The collected Monsieur Jean

Monsieur Jean : From Bachelor To Father Hardcover,

Dupuy and Berberian,

Humanoids

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French comic creators Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian are somewhat unusual – instead of the normal writer-artist collaboration, both creators write the plots, dialogue and share duties on the pencils and inks, making their acclaimed Monsieur Jean series a truly collaborative body of work (indeed it’s pretty hard to tell which of them created which elements, which is rather nice actually). I’ve had a huge soft spot for their Monsieur Jean series for many years (even struggling through a couple in French) and their track record is impressive, with multiple nominations and awards at the prestigious Angoulême bande dessinee festival, including being awarded the Grand Prix, an award chosen by a jury of former winners to honour a body of work by creators and generally held by many who love quality comics work to be one of the highest honours in the comics world.

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(the busybody concierge who runs the apartment block and her low opinion of Jean – until she sees him on television being interviewed as an acclaimed author!)

This large, new collection from Humanoids is a most welcome English-language compilation of the early Monsieur Jean works – some five comic albums in one volume – by Dupuy and Berberian. One of the aspects of Monsieur Jean I have always enjoyed is that he ages with the reader, each new album seeing him a bit older – rarely wiser! We may learn more but we also make more mistakes as we get older! – seeing his friends and family growing and evolving around him. Reading a large collection in one go like this really brings that aspect home and I found it increased my appreciation for the series and also it made this fictional character far more real to me, more easy to empathise and sympathise with as he goes through all those ups and downs that life throws up.

Jean himself is a writer, living in Paris, a confirmed bachelor, happy to dive into romance – and like many of us, perhaps to quick sometimes, too rapidly smitten – but obviously rather hesitant when it comes to serious commitment. Which is fine when you are younger, but as he goes through his twenties and into his thirties and he finds most of his friends are now married and then – oh the horror! – they start having children, he sometimes finds himself with that peculiar ennui. Not especially wanting to be married and have kids himself yet, but feeling odd as all the people he grew up with have moved on to that stage of life he’s not really ready for himself yet. A scene where he tries phoning around a lot of the friends in his little phonebook only to find each of them is too busy with various domestic engagements to simply go out with him for drinks and a movie at a moment’s notice is one that many singles will identify with, as they too find old friends who used to live for going out are now simply too busy with ‘domestic bliss’.

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(oh dear, sounds like she may be wanting more commitment than Jean is happy with...)

We meet the whole gang as these various volumes collected here unfold – old chum Clement, who is now the seemingly successful, confident businessman and married man, but who can also be a bit full of himself and like other married friends of Jean’s, enjoys teasing him about his romantic life and sometimes trying to set him up with someone when they go away on a trip (while you also sometimes get the impression he might slightly envy Jean’s single life and success at making a living by writing rather than at business). There’s Felix, of course, who is pretty much Jean’s best friend, but who is frequently a bit of a disaster. Everyone has a friend like Felix – a good guy, well-intentioned, but the one who turns up hours late for things, who seems to float through life without really taking responsibility (work, parenting), and yet because none of this is done with malice, more a sort of dream-like absent-mindedness, and because of his charm, everyone, although often exasperated by him, still loves him too.

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(having a friend’s screaming child dumped on you while he wanders around absent mindedly – good ‘ole Felix at his best)

And then there are the women who move through Jean’s life (his parents over dinner always raising the subject – when will you settle down, when will we have grandchildren; who among us has never had that at some point?). Some are one-offs, a quick fling with someone he met at a party, others develop into something more, making him happy with the romance but also bringing out Jean’s inbuilt worries about long-time commitment, which frequently manifest themselves in wonderfully weird dreams. One dream recurs several times, Jean as the lord of the castle, surrounded by his men-at-arms, in his stronghold where he can’t be touched, but, oh look, isn’t that Cathy? Cathy who broke his heart when he was so young and tender? And here she is, years later, still beautiful, and knocking at his door. Lower the drawbridge! Ah, but, Sire, are you sure you want to let her into the keep once more, imagine the damage she could do again…

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(A popular Parisian landmark to just stand and be still on your own or with someone special, the bridge over the Canal St Martin)

Jean, appropriately enough for a writer, is a bit of a dreamer, not just in his sleep but with little fantasy daydreams – the sort of thing we all use a bit of to help us get through the day. And reading such a large collection I was reminded that while Dupuy and Berberian largely keep events here as a slice of real life (work, relationships, kids, bills, but handled with a deft, light touch) these dream sequences allow them to also include a nice fantasy element occasionally (often with some nicely surreal, dream-like imagery, frequently bloody funny but also in a way most of us will identify with, because we all share the same worries). I’ve said before of Monsieur Jean that if Woody Allen had been French and a comics creator instead of film-maker, he might have made something not a million miles from these stories – if you are fond of Allen, especially that superb mid 70s to 80s period where he balanced life, drama and humour so well in many films – then I suspect you will love the world of Monsieur Jean. And as I mentioned earlier, going back to these early volumes is not just a pleasure, it is an enhanced pleasure – reading several albums in one collection like this was, for me, so much more than just re-reading works I loved years ago, it really deepened my appreciation for the character, for Dupuy and Berberian’s skill in both they narrative and the artistic devices they employ so effectively (it’s wonderfully confident, considered comic work, and like the best work it’s only when you stop and go back you realise how much fine skill went into making it seem so effortless for you to read and grasp), and then there are nice little touches like Parisian landmarks such as the footbridge over the Canal St Martin.

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(one of the surreal dreams as Jean’s fear of commitment sees his castle of the mind under siege from women he has loved firing babies over the walls)

From the trials and delights of single life to getting older, suddenly finding yourself responsible for looking after an ill friend’s child (the bachelor’s nightmare!) through relationships looking for the “one” (aren’t we all?) and to simply maturing, changing as we get older, trying to fit into new roles but still wanting to keep elements of our earlier selves because they are important to us. It’s life’s rich tapestry – the problems, the delights, the ups and downs, the big stuff (children, success in your chosen profession) and the little things (the annoying concierge and her annoying quirks), it’s all here and in this concentrated form it’s even more of a pleasure to sink into and lose yourself in. Hugely respected on the Continent, sadly less well-known to many English language readers, hopefully this very welcome Humanoids collection will go some way to redressing that. Some classic –and award-winning – modern European comics that should be on the shelf of anyone interested in quality comics works.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Alt-history steampunk adventure: Clockwerx

Clockwerx,
Jean-Baptiste Hostache, Jason Henderson, Tony Salvaggio, Izu
Humanoids

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Wapping Harbour, London, 1899, when the city was still one of the greatest ports in the world and the Thames a sea of masts. But something is not right in the docks of London – as three workers make their way through night-time streets they are accosted by an enormous mechanical figure, which retreats with one of them after the intervention of a mysterious man who is stalking the nocturnal streets. Our hero turns out to be a former police detective, framed and disgraced, investigating the rash of disappearances in the area of the docks. Meanwhile a fiery young engineer, Molly Vane, and her crew struggle on a steamship caught in a dreadful storm, threatening their precious cargo of ‘Clocks’ (clockwork robotic devices operated by a pilot) and their lives. They save the ship but at the cost of some lives and Molly’s left arm, before limping into the docks at London, just as our mystery man, Matt Thurow, takes a job as a docker to continue his investigations. When he narrowly averts a disaster in the unloading of the Clocks he comes to the attention of Molly and we know it won’t be long before their paths converge.

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So the stage is set for a classic reluctant team-up, as Molly’s renegade machinists recruit Matt into their ranks. He’s reluctant at first, but when he discovers that Molly stole her Clocks from Lord Oak and his associates Matt is convinced to throw in his lot with them – Oak, he is sure, is behind his unfair disgrace, having set him up for a financial embarrassment that ruined his career in the Yard and which also lead to the incident that has left his sister in a coma ever since. The quick-tempered Molly has taken the Clocks she once worked on for Oak after discovering he and a shadowy international cabal plans to use them and a rare mineral, Lucifernum, found in rare meteorite deposits, as the ultimate power source, the combination of enormous mechanical devices and intense energy source giving them pretty much irresistible power over any nation on Earth.

Some elements such as the reluctantly forced together partners (complete with growing romantic interest) and the wrongfully disgraced copper out to clear his name and get revenge are pretty familiar tropes, but handled well and the characters quickly grow on you. Besides, they are there mostly to set up a cracking Steampunk science fiction adventure yarn in this alternate-history Britain, drawing on elements of classic 19th century Boy’s Own adventure tales (appropriately enough given the setting) with Steampunk elements. The story cracks along at a good pace, with plenty of peril for our intrepid heroes, who soon find that the vanished workers, Matt’s framing and the ulterior plans for the Clocks Molly created (then stole) are all related. In time-honoured tradition the odds are against them, but they’re going to try and save the day regardless.

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Accompanying this tale though is Hostache’s artwork, which is simply glorious in places. Hostache seems equally adept at close up, intimate moments focussing on the character’s expressions as he is at depicting major scenes. And oh boy are some of those major scenes simply gorgeous to behold, be it night over the docks of Victorian London, the Thames and rooftops shimmering in silver moonlight, or scenes with the huge Clocks, lovingly detailed pieces of imaginary Victorian tech, like Steampunk versions of the giant manned mechas so beloved of Japanese science fiction comics (and used to spectacular effect in the recent Pacific Rim film).

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The intricate detail of the Steampunk machinery and the beautifully rendered Victorian cityscapes will delight those who loved Bryan Talbot’s lavish artwork in his Grandville series, and indeed I think Clockwerx would make a good companion to that series on your shelves. This really is beautiful art and fabulous creations that you just want to pore over and drink in, all framed around a classic adventure yarn. I’m also pleased to see a female lead character who, like Adele Blanc-Sec, is in there for her own ingenuity, bravery and resolve, not as some impossibly physiqued eye candy, and even after her accidental maiming and loss of an arm Molly remains the real driving force of events throughout, the equal of any of the men here (and their superior when it comes to her mechanical skills). A cracking, beautifully illustrated adventure in the best European comics tradition and a real pleasure to read.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog