'Magritte: This Is Not a Biography' Is Playful in Its Visual Riffs

This tribute to surrealist painter Rene Magritte reveals more about the comics form than the artist.

Magritte: This is not a Biography
Vincent Zabus, Thomas Campi

Self Made Hero

Nov 2017


Rene Magritte is an ideal subject for a graphic novel. His paintings explore the same terrain that the comics form is built on, one that writer Vincent Zabus scripts into a Twilight Zone-like adventure for artist Thomas Campi to explore in his own surrealist variations. Campi's cover recreates one of Magritte's self-portraits in which the painter appears to have cut out the shape of his own head to reveal not the curtain behind him but the clouds behind the curtain. The layered illusion heightens both the appearance of depth in the painted image and yet also the flatness of the two-dimensional canvas. That kind of illusion runs through a range of Magritte's paintings. It's also the defining illusion of comics.

Like the vast majority of comics artists, Campi places rectangular panels on the white backdrop of each page, creating the impression of windows that look into three-dimensional scenes situated just beyond the panel frames. If a panel's image includes a white object—a cloud, a wall, even the letters of captioned narration—that white is understood to be different from the white of the page visible between panels, even though they are identical. While a comics page is like a gallery wall of independent paintings, This is Not Magritte also combines its panels into layouts that emphasize page unity. Campi, like Magritte, exploits these weirdnesses, at one point drawing a figure who not only breaks panel frames, but even appears to climb their edges like scaffolding.

Zabus's story is a kind of scaffolding too, giving Campi a narrative structure to hang his Magritte-inspired watercolors and oil paintings. Charles, Zabus's stereotypically straight-laced narrator, accidentally dons what turns out to be Magritte's bowler hat and so stumbles into an alternate universe fueled not only by the painter's images but his personal history, allowing Zabus to sprinkle the nominal plot—will Charles ever escape this strange world?!—with a range of biographical facts, the way Campi sprinkles the same pages with visual references to Magritte's art.

Zabus's title echoes probably Margritte's most famous work, The Treachery of Images (1929) a painting of a pipe with the words in French,"This is not a pipe." While the pun is entertaining, the resulting not-a-biography is also a not-an-entirely-engaging-story. It's difficult to care about the cartoonishly drawn Charles or his less cartoonishly drawn love interest, a Magritte expert he conveniently meets during his mission to comprehend the artist and so be allowed to remove his haunted hat. Arguably, that story is of secondary importance, but it occupies as much if not more page space than the cut-outs of Magritte's life it indirectly provides.

At some level Zabus is lampooning the idea of biography, that it's even possible to encapsulate a person's life events and psychological complexities. That partly explains Magritte's two-dimensional characterization and stock summaries: "He was a sort of instinctive anarchist, a wild man who liked to play the dandy," or "As a teenager, Rene was racked by a hyperactive and tortured libido. It was Georgette who channeled his urges, lent his incoherent life structure." Yet when Charles exclaims, "The more I learn about Magritte, the more complicated he seems," the opposite seems true. At times it seems Zabus is simplifying Magritte for a young audience, as if the graphic novel is targeting a children's market, but the occasional nude breasts and one of Magritte's few bits of dialogue, "The artist will now fuck his model!" eliminates that possibility.

The book's best moments are its most playful ones, as when Magritte's "biographer" appears as a tiny man on a miniature train and Charles complains, "The font's too small. I can't hear you," or when the biographer dies of an arrow wound even as he acknowledges that his blood is only paint—which of course it literally is. The meta approach predictably places the book itself into the story, with an unnamed character reading a copy and warning Charles what will happen on the page's bottom panel. Although he does eventually remove the bowler hat and escape Magritte's world, Charles then chooses to abandon his normal life and reenter the novel's final painting to float hand-in-hand with his beloved Magritte expert.

Happily, the actual book does not end there, but with several pages of additional paintings by Campi. Though Charles still appears in them all, Campi is finally free of Zabus's dialogue and plot structure. This is perhaps the freedom that Charles and Magritte himself longed for too. As Zabus has Magritte say earlier in the narrative: "Like my paintings, do you? Then look at them! There are no answers, you know! Just images…"

While the not-a-biography approach is more entertaining than a standard biography, Zabus and Campi might also have explored other not-a-story approaches too, ones that might further realize the spirit of Magritte's paintings by unlocking them from a conventional narrative structure. Still, the graphic novel's overall playfulness, especially its visual riffs on Magritte's paintings, is a fitting tribute to the artist, and one perfectly suited to the comics form.

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