Mitchum. by Blutch. English translation by Matt Madden. Published by New York Review Comics, New York, 2020, 232 pages. $24.95.
I adhere to the strict view that the truest, most robust, and most legitimate forms of comics are created by the cartoonist auteur. You can’t just shrug and say, “Comics are comics!” Nope, that is way too broad and just plain nonsense. If we’re talking about comics as a true art form, then there is only one answer. And, keep in mind, comics are not just art but words too. So, the auteur is a very special creator, the artist-writer. I’ll even go one better and declare that the best living cartoonist auteur is Blutch. Yes, it’s that simple when you take into account such a versatile style and broad range of subject matter. Now, consider one of his best graphic novels, Mitchum, which has recently been re-issued by New York Review Comics with a new English translation by Matt Madden. I applaud New York Review Comics, part of the vision of New York Review Books, for bringing Blutch another step closer to a wider audience. Imagine a dazzling light, a smooth caress, a melodious song, a deliciously bitter coffee, or a wondrously smokey scent. All of this is Blutch!
A cartoonist as artist and an artist as cartoonist or magician.
Blutch is the sort of artist that I relate to the best. He is an artist as well as a magician–or even a wizard. Perhaps you must be working at the same craft, aspiring to that same level, to truly appreciate what I’m saying but I think, in fact, I know that I can explain it. It’s sort of one of those cases of it takes one to know one. I can engage in similar loose drawing and disjointed narrative and know what I know and, in that way, I share my insight. Christian Hincker, otherwise known as Blutch, has enjoyed an ongoing career as a cartoonist since graduating with a degree in illustration from the Decorative Arts College in his hometown of Strasbourg, France. It’s been a bit of a charmed life. At 53, Blutch could be looked upon as the grand old lion of comics. However, as some seasoned cartoonists, like Daniel Clowes, point out, serious cartoonists are only coming into their own after age 40. Whatever the case, Blutch seems to be in that heroic tradition of the wild bohemian artist, following some deep sensual instinct. Often, you see his characters either naked and about to erupt or well into some sexual act. On the cover of Mitchum, we kick off with a provocative image: a dog licks the slick and smooth bare foot of a beautiful young woman while a naked man lounges with a paper bag over his head. It’s totally a loaded image however you care to look at it. Pure Blutch.
Beautiful, raw and unbridled Blutch!
The sexiest part of the human body is the brain, of course. The brain controls our emotions, whatever they might be. Any good artist appreciates that and Blutch understands this better than most. So, it’s not just sex that he’s after but all sorts of goodies, naughty, sensual, primal and nearly unspeakable. If that sounds good to you, then you’re really gonna love Blutch. Dreams. Rants. Jazz. Not necessarily in that order. And a good healthy does of Robert Mitchum just for the hell of it! Out of a dream! But it’s not a rattled mess. Just think of it as that sketchbook come to life that I mentioned in a previous review. This is like the best jazz, highly structured while highly improvised, or at least appearing that way. The trick, if there is a trick, is that Blutch loves to draw and he does a hell of a lot of it. Back at the start of this new century of ours, when the indie comics boom was in full gear, it was Blutch who so many young cartoonists were emulating, even if they didn’t know it because they were so enthralled with emulating Craig Thompson, who was Blutch’s biggest fan. Thompson tried to tap deep into Blutch’s relentless passion but he was only going to be able to take what he needed. Fair is fair among artists. Thompson has a tidy version of Blutch’s style so, in that sense, he spun off his own style. As for Blutch, he keeps being Blutch because that’s the best way to be and he’s in it for the long haul, even if he may say he’s ready to hang it all up. In the end, Blutch maintains his position as an artist: unorthodox, unruly and mischievous.
A comic entitled, MITCHUM, only obliquely having to do with Robert Mitchum.
Anyhow, you can’t really fully copy the way someone of any caliber creates art just as you can’t fully copy the way someone else chooses to spend their day. It goes that deep! No one reviews comics the way I do, nor should they try. You might hurt yourself. Nor does anyone draw exactly like I do, and that has to do with my drawing long enough to develop a style. Not all artists are patient enough to develop their own style or anything coming close to it. By that, I mean many artists are more than content to follow a particular trend, school of thought, house style. That brings me back to all the disciples of Blutch. I won’t hesitate to say that there’s a ton to learn from Blutch and, if one is patient, one can avoid looking too closely at the sun and power through to an individual vision. In other words, I advise that any aspiring cartoonist would do well to study the hell out of Blutch but keep some energy for yourself and be willing to look away at some point and craft your own personal way of drawing.
I suppose if there are some more secrets to success to dispense with, I’d throw in the need to pace yourself. Rome was not built in a day, right? Well, this graphic novel sure wasn’t. It’s actually a collection of single issues of Mitchum comics. A very arthouse thing this all is since Robert Mitchum doesn’t even appear in the first couple of issues. And, when he does appear, well, many people won’t even know unless you’re of a certain age or a big fan of film. With that said, Blutch is a huge fan of many things, including cinema, pop culture and high culture. Alright then. Now, how about a few words on the English translation by notable cartoonist Matt Madden. Mr. Madden is notable for many reasons, as a man of good taste and the author of one of my favorite books related to comics theory, 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style. Madden also happens to know French very well and lived in France for a good long while with his wife, fellow cartoonist Jessica Abel. By far, Madden has just the right sophisticated palate to capture the essence of Blutch’s words. Both Jessica Abel and Matt Madden have made some amazing contributions to the comics medium and, at the end of the day, that’s priceless. When you consider the work of Blutch, you can understand how art can be, when it’s all said and done, the most lasting gift.
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.
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.