The latest work from Guy Delisle, the French-Canadian author of Shenzhen and Pyongyang, would seem at first glance to be a comical, lighthearted project. In alphabetical order, from “Albert” to “Zoltan,” each short, one-or-two-page silent story in Albert and the Others portrays a different pathetic, frumpy male figure and his relation to the world around him. Delisle structures the work consistently with a format of fifteen small, square, monochromatic panels a page. The drawings are sketchy, cartoonish, and playful, all employing a familiar vocabulary of simple expressions and gestures. But this whimsical tone rarely feels appropriate for the comparatively sinister content. Nearly all of Albert‘s twenty-six stories focuses on the mutilation and suffering of women at the hands of gleeful, chauvinistic men.
The import of these stories is vague—is Delisle attempting to dissect the misogynistic, patriarchal underpinnings of day-to-day male life, or perhaps the phallocentric male-oriented assumptions that underlie traditional simplistic cartoons? In just three pages, the first story, “Albert,” stoically depicts the protagonist slowly getting dressed and eating lunch, before opening his closet to reveal a number of patiently-waiting women, one of whom he selects and leads to his bedroom. It only gets worse from there. In “Christophe,” a bumbling middle-aged vacuum salesman cleans a woman’s house for her before vacuuming up the woman herself, putting her into the freezer, and then placing her, frozen and in her underclothes, in his storefront. In “David,” a magician who appears to be cutting a woman in half is revealed to actually be doing just that: dismembering her while she unflinchingly smiles at the audience. Such stories bring to mind R. Crumb’s more appalling visualized sexual fantasies, but whereas Crumb presented these horror stories in a ruthlessly parodical and sarcastic tone, Delisle’s intention is ambiguous and unfeeling at best.
The lightness of the tone and pleasing aesthetic of Delisle’s stories are nearly always offset by their disturbing themes. The cartoonish slapstick humor that serves as a punch line to each strip relies on a carefree playfulness, but the sickening consequence of the stories’ underlying meaning makes it difficult, if not impossible, to feel amused. The end result is essentially uncomfortable and at the same time elusive. Delisle doesn’t present any obvious venues for this discomfort and, as such, Albert and the Others seems remarkably devoid of depth or profundity. The easy format of two-or-three page vignettes is simply unable to sustain its proposed philosophical meaning—there is just no room for reflection or proposition in Delisle’s pages.
There never seems to be any sort of retribution in the stories, either—Delisle’s men never suffer for their actions, and Delisle never attempts to condemn them. The female suffering is relentless and pervades every level of the comics, without respite. The women are mute and doll-like, passive fantasies that are time and time again violently dismembered and reassembled without say or opinion. Men exchange grotesquely dismembered body parts—Barbie-like breasts and torsos separated from a head. The misogyny pervades even the most seemingly mundane of stories: In one instance, Mathieu farts and a woman in the next building hears and smells it. And in another, Lucien remains in a state of bliss all day at work, only to come home and grumble at his inoffensive wife. Delisle imagines this scenario artistically by having Lucien switch heads, from the preset blissful face to a furrowed and grumpy one. While this visual portrayal metaphorically envisions Lucien’s cruelty towards his wife, it fails to utilize the metaphor to any greater insight—what does Lucien’s face-mask tell us about the root of his unfair treatment of his wife, and what can we learn from it? We are left with an ambiguous, unappealing document of misogyny that, in its passive depiction, ultimately seems to contribute to the violent degradation of women that it theoretically seeks to condemn.
The final third of the book slightly assuages this dreary tone, but only barely. “Thierry” shows a couple enjoying a date, “Zoltan” a man devoting a large painting to a woman, “Xavier” a female statue’s revenge upon the man who sculpted her, and “Serge” a woman using her worthless husband as a float in their swimming pool. And yet we are left with the question of why we have been forced to sit through this parade of disturbing, relentless imagery under the pretense of lightness and whimsy. Delisle, like so many contemporary cartoonists, attempts to utilize the simplicity and aesthetic of old-style cartoons for subversive means, yet he is unable to overcome or complicate the sickening misogyny and conservatism of his comics into anything of critical value. The end result simply proliferates the agenda of chauvinism, seemingly under the failed guise of progressivism and irony.