In a streak of good luck, I came across French artist Victor Hussenot latest books all in one go. He has been publishing regularly in a number of anthologies and revues since the early 2010s, but in the last couple of years he had published the titles that put him definitely on the map of bande dessinée. He has also produced two children-oriented illustrated books, with no text, Au pays des lignes and Chemin des souvenirs (both through the Swiss La joie de lire), but which might as well be seen as inhabiting that no-man’s land between picture books and comics. The formal experience of these books, in any case, dovetail with Hussenot’s signature moves.
La Casa (Warum) has actually had a previous edition, but the 2017 edition one is augmented, slightly, with new scenes in color pages. Les Spectateurs (Gallimard) had also been published before, but in English (The Spectators, through Nobrow). Finally, Les gris colorés is new, the most recent book in fact (La cinquième couche), and it’s a much smaller, but not less effective, book.
Each book is, as expected, a unit in itself. An individual act, presided by a particular notion or goal. But many artists have outputs that invite us to do readings of the books not only as individual titles but also as broad, overall, continuous projects that should take each and all of them in account, contributing decisively to the notion of an “auteur” in the making. This happens in the cases of Edmond Baudoin, Marco Mendes, Anke Feuchtenberger, Francisco Sousa Lobo, Tommi Musturi, Ben Katchor, Amanda Baeza, and to a lesser extent, Chris Ware, for instance. One feels that Victor Hussenot’s practice, no matter the kind of “story” he wants to tell in an individual title, emerges from a dedicated interest about the specificities of comics as a visual storytelling medium. It’s as if he zeroes in on a specific aspect in one project, then locks himself unto it and explores it as much as he can, and puts in print his findings under the chosen subject.
So we could say that La Casa is about comics panels (in French, “panel” is “la case”, so there’s a pun here with the Spanish word for “house” or “home”): its borders, the way they’re placed within the page, the relationship they create with one another, in terms of transition, expressiveness, rhetoric, and so on. Les gris colorés is about colors: the way they contribute to the character’s and the ambient emotionality, agency and personality. And Les spectateurs could be well said to be a little about world-building in comics, and the way character’s perception help in that role. This does not mean that the books are completely devoid of a more or less organized narrative within. We could point to a flexible, open-ended notion of “story,” of “diegesis” in each of these books. Les gris colorés seems to follows a group of friends, in small, moving scenes. La Casa has a multitude of characters, but they are recurrent and cross paths in a handful of funny actions, sometimes with high stakes. And in Les Spectateurs we could almost phantom a convoluted love triangle (actually, a many-sided polygon would be more exact), with a myriad of characters walking to and fro in a modern city, thinking about how their experiences are enhanced by perceiving the world and others around them. But mostly Hussenot‘s books present very small sequences of a few pages, sometimes even one-pagers, that serve as the variations of the given theme.
In a certain way, he has inherited many of the explorations that were done in the French independent 1990s scene, when people like Ayroles, Trondheim and Gerner created seemingly simple yet deep reflections, with incredibly smart visual jokes and surprising takes, about the formal and expressive affordances of comics’ arsenal of tools. I’m thinking of Les parleurs, Le dormeur, Psychanalyse, Courts-circuits géographiques and other stuff.
La Casa, in particular, seems to be a very interesting, almost like an essay, about how using panel borders may be stiffling to the “lives” inside them, and Hussenot’s playful structures invites us to think not only of metatextuality but also new solutions of comics storytelling.
It is very clear how the author’s figuration has changed over these few years, becoming bolder, more stylized and solid. His choices of composition are, of course, well-thought but the new works are more elegant, in a way. Moreover, Hussenot’s watercolors and washes are incredible, sometimes beautiful and dazzling, but more importantly, they contribute to the meaning, and even wittiness, of the visual games he’s proposing. The characters in Les gris colorés (translatable as “The colored greys”) go through the motions of every step in a human’s existence, and color is there to make it clear. The exchanges of color between the the characters do not only create very interesting chromatic dynamics, but speak to the emotions that they go through, and even the complicated stories of their lives and relationships, without a single word being spoken. In Les Spectateurs, colors also have their role, but they are more subsumed in other purposes, namely the perception and identity-building of the characters, as one can surmise especially by a shadow-character that dons and sheds multiple colored persona-costumes.
But there’s something missing. Within the new visual trends of mid- to mainstream European comics of today, Hussenot seems to be close to names such as Oliver Schrauwen, Brecht Evens or Brecht Vandenbroucke, where flamboyant, sometimes whimsical colors vibrate in the page in grand spectacles, quite often with some degree of page composition experimentation [thus, his sucess within art galleries that cater to this niche market]. However, none of Hussenot’s work coalesces into an actually lasting and sagacious impression about emotions and human experience. There’s a lightness to Hussenot’s work that does not quite relate to the purported “lessons” it wants to bite into. Brecht Evens’ stories are a little light as well, and while I don’t think we would call these books’ material “fluff,” they seem to pretend to aim at something they don’t actually pull off. La Casa‘s recurrent idea about equating panel/borders with prisons and limitations and the whole page as freedom and open space is, quite often, well, corny.
It’s not surprising that The Spectators came out through Nobrow, as this seems to be a publishing house that caters particularly to a readership that will prize strong visuals over narrative. Not that Nobrow’ books have a dearth of strong stories, of interesting characters or even of riveting approaches to certain themes (a favorite of mine is the tranquil Fish, by Bianca Bagnarelli), but more often than not these are books that tend to be in the gorgeous yet lighter side of comics-making where subject matter is concerned. Hussenot’s output seems to be right at home in this trend.
Comics are a visual medium (duh). Very rarely we have projects in which every single element is working in tandem to the same expressive and meaningful goal, and some readers will prefer a strong story or political take to aesthetics anytime, while others may take great pleasure in the art, paying almost no attention to whatever story is taking place. Hussenot’s projects are stunning, smart, and they do make up interesting examples that should be studied in order to understand how comics work. But while reading these books makes us chuckle and find funny dimensions about comics, they do not seem to change profoundly its very structure or even our overall perception about them.
A thank you note for F.D. for letting me read his copies.[the first image, after the covers, is a bad-quality photography]