Lost Souls

"You Ain't No Beauty But Hey, You're Alright"

October 19, 2011
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Lucille graphic novel coverArt/Story by Ludovic Debeurme
Published by Top Shelf Productions

I will never post a negative review, but this week pickin’s looked mighty slim: All glossy well drawn, cleverly written high concept stuff that just failed to connect with me.

I’d start something and get two pages into it then find myself saying oh, I see what you did, you took that big budget movie and you mixed it with that popular graphic novel and you threw in some characters from your favorite TV show and some philosophy cribbed from your favorite band and there you are.

I could not force myself through them. As I said, all well drawn, all (from the no more than 8 pages or so I could force myself to read) well written in the context of finding clever spins on old tropes, clichés, and catchphrases, but not a single one that I could have been compelled to finish reading without a .38 police special pointed at my temple.

So I started Lucille by artist/writer Ludovic Debeurme, a 544 page tome of deceptively simple black and white line drawings about an anorexic and her ill-fated boyfriend, thinking I should at least begin on it today so I would have something to write about in a week or two…

In a handful of simple lines Debeurme did what all the slick, glossy, technically proficient high concept stories couldn’t do: Engage me with characters I really cared about, characters whose sorrows and happiness and eventual success or failure meant something to me.
He resonated. I blitzed through the book in less time than it would have taken me to read any three mainstream comics.

What Debeurme does and does brilliantly is to use his deceptively simple art to pull the reader deep into the psyches of his characters. As Scott McCloud pointed out in Understanding Comics (an eon ago in pop culture terms), the simpler, more basic a character’s design, the easier to find universal truths that all readers can relate to.

The plot is simple as well: Lucille is a young woman suffering from anorexia to the point her health — physical, emotional, psychic, spiritual — is gravely impaired. Arthur is a punk loser from a loser family; he delivers the nutritional medicine Lucille needs.
They meet, fall in love, run away, encounter difficulties, confront tragedy. Lucille returns home alone.

No galaxies in peril, no worlds trembling on the brink, no thunderous godlings threatening to shake the very foundations of the universe.

Just two people — two extraordinarily ordinary people — who will break your heart with their bittersweet tale.

Debeurme’s great insight is in crafting his protagonists’ back stories in such a way as to make them two complimentary jigsaw puzzles, with key pieces bending around in an Escher-esque manner to fill in key details in both their lives.

He also knows how to fill in vast swaths of detail by keeping his canvas empty. We have no idea to the fate of Lucille’s father; he is absent from her life when we first encounter her, never appears in flashback.

Yet it’s abundantly clear that this absence is something that eats away (irony intended) at Lucille’s very soul. She finds herself in an epic war of wills with her mother, a war fought over seemingly trivial terrain.

Conversely, Arthur’s drunken father Vladimir threatens to overpower him, to overtake him with the same dreadful fate he suffers and his grandfather suffers.

In a key scene where Arthur and Vladimir attempt some belated father-son bonding as crew of a fishing boat, Arthur saves his father’s life over the life of another sailor, a much better man and a much better father to his son than Vladimir.

And Vladimir recognizes this and tries to get Arthur to save the other man, but Arthur doesn’t and Vladimir lives…
…only to drink himself deep into depression and then hang himself, unwittingly(? Perhaps not…) cursing his son with a similar fate years later. (Arthur’s mother is no prize, either; she’s the one who reveals his grandfather killed himself as well, even though Vladimir sought to keep such knowledge from the boy while he was alive).

Lucille and Arthur try escaping their fates, running away for a few idyllic weeks before being overtaken by emotional forces they are unfamiliar with, strangers to.

Debeurme suggests a healthier, more balanced couple would have withstood the assaults on their psyches, but then again, it is the very fragileness of their souls that make the tragedy of Lucille and Arthur so poignant.

It’s not the big things that will bring us down, it’s the small ones.

This is not a depressing book. It is a tragedy in the proper classical sense of providing a catharsis for the reader, ending with a moment of hope for Lucille and her mother, a moment that would never have come without Arthur’s sacrifice.

Note: Be forewarned Debeurme’s art occasionally veers into R-rated territory. Lucille is a book for mature audiences, but if Debeurme’s sensitive storytelling either arouses or outrages you, you’re more messed up than his characters.

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