This is a disturbing work, deliberately loose in its artistic style, which explores the images that haunt dreams and wakefulness alike.
The works that we call comic books, comics, graphic novels, or even sequential art in the United States tend to fight an uphill battle for respectability. While a few stellar examples of what the form can achieve have been grudgingly allowed to slip outside of the usual confines (think Epileptic by David B., Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Neil Gaiman's Sandman, or Blankets by Craig Thompson), these are still regarded, by far too many, as the exceptions that prove the rule.
In France, the art form is taken much more seriously. Since 1974, the Festival International de la Bande Dessinée d'Angoulême has been the premiere European tribute to comics. Think old city walls, cobbled lanes, boulevards, and magnificent views of western France in the heart of its paper-making and printing industry. In the realm of comics, an artist receiving the Angoulême Grand Prize is one who has significantly advanced the art form, raising the bar for future generations.
That's the position that Philippe Dupuy has found himself in (along with frequent collaborator, Charles Berberian, with whom he shared the 2008 prize). Dupuy's latest solo work, Haunted, reflects his position at the leading edge of world comics. In accordance with that, it is not for everyone: think art film rather than summer blockbuster. This is a disturbing work, deliberately loose in its artistic style, which explores the images that haunt dreams and wakefulness alike.
The frame story, if you will, is simply the act of the artist jogging, as much to clear (or exorcise) the mind as to exercise the body. There is a sketchbook feel to Haunted, probably deliberately so. The roughed-out figures carry an unsettled immediacy that a more polished approach to storytelling might wash away.
The overarching theme, of course, is despair and the ways in which we bring ourselves through to the other side of it. Thus, the jogger imagines a dog, his foot caught in a trap, teeth ripping skin, tendons, and bone until he is free. One narrative flows into another -- appropriate to the dream structure of the book -- and the hobbled dog dies only to introduce the next character, a boy born without hands.
For the artist, this is uniquely disturbing. He describes being at once fascinated by the dexterity the boy has achieved and repelled by the unfamiliarity. What hands are and what they mean become a subtext throughout the loosely knit narrative, as does violation of the body, both in terms of loss of limb (or eyes) and infection.
The haunting images pile up: artists struggling with the concept of negative space, ducks ridding themselves of the clutter of the past, Lucha Libre wrestlers longing to dance, and animals in the forest at a loss as to how to help their friend with the severed arm as he wallows in self-pity.
It's pretty surreal, distinct from Dupuy's Monsieur Jean style, but this easy cartooning style has an attractiveness all its own, even if it is difficult to nail down exactly what makes it so And this, of course, is exactly what comics need in order to continue the path toward greater acceptance: stories and styles that resist easy categorization.
There's the temptation, when discussing works like Haunted in North America, to wax eloquent on the many possibilities inherent in the comics medium that books like this suggest. But the truth is that the rest of the world has been noticing (and improving on) these possibilities for quite some time now.
As comics continue to shake loose from old standards, entire new ways to combine words and pictures make themselves known, and storytellers like Dupuy will snap them into structures the rest of us can dream in.