Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Amours Fragiles 2: A Summer in Paris

In 2006, Casterman published a follow up to their original "Amours Fragiles" album, a historical fiction series featuring a German protagonist coming of age along the backdrop of the conflicts that culminated in World War 2. Debuting five years after the initial album, writer Phillipe Richelle and artist Jean-Micheal Beuriot revisit their creations with an album that makes several difficult choices.

From the very first caption the reader is aware that they are returning to the story seven years later, hinting that this 1939 episode will culminate with the German occupation of Poland. The story is set in Paris, and features a completely new set of characters, save for the protagonist Martin, and his former flame, Katherine, who plays a relatively minor role in the series second outing.

Despite all these changes, arguably the most noticeable one is the change in process undergone by the artist Beuriot. With "A Summer in Paris", the artist stops painting the series in oil and reorients himself to what appears to be traditional pen and ink method of working in comics. The contrast is striking when compared to the gorgeously painted pages from "The Last Spring", but it's not difficult to understand why Casterman and the artist decided to continue in this fashion. As noted by Gipi in the back matter of the "Notes from a war story", the process of making comics using the techniques having to do with oil painting is particularly time consuming and difficult.

At a more standard page count than the original's 84 pages, "A Summer in Paris" invites the reader once removed from the Franco-Belgian comics scene to second guess the publishing decisions involved. Considering the long break between the first and the second volumes, and the subsequent three albums being released in a much timelier fashion, it could well be that Richelle and Beuriot simply returned to their creation, once devised as a single volume story, to re-purpose it as a multi volume series. This would explain the change in page count and the simplified artistic technique employed, but is otherwise pure conjecture.

In any event, as a story, "A Summer in Paris" is a solid piece of low key drama, well researched and dramatized in what appears to be a completely genuine fashion. The series' unorthodox protagonist Martin is working on a doctorate in the City of Lights and has assembled a network of friends from different walks of life. Chief among them is Henry Emmerich, another German expat, that tries to make his living as an actor in Paris. The traditionally languid Martin takes an even more passive role in this album, as most of the story revolves around Henry, and his relationship with his fiancee, as well as the toil unemployment and administration take on him.

As a character the bohemian starts out as a likable young man with boyish features, yet he quickly becomes so self-obsessed that he turns borderline unsympathetic. Both his relationship with Maria as well as Martin appear to be exploitative, especially in spite of the sacrifices both of these people make for him. All the while, Henry is completely engrossed in his struggles of first finding employment, and then on his fight to gain French citizenship. The latter actually seems so realistic that it borders on anticlimactic.

For all of the observed character work that Richelle does in what eventually becomes something resembling a love triangle between Henry, Maria and Martin, the rest of the cast doesn't fare as well. Simply put, there are too many of them, which is again, realistic, but somewhat unnecessary in such a slim volume. Henry's friend the traveling salesman has a somewhat larger role but he could easily have been excluded to make for a tighter plot. The writer's intention was probably to slightly confuse the reader with so many of the new faces, so not to too deftly foreshadow the role Martin's lawyer friend's has in the book's conclusion.

The inclusion of a high society painter introduced in aforementioned prologue in "The Early Spring" exists only to introduce the set up another set the characters for a future volume, but is otherwise completely inessential.

On the other hand, the volume's understated nature is nowhere apparent then in the characterization of Henry's fiancee, Maria. And while the hard work she puts up with to provide both for herself and Henry does show in Beuriot's rendition of her tired, yet youthful face, Richelle is very subtle when it comes to a much dearer prize she pays to keep a roof above their heads. Her subsequent relationship with Martin is also interesting, in that it feels much more mature than the protagonist's previous infatuation with Katherine, where he was still infatuated in the romantic woes of the first love. The post-graduate student's bond with Henry's fiancee, following Emmerich's rude rejection of her, feels borne out more of the need than anything else. This does not escape Martin's actor friend, but at that point he's too occupied with his own troubles to get back at the lover he's already found a substitute for.

Even more nuanced is Richelle's treatment of the role Katherine has, as she return in Martin's life. The writer deliberately keeps her on the periphery of the plot, and out of Martin's reach, until the melancholic German is once again powerless to stop her from falling into another's grasp. By repeating the same pattern we have already seen Martin struggle with in high school, Richelle is keen to explore the difference that the passage of years has played on his character. A passing mention one of the cast members makes, that indicates their involvement with Katherine leads Martin to despair, but his spiral is much more pragmatic this time around. The distraught young man simply reorients to Maria, as they find solace in each other's embrace. The brilliance of Richelle's script is in including the scene where her new suitor introduces her to his present as an Evangelist, setting her up with another break up based on her true Jewish heritage.

Overall, the aforementioned subtlety somewhat undermine the impact of the volume. It's clear that the creators aimed for a character piece where the ominous tone of the pre-WW2 tensions would hang over the plot, before stepping in to brutally drag the German expats back in line with their country's fate. Yet, Richelle and Beuriot's focus on Henry Emmerich and his struggle so overshadows the historical context that it takes place in, that even when it finally collides with the French authorities forcing the German expats out of their country, the post occupation of Poland real world overtones feel tacked on. Likewise, Martin's return to Germany and the necessary re-positioning of Katherine for the later volumes seems necessary but doesn't make for a very powerful climax.

As is typical with most Franco-Belgian offerings, the album features a completely accessible story, with a clear beginning and the end, but a new reader is still advised to start with "The First Spring", the extended opening that communicates its themes much more directly.

No comments: