Madness As A Job Requirement: On The Odd Hours

Posted by on May 29th, 2010 at 5:25 AM

Rob reviews the new book by Eric Liberge, ON THE ODD HOURS (NBM).

Eric Liberge’s ON THE ODD HOURS is a strange little book.  Clocking in at just 65 pages, it featured a protagonist that was not especially sympathetic in an alarming, disturbing fantasy world.  The premise of the book was not an especially novel one: the statues and paintings in a museum come alive at night, and their welfare was entrusted to a special night watchman.  What was unusual about this book was that the artworks in the museum (in this case, the Louvre) were wild, uncontrollable and even dangerous.  The watchman was a sort of zookeeper, tending to the works of art and caring for their spiritual needs as he managed to keep them under control.

The problem with this job was that it either induced madness or required madness.  The protagonist of the story, Bastien, was hearing-impaired, a state that perhaps made it easy for him to live in a world of isolation.  He’s perpetually angry, violent, antisocial and narcissistic.  He managed to alienate the only people who cared about his welfare, feeling trapped by their concern.  On a job interview at the Louvre for an internship, he was lured by the standing night watchman for a special sort of internship–one where he would take over his role.

Bastien was thought to be a good candidate by the eccentric but brilliant incumbent guard (a role that was part historian and part shaman)  in part because it was clear that he was someone who could drop out of society.  When Bastien saw one of the pieces of art come alive for the first time, he realized that this was what he wanted to do with his life.  With that realization, he moved with a brutal swiftness to alienate himself from society: hitting his girlfriend, taking advantage of a friend, and bullying the museum curator into giving him the job despite a sloppy and careless approach.

The story climaxed with Bastien letting all of the works of art out at once–and out of the museum.  This violation of principles was his way of strongarming the curator, showcasing his narcissistic nature but also demonstrating that he probably was the best man for the job.  Liberge initially presented Bastien as a sympathetic figure, in part because of his outsider status (due somewhat to his deafness), but slowly unraveled him as a madman, albeit one with a method.

Liberge employed a delicate, highly naturalistic painted style.  It’s a style that made sense given that the accuracy of the visuals of the works of art in the museum were crucial to the story’s overall effect.  I was not entirely comfortable with his depiction of the Asian guard, Fu Zhi Ha, who had the slanted eyes and buck teeth common to old Western depictions of Asian characters.  In a story that stressed naturalism in its character design, I found this depiction baffling, though I’m willing to give Liberge the benefit of the doubt because Fu Zhi Ha didn’t act like a stereotype.  I was impressed by the fluidity of the images, which is rare in a comic that so heavily relied on photo reference.  The characters were expressive and lively, even if every character was shrill and unpleasant.

I’m not sure if Liberge intended to distance the reader from his characters, but it certainly helped in terms of establishing the sense of dread and insanity that the animated works of art evinced.  Liberge juxtaposed the world of beauty and the world of madness in a startling way, especially in the way he established that the works of art were so tortured precisely because so many people refused to engage them for what they were.  Bastien releasing the works of art at the end was a power play on his part, but it was also his way of getting people to really look and experience the work of art on its terms, to establish an individual relationship with it: to induce the sublime and release the art from its cage in a museum.  Liberge seemed to be saying that encountering art should not be easy or fun, but rather an experience that can be intense, frightening or even transformative.

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