The Spectators, by Victor Hussenot. Nobrow Press, June 2015. 128 pages. $22.95, hardcover.
1. Victor Hussenot’s newest graphic novel, The Spectators, is his first published in English, and, well, it isn’t really a graphic novel at all.
Or, it is and it isn’t. It is.
(A note to my wife: this isn’t another opinion piece on misnomers and the politics of comics nomenclature.)
2. The opening page from the book’s prologue: a three-by-four grid establishing The Spectators’ bold palette of primary colors—red, green, blue, yellow—and twelve individual scenes: a man standing at an apartment window; a small group of cars in gridlock; two children dancing in a park, their mother on a bench. Various people at various levels of attention, looking. And above the various scenes, the grid, this text: “Each of us sees the city in our own way.”
Without a fixed character, we question: who’s narrating?
3. Hussenot is already well lauded in his home country of France, having published numerous comics there, including three full-length books. And he is an intelligent and versatile illustrator, working with a range of media, and often with a meta-comics angle, his characters interacting playfully with the formal tropes of the medium. The point is Hussenot’s talented and experienced, yes, but also, conscientious of the form, of what it means to make comics and why.
4. The body of The Spectators follows a sequence of inhabitings.
Following the premise of perspective and subjectivity established in the prologue, a central character does emerge, or rather a shadow character, a silhouette that refers more to the idea of a character, one representing the narrator and the reader, both. A vehicle. And so we follow the black silhouette or we are the black silhouette, with sharp chin and dagger nose, and thereby, we’re coaxed more readily to project ourselves into the mind of the textual musings, to inhabit the thought and take the questions as our own.
5. The book is broken into sections, wherein our sharp-faced silhouette occupies various bodies—red, green, blue, yellow—following their interactions, musing within them, ventriloquizing in their voice and sometimes referring to them in the third person. In the first section, we hear a red-toned man talking to a yellow-toned woman at a table with coffee. We muse with our narrator about the illusion of viewing the silhouette of a person seen in the distance, momentarily unable to register whether they are approaching or departing, thereby fixing them in a “moment of grace…freed from time and space.” But only an illusion.
6. Principle to Hussenot’s musing is the city. Paris, by name, but any concentration of people will, it might be suspected, produce thoughts about sharing space.
7. The obvious genius of The Spectators is to consider the act of looking and perspective via comics. And so, while comics is inherently fitted to illustrate what it means to look, thinking hard about looking when reading comics enhances what is at the heart of the form—the reader-controlled ability to suspend and investigate the page, to pause and examine, to read images and collect them together for interpretation, and, in the process, to understand the beauty in animating the gutters, and the always-nuance of our subjective position bridging the gaps, not only from image to image, but from image to concept, collecting the iconic information with linguistic and abstract ideas.
8. (And reading The Spectators, it’s impossible not to consider it self-consciously. That I’m drawn to reading it as a comic about comics speaks volumes about my position as a reader. That I correlate Hussenot’s painting of a bisected apartment building with the gridded space of a comics page, that I will use that as a metaphor, clearly expresses my interests. The book clearly has additional concerns: industrialism and the environment, cities, social communities and isolation, the construction of self, memory, light …)
9. In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether or not we ascribe the philosophical narration to Hussenot, a silhouette version of Hussenot, or some unnamed invention, the manner will be, Hussenot is sure, individual, and so whether a graphic novel or philosophical comics essay, we’ve still arrived at the same place—or perhaps more importantly, by refusing to categorize the work, we are in a more intellectually malleable, and therefore increasingly productive, space. There are subtle undercurrents running alongside the questions and ideas represented explicitly, and therefore layers.
Nick Francis Potter is a multimedia artist and writer from Salt Lake City, Utah. His website is nickfrancispotter.tumblr.com.