Graphic Youth: Louis: Night Salad by Metaphrog

Posted by on February 21st, 2011 at 9:00 AM

In the hands of Franco-Scottish duo Metaphrog (aka John Chalmers and Sandra Marrs — reductively, he writes and she draws, but the collaboration is much tighter than that), the children’s adventure-strip becomes an altogether more adult experience.  They sublimate Pynchonesque paranoia and hallucinatory symbolism into the bright, primary-colored world of Louis: a cute, blank-featured everyman.

This is the fourth outing for the titular character and paradoxically both his darkest and most child-friendly.  Louis’ pet bird, F.C. (Formulaic Companion) has been accidentally poisoned and lies on the verge of death.  Driven ill himself through worry, Louis processes his anxiety and grief through fever dreams and black-outs until the deus ex machina resolution.  If this last part sounds clichéd, consider that two of the previous Louis books have ended with either the intervention of Hitler or the destruction of a carnival that kills almost the entire cast. That the formulaic, happy ending can become a twist speaks to the level that Metaphrog are working on, and the respect with which they treat the young reader.

The tragedy of Louis has always been his inability to escape his regimented life, controlled through constant supervision. His town of Hamlet is a four-color Orwellian nightmare, or Tony Blair’s wet-dream of a nanny state — take your pick.  However, in Night Salad we are taken inside his head to live out Louis’s fantasies and visions alongside him.  This installment sees Metaphrog break free of the grid (a formal convention that always seemed as imprisoning as Louis’ own situation) and indulge in dreamlike expressionism in the page design.  Panels flow into one another in beautiful baroque swirls, or threaten to collapse off the page entirely — when dealing with dreams in comics, Windsor McCay’s influence can never be far behind.  Even in the colors, this feels an altogether bolder experience than previous books — Marrs’s entirely hand-painted panels have just the right saturation to give Louis’s dreams a vividness and sense of hyperreality that is incredibly seductive.

It’s this sense of whimsy that, for all its high-concept and literary bent, keeps Louis firmly in the all-ages category.  Like Lewis Carroll before them, a playfulness with language feature heavily in this book, and in a way which elevates the purpose and power of words. Through rhyme and punning, the speech of the characters draws attention to itself and also begin to shape the dream-world around them.  Not only does this serve to elevate Louis above other creations for children, but it also makes him an aspirational, empowering figure for young readers.

Perhaps it’s a mainly European concern, but the best children’s literature from that continent has not just been escapist, but has offered a means of escape — namely, through education.  Words are power — a recurrent theme in the Louis books — and independent thinking is one of the only ways that the practically-anonymous character is afforded any sense of freedom. (It’s telling that to give himself a sense of independence, Louis covers his television with a blanket.)  Those gifts are all symbolically rendered in his dream states which, in turn, inform the untethered layouts.  It’s beautifully cohesive.

Yet, the tale is fraught with sadness.  F.C. is the only constant positive presence in Louis’s life and with his life in danger, Louis not only feels further isolation, but also the fear that he may be left alone.  This is brought out in his dreams by the presence of another companion who guides him towards the imagined cure for F.C.’s ailment.  The result is that every step of Louis’s journey is tinged with unease — an emotion that is very palpably shared by the reader, making it incredibly affecting.

That Louis’s concerns are universal and his adventures a reflection of modern world make his tales like contemporary fables.  Metaphrog manage to bridge the gap between innocence and experience with real insight, making Night Salad something that can stand alongside Kafka’s short stories — deceptively simple tales that manage to pierce directly to the heart of the human condition.

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