’s plagued with serious self-esteem problems: her classmates treat her callously, boys don’t find her attractive, and her home life offers no edification. She lives alone with her mother, and her mother works night shifts, so the two hardly ever see each other. Her insecurities ultimately manifest themselves as anorexia, which leads to repeated hospitalizations. The hospital is where she first meets Vladimir, a local working-class boy. He’s almost as dejected as she is. His home was never a happy one while growing up, and a family tragedy has resulted in his having to work to support them. When the two meet again after Lucille has returned home, they fall in love. It’s not long before they resolve to run away together. They leave France for Italy, and the second half of the book follows them as their relationship deepens, and they try to build a new life for themselves.

Debeurme's guiding principle seems to be wanting the reader to understand what he shows as fully as possible. Actually, the word “understand” isn’t adequate; he wants the reader to feel everything in the most intense terms. The panel breakdowns are as decompressed as one will find in any manga. It’s the most effective way to create lifelike rhythms on the page. (Lucille runs over 500 pages.) And Debeurme is extraordinarily deft in his manipulation of those rhythms: even with the minimal drawings, he can evoke scenes as diverse as conversations, a bar fight, or a fishing boat caught in a storm as naturalistically as any film director. Debeurme’s interest in maximizing the reader’s feelings of proximity to the story is also reflected in his decision to spend half the book setting up Lucille and Vladimir’s characters before bringing them together. When the story moves to Italy, one doesn’t just see how their anxieties create tensions in their relationship; the reader is on such intimate terms with the two that one feels those tensions along with them.

As affecting as it is, though, Lucille isn’t a particularly profound work. It doesn’t have the conceptual strength of the better efforts in fiction and film, or the very best work in comics. There isn’t really a dynamics of meaning in the story; one’s view of what has come before isn’t really challenged over the course of the reading. Debeurme doesn’t create ambiguities or build conflicts into a higher synthesis, so the material never rises above the level of melodrama. However, while Lucille may not be as rich a work as one may hope, one notes that it is still a very satisfying one. Ludovic Debuerme is a brilliant and conscientious stylist, and that’s quite impressive in its own right.

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