Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Amours Fragiles: the Last Spring

"Amours Fragiles" is a poetic title of the series of French albums, started in 2001. The Casterman published historical fiction title featured the work of writer Philippe Richelle and artist Jean-Micheal Beuriot and has yet to be translated and published into English. It opens with "The Last Spring", the oversized volume taking place in 1932, documenting the beginnings of the Nazi's rise to power from the vantage point of a young man, German intellectual Martin.

Utilizing a time consuming oil painting technique similar to Gipi's work in "Garage band" and "Notes on a war story", Beuriot achieves a highly arresting effect, which eases the reader into Richelle's slow boiling plot. In the first place, the idea is to dramatize the historical events through the use of a middle class protagonist, who comes of age in a rapidly changing society. Young Martin goes to a high school in the last days of the Weimar Republic, and is a first hand witness to its shaky grasp on the democracy. The facade of a civil, functional society based on equality still manages to inspire the youth to maintain an informed idealistic outlook, which is to be severely tested as the rapid changes in sociopolitical climate begin to catch up with the people close to him.

Richelle opts to frame the story in such a way that Martin's fight is from the start portrayed as ultimately pointless. Not only is the reader aware that his homeland is sliding into the slaughterhouse that punched out the hole of the twentieth century, but the writer underscores the point by featuring a flash forward featuring World War 2 era Martin reluctantly engaging in an affair with a married woman, while serving his country as a soldier. The short opening works to cast a shadow over all of his idealism and innocence in the succeeding story, but also serves as a statement of intent on the part of the creators. "Amours Fragiles" will be their World War 2 epic, but told from a point of view of an ordinary young man, whose strong feelings against the overwhelming fascism ultimately lead to his complicity in his government's policies.

Thus, "The Last Spring" reads more like a period piece love story with strong political current than a dry historical account, even if its languid pace does call for patient, if highly rewarding reading. The complexity hails largely from the numerous facets of the daily life Richelle and Beuriot want to touch upon. Starting with Martin's school life, Richelle depicts just how a forward thinking teacher and a slow, unprivileged student simply fall between the cracks of Hitler's new order. The students are swept up in the current that still seems to imply merely a change of politics, and not a wholesale turn to genocide for a nation that will hardly ever live down its war time excesses.

Yet, most of the daily politics get discussed through the medium of Martin's father, a loudmouth radical professor who feels frustrated by the perceived weakness of the Weimar government, and expects a strong leader in Hitler. The man is initially depicted as highly overblown caricature, who dominates his wife and aims to indoctrinate his liberal son to the right. A lot of the book is taken with his bitter monologues, that render him as a stereotypical Nazi supporter, who dominates his wife and treats the family to radio broadcasts of Hitler's speeches. Yet, at the crucial moment, the father shows himself as an advocate for the Jew's rights to continue living in Germany as their traditional neighbors and small shop owners.

For all of their clear definition, Richelle's characters remain multi-facated, escaping the trap of showing the protagonist as the only three dimensional personality in the sea of archetypes. The key to understanding Martin in 1932 prove to be not in his relationship with the father, but much more prosaically, in his interaction with his age peers. For all of his reading habits and strongly felt democratic spirit, the youth suffers the most through the vantage point of his feelings for the Jewish girl living across the street. The lessons he learns from her fate in the turbulent times are intentionally ambiguous, with the creators stopping the album's story as it climaxes, without a proper epilogue to reassert their protagonist's perspective.

The second volume shows him several years after the events of "the Last Spring", thus it was imperative that the creators cover a lot of ground in the initial outing. In many ways, "Amours Fragiles" reminds of Giardino's "A Jew in Communist Prague" published in America by NBM, and Richelle and Beuriot benefit from the comparison. Where the Italian creator hurries and works in generalities, his French contemporaries proceed from a more thoughtful perspective. For a start, their protagonist is somewhat older and better educated, and most importantly, isn't a victim. Martin isn't a son of a political prisoner and the creators seek his complicity in growing up under an increasingly oppressive regime.

In fact, as a protagonist, despite his protests, he exhibits an irritating indecisiveness, with only Richelle's carefully layered characterization stopping him from being despicable. The chief narrative technique the writer utilizes in portraying Martin as a flawed, yet sympathetic character is by introducing his best friend, a better adjusted teenager defined by his actions. Where Martin stops to listen and contemplate, Gunther comes forward and simply lives according to his years and the political climate. Thus, Gunther starts out as a fun loving skirt chaser, with Richelle thankfully stopping short of making him an outright bully, like Martin's father.

Beuriot distinguishes well between the two male characters, with Gunther sporting darker hair and shorter stature, as well as a self-indulgent smirk on his face, all in all a much more understated design than that of Martin's father. The protagonist's awkwardness and shyness generates most of the book's drama, as Gunther moves past Martin's subtle advances towards the girl, and leaves him once again thoughtful and repressed. The book loving Martin views his outgoing friend's behavior as banal and repellent, while himself rejecting the advances of the girl's best friend.

That the plot allows for the role of the fourth part of the love triangle provides a fresh dose of realism and goes a long way to balancing the album's length. Once again, Beuriot provides a difference in the anatomy to his main female characters, while reversing the color scheme of their new male friends. Even though formally repelling his friend's attitude towards the fairer sex, the protagonist still sticks to the couple until his friend finally crosses the line, and exhibits the prevalent political trend in rejecting Katharine on the grounds of her Jewish heritage. Unfortunately, the torrent of the Nazis' rise to power dooms the budding romance, but at that point the story's subplots converge for a strong finish and a great showing for both creators.

And while there is no doubt that a discerning reader would continue to the "Amours Fragiles" second volume, there yet remain some chief points of contention in the introductory volume. First, despite Beuriot's carefully studied cartooning there remains a layer of artifice that escapes the expressive faces and the frequent changes in perspective. The artist has no problem conveying the long conversation with clear, albeit conventional panels, where his stylish, expressive figures talk in a way that feels natural. The settings likewise reinforce the historical setting of the story but the well chosen color hues don't hide the fact that at inopportune times the storytelling glitches.

And while it's generally fairly clear what's going on, the panel flow is sometimes stilted and Beuriot clutters some of the panels avoiding the simplicity inherent in his layouts. These are relatively minor flaws in a very strong work, that was recognized by the prestige Angouleme festival in 2002. "Amours Fragiles"(despite the generic title) remains a serious work, that succeeds both as historical fiction and a compelling visual narrative. Even if its disparate goals somewhat detract from "the Last Spring" achieving its fullest artistic potential, the result is still a rare understated work about the period, especially when it comes to comics, with its closest recent comparison, 2008's "Spirou: A boy's diary", which treated the subject from a much lighter point of view, despite Emile Bravo's much stronger command of the comics form. Richelle and Beuriot's series' five album cycle is definitely in the upper echelon of the Franco-Belgian mature offerings, and hopefully in time it will find a broader audience and wider acclaim.

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