In the course of my efforts to improve my French I’ve discovered French graphic novels. They are extremely diverse in genre and style, sometimes stunningly beautiful, and a quite a lot of them indulge the same kind of taste for exotic romantic adventure as my novel Deep Time.
French comics are – to generalise – as aesthetically different from American comics as Japanese manga are, so it makes sense to refer to them using the French term, ‘bandes dessinées’ (BDs). Unlike manga, today’s BDs are usually in full colour and produced as large-format hardback ‘albums’, which cost about £10. Many have a maturity of style and theme that seems light-years away from the superheroes of Marvel and DC.
To give one example, La Terre Sans Mal tells the story of a tribe of Paraguayan Indians fleeing from brutal persecution by the police in search of a legendary ‘Land Without Evil’. They’re accompanied by a French anthropologist, Éliane, who undergoes her own journey of integration into the tribe’s way of life at the same time as they struggle to come to terms with the seeming hopelessness of their quest. The 1940 setting draws a parallel between the treatment of the Indians and that of the Jews back in France.
The text, by novelist Anne Sibran, evokes through sophisticated wordplay the depth of both Éliane’s and the Indians’ thoughts and feelings. Every frame of Emmanuel Lepage’s artwork is a gorgeous watercolour painting. The pictures superbly convey the grace of the Indians’ bodies, the grotesqueness of their oppressors, the intricacy of the forest habitat. There’s an unstinting attention to detail: in nearly every frame featuring Kirimagi – an orphan who adopts Éliane as her mother – you can, if you look, find the child’s pet monkey up to something nearby. A more stylistic kind of painting, inspired by indigenous artwork, is used to convey the mythic back story of the Terre Sans Mal which Éliane encounters via storytelling and dream.
Unlike the many BDs that come in series, La Terre Sans Mal is a standalone story. I hope to mention other BDs in future blogs. In the meantime I do recommend reading BDs as a delightful way to improve your French. They don’t have as many words as full-length works of prose, so you don’t need to spend quite so much time looking things up in the dictionary!