Julie Maroh’s Blue is the Warmest Color (Arsenal Pulp 2015) was originally published in French in 2010 and English in 2013, the same year as the English film adaptation. Maroh sets the coming-of-age story within the homophobia of the ’90s, compounding the lesbian love plot with political reverberations that offset its otherwise intimate focus. While the Abdellatif Kechiche adaptation won the Cannes’ Palme d’Or award, its source material may be the more compelling work of art—one intricately crafted with features unique to the comics form.
Morah’s use of color is its most immediately striking feature. As established by the title, blue is the central visual motif, one suggesting pleasure, usually romantic, often erotic—though a child’s balloon or a diary can possess the same glow. Initially Clementine’s adolescent world is a wash of browns and grays—until punctuated by her first glimpses of desire: first a boy’s blue shirt, then a girl’s blue hair.
Unclothed though, Thomas, Clementine’s first boyfriend and almost lover, returns to his undifferentiated dank shades. Emma, however, literally haunts her dreams, her blue hands exploring Clementine’s white body.
The simple color binary breaks down in the framing story when the adult Emma is visiting Clementine’s now elderly parents. The contemporary world is a colorful one. Emma’s turtleneck is blue, but her hair has grown back blonde, Emma’s mother wears a red sweater, and oranges and greens permeate the bedding and walls. Though Clementine’s old diary is still blue, the color no longer produces the same effect and meaning in the altered context. Despite the difficulties of Clementine’s identity-searching adolescence, its two-tone impressionism was a product of her own inexperience.
After her father disowns her and she is forced to leave her childhood home, a naked but now realistically skin-toned Clementine curls as if three-dimensionally above the panel layout. She turns 30 a page later. Her worst moment, a brutal break-up fight with Emma after Clementine confesses to adultery, Mahor infuses with the novel’s most vibrant watercolors. Though the greens of Clementine’s hospital deathbed scenes are both literally and metaphorically darker, the effect is muted by Emma’s renewed devotion. When Emma stands alone looking into a gray ocean, the final image is the novel’s largest and most realistic watercolor.
For all of Mahor’s attention to color, her skill with panel effects, unique to the comics form, is arguably greater. By establishing a book-length norm of three-row layouts and uniform gutters, Mahor creates opportunities for variations. Atypically wide horizontal gutters suggest a scene-breaking time leap or, when placed within an otherwise continuous scene, a psychological break—as when Clementine first glimpses Thomas from her cafeteria seat. When they first kiss, Mahor eliminates frames and so gutters entirely, instead floating the two figures in an implied full-width panel at the bottom margin of the page. Their unframed background communicates the momentousness of her first kiss by placing it in the same timeless white as the gutters. But when Clementine later flees back home after nearly having sex with Thomas, her two darkened panels instead float unaligned in one of the novel’s widest expanses of white space. Mahor repeats the two-step narrative technique with Emma, but in reverse and with intensified effects. After hanging up angrily on Emma, the lone figure of Clementine and her phone float in even wider unframed white space, and after the two have sex for the first time, their two unaligned panels float too, only now suggesting their time-escaping joy in a still wider expanse.
Mahor is equally masterful with juxtapositional effects between panels separated by standard width gutters. While Mahor varies her left-to-right reading paths with brief, two-panel sub-columns on roughly a fifth of the novel’s 156 pages, in two cases the stacked panels do more than shift reading direction. At arguably the most significant moment in the narrative, when Emma and Clementine make eye contact for the first time, Mahor draws Emma’s face in what could be a single panel but instead is divided into two thinner strips with a centered gutter separating her eyes from her lower face.
The result is closer to the original meaning of visual closure, in which the two parts are perceived as a single whole. The framing not only emphasizes Emma’s eyes, but, by also fracturing a single moment in half, Mahor disrupts the flow of perceived time too. She repeats the technique at another pivotal moment. When her closest male friend reveals that her circle of friends are avoiding her because they think she’s gay, Mahor divides his face too, but here the emphasis is on his mouth and talk balloon: “Actually … I think it’s more about you.” The next three-panel row features the novel’s only metaphorical sequence, as the ground literally cracks beneath Clementine’s feet and she plunges into crosshatched darkness. Two pages later, even her panel frames collapse around her limp body.
Mahor also employs insets with the same thematic skill. While caption box insets appear on most pages, often breaking panel frames, Mahor draws only a total of six image insets, all within a 17-page, mid-story sequence, and all intimately framing Emma’s and Clementine’s hands or eyes.
The first overlays panel content for a closure effect similar to the examples described above, but here, when Emma touches Clementine’s hair for the first time, the inset breaks the gutter alignment of both bordering panels, as if the moment cannot be contained by the standard rules of their world. A row lower and the inset of their clasped hands break four more borders. Two pages later Clementine’s inset eyes challenge Emma for never inviting her to her apartment. When she finally does, the next inset frames Clementine’s eye and a single, joyful tear as she has her first orgasm, while the next is still more explicit—Clementine’s hand between Emma’s legs for the first time.
The final two, however, move from easy eroticism to harder emotions. When Clementine touches Emma’s hair, the inset, while misaligned with the closest panel border, fails to bridge the gutter to the adjacent image—including the next in which Emma pulls her hand away, followed by her breaking off their affair. The novel’s last inset reverses the pattern of intimate touch to show Clementine shoving away a plate of food that Emma is serving her—prompting Emma’s confession that she’s keeping Clementine at an emotional distance to protect herself. When they overcome that distance, Mahor literally closes the door on their next sex scene, content instead with a visually more meaningful row of layout-breaking panels as the two move out of view.
The story’s nudity and sexual content would likely conjure an exploitive male gaze if the images were not drawn by a lesbian author—a quality that complicates the film adaptation. Mahor’s hand, however, is deft in so many ways, producing a visually and emotionally complex tale of coming-of-age love uniquely grounded in the comics form.