1981: Jean-Claude Forest
This week I'm thinking about Jean-Claude Forest's 1981 album La Jonque fantôme vue de l'orchestre.
Forest is best known to pop-culture savants as the creator of Barbarella, one of the earliest "adult" sci-fi bandes dessinées of the 1960s — that is to say, both naked breasts and woolly philosophizing appear in it — subsequently adapted into a cult film which was similarly an adolescent boy's idea of Art. But like a good auteur, his work developed over time, and by the time he serialized La Jonque fantôme in the pages of (À Suivre) over the course of 1980, his work had become denser and harder to categorize.
As a scripter, he had most recently written the sardonic political satire Ici même for the inimitable Jacques Tardi (the English translation You Are There has just had a new edition, and I highly recommend it) as well as the sci-fi series Les Naufragés du temps for master illustrator Paul Gillon, who continued writing further volumes on his own after 1976. La Jonque fantôme was Forest's first original long-form work as both writer and artist since the early 70s, when the bright sexy fantasias of Barbarella and Hypocrite (a PG-rated Barbarella) began to pall.
Forest's artwork had always been defined by luscious, organic pen strokes and ornate decoration, but La Jonque fantôme brought his craft to whole new level: densely hatched, moodily staged, and printed in stark black-and-white so that none of the detail should be lost in muddy washes of color, this new Forest recalled nineteenth-century engravings, as his wordy script parodied the serialized stories in old illustrated papers, resetting the plot from a slightly different angle with each new installment.
What the plot consists of, insofar as it is not merely an excuse to draw arch historical phantasmagoria, is the adventures of a young French sailor whose warship is sunk in battle (Forest explicitly refuses to specify a war, but the fact that both Italians and Romanians are invading suggest an episode in World War I) in the Adriatic, whereupon he is washed up on the coast of the pseudo-Balkan nation Saravony-Argovine and falls in with a traveling salesman of "hygenic windows," who is, inevitably, more than he seems.
The title of the story (lit. The Ghost Junk as Seen from the Orchestra) refers to a theatrical spectacle, the key around which the plot and ideas of the looping Borgesian story turn: years ago, a special-effects master with a traveling troupe needed to create the illusion of a Chinese junk manned by phantoms seen through a window. How he became a window salesman, and the special properties of the window he carries around for display purposes, is the central mystery of the story; although the sailor, like the reader, disbelieves it all, assuming the whole scenario is fictitious.
But the plot, dreamlike, satirical, and oddly moving as it is, is the lesser half of the book. Forest's lush artwork is the real narrative engine: his staging, stiff and tableau-like as it might seem to eyes used to the action-oriented dynamism of U.S. comics, is still exemplary, and his contouring, using thousands of small pen strokes to give impressionistic shape, weight and shadow to everything he draws, is positively magnificent. Again, U.S.-bred comics readers might instinctively recoil at the sheer amount of text on many of the pages — "illustrated story" is a put-down among people who are used to being fed exposition in dozens of small captions scattered about a panel rather than in a single block of dialogue — but once you get used to the rhythm, Forest's heightened take-off on the vaguely Gothic French narratives of the period he's half-satirizing, half-indulging is rather hypnotic.
One way to convey the mixture of dream logic, Continental satire, and arty imagery of this book to an audience unfamiliar with its source material is to employ the adjective "Felliniesque," but that feels a bit inaccurate, not to mention putting film in the place of Proper Art to which comics can only be compared. It would be much better to call it quintessentially Forestian, and for the broader Anglophone culture to catch up to what that means.