The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard (:01 First Second)

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leotard_header.jpgEddie (From Hell) Campbell stretches his artistic muscles in this lavishly illustrated tale of a daring young man on a flying trapeze.

 

128 pgs. full color; $16.95

(W: Eddie Campbell and Dan Best; A: Eddie Campbell)

The cover to The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard by Eddie Campbell.I'm almost ashamed to admit it, but before The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard, I had never read a comic by Eddie Campbell before. Not his much-loved tale of the Greek god Bacchus, not his critically acclaimed autobiographical series Alec, not even From Hell, the Alan Moore-penned tale of Jack the Ripper that is his most famous work and lauded as one of the best comics ever made, period. (I did see the mediocre movie version starring Johnny Depp and a way-out-of-her-depth Heather Graham, but that hardly counts.) This odd little story served as my first introduction to the comics legend, and what a weird, wonderful, delightful introduction it was.

Jules Leotard was the nineteenth century's most famous acrobat, the inventor of his eponymous article of clothing and inspiration for the song "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze." But this book isn't about Jules, who dies on page 12: it's about Etienne, his sometimes bumbling but always well-meaning nephew. Etienne takes up his uncle's mantle in hopes of using the circus to put smiles of his fellow Frenchmen, downtrodden from the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. The story follows Etienne and his cast of misfits (the strong man, the rubber man, the tattooed woman, the midget clown, the talking bear, etc.) through a variety of misadventures (joining a travelling freakshow, hooking up with Buffalo Bill Cody) until the now-elderly circus troupe find themselves reunited on the deck of the ill-fated maiden voyage of the Titanic.

One of the better gags from Monsieur Leotard, art by Eddie Campbell. Click for a larger image.Leotard has its share of rip-roaring adventure, historical intrigue, and even allusions to many of America's finest superheroes (if you look hard enough), but that's not really what the book is about. What this is, instead, is an excuse for Campbell to stretch his artistic muscles as far as they'll go, and the results are simply stunning. His fully painted artwork has a sketchy, impressionistic quality that's practically museum-worthy. The double page spreads (of which there are many) are about as adventurous as they come, with acrobatic tumbling set over sheet music, mixed media reproductions of newspapers and letters, cityscape shots of Paris from hot air balloon heights, and even sloppy pen and ink scrawlings drawn as if lifted from Etienne's journal. Even when Campbell sticks to the four-panel grid he doesn't settle for mundanity, decorating the margins with quotable quotes and tiny character doodles that inject little doses of odd humor, like an old-timey take on Sergio Aragones' MAD Magazine silent gag cartoons. One particularly funny running gag involves the group's "human match," who is shot out of a cannon in the book's early pages and can be seen soaring through the background for most of the rest of the book.

While the artwork is an undeniable visual treat, the writing can't quite compete. For much of the book, the plot and characters seem fairly direction-less, and the stabs at humor are typically more endearingly quirky than they are laugh-out-loud funny. But what's clear from the book is that Campbell and his writing partner Dan Best had a blast creating it, and their enthusiasm is infectious, with the book's final third (following the older Etienne) finally managing to captivate as much as the artwork. While not a flawless work or a perfectly engrossing read from cover to cover, The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard has a great payoff and stunningly inventive artwork that alone is worth the price of admission. | Jason Green

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