Like a Robert Louis Stevenson novel gone horribly wrong, Portrait of a Drunk dives headfirst into swashbuckling adventure, but with a focus on the wrong character in that adventure, the dive turns out to be into an empty swimming pool and the head cracked and concussed. But that’s the point of Olivier Schrauwen and collaborators Florent Ruppert and Jérôme Mulot. Taking a genre that pulls its excitement from an unsavory world, they aim for the lowest of the unsavory, the absolute dregs, and come up with a story of survival through complete oblivion.
Guy is senseless and cruel and dumpy and, yes, drunk, and he’s the title character of Portrait of a Drunk. We first meet him lying on the streets, passed out with a bottle, as he awakes to introduce himself to the narrative through a stumbling song of whimsy that flows out of him as he harasses people on the streets for change, which he then drinks away, causing him to pass out, then wake up, then stumble around again.
That’s pretty much how Guy engages with the world — through gallons of grog that tilt his perceptions, leading to a level of confusion that results in murder. Guy just stumbles away from it like everything else, but the murder victim is sent to a special form of Hell where he is forced to watch Guy ineptly make his way through life, surviving each dangerous turn despite his inability to make a level-headed decision or express even the smallest kindness to anyone else.
As all scalawags of his era did, Guy ends up on a boat, which gives him more opportunity to laze around, pound down the liquor, and unleash his hostility upon a boy assigned to be his apprentice. And even as the typical high seas dangers enter into his reality, he wobbles through with hardly a scratch. It’s only as the victims of his cruelty accrue in the afterlife that there’s even the remotest chance that he’ll get his comeuppance, but Schrauwen definitely knows that in an uncaring universe, the lowest of the low probably have a better chance of coming to on top than most of us. Look at Donald Trump for Exhibit A in that theory.
Ruppert and Mulot’s previous book from Fantagraphics, The Perenium Technique, mixed together sex and technology to examine the way people experience the world around them and the requirement that to find enrichment you need to look beyond the surface. In some ways, Portrait of a Drunk is an extension of these ideas, but Guy is an even worst-case scenario in that his intoxication functions as a form of defiance that allows him to not even recognize that a surface exists to perceive, let alone something beyond that. Guy doesn’t experience anything or anyone as something other than an obstruction to his next drink. He’s actually on the biggest adventure anyone could have and he barely notices.
The collaboration between the three creators offers a diverse presentation that highlights different styles and yet still feels seamless. Schrauwen’s spare line-drawings walk just the right line between offering an authentic feel for the era being presented and obscuring enough details that a surrealism sets in that visually matches Guy’s perception. These alternate with sequences and spreads of bursting color that seem more the doing of Ruppert and Mulot, filling out the world Guy inhabits by ignoring the limitations he embraces. He’s an unreliable narrator whose power to control the narration is very often taken away from him. Given that fact, we may all have more in common with Guy than first meets the eye.