Thursday, May 24, 2007

100 Great Pages: Lewis Trondheim & Sergio Garcia's Les Trois Chemins, pages 3-4

Twelfth of a series of posts about 100 great comics pages.
Links to: an introduction to the series; an index of posts by creator; an index of posts by title.

It'd be an exaggeration to say that I've read Les Trois Chemins. I've certainly looked closely at every page (which is a significant part of what it means to "read" comics (and why it is perfectly sensible to talk about reading even wordless comics), but hardly the entirety of it). But I've done a sort of half-hearted job on the words. The reason here is simple: Les Trois Chemins is in French. And it's not been translated -- at least not yet. My French is good enough to sort of hack away at the text with a dictionary in hand, but this bears the same resemblance to reading that hacking through a jungle with a machete does to bicycle riding. In both cases you travel some distance, but that's all that you can say about the matter.*

But for me, even given my difficulty of the language, Les Trois Chemins (the title means "The Three Ways" or "The Three Paths") is an utterly delightful book.

Les Trois Chemins is a children's book** -- a fairly brief one too, only 32 pages long. The book is structured around the three paths of its title -- paths which criss-cross, join, separate, entwine and otherwise get very tangled over the course of the work. On those paths travel four main characters. The first path starts with two: John Mc Mac -- a rich man, in search of someone who owes him some gold -- accompanied by his secretary, cook, housekeeper and porter, Robert. The second path is traveled by Roselita, a young girl: she is fed by a cloud which rains bread, but it's begun to rain stones, so she needs to find the master of the clouds to fix the situation. The third path starts as a river, with a robot named Duezio in a boat, drifting down but afraid to get out because it's afraid of rusting. Each of the characters meets various people, animals, and so forth, and gets various adventures: the plot of the book is essentially the journey across the pages. What makes the book fun are the various ways the paths interact, cross, mirror each other, and so forth. (You'll see what I mean in a minute, once I show you a page.) The characters' journeys take them underground, into a world on the clouds, into buildings, over an ocean, and so on and so forth. It's a wonderfully charming, fanciful book.

But, y'know, in French. Which I decipher more than read.

How did I happen upon such a book, in a language that I read slowly and with difficulty? Well, Lewis Trondheim is associated with the Oubapo, the comics spin-off of the Oulipo, and I'd gotten interested in Oubapian techniques, including the work of the American spin-off, such as the amazing work of Matt Madden. All clear? No? Well, see here for more (then here); but this is the short version: The Oulipo is a French literary group devoted to constraints in literature (ranging from poetic forms such as the sonnet or sestina to more outré forms such as the lipogram to newly invented ones such as the N+7 method); the Oubapo uses parallel techniques (some almost precisely the same, some unique to comics and without parallel in poetry or prose) in sequential art. Anyway, Les Trois Chemins was plugged as one of the few book-length Oubapian works, so I tracked down a copy.

... But it's all a bit moot, actually, since I don't even think it's that Oubapian a work. It's experimental, insofar as it plays with the comics page in wild and wonderful ways; but those ways aren't, to my mind, particularly characteristic of the Ou-X-po groups. -- The Oubapo disagrees, incidentally, and give it their official seal in the back ("Ouvrage agréé par l'Ouvroir de Bande Dessinée Potentielle"). You might want to listen to them rather than me on the issue of what is and isn't characteristic of their own work -- I would, if I were you (although, since I'm me and not you, I still think I'm right.)

I should mention that Lewis Trondheim, credited as the writer ("scénario"), is one of the preeminent French cartoonists working today. (It says so right here on the label.) He's done a huge variety of work, sometimes both drawing and writing, sometimes just writing. Except for the silent Mister O -- which is also wonderful, a marvelous exercise in existential humor, or funny despair, or something (for more see Derik's review) -- I don't know any of his numerous other work. But various translations of his books have been published by First Second, Fantagraphics and NBM, so if you're interested they're around.

As for artist Sergio Garcia, I know even less about him (except that he shares a name with some !@#$% golfer which makes him hard to google). Other than the "Trois Chemins" series, he collaborated with Trondheim on another book called Bande dessinée, apprendre et comprendre; and he's done a neat-looking kids book called L'aventure d'une BD ("Adventures of a Comic Book") which looks like a sort of 'how-books-are-made' guide.

Returning to Les Trois Chemins, let's look at pages three and four (note that I'm again exercising my self-imposed rule that a "page" is something that works as a single visual unit, so that a double-page spread counts if I want it to). The first double page introduces the characters; here the paths start to mix and things start to get interesting:

(Click for larger version.)
In addition to Lewis Trondheim, the writer, and Sergio Garcia, the artist, this page has colors by Lola Moral. (And sorry for the middle of the scan -- the art sort of gets swallowed by the middle of the page.)

Where shall I start on the wonderfulness that is this page?

I guess with the obvious: after a (double) page of simple parallel traveling, we have here the first interactions between the three paths.*** The river that Deuzio (the robot) travels on snakes up the page, going under bridges in both the other paths, so that whereas the first page had John Mc Mac & Robert's path on top, Roselita's in the middle and Deuzio's along the bottom, by the end of this page the order is Deuzio - John Mc Mac/Robert - Roselita. The twisting and braiding makes for a fun design, of course, and it continues, in increasingly wild permutations, throughout the book. On this page Duezio is clearly the linking thread, interacting twice with Roselita and once with John Mc Mac & Robert, although which of the characters is the linking thread shifts (and sometimes its minor characters rather than one of the three (and there isn't one on every page)).

We also get the first interactions between the characters: as Duezio's boat passes under the first bridge, both Duezio and Roselita cry out to the other for help. Roselita has identified Duezio as a knight ("chevalier") and cries out to it in appropriately flowery language; Duezio simply cries "help! help!". Neither manages to help the other -- but Duezio does get stuck with Roselita's stone-raining cloud, which mysteriously begins to again rain bread (as Roselita wishes it to) once it switches. Roselita runs around to try to help Duezio, but to no avail; she continues on, however, to try again (and get her bread-raining cloud back) -- with the cheerful thought (in the text accompanying the last image of her on the page) that perhaps the knight (i.e. Deuzio) will marry her. Meanwhile, Deuzio hopes that Robert will help it... but John Mc Mac, Robert's employer, is scandalized by the idea of doing it for free ("Gratuitement?"), and hurries them along -- taking with him the cloud, now raining rain. (John Mc Mac thinks they should try to catch the rain, since it's free water.)

The structure of this page (and, indeed, the entire comic) forces some interesting and comparatively unusual choices on the reader. The braiding paths function almost as a comics version of a hypertext: as in some postmodern fictions, each reader is forced to decide for themselves which order to read the page in. In customary comics order, one reads each panel (no help there -- no panels) in the same order that you'd read a text in, left-to-right, up-to-down, reading the elements within each panel the same way. But here it's not clear. If you start in the upper-left-hand corner, reading the journey of John Mc Mac and Robert, you'll go straight to the second bridge -- an event that clearly occurs after the first bridge crossing in the lower part of page three. (On this particular double spread, you might solve this problem by reading all of page three and then all of page four -- but it won't work on every page, nor on every problem on this page.) Each path is continuous: when you reach the edge of the page, that particular thread of plot just continues. Do you follow it? But the threads merge, split, mix in various ways -- so obviously that won't do.

But assuming you start with John Mc Mac & Robert, at what point do you break off to start reading of Roselita? Or Deuzio? Do you read all of one thread on this double page, and then double back before turning to pages five and six? That treats the page breaks as far more significant than they really are. And if you do this, you'll have a very different experience of the moment at the first bridge (as each of the figures cries for help) then if you creep up to it along both paths at once.

It's not as fully Abelian as some hypertexts -- indeed, the entire comic is about a journey, is very much a series of progressions that demand to be read, in order, across the 32-page journey. Still, any two readers are unlikely to read the elements of this page -- let alone any of the other pages, or the book as a whole -- in the same order.

The paths march relentlessly on: each encounter is filled with more history than any single path encompasses; if you double-back it will distort your view as much as if you don't. Whichever order you read it in, you will be forced to play catch-up: you can't deal with it all in order, since it's happening all at once. -- In all of this, this comic works unlike normal narratives -- and very much like life, where in all our interactions we are always seeing half a story, always unaware of the other threads we cross and join and diverge from, always trying to catch up on the past.

As I said, it's fascinating the way the characters' journeys intersect and interact. But what makes the page so much fun are the details. There's Robert's Little Prince -like love for flowers, birds and mushrooms, which John Mc Mac (like Saint Exupery's Businessman) says he will simply buy. There's the way that Deuzio feels threatened by the branch that Roselita offers him ("elle veutm'achever avec son bâton"); there's the fact that Trondheim & Garcia have carefully shown us the branch before so we see where Roselita gets it (notice that the figure of her running, right before the second time she approaches the boat, is actually seeing it by the side of the path as she races along the path) -- we can even surmise that the branch blew off the tree stump that the beaver is reading under right across the road. Notice the animals creeping among the rocks in the center of the page.

Look at the expressions on the (very simply drawn) character's faces: look at the sadness that Deuzio has in his final appearance on the page as he asks himself if he prefers to be alone; look at the thoughtful uncertainty of Robert as he follows an angry, anxious and still, above all, greedy Jonh Mc Mac; look at Roselita's childlike joy as she imagines that she might marry her "knight".

I like the way that Trondheim & Garcia use the space of the page as well: lots of cartoonists will use the occasional multiple, superimposed figures within a panel, but creating an entire comic out of superimposed figures -- in what could be seen, if it could only be laid out, as a single, endless panel*** (or as a print version of Scott McCloud's infinite canvas) -- is something I don't think I've seen before.

There are eight figures each of John Mc Mac, Robert and Deuzio on this page; there are thirteen of Rosalita. Yet her story fairly clearly takes no more time than theirs: to the limited degree that the question has any definitive answer, time seems to march evenly across the page (yet her path bends: doesn't it take therefore more time? It's longer...). This inequality, incidentally, is by no means regular; I haven't counted the others, but most of the pages seem more balanced (although, in the few I checked, never exactly even). -- Perhaps it signifies the speed she runs as she races down along the bend? Or perhaps it merely looks better? (That is to say: it does look better; that's presumably why they did it -- but is that all of it?)

Trondheim and Garcia also fill the page with other marvelous bits with no particular relevance to their story -- visual digressions (so to speak) which are the soul of their wit. In the bottom-left corner, we see a monkey showing a group of animals their location on a map (so far as I can tell, the story roughly parallels the outline shown -- although they soon cross an ocean, and so go off the map's borders -- but basically this is extraneous to the tale, just for fun). In the bottom-right corner, two pirates wait along a road (after a fork at which Roselita chooses the other direction): they don't show up again (although different pirates do): they're simply there for fun. (Notice the alligator is biting the large bird's leg; and that the opossum has some sort of guidebook in its hands.) The same with the family of ducks hanging out in the cluster of rocks behind the pirates, or the various animals in the larger, central cluster of rocks, or any of the many animals by the various paths. I particularly like the animal (a beaver?) with the eyeglasses and the book resting against the tree stump that Roselita's path snakes around in the middle of page four. (And the owl right above it is ferocious.)

Note that while the paths sometimes clearly occupy the same space -- the entire middle section when Roselita races around to try to rescue Deuzio, or both the moments when the boat goes under a bridge are examples -- they don't always occupy the same space. This is easiest to see on this page on the far left-top (Roselita and John Mc Mac's paths) and on the far-right bottom (the same): the white space between them is deliberately ambiguous, and it's not at all as simple or clear as the two paths simply running beside each other: they are each simply in their own narrative space, a space which might solidify into physical space if Trondheim and Garcia wish the paths to interact but which otherwise are linked only by their placement on the page.

As with many of the pages I've discussed in this series, what finally sells this page is a hard (if not impossible) to articulate, but utterly crucial, sense of design. Not all great comics pages have this (some simply work because all their constituent panels work, relying on the invisibility of the standard grid for their overall design); but those pages that are self-consciously crafted as pages have it. The second double page of Les Trois Chemins has it in spades -- as, indeed, the rest of the work does as well.

Just looking at the overall structure is impressive in this regard. Scroll back up to the thumbnail, and look at it without clicking to enlarge it (which I hope that, before the previous section of the post, you did). Squint and just look at the flow of the paths. Each of the paths flows slightly differently -- yet with enough parallel and balance to make the whole work. The top path arcs down, as if one strand of the bottom of a sideways Caduceus -- except that the far extension to the left is a different path, since the bottom two paths cross earlier. The lower path swoops down and up and down again, its belated fork both adding a fun twist to the overall page, a balance to the crossing, an opportunity for complexity otherwise lost, and a note of Robert Frostian realism. Also note (and you might need to click through the larger version to see this) the way in which the third major section of Roselita's path bends right before bending back to the left for its upward peak -- a sort of hint at an S shape that, again, adds a lot to the sheer balance of the page.

And of course that description leaves out the rocks in the central circle, the animal lesson, the figures, the subtle array of colors -- all the elements that really make the design work.

A number of the comics I've excerpted from so far have been Great Works, serious in tone and intent. Les Trois Chemins is simpler than that -- a children's story filled with delight. But even in a children's work, there can be powerful innovation -- as in this comics' playing with reading order and time; and even in a children's work, there can be craft and art and, yes, beauty.

Just with a lot of light hearted fun added in as well.

Even if your French is as shaky as mine, you'll definitely enjoy it; for that matter, I suspect that it's fairly enjoyable even if you can't read a word. And certainly if you can read children's French fluently, it will be a true delight. (If you want to find a copy, it may help you to know that the ISBN for Les Trois Chemins is 2840554615. It only seems to be available as a used book in the U.S.; but Amazon's Canadian version has it in stock new, and there's always interlibrary loan.)

And hey, maybe if we make enough noise, someone will put out a translation.

Incidentally there's a sequel called Les Trois Chemins sous les mers ("The Three Ways Under the Sea"), which was published in 2003, though I've never seen a copy. You can see a sample page here; judging by that, plus the cover, it seems to be a very similar idea with different characters and settings. Those seem to be the only two volumes in the series to date.

* Which means, incidentally, that you should take any translations I offer in this post as (to put it kindly) preliminary. I've almost certainly got some of them wrong.

** Comics for kids are great for practicing languages one knows only poorly: the pictures help, and the language is both simple and colloquial.

*** Perhaps it's obvious, but I should note that each page begins where the previous one ended: if you bought enough copies of the book, you could line them all up to make a grand, single banner, like a children's Bayeux Tapestry (though the page links would be obvious, since nothing happens at precisely those moments, to allow the reader to turn the page).


dj sciz said...

I have a great friend who just turned 10, and this will be my gift to her. She likes comics well enough, but is bored reading according to conventional panel layout.

This reminds me of my favorite book when I was really little. I can't recall the name, but it was a very tall book, spiral bound, and each page was cut into three pieces. So you could open each third separately, thereby making your own pages. Each outcome made a kind of hilarious sense, the way that Mad Libs do.

Great post, thanks so much for sharing!

Beth Davies-Stofka, Broken Frontier

Matt Brady said...

Beautiful. I don't really have anything to say, other than that I wish I knew French so I could read this book.

Oh, I guess I could comment on your self-imposed rule that double-page spreads count as one page if they're a single visual unit. Does that mean you might consider fold-out pages like the one in the recent issue of The Ultimates? Or how about the spread that continues across 10 pages or so in the first issue of Shaolin Cowboy? The ultimate current example of this is probably Elvis Road, which is a 23-page book that's one long image all folded up to fit between two covers (Jog talks about it here, in case you haven't heard about it). Of course, I'm being silly here, but it's what came to mind when you mentioned your rule.