Ballad for Sophie. by Filipe Melo and Juan Cavia. Top Shelf Productions. 2021. 320pp. $24.99
Editor’s Note: This book is ready for pre-order purchases. Available as of 11/02/21.
Ballad for Sophie is a gorgeous graphic novel. It delights the eye and not in any obvious way. We are often led to think that what we want is a perfect smooth finish but this work shows us that we can have it all: a crunchy complexity to the rendering guiding a vision. There are what appear to be, at closer look, a lot of preparatory lines that are kept in. These type of lines usually act as marks towards the final work. Here they act as another layer of texture, vibrancy and energy. It is quite fitting for a work dealing with music! This is a very special book created by a very special creative team who have been working together for nearly two decades. Filipe Melo is a Portuguese musician, award-winning film director, and author. Juan Cavia has worked as an art director and illustrator since 2004. (A sidenote: Melo has composed a theme song to accompany this graphic novel which you can find here.)
A graphic novel with an added layer of squiggly lines is not really a part of any comics publisher’s reliable house style plans. And yet here it is–and it’s most welcome. Often, a publisher wants to find just the right balance of getting out of the way even if a favored house style provides a nice security blanket. In this case, we have a work that already had a go elsewhere, originally published by Tinta da China, based in Lisbon, and now embarking upon an English translation edition with Top Shelf Productions. That said, this European graphic novel fits in well with the very best work (Blankets, Essex County trilogy, March trilogy) from Top Shelf. In fact, all these titles share a hand-drawn expressive quality, whether loose or more lean and clean. Top Shelf is always mindful of a winning recipe and here we have a win-win.
I think it speaks to the distinctive quality of this book that I can write a whole review and only focus on the style. Some graphic novels are like that, as much, or more so, about finding an arena to draw as it is about telling a story. And that requires an artist with a masterful touch. You can’t expect a novice to really measure up like this. Even a master will have doubts when giving way to creative flourish. But Juan Cavia really lives and breathes linework and so he can afford to take some detours. In an interview with Top Shelf’s editor Leigh Walton, he describes his pursuit of quirky lines as a way to be true to the artist and to evoke a certain level of personality.
This is a rivalry story, in the spirit of the great rivalry story, Amadeus. So, we have two prodigy piano players battling out over the course of their lives. The story is set in the small French village of Cressy-la-Valoise, framed around the trope of a young journalist interviewing a dying old legend. The cub reporter is the story’s namesake, Sophie, and the old legend is Julien Dubois, one of the two rivals. Julien comes from a wealthy family; his opponent, François Samson, is a janitor’s son. The story goes back and forth between the conversation between Sophie, the youth, and Julien, the elder, and looking back to the past. For the scenes in the past, Cavia’s expressive style is emphasized with linework, halftones and a more muted color palette in order to evoke a more retro vibe.
And that’s really all you need to know. I’ve basically tried to keep my focus on the book’s style and it is a formidable one. This is easily the best rendered graphic novel for the year, or at least it should be on everyone’s end-of-year top ten lists.