Graphic Novel Review – Exquisite Corpse
Exquisite Corpse is the first graphic novel from First Second that I haven’t enjoyed. In fact, this one falls short on a number of levels for me, although it did provide me with some insight into how faux-empowerment stories alter when told for women instead of men. More on that in my spoiler-filled Overall section. The book first came out in France in 2010, and the english translation was done through First Second in May of 2015. As for the author and illustrator, Penelope Bagieu is extremely popular in France, and even had her comic series, Josephine, made into a live action film in 2013.
Our lead character is Zoe, a bubble-headed product rep who is extremely passive, so much so that she puts up with her unfilling job (constantly surrounded by creepy, grabby, and general shitty men as consumers) and her explicitly awful relationship with a no-name, verbally abusive boyfriend. She endures abuse every day, which would serve to make her a sympathetic character, if she weren’t a willingly ignorant philistine who shrugs off the great advice of the supportive network of co-workers surrounding her. Instead, she finds a fix for her problems, in act one at least, by getting involved with a man who isn’t as god awful as the rest, at least on a first glance.
She shacks up with this man, Thomas Rocher, who is a world-famous author who doesn’t go outside, and is also at least 15 years older (by my estimation) than the younger Zoe, who is a spry 22. One night, she wakes up in the middle of the night to find Thomas talking to his editor and ex-wife, Agathe, and this sets up some jealousy conflicts for Zoe. While on a walk to both clear her head of the old couple’s lasting interactions, and to find one of Thomas’s books, she learns the secret that sets up the final conflict for the book.
Bagieu’s style of drawing is actually very similar to what I do for Druid City in some respects, so I wanted to get more into this than I ended up being. The line work is pretty shaky, which seems to be by design. The pen stroke weights are consistently thin widths (and pretty much the same throughout). I can certainly relate to keeping ink stroke weights pretty much the same throughout, because I do it a LOT myself, but after sticking with the style for more than 30 pages, and all in one sitting, it starts to look cheap after a while (a lesson I learned after my first volume). That’s just me and I really don’t think I’m doing the best job of describing my distaste with the visual style, so perhaps its best to chalk that up to a person quirk.
Without getting into the spoiler territory that I will for the Overall section of this review, I’ll mention that the core message of this novel seems to be finding empowerment through making one’s own achievements, and for women to not rely on men to satisfy every portion of their lives. On the surface, it can communicate these messages, but the actual execution of the twists and the general misconduct of the lead characters make me think that perhaps Bagieu was going for something more, but still missed the mark for me. Who knows, perhaps my interpretation of the book that I’ll offer in the next section is exactly what Bagieu is going for, but I can’t really be positive. Considering that Bagieu mentioned in a Mary Sue interview that she doesn’t read reviews, I take it I’ll never know for sure, and if there’s ever a review she should probably skip over, it’s this one.
Before I get into spoilers I’ll make a specific recommendation for certain readers who will probably really like this book on a deeply cathartic level. This demographic would be: person who finds Mr. Higgins in Pygmalion/As You Like It to be aggravating, man-splainy garbage. If you fall into that category, I’m sure this book will provide a suitable breath of fresh air, because it serves as a subversion of it. Now excuse me as I get into spoilers and talk about why I, personally, was annoyed by it despite falling into the category that I just listed.
The main problem with the story being one of female empowerment is that the final twist involves Zoe and Agathe becoming rich by stealing Thomas’s ideas and passing them off as Zoe’s, because Thomas and Agathe faked the former’s death in order to make monetary gain off his “posthumous” works and pity money. Thomas can’t come forward about the theft because he’s dead in the eyes of the world, so he ends up in a Being John Malkovich-type situation, trapped in solitude while he watches the two women he didn’t fulfill romantically have a romantic relationship with each other (Zoe and Agathe get together at the end). The last frame of the book ends with the two women rejoicing that they both found someone who isn’t all about work and can finally enjoy simple things like sipping drinks on the beach together. It’s basically a misogynist’s straw-feminist nightmare made manifest, though if a misogynist read this and had a mild aneurysm I’d probably get a laugh out of it, so…
One thing I realized while reading this book, complete with lead characters that are either ethically lacking, romantically stunted, or willingly passive and vapid, is that it’s kind of like the film Garden State, for women. Garden State features a mediocre dude with confidence issues who needs to find a lady who has no flaws of her own in order to fix all his problems so he can be a “real man” or whatever. The lady character has no goals of her own save for fixing the dude and I would imagine that women watching Garden State would want to put their head through the viewing screen at some point because it’s all about shallow male self-indulgence.
In a similar vein, I found myself frustrated with Exquisite Corpse because it’s all about shallow female self-indulgence. All the men are either outright horrible or end up being poor long-term relationship partners due to their confidence and validation issues. Exquisite Corpse at least gets points over Garden State because Zoe and Agathe are more depthful than Zach Braff. Neither Zoe and Agathe are particularly likable. Actually none of the characters are, but I’m pretty sure that’s the intended effect. God, I hope so.
Zoe is an airhead who is swept away by fancy gifts and someone to listen to her problems that she has no intention of solving on her own, and her last line shows that she truly has no work ethic or appreciation for such things whatsoever. Her one improvement by the book’s end is her becoming more engaged in literature, which gives her enough knowledge to hold up Agathe’s newest ruse for an initial impression, but can it possibly be one that will last in the long run given her priorities? Agathe is a manipulator who is incapable of being with someone who she hasn’t built from the ground up first (grooming, if you will, which makes the age difference between her and Zoe have even more disturbing implications). My greatest hope, post-narrative, for Zoe, is that she subverts even Agathe’s expectations by actually becoming the great author that Agathe is trying to sell her as. But that story isn’t told.
So while the book characterizes awful and flawed people satisfactorily enough, I didn’t enjoy reading their bourgeois love triangle disaster in the slightest, and can’t even come close to giving this a stellar review, though I will make exception for the Mr. Higgins haters. I’d implore you to look for more of Penelope Bagieu’s work because she clearly has a talent for characterization, and I’m sure it’s come across better in something else that she’s made.