A Rose Is Not a Rose Unless It’s Socialist Red

Posted by on September 16th, 2010 at 3:00 AM

And by ‘red’ I do mean … socialist, that most evil of the worker’s mental revolt! The proletariat victorious. And what better way to relay some propaganda to the masses than inserting it into that most vile of reading habits frequented by the commoners … comic books!

Published this year in April, A Bed of Roses is a comic book celebrating the socialist party’s 125 years of existence. Printed at 10.000 copies, it was distributed nationally for free at the first of May (labour day in Belgium).

A Bed of Roses is written and drawn by Simon Spruyt, an up- and coming talent that is hammering at the road to fame one comic at a time. The fascinating tidbit about Spruyt is that with each album he tries to de-slave himself from his artistic influences and from his own style. Paradoxically enough this leads every time to a fresh new approach that is still very much ‘Spruyt’. For A Bed of Roses, he uses a mixture of heavy brush contour lines with thin pen lines for details. It results in a highly graphic approach that harkens back to the ligne claire style by way off the penmanship off a drunk Guido Crepax. His choice of colouring stays rather drab though, laying on accents for red amidst oceans of grey and browns which I found to be a tad too … proletarian at times?

Spruyt sets up the structure to contain numerous flashbacks, switching from a contemporary view on socialism to it’s birthing place and hop skipping between years as the story demands. The container for these flashbacks is formed by a triumvirate of characters that we follow throughout the story. As it progresses, the flashbacks reach further in time, layering meaning upon events and fleshing out the characters so that motivations come in an even brighter daylight. Events in the past enlighten events in the present.

It’s a quite ingenious structure that keeps you interested in the characters. Bert, the father who is threatened with being laid off in the present. Through flashbacks we learn that he had a fervent socialist brother while he adapted the non-involvement policy. Then there is Lisa, Bert’s daughter, the voice of the youngster denouncing all that old ‘Proletariars unite’ nonsense and to top it off there’s also the mysterious lady at the flea market who will become the binding thread between Lisa and her father.

Thanks to the talent of Spruyt it becomes a rather touching generational comic that puts the characters square in a socialist setting but one that is actually part of the story. Nothing is forced down the readers throat; instead, the milieu is presented as a background for the characters. For a comic commissioned by a socialist party, it turns out to just be a great comic about how ideologies change and people change. And sometimes, they change for the better and sometimes, they’re just too stubborn to change.

Important to note is that the rise of the socialist party is deeply mired in Belgian history. Belgium has always possessed a rather proletarian attitude. Having had a history of enslavement, its people forced to work for other countries. Even after the formation in 1830 of the state of Belgium, people had to cross the border to France to find decent work – decent in those days being minimum wage for basically slave labour in the agricultural sector doing jobs that the french citizenry deemed beneath their standing.

The workers unions and their struggles for workers’ rights are also part of the most significant struggles in the history of mankind, a struggle that even today is fought in numerous countries. Images of workers walking down the street in unison, shouting for decent wages, payed leave or health insurance are not solely relegated to obscure Belgian history of the thirties. Philosopical debates about the rights of workers still take place today in shimmered lights and downtrodden neighbourhoods. Strikers and pamfletteers being beaten by the law and order is not only a turn of the previous century event but can be watched almost daily on the news in the present.

Part of the appeal of A Bed of Roses is that timeless feeling coupled with the unmistakeable fact that this was (is?) a struggle of my Belgian fathers and forefathers. Their ferventness in the struggle, the camaraderie and the sense of rightness certainly strikes a chord in this blogger’s heart. If the comic didn’t contain an abstract red rose on the last page with the text ‘A publication to celebrate 125 years of the socialist party’, you would assume that you were just reading an historical comic book about how people’s struggle for survival and righteousness is a right that should be given to all.

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