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Pourquoi j'ai tuee Pierre, Alfred and Olivier Ka
posted February 16, 2007
 

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By Bart Beaty:

At Angouleme this year, eight books (and one fanzine) won the major prizes, now known as The Essentials. I will review each of these, save one: Charles Burns' Black Hole. While I think that this is a great book -- indeed, I even bought one of Burns' draft sketches at SPX last year and have it framed on my dining room wall -- I have nothing to say about it in relationship to European comics other than to offer the completely useless name-dropping fact that I ate dinner with Charles at Angouleme this year, but barely spoke to him because we were at opposite ends of the table. Plus I assume you've all read it, and if you haven't please go do that rather than surfing the web.

Two other of the Essentials I've already discussed: Le Photographe by Guibert and Lefebvre, and Lucille by Ludovic Debeurme (also at the above mentioned dinner, and probably as good an amateur guitarist as you're ever likely to meet). So, today I want to talk about fourth of The Essentials: Pourquoi j'ai tuee Pierre by Alfred and Olivier Ka.

As has been widely noted, the prizes this year were not favorable to the biggest French publishers and the traditional French album. Pourquoi j'ai tuee Pierre (Why I Killed Pierre) is the book that comes closest to filling the jury's obligation to pick a "mainstream" winner. This is the book that fell closest to the commercial end of the spectrum in the awards, although to call it a traditional album would be woefully inaccurate.

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The book tells the autobiographical story of its writer, Olivier Ka. The son of free-thinking parents, Olivier was sexually assaulted by a priest at a summer camp when he was 12 years old. Scarred by this experience, Ka recounts not only the impact that it had on him as a youth, but also a trip with artist Alfred to the scene of the crime wherein they meet and confront Pierre as adults. This is heavy, serious material that could easily fall into movie-of-the-week cliches but which is kept well above that level through the mobilization of formal elements.

Alfred, who is perhaps best known for his children's comic series Octave (Delcourt), is an interesting choice for this book. His default visual style is highly slick and charming, as befits a good children's book illustrator. This lends the early chapters a comforting, light tone that draws the reader into the particularities of Olivier's world. When things turn ugly, however, Alfred is easily able to shift visual gears, and it is the choices that are made in these sequences that make the book work.

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Specifically, the scenes of the assault themselves are drawn in an entirely different register from the beginning of the book, with thick, black brush strokes replacing the previously tight lines. As the scene continues, the images become increasingly abstract, representing not the physical actions but the emotional reactions that dominate the scene. Further, a shift in lettering dramatically emphasizes the sense of panic that has overtaken our young protagonist.

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Later in the book, when Olivier is an adult, a visually arresting scene finds him suffering an anxiety attack at the thought of entering a church for the wedding of a friend. Here Alfred turns Olivier's world literally on its side, with garish colors and broken figures communicating his sense of panic. A scene in which the artists drive to the summer camp is told through a series of low-grade photographs (perhaps from a camera phone?), and the encounter between Pierre and Olivier (which Alfred does not see, and so does not draw) is communicated in a long series of pages featuring only two landscape panels, each of which appears to be a Photoshop-manipulated photograph taken on that day.

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While none of these techniques is particularly new in comics, what makes them work is the way that they exist in relation to the highly traditional and cartoony imagery that dominates the first half of the book. By shifting visual gears so aggressively, the artists bring the psychological effect of the events of the book firmly to life in a way that a comic using a single visual register would totally fail to accomplish.

This is an interesting book all around. Not an easy read because of its subject matter, it is nonetheless one of the more interesting examples of recent confessional autobiography. While it doesn't compare to a book like Anders Nilsen's Don't Go Where I Can't Follow (a book I consider to be a minor masterpiece), it is well worth reading and is the type of thing that would've gathered a lot of attention here had it been published in English rather than French. Hardly the most "mainstream" choice, but these were hardly the most mainstream of awards.

Next time: The fifth and final runner-up, Frederik Peeters' Lupus

*****

Pourquoi j'ai tuee Pierre, Olivier Ka and Alfred, Delcourt, 111 pages, 2756003808 (ISBN), September 2006.

*****

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