The Gap between Panels / a Perfect Moment

Comics are all about picking your moments. A creator always has to break down each scene into the individual panels that best encapsulate what they are trying to convey. They are selecting a number of freeze-frames from continuously flowing experience, and from those fragments the reader pieces together that experience again. That process feels highly artificial and constrained compared to the moving image or the free flow of prose, which better imitate the passing of time. In comics certain fragments of experience are always isolated and brought forward at the expense of other bits. We have to dwell on them and try to work out what’s happening in the bits we don’t see in between.

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That sense of panels being selected and extracted from a person’s life is ever-present in Hubert, a very short debut graphic novel by Ben Gijsemans, which he started during his Masters degree in comics at the Hogeschool Sint Lukas in Brussels. The main character is an art gallery fanatic who takes photographs of paintings and then replicates them in his apartment. The aesthetic and philosophical distinctions between painting, photography and comics inevitably become part of the background concerns of the book.

Hubert starts with a deep dive into a painting hanging in the Brussels Royal Museum of Fine Art – breaking it down into individual comic panels, and suggesting both the eye for
detail the protagonist has, and how a complete work (like a graphic novel or a painting) is composed of individual sections (panels or the different parts of the canvas). Like his protagonist, Gijsemans is reconstructing work by prior artists, but unlike him he is interjecting himself into that process, creating his own story with those raw materials.

Hubert’s life is lived through paintings, to the degree that he starts to see real life as just another painting to photograph. The turning point in the book is when he turns his camera towards a real person, with embarrassing consequences. That moment leads him to give up on the paintings of photos of old masterpieces (being thrice removed from reality, so to speak) and deciding to paint that one photo he shot of a real person (being just twice removed). The subject of his work moves slightly closer to his lived experience. The tragedy is that Hubert isn’t brave enough for interaction with real people yet. When confronted with a living breathing person, he can’t help but shrink back into the fantasies conjured by fine art.

Hubert reminds me of a comic I read last year called Yukiko’s Spinach. It’s drawn by Frédéric Boilet, a Frenchman living in Japan, who describes his comics as ‘Nouvelle Manga’. This doesn’t seem to be so much about bringing French and Japanese styles together, as it is an evocation of the French ‘New Wave’ of cinema – impressionistic, self-aware, constantly breaking the fourth wall. The story (of a short-lived romance) is actually about how the story was put together, to the point where Boilet scans in pages from his notebook containing the sketches that ended up as panels. This allows key moments to be revisited several times at different stages of refinement, much like the way Hubert circles around that one photograph until he finally decides to paint it.

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Boilet is also acutely aware of how comics pick out certain images for particular study. This is drawn out by his contrasting talent for portraying stream-of-consciousness in panels. Much of the comic is in P.O.V. with the protagonist’s dialogue in captions at the bottom, while the other characters get speech bubbles. The gaze is liable to drift away from the person ‘we’ are having a conversation with, often when the subject strays into uncomfortable territory. It’s a clever way to juxtapose the immediate sensation of time-bound life with the objects and practices that capture that time and allow us to meditate on it. Although not as overt, Gijsemans aims for a similar effect. When not focused on reconstructing the images and paintings that make up Hubert’s inner life, his panels go from moment to moment, evoking the immediate flow of time as closely as possible.

Funnily enough, both of these books are about looking at women. Hubert’s paintings are exclusively of the female form, and Boilet book is a (very intimate) portrayal of a relationship with a Tokyo native. The need to capture and revisit bits of your experience in art is bound up with the workings of desire. The books seem to suggest that voyeurism is an inescapable part of the creative process. I’m reminded of David Thomson’s (rather creepy) musings on the nature of cinema as being always about the satisfaction of an insatiable desire felt by the audience (who include the filmmakers). Extracting single images from real life is to idealise them into something that can be meditated over, or even worshipped. It’s always an expression (or sublimation) of desire.

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I love David Thomson, but he is a bit of a creep. The frankness displayed in Yukiko’s Spinach is refreshing, but you are left wondering about whether the real Yukiko was happy to have her most private interactions with the author captured for posterity in his comic book. Hubert is all fiction, and so less problematic in that respect. It also punishes the protagonist a bit more when he oversteps the line, and gives him only an ambiguous happy ending. If art must be about desire, the consent and conditions of the desired objects should be of paramount importance. And if those objects can be portrayed as subjects (desiring or otherwise), then so much the better.

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