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Smart Monkey, Winshluss
posted March 8, 2005


Will quick wits get you what you want in a world where only the strong survive? That's the question posed by Winshluss in Smart Monkey, a mostly wordless black and white graphic novel about, well, a smart monkey.

Set in pre-historic Africa, Smart Monkey follows a cute, big-nosed monkey who is struggling to get by. Shunned by female monkeys because he lacks certain alpha male qualities, he coasts by on a combination of ingenuity and chutzpah. Things turn bad for our hero when he engages in a war with a predatory sabre-toothed tiger, and then turn from bad to worse when volcanic eruptions threaten life as he knows it. Throughout, Smart Monkey is a rollicking, chaotic book that travels from plot point to plot point like a careening train. Smart Monkey himself moves from tragedy to triumph time and again, ultimately introducing fire among his monkey tribe -- although not necessarily to the best of ends. The book wraps up with an epilogue set in turn-of-the-century France and Africa, in which, to win the love of a beautiful young woman, a self-aggrandizing naturalist sets out to prove that man is descending from the ape. The story, which, unlike the main body of the book, contains text, is a wonderful counterpoint to, and extension of, the main narrative.

Over the past few years, Winshluss has carved a reputation for himself as one of the most engaging humorists in contemporary French comics. His Monsieur Ferraille (with Cizo) is among the best humor comics published in recent years, and Welcome to the Death Club is only a slight step behind. Here he revels in an anarchic sensibility that serves as a real commentary on the state of the world -- or at least the world seen by bookish comic book nerds.

The art in Smart Monkey is what I would call disgustingly cute. What I mean, is that the cuteness of the monkey can be overwhelmingly saccharine, and the disgustingness of the rest of the book only highlights that cuteness even more. This is not a kids' animated movie (think Ice Age), rather Winshluss fills his pages with disgusting, decrepit, drooling characters that occasionally look as if they may have vomited on themselves. His animals are no different, with the sabre-tooth coming in for a particularly bad beating, which the artist lovingly details. Winshluss lays on every insult and injury with detailed, if somewhat hurried, hatching, until the chaotic nature of it all threatens to overwhelm us. Through it all, smart monkey shines like a Disneyfied beacon of hope -- that is, until it's too late.

With its paucity of dialogue and emphasis on humor, Smart Monkey would seem to be a natural candidate for translation by an American publisher. Indeed, a condensed version of the book appeared in the now deep discounted Top Shelf Asks the Big Questions. Pick up that volume for a sample, but the whole package far outstrips the bits that appeared there, not the least because of the beautiful production by Cornelius. Printed on heavy, heavy, heavy white paper to exacting standards, Smart Monkey has been released in a format that few American comics aspire to (alas!). It's almost enough to remind me of why comics should be held instead of downloaded.

Next time: Flemish comics, nothing but Flemish comics