December 19, 2009

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The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard

Written by Eddie Campbell and Dan Best
Illustrated by Eddie Campbell
First Second

As I get older and read more comics, I find that I am drawn more and more towards works that experiment with the medium. Funky panel construction, clever breaking of the fourth wall, mixing art with text--anything like that draws my eye to the comic.

Enter Monsieur Leotard, which features all of those things combined with the talented skills of Mr. Campbell, who I already liked from seeing his work elsewhere.

The cover image alone will give you some idea of the neat art tricks Campbell uses in the book, with words and a few features making up a face. This style provides the book with a quirky unpredictability that makes it one of the best I've read this year.

Monsieur Leotard is actually not one, but two people--an amazing daredevil cut down by smallpox and his shit-shoveling nephew, who opts to carry on the business of entertaining despite not having a lot of talent himself.

This is the theme of the book, as the new Monsieur Leotard gathers together his father's old teammates and takes them across the world and over time, ranging from the Franco-Prussian War to the time of Jack the Ripper (which I'm sure was a clever reference to another Campbell book, "From Hell") to even the beginnings of the 21st Century. Etieene, the real man behind the show, interacts with everyone from the Queen to Buffalo Bill to some rather famous creators.

At each step, Leotard is slightly self-aware, knowing that his life is playing out in "episodes" but not directly interacting with the reader. Somehow, he knows he must record his story but cannot figure out why. Once, he's even a bit blocked, but this is because his God has also run out of ideas, as we are told in a marginal story that plays out above him.

The marginal stories that pepper the book are just part of the fun of Monsieur Leotard from a visual perspective. Little characters act out scenes with short bursts of text throughout the book, breaking the 4th wall as needed. In other circumstances, Campbell draws like a child, has an acrobat leap across musical scores, imitates circus posters, and more, all with a paint-over-pencils technique that makes the book look like a watercolor collection.

Campbell even ages the characters over time in a way that keeps them both recognizable, reasonably portrayed, and yet also slightly heroic enough to perform larger than life feats--like breaking out a fellow carnie from prison despite being senior citizens. It's an artistic wonder that shows what a person can do with a graphic novel if they put their minds to it.

With all the wonder of the art, it's easy to lose sight of the delightful scripting by Campbell and Best. There are polite but lude jokes sprinkled throughout the work, such as the placement of Lenore's tatoos, a rude hot air balloon, or the idea of the talking bear and his relationship to his trainer. Other jokes are just silly, perhaps the best example being the reoccurring appearances of the human cannonball.

The banter of each character is crisp and unique. Leotard, his right-hand man Zany, and the rest all get their own voice. They can also be touching, such as when some characters are fine with dying, having lived a full life. The dark side of carnival shows gets a nod as well--human menageries that ripped people from their homes because they were different. I thought adding that aspect was a nice touch.

I don't know if there's a greater theme to this narrative that I'm missing, other than a man romping through history without grasping the significance. Leotard seems happy just to keep moving from episode to episode, rather than dwelling on live around him, a fact that he seems to realize only too late. Perhaps that's the meaning behind the jocular fun of seeing a circus troop save its own audience from a fiery fate or inventing spring shoes. Or maybe Campbell and Best just wanted to have some fun and see how many references their readers would catch. I always worry about trying to read too much into a story, be it text or graphic.

Regardless, The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard has every right to claim both adjectives, as it's a visually stunning and verbally playful book that uses all the tricks of the comic book storytelling trade to great effect. I'm a little late to the party on this one, but if you haven't read it yet, either, you owe it to yourself to do so right away.