the Zabime Sisters Review
This one’s stuck with me for a while now, so I should probably write about it.
So here’s the book.
It’s good, it’s translated from French by Matt Maxwell, Aristophane wrote and drew it and he’s French and dead, and the interior art looks like this.
I mean, it looks sort of like that but way better in person. My scanner skills are not the best.
It’s black and white, and I mean it’s BLACK AND WHITE – no subtle grays, very little color gradation. It’s the most binary comic I’ve ever read, color-wise. And Aristophane doesn’t use prim little dabs of black – We’re talkin’ huge, thick lines of black, big-ass pools of black, black trees and bushes that bleed into black buildings that bleed into black characters. BLACK (and white)
The downside (which really isn’t, but we’ll get to that) is that it can take a lot of effort to figure out what’s the foreground and what’s the background - Did you notice the kids in the tree picture above?
The art is also fairly abstract, which both helps and hurts the clarity. The drawing is about interesting shapes, and areas of tension, and symmetry and “how much black CAN I get on the page and still make it work” - But it’s pictures about people as much as pictures of people.
I like the sense of…um… constancy and balance provided by the vertical (black) lines on either side.
I like the uncluttered sense of movement - There’s a lot of easy to follow action here.
And, obviously, I like “AHHH!”
But mostly I like that the characters are interesting shapes. Even if you remove the girls and just painted ducks or trees or blobs, it would still be a nice piece of design.
Another thing about the art: There are a lot of smudges. Hair is smudges. Eyes can be smudges. Shadows are smudges and leaves are smudges. Hell, many of the later pages seem to be, at first glance, ALL smudges, until you really pay attention and the smudges cohere into people, like a magic eye puzzle. The characters are constantly fading into the natural world around them, or busting out of it.
Over at Robot Six, Chris Mautner says this is ’cause of Aristophane using a dry-brush technique – (Wikipedia sez: “Not a lot of paint was used and it looks all scratchy on purpose”) - but I’ll be damned if doesn’t look like charcoal to me.
So, anyway, the book is a about one day in the life of sisters M’rose, Celina, and Ella, on their home island of Guadeloupe – (Wikipedia says: It’s in the Caribbean, dumbass) - There is a big climactic fight between the girl’s friend Manuel and town bully Vivien but mostly it’s short, corner-of-the-eye glimpses of the girl’s adventures, most of ‘em fleeting and none of ‘em given particular narrative weight. There’s precious little of the traditional introduction-building-climax-unbuilding-conclusion storytelling structure, which makes it a damn-near unique novelty.
But I’m prepared to play the comparison game. Of all the American Comics I’ve read, it most reminds me of
Yup. Good ‘ol Peanuts.
While the Zabime Sisters basically plays it straight and Peanuts goes for giggles, they’re both about how children develop their own societies in the absence of adults. Similarly, Schulz and Aristophane seem to view their characters in a similar way - Distantly, but with no judgement and quite a lot of benign affection.
Putting Snoopy aside, there aren’t a heck of American comics I feel comfortable comparing the Zabime Sisters to. Most comics of a given genre have a fairly predictable plot. And, what’s more, most of them try to evoke specific emotions.
Most of ‘em try really hard.
Superhero comics: “BE EXCITED! DOCTOR PSEUDOCRYPTOGOY HAS TRAPPED COMMANDER SQUID IN HIS BLEND-O-MATIC! OH NO! CAN THE ANTI-FLATULENCE SQUADRON SAVE HIM AT THE LAST MOMENT OR WILL HE BE YESTERDAY’S CALAMARI!”
Even the more indy-arty-type-comics do this. Especially in American ones. I’M ESTRANGED FROM MY FATHER ‘CAUSE HE’S SECRETLY GAY OR WAS IN A HOLOCAUST OR SOME DAMN THING! NOW WE HATE EACH OTHER! NOW WE RECONCILLATE! CAN YOU HANDLE THE POIGNANCE!”
But that doesn’t happen here. You never get the sense that Aristophane is trying to force you to feel. “Here’s what happened.” He says, ” Respond how you want.” Nobody is cast as a hero or a villain – even when they get drunk on rum or threaten to stuff their sister down the Devil’s Sinkhole. A few folks across the web called this book boring, and I suspect that’s a reaction to the lack of emotional manipulation.
Still, it was originally in French, and I’m not sure that a book like this could occur naturally In America. Here, comics are still fighting for respect, and there’s a sense of needing to PROVE that comics-are-ARTdammit-and-I-didn’t-need-to-go-to-law-school-s0-fuck-you-dad. Meanwhile, in France comics are the ninth art, and creators can just assume that their stuff will be taken seriously by thinking adults. Which means they can be a little more laid back and maybe even… spiritual?
Domingos Isabelinho, in his review at the Hooded Utilitarian, calls this “a religious book” and I think that’s a really good way to look at it. And not to exceed the bounds of what we should talk about on a ‘lil comics blog, but Z.S. is religious in a way that matches my personal spiritual ideas.
Check this two-panel sequence.
We start with two sisters and their friends growing from a tree, and end with Manuel and this GIANT freaking bee! The characters are always shown to be part of something bigger and beautiful and they remain part of it even if they’re not consciously aware of it. They fade into the background, become part of the foliage (it’s all giant pools of black, remember) step out into the light, fade into abstraction - The world is part of them. They are part of the world.
And there’s another relationship that works along the same lines - The one between the sisters and their friends and the adult world. The adult characters mostly exist via implication “My father will kill you if he finds out!” but the kids seem to be always responding to the actions of the unshown grown-up world. They’re either choosing to embrace adult actions (drinking, smoking, politics - And the fight between Manuel and Vivian does read like politics) or being kids – running around climbing trees and stealing mangoes or playing a perpetual game of “You’re stupid no YOU’RE stupid.” Sometimes they get caught in between - Manuel wins the fight with the bully and “felt a sadness mixed with pleasure” and bothered by all the “show of congratulations, admiration, and sympathy.” It’s very subtle, but it’s the one blatant And Here We Come Of Age moment in the entire book, the one time where a character is granted access to the adult world.
So, obviously, I thought this was really important and really ballsy work - This is probably the closest comic book equivalent I’ve read to spiritual-centric works likef Rumi’s Ecstatic Love Poems or John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. I’m kinda pissed off that Aristophane is dead- at age 37 no less - as I’m extremely curious as to what he would have done next. Still, I’m very happy than an English Translation exists. And I’d be happier still if American comic creators would learn something rom it….