Exquisite Corpse (First Second)

 Zoe is a cute, directionless indie girl whose story seems destined for clichés, but French cartoonist Pénélope Bagieu has far more interesting destinations in mind in this new graphic novel.

 

 

124 pgs., color; $22.99
(W / A: Pénélope Bagieu)
I was totally blindsided by Exquisite Corpse, the first of Penelope Bagieu’s books to be translated into English (she has quite a few out in French, and a popular blog in French as well). Looking at the publicity materials and the first few pages, it seems like it’s going to be yet another story of a cute indie girl who keeps barking her shins on the reality of the cold cruel world, but then it turns into something quite different (and much more rewarding).
Zoe is cute as a button, and just about as directionless, which helps to explain why she’s working as a “product representative.” I hadn’t heard the term before, but it’s a near cousin to being a “booth babe,” meaning an attractive and well-dressed young lady whose job is to attract male customers, presumably to pique their interest in the products of whatever company has hired her for the day or the trade show. Of course, a lot of guys aren’t really interested in the product, but feel they can take liberties with the booth babe, because that’s part of the job also—smile through sexual harassment, both verbal and physical, that would not be tolerated in a normal employment situation.
She lives with a boyfriend, but he’s a real lunkhead whose attitude seems to alternate between ignoring her and being borderline abusive. So nothing is going well in Zoe’s life, and she knows she deserves something better, but she’s not sure what that is or how to go about getting it. I’ve been there, and maybe you have too, if you’re not one of those people who is content to follow a preprogrammed path through life and thus never has to reflect on what they are doing and why.
In the kind of coincidence that is not all that uncommon in big cities, Zoe meets a reclusive author, Thomas Rocher, who used to be the toast of the literary world but is currently suffering from a protracted episode of writer’s block. She moves in and becomes not only his bed partner but also the muse that reawakens his talent. If the story ended there, I wouldn’t have much to say about this book, because we’ve all heard that one before, and this would be just one more leaf on the tree of stories about the manic pixie dream girl who exists only to solve the problems/reawaken the genius of a spoiled man who topped out, maturity-wise, at about age 14.
Fortunately, Bagieu has something much more interesting in mind, and I’m not going to spoil it here. I will say that she’s quite aware of how the first part of this book fits into the kind of stories often told about older men and younger women, and about creative geniuses and those who serve them. She’s also aware of how things work in the literary world, and gets in some sharp digs about the fickleness of both critical and popular success.
Bagieu’s artistic style is delightful and perfectly suited to this story. Her characters are semi-realistic and very expressive, while her backgrounds are stylized but realistic enough to place every scene in a specific environment. I particularly like what she does with her characters’ eyes: drawing on the manga convention that the eyes are the window to the soul, Zoe has huge, expressive eyes, while Thomas is always wearing glasses so you can barely see his eyes at all, and you know what that suggests about his character.
The title of Exquisite Corpse alludes to a parlor game popularized by the surrealist poet Andre Breton, in which one person writes something on a piece of paper, folds the paper so some of the writing is hidden, and passes it to the next player, who writes something and then folds the paper again before passing it on. The result is a sort of collective story or poem with lots of twists and turns, since every contributor sees only a small portion of the work at a time. The title also refers to an event in the story, and perhaps also to the way people only perceive other people partially, and to the way in which a person may show different aspects of themselves at different times.
Exquisite Corpse is published by First Second, with a street date of May 5. You can see a preview of it here and here. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

 

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