I’ve recently had the chance to interview Luc Bossé, the founder and editor of Montreal’s Pow Pow Press, about their work and their upcoming releases. They’ve recently released three books in English: Art Wars by Francis Desharnais, Earthbound by Blonk and Going Under by Zviane. Each of these books has a unique style and I found all of them to be a fantastic read. I decided to take a quick look at these three new graphic novels.
Francis Desharnais’s Art Wars is a minimalist comic about an alien race invading Earth looking for the most powerful weapon of all. The weapon they’re looking for is nothing less than art, poetry and it’s lyrical power. This simple concept serves as a platform to discuss the place that culture and art occupy in our society. The strength of this book lies mostly in its dialogue and it’s premise. Desharnais takes all the clichés and tired jokes about artists, you know the ones “if you study arts, you’ll never make any money” or “artists should find real jobs and study business instead of doing whatever they’re doing” and transforms them into this treatise about the importance of art for a normally-functioning society. Art provides inspiration to countless facets of our lives.
The premise is silly and, while a thoughtful analysis of art in society permeates the book, there are plenty of gags to keep the book light and breezy. There’s a recurring gag about how tiring it becomes to constantly listen to the same music, over and over again. Once the artists have been abducted, a couple back on earth complains about the lack of new music. They are stuck endlessly listening to old CCR albums without any new material in sight. They just don’t know of anything else so CCR hits are on repeat until something better comes along, but the artists are gone, so nothing new will ever come.
Each page is a sequence of mostly static images panel-to-panel where people are talking to each other. It feels jarring at first because of this lack of movement. My initial fear was that it might feel stale. I was pleasantly surprised by how often the story shifts focus. It travels from the remaining humans, to the aliens’ home world, to the artists abducted by the aliens and the interstellar travel required to get from Earth to the aliens’ homeworld. There’s enough change and variety to keep things interesting
throughout the whole book. Desharnais comes from a background in animation which may explain the concept of the art as a series of mostly immobile panels. In the hands of a less experienced cartoonist, this could have turned into a boring disaster, but here we have a truly outstanding work in minimalist comics.
Pow Pow Press
Blonk’s Earthbound is the story of JP, a man who comes back to life without explanation, only to discover people around him have moved on. He tries to get his life back in order, but he has a hard time accepting his fate. He enlists the help of his old friend, much to the dismay of that friend’s wife. JP tries to find an explanation and a place for himself. While the main character obviously looks like an undead monster, I’m reluctant to call Earthbound a zombie story. It strays so far from the genre that I’d be hard pressed to find any real comparison except the look of the lead character. It’s more of a heartfelt story about fitting in when your life situation has changed drastically.
Earthbound shines with it’s use of colours. Bright, bold colours are used expertly throughout the book. It gives the characters a very unique look, particularly the main character, whose purple and pink colours contrast heavily with the other living people populating the book. Those colours amplify the otherworldliness of the settings of the book. Whether the story leads us to a morgue, a park, or a bookstore, every colour looks exaggerated and this helps lend a surreal look to every location. The colours of daytime and nighttime also add flair to each page. I found all those elements to be extremely pleasant; a melodramatic tale of introspection where the setting of the book is this huge colourful land.
While I truly appreciated this book, my only caveat might be that the premise is repeated ad nauseam throughout. Our lead character is an undead, a fact which he repeatedly mentions throughout the book. It’s a quirky running gag, but is quickly overused. While I understand that this repetition was part of the character’s aggravation at his own situation, it became stale. I felt a greater variety of soliloquies would have helped ground the character as an overly melodramatic man who revels in his own drama rather than just a nagging man. This felt like a missed opportunity since it felt the main character could have had more layers. Instead we have a character who fell somewhat flat.
Earthbound remains a strong sophomore album from Montreal cartoonist Blonk. His blend of drama and comedy, coupled with his mastery of colours makes this book feel truly unique.
Pow Pow Press
Zviane’s Going Under is one of the strongest releases of Pow Pow Press to date. It traces the aftermath of a woman’s severe depression as she struggles with interpersonal relationships, the guilt of feeling weak, the shame of what other people think of her and what she thinks of herself. It’s about the process of healing and the precarious state that comes with recovery. Her character is feeling better, but knows she is still so close to the abyss she fell into. Zviane’s character is facing not only her own depression, but the troubling prospect that she may never fully recover. Zviane keeps away from explaining the causes or the genesis of her character’s mental health issues. There’s no desire to rationalize what has happened, or give meaning to past events, simply to deal with the effects caused by it.
Zviane uses an interesting way to depict her characters. Most faces are left blank except for their mouth. The protagonist seems to have fazed out other visual cues when she looks at other people. I think the original solicitation text indicated that Going Under was a “tale of emptiness, an emptiness in the looks of others. Not a fact, but a feeling that you can’t tell people apart when your eyes are blurry underwater“. The guilt of knowing that other people are looking at her failures is too much to bear, she feels their looks are unnecessary. It’s a strong choice, both in design and thematically. It distills the essence of a character to a handful of visual cues and adds weight to their words. It also cripples the protagonist’s ability to accurately understand other people’s intentions. In a passage, our main character takes a week vacation off of work and is convinced that her coworkers are worried about her, and gossip behind her back. When her colleague indicates interest in her trip, she feels as though this questioning is meant to determine when she’ll come back so as to guiltlessly riffle through her desk. It makes her paranoid, to the point of rigging her desk to ensure she’ll know if her desk has been opened. Upon her return, she sees that it wasn’t the case and is terribly disconcerted by this. The victory is bittersweet; they may be nice people, but she was proved wrong. The lack of facial features also allows the reader to determine for themselves what the opposing characters’ emotions and intentions might be, never fully certain of the truthfulness of the others.
As in most of Zviane’s work, she finds a way to depict music in an innovative way. Her protagonist, a former music student, has lost her interest in music after graduating, partly due to her working in an administrative role instead of actually working closer to music itself. Nevertheless, during her recovery, there’s a fantastic passage where she feels the urge to pull out her music sheets and play something on the piano. It’s a very small hint that all may not be lost as her fingers touch the keys and she begins to play. The pages get progressively more empty as she loses herself in the music. Depicting music by showing it’s absence felt new and refreshing.
Zviane is one of the most talented Canadian cartoonists out there, in my opinion. She effortlessly moves from comedic work to dramatic and conveys a depth of emotions in her drawings that is impressive. Going Under is a fantastic work of art and a powerful look at the anxiety and stigma surrounding mental health issues. A poetic, introspective work that avoids clichés about mental health and recovery with a perspective on the subject that felt really refreshing. It was one of my favourite comics when I read it a few years ago, and it still is a powerful graphic novel and I’m glad Zviane’s work is now published in English. She’s an incredibly talented cartoonist whose next work I await with great anticipation.
Pow Pow Press
Philippe Leblanc is a Canadian comics journalist. In his regular life, he improves Canadian medical education, and is the co-host of the Ottawa Comic Book Club. He reads alternative, indie and art comics at night and write about them for the Comics Beat.