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The Initiates
posted February 26, 2013

imageCreator: Etienne Davodeau
Publishing Information: NBM, hardcover, 280 pages (or so), 2013, $29.95.
Ordering Numbers: 9781561637034 (ISBN13)

It's hard to imagine a more pleasantly told story than the one in The Initiates, the newly-translated work of Etienne Davodeau's available now in slick, hardcover form from NBM. Davodeau went to work in his friend Richard Leroy's vineyards and cellar to immerse himself in the world of wine creation and wine tasting. In return, Leroy reads and learns about the world of modern comics. It's not really an exchange of jobs as much as it is a tour by two devoted professionals in another man's world. The end result is even vastly different: Davodeau creates a work about their shared experience, but the 2009 Leroy wines will only reflect Davodeau working there obliquely, if at all.

This is a leisurely-told book dominated by a standard six-panel grid and an attention to figures in conversation. A guest appearance by Lewis Trondheim, who pops in with a comics page to explain why he uses a anthropomorphic protagonist, is jarring for its departure from the laidback norm. Much of the non-standard panel work is devoted to moments of physical establishment -- seeing something in nature, or a machine more fully at work, or the shape and scope of a comics festival. It's figures in conversation that dominate my memory of the work, even more than pushing through the pages a second and third time reveals is fair. Leroy proves to be a fascinating study, an idealized grumpy and demanding and patient guide to the world of grapes and wines and bottling and growing. Davodeau hides Leroy's "origin story" until the book's latter half, but the severity of the wine artisan's personal connection to his work is the strongest through-line in the book. In other words, we get to see comics through Leroy -- a trip to a printer, attending a festival, meeting a few cartoonists and having lunch with a publisher -- but for all his work pruning and developing his tasting skills Davodeau largely cedes the act of wine-making to Leroy, too.

If you push through The Initiates looking for as many connections between the two fields as possible, you'll certainly find them -- this despite any imbalance, perceived or actual, in viewpoint. It's hard to process something like Davodeau's skepticism to Leroy's devotion to biodyamics, for example, without remembering Leroy's inability to see the slight changes in color gradients Davodeau explores at a press check. I preferred the smaller, offhand moments, and liked best many of the humorous panels (Leroy's dismissals of Watchmen and Moebius made me laugh, although Davodeau doesn't linger on either in a cruel way). The book's infrequent stabs at a more significant lesson, such as the ability of wine or comics to bring about a mid-life course correction for its adherents, did not settle in with me as thoroughly. I also wondered if The Initiatiates was a bit overlong. This is tough because folding events into one another for the sake of pacing would have had an effect on tone.

Now removed from the experience of reading it, Davodeau's comic brings to mind a long, pleasant lunch conversation. Wine was served.