The Zabîme Sisters (First Second)

Three sisters go on a daylong adventure filled with mild mischief in this graphic novel by the late Caribbean cartoonist Aristophane, offering a perspective rarely seen by American readers.

 

 

 

90 pgs., B&W; $16.99
(W / A: Aristophane, translated by Matt Madden)
 
I have to confess I had never heard of Aristophane (Firmin Aristophane Boulon, who published under his middle name) until reading The Zabîme Sisters, but now that I’ve experienced his work I certainly hope to see more of it in the future. The comics world is sometimes segregated by language and this is one of those times: Aristophane (who died in 2004) was well-known in the French-speaking world, but this is the first of his works to be translated into English.
 
Set in Aristophane’s native country of Guadeloupe, the story of The Zabîme Sisters is as simple as it gets—three sisters spend their first day of school vacation exploring the island and getting into mild forms of mischief—but Aristophane’s perspective is so fresh and his art so captivating that you feel like you’re a kid again, tagging along with M’Rose, Ella and Célina. Aristophane studied fine art before taking up comics, and it shows in his densely-packed, expressive frames where the tropical foliage sometimes dwarfs the human figures. He works with dry brush in a semi-naturalistic style and, except for a few full-page images, uses five or six frames per large-format (10.6” x 8.4”) page, but this never seems monotonous: rather, it provides a stable framework which allows him to tell his story.
 
The big event of the day, as anticipated by the sisters, is a fight between a local bully and one of the boys who was brave enough to stand up to him. It doesn’t work out quite as expected (delivering a life lesson in the process), and along the way the girls also have an adventure with a sinkhole, hook some mangoes (to use Tom Sawyer’s terminology, since their world seems closer to his than to that of most contemporary American kids), experiment with smoking and drinking, and engage in the blend of teasing and mutual support which is common to sisters the world over. The story is told through a combination of first-person action and third-person omniscient narration (“Célina got up after making them beg her” “…their mother savored in advance the moment she would let them go”), and my only criticism is that the latter sometimes seems unduly heavy-handed, as if Aristophane didn’t trust his readers to figure out things for themselves. On the other hand, this type of writing is common in books for children and they may have been the original target market, in which case this approach is entirely understandable.
 
The Zabîme Sisters can stand on its merits but is also of particular value because it provides an under-represented perspective the world of comics. Think about it: how many cartoonists can you name who were born in the Caribbean? Anyway, I recommend The Zabîme Sisters not only to fans of comics but those interested in Caribbean culture and, more broadly, in the African Diaspora. It would make a great adjunct to a social studies lesson on the Caribbean (around 5th grade or so), as long as parents would not be upset by the references to the sisters experimenting with alcohol and tobacco. If it helps, let me note that their experiences in this regard are not entrely positive.
 
Extras in this volume include an afterword by translator Matt Madden and a bibliography of Aristophane’s work. You can see some samples of pages from The Zabîme Sisters on the Macmillan web site: http://us.macmillan.com/Content.aspx?publisher=firstsecond&id=22285. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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