Sometimes books present themselves to you out of the blue. There’s nothing about them that would normally make you want to sit up and pay attention, and yet somehow you still do, perhaps an intuition within guides you. And you never regret it.
Valérie Mangin is a French comic writer who’s output never really appealed to me. She predominantly writes books for Soleil (a French publisher specialising in heroic fantasy series, and very succesful at it too), and her stories either rely heavily on fantasy, or require an incredible amounts of “just suppose” that I found I was never able to get past the first few pages.
Her most recent series, a trilogy called Abymes, was published at Dupuis, in the venerable Air Libre series, which, in my humble opinion, has lost a lot of its lustre in recent years. Still, I was intrigued by the covers of the three books, mirroring each other, that I started to read. And then kept on reading.The first part, which was illustrated by Griffo, tells the story of what happens when famed French novelist Honoré de Balzac suddenly discovers that La Revue de Paris, which serialises all his novels, has replaced his latest work by a series retelling the biography of a French writer who is unmistakingly Balzac. The episodes are riddled with little details that only he himself could have known, and Balzac is at a loss as how his publisher could have known all of this. He sets out on a dramatic and fateful quest to find out, not helped by the fact that everybody thinks he writes the scandalous pieces himself. In this story, it doesn’t end well for Honoré, who seems to have had a quite more successful real biography.
The second book, for which Loïc Malnati provided the art, is situated in post-war France, when varioius factions of the conquering forces (predominantly communist versus nationalist factions) are trying to control the freshly liberated country. Henri-Georges Clouzot, a film director who is generally considered a collaborator, has been commissioned by war hero Bernard Barrant-Rondeau to make a film about the famous French writer Honoré de Balzac. The film, which stars Clouzot’s wife, will be shot in the actual house that Balzac lived in. While the unions picket his studio, Clouzot finds out that his rushes are being tampered with and mixed with footage of his wife being unfaithful. Again, the story will not end well for Clouzot, who has to pay for his crimes against his country. And here too, liberties are taken with the actual biography of the film maker. What is Mangin playing at?
Things get really weird in the third part, illustrated by Mangin’s husband Denis Bajram. This is the story of a young librarian who starts writing comics, meets her husband, a cartoonist, and is very successful (in fact, she’s able to buy Balzac’s house in the country). However, she is haunted by a series of books, Abymes, that she finds in comic stores but loses again, until it makes her break down with stress and paranoia. Mangin too will find out that people she trusts are not really that trustworthy, but unlike Balzac and Clouzot, she learns to cope with it (and also, nobody really dies), and together with her husband has a literally sky-rocketingly successful life.
Abymes is a series of books that are too big for even this rambling summary. On the one hand it’s a series of playful amusements with reality and how it could have changed at a whim, but on the other it is also a quite profound philosophical study on authorship, collaboration, ownership of artistic works, etc. The fact that Mangin manages to keep a single tone of voice throughout the book, while slightly modifying the speed and particular narrative techniques to fit the period, only proves her mastership in her craft. I guess I’ll have to retry all those other sword and sorcery books after all...
To end, two more things I enjoyed very much about these books. One is that, in these times of intégrales and other collected editions, this is a series that plays up the fact that it is a series. Especially the last part will not work if the book is published in one volume, and I like that. The second aspect is the fact that much of the scenery, and many of the people, are very recognizable. Again, the third part could easily function as a who is who and where is what of the Brussels comics stores.
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