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Exquisite Corpse
by Pénélope Bagieu
First Second Books, $16.99, 128pp
Published: May 2015

This slim hardback graphic novel from First Second is a simple story and it's drawn in a simple style, but it's a real treat. It's the sort of quirky tale that would have played well as an episode of an anthology show in the seventies, as it shines more because of how well written its characters are than through any sort of reliance on its satisfactory but hardly unsurprising twist.

Originally published in French in 2010, this new English translation by Alexis Siegel retains a continental joie de vivre (and carefree attitude to sex) but doesn't require any particular knowledge of French culture. It's a universal story.

The lead character is Zoe, a lively pixie of a young lady who happens to be stuck in a life she doesn't particularly enjoy. By day she works as a booth babe at trade expos: car shows and cheese fairs and the like. At night she goes home to a slob of a boyfriend, who grounds her without realising it. He reminds her that her place in the world isn't out there in the bright lights, at least not yet; it's inside with him and his lack of employment, charm or future.

I liked Zoe, as imperfect as she clearly is. She realises that she wants more out of life but is too young to have figured out that any change needs to start with her. As one colleague reminds her, she's the only booth babe who's full time; all the other girls either have other jobs too or are using this one as extra money to pay for college. They're all setting up their futures; she's just stuck. Penelope Bagieu's art helps to underline this by emphasising how Zoe looks great at work but quickly fades when out of the spotlight. She might look good in a decent outfit and capable make-up, but that's just work attire. She might ache to retain some of that elegance outside of work but she's really just a mousy little girl.

And, sitting on a street bench puzzling about why her life sucks, she notices a man looking out at her from the building opposite. She rings his bell because she really needs to pee and he lets her in. That's all this initial meeting is for Zoe, but it's a huge step indeed for Thomas Rocher.

He's a bestselling author, 'the new Balzac', but he isolated himself in his apartment some years earlier and it's clearly affecting his sanity. Consumed by his fame and fortune, he believes that Zoe is surely an undercover journalist dearly wishing to interrogate him, so the simple act of letting her into his apartment is a cathartic one for him, a confession of sorts that writer's block has captured him and he can't cope any more. He's rather shocked when he discovers that no, she really just needed to pee and, what's more, she hasn't a clue who he is.

There is a fun, if unsurprising, twist to this tale and we do have a third character on the way, but neither are really big deals. 'Exquisite Corpse' succeeds because of what happens before we get to them. What matters is how Bagieu draws two very different characters, allows them to meet and then lets them change naturally because the ensuing interaction teaches them a great deal about who they really are and helps them to move forward. While this could have run twice as long, with many more characters in support, it wouldn't necessarily have been better for the added detail. This is a simple story that needed to be told in a simple way and Bagieu nails it.

This particular scenario spoke to me because I've encountered it a number of times in a number of different ways. I remember my sister attending a school fundraiser when we were kids; a soap opera star asked if she wanted her autograph, but she innocently replied, 'Why? Who are you?' As a published author, I get a big kick out of people recognising me and telling me that they've read my books, but I write niche non-fiction that is hardly going to change anyone's life. I'm not working on the great American novel and, while my books are profitable, they're never going to make me rich or famous. I do, however, know a number of other authors who are on a variety of rungs on the ladder that reaches up towards that stature and it's always interesting to watch their journey upwards to see how it can change them.

Thomas Rocher was at the very top of that ladder. He obtained both critical acclaim and cultural fame, not to mention the riches that flow to the few who make it that high up. In fact, it could be said that he had more than his fifteen minutes of fame before he started to slide back down that ladder. Now he struggles to come to terms with what that really means. Fame is a fickle mistress and meeting someone who has no clue who he is turns out to be a godsend. It grounds him, resets his talent and allows him to write again with Zoe as his muse.

For her part, Thomas is a glimpse into the world she dreamed of, the sort of 'classy guy who gives me nice stuff, who treats me like a princess... the kind who'd, like, write me poems, you know?' Of course, it isn't what she expects, with Rocher probably double her age and dedicated to his art, but for a while it seems to be and that's all that matters. It's an escape, a dream and a beginning. It's precisely what she needs and now it's up to her to make it into something.

I adored this little journey, even though Bagieu's art is of the sort that you might expect to see in a newspaper cartoon strip rather than a graphic novel. It's built out of simple strokes but they're effective ones because they ably depict the characters inside her creations. It's deceptively simple art and that extends to a deceptively simple story. There's a lot here to be discovered, even if it doesn't look like it, and it's not just in the writing. The art accompanies it well and it would have taken a lot more work to succeed in prose.

I've only read a few graphic novels from France and most of those were Asterix books by Goscinny and Uderzo. I'm aware of a wider comic book scene that I've often wanted to delve into, not least the work of Moebius and his peers. This is a fresh and bouncy, but insightful short story that shows that French comic books are still vibrant and relevant today and that I really should get round to investigating them at more depth. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more books by Pénélope Bagieu click here

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