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Review: PEPLUM by Blutch, published by New York Review Books

Bringing that page to life.

No one does the dance with death, and life, on the page as well as French cartoonist Blutch. He has influenced a generation of cartoonists, including such big names as Paul Pope and Craig Thompson. You can see it in how they create in ink, how they attack the page. But neither Pope nor Thompson can really match the master. The way Blutch brings his pages to life is more mysterious, even dangerous, truly like a tightrope walker without a net. It’s not only ink, for Blutch. It’s one’s own life’s blood. Blutch is well known in France in sort of similar fashion to, say, Robert Crumb is known in the United States. By that, I mean that Blutch has a reputation for artful and provocative work. When the reissue of Peplum first came out a while ago, I was deep in the process of a lot of things, including a big move and so I do a revisit of this book now, Blutch’s first book translated into English. It began as a serialized comic in the magazine, A Suivre, and  established Blutch as a serious artist back in 1996, at the age of 28. And it is the book that New York Review Books chose as part of their entry into publishing reprints of classic work in graphic novels.

Give me a reason to create art!

This is really the sort of work in comics that appeals to me the most: work created by someone who is masterfully pushing the limits of the art form. Peplum is ambitious in scope and highly inventive and original in execution. Having become bored with conventional comics tropes, Blutch needed to pursue comics more as would a painter, filmmaker or novelist. He chose the ancient Roman fable, The Satyricon, as his jumping off point. As this is a satire of Nero’s court, Blutch essentially wished to associate himself with satire on a grand scale. He marries that refined ambition with a low brow reference. Peplum refers to the peplum film genre, the sword-and-sandal Italian B-movie epics of the ’50s and ’60s. With all that in place, Blutch can work as a painter, having created the wash upon which he can structure his canvas.

PEPLUM by Blutch

A good deal of this comic is wordless, so much the better to study Blutch’s work. Often, what you find is a hungry artist feasting upon creating work. He’s set himself up a glorious excuse to paint, as many a painter will tell you. Blutch proves with this early work that he is fully capable of evoking the mystery and energy found in the best work of comics or any other art form. Our story is set shortly after the assassination of Julius Caesar and the  focus ends up on the sole survivor of an expedition en route back to Rome. He is a slave who takes on the identity of a nobleman, Publius Cimber. During their ill-fated journey, Cimber’s group had discovered a beautiful regal-like woman encased in a block of ice. What this supernatural entity might mean or be is beyond anyone’s wildest guess. Cimber only knows he must return to Rome with her–and he might be in love with her. Ah, this is a story only Blutch could tell!

You always need a really good MacGuffin.

Is the lady in ice that Cimber covets nothing more than a MacGuffin, an elaborate plot device? Sure, the reader senses that this is probably the case early on but no matter. It’s the journey that counts for everything. Poor Cimber is well over his head. He isn’t even really Cimber! He has pledged his heart over to the enigmatic frozen maiden but, aside from that, he’s a bit of a loose cannon and a tortured Hamlet. Cimber is a bit of all of us, climbing and grasping for something, not always sure of what he wants. Cimber makes for a perfectly fine present day hero even if his life and struggles take place in ancient Rome. What we find in Peplum are the first significant signs of what was ahead for Blutch as an artist. That same wry energy is found in other work such as the celebrated Mitchum, also from around 1996, and So Long, Silver Screen, from 2011. In Mitchum, among the players is none other than Hollywood legend Robert Mitchum who is there to stand on a young woman’s hair during a pivotal scene. Yet another perfectly surreal Blutch moment! And speaking of Mitchum, New York Review Books will be releasing an English translation of this most dazzling book, set to be released April 7, 2020. It will have an English translation by none other than cartoonist and comics scholar Matt Madden. Below, I present to you the cover to the original French version, published by Cornélius.

MITCHUM by Blutch

Peplum is a 160-page hardcover, published by New York Review Books.

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Review: DARK SIDE OF THE MOON by Blutch

DARK SIDE OF THE MOON by Blutch

Blutch is one of the greatest cartoonists working today. You may not be familiar with him but, once you see his work, you can’t help but fall in love with his fluid line and worldly narrative. This guy is simply brilliant. At 49, he is relatively young. All of us cartoonists seem to age well. Part of it has to do with a bit of arrested development. Just a touch of Peter Pan can go a long way in a youth-oriented industry. If only all could be counted on to go well, then a true artist-cartoonist could enjoy a most meaningful, productive, and youthful life. But things rarely go according to plan. That is part of what the great Blutch confronts in his new graphic novel, “Dark Side of the Moon,” available in French and English at izneo.

All in a day’s work.

Now, one more thing, keep in mind that American cartoonist greats like Paul Pope and Craig Thompson turn to France and worship at the altar of Blutch. This is the time for all the great work in French by Blutch to be translated into English. And, believe me, that is currently happening. Take a look at a recent English version of “Peplum,” published by The New York Review of Books. This is also time for the master to reach ever new heights with ambitious and complex bildungsromans and roman-a-clefs. He does just that sort of thing with this new book which has a cartoonist satirizing his lot in life in a similar vein as Fellini satirizing his. We begin with a dream, an ideal, and how it fares when it dukes it out with cold harsh reality.

Much has been said about Blutch’s expressive line. It seems as if he conjures up the most lively and vivid figures from head to toe. Well, that ability does not come from being showered with likes on Facebook over knocking off a quickie sketch. In Blutch’s youth, and in mine, to be liked was a hard won endeavor that really meant something between two human beings, if it happened at all. And for someone to like your work, well, that meant you must have torn your heart out with elbow grease. Oh, the nostalgia can weigh so heavy as to floor me. In the case of this book, we go back and forth between Lantz, the cartoonist in the bloom of youth and in the pit of middle age. Lantz is on a journey where memory and desire conflate the truth.

Liebling at her easel.

Perhaps sweet and dewy Liebling holds the key to happiness, to perpetual youth. It is this lovely young woman who begins our tale. From her, we find all the energy and promise of youth fully intact. But, alas, Liebling has certainly come of age to go out and get a job and so off she goes to give up her soul to the nearest employment agency. Blutch mercifully sweetens things by setting it all in a fanciful world of the not too distant future. All Liebling seems to have to do at her new job is stick both of her hands in a big blob. Yes, a blob, not a blog. It is a goopy half-sentient network that keeps things running smoothly at Mediamondia, the mega-publisher-content-provider. Okay, you can see the easy segue to Lantz, a master content provider, er, cartoonist.

Pips tells it like it is.

Imagine your favorite pop culture franchise. Okay, that’s what our hero, Lantz, has a pivotal role in. Lantz is responsible for churning out the next installment of The Brand New Testament. The only problem is that Lantz is losing his mind. The passing of time is making Lantz sad again. It’s a whole new world. It’s not like the old days and it’s hardly like it was in the heyday of Pips.

No one appreciates all the toil involved with creating a work of such epic proportions…and all done by hand. Hint: Blutch speaks of his own work and the relative indifference he must confront. There are people who want what he can make but do they really know him or love him?

You will bow down to Cuckoo Puff!

Blutch triples down by giving himself three alter egos. There is a young Lantz and an oldish Lantz. Plus, there is a shrewd youngish character named Blutch, a corporate jester who knows how to play the game. It is this character who needles Lantz and convinces him that, if he refuses to go on with The Brand New Testament, then he damn well better be content to churn out the very next installment of the popular, but decidedly subpar, Cuckoo Puff series.

Nothing goes according to plan.

Lantz will either avoid reaching a breaking point or Blutch will happily dance on his grave. And then there’s the ethereal Liebling. Surely, she must hold a key. This is an utterly mesmerizing work. If you are new to Blutch, consider this an excellent introduction.

DARK SIDE OF THE MOON is a 56-page full color graphic novel and available in a digital format at izneo.

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