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Bart Beaty Reviews Bandes de Sonnets, By Etienne Lecroart
posted October 30, 2007
 

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By Bart Beaty

It's been 12 long years (I had to look it up) since Scott Gilbert wrote, in The Comics Journal, of the early issues of Acme Novelty Library, "[Chris] Ware's works are never graceful; to borrow a term from jazz, they don't 'swing', they don't even come close." I wasn't sure that I agreed with that charge at the time, and I'm still not sure today, but I was struck by Gilbert's use of the term "swing" in the context of comics, and it has stayed with me a long time. The rhythm of the comics page is one of its least discussed formal elements, but, it seems to me, also one of its most important. Ware, who himself is highly knowledgeable about music and an adept musician himself, creates work where the topic can be meaningfully engaged, but this is not always the case with most comics.

Bandes de Sonnets by Etienne Lecroart (L'Association) is a book that explicitly asks us to think about the rhythm of the comics page. The book, another of Lecroart's OuBaPo-derived experiments, was suggested by Gilles Esposito-Farese, who challenged Lecroart to create a series of comics according to the notion of iconic rhymes. The sonnet, with its form of two groups of rhyming quatrains followed by two of rhyming tercets (you may recall the abab-abab-ccd-eed from high school English classes, for example), seemed a particularly apt format for such an undertaking, and Lecroart has published a number of comics sonnets in various locations, now collected here in one book.

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So does it work? Well, the results are somewhat mixed. One of the challenges faced by Lecroart is the rhyme. Shakespeare is free to rhyme "minds" with "finds" and "love" with "remove," but what constitutes a rhyme in comics? How similar should the panel be to its partner? Lecroart answers by re-using panels. That is, his "rhyming" panels are actually duplicates. This presents special difficulties that bring us back to the issue of rhythm.

Let's take the first page of "Egards-Sonnet," for example. This is a page with four tiers of four panels which "rhymes" in an ABBA fashion where the final panels are re-occurring. My difficulty, though, is that in simplifying the final panel of each line so that it is more easily re-used in new contexts, the "swing" of each line is interrupted. These are wordy panels with long sentences, followed by a quick interjection that too often feels forced. So, despite the gorgeous simple drawings, when I read it, it feels forced.

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Yet is this the fault of the sonnet form? Other examples suggest not. The longest piece in the book runs fourteen pages rather than fourteen tiers. "Premieres Lignes" depicts a pair of WWI soldiers having a long discussion on the battlefield, and each six-panel page ends with an explosion or conflagration. Here the sonnet is given the space to breathe, and Lecroart's humor is allowed to develop. This is a smart strip that does, indeed, swing. (And it too is beautifully drawn -- Lecroart has altered his style from the spare linework that defined his earlier works, and the result is really interesting).

Of course, "Premieres Lignes" also relies on a simple "rhyming" panel to get its point across. So does this rule out complexity? Not at all. The last sonnet of the book, "Sonnet Faux," may also be the best. Two dogs, one of whom is the president, talk policy. The rhyming panels, though duplicated, are no less wordy than the wordy final panels. Yet Lecroart is able to have his character easily repeat these lengthy passages because they become sound-bites, the type of canned response that presidents of all types constantly reiterate. Moreover, the reiteration becomes the heart of the joke, allowing the sonnet form to really help drive the point of the strip home. In this case, it seems to be not just an exercise, but a strip that swings.

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*****

Bandes de Sonnets, Etienne Lecroart, L'Association: Eperluette, 2844142486 (ISBN10), 9782844142481 (ISBN13), September 2007, 16 Euros

*****

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