Pénélope Bagieu… and Her Cohorts

Today we foray into the land of semi-autobiographical, prototypically ‘female’ chronicles – you know the thing, jokes about dieting and weight gain, a never-ending quest for the right boyfriend, hoary chestnuts about opening jars and eating ice cream when sad. The focus may vary a bit – some characters are stuck in humdrum drudgery, potty-training children and husbands, and some are bouncing around on sexy outings (and all of them fretting about becoming their mothers). While I am not automatically dismissive of this genre, it’s difficult to pull it off in an interesting way. For every Sylvia, there are many, many Cathys*.

Anyway, lately French cartoonists who go down that road have tended to opt for a very similar drawing style, similar to the point where one starts wondering who has ripped off whom. One of the artists who stands out a bit more to me is Pénélope Bagieu, whose work, while adopting a lot of tropes inherent to this category, also provides some genuinely interesting moments.

Bagieu might be best known for her 2016 webcomic-turned-best-selling-book Les Culottées (Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World in English) that tells stories of exceptional women of different eras and nationalities. It’s a great idea… that I am not interested in, which can also be said about California Dreamin’, her biography of Mama Cass. However, two of her graphic novels are definitely worth seeking out.

Exquisite Corpse (translated from the French Cadavre exquis, published in 2010, Gallimard) does a great job of depicting the depressing life of Zoe, who shuffles between a mind-numbing job and a lackluster relationship, growing more desperate by the day. Her life takes an altogether different turn when she accidentally meets a recluse who turns out to be a famous author. I don’t want to give any spoilers about the set-up of the ending, but I did not see it coming at all.

Her other graphic novel I like, La page blanche (2012), was written by Boulet and remains untranslated into English. It opens with a young woman sitting on a bench, having no idea how she got there or who she is. The interesting thing is that her amnesia never goes away — she never gets to remember anything about her past life, or discover who she was. All she finds was an apartment full of books that everybody reads and movies everybody watches, as well as shallow friends who are not really friends.

More in ligne with the aforementioned ‘woman seeks partner, settles for ice cream instead’, here are a few pages from the first volume of Joséphine, a series of three albums published between 2008 and 2010:

Joséphine’s only weapon against her holier-than-thou sister is sarcasm.

Since I made a point of mentioning artists with similar styles, here’s an example. The following pages have been scanned from La célibataire, written by Quebecoise India Desjardins and illustrated by French Magalie Foutrier (although given how light in storytelling content this book is, and how very French it is, too, I’m not really sure what Desjardins actually contributed):

Making pâté chinois from scratch… or not.
One of my favourite storylines in this book, about a cat she finds on her balcony one autumnal afternoon. Not sure why she’s bathing it, though. Unlike the very human Joséphine, this gal is always impeccably dressed and perfectly coiffed.

Despite its lack of originality, I like La célibataire a lot for its the bright colours and textured art. Sometimes, ‘it’s pretty’ is a justification to keep something despite multiple attempts at purging the books one doesn’t really need. This one has survived every purge, so far.

That was two examples I actually like — for kind-of-similar-but-no-thank-you, check out Margaux Motin or Nathalie Jomard.

~ ds

*On Hating Cathy over at The Comics Journal is a worthwhile read, though I disagree with its conclusion.