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Sunday, March 4th, 2007
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Glacial Period: A Graphic Novel

by Nicolas De Crecy

A French Comics Artist Imagines the Next Ice Age

A review by Rebecca Porte

Someday, when the next ice age sweeps in and you can only get to Europe by digging through a healthy layer of permafrost, Spiderman and Hulk will still be good names to call your dog -- at least, according to Nicolas De Crecy's Glacial Period. In many ways a graphic novel about the endurance of art, and especially of comics, Glacial Period asks what would happen if travelers in a distant future stumbled on the remains of a museum while surveying a frozen wasteland known to them as "the lost continent." Given that the book was commissioned by the Louvre as part of a series of graphic novels, De Crecy's choice of subject is unsurprising. Translated from the French by Joe Johnson, the resulting comic is a well-executed, if slight, combination of humor, whimsy and elegant draftsmanship.

Comparable to David Macaulay's Motel of the Mysteries (another novel in pictures predicated on the tendency of present cultures to misinterpret past ones), Glacial Period follows a cadre of explorers through the arctic climate of "Euro." Accompanied by dogs genetically engineered to speak and date artifacts with their time-sensitive noses, the group discovers a Louvre practically untouched by decay. Preserved under heaps of snow and ice, the paintings and sculptures of the museum present a baffling tableau for the voyagers. Is the mysterious find a brothel, a house, the archive of a non-literate culture? "Was levitation a phase before death?" asks an amateur historian named Joseph on seeing the angel in Carlo Braccesco's Annunciation. It becomes apparent, as the characters converse, that their own cultural biases are leading them further and further astray from the truth about their discovery.

As the explorers observe different works of art, their theories about the meaning of the artifacts grow more diffuse, and while this increasing abstraction seems to fit with the dreamlike quality of De Crecy's drawing, it's hard not to wish that the author had expanded on some of the ideas he puts in his characters' mouths. For instance: "Our ancestors loved images," Joseph hypothesizes. "They found mechanical systems to reproduce reality. They devoted immense resources to it. To such a point it became impossible to confront reality other than through images. Their reality wasn't effective any longer, and that brought about their collapse, because they no longer had the tools with which to see and manage the reality of nature." Various philosophies swim in and out of the narrative but the author never really lingers on any of them long enough to make them matter for more than a few moments of narrative time. Much like an iceberg, Glacial Period would like you to believe there's a lot beneath the surface, but the impression of depth is deceptive.

Thus, the loftiest parts of Glacial Period -- the ones that deal with the intellectual fantasizing of the human characters -- succeed the least, although they allow De Crecy to show off his talent for mimicking famous works of art. More successful are the sections of the comic that center on Hulk, one of the talking dogs. Separated from the other explorers, Hulk encounters caches of artifacts who, as the book gets more surreal, come to life and begin to speak. As his keepers craft their wild theories, Hulk receives a much more accurate history of the museum from the pieces of art themselves.

Through Hulk's name ("in honor of a god whom we concluded had been one of yours," as he explains to an antique firedog), De Crecy hints at a future in which the comics medium, of all things, has left more a lasting cultural residue than the entire history of western oil painting. While he may be overstating the case (it's never wise to place all your trust in a man whose jacket copy says is a "mad genius"), De Crecy's point -- that comics deserve to be valued at the same level as other, more established forms of art -- is well-taken.

When, at Glacial Period's end, the Louvre begins to collapse under the weight of snow and accumulated history, Hulk and his companions escape with the help of the art: the entire collection of the Louvre forms itself into a vast dog that Hulk and the explorers ride to safety. De Crecy's last scene shows the art beast as a tiny dot on the horizon, loping across the ice floes. Perhaps a work of comics can hold the whole Louvre in its panels but, as with any work of art, something is bound to escape the page.


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