Romantic: Werewolves of Montpellier

Posted by on July 21st, 2010 at 5:22 AM

Rob reviews the new graphic novella from Jason, Werewolves of Montpellier (Fantagraphics).

Jason’s new graphic novella, Werewolves of Montpellier, is his latest meshing of genre trappings with pure romance.  In the vein of The Living and the Dead (zombies), I Killed Adolf Hitler (time-travel sci-fi), and Tell Me Something(Frankenstein), Werewolves‘ titular monsters are only a small part of the larger story.  This book is really about Sven, a Swedish ex-pat and part-time jewel thief living in France, and Audrey, his next-door neighbor with whom he’s fallen in love. He dresses up as a werewolf to commit his crimes, which draws the attention of the town’s real werewolves.

Jason reliably uses three tricks to create tension in what are otherwise straightforward stories.  First, the fact that his characters are anthropomorphic animals makes it easy for the reader to project their own emotions onto them and empathize with them.  Second, he undercuts easy reader identification with a sense of pacing and character interaction that’s relentlessly deadpan.  Third, he subverts the reader’s conventional expectations of the narrative by telegraphing the genre elements of his story early on but concealing and then slowly revealing the details of the story’s romance.

Jason is the master of the small, understated character moment that takes on greater weight as his story proceeds.  At the beginning of the book, the reader is led to think that the story will focus either on werewolves or capers, and so when Audrey is introduced early on, the reader is unclear just what role she is to play in the narrative.  Jason breaks up the tension by also introducing Sven’s lewd friend Igor, who is good for comic relief but also introduces a thread that becomes important later in the story.  In the span of five pages, we learn that Sven is lonely, that he has a treasured friendship with Audrey, and that his feelings are pointless when we learn that she has a girlfriend.  He does this with gesture and body language during the course of a poker game, while sharing an umbrella, and while failing to gain any solace by staring at other women.

From there, Jason ratchets up the tension by alternating between Sven’s unrequited love and the machinations of the town’s werewolves.  True to the nature of the book, it’s the former scenes that are considerably more affecting.  There’s a great scene where Sven, Audrey and her girlfriend Julie are sitting at a table and Audrey leaves for a few minutes.  In the span of four panels, Jason flips “camera angles” as the two characters stare icily at each other.  Like in much of Jason’s work, it’s what’s left unsaid that has the greatest impact.

What elevates Werewolves of Montpellier into the top rank of Jason’s work is the way he manages to dovetail the story’s genre elements with the emotional narrative.  A heartbroken Audrey feels herself drawn to Sven’s dilemma, gets involved with the brief action setpiece toward the end of the book, and the two wind up with a deep bond while still maintaining the easy, casual relationship we saw at the beginning of the story.  Jason even manages to make the reader feel sorry for the werewolf pursuing Sven, further undermining the book’s genre concerns.  Overall, this is a pitch-perfect, expertly-crafted story by an artist who is clearly working in his comfort zone.  It’s remarkable to see a creator go to the same well so many times and yet continue to produce nuanced and powerful variations on the same themes.

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