Reviewed by David Kennedy-Logan
Three sisters, M'Rose, Elle, and Celina, meander through the first day of summer vacation in a small town on the tropical island of Guadeloupe, their paths criss-crossing with a motley collection of other boys and girls. Throughout the day, they engage in a variety of mischief and delinquency: from experimenting with tobacco and alcohol to committing acts of impulsive thievery to provoking a fistfight between a trash-talking bully and a brooding, scrawny underdog. They gain insights into themselves and each other through their awkward and sometimes mildly sadistic interactions.
This is the plot of Aristophane's The Zabîme Sisters, but its simplicity is deceptive. While the story elements are not unique -- young characters in novels, films, and comics have been struggling to navigate through similar unforgiving Darwinian social landscapes for a long time -- the thematic ends to which they are put in this graphic novel are sophisticated, subtle, and unpredictable. Like an optical illusion, the cumulative emotional dimensions within this story are larger, deeper, and more complex than its slim size, subject matter, and free-flowing artwork would seem at first glance to be capable of supporting.
Most powerfully, the narrator presents this coming of age tale without the aloofness of irony or the sugarcoating of sentimentality. This is the most impressive accomplishment of the book: it captures a perfectly focused snapshot of life on the cusp between innocent childhood and uncertain adulthood, with all the pain and joy of this moment intact and in their raw, natural forms.
In one episode, the sisters and some friends discover a bottle of rum in an abandoned house. One of the girls has the will power and maturity to resist this taboo temptation from the world of adults, while most of them give in to sampling it. No crisis, tragedy, or hilarious caper ensues, however; the kids merely fall asleep, wake up hung over, and are chided by their sober friend. This potentially dangerous situation transpires without any adult knowledge, judgment, or intervention, coloring the characters' existences in a deep shade of arbitrariness. It makes this mini-fable about indulgence and regret more truthful and more affecting; for these specific characters, as for all adolescents, this feeling of invisibility is both exhilarating and frightening. The melancholic mood is woven throughout the story and is an impressive demonstration of Aristophane's skills.
Grown-ups are absent from the narrative. There is one adult character, the Zabîme sisters' mother, who makes an appearance at the very beginning, but she disappears after the first two pages. The entire province of this tale is the murky, vaguely threatening theater of adolescence, where adults, if they are present at all, do not play a starring role.
Likewise, the single-day timeframe of the action reinforces the author's commitment to the delicate and transitory nature of this period in life. He has crafted a fleeting window through which the reader witnesses the bittersweet triumphs and injustices of the sisters and their peers, played out in what feels like real time. It is as if we were watching them fidget nervously in the waiting room outside of adulthood.
To the extent that these young characters are without adult guidance and plagued by mild existential anxiety, Aristophane's underlying sentiments bear some passing similarities to those of Charles Schulz's early work. The difference is that here we see children in the process of becoming adults, stumbling their way to a future where they can take care of themselves, make their own decisions, and understand themselves. The day-to-day lives of the Zabîme sisters may be tinged with doubt and petty cruelty, but they are also refreshingly real, immediate, and unmediated.
These sentiments are quietly reinforced by every aspect of the book, from the kids' attire (their bare feet, shorts, and short-sleeve shirts leave them exposed) to the alternately scratchy and free-flowing swaths of black ink that dominate every page. Aristophane employs a drybrush painting technique, and his brushstrokes manage to be loose and impressionistic while remaining capable of realistically capturing facial expressions, gestures, and the organic details of the natural world. For the heaviness and thickness of the ink, the level of detail is remarkable and, like the narrative threads of the story itself, the artwork reveals ever-deeper levels upon successive readings.
Aristophane Boulon, who published under his first name, was born in Guadaloupe and trained at Ecole Nationale Superiéure des Beaux-Arts of Paris and the School of the Image in Angoulîme before moving into the world of narrative art, where he made an immediate splash in the French comics world with his early works Logorrhée and Faune. The Zabîme Sisters was originally published in 1996. The author died in 2004 at age thirty-seven, leaving only speculation about what else this talented storyteller might have accomplished.