Olivier Schrauwen Holds a Mirror Up to the Comics Form with 'Mowgli's Mirror'
Belgian artist Olivier Schrauwen is a playful master of the comics form, in which image and story world are inventively imperfect mirrors.
Retrofit Comics & Big Planet Comics
The character Mowgli may be most widely known from the Disney cartoon adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's 1894 The Jungle Book, about a boy raised by animals in the jungle. This is not that Mowgli. Italian graphic novelist Olivier Schrauwen offers his original interpretation of the character, one only nominally related to Kipling's children's story. Schrauwen's Mowgli is a naked adult man living alone in the wilderness as he seeks companionship—emotional, platonic, and sexual—with an orangutan and other animals, as Schrauwen explores the visual nuances of the comics form.
Schrauwen uses literally every spare inch of his staple-bound and over-sized 10x12 sheets, beginning the narrative on the inside cover and concluding it on the back cover, with only a thin, bottom, half-inch strip for credits—which are the only words in the publication. His use of color is equally precise. The off-white pages feature only blue and orange ink, each in two shades. Schrauwen similarly limits his layouts, using a 4x2 gutterless grid on all but nine of his 47 pages, with four of the variant pages featuring full-page panels and another three combining panels to imply the same 4x2 baseline.
He breaks the format only once. The striking two-page spread that centers the comic divides into two 6x3 layouts, but here Schrauwen so emphasizes the panels' brushstroke shapes that the collective image largely abandons narrative for a wider visual awareness of the spread as a whole. Though Mowgli's figure wanders in each subframe, it doesn't matter in what order a reader's eye takes in the juxtapositions, and while the surrounding blues and oranges continue to depict the jungle landscape, the colors are ultimately more abstract than representational.
This balancing of story world and drawn image—or diegesis and discourse—is one of the central tensions of the comics form and one which few graphic novelists explore with greater insight. While fully depicting Mowgli's world, Schrauwen's limited palette and layouts also literally draw attention to the pages themselves.
The two-panel rows allow Schrauwen to repeatedly pair images in mirror-like combinations, most often with Mowgli on the left and the unnamed orangutan on the right. Though the two characters are physically dissimilar, the reversed but otherwise identical croppings emphasize similarities. They also emphasize discourse over diegesis when, for examples, close-ups collapse space in the single lines that both frame and divide panels. But when Schrauwen's perspective moves backward, diegetic and discursive space merges as the two-full bodies figures stare at each other through a diegetically non-existent framing line—which Schrauwen then eliminates in the subsequent pairing.
The effect is initially subtle: Mowgli stretches, the orangutan stretches. But by the final two pages, Schrauwen is exploring his most radical pairings. When Mowgli finally encounters a fellow human, Schrauwen draws the two figures almost identically, repeating some of the same mirror effects established in the opening pages with the orangutan. But then he goes further by moving each figure toward the center gutter line and merging their bodies. Rather than mirror images, the two resemble conjoined twins, and then, more extremely, single discursive shapes. The final paired panels of the penultimate page depict a double foot joined just above its two ankles—creating a wing-like shape, unlike anything that exists in Mowgli's world.
Like the center two-page spread, the final page highlights discourse over diegesis. It begins with a combined star-shaped burst that implies an impact that apparently occurs out of frame in the undrawn region of the center gutter line as the two playfully collide in the water. The second row then combines the two figures' titled heads, discursively creating a single, three-eyed, free-floating head above what appears to be a single splash but diegetically must be the combined edges of two separate splashes. The third-row pairing depicts only the double arc of falling water droplets, the two figures now completely absent. And the comic's concluding full-width panel includes only the fading spray of blue and orange dots, with both the dividing center frame line and the figures gone.
In short, how the images are drawn matters more than what they depict. While still warmly fulfilling the story's conclusion—Mowgli has finally found the companionship he so craves—Schrauwen does so by making the diegetic world secondary to the discursive fact of the page in the reader's hands.
While the effects are appropriately most extreme at the conclusion, Schrauwen explores a range of similar discursive experiments throughout the graphic novella. When Mowgli tries to introduce his new pet wolf to his orangutan friend, the center frame line divides his body in half, with his head turned toward the wolf in the left frame and his head turned to the orangutan in the right, creating a two-headed Mowgli. Unlike at the conclusion where the paired-framing technique eliminates portions and then all of Mowgli and his companion's bodies, here Schrauwen uses it to expand a single figure. In both cases the diegesis and discourse contradict.
Having created that formal expectation, Schrauwen can also playfully reverse it, as he does when Mowgli appears to be running toward another figure but then collides with his own shadow along a wall of rock. Schrauwen places the point of impact at the center of a full-width panel, at the seam of his other visual tricks, but instead of discursive, the doubling, in this case, is literal.
Later, Schrauwen alters the 4x2 rows by combining the bottom half of a page layout with two tall double panels read like columns as Mowgli looks down at his reflection in a river and then as he slips head first into the water, his actual body replacing its squiggly reflection. The squiggly line that depicts the water's edge is the same line that would normally divide the two rows.
Even more playfully, Schrauwen initially draws Mowgli with a penis-covering fig leaf—a drawing convention that, while nominally literal, emphasizes discursive convenience over diegetic realism. But the semi-figurative leaf becomes fully literal when Mowgli has an erection, after which it falls away, and Schrauwen draws his penis with casual indifference, retroactively revealing that the leaf, though mirroring a discursive tradition, was always diegetic.
Schrauwen reminds us that all lines in graphic narratives are ultimately impressionistic. When Mowgli strikes his head, Schauwen draws his figure in double lines, blue and orange. At first, the two sets are only slightly out of sync, suggesting a 3-D comic viewed without 3-D glasses, but then the two overlapping Mowglis diverge further, even loping off at opposite tilts. If the perspective were the injured Mowgli's, then the image would be naturalistic, but the image instead of Mowgli, suggesting his internal experience through his external representation.
Schrauwen is a playful master of the comics form, in which image and story world are inventively imperfect mirrors.