by Nick Bertozzi
Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
A review by Rebecca Porte
Part of being a serious comics creator in a culture that doesn't take sequential art seriously often means defending what you do to people who don't understand it. While it's sometimes disheartening to see yet another talented artist deliver her great apologia to the mainstream literati, readers can comfort themselves with the knowledge that sequential art has able and loyal protectors -- and they don't look like they'll be putting down their weapons any time soon. Although a justification of his decision to work in comics may not be the sole purpose of The Salon, Nick Bertozzi's recent graphic novel, it's certainly one of the most entertaining aspects of the book -- if only because Bertozzi lays out his arguments with such elan.
Much like The Left Bank Gang, a 2006 release written and drawn by Norwegian comics creator Jason, The Salon is a murder mystery set in early 20th-century Paris and populated by luminaries of the modernist traditions of art, music and writing. Georges Braque, one of the pioneers of Cubism, forms the emotional and intellectual center of the piece -- which begins with the decapitation of a minor artist by a mysterious blue-skinned woman. Following Braque's entrée into the Paris art world, Bertozzi introduces us to Pablo Picasso, Guillaume Apollinaire, Eric Satie, Henri Matisse, Paul Gauguin, Alice B. Toklas, and Gertrude and Leo Stein, among others. Braque soon finds, and his audience with him, that these eccentric personalities share something besides their love for breaking with established traditions of art -- a taste for a rare, blue absinthe that allows the drinker to enter physically into a painting. But the members of the salon soon learn that lying on a beach inside a Gauguin or wandering a Cezanne interior comes at a price.
As the plot develops, Bertozzi shows off his gifts for slightly risqué humor and effective character development, introducing his famous characters with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of efficiency. The first encounter between two major characters shows an irate Picasso prancing around his apartment in the buff, hectoring Braque to draw his portrait. "Jour drowing is brotherhood!" Picasso shouts on seeing the completed work -- he embraces Braque in a panel that is as notable for the skillful depiction of Braque's dismay as it is for Bertozzi's careful (and very funny) rendering of Picasso's broken English.
The art of The Salon maintains a deceptively easy style, composed of clean compositions and bright secondary colors. As a draftsman, Bertozzi combines an energetic line with touches of cartoon flair and high modernist whimsy. Here and there, you'll spot an eye from a Picasso or a nose out of Winsor McCay. Even the sound effects convey unusual verve -- the French orthography of the "poppes," "quiques," "chompes," and "clonques" practically crackles. The liveliness of the art -- this is by no means a quiet comic -- propels the narrative forward at a swift pace, which is occasionally relieved by interludes of painters discussing their work.
The Salon's episodic structure allows Bertozzi to take philosophical detours to talk about how art has advanced in the past century and how comics have played into that metamorphosis. Picasso, reading a newspaper at breakfast, cribs a technique from a Rudolph Dirks comic strip, The Katzenjammer Kids, in order to finish his famed portrait of Gertrude Stein. When Braque calls him out for plagiarism, Picasso replies: "I stealed from Katzenjammer because it show me the way to be best....If this man show to me how to understand a thing, is not that my understanding now?" Bertozzi argues that modernist painting -- another art form that received its share of scorn before it became standard museum fare -- was in dialogue with the comics medium from its inception, that the last century of art owes as much to a George Herriman as it does to a Picasso or a Matisse. "Jou mens see the last week of the Krazy Kat," Picasso asks his friends, "I laughs still now!"
As much as it wants to do anything else, The Salon wants to make you laugh: at the manic antics of Picasso, at the flummoxed expressions that decorate Braque's face, the tragicomedy of Alice B. Toklas and the Steins, the absurdity of the blue absinthe. But underneath the veneer of hilarity and horror -- the murders are gruesome enough, which is to say nothing of the Parisian brothels -- Bertozzi also poses some significant questions about how comics has matured (and will mature) as an art form. It's no longer possible to practice modernist painting as Picasso and Braque did -- their techniques and philosophies are no longer revolutionary in the current context. Bertozzi seems to see comics -- a silent contributor to high art for so long -- finally enjoying its own modernist moment, receiving some acknowledgment for the intelligence and innovation that so many creators bring to their work. But he's still holding his breath. No matter how optimistic you may be about your own artistic future, it's always possible you'll end up (as a gendarme says about one of the murdered artists) "just another modernist with no head."
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