The Amazing, Remarkable Monsieur Leotard

Posted by on August 31st, 2010 at 12:01 AM

 


©2008 First Second.

 

The Amazing, Remarkable Monsieur Leotard
Eddie Campbell, with co-writer Dan Best
First Second; 128 pp.; $16.95
Color paperback
ISBN: 9781596433014

As Eddie Campbell’s The Playwright comes into view, it’s as good a time as any to glance back over the most recent of previous tomes, The Amazing, Remarkable Monsieur Leotard in which Campbell gives whimsical pictorial life to a story by his co-author Dan Best.

Monsieur Jules Leotard, “the original young man on the flying trapeze” distinguished for his deeds (including, on the first page, emptying “his fortitudinous bowels”) and his “imposing resplendent mustachios,” dies on page 12 of this graphic novel, which nonetheless forges ahead by focusing on the doings of Monsieur Leotard’s nephew, the “useless Etienne,” to whom Jules has bequeathed a false moustache that has been pressed between the pages of a book that is entirely blank inside, the book itself, and “the blessing of a dying man,” i.e., Jules, whose blessing, apparently, is “may nothing occur” — in the life, we assume, of Etienne.

Etienne joins the troupe of which Jules was a member — a happy band that includes a dancing bear that talks, a tattooed woman, an India rubber man and a strong man, among others — and they wander around Europe in the months preceding the sinking in April 1912 of the Titanic, which occurs on pages 106-7 (a spectacular watercolor two-page spread), enjoying, as it sez on the title page, “typographical acrobatics and illustrational feats in an ideal production of entirely new tricks, statuesque acts, and performances.” That supplies a nearly adequate preview of the sort of conceit, narrative and pictorial, that animates the volume, which includes, in addition to the sinking of the Titanic, a trial in which one of the troupe is charged with stealing the Mona Lisa.

Campbelll’s style herein is a continuation of the watercolored line-art manner he displayed in an earlier exposition, The Fate of the Artist (96 6×9-inch pages, color; paperback with flaps, First Second, $15.95), an autobiographical “investigation” into the author’s disappearance. Both books are more rewarding to the reader who finds his pleasures with such works in the manner of their presentation rather than in their substance, the storytelling techniques of cartooning rather than the story itself.

In Leotard, the narrative transpires in fits and starts — or “episodes,” as the book self-consciously calls them — between various visual impersonations of such things as circus posters and pages of newspaper articles. The march of sequential panels seems a somewhat dotty albeit deliberate improvisation: The panels occupy only about two-thirds of the pages, the rest of the space is devoted to decorative marginal visual caprices that are sometimes informative (in the manner of, say, footnotes) and sometimes functional (when the characters depicted seem to be commenting on the action of the panels above, or below, them).

The volume as a whole is exactly the sort of amusing quirky performance you’d expect a cartoonist to turn in when he lets his visualizing imagination ruminate on the personalities and incidents at hand.

The book ends as delightfully as it has transpired. The circus is in Cleveland, and Etienne, now an old man but capable of creating the illusion of youth, dons blue tights and a red cape for his performance, and in the audience, a kid named Joe is drawing a picture of the man on the flying trapeze. “Wow!” says the kid sitting Jerry Siegel-like next to the young artist, “— that gives me an idea!” The last page in the novel is painted to look like a slightly crumpled piece of paper; on it are the words: “Nothing occurs on this page.” For anyone who loves cartooning (And if you don’t, what are you doing reading all this?), Monsieur Leotard is a treat, brimming with visual occurrences on every other page.

 

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