If you thought you had heard enough news about penis in comics this week, think again. French cartoonist Bastien Vives’ latest graphic novel Petit Paul, was pulled from bookstores on Tuesday after being released just last week. Petit Paul is the headliner of Glénat’s new line of erotica comics Porn’Pop and was removed accusations of being pedo-pornography. A petition requesting book stores remove the graphic novel gathered over 2000 signatures in a single day. There is concern that while the book is presented as a sort of light sensual comedy, Vives told interviewer that the book is based on his own fantasy. Petit Paul depicts a 10 year old boy with a massive, constantly erect penis that women around him will use for their own pleasure. This goes a bit beyond the typical screams of censorship that would typically accompany such a petition, there are specific laws in France concerning depictions of pedophilia with sexual content. The young boy is used in various scenarios in which he pleasures women, sometimes without even understanding quite what is happening.
Glénat issued a press release to deny the accusations of pedo-pornography. They claim Petit Paul is “purposefully grotesque and that the book leaves no doubt that it is a work of fiction whose goal was not to trivialize abuse done to minors”. But it seems that the harm has been done. Bookstores are currently removing the graphic novel from their shelves. The international association of victims of incests (L’association internationale des victimes de l’inceste) also indicated they would file in a formal complaint to the French government.
I must admit I was surprised as to how this made it past the editors and publishers all the way to the bookstores. Vives has flirted with controversy before, and perhaps this graphic novel would have flown under the radar were it not for an interview with Huffington Post in which he reveals that this book is based on personal fantasies of his as well as other questionable comments. He mentions the book is based on his own fantasies, that he can’t draw an erotic comic that would’t excite him, that he doesn’t believe there are any vice or taboo and that he’s really excited by extreme sexualized elements like enormous breasts or penis. He also mentions his goal is to excite others, it is after all an erotic comics.
I think that the uproar came in part because from this. Petit Paul goes beyond the pale in terms of depiction of sensuality, Vives is not only making a graphic novel with a background of pedophilia, abuse and incest, but is also trying to entice people to enjoy it. It’s not the first time Vives explores pedophilia and incest either. French cartoonist Tanx wrote about the topic pointing out that Vives admits wanting to excite readers and that he specifically mentions he can’t draw what doesn’t excite him. It’s a recurring theme in his graphic novels. For example, much like his other erotica Les Melons de la colère, a pseudo parody of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath in which a woman with enormous breasts wishes to get a breast reduction from various doctors in town, only to get raped multiple times. She also discovers that her younger brother has a massive erection and felates him.
Bastien Vives and Glénat were quick to claim censorship, but this goes beyond the typical call for the removal of a book because of a sensitive topic. Pedo-pornography is not a part of acceptable sexuality and while there may be room to discuss those topics in literature, Vives in his body of work and in interviews shows that his goal with Petit Paul is to seduce or excite readers. That’s a pretty clear scenario where pornography laws apply.
I guess it’s still too early to know if this is the end of Vives’ career or what will even happen to this book in the long term. Will Glénat fight the removal in the courts or will they let it be written off as a total loss. As an observer of European comics from afar, I feel like this is a real turning point for Vives’ career. He’s written some very incredible graphic novel, Polina in particular is a beautiful book, but there’s a point where your body of work speaks for itself and where the public just says “enough”. Petit Paul, Les melons de la colère or LastMan contains some deeply problematic elements. I feel as though there may very well be less interest in Bastien Vives work moving forward.
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.