La Belle Adventure – New European Graphic Novel Bookshop

A few weeks before Christmas, I went with my French chum to the Institut Francais D’Ecosse, on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile (right next to Saint Giles Cathedral in the heart of the historic Old Town). They were hosting a festive fayre, and among the various small businesses such as Chez Roger (a small but enticing French deli near my bookshop in Edinburgh’s Holy Corner) and makers (everything from hand-crafted jewellery to wonderful fabric creations) there was also a stall from La Belle Adventure, selling European graphic novels in both French and English.

Naturally this drew my attention, and I found a lot of titles and names I was familiar with from my own reading, and also from the old European Correspondent column that my Belgian friend Wim Lockefeer used to pen for us back in the Forbidden Planet Blog days. I got to chatting with the couple, Annabelle and Benoit, who were running this stall, and they told me they were also doing pop-up stalls regularly at the Leith street market and the Stockbridge market at weekends in Edinburgh, while searching for a location for a permanent home.

Considering there is only so much you can carry to these kinds of temporary venues, stock-wise, as I know from personal experience, having manned many a book table at various events over the years, they had picked out a nice, diverse array of titles, including a number I had read in English translation, such as the fabulous Blacksad series, and my personal favourite French comics creator, Jacques Tardi, with the range of translations of his work that Fantagraphics have put out. As I am still trying to improve my French, and as my reading comprehension is better than my spoken French (when reading I can take it at my own pace, in conversation I start off okay then it all gets too fast for me to follow!), I opted to buy a couple of hardback, French-language bande dessinee albums from them as a treat to myself.

Fast forward a few months, and La Belle Adventure has a permanent home now, in a small bookshop on Leith Walk, not far from the Out of the Blue Drill Hall venue (which has hosted some good comics fairs among many other events), handily close to the tram for easy access. This also puts them within short walking distance of the excellent independent bookshops, Argonaut Books and Typewronger in that part of the city, so that’s another win for readers, in a city that is satisfyingly provided for in terms of Indy bookshops

Our weather, even by Scottish standards, has been pretty dismal for the most part in recent weeks, and it was absolutely torrential on my day off, when I went to check out the new shop, then in only its second week. It was midweek and monsoon conditions outside, but I had a warm welcome from Annabelle and Benoit, and spent a very pleasant chunk of the afternoon chatting to them about the new librairie, and of course we talked a lot about both older and newer comics works we had enjoyed, while I had a good browse around the store.

The titles are in both English and French, with publishers from Europe, like Casterman, the UK – plenty of SelfMadeHero titles! – and North America (step up Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly), however the focus is on creators from Europe (including the UK). There were a lot of creators I was not only aware of, but many that grace my own, overloaded bookshelves – the aforementioned Tardi, naturally, the brilliant Bryan Talbot, Scotland’s own Metaphrog (highly appropriate given they comprise a Scottish and French creative duo!), classics many comics readers will be familiar with, such as the Metabarons, as well as manga, and works for younger readers (I smiled on seeing little figures of Lucky Luke and the dastardly Daltons on a shelf next to some of the albums).

Obviously I wanted to continue to support this new venture, and I was looking to add some titles to my ever-expanding To Be Read pile (now grown so large I fear it may require planning permission from the local council). Since my own collection of translated works in English is already fairly well developed, and as I am continuing to try and practise my French skills, I had decided I would be buying titles in French. Since I have some of the classics by Tardi, Moebius et al already in English language editions, it seemed more sensible to pick up something completely new, so I sought some advice from Annabelle and Benoit on newer works, which hadn’t yet been translated, and which I could consider.

We looked through several, and I ended up opting for two very different hardback albums that were recommended to me. Jade Khoo’s Zoc, a gorgeous looking, colourful piece about a young woman who has water which flows from her hair, and which is clearly influenced by the wonderful Studio Ghibli, and, at the other end of the spectrum, La Route (The Road), a graphic adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s famous post-Apocalypse novel, by Manu Larcenet which, despite the sombre colour palette (appropriate given the nature of the tale), uses some amazing comics artwork and some terrific variation in panel layout and perspective to draw in the visual eye.

Both of those titles were published by Dargaud, and join two Glenat publications I bought from them a few months back at the Institut Francais, Timothe le Boucher’s 47 Cordes, which was again recommended to me as an interesting recent work from a newer creator that I wasn’t familiar with, and Joe La Pirate (how could I resist a title like that?) by Hubert and Virginie Augustin. Of course, you are under no obligation only to read in French – La Belle Adventure has plenty of excellent European creators available in English, in all genres, adult and children’s books alike, and they are very happy to advise you on possible reading.

The duo remain involved in not only selling but promoting our beloved medium, being involved in drink and draws and other comics events in Edinburgh and Glasgow. In addition to helping organise the recent La Monde Sans Fin exhibition at the Institut Francais in Edinburgh (see our review here), Annabelle showed me the small back room to the bookshop, which they are planning to turn into a comics art exhibition space, which is also welcome news. When I visited it was only their second week of being in the shop, so they are still waiting on more titles to be delivered, and while they have carefully curated a diverse mix of works to start with, they will be looking to see what readers are most interested in and fine-tuning it in response.

It’s a terrific new venture, and I wish them every success, and commend any comics lover in, or visiting the city, to take a trip to visit and support them. You can follow La Belle Adventure on their Instagram page here, while the shop itself can be found at 225 Leith Walk, open Wednesday to Saturday, 10.30 to 6, and 1pm to 5 on Sundays.

This article was originally penned for Down The Tubes

Blossoms in Autumn

Blossoms in Autumn,
Zidrou, Aimée de Jongh,
Translated by Matt Madden,
SelfMadeHero

This collaboration between Belgian writer Zidrou and Dutch creator Aimée de Jongh touches on a subject we don’t see all too often – love in later life. We open with Mediterranea, a lady of mature years, dealing with something that sadly we all have to as we get older – losing loved ones to old age. She’s by her mother’s bedside as she passes, and within just a few pages the deeply emotional tone of Blossoms in Autumn is very apparent. Despite having just met this character and being introduced to her world I found myself very moved, my empathy stirred. It has been a slow decline over months before her mother breathed her last breath, and as anyone who has seen a loved family member fighting the inevitable will know, this unleashes a strange mix of emotions – your desire to have them continue to live battling with the feeling that this only leads to prolonged suffering, it is better for them if they just went now (and the guilt for thinking that way) – that pushes you into a bizarre feeling of unreality and disconnection from the everyday world around you.

So this is retirement? This empty feeling…

This scene cuts to Ulysses, a removal truck driver, carefully tidying his van for the last time – the firm he has worked for over decades is downsizing, and he has been given early retirement. For some this might be a gift, more time to enjoy life after work, but his wife Penelope (yes, Ulysses and Penelope, he has heard all the jokes) passed away some years before. Of their two children only one remains, a doctor, married but with no children of his own, so Ulysses doesn’t even have the option of playing doting grandfather to any grand-kids in his old age. Faced with an empty home and a forced retirement that isn’t his choice, he too is facing a moment of unwanted change, perhaps not quite the same as Mediterranea’s loss of her mother, but still a huge, emotional wrench, bringing with it a form of loss and grief too.

Some word have a bite to them. They dart out from the middle of a sentence, like a viper from under a rock… and sink their fangs into your ankle a little deeper with every syllable.”

Mediterranea, still dazed from her mother’s passing, leaves the hospital to take the bus home, her brother’s words about her now being the oldest member of the family echoing in her head along with thoughts of her own age and mortality. De Jongh’s art perfectly captures that wretched dislocation you feel during grief, of trying to do something as mundane and everyday as get on the bus but your mind and spirit are a million miles from the body that goes through these routines, part of you almost unable to take in the fact that the regular world is still going on, the planet still turns, buses still run, people are getting on and off with their own lives to run, oblivious to the emotional bombshell which has just shattered you inside, while outside you still go through all the normal motions.

Aimée similarly crafts some beautifully-drawn scenes with Ulysses, trying to fill his now long, empty, lonely days. Sure there are little fun moments, like hanging with a regular group of fellow supporters of his small (and not very good) football team, cheering and booing, their faces going from triumph to anguish, the post-match drink and talk of how much better it was back in the day. But those are the exceptions and stand in contrast to most of his time, alone at home, or walking by himself in the park. The latter is subtly handled, the expressions and body language she gives to Ulysses passing two other older men chatting amiably on a park bench (why doesn’t he talk to people like that, join in?) or seeing parents playing with young children in the park speaking volumes.

Their paths cross in the waiting room of the local doctor’s office (his son’s office, in fact), and these two drifting souls start to chat, in the way you sometimes do to strangers, which leads Ulysses to decide he has nothing to lose and follow up by visiting Mediterranea at the business she inherited from her mother, a cheese shop. She is surprised but happy to see him again, and she enjoys his candour when he admits since meeting her in his son’s office he has walked past her shop several times already, trying to screw his courage to the sticking place before finally coming in. From this small beginning something rather wonderful begins to blossom, at a time of life when neither really expected any such thing.

There are a myriad of very fine touches throughout Autumn Blossoms, not least the superb translation work by Matt Madden. Translation, like editing, is often an almost invisible job – handled very well it is all to easy for the reader to forget that someone other than the writer and artist had a hand in the work they are reading. Good translation requires far more than a literal swapping of words from one language to another, it also requires the delicate interpretation by the translator of not just the words, but the meaning and style the original language writer is trying to convey, then writing something in English which will carry that meaning in as similar a fashion as possible. Madden’s translation work is quite excellent, carrying the deep emotional undertow of the book into English in an elegant and deeply satisfying manner.

Other lovely touches abound, such as Zidrou and de Jongh arranging crossover cuts from Mediterranea to Ulysses, like the opening scenes I described previously, slowly intertwining their lives, or later, once they are just starting to see each other he finds out that in her youth she was a model and even appeared in a famous magazine, naked. Ulysses finds a vintage copy of the magazine in an old shop, but when he gets home he finds himself troubled, his desire to see what Mediterranea looked like déshabillé in her youth fighting with a sense of unease, that it is unfair, perhaps almost cheating on the older Mediterranea to do so. This cross-cuts with Mediterranea herself, viewing her naked body in the mirror, musing on age, on how that pretty young model could now be in this older woman’s body. It’s a lovely bit of cross-cutting, and again it reinforces the intertwining of both of their stories into one, or the way another, happier change in their life is viewed through a change to a much softer pencilwork, almost sepia toned artwork.

There’s a lot more in this rich, deeply emotional and satisfying story, that handles romance but without ever being sugary or saccharine, instead remaining believable, and laced with some of that humour that just comes out of everyday life and situations in places. A beautiful, warm, joyful story, deftly handled by a writer, an artist and a translator at the top of their game.