Monday, 12 November 2007

Review: Paris

Paris, written by Andi Watson, drawn by Simon Gane, SLG Publishing, 2007, 128 pages, US$10.95

Juliet, an American art student in Paris in the 1950s, is hired to paint a portrait of Deborah, an English debutante. The two girls fall in love.

With a plot outline like that, you probably have a good idea of where this is going: either Juliet and Deborah will defy society, but end up living happily ever after, with Juliet recognised as an artistic genius; or they will defy society but be crushed by stifling bourgeois conformity, possibly with one of them dying. It all depends on whether the switch is set to “romance” or “tragedy”.

Actually, the story takes a rather different tack. Juliet’s portraits are not recognised as great art by anyone, and when she switches to the dominant American mode of abstract expressionism, that isn’t a great artistic success either, though it serves to reunite her with Deborah. Deborah, in turn, seems to acquiesce in an arranged marriage of convenience, which will leave both her and her husband free to pursue their own romantic interests. It seems to be a story of finding happiness through accommodation with an unsympathetic society, rather than through rebellion, which is a refreshing change. This point is, however, ambiguous: Deborah’s decision is not shown, and thereafter she is drawn with gloves, so that we cannot tell if she is wearing a ring. If you prefer the heights of romance, you can read the story as if she rejected the marriage and ran off to America to find Juliet. But that would be so much less interesting.

The main themes of the book are nicely anticipated by Watson and Gane in the opening sequence. Juliet walks through boulevards packed with mid-century Parisian clichés, all marked by sprays of small, sharp, pointed leaves.

Then we get our first sight of Deborah. She is wearing a bodice decorated with patterns of flowers with short, sharp, pointed petals, connecting her visually with the leaf motif we associate with Paris and Juliet. Her aunt then tells her to cover up her underclothes (and thus, to conceal her relationship-to-be).

A drawback of the book is that neither Juliet nor Deborah comes across as a strong, distinctive character. The supporting characters – Deborah’s ghastly traditionalist aunt and louche brother, Juliet’s bohemian friends – come across more powerfully: they are one-dimensional, but their single dimensions are clear and familiar.

But the strongest character is the one in the title: Paris itself, as limned by Gane’s quirky, blocky line. There are frequent splash pages in which Gane suppresses perspective, giving all the bustle and activity of the city equal status with the action of the lead characters. The lettering, too, reinforces the line and mood of the drawings.

So strong is the association of drawing style and location that it actually becomes something of a liability in the final chapter, in which Deborah returns to England and Juliet to America. Boxy, modern Manhattan, in particular, looks wrong laid out in the crooked lines of the Old World. But this is a small price for the visual pleasure provided by the book as a whole.

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