Ordinary Victories and Ordinary Victories: What is Precious (NBM Publishing)

It’s the little wins that count in French cartoonist Manu Larcenet’s tale of a war photographer trying to find a new path in life.

120 and 128 pgs., color; $29.99 (set)

(W / A: Manu Larcenet)
 
Ordinary Victories opens with a quote from Jacques Brel’s ballad "Jaurès:" "You could not say that they were slaves/ But from there to say they lived…" which is a pretty good description of the limbo the book’s main character, Marco, finds himself in. A successful war photographer, he’s saved up enough money to take some time off from a profession whose purpose he has begun to question but isn’t sure what to do with himself as an alternative. So while Marco is hardly a slave, or even suffering in any obvious material sense, neither is he really living a full life. Instead he’s going from day to day not sure who he is or where he’s going.
 
Ordinary Victories is well titled because there are no heroic feats or amazing triumphs in its pages, just ordinary people going about their lives and sometimes winning a victory here or there. Writer/artist Manu Larcenet shows the ultimate respect for his characters and their lives: they may not be important or famous, but they’re making the attempt to face themselves and the world honestly and are generous in their relationships with each other. Marco may be lost and confused, but he’s got a strong supporting cast (including his charming and patient girlfriend Emily, his well-grounded brother George, and their parents) who play a huge role in helping him get from where he is to where he needs to go. As an American raised on a philosophy of rugged individualism, I find this approach incredibly comforting, as the message seems to be that while the world may often seem like a threatening place at least you don’t have to face it alone. In fact, you’d be foolish to insist on doing so. Even the unpleasant characters (an obnoxious crew of younger artists, a pointlessly hostile neighbor) play their part in the comic’s ecology by giving Marco something to work against.
 
In Ordinary Victories, one of Marco’s tasks is to find a new identity as a artist, something he does after struggling with an exhibition of photographs of French dockworkers. In What is Precious, his first task is to come to terms with the suicide of his father, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. Thankfully we are spared any moralistic interpretation or therapy-speak about this act: his mother simply says "Your father made his choice—a man’s choice—nobody has any right to argue over it." Shortly thereafter, Emily announces that she wants to have a baby, something Marco definitely thinks he’s not ready for. These two threads come together as Marco contemplates becoming a father at the same time that he is coming to terms with memories of his own father, a process aided by going through the journals and photographs his father left behind. He must also come to terms with recent French history, particularly the behavior of the army during the Algerian War, and his father’s role in that conflict.
 
Larcenet draws in a clear style with a strong line and his characters, although simplified and cartoonish, are familiar types clearly grounded in reality. He tends to draw interiors in a geometric style while his exteriors are much more expressive (almost painterly, really) and when Marco breaks into the story with personal ruminations the palette (coloring by Patrice Larcenet) shifts from bright colors to sepia tones. In What is Precious, the color scheme becomes more stylized, reflecting Marco’s troubled state of mind, and uses more extreme contrasts from very dark night scenes to almost-white snow scenes in which only the human characters have any color.
 
Manu Larcenet is a prolific artist and writer and I can only hope that more of his work will be translated into English in the future. In the mean time, these two volumes will give you a good sense of his style and form a very interesting addition to the available body of graphic novels in English. Ordinary Victories won the Angoulême Prize (named for the largest comic book festival in the world) for Best Graphic Novel and was also honored as one of the five top graphic novels of the year by Time magazine. You can see a preview of both volumes here: http://www.nbmpub.com/humor/larcentet/larcenethome.html. | Sarah Boslaugh

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